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48 Hours | Western States
48 Hours in Monterey

MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME IN MONTEREY, FROM THE EXCITING MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM TO QUAINT CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA

As a traveler who’s been up and down the California coast, I highly recommend weaving the Monterey Peninsula into your Golden State travel plans—especially if you’ll spend time in northern California. Although it’s easy to base all your vacation time in a big city such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, or San Diego, you’d miss out on a setting so quintessentially California by leaving this seaside city off your itinerary.

Monterey BayMonterey Bay; Photo by Irina Sen/stock.adobe.com

Monterey resides just north of Big Sur, where rocky cliffs, lush mountains, panoramic beaches, and coastal redwood forests dramatically greet the Pacific Ocean. It’s about 2.5 hours south of San Francisco and Napa Valley, where big-city attractions and world-class wineries delight and tempt the senses. Monterey blends these worlds—the natural, the urban, and the elevated countryside—into a laid-back setting of oceanfront elegance. It offers an intimate base to explore nearby activities, most of which will keep you outdoors and, perhaps, wondering why you don’t stay permanently.

Monterey is a destination that warrants, at a minimum, 2 days of your vacation. Here are some of my personal favorites assembled into a 48-hour itinerary.

DAY ONE

smoked salmon eggs benedict Smoked salmon eggs benedict; Photo by John Baker/unsplash.com

8AM
WAVE STREET CAFÉ:

Breakfast by the sea

Fuel up for the day ahead. Wave Street Café offers fresh and intriguing breakfast options in an oceanfront setting. Arrive a few minutes early to snag an outdoor table at this charming café—it doesn’t take reservations. The farm-fresh egg options are particularly impressive, with the menu boasting more than a dozen unique twists on the classic eggs benedict.

Wave Street also offers sweet dishes, such as the Fruity Pebbles waffle and Cinnamon Bun pancakes, as well as plenty of vegetarian and vegan options. A big perk to starting here is that it’s one block from Cannery Row and within walking distance of our next destination.

Monterey Bay AquariumMonterey Bay Aquarium; Photo by Kathy Lipps/unsplash.com

10AM
MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM:
A world-class aquarium of wonder

Located at the ocean’s edge on historic Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is widely considered to be the best aquarium in the world. Because of its renown, it’s a popular destination with tourists from around the world—so plan accordingly. Purchase tickets for the day you wish to visit in advance and arrive when it opens.

You’ll enjoy a dazzling display of sea life and educational exhibits that do not disappoint. Among the many highlights are the 28-foot high Kelp Forest Exhibit, a dramatic underwater forest of sardines, leopard sharks, wolf-eels, and other fish. At the Open Sea exhibit, watch hammerhead sharks and sea turtles through 90-foot windows as they swim in a 1.2-million-gallon tank. Watch playful sea otters at their 10:30AM, 1:30PM, and 3:30PM daily feeding times.

Cannery RowCannery Row; Photo by Lynn Yeh/stock.adobe.com

1PM
CANNERY ROW:

A historic waterfront district

After the multi-sensory stimulation that comes with an aquarium visit, enjoy a stroll through Cannery Row—a historic oceanfront district made famous by author John Steinbeck during its heyday as a fishing industry center and today serves as a touristy promenade of shops and restaurants. Rather than get sucked into the souvenir shops and commercial diversions, I recommend you savor the natural splendor of this setting. Grab a table at one of the many seaside restaurants for a light lunch and some incredible panoramic views of Monterey Bay.

Point Lobos State Natural ReserveSea lions at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve; Photo by Mada_cris/stock.adobe.com

3PM
POINT LOBOS STATE NATURAL RESERVE:

A spectacular place to hike

Next, head to one of the most spectacular oceanfront parks in northern California, one famously described by landscape artist Francis McComas as “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.” Point Lobos State National Reserve is just a 15-minute drive from Cannery Row and located in the charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. It covers eight square miles on a small peninsula jutting out into Carmel Bay, with easy-to-navigate cliffside trails that offer views of Pebble Beach, Monterey to the north, and Big Sur to the south. Make your way south for the most dramatic mountain-meets-ocean views. Also be on the lookout for sea lions; you will inevitably hear them before you see them.

5PM
FOLKTALE WINERY & VINEYARDS:

Early dinner at a working winery

End your day in an idyllic setting with local wine, charcuterie, and wood-fired flatbreads. Folktale Winery & Vineyards resides on 15 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards and gardens along the Carmel River. The setting is beautifully serene at sunset, and sometimes features live acoustic performances in its charming Wine Garden, which only adds to the enchanting al fresco ambience where kids are warmly welcomed.

DAY TWO

 Lone Cypress treeLone Cypress tree on 17 Mile Drive; Photo by Tupungato/stock.adobe.com

8AM
17 MILE DRIVE:

One of the world’s most scenic drives

Start early and give yourself ample time to make stops on this picturesque drive along the Pacific coast. 17 Mile Drive starts with a small entrance fee of $11.75 per vehicle and will take you behind the prestigious gates of Pebble Beach, where you’ll find jaw-dropping natural beauty and over-the-top opulence.

