To be completely honest, when planning our Northern California trip in early spring, my knowledge of Monterey was limited to the place where Phil’s uncle and cousin live. Once I started googling and watching the Monterey-based HBO miniseries Big Little Lies I became obsessed with this seaside town.
Hoping we would have one day to hang in the town, I made a wish list of musts that included checking out the nationally ranked aquarium, sipping wine outside on a patio, and checking out the infamous coffee joint where Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman’s characters sipped coffee and gossiped about their ‘snobby’ town in Big Little Lies.
When our day of exploring finally came, we realized Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea had so much more to offer. This area is a breathtaking Peninsula that is so much more than the home to the fictitious murderous housewives depicted on the HBO show. It is a vibrant, refined town that offers scrumptious dining options, enlightening museums, and historic attractions all set against the turquoise waters and soft white sandy beaches below the picturesque cliffs of Northern California. Check out our itinerary for how to spend 24 hours in Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea below!
24 Hours in Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea
- Break out your walking shoes or rent a bike. Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail is an awesome 18-mile paved path that stretches from Pacific Grove in the south through to Castroville in the north. The path cuts through some of the highlights of this area, including Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Downtown Monterey.
- Bring layers. Average temperatures during the day usually are topped at around 70 with a breeze. Having a sweater or a light jacket is a necessity.
- Bring an empty stomach. There are dozens of restaurants in the area that offer an array of food. And hey, if you’re walking, you won’t feel as guilty stopping to try a glass of wine at an oceanfront establishment, some chowder on the wharf, or a taco at a food truck.
Where to eat, drink, and be merry:
- First Awakenings: Great breakfast option offering larger than life homemade pancakes. Get one as a side to the Bacado omelet to fill you up before a day of hiking.
- Cannery Row Brewing Company: Ever heard of a restaurant with bacon biscuits and short rib grilled cheese? Check out this amazing establishment with friendly and knowledgeable staff and over over 70 beer options on tap. Oh, and it was also featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, enjoy.
- In-N-Out Burger: Yes, this may be a fast food joint, but it’s the freshest of the bunch. You can even find the cooks cutting real potatoes before throwing them into the fryer. There’s a reason why this west coast franchise decided to stick to just burgers, trust me. Try one animal style just once after a day of hiking.
- Water + Leaves: Hit this amazing cafe located on Old Fisherman’s Wharf for a one-of-a-kind pick-me-up. Try the blueberry iced tea – it’s amazing!
- Old Fisherman’s Grotto: This place is supposed to have the best ‘Monterey’ style clam chowder in the county. (I won’t tell you my opinion as my tastebuds are used to New England style). Be sure to check it out for yourself!
- El Torito: No trip to California is complete without some good Mexican food. El Torito’s location in Monterey is perfect. With booths that overlook the bay, consuming tacos feels a little more elevated. Be sure to ask for extra salsa – it’s worth it.
What to do:
- Fisherman’s Wharf: In addition to this being the home of Old Fisherman’s Grotto and Water + Leaves, the wharf is home to a few other seafood joints offering free samples of chowder along the entire wharf. This is also the area where Reese and Nicole sipped coffee – check it out Paluca Trattoria and be surprised to see what the magic of Hollywood does to locations. This place isn’t even a cafe, it’s a lovely Italian restaurant!
- Monterey Bay Aquarium: Being from Boston, we know good aquariums. Monterey’s is amazing. We spent two hours walking around the establishment looking at the local sea life and not so local favorites like penguins and hammerhead sharks. This place is worth a visit even if just to see the dark jellyfish exhibit – it’s a must!
- Cannery Row: This shopping area historically was the location of a sardine packing plant. You feel like you are in John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, the old brick buildings rise up around you holding untold stories from decades ago, and amazing restaurants like Cannery Row Brewing. It’s a must if you are visiting Monterey
- Downtown Monterey: Historic Spanish-inspired homes line the streets of Downtown. Though most are now banks and establishments like Jamba Juice, there are a few that are still intact and serve as apartment complexes or hotels. A stroll down this area in the spring with the bright blooms peeking over white walls is a sight to behold.
- Lovers Point: Even seagulls fall in love with the views here. This point attracts couples taking wedding or engagement photos, tourists and locals walking the rocky beaches. This beach is also a great one for snorkeling or scuba diving, or watching the sunset over the water.
- Del Monte Beach: This sand dune lined beach offers one of a kind views and is less crowded than other popular beaches. Because this beach cannot be see from the main road in Monterey, the sandy shore feels much more private and peaceful.
- 17 Mile Drive: If spotting magnificent homes along rocky coastlines is on your must-do list, pay the money to drive the 17 miles abutting the coastline. You can also spot famous sights like the Lone Cypress, Pebble Beach Golf Links, and photogenic Spanish Bay. Though personally we thought there were better views and drives, everyone should do this once even if to dream of the opulence of owning one of the homes along the route.