The most spectacular stretch of coastline in all California has drawn artists, mystics, and writers like Henry Miller and Hunter S. Thompson to Big Sur, where towering cliffs rise straight from the surf. Unlike neighboring Carmel, where the bourgeoisie long ago edged out the hippie freaks, here the boho spirit is alive and well. Indeed, on my trips here I always spot lots of jangly skirts and waist-length grey pony tails; only difference is, now the old hippies are also wealthy landowners.
There’s no obvious center point to Big Sur, just a post office, several restaurants, inns, and a couple of gas stations that charge a whopping $4 per gallon (fuel up in Carmel or San Simeon). Strict land-use regulations prohibit billboards and neon signs, and you won’t spot a single street light, making flashlights, not Prada handbags, the de rigeur evening accessory. Town is a tiny sliver between a series of state parks and wilderness areas. Outdoor activities are the big draw: Plan to ride horseback, hike or at least walk, and be rewarded with views of waterfalls, redwoods, and wide-open ocean as far as the eye can see.
Ideally come in spring, when wildflowers carpet the electric-green hillsides, before the June sun scorches them the color of toast, the color of summer, when the fog rolls in and tourists arrive en masse in RVs, clogging winding and narrow Highway 1. To begin to appreciate the subtle magic of the land here, plan to spend at least two nights.
- Hike mile-high mountains overlooking the vast blue Pacific.
- Luxuriate at one of California’s top boutique spa-hotels.
- Soak in an oceanside hot-springs pool next to the thundering surf.
- Vanish from contemporary life.
- Three to four hours from the Golden Gate.
- Summertime fog obscures the stellar views.
- Room rates skew high, sometimes ridiculously so.
- Winter rains sometimes yield treacherous driving conditions.
See & Do in Big Sur
The northern gateway to the Big Sur coastline, the iconic Bixby Bridge opened Big Sur to southbound automobile traffic in 1932. The enduring symbol of the California coast, the bridge and its graceful, 260ft-high spans have been featured in a thousand car commercials—surely you’ll recognize it when you see it. The best views are in the afternoon, when the sun illuminates the ocean-side arches a brilliant orange. In summer, you can sometimes beat the fog by coming before 4pm, but the color of the light doesn’t turn orange till later.
Just south of Bixby Bridge, the Point Sur Lighthouse stands atop a 360ft-high volcanic rock rising straight out of the surf. In continuous operation from 1899 to 1974, today it’s part of a state historic park that you can visit only by guided tour (reservations not accepted). Is it worth the six bucks and two hours? That depends. The views from the lighthouse are amazing, kids love climbing to the top of the rock, and the quirky historical details are interesting and well told by passionate docents. But if you’re childless, bored by history, and tight on time, blow it off and go get a spa treatment at the Ventana Inn instead.
The best way to see Big Sur is to ditch your car and hike the majestic landscape.
For some suggested places and trails, both easy and difficult, see Big Sur Hiking.
Out of shape but still want an up-close view of the landscape? Book a horseback-riding trip with Molera Horseback Tours and clippity-clop along the beach, then wind along the Big Sur River and through redwood forests at Andrew Molera State Park, just north of the town of Big Sur, an ideal spot for birding. After your ride, wander the long sandy beach—a rarity along this craggy stretch of coastline—and poke your head into the Big Sur Ornithology Lab to chat up naturalists about migratory birds and the great California condor, which these guys are helping to save.
Molera is nice, but the locals’ fav beach on a sunny day is Pfeiffer Beach, two miles down, down, down winding, one-lane-wide Sycamore Canyon Road. A window rock frames the crashing surf, presenting some very cool photo ops. The interconnected crescent-shaped beaches are widest at low tide; the most private spots to throw down a blanket lie north of the parking area. The turnoff from Hwy 1 is hard to spot: it’s at mileage-marker 45.64.
To find out what’s really happening in Big Sur, make a beeline to the Henry Miller Library. Equal parts archive, bookshop, cultural center, and coffeehouse, the library’s sun-dappled sculpture garden is the perfect place to scribble in your journal or fall asleep with a book on your face. A rickety old cottage houses the archive and a small bookshop, great for browsing. Even if you’ve never read Tropic of Cancer or any other works by this celebrated, controversial American author, it’s totally worth the trip to soak up the only-in-Big Sur, arty vibe. Wednesday is open-mic night; in summer there are outdoor movie screenings and concerts, sometimes by the likes of Laurie Anderson and Henry Rollins. It’s free to visit and there’s coffee, Wi-Fi, and web access on an old blue iMac on the big deck out back, overlooking a wooded canyon with a gurgling seasonal stream. What better spot to begin composing the great American novel?
