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Guess who finally made it to Monterey? This girl! Every Californian has to visit Monterey, and in my humble opinion, you need to spend at least 3 days in Monterey. Did it take me 20-something years to visit? Maybe. But better late than never I suppose.
There are so many things to do in Monterey and the surrounding area that it’s hard to decide how many days in Monterey will be enough. Don’t worry. My Monterey itinerary has all the best things to see in Monterey California, plus some bonus activities for anyone who can spend more time there, or is planning their next visit!
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Arrival in Monterey / How to Get to Monterey
To really see everything Monterey has to offer, you need to have a car. Without one, you’re going to find it hard to get to the best sights in Monterey County. The good news is that it’s a pretty easy drive to Monterey from Los Angeles or San Francisco, so getting to Monterey is easy.
Driving to Monterey from San Francisco will take around two hours if you take US-101. And driving to Monterey from Los Angeles is fastest (five hours) if you take I-5 to US-101.
But if you have a few extra days, there is nothing better than driving the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) between Los Angeles and San Francisco (it’s the number one thing to do in California for a reason). Just don’t try to do it all at once – plan it as a California road trip with stops at places like Monterey along the way. You can rent a car here.
Monterey has a small regional airport, but you’ll probably have more options if you fly into San Jose Airport. You’ll need to rent a car but from there, it’s a little over an hour drive to Monterey on US-101. Plus, flying into San Jose makes it easy to extend your trip by exploring San Francisco, Berkeley, or Tiburon for a few days.
Another fun way to get to Monterey is by taking the train from Los Angeles to Salinas. There’s no onsite car rental, but you can arrange for pickup with the rental agency or take a rideshare option. It’s a little bit of a hassle, but it’s worth it. The Coast Starlight Train has observation decks that give you views for days.
Best Time to Visit Monterey
It’s no secret that I love the weather in California. It’s generally warm and sunny and winter in most destinations is pretty mild (with exception of mountain cities like Lake Tahoe). But coastal towns like Monterey can be a little chillier, so I think the best time to visit Monterey California is between May and October.
There are usually a ton of fun festivals and events in April and May like the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival and the Castroville Artichoke Festival. These can be really fun and delicious but also tend to draw pretty big crowds and higher prices.
September and October are the best months to visit Monterey. The summer tourist season will be over – always a bonus to get to do cool stuff around fewer people! But what’s also great about this time of year is that Monterey often warms up a little bit too. It’s like a second, secret summer.
The Best Things to Do in Monterey
Monterey County offers an endless number of options for everyone, whether you’re into the outdoors, literature, scenic views, arts and culture, or great food. This Monterey 3 day itinerary has a little something for everyone!
3 Days in Monterey Itinerary: Day One
Breakfast at Paris Bakery Cafe
Start your trip off right with breakfast at the Paris Bakery Cafe. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but stepping inside is like entering pastry heaven. Don’t miss out on the pain au chocolat and the almond croissant. They also have to-go bags (or so I hear – I didn’t have any leftovers!).
Stroll the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail
A few short blocks away from the cafe is Fisherman’s Wharf. This is a fun place to check out. It’s full of restaurants and kitschy souvenir shops so it has a carnival-like vibe even during the day.
What’s more, in the park right in front of Fisherman’s Wharf, you can pick up the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail. This trail hugs the bay (except for when it reaches the Cannery Row area) and I recommend going at least as far as Lover’s Point if you can. It’s an easy two miles from Fisherman’s Wharf and it is the perfect start for Monterey sightseeing. Keep your eyes peeled for otters, sea lions, dolphins, and whales along the way.
Explore Lover’s Point
Lover’s Point is a must-do in Monterey. The picturesque Lover’s Point has something for all ocean lovers: swimming, boating, and surfing. There are also volleyball courts, a killer beach, and several places to rent bikes or kayaks if that’s your thing. And whatever you do, don’t forget to check out the sea life in the tidal pools! I didn’t expect to spend as much time here as I did and I know you’ll love it too!
Lunch at Red House Cafe
If you can’t drag yourself away from the beach, The Grill at Lover’s Point is a good option. The views are killer and the casual menu features a really great burger.
But as much as I love Lover’s Point, it’s worth leaving it to have lunch at Red House Cafe. This place is really adorable, it offers indoor and outdoor seating, and the service is really friendly. The menu ranges from sandwiches and salads to bigger plates like crab cakes (I may or may not be drooling just thinking about those crab cakes).
Browse the Stacks at Bookworks
It’s no secret that I’m a bookworm with a penchance for independent bookstores, so when I saw Bookworks right by the cafe, I had to pop in and do some shopping. It’s also a great place to grab tea and a streetside table and people watch.
See What Life Was Like in Old Monterey
One of the most underappreciated Monterey attractions is the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, probably because the nature outside is so beautiful. But what I love about this museum is the collection of heritage photographs of Pacific Grove, Point Pinos Lighthouse, and the old Chinese Fishing Village. It’s one of the coolest things to see in Monterey in 3 days.
