One weekend is the perfect amount of time to see the highlights of Carmel, Monterey, and Big Sur along Highway 1.
Carmel is a quaint, coastal town in Central California, known for its fairytale-like cottages, top notch restaurants, and proximity to the beach. Carmel is also known as "Carmel-by-the-Sea". Although many people are more familiar with their sister town of Monterey (just a short 15 minute drive away), Carmel should be your stomping ground as it has even more to offer for a weekend getaway.
Scroll to the end for a 1-page overview of your perfect weekend itinerary in Carmel, Monterey & Big Sur!
When planning my weekend down the coast, I knew that I wanted to explore more of Big Sur. I had only been once about 5 years ago, but I've thought about it ever since. I remember thinking, " this has got to be the most beautiful place in the U.S." and I think that still holds true.
The thing about Big Sur is that it's a little off the beaten path. There is minimal cell reception, lodging, and restaurant options. Zach and I booked this weekend trip quite last minute, so there weren't many accomodations still available. I knew I also had interest in visiting Carmel and Monterey during this trip, so for many reasons it made more sense to stay in either of those towns and just make the trip to Big Sur, which is only a 45-60 min. drive. Not bad at all.
Should I Stay in Carmel or Monterey?
The question I googled about 500 times. Which little town should Zach and I stay in?! I was much more familiar with Monterey (thanks, Big Little Lies!) but I've heard of so many people visiting Carmel and how wonderful it is.
Let me save you some time.
Stay in Carmel, 1000000%.
You will not regret it! Sure, Monterey has the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but not much else. If you want a quintessential, walkable, romantic, and lively small town, Carmel is the way to go.
Monterey has slightly less to offer, and anything you do want to see in Monterey, it's a short drive away.
Getting Around Carmel
For this trip, I definitely recommend driving or renting a car so you can explore as much as you can outside of the town of Carmel.
From San Francisco, it's a short 2 hour drive. From Los Angeles, it's a little over 5 hours. If you're not local to California, the closest airport is Monterey Airport, but since there are minimal flights, you can also fly into San Jose, Oakland, or San Francisco and make the drive into Carmel.
Carmel Overview & Quick Tips For Visiting
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a beach city in the Monterey Peninsula, known for its museums, galleries, and fairytale cottages. Believe it or not, Clint Eastwood was once the mayor of this small town!
Another thing you'll notice when visiting Carmel is that the houses have names, but no house numbers. Seriously! To find a particular house or business, you'll notice directions will say something like, "On the corner of Ocean and Monte Verde". Residents and businesses must still pick up their mail at the local post office.
For more fun facts about the town of Monterey, check them out here.
Tips for Visiting
If you can, make reservations for dinner ahead of time. Zach and I had a few places we wanted to go, but we didn't plan ahead so we weren't able to get a table on a weekend night. If you'd rather wing it (or you don't care so much about your dinner plans), that's fine too! We walked around for 10 minutes and found a decent place for dinner that had seating available.
Most of the accommodations in Carmel are Inns & B&B's. They're all so full of charm, but keep in mind, most of them are old buildings so it can get a little loud due to thin walls.
Carmel Beach is totally walkable from Downtown Carmel (where you'll find most of the accommodations). The Beach is only a few blocks away, but keep in mind that the walk is downhill, so walking back into town from the Beach can be a little steep.
Mornings in Carmel and all along the coast tend to be foggy. If you have any scenic drives or plans for the day, I recommend doing them in the afternoon!
When driving to Big Sur or along the coast, make sure you put your directions on while you have service! Once you leave Carmel, cell reception can get scarce.
Where to Stay
There are SO many cute places to stay in Carmel. Anything within "Carmel-by-the-Sea" will be your best bet so you can walk everywhere. If you really don't mind about being in town, there are some great Airbnbs in the surrounding areas of Carmel as well.
Zach and I stayed at the Monte Verde Inn. What a gem! The location was perfect, it came with a free breakfast basket each morning, and our room had a fireplace. Score!