No visit to Big Sur would be complete without a soak in a hot pool, and what better place than at the archetype in the genre: the hot springs at Esalen Institute. The old seaside tubs were destroyed in the El Niño storms of winter 1998, and it’s a miracle the Coastal Commission let the institute rebuild. But thank God they did—this is one incredible spot. Hot water gushes out of the ground at a perfect 119ºF and fills the public and private tubs, situated at the bottom of the cliffs, a mere fifty feet above the ocean. The minimalist bath house has changing rooms and showers, private individual bathtubs, large communal soaking tubs, massage tables (bring a date), and silent areas for meditating or just tripping out on the surf’s roar. One caveat: you’ll have to stay up late to visit. Non-guests are allowed to come only between 1am and 3am, and you must make reservations. Better yet, come for a seminar or look into spending several nights here (scroll down to Hotels and Lodges for more information.)
Most people come to Big Sur solely to drive the Big Sur Coast Highway en route to Hearst Castle. It’s a jaw-droppingly beautiful 90-mile-long stretch from Carmel to San Simeon, but the twists and turns make many passengers sick; bring Dramamine or eat a big fistful of crystallized ginger (yup, it works like a charm). Make the trip early in the day to avoid heavy afternoon slowdowns. If you get stuck behind an RV, pull over and wait for a break in traffic. For planning purposes, expect to drive an average speed of 30mph, and leave time to stop at pullouts along the way. There’s no point making this arduous drive at night; instead head inland to US 101, a faster, safer route when it’s dark out.
Big Sur Restaurants: The Midrange Spots
Nothing in Big Sur is cheap, but the following three spots are locally owned, indie restaurants with pretty good prices; at dinner most entrées hover around the $20 mark. (If you’re tight on cash, head to the Maiden Pub ($) for $10 burgers and sandwiches, and a sublime selection of over 90 European and craft beers, hand picked by the owners.)
Locals flock to Deetjen’s ($) for breakfast in a low-ceilinged cottage with painted wooden tables and ladderback chairs, and an old cat named Fabio purring in the window. At dinner ($$$–$$$$), the room is lit by candles and classical music plays quietly in the background, perfect for holding hands with your sweetheart. The cooking is earthy and simple, and though it doesn’t break new ground, it’s a solid bet for dishes like cassoulet, steak, and roasted game meats.
The down-to-earth Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant ($$$–$$$$) is known for its clean flavors and hearty fare. At lunchtime, look for crispy wood-fired pizzas and juicy-delicious burgers grilled over an oak-wood fire and served on housemade buns. At dinner, order anything from the brick oven, especially the crispy-skin roasted chicken — free-range, of course. Detractors call it inconsistent, but when Chef Phillip is at the stove, all’s well (call ahead). The bakery opens at 8am, with still-warm pastries, crusty bread, jelly doughnuts, and organic coffee. The takeaway sandwiches are perfect for a picnic or a long car ride home, but they often sell out before noon; get here early.
When you want a simple, no-fuss dinner—especially if you’ve got kids in tow or don’t want to change out of your dusty hiking boots—head directly to the Big Sur Roadhouse ($$–$$$) for big, bold Cal-Latino cooking like homemade enchiladas and adobo-marinated skirt steak. Save room for the chocolate-caramel layer cake. Prices are excellent, and because the owner is also the chef, the cooking is consistently spot-on. If it’s warm enough, snag a table outside and sip a cold beer while the kids doodle with sidewalk chalk on the patio.
- $ = entrées under $10
- $$ = $10 to $15
- $$$ = $16 to $22
- $$$$ = $22 and up
Big Sur Restaurants: The Top End
Personally, I don’t think anyplace merits a top-tier rating.
The best is Sierra Mar ($$$$), the drop-dead gorgeous restaurant at the ultra-chic Post Ranch Inn. Jutting off a 1200ft cliff high above the surf, the dining room’s design is stunning: a blend of wood, slate, and glass echoes the trees, rocks, and water outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, providing every table peerless views of sea and sky. If you’re on a budget, come for lunch, when the salad-and-sandwich menu will set you back about $25 a head.
But dinner is the thing here. The nightly changing menu features some imaginative spins on Euro-Cal cooking, with the occasional Asian-inspired dish thrown in for good measure. Standouts include an adaptation of the classic Provençale seafood soup, redolent with saffron and fennel; or Thai-style prawns with green papaya salad. Some dishes are overly stylized and heavy, like a ribeye steak with Cambazola cheese and oyster-mushroom compote. Rule of thumb here: order simple. And when something on the menu sounds too complicated, it usually is. If you’re a style maven and feel like getting dressed up, go for it: because the crowd comes mostly from LA and New York (not SF), this is the only place in all Big Sur where you won’t get funny looks for wearing a Dries Van Noten parka dress. Book well before sunset, and request a corner window table. Bring your platinum card: dinner runs about $150 per person including wine, but it’s worth it, if only once.
