Big Sur vs Monterey: Which California Coastal Destination is Right for Your Next Road Trip?

Written by Chanel Coetzee
Published: July 3, 2023
Share on:


Driving from Monterey to Big Sur will take around 45 minutes and covers 28 miles. Some of the cities you will find along the way include Santa Cruz, Pacific Grove, and Carmel. However, Santa Cruz is the most popular city on this route and is just one hour from Big Sur and less than an hour from Monterey. In addition, some of the most popular stops along the way include Monterey Bay Aquarium, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and 17 Mile Drive. This scenic drive also includes Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Blue Ocean Whale Watching, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. But which destination is better, Big Sur Vs. Monterey?

Big Sur is considered one of the most magical places to visit in the United States, with its beautiful scenery, pristine beaches, and exquisite nature. On the other hand, Monterey is just as popular, with its coastal scenery and many wonderful restaurants.

Top Attractions and Activities in Big Sur

Big Sur offers more than 90 miles of Pacific coastline, with the St. Lucia Mountain Range to the east and a variety of options for nature lovers. In addition, visitors can hike Manuel Peak at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which is 3,379 feet tall, take a stroll at Sand Dollar Beach, walk through some of the oldest redwood groves at Limekiln State Park, and take some incredible photographs at Keyhole Arch Rock at Pfeiffer Beach. The Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, named after one of Big Sur’s pioneers, is a firm favorite among tourists. It boasts many trails leading to tucked-away coves and waterfalls, taking guests through magnificent redwood forests. Also, it is one of the few areas in Big Sur where scuba diving is allowed.

Another sought-after attraction and the most traveled path is the Waterfall Overlook trail. This trail is less than a mile long but ends at McWay Falls, known for its beauty and sightings of migrating gray whales between December and February. Then there is Andrew Molera Park, named after the man who brought the artichoke to California. This 4,800-acre park is the largest in Big Sur and boasts many hiking trails. Also, visitors can bike and experience horseback riding. Some of the trails which can be found in Andrew Molera Park include:

  • The Bluffs Trail
  • Panorama Trail
  • Ridge Trail
  • Molera Loop

Pfeiffer Beach is also a must-see, secluded with towering bluffs and striking rock formations. The most famous one is Pfeiffer Keyhole Rock, the most photographed attraction in Big Sur. Lastly, Sand Dollar Beach is a wonderful place to relax and enjoy nature. Named after the many sand dollars that wash up on shore, many people spend their time there beachcombing. So, when it comes to Big Sur Vs. Monterey, Big Sur has a lot of outdoor activities for tourists to enjoy.

Bixby Creek Bridge on Highway 1 at the US West Coast traveling south to Los Angeles, Big Sur Area, California

Bixby Creek Bridge on Highway 1 at the US West Coast traveling south to Los Angeles, Big Sur Area, California.

Image: Zhukova Valentyna, Shutterstock

©Zhukova Valentyna/

Best Places to Eat and Drink in Monterey


Monterey has a little bit of everything, including underwater sea escapes, scuba diving, and snorkeling.

©Robert Campbell / CC BY-SA 3.0 – License

When comparing Big Sur vs. Monterey, they both have their own special attractions. Monterey has a little bit of everything, including underwater sea escapes, scuba diving, and snorkeling. Also, there is a historic wharf, boardwalk, and canneries, and nearby you will find a 17-Mile drive, one of California’s most scenic drives. However, Monterey also boasts some fantastic restaurants, which we will explore further.


This romantic restaurant will dazzle you with fish sculptures and chandeliers that look like streams of bubbles. When sitting there, you are reminded of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. However, their seafood menu is known for being sustainably sourced and creative. You can order dishes like mussels in a bacon-fennel broth and scallops with caper-walnut relish.

Jeninni Kitchen and Wine Bar

At Jeninni, it is all about Mediterranean food, and going in a big group is a good idea so that you can order many small plates and split them. The big windows bring in loads of natural light and ensure a lovely warm atmosphere. In addition, there is an outdoor patio that can be enjoyed on warmer evenings. On the menu, you will find things like Greek lamb shank with tzatziki and olive-herb salad, Turkish fried eggplant with urfa biber, and French cod and shellfish stew with saffron broth.

