Skip to Content

Big Sur vs Monterey vs Carmel-By-The-Sea (Ranked)

When we first planned our trip up the California coast, we didn’t know the difference between Big Sur, Carmel, and Monterey. But after our travels, we gained a clear understanding and wanted to help simplify it for others doing the same journey. Here’s what we found.

Big Sur is a mountainous region on the central coast of California, while Monterey and Carmel By The Sea are small, coastal towns. If you’re looking for hiking and redwoods along the coast, Big Sur is a must-see. If you’re looking for a small coastal town vibe, Carmel and Monterey will probably be more your speed.

Big SurMontereyCarmel By The Sea
Mountainous HikesMonterey Bay AquariumLarge Beach
RedwoodsCute Downtown and Wharf Beautiful Sunsets
Drive Along the Coastal CliffsMore AmenitiesDog-Friendly Beach
Occasional Lane ClosuresMore Places to StayCute Fairytale Village

Let’s take a look at some of the biggest differences between these 3 regions, and an itinerary you can’t miss.

A photo we took from the Bixby Bridge overlook.

1. Big Sur

What Exactly is Big Sur?

Big Sur is a 90-mile region on the coast of Central California preserved as an open space with a small residential community and agricultural ranching. The region of Big Sur also holds Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and the Los Padres National Forest owned by the state and country.

Here are some of our favorite things to do in Big Sur:

  • Hike
  • Swim (if you like cold water)
  • Have a picnic on the beach
  • Drive the Pacific Coast Highway
  • Camp

Big Sur, Monterey, and Carmel By The Sea all commonly get a dense fog in the evening which typically burns off in the afternoon. Make sure to bring a jacket as temperatures can drop quickly and unexpectedly!

Recommended: Does Big Sur Get Foggy (& When)?

If you’d like a good hiking recommendation in Big Sur, check out Partington Cove Trailhead. You can park on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway and head down the trail to the beach.

Just across the road from Partington Cove Trail (literally about 20 feet) is Tanbark and Tin House Trail, which goes up the Big Sur mountains where you’ll be immersed in a beautiful redwood forest and with a famous Tin House at the summit.

We spent several hours hiking the Tanbark trail, but we ran out of time and had to head back down. But it was still incredibly beautiful with the mountains, redwoods, waterfall, and foggy weather.

Our hike in big sur with redwoods
Tyler and Alexis hiking the Tanbark and Tin House Trail.

To learn more about what Big Sur is and its different parts, check out our other post: What is Big Sur (Is It a Park, Town, or Beach)?

If you’re looking for a hotel in Big Sur, check out my recent article on The 8 Best Hotels in Big Sur (My Recommendations).

Where is Big Sur?


Big Sur is in between Los Angeles and San Fransisco on the coast.

The region is located in Central California and stretches around 90 miles north to south, starting at Carmel-by-the-Sea, and ending at San Simeon. This region is known for its mountainous terrain meeting the Pacific Ocean, with redwood forests.

The city of Monterey, California is 4.5 miles from Carmel-by-the-Sea and 30 miles from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

2. Carmel-By-The-Sea

us during sunset at carmel beach
A photo of the Carmel Sunset I took in 2015.

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a coastal town known for its fairytale-like architecture and small-town vibe. The town is the most northern city of the Big Sur region and has a big array of options for things to do. Here’s what we did when we visited:

  • Sunset on the Beach
  • Restaurants
  • Museums

Carmel’s beach is not too far from the downtown area, along Scenic Road.

When we went, we parked right on the street next to the beach and walked down before the sunset. There were only a few people on the entire beach and tons of cute pups, as the beach is dog friendly. The beach and sunset were magnificent.

Keep in mind that dense fog usually rolls in during the evening, so it can obscure your view of the sunset. I had luck with the Carmel sunset in the photo above in October, if that helps.

The architecture and feel of Carmel’s downtown area is my favorite part. You feel like you’re walking into a fairy tale village and there are tons of things to do including shopping, coffee shops, and restaurants.

Carmel is definitely a slower place than Monterey and the other larger cities surrounding it.

For example, here’s a photo we took of downtown. It definitely has a fairytale cottage feel.

Carmel-by-the-Sea downtown

Carmel has a ton of luxurious options to dine at. When we went, we ended up going to an Italian restaurant, Porta Bella. It was a little pricy but definitely worth it. We got the Jumbo Lobster Ravioli, which was amazing. It had a great atmosphere.

