After having spent ~5 years living in California, we find ourselves missing it often and try to make at least two visits out every year. Most recently, we enjoyed one of our most special visits to date with a long weekend in Monterey and the Northern California Coast. It was a truly extraordinary and romantic getaway that will go down as a favorite trip of ours for years to come + one that we highly recommend to all given its perfect balance of relaxation and sightseeing.
Coming from the East Coast, our unofficial first day was spent on an airplane and then driving 2.5 hours from San Francisco to Monterey. Ideally, we would've flown into San Jose as it would have cut the driving time by about an hour but we couldn't get a direct flight - so an after work flight into SFO that had us getting to our hotel at ~ 1am local time was what we had to work with. Thankfully, we stayed at the beautiful, Monterey Plaza Hotel + Spa, which made the long day of travel worth it when we got to fall asleep to the sound of the ocean. All this to say - plan for a long day of travel if you're coming from a distance.
Day 1 - Monterey
Minimal Driving Required
Stop 1: Monterey Bay Aquarium
Start off the day with a walk of Cannery Row + breakfast for fuel, before heading to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This is one of the most known + well-loved aquariums, and often comes with the cost of a crowd, so the earlier you can get in here, the better. The crowds come for good reason though as the aquarium, nestled on the waterfront cove, features some of the best marine + aquatic wildlife that you can find. We could have spent all day looking onto the otter exhibit or mesmerized by the neon jellyfish, but eventually broke for lunch when our stomachs called for it.
Stop 2: Stroll Around Town
Grab lunch wherever catches your attention along the many restaurants in walking distance from the aquarium. Now is also a great time to recuperate along the shores of any of the Monterey beaches as you stroll along the coast and towards the Old Fisherman's Wharf. There's a delightful amount of rich history built into Monterey, so if time allows, we also encourage you to venture through town and engage with the many historical sights and placards displaying Monterey's history. This time is truly flexible to make yours with it - we personally enjoyed exploring the big personalities at the Old Fisherman's Wharf and basking in the sun at Del Monte Beach.
Stop 3: Dinner at Sardine Factory
From the road, Sardine Factory is unassuming and looks as any ordinary restaurant might, but inside you'll find decadent decor + lavish interiors around every new turn. We absolutely loved the romantic ambiance of dining in the conservatory but the lounge, the wine cellar and the captain's room each provide a desirable setting of their own unique character and charm. The waitstaff is incredibly kind + attentive and the food is some of the best we've ever tasted to this day - we truly cannot express how worth it the lobster ravioli is and how we dream of the escargot en toscani. Dining at the Sardine Factory is the perfect addition to your romantic weekend getaway and sure to set the mood for the rest of the trip - if you score an early enough reservation, you'll leave just enough time to catch sunset along the water as an added bonus.
The Monterey Peninsula has SO much to offer that fitting it all into a few short days is near impossible. Luckily, we've had the pleasure of visiting many times prior and can proudly recommend the following additional options for those looking for more to do, more time in Monterey, or alternative ideas:
- Jewel's of Monterey Scavenger Hunt With Let's Roam
- Explore Pebble Beach's 17 Mile Drive
- Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary (Monarchs in Season Oct - March)
- Kayaking + Water Sports Around Monterey Bay
- Glass Bottom Boat Tour
- Whale Watching Tour
- Explore the many Art Galleries + Museums of Monterey + Carmel
- Sailing on Monterey Bay
- Big Little Lies Tour
- Spa Day at Monterey Day Spa or Monterey Plaza Hotel + SPa
- Golfing at the many nearby Greens
- Explore the many "love" themed sights (Heart Shaped Rock, Kissing Rock, Lover's Point Park, etc.)
- Dust Bowl Brewing Company
- Hike the ZQP Trail to Beach in Carmel
- Discover the Clinton Walker House - Frank Lloyd Wright
- Walking Tour of Carmel
Day 2 - Big Sur --> Aptos
Expected ~3+ Hours Drive Time
Stop 1: Hiking Point Lobos State Park
You should be well rested after a flexible and light day prior, which is important as Day 2 is filled with hiking + rugged coast driving. Kicking off at Point Lobos State Park, you'll have your first glimpse of what California's Big Sur has to offer with striking coast lines, jagged cliffs and a wild ocean of ombre blue hues. Point Lobos itself is a massive plot of land with hiking + walking trails of varying difficulty levels + advanced scuba opportunities. You can either pay the $10 for park entrance and the ability to enter the park with your car + explore each destination with a short drive, or you can save yourself the money + add time by parking just outside of the entrance + hiking in and around. We chose to park outside and ended up spending about 2.5 hours venturing around the wilderness, discovering cypress groves, barking seals and jaw dropping nature.
