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25 Exciting Things to Do in Monterey, California!

Considering a trip to Monterey? Whether it’s just the city you plan to visit, or the Monterey Peninsula as a whole, you will find a wealth of recreational opportunities to enjoy.

With one of the most diverse marine environments on the planet, Monterey is famous for its whale watching, which you can do year round, and for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is fun for kids and adults alike. It also has a rich history and scenic walking trails.

Whale and Sea Birds in Monterey Bay California

There are so many fun things to do in Monterey, and around Monterey, that you can plan a long vacation in the area: a week or more will fly by as you explore Monterey and the charming neighboring towns. But Monterey Bay, with its relaxed vibe, is also the ideal California weekend getaway, or even a fun day trip from San Francisco or the SF Bay Area.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Things to Do in Monterey
Things to Do Near Monterey
Getting to Monterey, CA
Where to Stay in Monterey, CA
Where to Eat in Monterey
The Best Time to Visit Monterey, California

Things to Do in Monterey

Go on a Whale Watching Tour

Monterey is without a doubt one of the best places in the world to go whale watching. The Monterey Submarine Canyon allows for whales and dolphins to be seen close to shore, even with the naked eye.

But for the best experience, book a whale watching tour. On one tour a couple of years ago, we saw almost 50 whales, fluking, spouting, and breaching. It was the most marvelous sight. While sightings aren’t guaranteed, you are more likely than not to see whales and other marine life.

Whale watching is one of the top things to do in Monterey California

Whale watching trips of the bay from Monterey are offered year round. Depending on the time of year, you may see gray whales, humpback whales, blue whales, or killer whales. Fin whales and minke whales are less common.

You may also see dolphins, porpoises, and a variety of sea birds on your tour. On a good weather day, the scenery is stunning as well.

This highly-rated half-day whale watching tour departs from Fisherman’s Wharf and offers 3.5 hours of cruising in Monterey Bay to look for whales, dolphins, sea lions, and birds. On board, a naturalist or marine biologist offers commentary. Book this tour now!

Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium

The world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium is housed in a structure on Cannery Row, by the ocean. Visiting the aquarium is one of the most popular things to do in Monterey, for both kids and adults.

Jellyfish in the Monterey Bay Aquarium

At the aquarium, you can observe a variety of marine habitats, from kelp forests to the open sea and the rocky shores. From sharks and sea bass to the giant Pacific octopus and the colorful inhabitants of tide pools, you can view lots of interesting creatures.

We enjoy the aviary, which features many local birds, including the endangered western snowy plover. Oystercatchers, phalaropes, stilts, and curlews are some other birds you can see here. And of course, there is a penguin exhibit.

In season, the aquarium does get crowded during the day, especially on weekends. Plan on visiting during the week if possible, and arrive early, at opening time.

Kayak or SUP in Monterey Bay

If you are looking for an active way to explore the beautiful waters of Monterey Bay, consider kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding. The waters of Monterey Bay are sheltered and placid, making it a fun spot to paddle.

Kayaking beautiful Monterey Bay California

Rentals are available at several places in town. Popular places to launch include Cannery Row in Monterey, Lovers Point Park in Pacific Grove, and Stillwater Cove in Carmel. You can join guided tours as well.

As you paddle through the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, look for otters frolicking in the kelp, harbor seals swimming in the water or lazing on rocks, and a variety of birds flying overhead or perched on rocks.

Don’t forget to look into the water for fish, and enjoy the views of Cannery Row in Monterey from the water!

Stroll Cannery Row

Today’s Cannery Row is full of restaurants, shops, and hotels, but once it was the center of a large-scale sardine canning industry. The setting for John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, Cannery Row used to be called Ocean View Avenue.

Cannery Row in Monterey California

From 1908 until the end of World War II, except around the time of the Great Depression, canneries flourished along the waterfront here. But after WWII, sardines mysteriously disappeared from Monterey Bay, causing canneries to close and the area to fall into ruin.

In the late 1960s, developers revived the area and made it a tourist draw, with a plethora of shopping, lodging, and dining. Today the street is thriving once more, and a stroll along Cannery Row is a must for most visitors to Monterey.

Have Ice Cream with a View at Ghirardelli!

Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop is one of our favorite stops on Cannery Row. While San Francisco is where the company was founded, the Monterey shop is a fun stop if you enjoy sweet treats.

Sit in the balcony outdoors to enjoy your ice cream. The balcony features outstanding views of the ocean, and gulls occasionally perch on the railing. Their sundaes are deliciously decadent and creamy.

