This post is part of a series on travel close to home. You can find more posts from this series on my page Getaways Near Me (or You)
Monterey and Carmel (or Carmel by the Sea, if you want to be fancy) sit just five miles apart on the beautiful central California coast. In Northern California, we consider the area to be our Southern border. Folks in Southern California claim this place as their northernmost territory. Because of its central location, neighbors from all over California flock to Monterey Bay to relax and unwind.
My husband and I have been coming here every year since before we got married for great weekend getaways. Here are some of our favorite ways to spend two days in Monterey and Carmel and at least 17 things to do while you’re there.
While the towns are less than five miles apart, you will notice that their cultures are entirely different! Monterey is a bit more family-oriented, kitschy and mainstream. Carmel (by the Sea) caters more to adults, with art galleries, high-end boutiques, and fine dining. So let’s get started!
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The Best Things To Do In Monterey
Monterey Bay Aquarium
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the #1 reason most people visit Monterey. And it’s number 1 because it’s incredible. I’ve been to aquariums in Seattle, Washington DC, Genoa, Italy, and more. But the Monterey Bay Aquarium is, to me, still the best. We have been donor members for over 25 years.
Inside the aquarium, you will find habitats covering the varied marine life such as coastal waters and wetlands, an incredible kelp forest, coral reefs, and more. Watching the vast amount of animals, from penguins and otters to bat rays, jellies, sharks, and more, will keep you enchanted for hours.
Cannery Row (Originally Ocean View Boulevard)
More than 100 years ago, this area became home to vast canneries. This industrial complex was, day in and day out, harvesting the bounties of the Monterey Bay (sardines in particular). The canning operators took this harvest, preserved it in cans, and shipped it to the world.
During World War II, the canneries expanded, and Monterey became the Sardine Capital of the world. Of course, this type of industry is fraught with problems.
In the 50s and 60s, the scene around town began to change. In the 60s, restauranteurs realized the location’s potential and opened seafood houses sparking a wave of change. The last cannery closed its doors in 1973. The opening of the Monterey Bay aquarium in 1984 sealed Monterey’s place as a vacation destination.
Cannery Row (now known as Restaurant Row) is the place in Monterey for shopping and dining. You can eat fresh local seafood at Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar. Sip on a local brew at Cannery Row Brewing Company. And for dessert, have a taste of San Francisco at the Ghiradelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop.
The coastal side of Cannery Row is lined with some of the most luxurious resorts and hotels, such as the Intercontinental and the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa. These hotels are fantastic places to stay if you can afford it. But, if you are looking for something a little more economical, there is no shortage of hotels and motels close to all the action.
As beautiful as the views are from these upscale hotels, the shopping on Cannery Row is mostly the opposite. You will find lots of souvenir, t-shirt, and sweatshirt shops. If you are looking for unique boutiques, arts and crafts, etc., save your dollars for Carmel.
Monterey’s Old Fisherman’s Wharf
When driving south from the San Francisco Bay Area, Monterey’s Old Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the first places you’ll come by as you enter the town. Why stop here? Easy, this is where you can grab a bite to eat and enjoy some fantastic views of Monterey Bay. The Wharf houses restaurants and retail shops galore.
Cruise ships aren’t allowed to dock anywhere in Monterey Bay, so passengers have to tender from the ship to shore. If you are among the lucky ones who end up in Monterey on a cruise ship, Fisherman’s Wharf is where your tender will drop you off.
Fisherman’s Wharf is also where many of Monterey’s water tours start and end. If you want a bay cruise, whale-watching tour, or do some sports fishing, this is where you’ll find your ticket.
Whale Watching On The Bay
Monterey Bay is directly in the path of the humpback whales’ migration from Hawaii to Alaska and back each year. Second, to the aquarium, whale watching is the most visited activity in the area. You will almost certainly see whales if you venture out on a boat from the Wharf.
Most whale-watching trips last about three hours. While out on the water, you will likely encounter sea otters, seals and sea lions, dolphins, and perhaps even orcas.
However, be mindful that you are on a smallish boat in some choppy waters. Almost every trip I have been on, several people got sick. There is not really a place to go if you don’t feel well. The captain will tell you not to use the “head” (bathroom) if you are going to lose your lunch. Head up on deck and heave over the side of the boat.
Being sick on your trip to see the whales is unpleasant for you and everyone around you. So please, If you are prone to motion sickness, take medication ahead of time. If you don’t know if you will get sick because you’ve never been out on the ocean before, take medication ahead of time.
By the way, do you know how to distinguish between a seal and a sea lion? It’s easy, and with this simple tip, you can impress your friends and family every time. Sea Lions have ears with a flap; seals just have an earhole, no flap.
Also, the front flippers on a sea lion can rotate under the animal’s body, allowing it to “walk” on land. Seals can’t do that. So when you see one of these beautiful mammals doing tricks in marine shows, you will know which is which.
