Salinas is a small but sophisticated city a short way in from Monterey Bay on California’s Central Coast. Agriculture has been a way of life in the Salinas Valley for a couple of hundred years and these farms formed the backdrop for many of Salinas-native John Steinbeck’s novels.
The diversity of things to do in and around Salinas makes it seriously flexible: Food-lovers can tuck into the local organic produce and wines, sports fanatics can catch a rodeo event or race at Laguna Seca, while just about everyone will fall in love with the wild beauty of the Pacific coast and fertile countryside inland.
1. National Steinbeck Center
The National Steinbeck Center opened on Main Street back in 1998. Steinbeck was born and grew up in Salinas, and he drew inspiration for his novels from the Salinas Valley and its rural towns.
The attraction has the largest Steinbeck archives in the USA and the displays inform visitors about the themes and philosophy behind the writer’s works. Artefacts to browse at the Center include film clips, first editions and photographs.
At the start of May every year the Steinbeck Festival puts on lectures, live music and a craft beer festival.
2. The Steinbeck House
After a few hours at the museum you can also potter around Steinbeck’s place of birth and childhood home. The house dates to 1897 and the Steinbeck family moved here in 1900.
It’s a restored Queen Anne-style Victorian home on the National Register of Historic Places. People stop for photos in front of the lawn and there’s a gift shop inside, but if you come to the house from Tuesday to Saturday you can enjoy a tasty sit-down lunch, served by staff in Victorian costume.
The menu changes by the month and is updated on the attraction’s website.
3. Toro County Park
Minutes south of Salinas, this beautiful sweep of open country attracts hikers, horseback riders, geocachers and mountain bikers for its challenging and striking terrain.
There are 20 miles of trails for people who don’t mind a strenuous walk – the effort is more than worthwhile for the arresting views out of the Salinas Valley and Monterrey Bay.
The headline trail in Toro County Park is the “1800”, referring to the amount of feet it ascends – 540 metres in metric. It begins and sea level and poses a tough hillside trek, but has the best views in the park.
4. Laguna Seca
California’s top motor racing track, Laguna Seca welcomes some big international racing events from spring to autumn.
Until 2013 it was an annual stop on the MotoGP circuit, now replaced by the FIM World Superbike Championship. The track dates to 1957 and is renowned for its “Corkscrew” section, darting downhill between two tight turns.
Motor racing has been a local passion for a long time on the Central Coast, and Laguna Seca replaced the nearby Pebble Beach Road Races, set on hair-raising twin-lane coastal roads.
5. Harvey-Baker House
This historic house belonged to the wealthy merchant and local politician Isaac Julian Harvey who made his fortune during the gold rush.
He settled in Salinas in 1866 when it was a settlement with no more than 12 buildings, and in 1868 he built his home with timber hauled from redwood forests at Moss Landing on the coast.
During his time as mayor Harvey did a lot to get Salinas on the map, moving the county seat here from Monterey and negotiating for the railroad to pass through the town.
6. Oldtown Salinas Farmer’s Market
The Salinas Valley is among the most fertile locations in California and is billed by local authorities as the “Salad Bowl of the World”.
Flourishing here are broccoli, cauliflower, celery, peppers, vines, strawberries, tomatoes and spinach. So it’s no surprise that the Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings on Gabilan street is a big institution.
Together will all the divine organic local produce vendors sell regional specialities like honey and jam, as well as a variety of hand-made arts and crafts.
7. Boronda Adobe History Center
This adobe (a building made from clay or mud) is another enlightening journey through Salinas’ early history. The colonial-style structure is on a Mexican land grant, goes all the way back to 1846 and is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
It’s a prime example of a Mexican-era rancho adobe and has barely been altered since it was built. One of the features that makes it important is the way it blends north-eastern American architecture with a Mexican style.
The adobe is located in the lower part of the Salinas Valley and predates the city of Salinas by 20 years.