View from Ghirardelli, Monterey California

The shop also carries a wide variety of Ghirardelli chocolate squares in various flavors (you may even get one to taste as you enter!), and various souvenir packs.

Walk the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail

If all that chocolate and ice cream has you ready to burn off some calories, walk the beautiful Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. The trail actually runs for 18 miles, from Castroville in the north to Pacific Grove in the south.

View from the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail in Monterey California

Located along the old tracks of the Southern Pacific Railway, the Coastal Recreation Trail is paved, with two lanes, one in each direction. It features beautiful views and the chance to see wildlife and birds.

You can pick up the trail at Cannery Row, and walk it to its southern end in Pacific Grove and back, for a total of about 3 miles.

Or you can enjoy a surrey ride or regular bike ride in either direction. If you are visiting with kids, they will love the surrey bike experience! Note that some parts of the trail have specific bike and pedestrian lanes.

Enjoy Old Fisherman’s Wharf

Old Fisherman’s Wharf has a rich history. It was built in the mid 1800s to receive passengers and freight. In 1919, the first restaurant opened at the wharf, serving breaded fried abalone steaks.

Other businesses and restaurants followed, and, after a mishap in 1923, Old Fisherman’s Wharf was rebuilt stronger and longer. The wharf assisted in the growth of the sardine canning business in Monterey.

Old  Fisherman's Wharf Monterey California

After sardines disappeared from the waters of Monterey Bay, the wharf shifted from being a business center to a tourist-oriented destination. The wharf became home to restaurants, fish markets, tour operators, and souvenir shops.

Walk the wharf to enjoy the beautiful views of the ocean and the harbor, browse the shops (the saltwater taffy is great!), and dine on fresh seafood by the water.

Fisherman’s Wharf is the departure point for Monterey whale watching cruises. You can also enjoy sailing trips, fishing charters, and glass-bottomed boat tours from the wharf.

Tour Monterey State Historic Park

An aggregation of a number of historic buildings, Monterey State Historic Park is a must-tour if you enjoy local history. Guided walks may be offered when you visit: join one if you can, for a fascinating peek into the city’s past.

Sherman Quarters at Larkin House in Monterey California

Monterey served as California’s capital under three different regimes: first Spain, then Mexico, and finally the United States. Monterey began to be colonized by the Spanish in the later half of the 18th century.

The Spanish built the Presidio, and the Mission de San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey. The mission was later moved to Carmel. The Mexicans built the Custom House, California’s first State Historic Landmark.

On the walk, you will see as many as a dozen historic buildings and adobe homes, beautiful heritage gardens, and even a whalebone walkway. View exhibits at the Pacific House Museum prior to your walk.

The Larkin House, on Calle Principal, is both a National and California Historic Landmark. Built in 1835, it is reported to be the first two-story house in California.

The Larkin House in Monterey, California

Enjoy the Monterey Museum of Art

The Monterey Museum of Art has a permanent collection of California art and photography, with rotating displays. It also offers other temporary exhibitions.

Don’t miss the early California art works from before 1945 that showcase the area’s history of being an art colony.

Monterey Museum of Art in California

Browse the Salvador Dali Museum

Art lovers will also want to visit the Salvador Dali Exhibition at the Monterey History & Art Association, located in the Custom House Plaza.

The permanent exhibition features an impressive collection of sculptures, lithographs, tapestries, and etchings by the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali. It is the largest private Dali collection on the US West Coast.

Visit the San Carlos Cathedral

When Father Junipero Serra and Don Gaspar de Portola established Monterey in 1770, they built the Presidio of Monterey and the Mission de San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey.

San Carlos Cathedral in Monterey California

The mission was moved to Carmel the following year, and the original church in Monterey served as a chapel for the soldiers at the Presidio. The current structure dates from the late 18th century, and is the oldest stone building in the state.

San Carlos was designated a cathedral in 1849. The church was extensively repaired and restored in the early 21st century. Built in the Spanish Colonial style, San Carlos is the oldest continuously functioning church in California and is still active.

The San Carlos Royal Chapel, a National Historic Landmark, is located within walking distance of Fisherman’s Wharf in downtown Monterey and is worth a visit if you enjoy history, culture, art, and architecture.

Sample Local Wines

You will find several tasting rooms in downtown Monterey, where you can sample California wines.

