Plan an escape from San Francisco with a day trip to Monterey. Head south for a couple hours on California’s most scenic highway that connects San Francisco to Monterey.
The Pacific Coast Highway (aka the PCH) is California’s Highway 1. This road hugs the California coastline as it winds past rocky overhangs and coastal farming towns. Many locals and travelers alike consider the stretch of the PCH that runs from San Francisco to Monterey to be the most scenic drive in California — if not in all of America!
On our San Francisco bus tours to Muir Woods, we spend some time on this iconic highway as we drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to have lunch in Sausalito.
In fact, the highway runs right through San Francisco, connecting the southern reaches of the bay with the Golden Gate Bridge. Further south along the road near Monterey is the Bixby Creek Bridge. This iconic concrete structure is one of the most photographed bridges in California. It’s the perfect spot to stop for some photos along your drive!
Ready to see the Pacific Highway up close? Check out our famous tour of San Francisco, Sausalito, and Muir Woods.
For anyone considering a day trip to Monterey from San Francisco, you’ll likely be driving down this scenic highway for at least part of your journey.
Without a doubt, there are faster ways to Monterey. Cutting through Silicon Valley, California’s hub of technological innovation, can get you from San Francisco to Monterey just as easily as the PCH. But you’d be missing out on the views of the Pacific!
Why go on a day trip to Monterey?
Even though Monterey is less than half the size of San Francisco there is just as much to see and do. If you come from mid-December to mid-April, you can do whale watching. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, built right into the bay, is always a fun choice as well.
Or, you can just wander around the city and enjoy the same iconic Victorian architecture San Francisco is known for! This town was the home of the famous author John Steinbeck, so you’ll be sure to pick up some interesting information about his life while you wander along the waterfront and through Cannery Row.
How far is Monterey from San Francisco?
The distance from Monterey to San Francisco is about 120 miles. So, you’re not looking at a very long driving time either. You should only be on the road about two hours each way.
Such close distance makes Monterey the perfect coastal town for a day trip from San Francisco. Even though it is easy to reserve a rental car for this trip, we always suggest researching Monterey tours from San Francisco for stress-free travel.
THE BEST TOURS FROM SAN FRANCISCO TO MONTEREY
Monterey & Carmel Explorer with Optional Aquarium Pass
Extranomical Tours takes the scenic route from San Francisco to Monterey via Highway 1. Travel like a VIP with complimentary hotel pick up and drop off at most hotels in Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf. The scenic drive down the California coast from San Francisco to Monterey will be filled with expansive views of the Pacific Ocean. You’ll also have the perk of free wifi on board the bus!
On this tour, you’ll also have the option to add on tickets to the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium’s unique location on the waterfront creates a remarkable experience for guests. If you choose not to explore the aquarium, you can spend your time wandering through the town of Monterey instead!
After lunch, the tour continues through the 17 Mile Drive that leads to Carmel-by-the-Sea. Here, you’ll enjoy a leisurely stroll through the main “downtown” area filled with local boutiques, stunning mansions, and spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean.
Monterey, Carmel and 17-Mile Drive Day Trip from San Francisco
Local big bus tour operator Tower Tours leads this Monterey tour from San Francisco. Hotel pick ups are available at most Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf lodgings in the city. At the end of a long day of exploring, travelers will be dropped off in Union Square.
With this tour, you’ll also have the option to add on tickets to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We definitely recommend choosing this option, since it’s a sight worth seeing! But if you decide not to, you’ll be able to spend the entire two hour break exploring historic Cannery Row in downtown Monterey. This once active cannery is now a hub for boutiques and great little restaurants.
After the lengthy lunch stop, you’ll continue traveling from Monterey to Carmel, just down the coast. On this short drive you’ll stop for a quick photo opportunity at the Lone Cypress. This 250 year old tree is isolated on a rocky bluff overlooking the Pacific, and offers fantastic views.
Afterwards you’ll be returning to the city. The drive from Monterey to San Francisco will last a little over two hours.
As beautiful as the two hour drive from San Francisco to Monterey is, driving all the way down the PCH to Los Angeles offers stunning views the whole way. Renting a car is always an option, but keep in mind that most rental agencies charge a drop fee if you return a car in a different city than you rented.
Instead, you can opt for a three day tour from San Francisco to Los Angeles via Monterey and a few other quaint little coastal towns. We’ve previously featured traveling by train in our article on how to get to Yosemite from San Francisco and our piece on the best Yosemite tours. So, it might not be much of a surprise that we also love to take the train all the way down the coast!
Alright, so the train portion of this tour isn’t until the final day. However, it’s worth the wait because southern California offers up views of some of the most classic California beaches. California is a state known for laid back and mellow locals. So, travel like a local with this extended tour to Monterey and beyond.
Day Trip to Monterey and Carmel via California Coast
Gray Line of San Francisco
Gray Line offers one of the most economical options for those looking for a tour to Monterey and back to San Francisco. Don’t let this budget tour fool you, though. It still packs in a lot between traveling from San Francisco to Pebble Beach, cruising along the 17 Mile Drive, and exploring Carmel.
If you’re thinking that taking public buses will be easier, you need to remember how far Monterey Bay is from San Francisco. 120 miles will be a tough commute on public transportation — and will take twice as long as any tour. Even a Monterey to SFO shuttle will be hard to come by!
On this Monterey tour from San Francisco you’ll be spending two hours in downtown Monterey, just like the other boutique tours we’ve featured on this list.
Monterey Bus Tour with Carmel-by-the-Sea
Incredible Adventures takes travelers by tour bus to Monterey for a fun day trip. After picking up travelers from hotels around the city, this San Francisco to Monterey drive takes winding coastal roads with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean from Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway.
Spend two hours in Monterey exploring the small waterfront town at your own pace. Skip the line at the Monterey Bay Aquarium by purchasing tickets with your bus tour. After having a chance to explore John Steinbeck’s old hangout of Monterey, you’ll hop back on your bus to cruise the 17 Mile Drive. Then you can enjoy some more free time in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Here’s a fun fact about Carmel: this town once voted Clint Eastwood into office as Mayor!
Monterey & Carmel Tour from San Francisco
San Francisco Shuttle Tours
Travel from San Francisco to Monterey on a bus with San Francisco Shuttle Tours. A driver will pick you up from your SF hotel early in the morning to head out on a leisurely drive and spend an afternoon in Monterey.
On this tour from SFO to Monterey, you’ll enjoy a two hour break in downtown Monterey. When booking your tour, you do have the option to add on tickets to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Doing this saves you $10 off the entry fee AND you’ll be able to skip the line when entering! Or, you can spend your time in the town to explore Cannery Row and the waterfront district.
After exploring Monterey, you’ll take winding roads through the 17 Mile Drive. Along the way, you’ll enjoy views of the Lone Cypress, Pebble Beach Golf Course, and more. Finally, you’ll make a stop in Carmel-by-the-Sea for a little over an hour. By the time you have to board the bus back to San Francisco, you’ll find comfort on the luxury tour coach as it cruises through Silicon Valley and back to the city.