The Monterey of today is a travel destination like no other. Once considered the “Sardine Capital of the World,” the city adapted in the 1950s when its economy collapsed due to overfishing. It became a haven for outdoor adventures, wildlife sightseeing, and fine wining and dining.
Throughout the year, Monterey’s weather is generally mild, with the hottest portion of the year usually being in September and the coldest being in December. With a climate like that, there’s never a bad time to visit for a 3-day Monterey vacation.
But one of the best times to come to Monterey is for its world-famous jazz festival. The Monterey Jazz Festival is the longest-continuously-running jazz festival in the world, and it typically arrives every September.
Held at the 10-acre Monterey County Fairgrounds, this festival boasts more than 50 artists performing across four stages, as well as a diverse array of local foods and wines. With this event happening over a long weekend, you may just end up spending your entire weekend trip to Monterey here!
Whether you’re visiting during the festival or not, there’s so much to do in and around Monterey that you may not know where to start when building your Monterey itinerary. So, we’ve put together a plan for you, complete with dining options, amazing activities, and gorgeous sightseeing. If you stick with these recommendations, you’re bound to have a fantastic time during your 3-day weekend in Monterey!
If you’re still deciding where to stay then make sure to check out our article on the best boutique hotels in Monterey!
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How to Spend a Weekend in Monterey, California
Getting Around Monterey
When you come for a 3-day trip to Monterey, you have two options for flying in. Monterey has its own airport, the Monterey Regional Airport, which reaches over 95 destinations around the world. However, most of these destinations require at least one layover. If you would prefer a direct flight, you may instead decide to fly into San Jose International Airport.
If you do fly into San Jose, you should expect to have to travel an hour or more to reach Monterey after you land. But if you fly into Monterey Regional Airport, you may be as little as a few minutes away from your hotel. Whether or not the additional hour of travel is worth not having a layover is up to your own preference.
Especially if you fly into San Jose, consider renting a car. The Monterey area does have a bus system called the Monterey-Salinas Transit (MST) JAZZ. The bus system will help you get to many of the area’s top attractions, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Still, you may have trouble getting to some of the beautiful outdoor locations that Monterey has to offer.
Monterey Weekend Itinerary – Day 1
The Monterey area boasts plenty of great breakfast options, but a local favorite is First Awakenings. This restaurant features both indoor and outdoor dining and is an especially wonderful spot for families.
In fact, First Awakenings has a room where families with little kids can sit and be more comfortable, so parents don’t have to worry about little ones making too much noise. From cinnamon bread French toast to homemade corned beef hash, you can’t go wrong with anything on this huge menu.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
From First Awakenings, you can walk over to Cannery Row, Monterey’s premier shopping and entertainment area, and head to the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. If you’re spending a long weekend in Monterey, you just can’t skip this incredible spot.
It’s easy to spend an entire day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Here you’ll find the otherworldly bigfin reef squid, the adorable flapjack octopus, the ever-playful puffin, and so much more. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is known for its history of helping the otter population, which once almost disappeared from the Monterey area.
While you watch otters playing at the aquarium, behind the scenes, surrogate otter moms are helping to teach baby otters who were separated from their mothers at sea how to take care of themselves and get ready to be released into the wild. You can learn more about the Sea Otter Program by watching Luna’s story at the Monterey Bay Aquarium theater, which also shows other beautiful and educational films throughout the day.
Adults and kids alike love a day at the aquarium, and parents especially love seeing the looks of wonder on their children’s faces while they explore the coral reef, the deep sea, and many more habitats. Kids can learn more at multiple touch tanks, as well as several interactive exhibits that make science lessons fun.
The aquarium also offers a place to grab a bite to eat with beautiful views of the bay. But if you don’t want to eat there, you can always head to one of the many restaurants on Cannery Row for lunch before going back to the aquarium for an afternoon of more exploration and fun.
Monterey’s Tasty Olive Bar
After you leave the Monterey Bay Aquarium, stay on Cannery Row for an evening of fine dining and unique shopping. Over at Monterey’s Tasty Olive Bar, you can taste test olive oils and buy cooking supplies that make every dish incredible.
Fine Art Turkish Grand Bazaar
Fine Art Turkish Grand Bazaar offers prismatic and perfect home decor items that really light up a room. And for even more family fun, you can head to Oscar’s Playground for escape rooms, virtual reality, and classic arcade games.
Once you’re ready to take a break and relax for dinner, head to Lalla Oceanside Grill for locally-sourced seafood, handcrafted pasta, and delicious drinks with one heck of a view. You can sit by the window or grab a booth on a raised platform because anywhere you sit, you’ll be able to see a panorama of Monterey Bay. Monterey is known for its seafood, so be sure to treat yourself to some while you visit. The seafood risotto at Lalla is one of our favorites!