The only downside of our stay was that it was a little noisy, but I think that was due to our room location right by the lobby, and the fact that we had the windows open all night. (Cool air + warm fire all night = perfect combo)!
Overall, I would definitely recommend staying at the Monte Verde. I'd stay again, but there are so many options in Carmel, I'd love to try a new Inn every time I visit.
Other options that you should check out are below:
L'Auberge Carmel - I think this is next on my list of where I'd like to stay, with award winning restaurant Aubergine located inside!
If you'd rather be tucked away from the town with a bigger focus on luxury and ocean views, check out Tickle Pink Inn.
Weekend Itinerary in Carmel-by-the-Sea
Suggested Visit: Friday Afternoon - Sunday Afternoon
The earlier you can arrive the better, but Zach and I didn't arrive until dinner time on Friday Night, so just get to Carmel whenever your schedule allows!
Friday Afternoon/Early Evening
Check into Hotel
Catch the sunset at Carmel Beach
Dinner & Drinks in Carmel-by-the-Sea
However you're arriving to Carmel, you'll likely want to check into your hotel and freshen up a bit before doing anything. Zach and I ran into some traffic on the Friday afternoon drive from San Francisco, so we were excited to finally arrive to our adorable room and unwind.
If you're visiting in Autumn or Winter, try to catch the sunset before dinner at Carmel Beach. Carmel Beach offers a great view of the sunset over the water! Zach and I visited in late October when the sun would set around 6:15-6:20, so it made sense to have dinner afterwards.
If you're visiting in the Summer months, have dinner first then make time after to see the sunset.
For Dinner, I recommend La Bicyclette for pizza in a romantic setting. They don't take reservations and they're one of the best restaurants in town, so you'll have to put your name on the list early! If you arrive too late to Carmel to do this or it's too tough with planning the sunset, try Dametra Cafe for a lively atmosphere with Mediterranean food or Portabella for a cozy ambiance with French & Italian fare.
Saturday AM: Explore Carmel
Explore the Shops & Fairytale Cottages in Carmel
Brunch/Lunch at The Tuck Box
Saturday PM: Head along Hwy 1 to Big Sur
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Bixby Creek Bridge
Partington Cove Path
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park & McWay Falls
Start your morning exploring the shops of Carmel. There are art galleries, high end boutiques, and spots for souvenirs. One of my favorite places to walk in Carmel was to the many Fairytale Cottages. A man named Hugh Comstock designed these beauties in the 1920s, and 21 cottages still remain today in Carmel.
My favorites were The Tuck Box (which is actually now a restaurant that I recommend for Brunch/Lunch) and the Storybook Cottage, a beautiful pink house that looks straight out of a Disney movie.
The Tuck Box is located right in town on Dolores Street - you should be able to find it on Google Maps. Storybook Cottage is located a little further away, but I still recommend walking as there is little parking along these privately-owned cottages.
To find Storybook Cottage, head to 6th avenue and Santa Fe Street. You'll find a bunch of cute cottages here! For a full map of all cottages you can visit on your own personal guided tour, head to the Carmel Visitor Center on Ocean Ave to grab a map of the famous Comstock Cottages.
After exploring the town in the morning, spend some time at Carmel Beach. Even if it's a foggy morning, you're still likely to see dolphins! (We saw SO many when we went)! Grab a blanket and take in the fresh air and soft sand.
When you're ready to eat, head back to the Tuck Box for either Brunch or Lunch. They have light fares such as BLT's and the most delicious scones you've ever tasted.
This was the perfect meal after having a small breakfast delivered to our room at the Monte Verde Inn!
After lunch, you can begin the drive to Big Sur. Big Sur is the 90-mile stretch of rugged, beautiful coastline along Hwy 1 between Carmel and San Simeon. It takes about an hour to get to the furthest point on my list, but there are plenty of stops and pull-offs along the way to keep you entertained.
Make a stop at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. I'll be honest - this was high on my list but Zach and I were deterred by so many other people parking alongside the road. We really didn't want to deal with crowds and parking, so we kept driving to our next destination - Bixby Creek Bridge.
