Trying to decide where to stay in Big Sur isn’t easy. Big Sur is a section of California’s coastline known for its rugged beauty and state park, but the surrounding area offers a wide selection of places to stay.
Why You Should Visit Big Sur in 2023
Big Sur extends 71 miles along California State Route 1. It’s the longest stretch of the US coastline with no major man-made structures. You can enjoy the beauty of the region without distractions such as residential and commercial developments.
Big Sur is a popular scenic detour for those driving between Los Angeles and San Francisco and is home to several campgrounds and state parks. Unfortunately, the coastal region around Big Sur doesn’t offer a variety of accommodations.
If you plan on staying at a hotel or motel in Big Sur, you’ll need to explore some of the cities and villages in the surrounding area.
From Monterey and Carmel in the north to Cambria in the south, you can enjoy small communities with gorgeous scenery and unique attractions. You can stay just north or south of Big Sur before or after exploring the coastline.
The 5 Main Parts of Town
Big Sur has many parks and campgrounds, but hotels and lodges are mostly found in neighboring cities, villages, and towns. Some of the most popular areas to stay in and around Big Sur include:
- Monterey: Best for water activities
- Carmel-by-the-Sea: Best for quiet streets and boutique shopping
- Carmel Valley: Best for wine tours and family getaways
- Salinas Valley: Best for entertainment and shopping
- Cambria: Best for hiking and surfing
The Best Areas & Hotels in Big Sur
Before planning a trip to Big Sur, you should decide where you want to sleep. Take a moment to discover the best places to stay in Big Sur and the surrounding area.
Monterey is a city and county on California’s coast. It’s just north of Big Sur and offers more things to do and see compared to some of the other areas.
Monterey was once the sardine-packing capital of the US. Today, the old factories that line Cannery Row house a wide range of restaurants, gift shops, boutiques, and bars.
You can easily spend a day exploring the main commercial strip of Monterey before heading out on Route 1 to see the rest of Big Sur. The center of town also includes the Monterey State Historic Park, which is a collection of historic buildings and houses that date back to the 1800s.
If you’re traveling with kids, make sure to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium holds dozens of aquatic species and touch pools where you can put your hand in and touch ocean animals.
The coastline of Monterey includes a peninsula with a variety of attractions for visitors of all ages. Along with the aquarium, the area includes several parks and more restaurants and shops with views of the sea. You can also find a few vantage points for getting a better view of the coastline.
The peninsula includes a beach and access to various rentals. Rent a boat or kayak and explore the surrounding waters.
Things to Do
- Pet sea animals at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is home to over 35,000 animals and over 550 species.
- View the assorted heritage homes in the Monterey State Historic Park, including the Larkin House, which was the first two-floor house built in California.
- Shop, eat, sleep, and explore Cannery Row.
- Swim or rent a kayak at Lovers Point Park and beach in the Monterey Bay peninsula.
Where to Eat
- Enjoy tasty tacos, breakfast burritos, and other Mexican staples at Dos Victorias Mexican Food near Lovers Point Park.
- Chopstix Vietnamese Restaurant serves a variety of noodle soups, sandwiches, and teas.
- If you just want a cheap burger, visit In-N-Out Burger next to Laguna Grande Regional Park.
- Michelle’s Soul Food Kitchen is the best spot for fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and catfish.
- Ramada by Wyndham Monterey. The best budget hotels in Monterey are still a little pricey but include convenient access to the city. This hotel is a short walk from the aquarium and the Bay Area.
- Colton Inn. The accommodations are a little small but stylish. The hotel is near Pebble Beach and has its own dry sauna and sun terrace.
- Monterey Bay Lodge. Located in downtown Monterey, this lodge is just down the street from Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s also a few steps away from the beach.
- Portola Hotel & Spa. This hotel is a little pricey for a mid-range option but offers a great value for a downtown location. You’re within walking distance of the main commercial strip.
- Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa. This hotel and spa is one of the top-rated hotels in Monterey. It’s right next to Cannery Row and offers amazing views of the bay.
