This blog post was published in paid partnership with the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau. This post may contain affiliate links that I make a small commission off of, at no additional cost to you. All opinions are my own.
About Monterey County
A gem in the heart of California’s Central Coast, Monterey County is a feast for the senses. Home to more than 1.4 million acres of land and some of the most scenic vistas in the world, it boasts 20 beaches across its nearly 100 miles of coastline. A quick 2-hour drive from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco, it’s the perfect destination for a long weekend getaway.
With some of the world’s most coveted soil, this region produces 150 different crops. This includes the freshest strawberries, lettuce, and artichokes, just to name a few. The land and sea is not only bountiful for the locals that work it, but are respected by them, too.
A year-round agricultural mecca, everyone from restaurateurs to suppliers to winemakers instil sustainable practices . Environmentally responsible programs ensure everyone does their part to keep it one of the most pristine regions in the world.
Read below to learn more about where to eat, stay, and play during a four-day trip to Monterey County, California!
There are numerous ways to travel to Monterey County safely and conveniently.
First, Monterey Regional Airport (MRY) is only 10 minutes from downtown Monterey. It’s 15 minutes from Carmel-by-the-Sea, and 25 minutes from downtown Salinas. Daily flights are available from San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Denver, Dallas, Seattle, and more.
Air, Land, & Sea
MRY is connected to more than 95 domestic and international destinations with just one connection. Other airports within driving distance to Monterey County include, San Francisco (SFO), San Jose, and Oakland.
Amtrak and Greyhound also operate routes through Monterey County. Both stop in Salinas with connecting services to downtown Monterey.
Tip: Fly into San Jose and pick up a rental car from the airport. The airport is small and easy to navigate and not too crowded. However, plan to wait at least 30 minutes to an hour in line to pick it up. There are only a few rental car companies.
What to Pack
With mild weather most of the year, expect highs in the upper 60’s and lows around 50. Pack layers for the changing weather patterns which can include coastal mist, chilly mornings, and warmer afternoons.
Below are the must-have items to pack for four days in Monterey County:
- Light sweaters
- Wind breaker or light jacket
- Rain poncho if whale watching or spending time on the water
- Clean socks
- Non-slip hiking shoes or sneakers
- Bathing suit (or swim trunks)
- Sandals (not flip flops)
- Leggings (or sweatpants)
- White cotton button up shirt
- Long sleeve white shirt
- Maxi sundresses (or dress pants)
Day 1: Evening in Monterey
Where to Stay
Monterey County has a plethora of lodging options from low key affordable to ultra luxurious. There is a hotel for every budget!
For those seeking to stay in ultimate luxury, the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa is an easy choice.
Sitting quaintly overlooking Monterey Bay near historic Cannery Row, it’s the closest property to the ocean on the California coast. It also sits in close proximity to many of the region’s most popular sights including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Big Sur, and the 17-Mile Drive at Pebble Beach.
Built in 1980 and remodelled in 2018, it boasts 290 rooms, many which offer partial or full ocean views.
After driving from San Jose, we leave our car in with a valet upon arrival and head for check in. From the lobby, we immediately hear crashing waves and the barking of seals at the beach below.
We are each given a glass of complimentary regional Pinot Noir and led to our rooms across a courtyard that offers full views of Monterey Bay.
Our room is a 400 sq. ft. Ocean View Two Queen Balcony. Sitting directly over the crashing ocean below. It’s equipped with all of the essentials and more: microfiber beds, spa amenities in the bathroom, a Nespresso machine, and marble bathroom. A pair of complementary binoculars stand on the table next to the balcony for wildlife viewing.
We unpack and a knock at the door yields the most beautiful charcuterie board from Monterey Plaza’s on-site restaurant, Schooners. It’s scattered with local meats, cheeses, and jams with assorted crackers, bread, and of course, a bottle of local Pinot Noir for pairing.
We pull back the curtains and open the windows to the ocean view balcony and take in the sights and sounds before freshening up for dinner.
Dinner at Coastal Kitchen
Executive Chef Michael Rotondo brings years of knowledge and expertise in blending flavors and textures. This paired with the preciseness of Sommelier Conrad Reddick, guests experience one of the most impressive pairings on the West Coast.
The six course tasting menu has no shortage of fresh and sustainable seafood — Maine Diver Scallops and Miso Marinated Black Cod — as well as tastings of more unexpected plates like Tortellini en Brodo and 48-hour Braised Beef Short-rib.