8. California Rodeo Salinas
The Salinas Rodeo began way back in 1911 and is still a highlight of America’s Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association tour. It all happens during the third week of July and is the biggest bull-riding event in the state, pulling in more than 700 cowboys and cowgirls who compete for $400,000 in prize money.
The rodeo is accompanied by all sorts of complementary events, including a carnival, cowboy poetry and the Kiddie Kapers Parade. With 85 years of history the KKP puts local kids at centre stage, parading them through the city streets on floats before thousands of spectators.
The main event is when the awards for best-dressed cowboys and cowgirls are handed out.
9. River Road Wine Trail
Hand-picking the best local wineries, the River Road Wine Trail starts in Salinas and continues on to Soledad to the southeast. It’s a convenient and picturesque introduction to the area’s countryside and viticulture.
You’ll make regular stops at idyllic vineyards for tastings, and as you make your way into the Santa Lucia Highlands the scenery and views are increasingly memorable.
The Hahn Winery is in these hills, and you can bring a picnic to its deck, admiring far-reaching views over the vineyards and out to the mountainscapes in the distance.
10. Medical History Museum
This surprising little attraction is inside Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital. OK, so a hospital may not be top of your list for holiday attractions, but the free museum within has a great collection of medical artefacts from the last 300 years.
One of the best is a surgical kit from the Civil War, but you can also see the instruments belonging to John Steinbeck’s family GP Dr. Henry Murphy.
The museum has also recreated a doctor’s office from the 1920s decorated with furniture and equipment from the time.
11. First Fridays Art Walk
As the name suggests, the first Friday of the month is when Salinas comes together to celebrate its lively arts community.
Things get started around five when more than forty venues open their doors for free art viewings, live music, food sampling, dancing, poetry recitals and book-signings. What’s especially fun about the Art Walk is that it’s not just galleries and museums taking part – cafes, restaurants and a variety of shops all get into the spirit of the event.
Just so you know, venues involved in the Art Walk will hang balloons in their storefronts.
Only a few minutes away, Monterey is one of California’s best-loved destinations for day trips. It was once the California state capital and has lovely old buildings preserved in its downtown.
Cannery Row, which inspired Steinbeck’s novel of the same name is a good choice for bit of cultural sightseeing. If you have children with you or take an interest in the oceans the Monterey Bay Aquarium presents the ecological diversity of the waters off the Californian coast.
Many days you need only walk to oceanfront to see wildlife, as Monterey Peninsula has large numbers of sea otters, seals and sea lions easily sighted throughout the year.
This gorgeous little coastal town is also an easy drive west and has a history that goes back to 1771 when Father Junipero Serra established one of his 21 Californian missions here.
Carmel’s Mission is still mostly intact, holding onto its original bell-tower dome and still functions as a Catholic church. You can take a look inside and visit a small museum here.
Carmel’s beach is wonderful, with moderate surf and bright white sands before a landscape of cypress-covered rocks. Sunsets at Carmel Beach are a perfect way to end the day, especially if you’re with a loved one.
14. San Francisco
Close enough for a day trip, the scenic drive up to this unique city is a journey you won’t forget. Classic movie fans can visit all the locations they’ll know from films like Dirty Harry, Bullitt and Vertigo.
You can ride the city’s iconic cable cars, streetcars and trolley buses and walk the hilly streets that have seen countless movie chases.
Take photos at China Town, Alamo Square, Strawberry Hill and the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, not to mention the legendary Alcatraz Island, the prison that held Al Capone. Also see: things to do in San Francisco.
15. Big Sur
At Big Sur, which encompasses 90 miles of Pacific shoreline, you can appreciate the full untamed beauty of California’s Central Coast. There are four natural reserves in the area, all of which you can hike or cycle through.
With more than 80 day hikes to pick, walkers can step into epic redwood forests, through canyons, along panoramic cliff-tops or next to wild and secluded beaches.
If you’re not ready to slog through the wilderness under your own steam then the spectacular drive on California Highway 1 is a comfortable alternative connecting San Simeon with Carmel in the north.