Perched 800ft above the Pacific on a rocky promontory, Nepenthe Restaurant ($$$-$$$$) has the second-best view on the Big Sur coast. Too bad the food doesn’t measure up. Okay, so the funky old round room is cool looking, with its open-truss ceiling and top-hinged windows, and the slumming-it-LA-style vibe is fun, but the steakhouse menu is totally forgettable, and it’s too damn expensive for what you get: lackluster food and so-so service. Come at lunch when the views are better anyway, but expect to pay $13 for a burger. Better yet, head downstairs to Café Kevah ($–$$), an order-at-the-counter snack bar open for lunch, with that same gorgeous view—and you can let the kids run around without bugging anyone (don’t try this at Sierra Mar). Even if you don’t eat at Nepenthe, do a drive-by to check it out, and stop in the Phoenix gift shop, with its good selection of regional books and surprisingly pretty home furnishings.
I’ve not reviewed Cielo ($$$$) at the Ventana Inn, the other view restaurant in Big Sur, because it has changed chefs since I was last there. Apparently it’s vastly improved, with straightforward, well-executed cooking that’s not overly stylized, which would give it an edge over Sierra Mar. I’ll head back soon and let you know. Till then, I dare say it’s a safe bet, so go ahead an book it, but arrive before sunset. Ideally come for lunch and sit outside on the patio.
Big Sur Hotels: Budget
There are two categories of hotel in Big Sur: those that cost under $250 a night and those that cost over $250—way over. If you’re on a budget but refuse to sleep in a tent, check out Ripplewood Resort ($$), a woodsy compound of freestanding rustic cabins (read: dark, with bare-bones furnishings) that’s a notch above camping, but they’re cute and cozy—the poor man’s Deetjen’s (see ‘Our Favorites,’ below). The first-choice cabins are in the redwood grove (Nos. 1 through 9), which overlook the Big Sur River, a good spot to cast a line for trout. Avoid the cabins nearest the highway (Nos. 10 & 11), or bring earplugs to counter the road noise.
A step up from Ripplewood are the bright, airy cottages at Big Sur Lodge ($$-$$$$), on the grounds of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a good choice for day-hikers on a budget and families—kids love the swimming pool. All cottages have private decks, and some have fireplaces and kitchens. Request one of the remodeled units, which look like the pictures on the website; the old units look like dated motel rooms. The other two budget spots—Glen Oaks Motel ($$) and Big Sur River Inn ($$)—are good backups, but I haven’t seen them in years. I’ll check ‘em out this spring and let you know (but at last check, Glen Oaks was nicer).
Big Sur Hotels: The Top of the Line
Harried celebs flee the LA Basin to recuperate at one of two Big Sur hotels, and it’s not unusual to spot $100,000 vehicles with dark-tinted windows wending northward on Hwy 1, bound for either the Post Ranch Inn ($$$$) or the Ventana Inn ($$$$), two of the most famous properties on the California coast. From the time it opened in 1975 until 1991, the Ventana was the place for a private, adults-only escape in Northern California. Then the Post Ranch Inn opened and knocked Ventana to the number-two spot. Each of them is a great hotel, but which is better? That depends on your tastes.
Five-star Face-off: Read an in-depth comparison of Post Ranch Inn and Ventana Inn.
Big Sur Hotels: Our Favorites
The quintessential Big Sur lodge, there’s no place like Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn ($-$$$), a vintage-1930s compound of rough-hewn redwood lodges listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Covered with flowering vines and surrounded by towering trees, they look like fairy-tale cottages, each one an odd shape and size, and furnished with mismatched carved wooden antiques, rag-wool rugs, and antique curios. The ‘Chateau Fiasco’ room feels like a treehouse – indeed, you have to duck beneath a twisting tree trunk to reach the door. Fussy travelers, stay away: there are no locks on the doors, maids come every other day, and bathrooms are strictly utilitarian, with separate hot-and-cold taps and fiberglass shower stalls. And single-wall construction means that noise travels, so quiet is the rule here—no kids allowed. Book one of the eleven fireplace rooms for maximum romance, especially in wintertime. If you’re on a honeymoon, speak up: there’s one very private cabin far from the others.
Thirty miles south of Big Sur in the middle of nowhere, Treebones Resort ($$$) has Mongolian-style yurts on a bluff high above the ocean. If you once loved to camp, but now hate to wake up with an aching back and dirt under your nails, you’ll be totally into this place. Each yurt has a queen-size bed and cozy quilt, and there’s electricity and lights so you won’t have to put down your vacation romance novel when the sun sets. Cook outside on your own grill, or head to the main lodge and meet other guests over a barbecue dinner.
Get the classic Northern California retreat experience at the Esalen Institute ($$-$$$), where you can open your chakras while painting in the ‘Art Barn,’ stretching in a dance-and-movement class, or meditating in a seaside hot spring. If you’re not willing to book a workshop, you can reserve a ‘personal retreat’, but only a week in advance and only if the resort isn’t sold out. Accommodations are in private rooms or same-sex dorms. They’re nothing fancy, but Esalen isn’t about the rooms, it’s about rejuvenating your spirit — and if that sounds too woo-woo Shirley MacLaine, take your inner child elsewhere.
- $ = standard double under $100
- $$ = $100 to $200
- $$$ = $200 to $300
- $$$$ = $300 & up
More Big Sur Hotels.