Then, end your day with a sweet treat. Rock N Roll Donut Bar specializes in over-the-top donuts that could be a meal all on their own. Although they have seasonal treats that you should definitely check out, some of our favorite year-round options include the Mermaid, the Cookie Monster, and the Blackberry Cream Cheese Filled.
Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop
If you’re feeling like ice cream instead, head to Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop, where they turn their world-famous chocolate into delicious hot fudge for one-of-a-kind sundaes.
Monterey Weekend Itinerary – Day 2
When you start the second day of your 3-day Monterey vacation, you should head to Loulou’s Griddle in the Middle, a local favorite that was made famous thanks to its appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Located on the Municipal Wharf, this unassuming breakfast spot boasts one of the best breakfasts in Monterey.
Be sure to arrive early, as you should generally expect a wait here. However, you can always take a morning stroll on the beach while you wait for your table to be called.
At Loulou’s, the crab cakes and eggs is one of our favorite choices, but the cafe is mostly known for its hubcap griddle cakes. These massive pancakes are so big that the restaurant can only cook one on the griddle at a time!
They’re bigger than your whole plate, so there’s a reason why they only serve one pancake instead of a full stack. The chocolate hubcap cake is our personal favorite, which is filled with so many sweet chocolate chips, you can skip the syrup.
Old Fisherman’s Wharf
Once you’re done eating, it’s time to head out on the water. Take a short stroll over to Old Fisherman’s Wharf, which offers an incredible chance to find whales. Old Fisherman’s Wharf has several whale-watching tours available, and each ventures out at different times throughout the day.
You can’t go wrong with any of these tour boats, so pick the one that works best for you. Some tours are six hours long, while others are much shorter. If you’re with young kids, you may want to consider picking a shorter tour, as six hours may be a lot for them out on the water.
From orcas to gray whales to blue whales, these tours are always spotting whales out on the water. The tour companies typically list what’s already been spotted that day, so check the board to see if your favorite whale has been nearby on the day of your visit.
Different whales have different migration patterns and periods, so you may be more likely to spot certain whales depending on the time of year you visit. The best time to find blue whales is in July and August, while the best times to see orcas are from April to May and again from August to October.
Once you’re done with your tour, stay on Old Fisherman’s Wharf for a delicious lunch. Although there are tons of restaurants on this wharf, our favorite is Paluca Trattoria, where you’ll find classic Italian fare with locally-sourced seafood. We love the lobster ravioli and the short rib ravioli, but you can’t go wrong with anything on this upscale menu.
Depending on your tour length, you may have time for more activities on the second day of your 3-day trip to Monterey. If you’re feeling adventurous, it’s time to get out on the water yourself by renting a kayak. The best time to kayak is typically in the early morning or late afternoon, as it’s usually windier in the middle of the day.
But regardless of what time of day you go, you should consider a guided tour rather than just renting a boat if you’re new to kayaking. You’ll likely find many critters out in the water on your journey, from otters to sea lions to dolphins.
Monterey Bay Kayaks
To ensure you’re respecting their habitat, a trained professional guide can help you maneuver around the water. Monterey Bay Kayaks offers several 90-minute tours throughout the day, giving you plenty of time to explore and see the beauty of the bay.
Dust Bowl Brewing Co. Tap Depot
When you get back to dry land, you’ll be right near the Dust Bowl Brewing Co. Tap Depot. Here you can grab a drink either in the cozy indoor tap room with comfy couches and mood lighting or in the outdoor area with twinkling string lights and a fire pit. This location also partners with Wedo’s Tacos, so you can snack on nachos and tacos while you sip your drink and end your night drinking local brews under the stars.
Monterey Weekend Itinerary – Day 3
The Butter House
Before you end your weekend trip to Monterey, you should head to nearby Seaside for a breakfast option like no other. The Butter House mixes traditional Filipino cuisine with classic American breakfast fare.
Dine on hand-rolled lumpia and breakfast fried rice, or go for a sweeter option with chocolate banana bread French toast. If you still have room, order a homemade cinnamon roll, but keep in mind you’ll need at least four people to finish off this monstrously big sweet treat.
Once you’re done with your breakfast, visit nearby Pacific Grove to start your journey on 17-Mile Drive. This famously scenic drive takes you in and around the Monterey area and brings you to several of the most beautiful places you’ll find on the coast.
You can choose to drive a car on this journey, which will cost you $11.25 per vehicle. But if you’re interested in getting a little exercise, you can also choose to bike it instead, which is free. Since there’s limited parking at each spot on 17-Mile Drive, biking may make your trip easier, in addition to being less expensive.