Stop 0 and/or 2: Food
As you venture deeper along the Pacific Coast Highway around Big Sur, there will be fewer and fewer opportunities for food and fuel and those that you do pass will come with an up-charge + wait times so we urge you to plan ahead. Bring snacks and hydration, pack a picnic and come prepared with a plan because you'll likely have little to no service once deep into CA-1. We personally made sure to eat breakfast at our hotel before heading to Point Lobos, packed snacks and then stopped for lunch at Nepenthe, but we could have just as easily eaten breakfast overlooking the ocean at Hyatt Carmel, packed a picnic for lunch or grabbed a bite at River Inn Big Sur and continued on. As long as you plan ahead, you'll be in good shape but be sure not to underestimate the difficulty of a casual food stop around Big Sur.
Stop 3: Bixby Bridge + McWay Falls
It's hard to grasp just how expansive the nature of Big Sur is and how deeply it goes - you can drive for hours or hike for dozens of miles and still barely make a dent along the Pacific Coast Highway, and for the most part, once you're going your only options are to keep going or to turn around completely. Of the dozens of times we've visited this area of California from the Bay Area, we most often will drive south along Highway 1 until we get to McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and then turn around and head back (about 5 hours RT), essentially making one big loop, but have gone as far as taking it through Morro Bay and south to Malibu (7+ hours) or a shorter, but still long trek to Lucia before cutting across to the 101 and heading back north (6+ hours). Due to mudslides and wildfires, the full stretch of Highway 1 along Big Sur is rarely fully open, so do be sure to adhere to all warnings + check before going.
All this to be said - we absolutely loved making the trip to McWay Falls with stops along the many road jut-outs, viewpoints and favorites, such as Bixby Bridge + Garrapata State Park. We start out at Point Lobos, drive to Bixby Creek Bridge, drive to Nepenthe for lunch, drive to McWay Falls + then turnaround + hit Garrapata State Park for sunset picnic on the way back!
Stops, Sights to See + Alternative Adventures:
- The Restaurant at Ragged Point
- Restaurant at River Inn Big Sur
- Coast Big Sur Cafe
- Sierra Mar
- The Sur House
- Alternatives + Trip Additions:
- Hearst Castle + the Madonna Inn
- Explore the natural hot springs along the route
- Limekiln State Park
- The California Sea Otter State Game Refuge
- Admire the Purple Sand at Pfeiffer Beach
- Glamping at Ventana Big Sur
- Treebones Resort
- Folktale Winery + Vineyard
- Henry Miller Memorial Library
- Camping or Car Camping Above the Clouds at Timber Top
- Lucia Lodge
- Retreat at Esalen Institute
- Upscale Stays at Post Ranch Inn
- Point Sur Lighthouse
Stop 4: Drive to Hotel in Santa Cruz + Dinner
After a full days's adventure, you'll want to push through to your hotel to fully unwind. We stayed at the Sea Cliff Inn in Aptos and could not have been more delighted with the entire experience, so much so that we didn't even bother searching elsewhere and ended up enjoying dinner at our hotel's restaurant (which not only was delicious, but also had a live band). Santa Cruz has many different neighborhoods and vibes so be sure to do a little research before settling on your stay for the next two nights, or follow our lead and stay in Aptos for easy highway access and a quieter stay.
Day 3 - Santa Cruz
Expected ~45+ Minutes Drive Time
Stop 1: Breakfast Burritos at Point Market
Santa Cruz has some of the best Mexican cuisine in all of California, so it's a necessity to indulge in some breakfast burritos during your visit. There are many wonderful spots to choose from but we ended up at Point Market due to its walking distance to the boardwalk.
Stop 2: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
You can enjoy your burritos at the restaurant or take them to the beach for a little picnic action, before heading to the beach boardwalk for some rides + games. The beach boardwalk also has a few beach volleyball courts + you can often spot seals from the pier - giving you a multitude of opportunities to burn off your burritos + whatever grub you buy at the boardwalk.
