Our guide to the essential places to see and things to do that make this slice of California so special.

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When you think of the Northern California coast, chances are the images that come to mind are something like this: long, sandy coves fringed with deep-green cypress trees; craggy, rocky cliffs with waves crashing below; road trip–ready highways along the Pacific, dotted with sprawling golf resorts with destination restaurants. All of those things come to life on the Monterey Peninsula, home to Pebble Beach and Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Although it's a relatively small area with a combined population of around 13,000, the towns offer more than enough to fill up several weekend trips, with a thriving downtown district, miles of beachfront, and some of the most highly ranked hotels in the country.

Here, our guide to the essential places to see and things to do that make this slice of California so special.

Where to Stay

Inn at Spanish Bay

A bagpiper playing on a golf course
Credit: Sherman Chu/Courtesy of Inn at Spanish Bay
Hole 1 at Links at Spanish Bay Inn with the ocean in the background
Credit: Courtesy of Inn at Spanish Bay
Firepits in the evening at Inn at Spanish Bay
Credit: Joann Dost/Courtesy of Inn at Spanish Bay

Travel + Leisure readers loved this hotel so much, it wound up on this year's World's Best Awards list for the Top Resorts in California. Situated on 18-hole golf course The Links at Spanish Bay, the property has the feel of a Scottish lodge — especially when the ocean mist rolls in at cocktail hour as the resident bagpipe player (in full Highland dress) performs on the green. Its rooms, meanwhile, have a light, neutral design that compliments the natural surroundings, and each one — no matter the category — comes with a gas fireplace. The main restaurant, Roy's, is an area favorite for its take on Hawaiian-fusion cuisine. 

Where to Eat

Grasings

In the heart of Carmel-by-the-Sea's charming downtown area, Grasings is known for their award-winning wine list and hearty twists on classic dishes like the pan-seared, sesame-glazed salmon with whole wheat soba noodles and grilled swordfish with balsamic lentils and bacon-infused potatoes. On warmer evenings, reserve a table on the patio for some excellent streetside people-watching.

Carmel Grill House

Inspired by the countries of the Mediterranean, the menu at Carmel Grill House offers dishes that include a seafood pasta with mussels, scallops, and shrimp in a San Marzano tomato sauce, and a white truffle risotto — served in a cozy dining room reminiscent of a trattoria in Tuscany.

Enzo Ristorante

Another Carmel-by-the-Sea standout, Enzo is a contemporary Italian spot that offers bougainvillea-lined patio seating outdoors, or, if the weather is too chilly, a fireplace-warmed dining room, where guests order plates of homemade gnocchi, lasagna, and ravioli. There are also flatbread pizzas, including the Calabrese, with anchovies, capers, olives, and peperoncino.

What to Do

Pebble Beach Golf Links

Golf and Pebble Beach are synonymous, and for the diehard player, Pebble Beach Golf Links is the pinnacle when it comes to public courses (Golf Digest ranks it #1). It has hosted six U.S. Opens (more than any other course in the past five decades) and is set to host its seventh in 2027. While booking reservations for a round can be a challenge, hotel guests at The Lodge at Pebble Beach, The Inn at Spanish Bay, and Casa Palmero receive special privileges. 

17-Mile Drive

17 Mile drive along the coastline in Pebble Beach
Credit: Courtesy of Pebble Beach Company

Although Pebble Beach and Carmel are strongly associated with golf, there is plenty for non-golfers, too. One of the most iconic stretches of road in California, for instance, can be found here on what's known as 17-Mile Drive, which traces most of the coastal Monterey Peninsula. Highlights along the way include the Lone Cypress, a 250-year-old tree that's become the symbol of Pebble Beach, as well as Bird Rock, a hangout for sea lions and pelicans.

Carmel Mission Basilica Museum

In 1797, this Roman Catholic church was built in the Carmel Valley by the Spanish missionaries who settled in California during the 18th century. It remains as one of the best examples of its kind (it's the only mission in the state with its original bell tower) and offers a valuable glimpse into the history of California under Spanish colonial rule and later, Mexico. 

Monterey Classic Car Week and Concours d'Elegance

Best of show winner for the 2021 PEBBLE BEACH CONCOURS D’ELEGANCE® with yellow confetti
Credit: Courtesy of Rolex
People walk around at The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering
Credit: Courtesy of Rolex

For fans of vintage cars, there is probably no greater event in the country than the week of automotive happenings that take place every summer on the peninsula. Sponsored largely by Rolex, the schedule of events includes The Quail, a Motorsports Gathering (a garden party–like setting at Quail Lodge & Golf Club that shows off both cars and motorcycles); and the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion held at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, where about 550 vintage cars participate in races and awards for categories like craftsmanship and paddock display. 

The crowning event (and the most formal) during Car Week is the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. Held on the Pebble Beach Golf Links, it's a gathering of the world's finest examples of vintage automobiles, many of which date back to the 1920s, and some of which are worth millions. The event culminates in a best-of-show winner, and past champions have included Ralph Lauren (for his 1930 Mercedes Benz). Next year, Monterey Car Week takes place Aug. 12 to 21, and remains one of the busiest weeks on the peninsula. In other words: start planning now.