A flight of wines for tasting

Some of our favorites:

  • A Taste of Monterey, which also offers food, and has a gorgeous oceanfront setting on Cannery Row. Ask for a table by the water and enjoy local wines or local craft beers with an ocean view!
  • Pierce Ranch Vineyards has their tasting room on Wave Street in downtown Monterey. The tasting room features the limited production estate wines from their San Antonio Valley vineyards. Their wines are excellent.
  • Bargetto Winery from the Santa Cruz Mountains has a tasting room on Cannery Row, along with one in Santa Cruz. We love their dessert wine

Look for Wildlife, Marine Life, and Birds

The Monterey Coast Guard Pier is a great place from which to look for marine life and sea birds. It is a great place from which to see and hear sea lions, and you may see otters playing in the water, harbor seals, and a variety of birds.

Sea Lions in Monterey California

Along trails and inland, away from the more commercial parts of town, you will likely see deer, wild turkeys, a variety of land birds, and, if you walk early in the day, perhaps even a bobcat or a coyote.

We stayed in a vacation rental along the Highway 68 corridor on one of our visits, and even saw a mountain lion when we were out on an early morning walk. Not sure who was more surprised, the lion or us!

Enjoy Wildflowers in Season

In the spring, the hills around Monterey are flush with wildflowers. You will likely see wildflowers along the roadsides and by trails, no matter where in Monterey you stroll. Patches of poppies and wild mustard are everywhere.

The hills along Highway 68, and in Toro Park in particular, are great places to look for wildflowers. At peak bloom, you will see entire hillsides clothed in purple as sky lupines put on a show.

Lupines in Monterey California in the spring

Shop

Shop for souvenirs, antiques, and art along Cannery Row. If you enjoy shopping, also visit the one-of-a-kind stores along Alvarado Street in downtown Monterey.

You will find art and photography galleries, and stores selling jewelry, apparel, gifts, home decor, and wine and foods along Cannery Row. Alvarado Street is home to some nice apparel boutiques.

Things to Do Near Monterey

Do the Scenic 17-Mile Drive through Pebble Beach

The 17-Mile Drive through Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach features beautiful coastal scenery. Starting at the Sunset Drive gate in Pacific Grove, the drive takes you past Spanish Bay to provide stunning vistas of beaches, the ocean, and golf courses, before finishing up in Carmel.

The Lone Cypress, on the 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach, California

Must-stop points along the route include the famous Lone Cypress, a photogenic Monterey Cypress tree that stands at the water’s edge, Bird Rock, Fan Shell Beach, and the Cypresses of Crocker Grove. There are pullouts where you can stop to admire the views and take photos.

There is an entrance fee per vehicle, $10.50 at the time of writing. It is reimbursed if you spend up to $35.00 at a Pebble Beach restaurant. Motorcycles are not allowed.

For a more active way to experience this scenic drive, check out this popular 3-hour electric bike tour from Pacific Grove. Ride tandem with young kids. Your guide will offer commentary along the way and have you stop at the best viewpoints on the route. Book this tour now!

Explore Fort Ord National Monument

If you enjoy the outdoors, you will want to explore Fort Ord National Monument, which has over 86 miles of trails. You can hike, bike, or go horseback riding in the monument, which features many different environments, from hills to grasslands.

View from a hiking trail at Fort ord National Monument in Salinas

Trails at Fort Ord are open from dawn to dusk, and are great for viewing wildlife, birds, and wildflowers in season. The monument is home to numerous wildlife species, many of which are endangered and can’t be found elsewhere.

At Fort Ord, you may see black-tailed deer, wild turkeys, bobcats, coyotes, California quail, and even mountain lions. In spring, the meadows and hillsides, draped with wildflowers, are stunning. The monument is a fabulous place to get out into nature.

Fort Ord has two main entrances: off Highway 68 in Salinas, and off Reservation Road in Salinas. We normally visit via the Highway 68 entrance, which leads to the Badger Hills Trailhead.

Visit the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas

If you enjoyed John Steinbeck’s many novels set in the region, you will want to stop by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. Steinbeck grew up in Salinas, and you can also visit John Steinbeck House, the childhood home of the author, located near the museum.

The museum has an impressive collection of Steinbeck memorabilia, including manuscripts, family documents, photographs, letters, films, and artifacts. The multi-sensory permanent exhibition is a fun and interesting way to learn more about Steinbeck and his works, as well as the Salinas Valley.

Tour the Vineyards on River Road in Salinas

The River Road Wine Trail stretches along the Santa Lucia Highlands, offering spectacular views of the fertile Salinas Valley below. The drive is especially scenic in the spring, when the hills turn an emerald green.

Enjoy wine tasting in a relaxed setting at the River Road wineries, many of which are small family-owned operations. The person pouring your wine may even be the vintner, making for fun discussions as you sip.