The meal is polished off with a wine pairing for each of the six tastings. Vinos from Spain, France, Hungary, and Austria headline the table and create an artistic design as the light reflects off the glass. An early favorite is the French Brut Rosé from Gaston-Chiquet.
Each dish shines equally, but the dessert is the perfect finale to enjoy with a stunning sunset over the Pacific.
A beautiful marriage of raspberry, lychee, rose, champagne, and pink peppercorn paired with Tokaji- Aszu Royal is sweet perfection.
Day 2: Monterey, Salinas Valley, Big Sur, Marina
Tidal Coffee at Monterey Plaza Hotel
Our second day is a busy one, so we rise before the sun to take to the road. But first, we make a pit stop at another local favorite: Tidal Coffee.
Attached to the Monterey Plaza Hotel, it serves craft coffee, breakfast sandwiches, baked goods, and snacks. It’s the perfect spot to grab a to-go meal, but this morning we decide to sit and take in the view of the bay with our breakfast.
Since the morning is a chilly one, we order a raspberry mocha with almond milk and a dark hot chocolate with whipped cream to warm up.
For food, we choose to go half-savory- half-sweet combo with a salmon lox sesame bagel with sun-dried tomatoes, and a raspberry Kouign Amann pastry.
Tip: Tidal Coffee opens at 7 a.m., and it’s best to get there as early as possible to beat the line out of the door. It’s that good!
View hours of operation and full menu here.
Ag Venture Tours
After breakfast, the agricultural haven of Castroville is our next destination.
Known for its extensive number of artichoke crops and the annual Artichoke Festival, it rightfully earned the nickname, “The Artichoke Capital of the World.”
We arrive at the meeting place for the day’s first activity, the Instagrammable roadside Pezzini Farm. One of the area’s most respected artichoke farms, Pezinni specializes in growing and selling Heirloom artichokes and other local produce and gifts.
We meet Evan Oakes, a local tour guide and owner of Ag Venture Tours — a wine tasting, sightseeing, and agricultural education tour. Since 1997, Evan has shown visitors the very best of the region’s booming agriculture industry.
Both half-day walking tours and driving tours are available daily. This day, we board a comfortable air conditioned van to explore the fields in the surrounding towns.
From Castroville, we drive through other areas of the Salinas Valley, known as the “Salad Bowl of the World” for its vibrant and vast array of farmland.
Monterey’s Agricultural History
Along the drive, Evan describes the differences in crops and soil, how they are planted, watered, and harvested. We pass fields growing strawberries, lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, and blackberries that span as far as the eye can see.
Towards the end of the tour, Evan reveals a local hidden favorite: the small roadside stop of Driscoll’s Berry Shop in Aromas. Here, locals get their daily fruit fresh from the vine.
We order a bushel of strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries and take a seat in the picnic area to take in the sights and flavors. It’s the freshest strawberry I’ve ever had!
We end the three-hour tour back at Pezzini Farms where Evan demonstrates how to properly cut, steam, and eat an Heirloom artichoke.
The tour not only teaches guests valuable insights into the hospitality and agriculture industries in the area, but gives a unique perspective on local life in the community.
Book a half-day van or walking tour via Get Your Guide, Peek, or by contacting Ag Venture Tours directly. You can email Evan at Evan@agventuretours.com. Booking in advance is encouraged. Guests with disabilities can also be accommodated with advance notice.
Tip: Don’t leave Pezzini Farm without placing an order of fried artichokes with garlic aioli dipping sauce from the Choke Coach food truck. Take a homemade artichoke cupcake to-go — you won’t regret it.
Lunch under Wharf #2
Under Wharf #2 at Fisherman’s Wharf (also known as the Commercial Wharf), you can find one of Monterey’s best hidden gems — literally.
The Sandbar and Grill hangs underneath the pier in a dramatic fashion, but it is anything but forgotten.
A favorite meeting spot for locals, the Sandbar and Grill offers an uncomplicated menu with fresh local seafood paired with stunning views of the marina.
We hear that the homemade clam chowder can’t be missed here. To oblige, we order a large bowl along with a toasted French baguette for dipping.
To share, we order a bowl of steamed mussels with dry sherry, garlic, tomatoes, and tarragon, and the famous “Sanddabs” — local catch — with homemade tartar sauce.
Other menu items worth trying are the calamari steak with lemon and capers, and the Prawns Scampi.
Tip: Make time to walk down the wharf to admire the sail boats, and keep an eye out for seals and otters!
View hours of operation and full lunch, dinner, and Sunday Brunch menus here.
