Whether you’re stopping on a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway or taking a weekend trip, Monterey, California is a location that’s worth your time. As you start to plan your trip, these are the best things to do while on a visit to Monterey, California.
Less than two hours south of San Francisco, this coastal destination is easy to reach by car and boasts plenty of sights to see. Once a center of the sardine-packing industry, today Monterey is a city of just under 30,000.
With beautiful scenery, abundant wildlife, great cuisine, and outdoor adventure, visitors will find lots to do and explore. The best part is that it has something for every type of traveler.
The aquarium and Fisherman’s Wharf are perfect family-friendly activities. Clam chowder, standout pastries, and Oaxacan cuisine attract foodies. Coastal views and wine-tasting opportunities make Monterey perfect for couples. And adventure-lovers have plenty of hiking, whale-watching, and kayaking to choose from.
Here are my personal picks for the best things to do in Monterey, California. It’s a destination I’ve visited frequently over the years. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
Visiting Monterey, California
What is Monterey, CA known for?
Thanks to its location on Monterey Bay, Monterey is best known for its aquarium and marine wildlife. It’s also well-known as the setting for John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row, which was published in 1945.
Is Monterey CA worth visiting?
The city is easily worth visiting, in part because of all the unique things to do in Monterey. There’s so much to discover at the aquarium, in Monterey’s natural spaces, and in nearby locales such as Carmel.
Should I go to Carmel or Monterey?
Carmel and Monterey each have their own character. Carmel is quaint and charming, while Monterey is bustling and buzzing with a fun atmosphere. The nice thing is that you don’t necessarily have to choose between them. With the two sitting just a few miles apart from one another, it’s easy to visit both in a day.
Where should I stay in Monterey?
There are several options in and around Monterey. Two of my favorites are Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa and The Spindrift Inn. They’re both luxury properties right on the water with plush interiors and stunning views of Monterey Bay.
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Best Things to Do in Monterey, California
Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Without a doubt, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the best things to do in Monterey. It features marine life ranging from seat otters to sardines. And there, you can observe a giant Pacific octopus, peek into an underwater kelp forest, and visit with African penguins.
Stroll Old Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row
There’s always something to do at the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, an area brimming with shops and restaurants. It’s been a tourist area since the 1950s when the sardines that made Cannery Row what it was disappeared. Today, it’s also the take-off point for whale-watching tours, fishing and sailing trips, and Monterey Bay cruises.
Spend the afternoon in Carmel-by-the-Sea
There’s nothing quite like Carmel. With its whimsical architecture and knotty, twisted trees, visitors feel like they’ve been dropped straight into a fairytale. Don’t miss highlights like the seaside Clinton Walker House by Frank Lloyd Wright and Carmel Mission Basilica.
Helpful read: Best Things to Do in Carmel-by-the-Sea
Try Oaxacan cuisine at Alejandro’s
Open 7 days a week, this Mexican-inspired bar and restaurant features specialties including ceviches, halibut tacos, and citrus-marinated branzino. Dishes both draw on the availability of local seafood and bring the flavors of Oaxaca to California. The restaurant from chef Alex Moncada is part of a family business that’s been thriving in the area since 1981.
Drive along the 17-mile drive and see the attractions
For the area’s best views, hop in the car and head down 17-Mile Drive. There are 17 stops you can make on the drive for a self-guided tour. A couple of my favorites are Lone Cyprus and the John Denver Memorial. I also love the ghost cypress trees at Pescadero Point in the Del Monte forest.
Important information: Gates to the drive are open to the public from sunrise to sunset, and there is a $11.25 charge per vehicle.
Stroll Along the Ocean in Pacific Grove
Up the Coastal Recreation Trail, you can take in some of the area’s best vistas from Pacific Grove. It’s a beautiful place to meander along the coast. Make sure to stop at Lover’s Point Park and Beach, an area perfect for picnicking, swimming, fishing, and other activities. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is another must-visit stop to see the many seals who call it home.
Take a whale-watching tour
Humpback whales, blue whales, gray whales, and killer whales all make their way through Monterey Bay throughout the year. And there’s no better way to see them than aboard a whale-watching boat. Several companies operate tours that can help you get up close and personal with these fascinating creatures.
These are the highest-rated whale-watching tours in Monterey:
2-3 Hour Tour on Princess Monterey (most likely to sell out)
Half-Day Whale Watching Tour
Most Popular 3-Hour Whale-Watching Tour
Hike in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Called the “crown jewel” of the California State Parks system, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is not to be missed. There are several hiking trails to choose from that will take you all over the park. In addition to hiking, it’s a great place for painting, photography, diving, jogging, and other activities.
Eat Fresh Pastries at Alta Bakery
Alta Bakery, which features locally grown, seasonal ingredients, should be on every foodie’s Monterey list. Every item is made fresh each day, and the café also features heartier fare such as quinoa bowls, salads, and frittatas. The bakery is housed within the Cooper-Molera Adobe, a historic site in downtown Monterey.
Go Kayaking in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
For those who love getting out on the water, kayaking through the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is an unmatched experience. The area is brimming with small underwater wildlife, including crabs and jellyfish, and larger animals like seals, sea lions, and otters. You can also spot fish-eating birds such as pelicans, loons, and cormorants.
Take an eco-tour up Moss Landing with Monterey Bay Eco Tours
If you’d rather not do your own paddling, hop on an electric-powered catamaran ride. Monterey Bay Eco Tours will take you to explore the Elkhorn Slough, one of the state’s largest tidal waterways.
The 1.5-hour trip provides plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife. There’s even an on-board naturalist to help point out animals and answer questions. For a different vibe, you can book the Elkhorn Slough tour at sunset.
Go Wine Tasting in Carmel Valley
Carmel Valley has been an official wine region for 40 years. Its Cabernet Sauvignon Merlo varietals, which comprise 70% of the valley, are not to be missed. You can either check out wineries individually or put together a tour by visiting a couple. My personal favorites are Folktale Winery and Holman Ranch.
Helpful read: The Ultimate Guide to Carmel Valley
Play a round of golf at Pebble Beach
For golfers, there’s nothing quite like Pebble Beach Golf Links, rated the country’s top public golf course. The course has hosted its fair share of stars after welcoming its sixth U.S. Open in 2019. That’s more than any other course in the last 50 years.
Try a classic clam chowder at the Old Fisherman’s Grotto
Those who enjoy clam chowder should absolutely make a point to have some in Monterey, given its access to seafood. The award-winning Old Fisherman’s Grotto is the perfect place to do it. It was the first to develop “Monterey style” chowder with its garlic butter-toasted bread bowl.
Visit the Monterey State Historic Park
Explore Monterey’s history at the Monterey State Historic Park. It’s a collection of historic houses and buildings around Monterey. Guided, hour-long tours are available regularly and will help you get to know the city. Afterward, walk for just 10 minutes on foot to keep the tour going with a visit to the Monterey Museum of Art.