Sitting on California’s Central Coast, Monterey County is famous for the redwood forests and dramatic cliffs of Big Sur. But the destination’s heart really lies in its harvest. It’s not only that 70 percent of the world’s lettuce is grown here in the Salinas Valley; Monterey is and has always been home to tight-knit farming and fishing communities, and people around here take a lot of pride in their food and wine.
At dinner in a quaint Italian restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea, it’s likely that your black cod entrée was pulled from the waters of the nearby Monterey Bay earlier that day, and the strawberries and lettuce in your salad and the pinot in your glass came from just 40 miles away in the patchwork of farmland and vineyards in the Salinas and Carmel Valleys.
In between meals, Monterey’s nature is a feast for the eyes as well—visitors can easily spend the day hiking up mountains or along the coast, kayaking in the bay, or lounging on a sandy beach dotted with tidepools ripe for exploring. Here’s how to spend a weekend enjoying the best of Monterey, California.
Where to stay in Monterey
Monterey Plaza Hotel (Monterey)
Book now: Monterey Plaza Hotel
At the Monterey Plaza Hotel, situated on Cannery Road, expect comfortable, quiet rooms with plush beds and a peaceful balcony from which to enjoy views of the ocean and nearby harbor. The hotel is perched directly on the water—if you’re lucky, you may catch sight of a whale while you dine at one of the hotel’s two restaurants or enjoy a sundowner in the rooftop hot tubs.
Carmel Valley Ranch (Carmel Valley)
Book now: Carmel Valley Ranch
If you want to be immersed in Monterey County’s countryside, splurge on a stay at the sprawling Carmel Valley Ranch. The 500-acre property features 181 ranch suites, an 18-hole course, a lavender farm, its own vineyard and apiary (where you can take beekeeping classes), and the relaxing Spa Aiyana.
Vagabond’s House Inn (Carmel-by-the-Sea)
Book now: Vagabond’s House Inn
Historic inns and quaint B&Bs abound in the picturesque town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. But our top choice is Vagabond’s House Inn, a hotel located in a Tudor-style building dating back to the 1920s with clean, bright rooms and in-room fireplaces. At the center of the property is a cozy courtyard and garden, complete with firepits and Adirondack chairs ideal for winding down with a glass of wine. Breakfast is included and pets are welcome.
Where to eat in and around Monterey
Breakfast and coffee
Known for its jams and pickles, Happy Girl Kitchen is actually the last cannery on Cannery Row—the former sardine factory area that John Steinbeck wrote about. The preserve shop also has an on-site café that serves coffee, fresh baked goods with Happy Girl jams, soups, and sandwiches on crusty bread.
At Alta Bakery & Cafe in Monterey, diners can choose from a range of brunchy items, like wild rice bowls, nine-grain pancakes, wedge salads, or baked goods—blue corn cookie, anyone?—to enjoy in the large outdoor garden out back. If it’s hot out, don’t skip on the espresso tonic, a cold, fizzy, caffeinated treat, or a garden herb mimosa. Afterwards, swing by the adjacent Cooper Molera Adobe, a home turned museum that dates back to the 1830s to learn about the area’s history.
In Carmel-by-the-Sea, locals love Stationæry for its hearty brunch bowls, crispy potato pancakes, and superior scrambled eggs.
For lunch, head to Old Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey and sit down at a table on the deck at Paluca, an Italian trattoria that sources its fish from fishing companies at the end of the pier. (Big Little Lies fans might recognize the spot as the café from the HBO series.)
If you’re spending the day at inland tasting rooms, get a picnic of homemade sausages and loaded salads from the chef-owned Jerome’s Carmel Valley Market.
For a casual yet cravable lunch alongside a pint of craft beer, head over to Other Brother Beer, which shares its large, airy space (complete with patio) with Ad Astra Bread Co. in the town of Seaside just north of Monterey. The tap and food menus both change regularly, but whether you end up pairing a Mexican lager with a loaded pizza, or your hazy IPA with a fried chicken sandwich, you can bet it will be fresh and tasty.
You’ll want to plan to eat at least three dinners here—though there’s no shortage of excellent options if you can extend your weekend. The streets of Carmel-by-the-Sea are dotted with intimate Italian restaurants: Order wood-fired pizza and house-cured meats at Cantinetta Luca or dine on handmade pastas at local favorite la Balena.
At the chic steakhouse Seventh & Dolores—known as 7D—start with caviar then slice into a perfectly cooked cut of meat, such as its dry-aged steaks or braised short ribs. Non–meat eaters will love the vegan bourguignon.