- Monterey Marriott. This large hotel is in the downtown area and a short distance from Cannery Row and the wharf. It also has an on-site restaurant and bar.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is directly below the Monterey Peninsula. It’s the northern gateway to the Big Sur region and a little less touristy compared to Monterey.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a charming village filled with small cottages and a central village square with cafes and restaurants. The village is only one square mile in size and includes many old buildings and homes.
The older architecture gives the village a unique fairytale quality. Along with appreciating the unique atmosphere, you can spend time visiting the local galleries and museums.
The Carmel Mission Basilica is a popular museum and former Roman Catholic mission church. It was first built in 1797 and was carefully restored to showcase the era’s architecture. The museum has several interesting relics, including old statues and religious items.
The village also has two separate beaches. Carmel Beach is the main public beach. It has white sands and a variety of cafes and small restaurants.
Carmel River State Beach is further south and typically less crowded. It’s a favorite spot for bird watchers and scuba divers. The mouth of Carmel River often attracts pelicans, seagulls, and other species of birds.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is great for those visiting Big Sur from the north and those who want to get away from the typical tourist traps. It also offers access to a beach but doesn’t have a lot of shops or bars.
Things to Do
- View historical artifacts at the Carmel Mission Basilica, which is near the center of the village.
- Spend the day on the beach with a trip to Carmel Beach or Carmel River State Beach.
- Search for unique little shops and galleries hidden among the old cottages and buildings in the center of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
- Start your drive down Highway 1 to view the Big Sur coastline.
Where to Eat
- The Crossroads BBQ offers delicious BBQ ribs at great prices.
- RG Burgers is across from Crossroads BBQ. Choose from a variety of specialty burgers with sweet potato fries and milkshakes.
- If you’re in the mood for Mandarin, Hunan, or Szechuan dishes, visit Tommy’s Wok. It’s just a few blocks from Carmel Beach.
- Svendsgaard’s Inn. Affordable inn near the center of the village. Includes surprisingly luxurious rooms for a low-cost hotel. It’s also just a seven-minute walk from the beach.
- Carmel Bay View Inn. This hotel has views of the beach, but it’s a little further from the water. It’s near a few of the galleries and shops and has a seasonal outdoor pool.
- Normandy Inn. Featuring French country décor, the Normandy Inn is a stylish place and a short walk from the beach and several boutiques.
- Four Winds Carmel. Four Winds is a rental home with four bedrooms and a full kitchen. It’s a great choice for large families and groups that plan on staying in the area for more than a couple of days.
- Hyatt Carmel Highlands. Located near the beach and nestled on the cliff, this hotel offers a charming place to stay and fantastic views of the surrounding landscape. Each room opens out onto a large balcony and features contemporary furnishings.
- La Playa Carmel. Stay just three minutes from the beach at this high-end resort. The rooms resemble small apartments and include a minibar and coffeemaker. Guests are treated to a gourmet breakfast and access to a library lounge with views of the ocean.
3. Carmel Valley
Carmel Valley is on the northern side of the mountains of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and a short drive from Carmel-by-the-Sea. It’s a valley and the name of a village at its center.
You won’t find a downtown area or a large selection of shops and restaurants. It’s a rural region that is mostly known for its wineries and wine tours. The vineyards and lush vegetation are a stark contrast to the rugged coastline on the other side of Big Sur.
Carmel Valley is also great for hiking. Garland Ranch Regional Park is at the western end of the valley and includes dense woodlands with numerous hiking trails. The park has at least 17 different trails for hikers of all experience levels and covers over 3464 acres of land.
If you’re looking for unique attractions, visit the Moto Talbott Museum and Collection. It’s on Carmel Valley Road, which is the main road that runs through the village. Most of the restaurants and stores in Carmel Valley are found on the same road, making it easy to get around.
Carmel Valley is a quiet place to visit when passing through Big Sur and perfect for families. The area also tends to be a little warmer compared to the towns found along the coast. Shoppers may want to try a different area, such as Salinas Valley.
Things to Do
- Book a wine tour or take a self-guided tour of the vineyards in Carmel Valley.
- Hike the woody trails at Garland Ranch Regional Park, which includes paths that take you up into the mountains and some of the best vantage points.
