Visit Monterey to immerse in its vibrant coastal atmosphere that sits at the crossroads of nature, culture, and history.
Experience the enchanting coastline as gentle waves wash up on sandy beaches shaded by Cypress trees. Witness firsthand a city that inspired countless famed authors and painters, whose legacies remain some of the top tourist attractions. See how the former fishing industry gave birth to many of the top dining, shopping, and entertainment venues around town.
Located about 2 hours south of San Francisco, this coastal gem has something to do for everyone. So, let’s check out the best things to do in Monterey, California!
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COOLEST PLACES TO STAY IN MONTEREY
Best Luxury Option. Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa boasts classic, California coastal experiences with spectacular crashing ocean views. The hotel sits on a pier, so you’re practically surrounded by gorgeous Pacific views.
Oceanfront for Less. Monterey Tides is the only Monterey hotel with a privately-owned beachfront. The glass-enclosed lobby instantly treats guests to intoxicating bay and ocean views.
Best Downtown. Monterey Marriott is a great downtown location, yet still only a 6-minute walk to the beach. The hotel is situated along the waterfront overlooking Monterey Bay, and nearby a number of great Monterey restaurants.
Stunning views from your car as you loop around the Monterey Peninsula make the 17-Mile Drive one of the most scenic driving routes in California. And this journey is full of stops along the way that you don’t want to miss.
Start the trip by passing through Pebble Beach, where you’ll find the iconic Lone cypress perched on the rocky coast. Continue along the route hugging the coastal edge, and you’ll reach Cypress Point, the westernmost point on the peninsula. Harbor seals inhabit the coastal beaches, and pelicans soaring overhead are just a few of the wildlife you’ll spot.
Head north towards Point Joe for a popular photo opportunity location or choose to spend a moment taking in the beautiful scenery at Spanish Bay. As you complete the loop, you’ll drive through the Del Monte Forest of Monterey Cypress Trees and the Pacific Grove.
Book It: 17-Mile Drive Guided E-Bike Tour
MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM
Discover the rich marine live thriving off the Pacific Coast at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This ocean-front venue gives you direct access to explore the underwater world featuring large viewing tanks, touch pools and interactive exhibits. (Pro tip: It’s a must-do when you’re in Monterey with kids)
Monterey Bay Aquarium presents multiple exhibitions like Mission to the Deep and Rocky Shore that include creatures native to the ecosystems. Make sure to check out their newest exhibit: Into the Deep. Native marine life like California halibut and white sturgeon swim amongst other commonly found animals like sea otters, sea turtles, sharks, penguins, and schools of sardines navigating the living kelp forests.
Visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium is designed to be a fun yet educational activity for all ages. Large tanks tower over you, providing one of the best viewing experiences in California while learning about each of the animals exhibited inside of it. Check out information plaques on your self-guided tour.
Read More: 29 BEST AQUARIUMS IN THE U.S. YOU HAVE TO VISIT
Discount Tickets: Monterey and Carmel Day Tour With Aquarium Tickets
With sweeping views of the golden sand coast, it’s no wonder why Monterey Bay is such a beautiful destination to visit. With beaches, coastal towns, and even major cities situated on the bayside, it’s a place to experience from the shore or the water.
Monterey Bay shoreline extends for 31.5-miles, primarily lined with beaches. The bay is a popular place for water recreation and tourism. Staying in Monterey means that you’ll always be minutes away from enjoying the bay.
Monterey State Beach and Del Monte Beach are two of the top beaches located along the bay. The rugged coastline creates unique pockets of secluded beach areas, natural pools, and the perfect sand conditions for sunbathing in the California sun. The beaches are also ideal for swimming, boating, or admiring the views from one of the local waterfront restaurants.
Discount Tickets: Guided Walking Food Tour with Tastings
MONTEREY PENINSULA REC TRAIL
Step out for a day of leisure or exercise when you set out on the Monterey Peninsula Rec Trail. Whether you’re looking to go sightseeing along the coast, or complement your daily bike ride with views overlooking the Pacific, this trail is a place for everyone.
Picturesque beaches, boat-lined harbors, lazy coastal towns, and fishing piers are just a few of the things you’ll encounter along the 18-mile route between the Pacific Grove and Castroville.
Monterey Peninsula Rec Trail is a paved path accessible for walking, jogging, and biking. The entire route follows along the coast with cool breezes from the Pacific refreshing you as you make your way along the rec trails. The morning and the evening are popular times on the rec trail to catch the sunrise or sunset, or see locals running before starting their workday.