A Romantic Harbor Cruise
The first thing to know about a harbor cruise is that it is not a whale-watching tour. These cruises stay closer to shore and focus on the coastline. Taking a cruise at sunset can be a romantic way to start your evening. The views from the boat of Cannery Row and the rest of the coastline during the golden hour are mesmerizing.
You will likely see some marine life, usually seals, sea lions, and sea otters; these animals stay close to shore. You may see dolphins a bit further out in the bay.
The glass-bottom boat harbor cruise is a fun way to see the fish swimming around you in a quick 25-minute tour. This is a great way to spend some time on the water with kids who may have a shorter attention span.
Bike the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail
The Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail starts in Castroville (North of Monterey) and ends 18 miles later in Pacific Grove. You don’t have to bike all of it; a lovely section of the trail runs right through Monterey down to Pacific Grove.
This course section does not have many elevation changes and is suitable even for novice bike riders. In fact, you can rent a “surrey” and load up the whole family for a four-wheeled human-propelled ride around the town.
Riding a bike with two or four wheels is a fun way to navigate the sites around the shoreline. You can make stops along the way at the lighthouse, the beach, or the tide pools.
Where To Go And What To See In And Around Carmel By The Sea
When you take the exit for Ocean Avenue from California Highway 1 into Carmel, you are immediately transported into a dreamy little village. Ocean Avenue runs downhill through the center of town to Carmel Beach. But don’t head to the beach just yet!
Start your morning at Carmel Bakery & Coffee House. Established in 1899, this bakery is Carmel’s oldest running retail business. Once you’ve had your fill of freshly baked pastries and coffee, take time to walk around downtown and soak in the charming architecture full of fairytale cottages and art galleries.
Carmel is the place for shopping. Wandering the side streets off Ocean Avenue, you will find some incredibly unique boutiques. Stop in at Chartreuse for clothing that features imported hand-dyed and stitched fabrics. Or, if your sweet tooth is calling out, head over to Lula’s Chocolates and pick out your own selection of chocolate confections.
At the foot of Ocean Avenue is Carmel Beach, edged with Cypress trees and its white sand leading down to the blue ocean. This is one of the area’s wider beaches, making it an excellent place for all sorts of activities.
Keeping in mind the moderate weather, you still find locals and tourists sunbathing, surfing, standup paddle boarding, and picnicking on Carmel Beach whenever the sun is out. If you choose a water activity, you may want to wear a wet suit; the water temperature right off the beach is a brisk 55⁰ F.
Of note to all the fur baby parents, this beach is fido friendly! You can let your pup run around “off-leash” and enjoy the sand and surf.
Carmel River Valley Wine Tasting
Head east from Highway 1 on Carmel Valley Road. This road takes you up into the foothills, where you find a trail of wineries. The terrain and climate in Carmel Valley are well suited for growing Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. If you enjoy a glass of full-bodied wine, you will love tasting in this region.
You can spend an entire day touring vineyards and tasting wine here. Notable vintners include Talbot, Bernardus, Rexford, Folktale, and many others. Pace yourself and bring a designated driver. You want to enjoy your time.
Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo AKA Carmel Mission Basilica
The Carmel Mission, founded in 1797, is maybe the most well-known of the 21 missions established by the Franciscan Priests in California. Why the most well-known mission? Because Carmel Mission is the final resting place of Saint Junipero Serra.
This Spanish mission has been lovingly restored over the many years. And today is a beautiful example of mission architecture from the 18th century. Walking through the museum, you find artifacts depicting life in the mission during Father Serra’s time. The courtyard is a peaceful garden filled with native plants perfect for quiet meditation or reflection.
Lastly, don’t miss viewing the chapel; this is where you will find the shrine of Father Serra.
Carmel Mission opens at 10 am daily. Self-guided tours are the most common, and there are docent-led tours available.
Monterey and Carmel’s 17- Mile Drive
Want to see the homes of the rich and famous, forested hillsides, and captivating ocean views. 17 Mile Drive is where you need to go. This is also the home of the Lone Cypress, which seems perched on the continent’s edge.
If you make this drive in the evening, make your way to The Inn at Spanish Bay for a sunset bagpipe serenade. Stop for a minute and watch (or just listen ) as a lone bagpiper puts the sun to sleep in this unforgettable Scottish tradition.
Note, you don’t get all this scenery for free – as of July 2022, the cost to enter this private roadway is $11.25 per vehicle. But this fee is reimbursed if you spend at least $35 at any of the resort’s restaurants. And it is effortless to spend $35 here.
Get In A Round Or Two Of Golf
Are you or your partner a golfer? Maybe both of you like the links. If so, you’ve come to the right place. Pebble Beach is one of three fantastic courses in Carmel, known for its annual pro-am golf tournament in February most years. But don’t forget about Spanish Bay and Spyglass Hill! These courses are often on the bucket list of places to get in a round or two for serious golfers.
But, if you prefer eating and drinking to a day of golf, don’t miss the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival in April. You get all the same views and some of the best Michelin-starred and James Beard chefs. The festival combines this with the world’s best wines and gives you seminars and cooking demonstrations so you can learn all about what you are eating and drinking. And yes, they throw in some golf just in case you need a break from all the food and wine.