For a real treat, book a table in Monterey at Coastal Kitchen (part of the Monterey Plaza Hotel), which opened in 2021. Its tasting-menu only offering changes with the seasons, but expect dishes like wood roasted black cod and white asparagus with sea beans (a crispy plant that grows in coastal marshes), all while enjoying ocean views from the dining room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Don’t skip the wine pairing—sommelier Conrad Reddick has curated an impeccable selection of wines from around the world.
For a sampling of Monterey’s seafood, head to Wild Fish (also open for lunch and brunch), whose chefs source fresh seafood from local fishermen committed to sustainable fishing practices. Although the menu is seafood-centric, they also work with local farmers and foragers to create menu items like sauteed wild mushrooms, smoked fish chowder, or a whole, cedar-plank roasted rock cod.
Where to drink and go winetasting
You could—and should—take an entire day to visit the wineries and tasting rooms of the Carmel Valley. Start off with a glass of brut cuvée at the Caraccioli Cellars tasting room in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Caraccioli sparkling wines are made using a champenoise method, a specific style of winemaking that incorporates a secondary fermentation in the bottle, and consistently win awards at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships.
A worthwhile 90-minute drive away, you’ll find some of the oldest vines in Monterey County at Chalone Vineyard on the outskirts of Pinnacles National Park (Chalone is actually located outside the Carmel Valley AVA in its own—the Chalone AVA). The brand’s reputation took a dip in the 1980s, when it became known for bad wine, but with new management, it has undergone a renaissance in recent years and is now making some delightful mineral-driven chardonnays.
Along the stretch of tasting rooms in the heart of the Carmel Valley, don’t miss the I. Brand & Family Winery, with its zinc bartop and record player. Winemaker Ian Brand, who was named the San Francisco Chronicle’s winemaker of the year in December 2018, and his wife seek out remote, challenging vineyards and make what they call “idiosyncratic” wines under three different labels.
End your day of winetasting at the enchanting Folktale Winery & Vineyards. With live music, firepits, a pizza oven, and a maze of Instagrammable buildings that look like something out of a fairy-tale village, this is where locals like to come for long evenings (most wineries close around 5 p.m., but Folktale is open until 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays).
Whether you spent the day winetasting or not, end your day with a cocktail at Pearl Hour, a hip, new-agey bar with a rotating list of boozy concoctions and spacious garden patio once described as “like Frida Kahlo’s backyard.” Live bands play each Sunday, as well as the second Thursday and Friday of each month.
Things to do
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Head to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where you could spend hours learning about the bay’s marine life, as well as sea creatures from around the world—such as the remarkable and rarely seen sea life in its new “Into the Deep” exhibit.
If you want to look for sea creatures without the glass tanks, opt for a whale-watching trip, like those run by Discovery Whale Watch. At any time of year, a number of migration routes pass by the bay, so you may see gray whales, humpbacks, sperm whales, and even, sometimes, orcas.
Rent a kayak or SUP
If you prefer to get in the water, rent a kayak or SUP from Adventures by the Sea and paddle your way out into Monterey Harbor, where otter, seal, and fish sightings are common. Guided kayak tours are also available.
Hike in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
For an easy, relatively flat hike along scenic coastline, head to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, which has a number of trails in varying length that meander around a series of bluffs.
Visit the Farm
While you can’t visit the working farms of Salinas, you can stop in at the Farm, an agricultural education center and local farming business that offers farm tours and family activities, to learn more about the “the Salad Bowl of the World.”
Take a scenic ride along the 17-mile drive
Hop in your car—or on your bike—and meander along the 17-mile drive ($11.25 fee per vehicle; free for bikes). This scenic coastal road wraps around the peninsula from Carmel-by-the-Sea to just outside the town of Monterey, taking visitors through cypress groves and by white-sand beaches as they go. If it’s nice out, plan for a stop at Asilomar State Beach afterwards, to swim, sunbath, or search for tiny sea critters in the beach’s tidepools.
How to get to Monterey
Monterey County is a scenic two-and-a-half-hour drive from San Francisco, but visitors can also fly into the Monterey Regional Airport from Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, and San Francisco on American, Alaska, Allegiant, United, and JSX air carrier. But even if you arrive by plane, you’ll want to rent a car for your weekend stay.
This article originally appeared online in November 2019; it was updated on July 7, 2022, to include current information.
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Maggie Fuller Maggie Fuller is a San Francisco–based but globally oriented writer driven to provoke multicultural worldviews as a multimedia journalist. She covers sustainability, responsible travel, and outdoor adventure.