Read more: 12 Fun Things to Do in Monterey with Kids
MONTEREY BAY COASTAL RECREATIONAL TRAIL
Get out and enjoy the outdoors during your visit to Monterey. The Monterey Bay Coastal Recreational Trail winds along the coast to witness some of the best scenery in Monterey.
Rent bikes for the day and cruise the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreational Trail. The paved trail begins at Lovers Point Park, a popular viewpoint overlooking the bay. Keep your eyes on the water while cruising past the Lovers Point State Marine Reserve, where you’re sure to spot sea otters, seals, or other marine life off the coast.
As you make your way along the trail, feel free to stop by the benches for a moment to take in the sights. You’ll see famous attractions like the Old Fisherman’s Wharf jutting from the shore and the Monterey State Beach, where you can end your trek on the trail with a refreshing swim in Monterey Bay.
OLD FISHERMAN’S WHARF
Old Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey sits on preserved wooden beams that have held it up since it was first built in 1845. This historic pier was formerly used as an open-air fish market, but eventually boomed into one of the most visited sites in Monterey.
Hosting more than four million tourists every year, the Old Fisherman’s Wharf is always buzzing with activity. Soothing sounds of seabirds calling and waves crashing below set the perfect waterfront atmosphere to check out the pier. Colorful historic buildings house charming boutique shops where you can pick up the best souvenirs.
If you’re feeling hungry, there are a dozen restaurants to choose from—seafood is always recommended to taste the fresh catch from the day. After a meal, catch a show playing at the Wharf Theatre, climb aboard a glass-bottom boat for a bay tour, or enjoy sunset views over the Monterey Harbor.
The captivating charm of Cannery Row, made famous by author John Steinbeck, ranks it among the top things to do in Monterey. During the day, this former sardine canning district is busy with family fun activities, shopping, and dining. By night, the district becomes a hub for Monterey nightlife and entertainment.
Did you know that Monterey is a former sardine capital of the world? The sardine canning factories that once occupied the buildings in the Cannery Row district are now replaced with boutique shops, contemporary hotels, and more. In addition, you’ll find original signage throughout the district extending over the avenue preserving its heritage.
While walking the waterfront district, stop by Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar to indulge in a gourmet meal with bayside views. Or grab a drink at the Cannery Row Brewing Company.
Adventures by the Sea offers kayaking, paddle boarding, and electric and traditional bike rentals here, so you can explore even more of this amazing area.
POINT LOBOS STATE NATURAL RESERVE
Picture-perfect views across the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve have allured the creative eyes of painters that have tried to capture its beauty in art. But this is a natural masterpiece best experienced with your own eyes.
Hiking trails extending along the coast offer endless views of the sea. Birds fly overhead as sea lions leap from the waters, and whales breach the surface for a breath of air. Trails loop past Whale Cove and a whaling museum. You’ll see plenty of people offshore in the turquoise waters geared up in scuba equipment to explore the depths of the bay. Tours are available that take tourists to the best nearby dive sites.
The Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a protected state park area preserved for its untouched natural setting. It’s located on Big Sur and includes both land and underwater regions.
Read More: 12 OF THE ABSOLUTE BEST THINGS TO DO IN BIG SUR
Transport through time as you take a walk through the charming village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. This former mission site is now a sleepy beach town in Monterey County, full of unique history, architecture, and rocky coves.
The restored yellow facade of the Carmel Mission Basilica traces its history back to the late 18th century. Take a guided tour of the mission site to learn about its Spanish heritage, see the stunning courtyard, and exhibitions across five museums.
Kickstart your day with a coffee at Carmel Valley Roasting company before going for a walk down Ocean Ave, where you’ll find quaint boutique shops like McKinley Antiques to purchase unique gifts.
After checking out the town, spend the afternoon at Carmel River State Beach. Lather on the sunscreen before relaxing on the warm golden sands. The afternoon waves at this popular surf spot are the perfect way to cool off on a hot day.
Read More: 15 OUTSTANDING THINGS TO DO IN CARMEL, CALIFORNIA
Discount Tickets: Private Surfing Lessons
DOWNTOWN PACIFIC GROVE
Downtown Pacific Grove is a photographer’s dream, with colorful Victorian-era buildings lining the tranquil streets. This historic district has become a tourist hotspot with shopping, dining, and sightseeing, all readily available for curious travelers.