Added Bonus – Pacific Grove
Gently tucked between Monterey and Carmel-By-The-Sea is the town of Pacific Grove. This quaint city is often overlooked or rolled into one or the other towns. But much of what you might want to visit on your getaway is here. So, let’s give credit where credit is due!
Point Pinos Lighthouse
I am a lover of lighthouses and visit them whenever I can. When we drove home from Bend through Southern Oregon last year, I had the chance to add two more lighthouses to my collection of memories.
The lighthouse at Point Pinos has been guiding ships along the waterfront since 1855 and, as such, is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the west coast. Most every time we come to Monterey, I visit the lighthouse. The Fresnel lens, with its prisms shining in the sunlight, is mesmerizing.
Point Pinos Lighthouse is only open for tours on Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately, you can only tour the grounds, not the interior. I had the good fortune to tour the interior of this lighthouse on two prior occasions. On my second tour, the docent at the time was the daughter of one of the lighthouse keepers and had lived here.
Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
Are you planning a fall visit to Monterey and Carmel? If so, you are in luck. Every year starting in October, monarch butterflies stop here during their annual migration. These beautiful creatures can be found hanging out on the pine, eucalyptus, and cypress trees in the aptly named Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary.
From November to February, the sanctuary is open to the public from sunrise to sunset. Docents from the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History are generally in the Butterfly Sanctuary between 11 and 3 pm.
Lovers Point Park & Beach
Watching the sunset over the ocean is one of the best things to do in Monterey and Carmel. Lover’s Point Park and Beach is the place for a fantastic view. The park, a grassy expanse shaded by cypress trees, sits above the beach and is perfect for picnics.
Follow the stairs down to the small cove. Here you will find a concrete wall and breakwater shielding the beach from north winds. This is one of the few safe swimming beaches in the area. But beware, the water is still bone-chilling year round. It may be best to sunbathe or float in the water on a kayak.
Asilomar State Beach – Best Tide Pooling On The Bay
Out on the point just south of the lighthouse is Asilomar State Beach. Running for about a mile south, Asilomar is a narrow bit of land with large rocky out-croppings. This is the place to go if you want to get a good walk on a beach.
Tide Pooling, the act of checking out the animals that are exposed when the tide goes out, is at its best on Asilomar Beach. As the tide recedes, you can walk further out on the rocks and often will see mussels, crabs, snails, barnacles, and, if lucky, sea anemones.
Because of the rocks and the large tidal swells, Asilomar is not a place for swimming. In fact, don’t get too immersed in tide pooling and forget to watch the waves. You never know when a big wave will hit an otherwise calm-looking area.
You may be tempted to fish, but don’t. At Asilomar, all marine life is protected, and fishing is prohibited.
When Is The Best Season To Spend Two Days In Monterey And Carmel?
Honestly, any season is an excellent time to visit this charming part of California. The weather is great year-round. A little cooler in the winter and a litter warmer in the summer. So to figure out when is the best time for you to go, look for when the things you want to see are happening.
I will say that if you go to the aquarium, and enjoy fewer youngsters, don’t plan to go during the summer. There will be kids at the aquarium whenever you go. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a key field trip location! But in November, the ratio of people over 18 to those under 18 is more in line.
Wondering What To Wear For Your Two Days In Monterey and Carmel?
Unless you are dining in one of the many fine dining establishments in the area, dress is mostly casual. Comfortable walking shoes are a must as you will likely be on your feet all day. The climate on the peninsula is moderate all year long.
Most days have a high temperature of between 68⁰ and 72⁰ F. In the morning, it is often foggy, with the marine layer burning off by early afternoon. The breeze from the ocean cools off the shoreline quickly In the evenings. For this reason, you want to dress in layers that are easy to take off and put on as needed.
How to Get to Monterey And Carmel
In my post on driving CA 1, I recommend a stop in this area. And driving, if you are in California, is the easiest way to get to the Monterey peninsula. You can access the area by driving north or south down CA 1(depending on which end of the state you are in). If you don’t want to go 1 the whole way, you can also take US 101 and then CA 156 west out to the peninsula.
But, if you don’t want to drive, you can fly. Many airlines fly to the Monterey Regional Airport on the peninsula’s north side. There are more than 40 flights in and out each day.
As mentioned above, several times each year, cruise ships make a call at the port of Monterey, usually as part of what is now called a California Coastal Cruise. These cruises highlight the west coast’s Pacific ports. With stops in places like Astoria, Oregon, San Francisco, Monterey, and Santa Barbara,
Train lovers can also hop on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight route. The Coast Starlight from Los Angeles Union Station to Monterey offers up some breathtaking scenery. The train is the slow way to go, as it will take you all day. But if you’ve got the time, it’s a train ride all train aficionados long to do.
How Will You Spend Two Days in Monterey and Carmel?
Are you excited to head out to the Monterey Peninsula? With so much to see and do in Monterey and Carmel, you may want more than two days. Or you can just do like we do and make more than one visit.