Discover the Historic Town of Pacific Grove

The town of Pacific Grove is quaint and historic, with many beautiful heritage buildings and homes to admire, and a spectacular oceanfront to explore. Among the many things to do in Pacific Grove, here are a few you must not miss:

  • Walk the Asilomar Coastal Trail: the trail runs along the ocean, and, if you choose, you can explore the rocks and tidepools along the way.
  • Spend time on the sandy Asilomar Beach.
  • Do a walking tour of the historic homes in downtown Pacific Grove.
  • Watch the sun rise at Lovers Point Park.
The rocky coastline of Pacific Grove in Central California

Visit the Charming Village of Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is super picturesque, with charming storybook cottages, a village square with secret passageways and flower-filled courtyards, and a pristine sandy beach. Here are some Carmel highlights to consider including in your itinerary for the Monterey peninsula:

  • Visit the Carmel Mission. The Basilica is beautiful, and the gardens are lovely.
  • Stroll Carmel Village to admire the architecture and browse the stores and art galleries
  • Enjoy wine tastings and sample California farm fresh cuisine at the many quality eateries
A cute cottage in Carmel California

Do the Elkhorn Slough Birding Safari in Moss Landing

Moss Landing is a mecca for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Located on Monterey Bay, about 20 miles north of Monterey, Moss Landing is a great place for viewing whales and other marine mammals, even from shore.

If you enjoy birdwatching and wildlife viewing, you will love this highly rated boat tour of Elkhorn Slough, a vibrant wetland teeming with birds, otters, sea lions, and more. The one-hour tour is a wonderful relaxed outing with great opportunities for wildlife photography.

You can also go kayaking in Elkhorn Slough: the waters are calm and sheltered, making it the perfect place to paddle. And if you enjoy seafood, Phil’s Fish Market is the place to go for the freshest, finest seafood.

Otter in Monterey Bay California

Hike Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and Garrapata State park

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is one of California’s most beautiful state parks. Walk the Point Lobos hiking trails, many of which offer ocean views and the chance to view sea birds and marine life. Snap photos of stunning China Cove and gorgeous Gibson Beach.

The park is located a short drive south of Monterey, along scenic California Highway 1. Parking inside the park is limited, so plan to arrive early if you want to snag a spot.

If you don’t mind driving a bit further along the Big Sur coast, you can also hike Garrapata State Park, especially if you visit when the park’s famous Calla Lily Valley is at its showy best.

Calla Lily Valley in Garrapata State Park Big Sur California

Tour Vineyards in Carmel Valley

Just driving through Carmel Valley is relaxing. The countryside is bucolic, with horses grazing in pastures, lambs frolicking in backyards in the spring, and fields of wildflowers in season.

Carmel Valley is known for its wineries, so if you enjoy wine tasting, plan a tasting tour! The valley is especially famous for its cabernet sauvignon and merlot wines.

Stop at the Earthbound Farms stand, to tour the demo gardens and have a simple but delicious lunch or soup and salad, made with fresh ingredients from the farm.

Fresh flowers for sale at Earthbound Farms in Carmel Valley California

Look for Street Art in the Monterey Peninsula

From Pacific Grove to Seaside and Sand City, you will find lots of street art to admire on the Monterey Peninsula. Most of the murals have been created by local artists, and showcase some aspect of life on the peninsula.

In Pacific Grove, look for the historic California History mural on the wall of the Central Avenue Pharmacy, created way back in 1968, by Irish artist Bernard McDonagh. Carmel has a shell mural at the corner of 6th Avenue and Mission Street.

The historic mural by McDonagh at Central Avenue Pharmacy in Pacific Grove, California

Getting to Monterey, CA

Monterey Regional Airport has flight services from several major US cities, so it’s easy to fly in if you choose. Many visitors to Monterey, however, arrive by road as well. Monterey is a must stop on a California road trip itinerary!

Monterey makes for one of the many fun weekend getaways from San Francisco (or the SF Bay Area) you can do. The drive is just about two hours via the freeway, in normal traffic. If you start early, you could even do a day trip from San Francisco (or Silicon Valley) to Monterey.

From LA, the drive to Monterey is about 5 hours by the highway, so plan on a relaxing weekend getaway to the Monterey Peninsula from the LA area.

If you are looking for weekend road trip getaways from San Diego. Monterey, at about 6.5 hours, is doable, especially if you choose a long weekend or tack on a vacation day to a regular weekend. Or, plan a longer vacation and explore all of the beautiful Monterey Peninsula!

Looking for a car rental for your Monterey getaway? Check out Discover Cars! They scour multiple providers to get the best price for you.