- Check out old and unique motorcycles at the Moto Talbott Museum and Collection.
Where to Eat
- Get a filling breakfast at Kathy’s Little Kitchen on West Carmel Valley Road.
- Try authentic Thai cuisine at Thai Village.
- Stop into Trailside Café and Beer Garden for tasty sandwiches and cold beer after a long hike.
- Visit Corkscrew Café for original dishes with a French flair and local herbs.
- Hidden Valley Inn. This budget inn is hidden near the Santa Lucia Mountains and is about a five-minute walk from the center of Carmel Valley. The rooms are comfortable, affordable, and include a private outdoor patio.
- Carmel Valley Lodge. Carmel Valley Lodge has views of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Each room also has its own fireplace, high ceilings, and warm décor.
- Little European Lodge. This charming lodge is in the center of Carmel Valley. It has an outdoor pool, but few other amenities. It’s a secluded spot about 17 miles from Monterey.
- Quail Lodge & Golf Club. Golfers should enjoy a stay at this lodge and golf club. You can spend the day on the links and enjoy dinner and drinks at the onsite restaurant and bar.
- Carmel Valley Ranch. This top-rated ranch offers premium lodgings in a rustic setting. It also includes a full-service spa, tennis courts, and two outdoor pools.
- Bernardus Lodge & Spa. Pamper yourself with a stay at the luxurious Bernardus Lodge & Spa. It’s a top-rated location near Garland Ranch Regional Park. Each room has its own wine minibar with local Bernardus wines.
4. Salinas Valley
Salinas Valley is north of Carmel Valley and home to several larger cities and communities, including Salinas. Salinas has a population of over 160,000, making it the most populous city in Monterey County.
As a larger city, Salinas has more shops, restaurants, and things to see and do compared to the previous neighborhoods. Salinas is home to the National Steinbeck Center, which has exhibits dedicated to the life and work of famed author John Steinbeck.
The Steinbeck House is a short walk down the street. Children may enjoy a visit to the Monterey Zoo in Salinas. The zoo has a variety of big cats, small cats, elephants, reptiles, amphibians, and more animal species.
Salinas also has several parks and playgrounds, including Tatum’s Garden. The garden is behind the Salinas Rodeo Fairgrounds and near a variety of shops and restaurants.
Yet, the Old Town area of Salinas is the best place to enjoy the local nightlife scene. Old Town has a mixture of restaurants and antique shops to explore during the daytime and many bars that come alive at night.
The only drawback to staying in Salinas is the extra drive to the Big Sur coastline. It’s a 35-minute drive from Salinas to Carmel-by-the-Sea and the start of the Big Sur coastline.
Things to Do
- Watch lions, tigers, and bears at the Monterey Zoo in Salinas.
- Learn more about the life of John Steinbeck at the National Steinbeck Center and the Steinbeck House.
- Explore the nightlife scene or restaurants in the Old Town area of Salinas.
- Take the kids to Tatum’s Garden, which has a variety of play equipment for children.
Where to Eat
- Enjoy Italian dishes and cocktails with outdoor seating at The Village Restaurant.
- Stonies Taphouse & Bistro offers great food and beer. It’s found at the southern end of Salinas.
- Grab drinks and burgers at Portobello’s on Main Street in the old town area of Salinas.
- The M Lounge is one of the most popular clubs in Salinas and within walking distance of other bars, for those wanting to experience the local nightlife.
- Hampton Inn & Suites Salinas. Enjoy a comfortable stay at one of the largest hotel chains in the country. The hotel is a short walk from several restaurants and has an indoor pool and fitness center.
- Inn At Moss Landing Point. This affordable inn is in Moss Landing, which is a short drive from Salinas. It’s found along Monterey Bay and is a short walk from the local beach.
- Holiday Inn Express & Suites Salinas. This hotel is near the National Steinbeck Center and Bankers Casino. It has an indoor pool and a variety of cardio gear in the gym.
- Courtyard By Marriott Salinas. Relax in a hotel with a variety of amenities, including an indoor heated pool, hot tub, vending machines, a gym, and a business center. The hotel also has an on-site BBQ facility.