More than 1,000 historical buildings are located throughout Pacific Grove, dating to the early 1900s. It’s a place that has it all—from discovering vintage treasures in trendy boutique shops like Maritas, or admiring the design of Holman Antique Plaza. Where Victorian mansions lining Lighthouse Ave are repurposed as cozy bed and breakfast inns, and a booming restaurant scene with Favaloro’s Big Night Bistro and Aliotti’s Victorian Corner being a couple of the local favorites.
Rent a scooter and cruise through the quiet streets of the district for a one-of-a-kind experience on the Monterey Peninsula.
Discount Tickets: Half-day Wine Country Tour
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON HOUSE
The sign outside reads “French Hotel,” where Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson once lived. The building is now part of his legacy and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places to gain insight into the famed author’s life.
The Robert Louis Stevenson House remains well preserved after being built over a century ago. It’s open to the public for tours inside to see original literary works from the late author and other family memorabilia kept from throughout his lifetime. The museum includes two stories of rooms designed with period décor to reimagine his life in the house.
RLS House is one of the historic buildings to see as part of a Monterey State Historic Park. The Robert Louis Stevenson State Park includes hiking trails to landmarks like the Mount Saint Helena summit for sweeping views of the Bay Area. Monterey’s Old Custom House can also be found here. The Old Custom House, the oldest government building in California, is open for tours daily.
The Pacific Coast is one of the best locations in the United States for whale watching. All year round, more than 20,000 whales of different species migrate north or south, depending on the season. The good news for tourists is that Monterey is one of the top whale-watching spots on the Central Coast.
The waters around Monterey are part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and as such, the protected area features some of the best wildlife viewing in the world.
Monterey Bay is a popular stop for whales during their migration seasons. Humpback whales, gray whales, orcas, and even blue whales, the largest mammals on earth, frequently swim in the bay.
While you can see whales at any time of the year in Monterey, the best time for whale watching is March to November. Visitors have two different ways to see these majestic sea creatures—from land or at sea.
Make reservations for an exciting sea excursion on a whale-watching tour. You’ll climb aboard and get within arm’s reach of these massive animals. As an alternative, hang out at the Old Fisherman’s Wharf or the coastal trails for chances to see whales from the shore.
Discount Tickets: Monterey Bay: Whale Watching Tour
MONTEREY MUSEUM OF ART
The Monterey Museum of Art on Pacific Street features galleries devoted to American and California painting, photography and contemporary art.
You’ll find rotating displays of their permanent California Art and Photography collection, as well as traveling exhibitions featured here.
You’ll find plenty of special events and workshops at the Monterey Museum of Art. Enjoy FREE after-hours access to the Museum on the First Friday of the month. Their galleries stay open late for an evening of art, music, and community gathering!
They also offer Free Family Fun Days throughout the year.
DAY TRIP TO PFEIFFER BIG SUR STATE PARK
Watch as the California landscape transforms before your eyes while driving south on CA-1 S to reach Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. This popular day trip from Monterey takes you to what many people call the “mini-Yellowstone.”
With over 1,000 acres, there are lots to discover inside Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Forested mountainsides of the Santa Lucia range hide a massive gorge carved out by the Bir Sur River. Witness as the water continues to rush through the rocky cliffs as nature continues to shape the landscape.
Nature trails like the Pfeiffer Falls Trail wind throughout redwood forests with trees living thousands of years before reaching a photogenic waterfall. Keep your eyes out for the wildlife lurking in the brush.
Soon, you’ll emerge on the rocky coastline with secluded beaches perfect for a refreshing dip in the sea.
Read More: 15 GREAT BIG SUR CAMPING SPOTS ADVENTURERS WILL LOVE
What is famous about Monterey, California?
Monterey, California is famous for its abundant sea life, and it’s a hot spot for whale watching in particular. Fresh seafood is also super popular here.
What can you do in Monterey in one day?
If you only have one day in Monterey, the main attractions are Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Cannery Row and Old Fisherman’s Wharf, wine tasting, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
When is the best time of year to visit Monterey, CA?
If you’re looking for great temps but less crowds, then the best time to visit Monterey, CA is in April and May. Not only will you be able to enjoy the water, but there are also food festivals in town during this time, including the Pebble Beach Food and Wine Fest.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO CALIFORNIA
- YOUR CALIFORNIA VACATION
- SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA: 29 Amazing Things To Do In Southern California
- SAN LUIS OBISPO: 15 Outstanding Things To Do In San Luis Obispo
- MORRO BAY: Kayaking To A Desert & Other Things To Do In Morro Bay
- SANTA CRUZ: 16 Best Things To Do In Santa Cruz For Coastal Fun
WHERE TO STAY IN MONTEREY
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