Big Sur Salts
From lunch, we head back to the Monterey Plaza Hotel to meet Carlo Overhulser, the founder of Big Sur Salts.
After a run-in with a rogue wave while hiking in Big Sur, Carlo decided to take some water home with him in a beer bottle. Weeks after forgetting the beer bottle was there, he found it.
What remained was not water but the purest salt he had ever laid eyes on. His fascination of salt dehydration began, thus, so did the idea of Big Sur Salts.
Respecting Nature’s Bounty
Currently, Carlo is the only company licensed to responsibly and sustainably harvest salt from Big Sur. This is done in an effort to preserve the coastline’s unique habitats and fragile ecosystem.
To see first-hand where the harvesting magic happens, we head to the coastline for a short hike. Our destination is one of Carlo’s many salt holes. From above, Carlo explains the process from harvesting to dehydration, and finally, to production and sale.
We then drive to Carmel Valley and make our way through the property at Carmel Valley Ranch. Propped on a beautiful hillside sits one of Carlo’s numerous salt houses where the magic happens.
The process of “sel gris” made popular by the French is one that Carlo has perfected, reflecting the classic and laid back vibes of Monterey County in each jar.
Currently, Carlo’s salt blends are featured in dozens of retail stores and regional restaurants. He also partners with big-name brands for innovative collaborations. This includes the Monterey Bay Aquarium which sells the exclusive “Deep, Dark, and Salty” chocolate bar.
His Barbera salt blend is also featured on the menu at Salt Wood Kitchen in the popular Grilled Ad Astra Olive Bread.
Carlo offers personal tours to give visitors a chance to learn about his process of creating Big Sur Salts first hand. His salt blends are also for sale at nearly 50 retailers across California.
Shop all of Carlo’s Big Sur Salts blends here.
Dinner Among the Dunes
Near Marina State Beach, the stunning property of The Sanctuary Beach Resort lies among towering sand dunes.
In the middle of the property is Salt Wood Kitchen and Oysterette.
One of the region’s leading culinary destinations, Salt Wood serves refined California coastal classics and craft cocktails with no shortage of stunning views.
With three main dining environments, guests can enjoy their meals at the full service bar, the outdoor patio, or the main restaurant. A wood burning fireplace sets the scene for the ultimate coastal dining experience.
Cocktails, Crab, & Coastlines, Oh My!
First, I order a lemony cocktail called the “Summer Fog” to pair with the “Grilled Ag Astra Olive Bread” made with Big Sur Salts. The two together taste like a sunny summer day.
To share, we order an appetizer of the Dungeness Crab Mac n’ Cheese with chunks of fresh crab meat and a blend of creamy cheeses.
We’re told not to pass up the Coffee Crusted Scallops, so we get a plate of those too.
For mains, I choose the “Ora King Salmon” with Shrimp Etoufeé and pickled peppers, and my dad goes for the “Oak Wood Smoked Half Chicken” with a side of mac n’ cheese.
The portions are very generous in relation to the prices, so there is no leaving hungry.
Other menu items that can’t be missed are the “Wasabi Crusted Ahi Tuna,” and the “Baby Lettuce Caesar.”
View Salt Wood’s hours of operation and full brunch, dinner, and wine menus here.
Day 3: Monterey, Soledad
Breakfast on the Bay
We start our third day in Monterey with breakfast on the bay at the elegant oceanfront restaurant, Schooners.
On site at the Monterey Plaza Hotel, Schooners specializes in serving contemporary American cuisine using sustainable seafood.
On the heated waterfront terrace, it’s easy to see why it’s known as “the best drink with a view.”
Seafood & Fresh-Pressed Juices
First, we order two vanilla lattes and a perfectly pressed juice called “Summer Love” to start. The breakfast menu features plenty of fresh seafood including Dungeness crab, prawns, and smoked salmon.
Second, we choose two of the most popular dishes: the “Dungeness Crab Benedict” with breakfast potatoes, and the decadent “Buttermilk Pancakes” with local blueberry jam and yuzu marmalade.
Other breakfast dishes that are worth trying are the “Barrel Aged Smoked Salmon”, and the “Monterey Seafood Omelette” with Dungeness crab and smoked prawns.
If an early morning drink is your thing, the “Plaza Mary” is a popular choice, and comes adorned with two slices of crispy bacon, fresh olives, pickle, and seared prawns. It’s voted the best Bloody Mary in Monterey for a reason!
Learn more about Schooners and view the full breakfast, lunch, dinner, wine, and kids menus here.