Experience Cannery Row
Cannery Row, once a laborer area home to the sardine-canning business, has transformed into the ultimate tourist destination, complete with shops, hotels, and restaurants. You could easily spend a few hours here learning about the area’s history, walking between shops, soaking in views of the water, or just generally enjoying the ambiance.
Dinner at A Taste of Monterey
I normally wouldn’t recommend a wine market as a stop but A Taste of Monterey also has a bistro attached. It’s such an amazing find that I had to include it as a dinner stop in this Monterey itinerary. The menu has a range of small bites (the Yucatan chicken nachos are amazing), salads, and flatbreads, which is perfect after a big lunch. But what you’re really going for is the view. One whole side of the restaurant is glass, and every seat is angled to give the perfect view over the bay.
Pro tip: A lot of people think it’s hard to find, but there’s a path that runs to the water past Steinbeck Plaza. It’s at the end of that path.
3 Days in Monterey Itinerary: Day Two
Breakfast at the Old Monterey Cafe
Hands down the best breakfast in Monterey, the Old Monterey Cafe is a perfect place to kick off your second day. I love the old-school vibe here. They serve classic breakfast items with super fresh ingredients and some of the best omelets around.
Get to Know Monterey Bay
No visit to Monterey is complete without spending at least a few hours at the state’s best aquarium. With over 35,000 creatures, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the best way to get up close and personal with some of the world’s most striking marine life. The massive kelp forest alone makes the aquarium one of the best things to do in Monterey California. I could have easily spent the entire day here!
Pro tip: The ticket is good for the whole day. Get your hand stamped when you leave so that you can come back later if you want to.
Lunch at Vivolo’s Chowder House
Vivolo’s Chowder House is known for really great seafood with fun options like sand dab sandwiches and crab melts, but the chowder here is the real star. I ordered it in the sourdough bread bowl and let me tell you, it was delicious. If you aren’t traveling solo, I recommend splitting it with someone so you can sample another one of their tasty dishes too.
Soak Up Some History
Soak in beautiful architecture and history at San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. It’s one of three missions in Monterey County (Nuestra Señora de la Soledad and San Antonio de Padua are several miles outside the city) and it once served as the headquarters for Saint Junipero Serra, who founded nine of today’s California Missions. The architecture alone makes it worth a visit!
Go on a Scavenger Hunt
Yes, you read that correctly! Fun fact: there are yellow medallions on the sidewalks for the Monterey Path of History. If you follow this path, you can get a good look at historic Monterey. Many of the sites have explanatory placards, and you can get maps and brochures outside the Pacific House. But my favorite way to experience this is by downloading a scavenger hunt app from the California State Parks website. It’s a little more interactive and easier to tailor to your time and interest. It’s one of the most unique things to do in Monterey California.
Camel-by-the-Sea is an amazing little town full of fairy tale houses, art galleries, and gorgeous scenery. It’s worth its own trip for sure. You can easily spend a few hours wandering its streets and popping in and out of fun shops and foodie markets. Don’t miss Frank Lloyd Wright’s Clinton Walker house up on the bluff.
Dinner at Aubergine
Experience the ultimate ingredient-driven cuisine at Aubergine, the award-winning restaurant at L’Auberge Carmel. The eight-course tasting menu changes daily and the balance of innovation and flavor has earned the restaurant plenty of culinary awards over the years.
Get Lost in a New World
Bring plenty of blankets and snuggle up at the Forest Guild Theater, Carmel’s only nonprofit outdoor theater. This is a fun way to spend a cozy evening while supporting the local arts community. Be sure to make reservations in advance!
3 Days in Monterey Itinerary: Day Three
Breakfast at The Wild Plum Cafe
What I love about The Wild Plum Cafe is the variety. The menu changes based on the availability of seasonal, local ingredients, but there’s always a range of options to satisfy you whether you’re looking for a big breakfast or lighter fare. I also love how creative they are with the menu. This might be the only place I’ve ever considered eating salad for breakfast!
Cruise Along the Coast
If you think the coast is beautiful in Monterey, wait until you see it along the 17 Mile Drive, the scenic coastal road stretching from Pacific Grove to Carmel. It tops the list of what to see in Monterey in 3 days.
Bring your camera, and prepare yourself for frequent stops. Make sure you snag a photo of the Lone Cypress, one of the most photographed trees in North America. If you’re feeling really adventurous, traveling by bike is an awesome way to experience this must-do in Monterey!
If you have time, keep cruising past Carmel to Pfeiffer Beach. This is not to be confused with Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park nor Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (both of which, incidentally, offer spectacular hiking trails and waterfalls). At Pfeiffer Beach, you can find stretches of purple sand! Prepare to be blown away.
Lunch at Pebble Beach
There’s a toll to drive on 17 Mile Drive, but if you spend at least $35 at a Pebble Beach Company restaurant, the fee is waived. The Bench has a great view of the golf course and the water and it has a relaxed vibe that I liked a lot, but you really can’t go wrong with any of the restaurant concepts here.