On 17-Mile Drive, you’ll see the turbulent waves at the Restless Sea, the sea lions perching on Bird Rock, the haunting Ghost Trees at Pescadero Point, and much more. The drive will take you into Pebble Beach, known for its world-famous golf course and beautiful coastal views.
While you’re here, grab a table for lunch at The Bench, an upscale dining spot that overlooks the golf course’s iconic 18th hole. This restaurant is particularly known for its eclectic cocktail menu, so be sure to grab a drink while you’re there.
Monarch Grove Sanctuary
After you’re done with lunch, your next stop depends on the time of year you’re visiting Monterey. If you’re visiting between October and March, you should stay in Pacific Grove and go to the Monarch Grove Sanctuary. Pacific Grove received the nickname “Butterfly Town, USA” due to the fact that thousands of monarchs cluster here in the grove’s trees each year.
The best time to see these beauties is between November and January. If you visit the grove in the afternoon, you’re more likely to see the monarchs flying around, while you’re more likely to see them clustering in trees in the morning when it’s colder.
If you stayed in Pacific Grove to see the butterflies, you should grab dinner at FishWife, a local favorite seafood spot. We recommend trying a Fisherman’s Bowl, all of which have rice, black beans, seasonal vegetables, and Caribbean cabbage in a ginger sesame sauce.
We especially love the Baja Fisherman’s Bowl, with snow crab, bay shrimp, and bay scallops. Don’t forget to grab one of their signature drinks. Our favorite is the FishWife’s Mule, with ginger beer and Absolut vodka.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
If you’re visiting Monterey outside of October to March, you should head to nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea to see Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Here you can hike the Point Lobos Loop Trail, explore the emerald waters of China Cove, or find beautiful creatures in the tidepools.
If you’re a scuba diver, Point Lobos is a can’t-miss spot. There are several dive locations here that allow you to explore the giant kelp forests and coral reefs. Especially during the summer, Point Lobos often has limited parking, so you may want to consider Ubering or riding a bike to get here.
Folktale Winery & Vineyards
If you decide to go to Carmel-by-the-Sea to see Point Lobos, take a quick ride over to Folktale Winery & Vineyards. Nestled atop 15 acres of sustainably-farmed vineyards and gardens, this idyllic setting is a perfect place to end your 3-day Monterey vacation.
Head to the Wine Garden to have a meal tailored to the California seasons that perfectly pairs with Folktale’s wine selections. Walk-ins are not allowed, so be sure to book your table in advance!
More places to eat and drink in Monterey
Enjoy brews and pub grub at Alvarado Street Brewery:
Alvarado Street Brewery, located on Alvarado Street, is a cozy brewpub with a rotating menu of beers on tap, as well as seasonal treats, fruited sours, and specialty cocktails. You’ll also find stone oven pizzas, burgers, and more classic brewpub fare.
Get cozy at Estéban Restaurant:
Take in ocean views from Coastal Kitchen:
What to do if you have more than 3 days in Monterey
Take a drive out to Big Sur:
Here you can photograph the iconic Bixby Bridge, see the 80-foot McWay Falls, or explore the Henry Miller Library. You can also take a guided walking tour of the famous Point Sur Lighthouse.
Tee off at Pebble Beach:
If you’re a golf fan, getting a tee time at Pebble Beach is a must-do. The Pebble Beach Golf Links is considered the No. 1 public golf course in the country. The 18 holes were designed with the help of world-renowned golfer Jack Nicklaus and feature incredible views of the Pacific.
Get out on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail:
Located where the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks once ran, this trail runs 18 miles, going from Castroville in the north to Pacific Grove in the south. It boasts beautiful views of the bay. You can walk it, or you can rent bikes, surreys, and even in-line skates from businesses along it.
Explore El Estero Park Complex in Downtown Monterey:
This complex includes a dance studio, an exercise course, and a skate park, as well as Dennis the Menace Playground. This playground was designed with the help of Hank Ketcham, the creator of Dennis the Menace and a resident of nearby Carmel. The park complex also contains Lake El Estero, where you can take a paddleboat designed as a swan or rubber ducky out on the water.
Take in a show at the Golden State Theatre:
This 15,000-square-foot live performance venue, located in Old Monterey, has been entertaining locals and visitors alike since 1926. Here you’ll find stand-up showcases, concerts, and film festivals. No matter when you visit, there’s bound to be a show playing here.
We hope you enjoy your weekend trip to Monterey, California! Should we add something else to our 3-day Monterey itinerary? Let us know in the comments.
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