Mezzaluna Pasteria and Mozzarella Bar

This interesting dinner-only restaurant makes its own pasta, gelato, and mozzarella. Also, as a bonus, it is pet friendly. However, they are very busy, and a reservation should be made well in advance. Some of their most popular dishes include seasonal pasta such as mushroom agnolotti and corn and ricotta ravioli. However, their standout dish is the tre mozzarella (a mix of fior di latte, burrata, and buffalo).

Bistro Moulin

This bistro is one block away from the bustling Cannery Row. It is perfect for date night or dinner with the family. After dinner, treats include profiteroles stuffed with ice cream and smothered in Belgian chocolate. Other menu items include French onion soup with melted gruyere. Also, a must-try is the seared duck breasts with caramelized peaches. Lastly, the moules frites are out of this world. They come with perfectly cooked mussels and a sauvignon blanc and shallot sauce.

Whaling Station Steakhouse

This restaurant has an old-school atmosphere that boasts dim lightning and burgundy tablecloths. The Whaling Station Steakhouse is the go-to steakhouse in Monterey. In addition, they serve their dry-aged steaks on a platter for you to choose before it is cooked. However, they also have a fantastic beef Wellington on their menu, prime rib with Yorkshire pudding, and a side of horseradish cream.

Hiking and Nature Walks in Big Sur

Big Sur offers a variety of fabulous hiking trails and nature walks. Some of these include:

  • Salmon Creek Trail: a popular short hike. It is just a quarter-mile round-trip hike from Highway 1. It starts at Highway 1 and ends just short of Ragged Point. Also, it boasts a beautiful 120-foot waterfall.
  • Pacific Valley Bluff Trail is a 1.6-mile loop just a few miles north of Gorda. It provides panoramic beach, ocean, and bluff views. In addition, you will find unique plant life and lots of wildflowers. The Pacific Valley Bluff Trail starts at the Pacific Valley Ranger Station, which is found across the road from Sand Dollar Beach.
  • Ragged Point Cliffside Trail: this trail is only recommended for adventurous hikers. It starts behind the Portal to Big Sur sculpture. In addition, it provides amazing mountain and ocean views, including the Black Swift Falls and a black sand beach.
  • McWay Waterfall Trail: from this trail, you can see an 80-foot fall that drops straight onto the beach. This is one of the most famous attractions of Big Sur. Also, it is moderately easy and offers wonderful redwood, ocean, and canyon views. The McWay Waterfall Trail is about half a mile long and begins at Julia Burns State Park.
  • Pfeiffer Falls/Valley View Trails: beautiful redwood trees and big wildflowers can be spotted on this trail. Additionally, there is a magnificent waterfall on this trail too. It eventually splits into two, and you can decide whether to go to Pfeiffer Falls or Valley View Trails.

Big Sur Vs. Monterey: Scenic Drives in Both Locations

Big Sur Vs. Monterey both offers fantastic scenic drives that vary from well-known to not-so-well-known. One of the best ones is Highway 1. This drive is one of the most popular in Monterey County as well as one of the top scenic drives in the world. In addition, it includes attractions such as the flat wetlands of Elkhorn, the working fishing port of Moss Landing, artichoke fields, cypress forests, and the coastline of Carmel Highlands. The 17-Mile drive is another scenic route boasting lovely beaches, wildlife, and the Lodge at Pebble Beach. This drive was originally a carriage road for guests at Monterey’s Hotel del Montes in the early 1880s.

Another wonderful drive is the Carmel Valley Scenic Drive. This windy road goes through the up-and-coming Carmel Valley wine region as well as past cattle ranches. Although Monterey’s coastal views are sought after, this drive takes you through a different kind of beauty, giving you views of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Lastly, River Road Scenic Drive is a wine lover’s dream. This route is also a wonderful scenic drive and will get you close to Pinnacles National Park.

So, which destination is better, Big Sur Vs. Monterey? Well, both places have a lot to offer. It really depends on the person, each to their own. Therefore, you should visit each destination and explore.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Zhukova Valentyna/

Share on:
About the Author

Chanel Coetzee is a writer at A-Z Animals, primarily focusing on big cats, dogs, and travel. Chanel has been writing and researching about animals for over 10 years. She has also worked closely with big cats like lions, cheetahs, leopards, and tigers at a rescue and rehabilitation center in South Africa since 2009. As a resident of Cape Town, South Africa, Chanel enjoys beach walks with her Stafford bull terrier and traveling off the beaten path.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.