3. Monterey

a photo we took of a whale scultpure in monterey aquarium
a photo we took of the crowd in front of a monterey aquarium
some of the fish I saw at the aquarium

Some of the photos I took when we visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Monterey is also a coastal town in California and lies right above Carmel-by-the-Sea. Monterey has a larger population and more of a modern feel to it than Carmel. It has a popular strip mall and wharf on the coast and a well-known aquarium.

Here are a few of the best things to do when visiting Monterey:

  • Monterey Bay Aquarium
  • Old Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Whale Watching
  • Stand Up Paddle Boarding
  • 17 Mile Drive
  • Biking the Coast of Monterey
us visiting the fishermans wharf in monterey
The crowd when we visited Old Fisherman’s Wharf.

Lying right on the Pacific, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a nonprofit public aquarium that also provides conservation and education programs.

A once popular fish market in the 60s, Old Fisherman’s Wharf is now a place for people to dine, shop, and take part in some ocean activities such as whale watching or fishing.

The Best Time to Visit Big Sur, Carmel, and Monterey

The ideal time to visit the Big Sur area is in the fall or spring. You don’t have to risk the chances of running into huge crowds, higher prices, or the amount of marine layer that takes place in the summer. You can also avoid possible road closures and uncomfortable weather in the winter.

While it’s generally better to visit in the fall, you’ll see the blooming of wildflowers, whale watching, and overall great weather in the spring.

For example, we’ve since been to the Big Sur area many times, with the most recent time being this past August. We experienced tons of fog and a few lane closures along PCH.

However, when we went a few years back in October, we had a beautiful drive and sunset at Carmel.

The weather is nearly the same year-round, and we recommend a jacket and pants during the early morning and evenings. The afternoons can get quite hot when the sun comes out.

Where to Stay (& Big Sur Hotels)

Photo of Ragged Point Inn across from their market and gas station

There wasn’t a lot of availability for us since Big Sur is largely a private region. The closest and best availability we could find was when we looked toward San Luis Obispo (to the south) and Salinas (to the north).

However, a local recommended not staying in Salinas, so we ended up staying in Carmel (and we loved it!). We then spent another day in Big Sur and drove back down the coast to stay in Morro Bay (a nice, older beach town).

Keep in mind that Carmel is likely the most expensive option to stay (we found a deal), so if you’re looking for something more affordable, we recommend at least one night in Carmel if you’re heading north (Monterey is a close second), or Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, or Santa Maria if you’re heading south.

For more options within Big Sur, Monterey, and Carmel, here are some of the top-rated hotels in the area.

Big Sur:

a sunset while we were at ragged point inn
One of our sunsets at Ragged Point Inn. There are stairs down to the beach here.

Note: Ragged Point has one of the only gas stations we came across on our Big Sur trip from Morro Bay to Carmel. So be sure to fill up!



If you’d like, there are a few unique AirBnB stays within Big Sur such as in yurts and cabins, but there’s more availability around Monterey (north) and Morro Bay/San Luis Obispo (south).

Top 3 Things To Do in Big Sur (1-Day Itinerary)

I asked a few locals from Central and Southern California what their top spots in Big Sur were and they said these are a must-see.

1. Nepenthe

Nepenthe is a restaurant with an array of different food options. This restaurant is right off Highway One, among the Santa Lucia Mountains, and is known for its phenomenal views of the Pacific Ocean and rugged coast.

When we visited Big Sur, we really wanted to make it a priority to stop there but there were road closures around it.

2. Tanbark and Tin House Trail


The Tanbark Trail is a trail off of Highway One. If you are looking to see redwoods while visiting, I recommend going here. The trail begins with a beautiful creek, and redwood trees, and ends with views of the ocean. This trail made me feel like I was in a fairy tale.

When we were in Big Sur, we did the Tanbark Trail, but we ran out of time and didn’t make it to the Tin House at the summit. We passed some locals on the way down and they said we were missing out big time! Note, it’s a tougher hike than it seems, so allow lots of time and bring lots of water!

Here’s the link to the trail on All Trails if you’d like to check it out!

3. McWay Falls

Waterfall in big sur
The view from the lookout in McWay Falls in Big Sur.

McWay Falls is a stop in Big Sur no one can miss. It is a beautiful waterfall on the beach. I went to this waterfall on the coast last time I went to Big Sur and it was one of the best parts of the trip! I included one of our photos above.

Recommended: Can You Go Down McWay Falls in Big Sur? (I Checked)