There’s no way to sum up all the things the original capital of Alta California offers in a succinct way. Which is a good problem. With that good problem comes…good news: While this rundown includes six world-class attractions, Local Getaways snuck in some bonus notes for nearby draws to get maximum oomph out of a stay as short as this list.
Featured Photo: Pebble Beach Lone Cypress courtesy of Visit California
Highway 1 between Carmel and Lucia
If the Monterey Peninsula contains multitudes, Big Sur — one of its multitudes — exponentially expands the wow. The hiking options are legion, the restaurants overachieve and the views demand return visits. Things to prioritize include: Andrew Molera State Park, Big Sur Bakery, Big Sur Taphouse, Coast Big Sur, Esalen Institute, Fernwood Bar and Grill (and campground!), Henry Miller Library, Nepenthe, Pfeiffer Beach, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Pfeiffer Falls, and McWay Falls.
More info: The Ultimate Guide to Big Sur
Pinnacles National Park
East of Salinas Valley
So this choice stretches the geographic boundaries of the “Peninsula,” but the 26,000-acre National Park does reside partly in Monterey County, and is so mind-stretching in its natural grandeur it’s wise to consider a trek south. The unreal rock formations, caves and well-designed hiking loops draw millions from around the world every year, with good reason(s), like resident condors, camping possibilities and Instagram gold. The High Peaks Trail’s rock stairs, carved in the 1920s, is something for the able-bodied to earmark.
More info: nps.gov
The one local drive to rival Highway 1 delivers hard-to-forget cliff curves, is-that-real beaches, densely forested coastline, iconic golf courses, the über-walkable Spanish Bay boardwalk, The Lone Cypress, Point Joe and another few waves of wonders where that came from. The bonus in Pebble Beach: Stopping by Spanish Bay’s gorgeous oceanview patios for drinks and the bagpiper at sunset. Pro tip: The $11.25 gate admission is refunded if you drop $35 there or other PB properties.
More info: pebblebeach.com/17-mile-drive
Scenic Road, Carmel-by-the-Sea
Locals vote this stretch of white sand best place for sunset and best place to walk the dog. It also qualifies as a contender for best spot to picnics, best destination for body-surfing, best location to play frisbee, and best locale for (yes) long walks on the beach. The by-the-Sea bonus: downtown and its 50ish restaurants, wine tasting rooms, cute shops and European feel sit a few blocks away.
More info: carmelcalifornia.com
8 miles east of Carmel-by-the-Sea
What was once a dusty cowboy outpost has blossomed into a full-blown wine-tasting universe. But there’s a lot more happening than the 25-plus vino rooms, many of which await within a 1,000 yard walk. Garland Ranch ranks among the top hiking destinations in the area. Bernardus Lodge drops award-winning spa, resort and culinary experiences. Folktale Winery attracts national touring acts across genres for live music in a gorgeous setting. The CV bonus: A pit stop at organic pioneers Earthbound Farms and neighboring Hacienda Carmel Valley and Baja Cantina merit the short, scenic and often sunny drive from Carmel by themselves.
More info: seemonterey.com
Monterey Bay Aquarium
886 Cannery Row, Monterey
The otters live up to the legend. The Giant Kelp Forest provides a meditation that’s both immediate and addictive. The special exhibits (like the current Into the Deep) would be worth a destination all their own. Plus there’s the epic (and historic) cannery architecture, education and Open Sea elements that add limitless wonder. The bonus with the Aquarium is the Cannery Row district it inhabits. Interesting food spots ranging from vegan (El Cantaro Mexican) to sugary (Rock N Roll Donut Bar) proliferate. Plazas and beaches, like adjacent Steinbeck Plaza and McAbee Beach, are a great addition to a day down by the bay.
More info: montereybayaquarium.org