Wine Tourism in Monterey County
Home to a robust wine region with nine American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), Monterey County has no shortage of award-winning wineries.
Visitors can not only participate in wine tastings, but can experience educational vineyard tours or food and wine pairings featuring dishes made from the bounty of the region.
Prime for Growing Vines
The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA alone is the largest grower of Chardonnay in the United States. It also produces the largest amount of Pinot Noir in California!
Both the scenic Salinas Valley and Carmel Valley areas continue to expand their tasting room scene — three have opened in the past six months at vineyards within 22 miles from each other.
We spent a day exploring two of Monterey County’s most unique wineries: Chalone Vineyard and Joyce Wine Company.
As Monterey’s first winery, Chalone Vineyard is a must-visit.
It sits at the base of the Pinnacles National Park on the Gavilan Plateau, 1,800 feet above the Salinas Valley.
Here, the volcanic limestone soil of the Chalone AVA gives these wines a very distinctive and award – winning flavor. It’s the only winery in this particular AVA, a federally designated area that has rare climatic and geologic features.
However, it’s not just the wines that draw visitors to Chalone each year, but rather the history. The first vines were planted in 1919 and still grow in the front of the vineyard to this day.
With a focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Chalone winemaker Greg Freeman also produces limited amounts of Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Syrah. The entire process from vine to bottle is controlled and completed at the estate.
For the tasting, we sample a Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Syrah each. The Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay are an easy favorite, but it’s the 2019 Reserve Pinot Noir that takes the prize.
Learn more about Chalone and view its full wine selection and prices here.
Joyce Wine Company
A short 30 minute drive from Chalone, we arrive at Joyce Estate Winery in Soledad.
A part of the Arroyo Seco AVA, owner and founder Russell Joyce places importance on harvesting locally grown organic fruit from the estate. Joyce Vineyards also works with trusted local growers to promote innovation and sustainability.
Joyce has been in the wine making business since he was a kid, when the first vines were planted behind his family’s home in Carmel Valley.
Since then, the self-taught Joyce has built Joyce Wine Company into two locations — a tasting room in Carmel Valley, and the Estate Winery in Soledad.
Laid Back Cali Vibes
The vibe at the Soledad location is typical of a laid back California summer day. Families enjoy games of corn hole outside, groups of friends enjoy wine tastings, and couples have picnics paired with their favorite blend.
Here, we sample a Submarine Canyon Chardonnay, a 2021 Sauvignon Blanc, an Arroyo Seco Rosé, and two different blends of Pinot Noir.
The 2021 Arroyo Seco Rosé and the Submarine Canyon Pinot Noir are my favorites, but the Pinot Noir wins a coveted spot in my suitcase.
Tastings at the Estate Winery can be completed inside or outside. They can be reserved for parties of one to six people on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
Learn more about Joyce Wine Company wines and make a tasting reservation here.
Since 1881 when horse-drawn carriages would travel the road from the former Hotel Del Monte, it’s been a source of scenic history for those visiting Monterey County.
Today, guests follow the red-dashed line in the middle of the road to wind through the Del Monte Forest to lay their eyes on one of the most scenic drives in the world.
17-Mile Drive’s Best Stops
- The Lone Cypress. A more than 250 year-old Cypress Tree sits atop a rocky pedestal overlooking a dramatic Pacific Ocean coastline. It’s also the halfway point of the 17-Mile Drive.
- Ghost Trees at Pescadero Point. Explore hundreds of spooky sun-bleached Cypress trees.
- Seal Rock/Bird Rock. This wildlife hub is buzzing with hundreds of birds, harbor seals, and dramatic sea lions. It’s also a great spot for a picnic, a walk among the tide pools, or a stretch.
- Cypress Point Lookout. This is the best spot on the drive to enjoy a California sunset against pure white sand. Keep in mind it’s closed from April 1 to June 1 each year for pupping season.
It costs $11.25 per vehicle to enter the 17-Mile Drive. The gate fee can be reimbursed with a purchase of $35 or more at all Pebble Beach Resorts restaurants.
Tip: Plan to spend at least a full day exploring all of the stops on 17-Mile Drive. There are 17 stops along the route and all of them are worth getting out of your vehicle for.
Dinner in Carmel-by-the-Sea
A short 10-minute drive South, we arrive at the quaint beach town of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Known for its fairytale cottages and village-like town center with European influenced architecture, it also has a bustling food scene.
