The Perfect Day Trip to Monterey from San Francisco

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by Maggie Turansky

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Planning a day trip to Monterey is one of the best things you could do if you’re spending an extended time in San Francisco.

This lovely bayside city on California’s beautiful central coast has a lot to offer visitors boasting everything from lovely natural scenery to a fascinating history spanning hundreds of years.

Though one could easily visit Monterey for a number of days — especially if using it as a base to explore Big Sur — planning a Monterey day trip is a great way to see this lovely city if you’re a bit short on time.

Getting to Monterey from San Francisco

By Car

In all honesty, if you want to go on a day trip independently, then you need to do it by car.

It will come as no surprise that though the San Francisco Bay Area is well-known for its decent public transit, this doesn’t translate as far down as the Central Coast to Monterey.

While you certainly do not need a car for your time in San Francisco, it can be worth renting one for a day or two. Monterey lies about 2 hours south of San Francisco driving, depending on the route.

If you want to go a more scenic way along the CA Highway 1 (also known as the Pacific Coast Highway or the PCH), then plan that to take you about 2.25-2.5 hours. It can be a good idea to take the PCH on the way to Monterey and take the quicker route along the US-101 Freeway.

If you need to hire a car, then we suggest using Rentalars.Com. This platform aggregates prices across many car rental companies ensuring that you get a great deal on a rental car.

Having a car for this day trip from San Francisco is also preferable as there are some stops on the itinerary that don’t lie within walking distance of each other and would be otherwise inaccessible without your own personal vehicle.

Santa Cruz - a stop on the way from San Francisco to Monterey
Santa Cruz – a stop on the way from San Francisco to Monterey

By Tour

If you want to go to Monterey but don’t drive — or simply don’t want to go through the hassle of renting a car and going there independently, then the best option for you is to go by organised tour.

There are a number of great day tours from San Francisco that take you all around the area and include the majority of the stops on this list (though not all!) so you can get a good feel for the city.

If you don’t want to spend an arm and a leg and want a reliable and convenient way to get to the Monterey area from San Francisco, then this guided tour or this guided tour are both great options.

All four tours have similar price points, offer pick-up and drop-off in San Francisco and take you to the highlights of Monterey (including an option to visit the aquarium at an additional charge), the 17-mile drive and Carmel-by-the Sea.

You can also organise a private tour though this will obviously come at a higher price.

By Train

Many will ask if it is possible to visit Monterey from San Francisco by the rail network. And while the short answer is yes, it is possible to take the train from San Francisco, in reality, it is not a good option for a day trip.

While there is a more defined rail network in the San Francisco Bay Area than in many areas of the United States, it doesn’t really extend to the Central Coast and that means that the train will take upwards of 5 hours on way — not great for a day trip!

Statue of famous writers in Monterey
Statue of famous writers in Monterey

Monterey Day Trip Itinerary

Now that we’ve covered all of the most pertinent information when it comes to getting to Monterey, we need to discuss what to actually do in Monterey.

I recommend trying to get as early a start leaving San Francisco as possible to ensure that you both beat traffic and potential tourist crowds and have as much time as possible to enjoy the lovely Monterey Bay.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

This is an optional stop, but one of the top attractions in Monterey is its world-famous aquarium and it is the absolute perfect place to begin your itinerary if you are willing to pay the high admission fee.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is well-known the world over for its innovative designs, incredible research and conservation work, if you’re at all interested in marine life, then you should definitely consider a visit to this incredible place.

Known for being the first aquarium to foster a living kelp forest, the first aquarium to effectively house and care for a Great White Shark and lauded for pioneering jellyfish animal husbandry, the biologists working for this aquarium are truly exceptional.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is also well known for its conservation efforts regarding sea otters (one of the highlight exhibits in the aquarium!) and many other great initiatives.

If you choose to visit the aquarium plan to spend at least 1-2 hours here, depending on just how interested you are in the marine life of Monterey Bay.

Jellyfish in Monterey Bay Aquarium
Jellyfish in Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Coastal Recreational Trail

After exploring the aquarium, or instead of going to the aquarium if you’re trying to cut the high cost of entry into the aquarium, take the time to enjoy Monterey Bay outside by strolling along the lovely Monterey Bay Coastal Recreational Trail.

You can walk along this lovely trail for as little or as long as you like, but no matter how long you spend, you’re sure to enjoy your time here.

This coastal, paved trail spans 18 miles (about 29 kilometres) from the town of Castroville to the north of Monterey to the community of Pacific Grove in the south. Winding its way along the waterfront, it will also take you by some of the top sites of the city.

Cannery Row & Old Fisherman’s Wharf

Two of the most iconic sites in Monterey are Cannery Row and the Old Fisherman’s Wharf. The former, located a stone’s throw from the Aquarium, is a historic area known for being home to now-closed sardine-canning factories.

It is also well-known for being the setting of the legendary John Steinbeck’s (a native to nearby Salinas, California) 1945 novel Cannery Row and 1954 sequel Sweet Thursday.

Incredibly historic and picturesque, make sure to take the time to stroll along here to see the beautiful waterfront and spot some otters and sea lions and maybe pop into one of the many shops that lie in this area.

A bit further north lies the Old Fisherman’s Wharf. Once an active fish market until the 1960s, it is not a tourist attraction that has plenty of seaside kitsch and cute shops that are sure to enchant the whole family.

You can take in some lovely views of the Bay from the wharf and make sure you get a few great photo opportunities from this iconic sight.

Cannery Row in Monterey
Cannery Row in Monterey

17-Mile Drive

Driving south from Cannery Row, it’s time to head out on what is considered to be one of the most scenic drives in the United States, the 17-mile drive in Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove.