I totally regret not stopping at Point Lobos, so this is first on our list next time. Parking is $10, or if you don't mind walking, you can park along the road and walk in. At the end of the parking area, head onto Bird Island Trail, then you'll quickly find China Cove and Gibson Beach. These areas are absolutely stunning, with emerald green water surrounded by rocky walls. Don't miss it!
The next stop along Hwy 1 is the Bixby Creek Bridge.
This is one of the most photographed spots along the Big Sur coast. This bridge is the gateway into (or out of) Carmel, offers stunning architecture, and is also featured on hit HBO show "Big Little Lies".
A few miles before you reach this bridge, you'll notice a similar-looking bridge that is much smaller with no places to park. I remember saying to Zach, "Damn, is that it? That's disappointing". Haha! Well, that was not it. After driving a few more minutes down the coast, we came across the real Bixby Creek Bridge.
Before you cross the bridge, there will be a few areas to park and take photos. We did this on a Saturday afternoon and had no trouble finding a parking spot!
We parked and took photos on the right side, but that little area has a lot of options for photographing the bridge. Walk around if you'd like! Head across the street to get some angles from the other side. Once you cross the bridge, there aren't really any places to park so make sure you take your photos on the North side of the bridge.
Continue your drive South and you'll notice plenty of areas along the road to pull off for photos.
This little spot was shortly after crossing the bridge. We had to stop for some photos!
Enjoy your drive all the way to Pfeiffer Beach, famous for its "keyhole arch" rock formation. Spend as much time here as you'd like! Parking is $12, but it's well worth the views.
As you continue your drive after exploring the beach, you'll pass "Nepenthe," which is a restaurant with incredible views. Try to plan on stopping here for dinner on your drive back before sunset!
The next stop is a little pull-off called Partington Cove. This was a short hike that Zach and I didn't even know about, but we saw it from a distance and drove back because it looked so cool. There are areas to park by the beginning of the trail.
We did this closer to sunset and had incredible views. This path is 1 mile out and back, and takes you down to the coast through trees and a tunnel bridge at the bottom. It can be steep on the climb up, but it wasn't bad at all (and we were in flip flops)!
Once you reach the bottom, you're met with a cove of stunning turquoise and emerald green waters with rocky views at every turn. There are many places to climb along the rocks, so I recommend wearing shoes more supportive than flip flops. We would have explored further if we came prepared! Partington Cove is such a lovely spot just to sit and relax, too.
I'm so happy we found this gem!
After a little exploration at Partington Cove, you're only a few minutes away from the last stop, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is home to McWay Falls, one of the most iconic sights along the Big Sur Coast. Unfortunately, this park was closed when Zach and I visited due to ongoing fire concerns. Fortunately, we were still able to park along the road to capture views of McWay Falls.
We can't wait to go back once it opens up again! It was a little cloudy during our visit, but still beautiful.
See below for photos I took when I visited Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park back in 2015. Big difference on a sunny day vs. a cloudy one!
After a long afternoon exploring the rocky shores of Big Sur along Hwy 1, make your way back towards Carmel and stop at Nepenthe for dinner.
If you plan it well enough, you can catch the sunset while eating dinner. The wait can get incredibly long on weekends, so be prepared that you may not get a table right away. If you want, you can watch the sunset elsewhere in Big Sur and make reservations at Big Sur Bakery. OR, you can scratch that and head back to Carmel for dinner!
Whatever you decide to do in the evening, definitely don't miss the sunset, whether that be in Big Sur or Carmel. There is no bad place to view it, and you can't beat a West Coast sunset.
Sunday AM: Checkout & Head to Monterey
Coffee & Pastries at Carmel Bakery
Checkout of Carmel Hotel
Head to Monterey to explore the Aquarium & Fisherman's Wharf
Sunday PM: 17 Mile Drive & Fort Ord Dunes State Park
Lunch in Monterey
17 Mile Drive through Pebble Beach
Fort Ord Dunes State Park
One last morning in Carmel! Do yourself a favor and stop at Carmel Bakery. You may be deterred by the long line, but I promise you it's worth it.