Marvel at More Scenery
Monterey County offers an endless number of hiking trails, camping spots, beaches, and outdoor activities to help you chase your adventure moments, but I’m not sure any spot is more perfect than Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. You could easily spend an entire day here. It has miles of hiking trails, places to spot whales or sea lions, and great scuba diving experiences with large and diverse fish populations.
Dinner at Monterey Fish House
Since you’ve already had the best chowder in Monterey, why not end your trip with the best seafood in Monterey? Monterey Fish House has some of the freshest seafood I’ve ever eaten. The grilled calamari is delicious, and their specials looked amazing, but the one thing you shouldn’t miss is the cioppino. Just be sure to make a reservation – it fills up fast.
Where to Stay in Monterey
There are some really great options for hotels in Monterey and the surrounding area to meet all budgets. Because I spent most of my trip outside (have I mentioned how beautiful it is in Monterey?), I was mostly looking for places with comfy beds so I’d be well-rested for the next day. Luckily, my favorites had even more going for them too. Here are my recommendations:
Discovery Inn (Budget)
The Discovery Inn in Seaside is a small, family-run place located about 4 miles from Fisherman’s Wharf – you’ll need your car (or an Uber) to get around. That being said, it’s a pretty comfortable stay. The rooms are basic but clean and have everything you’d need including a mini-fridge and tub. There’s also free WiFi and parking, which is a major win if you ask me. It doesn’t have any extra frills but is a great option if you’re looking for a budget place to stay that isn’t too far from Monterey.
Portola Hotel and Spa (Mid-Range)
If you’re looking for somewhere a little more luxurious and in the center of town, look no further than the Portola Hotel and Spa. It’s less than a 5-minute walk from Fisherman’s Wharf and a 20-minute walk (or take a short trolley ride) to both Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which makes it the perfect central location for exploring. My room was incredibly spacious and comfortable – I had such a hard time getting out of bed in the morning! The room had everything I could have wanted and more: complimentary fruit, chocolate, and water on arrival, a gorgeous balcony with a view of the harbor, a giant flat-screen TV, and perfect shower water pressure (important!). I was incredibly pleased with my stay at The Portola.
Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa (Luxury)
What’s not to love about the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa? The rooms are gorgeous, with really comfortable beds and spacious bathrooms. If you can, book an ocean-facing room and spend the mornings sipping tea from your balcony and looking for sea life. But if not, don’t fret. There are tons of common areas that boast these amazing views too. The onsite restaurant is as good as it gets, the rooftop spa is like being in another world, and they even have Peletons in the fitness center! There’s also live music most evenings. But what makes this the best luxury hotel in Monterey is the service. From the moment you step foot on the property, you’re treated like a star.
What to see in Monterey California in 4 days and beyond
No matter how many days in Monterey you have, there’s always more to see and do. Here are a few more ideas for things to do in Monterey:
Go Whale Watching
The great thing about Monterey is that there are whales right off the coast for most of the year. If whale watching is on your bucket list (as it should be!), be sure to pre-book a guided tour like this one. They fill up fast, and if you book online you’re likely to get a better price than if you walk up to a kiosk at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Eat Your Way Through Carmel
Get to know Carmel via your stomach by taking a guided food tour. There are tons of options, whether you want to try a classic food tour of local restaurants or do the baking yourself. Whatever tour you choose, you’re guaranteed to leave with a happy stomach and newfound perspectives on the history of Carmel.
Enjoy the Outdoors
There’s no shortage of things to do outside in Monterey. It’s really bike-friendly, and you can’t go wrong renting a bike from one of the many companies around Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf and riding along the coast. You could also go snorkeling, scuba diving, or kayaking. If you don’t have your own equipment, there are rental places for that around Cannery Row. And if hiking or chilling on the beach is your jam, there are beaches for days. Check out the Point Pinos Lighthouse, Pacific Grove Shoreline Refuge, or Asilomar State Beach.
Ride a Funicular
Though not technically in Monterey, for anyone traveling down from San Francisco, Shadowbrook in Capitola is a fun place to stop. It’s a classic, old-school California restaurant perched high on the cliff overlooking the ocean and you get to ride a funicular to get to it!
Follow in Steinbeck’s Footprints
Literature lovers rejoice! Transport yourself to the setting of your favorite Steinbeck novel right in Monterey County. The Pine Inn was once frequented by famous writers like Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair, and Los Laureles Grade was the road featured in The Pastures of Heaven. For an even deeper dive into the literary world, visit the National Steinbeck Center in the famous writer’s hometown of Salinas.
Scoot Around Monterey
For a fun way to get to know Monterey, how about signing up for an electric scooter tour? This isn’t one of those where you’re following a guide around though. Instead, you get your scooter, helmet, and a GPS app that lets you set your own pace and decide what’s most interesting to you!
Visit Big Sur
Big Sur is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and it has so much to do for art lovers, nature lovers, and food lovers that it really could rate its own trip. But if you’ve got the time to spend a few days on the way to or from Monterey, I highly recommend stopping in Big Sur.
There you have it, the best 3 day Monterey itinerary for first time visitors. Tell me: How many days in Monterey do you think is enough? What’s on your list of top things to do in Monterey California?
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