School of dolphins in Monterey California

Where to Stay in Monterey, CA

Hotels in Monterey, CA

Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa features beautiful bay views, a full service spa, a hot tub with fabulous views, and a private beach. Located close to Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the hotel offers spacious, well-appointed rooms, with dedicated sitting areas. Book a stay here!

Intercontinental the Clement Monterey is located on Cannery Row, walking distance to shopping, wine tasting, and dining. The hotel features an onsite spa, a pool, and a children’s club. Rooms are spacious and elegantly furnished. Some rooms have partial or full ocean views. Book a stay here!

Portola Hotel & Spa is located in downtown Monterey, only about a mile from Cannery Row. Walk to shopping and dining. Rooms are bright and cheerful, with contemporary furnishings. Beds are described as super comfy. The onsite spa is highly rated. Book a stay here!

Dramatic seascape in Monterey California

Vacation Rentals in Monterey

This sunny VRBO home is located in Del Rey Oaks, about a 10-minute drive from Monterey and Carmel. The 2-bedroom, 2-bath home is located on a rise and has a terraced garden in the front. Interiors are bright and well-appointed, and there is a full kitchen. An enclosed patio offers seating. Book a stay here!

This Monterey Bay bungalow has two bedrooms and 1.5 baths, and is located in Seaside, a short drive from Monterey and Carmel. The home has an enclosed private courtyard for barbecues and a full kitchen. Two guest passes to the Monterey Bay Aquarium are provided for use during your stay. Book a stay here!

This charming cottage has two bedrooms and one bathroom, and a location with easy access to California Highway 1. The large fenced backyard has landscaping and seating and a barbecue grill. Interior spaces are well appointed. Book a stay here!

Famous Seventh Hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California

Where to Eat in Monterey

Esteban is a Spanish-Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Monterey. They have a beautiful patio for outdoor dining. The eclectic menu features the best seasonal, locally-grown produce and locally-sourced meats and fish. We loved the vegetable tagine and the saffron arancini. For lighter options, visit for happy hour.

Old Fisherman’s Grotto is good for anything seafood. The fish and chips are crunchy and delicious. Their clam chowder is famous. Ask for a table with views of the Monterey Harbor!

Loulou’s Griddle in the Middle, located on the pier, is a tiny place, but the food will have you waiting to return. The pancakes are huge, but their fish and chips and award-winning clam chowder are must-tries too.

Bistro Moulin in located on Cannery Row. The bistro serves classic French cuisine, meticulously prepared. The sauces are rich and the flavors superb. Try the Crepes Normandes, stuffed with chicken and mushrooms.

The Fish Hopper Restaurant in Monterey

The Fish Hopper Restaurant has a spectacular location, in an old cannery building. Every table offers stunning views of the ocean and the outdoor patio is heated. The menu includes lots of fresh seafood, but steaks and pasta as well.

Monterey has two delightful bakery-cafes. If you enjoy sweet treats, stop in for a pastry (or three!). Paris Bakery and Parker Lusseau both have locations in downtown Monterey.

The Best Time to Visit Monterey, California

Monterey is a year round destination. The Monterey Peninsula offers fun activities and great weather any time of the year.

Spring is beautiful on the Monterey Peninsula. The hills are clothed in bright fresh green, there are wildflowers everywhere, and the weather is ideal for outdoor activities like hiking and biking.

A hummingbird at Earthbound Farms in Carmel Valley in the spring

Fall brings warm temperatures during the Indian summer. In the summer, the marine layer does come in most days, but it generally burns off by mid day. Winter does bring occasional rain in drought-free years, so bring rain gear, or pick a dry patch to visit. Winter sunrises and sunsets are beautiful here.

Bring layers, so you can stay warm if it gets cool and breezy, especially on or near the ocean. Also pack closed-toed shoes for trail walking.

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Looking to explore more of Central California? Check out some of our other articles on fun Central California destinations!

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Discover the best things to do in Monterey, California, from whale watching and visiting the famous aquarium to wine tasting and nature trails.

Dhara

Dhara loves to explore her home state of California. With her husband Kishore, she has done numerous road trips in the state in every season. She hopes to share her love of the Golden State with you, and help you find your own exciting experiences here.

2 thoughts on “25 Exciting Things to Do in Monterey, California!”

  1. Hi, I just read your article about things to do in and around Monterey and Carmel. I lived in the area in the early to mid 80s. It still has a home in my heart. While I know many things are closed right now, this brought me back with fond memories. I hope Monterey recovers from the pandemic, because I hope to visit again. Thanks. It’s a great article.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for writing in, Bonnie. It is indeed a beautiful area, the perfect blend of history, good food, and outdoor activities. I do hope you get to return in the future.

      Reply

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