Zach and I tried the cheese pretzel and the chocolate macaroon. I am still dreaming about that chocolate macaroon. It was SO good.
Once you've wrapped up your time in the charming town of Carmel, you can checkout and head to the town of Monterey, just 10-15 minutes away.
Monterey didn't blow me away. Unfortunately, the Aquarium was closed during our visit, so that was a damper, but I also just didn't find the town as quaint as Carmel.
If the Monterey Bay Aquarium is open during your visit, definitely make a stop here! Since the mornings can be foggy, it's a good idea to do this first, then save the beautiful 17-Mile Drive for the afternoon.
After spending an hour or two at the Aquarium, you can take a walk along the Monterey Fisherman's Wharf. Sure, it's a little tacky, but it can be really fun to people watch and look out at the boats. Zach and I actually enjoyed the lively ambiance!
You know, I say it's tacky now, but I thought it was the absolute coolest place when I first went in High School. No judgment if you love the Wharf!
If you're ready for lunch after a long morning of exploring, you can either eat in Monterey, or at one of the restaurants in Pebble Beach along the 17-Mile Drive.
The 17-Mile Drive is a scenic road on the coast which passes through the golf courses and mansions along Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove. The cost to enter this gated community is $10.50 per vehicle, and the pass is valid for the entire day.
From Monterey, drive to the Pacific Grove gate entrance of the 17-Mile Drive - easily found on Google Maps. The Drive consists of 17 scenic stops, and it is a loop so you can end up back in Monterey!
Starting at the Pacific Grove Gate and heading towards stops 3 & 4 is your best best, as you'll notice the views and pull-offs are all on the right side. If you'd like to eat along this drive, you can stop first at the Spanish Inn Bay and have a meal at Roy's.
The $10.50 entrance fee is deducted from any restaurant bill within Pebble Beach, so that's another incentive to eat along the Drive.
Further down the drive after a few scenic stops, you could also have lunch at Stillwater Grill.
Overall, we're happy we took some time to see the sights along the 17-Mile Drive. It's a classic when visiting Carmel or Monterey! However, I will say that the views driving in Big Sur were far superior.
Stop number 3 was one of my favorites - Spanish Bay. If you park in the designated lot towards the back, there is a path with wooden boards that you can walk along. You'll make your way down to some ultra-soft sand beaches with large rocks along the shore.
Another stop I really enjoyed was number 12 - The Lone Cypress, pictured below.
You can spend anywhere from an hour to a few hours along the 17-Mile Drive. It totally depends on how many stops you choose to see, and how long you spend at each scenic point. I'd plan on around 2 hours!
By now, you can either decide to head back home (depending on where you're coming from) or you can hit one more stop on your way out. My original plan was to hang for the rest of the day so Zach and I could catch one more sunset, but Zach was ready to head back to the Bay Area around 4:00.
On our way out, we made a stop at Fort Ord Dunes State Park, and we absolutely loved it.
This was not on our original plan, but we remembered seeing these huge sand dunes as we drove in on Friday and we really wanted to explore them. We checked the map and found the name and decided to stop here before heading home.
There is ample parking if you type in "Fort Ord Dunes State Park," and once you walk the path to the beach, you can even climb the Dunes if you wish!
Zach and I climbed the steepest one we could find, and it took A LOT more energy than we thought it would. The views at the top were awesome!
After about an hour soaking up the sun on top of a Sand Dune, we hopped in the car and made our way back home.
This little weekend getaway took me by surprise with how much I loved it. There are so many more sights I'd like to visit in Big Sur, and I already can't wait to get back to Carmel-by-the-Sea to try more restaurants (and eat more chocolate macaroons from Carmel Bakery!).
If you're looking for a short but sweet trip to one of the most beautiful places in California, you should consider following this itinerary for Carmel, Monterey, & Big Sur!