Carmel and Monterey are neighbors with very different vibes. The charming seaside town of Carmel, packed with art, wine and history, feels downright European. Monterey, the more down-to-earth of the two, is known for its world-class aquarium and a history as one of California's most important cannery towns.
Check out: In Carmel, investigate the historic Carmel Mission, arguably the most stunning of California’s 21 Spanish-era missions or hike through Point Lobos State Reserve, where trails wind along the Pacific coast. Afterwards, relax at Refuge, a thermal spa featuring hot and cool pools, steam rooms, saunas and fire pits. In Monterey, don't miss the Monterey Bay Aquarium (886 Cannery Row; 831-648-4800 and the adjacent Cannery Row which features boutique shops and wine tastings alongside tidbits from the town's past. From November to February, see butterflies galore at The Monarch Sanctuary (250 Ridge Rd.; 831-648-3100).
Stay at: The Quail Lodge in Carmel, which completed a $28 million makeover in 2013, has updated rooms with hardwood floors, vaulted ceilings and cushy window seats (Pro-tip: Request a view of the lake). Rooms start at $175. In Monterey, the posh Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa dials up the wow factor with a dynamo waterfront setting—half of the hotel sits on stilts directly above the crystal-clear Monterey Bay. Rooms start at $275.
Eat: It doesn't get more fresh than seafood (we recommend the cioppino!) from the old-school joint, Monterey's Fish House. In downtown Carmel, Grasings (6th & Mission Sts, 831-624-6562) is a cozy, romantic spot for upscale fare like filet mignon and lobster. If you'd rather dine with a view, stop by the Cheese Shop and stake out a spot on Carmel Beach to watch the sunset.
Distance from SF: 2 hours