- Comfort Inn. Comfort Inn is one of the closest options to a luxury hotel in the Salinas area. It’s in nearby Marina, which is on the coast and a short drive north of Monterey. It’s surrounded by a variety of restaurants and cocktail lounges and offers spacious rooms.
- Howard Johnson by Wyndham Salina. The best rooms at this hotel include large seating areas and views of downtown Salinas. You can also access a business center and vending machines.
Cambria is just south of San Simeon, which marks the end of the Big Sur region. While you may find a few hotels in San Simeon, neighboring Cambria offers a wider selection of accommodations and things to see and do.
The small seaside village of Cambria has beaches and rocky cliffs that attract tourists year-round. It has a large beach on one side and is surrounded by natural Monterey pines on the other side. The forest around Cambria is one of only three native pine forests in the region.
You can also find a wide range of recreational activities during your stay in Cambria. It’s a great area to cycle or hike.
Moonstone Beach is the nearest beach to the center of Cambria. It’s a popular spot after sunset, as the sand glimmers under the moonlight. If you visit during the day, you can enjoy surfing, skimboarding, boogie boarding, and more.
Visitors also typically stop at Hearst Castle, which is just six miles north of the village. The castle sits on top of the Santa Lucia Mountains and overlooks the Pacific Ocean.
If you visit during sunset, you can get an incredible view from the observation deck at the east end of the complex. Cambria is a perfect choice if you’re coming to Big Sur from the south or want to hike some of the nearby trails.
Things to Do
- Tour Hearst Castle and take in the amazing views from the observation deck.
- Hike one or more of the 12 scenic trails in the Cambrai area, such as Bluff Trail in the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.
- Enjoy a quiet walk on the glittering sand at Moonstone Beach Park.
- Browse the antique shops and grab a bite in downtown Cambria.
Where to Eat
- Try something new at Robin’s Restaurant. This small restaurant has an eclectic menu, which includes a wide variety of vegetarian options.
- Order down-home American country cooking at Linn’s Restaurant in San Simeon.
- The Canteen at Oceanpoint Ranch is a large family restaurant with breakfast and dinner menus.
- Enjoy burgers and drinks with a view of the beach at Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill.
- Creekside Inn Downtown. Located in downtown Cambria, this small hotel has rooms decorated in vibrant seaside colors. It’s on the main street and a short drive from Moonstone Beach.
- Bluebird Inn. This inn sits on Main Street, which is home to a variety of small shops and cafes. Each room has a microwave and a fridge.
- Little Sur Inn. Stay at a hotel a short walk from Moonstone Beach. Little Sur Inn is an oceanfront property with full and partial views of the ocean. It’s also near the start of Big Sur.
- Sea Otter Inn. Located off Highway 1, Sea Otter Inn has a heated outdoor pool and is a two-minute walk from the beach. All rooms have a fireplace and views of the ocean or the courtyard.
- J Patrick Inn. Cambria doesn’t really have any luxury hotels, but the J Patrick Inn is one of the most luxurious places in the area. It’s an old inn surrounded by lush gardens. The rooms are large and feature elegant wood furniture.
- White Water. The high-end lodgings at White Water include a seating area, gas fireplace, and views of the ocean or the mountains. It’s also near the beach and boardwalk.
Where Should You Stay in Big Sur?
|🤿 Best Area for Water Activities||Monterey|
|🧘♀️ Least Crowded||Carmel-by-the-Sea|
|👪 Best for Families||Carmel Valley|
|🛍️ Best for Shopping||Salinas Valley|
|🏄🏽♂️ Best Area for Surfing||Cambria|
Big Sur is a region of northeastern California with breathtaking scenery and a rugged coastline that follows Highway 1. The interior of the region is covered in mountains and redwood forests with extensive hiking trails.
The stretch of highway in Big Sur has a few lodges and campgrounds. The nearest hotels are found in nearby villages and cities, such as Carmel-by-the-Sea and Cambria.
The valleys behind Big Sur’s mountains are also an option. Next, choose a place to stay in Big Sur to start looking for the right hotel or rental.