This scenic route that winds its way through the Monterey Peninsula is very beautiful and lends to spectacular views of the dramatic seaside scenery.

You do have to pay to enter the 17-mile drive in Monterey (it costs $11.75 per vehicle), but it is very worth the cost.

There are countless places to stop off and enjoy the views, take some photos and try to spot some marine life. Depending on the season, you can see things like sea otters, sea lions and even whales off in the distance.

Viewpoint on the 17-mile drive in Monterey
Viewpoint on the 17-mile drive in Monterey

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary

From the 17-mile drive, head to a true hidden gem in Pacific Grove, the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. Depending on the season you’re visiting in, this is home to thousands of migratory monarch butterflies and if you happen to be fortunate enough to visit in the months of October-March (we were!), you will be able to see these beautiful insects in droves for yourself.

Entry into this area is free of charge.

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

If you haven’t had enough of the beautiful natural scenery that lies along Monterey Bay (and how could you!), then you need to stop and enjoy the gorgeous Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, just north of the beautiful town of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

This state park is filled with dramatic scenery beautiful seaside vistas and numerous walking trails that are great for whatever skill level you have. Whether you simply want to take a gentle stroll to enjoy more beautiful views or would rather take the time to go on a proper hike, this state park offers it all.

Entry into the park is $10 per vehicle.

Sunset at Point Lobos State Reserve in Carmel
Sunset at Point Lobos State Reserve in Carmel

Explore Carmel-by-the-Sea

From Point Lobos, continue south until you reach the postcard-perfect town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Known to be the slightly more upscale sister of Monterey, Carmel is identified by its quaint atmosphere, cobbled streets, cute shops and its former mayor (actor Clint Eastwood).

Take the time to wander through this lovely little town and explore the beautiful side streets and cute shops. There are lots of nice places to pop in and see in Carmel and you’re sure to be charmed by this lovely little city.

One quirky thing about Carmel-by-the-Sea is that it is actually illegal to wear high-heeled shoes (over two inches in height) in this town!

While, in practice, you are unlikely to receive any legal repercussions if you make the mistake of wearing heels on your day trip to Monterey, this is actually to make the residents and visitors safer because of the propensity for sprained ankles on the cobbled streets.

Wine Tasting in Carmel

As your Monterey day trip draws to a close, wind down by doing some local wine tastings in Carmel. Carmel is home to countless tasting rooms for local wineries and you can get a tasting flight for relatively affordable prices.

And, if you’re driving, it is entirely possible to share one tasting flight between two people to ensure that you don’t drink too much.

While there are lots of tasting rooms to choose from, we suggest heading to Scratch Wines if you want to support a female winemaker or, if you’re a fan of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, head to Albatross Ridge – they literally only have wines from these two grapes and it’s fascinating how much of a difference there is between each vintage. You can also take a food and wine tasting tour if you have time.

Wine tasting at Albatross Ridge
Wine tasting at Albatross Ridge

Watch the Sunset at Carmel Beach

After your wine tasting, take the time to sober up a bit (or simply enjoy a bit more fresh, seaside air) by watching the sunset at the lovely Carmel Beach.

A romantic spot to end your day, you’re sure to enjoy the lovely scenery while watching the surfers try to catch their final waves before the sun sinks below the horizon.

If you’re heading back to San Francisco, expect about a 2-hour drive along the CA-101 N.

Have More Time?

If you are planning more than one day in Monterey, then there are lots of options available to you. For instance, you could take one day to head south and explore the incredible Big Sur region, famous for its stunning vistas and beautiful natural scenery. There are few places on the west coast more gorgeous.

You could also head out onto the water and maybe go on a whale watching tour! There is a possibility to see Humpback, Blue and even Orca whales throughout the year and you always stand the chance to enjoy seeing some dolphins basking in their natural habitat.

You could also head inland and maybe visit the wineries in the Carmel Valley or explore the city of Salinas, known to be the hometown of legendary American writer John Steinbeck.

There are lots of options if you have more than one day in Monterey to spend and you’re sure to find something worth doing that will keep you occupied!

Viewpoint from a coastal walk at Big Sur
Viewpoint from a coastal walk at Big Sur

Where to Stay in Monterey

Pacific Inn Monterey – This cool motel is situated close to the local Monterey airport and is an excellent budget option in the city. They have clean and well-equipped rooms available and a great location to act as a jumping-off point to explore the area.

The Stevenson Monterey – This mid-range hotel has chic and comfortable rooms with lots of options available. Ideally located close to all of Monterey’s top attractions, there is also a great continental breakfast included each morning.

InterContinental The Clement Monterey – If budget isn’t an issue and you would like to visit Monterey in style, then make sure to have a look at this luxury hotel. Situated directly on the dramatic Pacific Coast and within a stone’s throw from the top attractions in this Monterey itinerary, the rooms are modern, plush and comfortable.

Private Rental – If you’re looking for a bit more privacy or would like to have a unique place to stay in Monterey, then a private rental is an excellent option. There are countless properties to choose from ranging from this quaint private home or this large, beautiful house within easy reach of everything.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other options in Monterey!

Sunset in Carmel, California near Monterey
Sunset in Carmel, California near Monterey

Planning the perfect day trip to Monterey from San Francisco is not a difficult task as there is so much to offer in the city and its surrounding area. Though one day is a short amount of time, you can pack a lot into the timeframe and enjoy yourself and the city to the fullest if you follow this itinerary!

Are you planning a trip to Monterey County? Have any questions about visiting? Let us know in the comments!

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Maggie is a co-founder and writer for The World Was Here First. Originally from the US, she has lived in five different countries and has travelled to dozens more, both solo and with her partner, Michael. She particularly loves exploring Spain and spending time in the Caucasus and the Baltics. Read more about Maggie

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