Basil Seasonal Dining
We’re here for dinner at Basil Seasonal Dining, a locally-sourced casual spot serving Italian fare with California flare. As Carmel’s first Certified Green Restaurant, menu ingredients change four or five times a year. The menu features only organic ingredients and sustainable seafood is delivered daily.
Owner Denis Boaro, a native of Venice, Italy, is no stranger to the restaurant business, serving cuisines that bring guests back again and again.
Cozy and romantic both inside and out, the outdoor patio is a local favorite for its dog-friendly atmosphere.
Since it’s slightly chilly, we take a seat outside under the heating lamps.
Italian Cuisine with a Cali Twist
First, we order a large bowl of creamy artichoke soup to warm up.
Second, we savor Basil’s famous bruschetta on fresh ciabatta bread. It is topped with cherry tomatoes, black truffle sauce, buffalo mozzarella, Monterey Sea Salt, and Basil’s very own pesto.
It’s the freshest and most flavorful bruschetta I’ve had (and I’ve been to Italy five times!)
For mains, I order the special of the day which is a tender lobster ravioli in a creamy pink sauce. My dad orders the Traditional Lasagna with beef bolognese, ricotta cheese, and San Marzano marinara. We both get mounds of fresh Parmesan shavings on top and it’s a necessary addition.
Lastly, Basil offers a full bar and an ever changing list of both local Monterey County and Italian wine selections. Selections on this wine list are hand-picked by Boaro himself.
View Basil’s hours of operation and the current seasonal menus for brunch, dinner, dessert and wine here.
Day 4: Monterey, Seaside
As the sun rises over the water and peeps through the cracks in the curtains, we make our way to the hotel property’s private beach.
We finish watching the sunrise with a hot latte and take a stroll along Cannery Row, the historic remnants of Monterey’s former sardine canning industry.
Once the most famous street in America, it’s now home to specialty shops, local art galleries, and more than 25 restaurants to bring a new vibe to downtown Monterey.
Vista Blue Spa
We have some downtown before our breakfast reservations, so we take the elevator up to the penthouse to explore Vista Blue Spa.
This award-winning luxury spa and fitness center offers generous doses of sunshine and relaxation with full views of Monterey Bay from any viewpoint.
It’s been named one of Travel + Leisure’s Top 25 Spas, and for three years in a row has been named one of Conde Nast’s Top 75 Hotel Spas in North America. It’s easy to see why.
The sundeck is the most impressive component with two whirlpool hot tubs and a fireplace. Without hesitation, we take advantage of the two hot tubs which we have all to ourselves for the moment.
Vista Blue Spa offers classic massages, warm stone massages, prenatal massages, European style facials, and nail and waxing services. A private spa suite is also available for 45 minute or two hour reservations.
Vista Blue Spa’s entire service menu and hours of operation can be found here.
Arrive at the spa as soon as it opens at 8 a.m. Both the facility and the uninterrupted views of Monterey Bay will be all yours — at least for a little while.
Breakfast at Googie Grill
With a long day of travel ahead, we drive to the town of Seaside for our last breakfast of the trip at Googie Grill.
A 1950s-era vintage cafe, Googie’s is a brightly hued and colorful local favorite. Since 2014, it has been serving locals traditional American fare with a California twist.
Most known for their delicious breakfast specialties and cooked-to-perfection steak and fish, the French-style beignets take the title.
Beignets come towering with mounds of powdered sugar and a side of fresh blueberry preserves. They are a must.
Another can’t miss dish is the “Calamari Steak & Eggs”. It includes a lightly breaded calamari steak. After all, Monterey is known as the “Calamari Capital of the World”!
Know Before You Go
- Monterey County is beautiful year-round, but the best months to visit this coastal haven are the fall and spring months.
- Eat more than just the clam chowder bread bowls! While delicious, the region’s fertile soil creates a food and wine scene unlike any other.
- While the aquarium is a must-see attraction in its own right, Monterey County has so much to offer. Walk along a coastal park trail or drive down River Road Wine Trail to explore tasting rooms.
- Order local and buy local. Shopping local not only helps businesses financially, but is a great way to practice responsible travel.
- Don’t eat at restaurants you can enjoy back home. Dine at local restaurants that feature produce grown in Monterey County. For many of these restaurants, fresh seafood is caught hours before.
- Many restaurants participate in the Monterey Bay Aaquarium’s Seafood Watch program. This program supports environmentally responsible products and suppliers.
Planning a U.S. Road Trip this Summer?
Do you have plans to visit Monterey County soon? Leave any questions for me in the comment section below!
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