Stop 3: Beach
Unsurprisingly, there's a beach that you can enjoy alongside the beach boardwalk but we chose to head back to our car and drive a bit further to a more scenic beach. For our visit, we chose Natural Bridges State Park for a $10 entrance fee (the park is also home to a wonderful monarch butterfly grove during Oct-March) so that we had accessibility to a bathroom + the tide pools. Some other great options are:
- Seacliff State Beach
- Seascape Park Beach
- Panther Beach
- Bonny Doon Beach
- Shark Fin Cove
Stop 4: Capitola + Shadowbrook
We had been jonesing to try Shadowbrook in Capitola for years and also wanted to catch as much as we could of sunset, so after freshening up at our hotel we drove to downtown Capitola to walk around + enjoy the sights, before walking to our late reservation at Shadowbrook. Shadowbrook might be one of the most charming + sweetly romantic restaurants we've ever come across and it was WELL worth the visit. The restaurant is a quirky and personality filled redwood + old-world brick log cabin overlooking Soquel Creek that has transformed over the years into a massive venue for delighting diners. Upon arrival, you can take their gondola down the steep mountainside to the restaurant (or elect to take the steps) and be seated in one of their dozens of unique rooms. The food is wonderful and packed with flavor and everyone there seems to have the same starry-eyed look as the next person, making the entire experience feel like something out of a movie. Best of all, Shadowbrook operates two vintage taxis that will take diners anywhere within 3 miles (for free - but we recommend a courtesy hefty tip) - which was perfect as our hotel was about 4 miles away but our car parked downtown was only a half mile and the taxi ride was a truly magical way to end our night
Additional or Alternative Stops in Santa Cruz for Day 3 afternoon or Day 4 morning:
- Challenge gravity at The Mystery Spot
- Hike Big Basin Redwoods or Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (Garden of Eden Trail)
- Explore Santa Cruz via Sidecar Tours
- Go Surfing at Opal Cliffs - Pleasure Point
- Explore Wilder Ranch State Park
- Make Friends with Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park
- Grab a Drink at Humble Sea Brewing Co, Hillside Brewing, Shanty Shack, Brews at the Beach, Vino by the Sea, Beer Thirty Bottle Shop & Pour House, etc.
- Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Day 4 - Highway 1 --> Travel Home
Expected ~2+ Hours Drive Time
Stop 1: Breakfast
Depending what time you'll have to head home will dictate how much you can squeeze in for your last day, but we personally had all day to kill until our red eye and were able to have a nice lazy morning as a result. Again, you'll likely want to stop for breakfast before hitting the road as Highway 1 will
have fewer options than Santa Cruz. We personally loved our hotel restaurant
so much that we made another visit there before heading out but between Capitola, Aptos, Twin Lakes and Santa Cruz, your options for food are endless.
Stop 2: Highway 1 Brewing Company, Pescadero
You should have plenty of time to stop elsewhere prior to the brewing company - such as a hike at one of the previously mentioned state parks or a lazy beach morning, but given our late start, we moseyed on up the coast, taking in the scenery and raw beach views and planted ourselves at the brewery for a good couple of hours to enjoy the sunshine + live music. The brewery itself offers a handpicked menu of local brews + bites and an outdoor patio sure to please - we loved this stop so much that we bought souvenir t-shirts from it and definitely plan to return.
Stop 3: Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Pescadero
Literal minutes down the road from the brewing company is the famous Pigeon Point Lighthouse and Whaler's Cove Beach. The entire spot features sweeping views of the coast and lovely wildflower fields, plus a rich and captivating history. We really enjoyed taking in the views here and looking out with a birds-eye view onto the places we had just traveled from in days prior.
Stop 4: Half Moon Bay
Continue up the coast, admiring California's raw + natural beauty before making a stop in Half Moon Bay. Half Moon Bay is a quaint + charming beach town with lots of local shops + eateries to admire, a famed distillery (Half Moon Bay Distillery), a beachfront walk, petting zoos + farms, breweries, wineries and of course the famous Ritz Carlton + Half Moon Bay Golf Links to name a few. It's a cozy little town that makes for a lovely stop for sightseeing and stretching your legs, grabbing a drink or dining before heading home.
Stop 5: Noelani's Island Grill, San Carlos
If time allows, then we urge you to save your appetite for our favorite restaurant (which also happens to be located conveniently near San Francisco Airport), Noelani's Island Grill. This spot is situated just outside of the highway that will take you from Half Moon Bay to the inner peninsula and a Hall of Famer by every meaning of the word. Noelani's is a casual Hawaiian spot offering fresh tropical fare + live ukelele music most nights. We would do just about anything to indulge in their Kaka'ako Nachos, Passionfruit Orange Guava Juice and Skirt Steak Chicharones. It'll be the perfect fuel you'll want to end your day and practically tuck you into bed for your flight home.
Additional or Alternative Stops for Day 4 afternoon:
- Watch Legendary Surf at Mavericks
- Point Montara Lighthouse
- Pulgas Water Temple
- Methuselah Tree
- Gray Whale Cove State Beach
- Pacifica - Devil's Slide
- Pacifica - Oceanfront Taco Bell
- San Francisco Zoo
- Drive Over Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito
- Hike Russian Ridge, Skyline Ridge, Windy Hill or Sweeney Ridge Trail
- Dine at In n' Out
Of all of our California trips and travels, this one will always be a favorite in our hearts and we hope that you enjoy your time in California as much as we did (and always do). We'd love to hear what stops you make along your own itinerary + and anything you try from this one - be sure to comment and tag us for your trip!
^ bonus points for this once-in-a-lifetime-view of the WTC on the flight home