A visit to Big Sur is, in truth, an invitation to do nothing. Enjoying and exploring the area’s breath-stopping natural beauty will keep you plenty busy enough. That said, this California jewel boasts enough can’t-miss sights and must-do activities to pack any itinerary - especially when you think about the beaches and hikes you’ll almost certainly include. So go ahead, check out all these top things to do in Big Sur - just leave time for some peaceful contemplation, too. 

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Take a photo of the Bixby Bridge

You know you have to do it, if for no other reason than to show the folks at home you’ve stood on the spot made famous by countless movies, car commercials and TV shows, most recently “Big Little Lies.” Built in 1931, it soars 260ft above Bixby Creek, making it the highest single-span arch bridge in the world at the time and still one of the tallest. You can’t reach Big Sur without driving across the bridge, but the trick is finding a place to park to get your shot. The handful of pullouts fill up quickly and the traffic backups on Hwy 1 have made locals see red - and officials crack down. The solution is to park well before or after the bridge and walk until you can get the shot you want, which also gives you the chance to see the landscape from many angles.

Diners on the terrace at Nepenthe restaurant
Nepenthe restaurant is a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement and belongs on every Big Sur hit list © Shutterstock / Naeblys

Dine at Nepenthe

As much a destination as a restaurant, Nepenthe has to be seen to be fully understood. But once you arrive on the terrace, seemingly suspended directly over the Pacific, you’ll understand why this 72-year-old gathering place is so much more than an eatery and belongs on every Big Sur hit list. Of course, if you can get a dinner reservation, do so, and you’ll instantly appreciate Nepenthe’s role as a pioneer in the farm-to-table food movement, served up in every locally sourced bite. And if you can time your dinner to savor one of the area’s legendary sunsets, even better. But even if you just sit down for a Caprese baguette or a fresh fruit smoothie at low-key Cafe Kevah, or stop at the shop to browse local books and crafts, you’ll have a new appreciation for the role food and bohemian culture played in putting Big Sur on the cultural map.  

Visit Henry Miller Memorial Library

This ramshackle and decidedly offbeat establishment, the former home of writer Henry Miller, trumpets its irreverence with the slogan “Where nothing happens.” But that’s not true. The library has evolved into a local art and event center which hosts readings, folk music performances, quirky fashion shows and other happenings. Visitors enter through a grove punctuated with junk art sculptures to find a funky bookstore and gallery surrounded by a sun-splashed deck and outdoor performance area. Censorship and rebellion are common themes of the works collected here, since Miller’s most famous work, “Tropic of Cancer,” was banned from the US for obscenity until 1964. After Miller’s death in 1980, the property was maintained by his friend and confidant Emil White, who turned it into a memorial and then deeded the institution to the Big Sur Land Trust, which maintains it as well as its limited budget allows.

Laugh at elephant seals

With their gigantic bulbous noses and enormous girth, elephant seals are the clowns of the ocean as they flop, lumber, wriggle and roll to maneuver across the sand. The Piedras Blancas reserve, 16 miles south of Ragged Point, considered the southern entrance to Big Sur, is the only place in the world to see the awkwardly charming seals year-round without restriction. At peak times, which occur in January, April and October, as many as 17,000 of the ungainly beasts crowd the rookery. Mating season is the most exciting of all, as the males - which can weigh up to 5000 pounds - challenge each other for dominance with bobbing, thrashing duels. Expectant moms start hauling out on the beach in late December and January, where they give birth and nurse their pups. February to April finds the beach full of pups, who’ve been left behind by their mothers to learn to swim and forage on their own. Docents are on hand to explain the seals’ habits and keep overenthusiastic visitors in check. 

Horseback riders on a beach in Monterey Bay
Outfitters in the Big Sur area offer trail rides and guided horseback adventures © Shutterstock / David A Litman

Ride horses on the beach

Settled by non-indigenous people in the early 1800s via several large rancho land grants, Big Sur was ranch country well into the 1970s, and that legacy remains important today. See what it was like to travel this rugged country by horseback - and make good on your dream of galloping down the beach - by signing up for a trail ride or guided horseback adventure. Outfitters like Monterey Bay Equestrian Center offer trail rides in the area, and one, Seahorse Equestrian, even brings the horses to you. 

Eat scones in a fairy tale garden

No trip to Big Sur is complete without a stop at Big Sur Bakery, which made national headlines within a year of its founding for its crusty, wood-fired breads, flaky, butter-rich croissants and down-home jelly donuts. And 20 years later, it has earned near-legendary status. Behind the bakery, a fanciful botanical garden offers numerous sunny nooks where you can take your coffee, scone, and a good book and indulge in peace. Baked goods are only the beginning of what’s on offer, here, though. the hearty soups, wood-fired pizzas, and veggie-mushroom lasagna are all prepared with the same creativity and care as the pastries and breads. Lines out the door, locals and visitors side by side, are part of the experience; come early if you don’t want your favorites to sell out.

Appreciate local art in a gallery

It’s not just that COAST Big Sur is inside a converted water tank, it’s not just that its rooftop cafe serves the best coffee on the coast (Cat & Cloud, from Santa Cruz) and a date nut shake cookie to die for, and it’s not just that the art they showcase is the real deal, with serious cred; it’s all of those along with a true sense of investment in the local community. COAST’s pedigree is impeccable, having showcased the sleek, bronze animals of groundbreaking sculptor Loet Vanderveen since 1958. But there’s no resting on laurels here; the gallery is constantly adding new artists, as many as possible from the coastal community. And of course, after all that culture imbibing, you need one of chef Nick Balla’s farmer’s cheese tarts to revive. 

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