You’ll be rewarded with many spots beckoning you to stop (or at least slow down), including the dramatic coastal cliffs, white-sand beaches, enchanting forests, and iconic golf courses flanked by multimillion-dollar mansions. I recommend bringing a picnic breakfast to enjoy somewhere along the way, such as at Seal Rock or Crocker Grove—or perhaps while pondering the Lone Cypress, one of the most photographed trees in the world.

Tuck Box in Carmel by the SeaTuck Box restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea; Photo by mana5280/unsplash.com

11AM
CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA:

A quaint seaside village

This town gained an extra boost of fame when Hollywood legend and longtime resident Clint Eastwood had a short stint as its mayor in the 1980’s. While it gives little winks to that time in the form of store signage and souvenir t-shirts, the real draw of Carmel-by-the-Sea is its undeniable storybook charm. The European-style village is perched above a sugar-sand beach, with hundreds of shops, art galleries, and eateries all within walking distance. A stroll down its main street, Ocean Avenue, to the pristine sands of Carmel Beach will take you past fairytale-like cottages and cute courtyards that beg to be explored and photographed. Stick around the area for lunch—its downtown offers 60 restaurants and 18 tasting rooms.

Cruise ship whale watchingWhale Watching Tour; Photo by Dominic Gentilcore

3:30PM
WHALE-WATCHING CRUISE:

Spot humpbacks, dolphins, and more

Although you might get lucky and see whales from the shoreline, especially in spots like Point Lobos, nothing beats getting on a boat for an up-close encounter. Monterey Bay is a year-round whale-watching destination thanks to the depths of the Monterey Bay Canyon, which is an ideal habitat for many whale species to come close to shore to feed. Humpback whales, blue whales, gray whales, and orcas are among the species migrating seasonally through the area.

Given the flow of this proposed itinerary, a late afternoon whale-watching cruise would be ideal, and that is an option offered by Princess Monterey Whale Watching, a premier whale-watching company in the area. For those who are true whale enthusiasts, time your trip with Whalefest Monterey, held each April. This free, immersive event includes music, rescue boat tours, fascinating marine-related interactive exhibits, and a symposium with world-renowned marine experts.

Dolphin fountain at Monterey Plaza Hotel & SpaFountain at Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa; Photo by Matthew Tighe/stock.adobe.com

8PM
COASTAL KITCHEN:

A dinner highlighting the region’s bounty

End the day with an indulgent meal. Chef Michael Rotondo’s ever-changing, multi-coursed tasting menu is carefully crafted, pulling from fresh ingredients sustainably sourced from the bay and local farms. In fact, 98% of all ingredients are grown or sourced within 100 miles of the restaurant. Some ingredients that find their way into these elevated dishes include diver sea scallops, black cod, local cheeses, the region’s world-famous artichokes, and much more. Coastal Kitchen, located in the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, offers panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. This is a beautiful setting to reflect on favorite memories from your trip—and perhaps plan your return.

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HONORABLE MENTIONS
Crafting a 2-day itinerary for the Monterey Peninsula inevitably means excluding a few gems. After all, there’s only so much you can squeeze in without transforming a laid-back vacation into an exhausting marathon. However, if you have extra time in Monterey, here are additional highlights to consider weaving into your vacation.

MISSION RANCH HOTEL & RESTAURANT
This is an incredible spot for an early breakfast or sunset dinner. The outdoor dining patio is located on a historic, 22-acre ranch that was preserved and restored by former Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood. While enjoying a menu of classic American cuisine, you’ll also be presented with some of the most idyllic views of the Monterey Peninsula—sheep grazing in the meadow framed by the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Dennis the Menace PlaygroundDennis the Menace Playground; Photo by Kirkikis/iStock.com

DENNIS THE MENACE PLAYGROUND
If you have children, this is a fantastic, free place to let them burn off energy. The massive, outdoor playground is named after the beloved comic strip character and created with the help of its creator, Hank Ketcham, a former resident of Carmel. This isn’t any ordinary playground—it’s incredibly thoughtful and creative. Among the amusements: a giant adventure ship, a suspension bridge, large slides, and much, much more to keep kids amused and engaged in screen-free play.

Pacific GrovePacific Grove; Photo by halbergman/iStock.com

PACIFIC GROVE
This is another charming California beach town on the Monterey Peninsula worth exploring. It has a small-town feel that makes visitors feel like locals. Stroll its narrow streets lined with colorful and beautifully restored 19th-century cottages. You might even opt to stay in one, as my family did on a recent visit. Explore its vintage downtown, where quaint shops and restaurants cater to the local community and visitors. The crown jewel is Pacific Grove’s setting along Monterey Bay, where Lovers Point Park and Beach, Asilomar State Park, and the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail keep people active near the water’s edge. Keep an eye out for the harbor seals and sea otters known to make cameos here.

Bixby BridgeBixby Bridge; Photo by Michael Urmann/stock.adobe.com

BIG SUR
If you are a lover of nature and can spare at least an entire day to explore Big Sur, you will be rewarded with a million “wows” in a destination beloved for its natural seclusion. This natural marvel stretches 90 miles from Monterey Bay to San Simeon along Pacific Coast Highway. The landscape of coastal redwoods and expansive Pacific Ocean views have inspired prolific writers such as Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. Popular stops include the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge, a hike in Andrew Molera State Park, and strolls on Pfeiffer Beach.