Otters. Wine tasting. Whale watching. Clam chowder. Monterey is one of the most beautiful towns along the California coast – and the most historically important! Famous for its incredible aquarium – part interactive museum, part animal conservation facility, part research lab – Monterey has loads to offer as a weekend trip from San Francisco. Which is why we visit Monterey several times a year!
Just two hours down the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco, Monterey’s world-class aquarium, fascinating history, fresh seafood, rich arts scene, and some of the country’s best wines make this coastal paradise a must-visit destination. Ours lays out all the best things to do in Monterey to help you plan your trip!
Table of Contents
Psst: Planning a California coast road trip? We’ve got a few other posts you’ll want to take a look at, or click here to see all of our California travel guides.
- Highway One Road Trip Itinerary & also The Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops
- 8 Charming Towns to Visit on California’s Central Coast, as well as specific travel guides for Cayucos, Morro Bay, and Paso Robles
- 14 Beautiful Big Sur Campgrounds: The Best Camping in Big Sur, California
Psst Looking for more California tips? Sign up and we’ll send you travel tips for our favorite spots in California!
- Where is Monterey? Monterey is located on the California coast, about two hours south of San Francisco and just under an hour north of Big Sur. If you’re driving the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll pass right through town – and it’s one of our favorite stops on Highway One!
- Wait, is Monterey a town or a county? It’s both! While the town of Monterey is the county’s biggest city center, Monterey county encompasses coastal towns like Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pacific Grove, Moss Landing, and Big Sur, and stretches inland to encompass the Salinas Valley, Los Padres National Forest, and Pinnacles National Park. But for the sake of this post, we’re focusing on things to do in the town of Monterey, as well as the surrounding areas on the Monterey peninsula.
- Where have I heard of Monterey before? If you’re a John Steinbeck fan, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Monterey – he grew up in nearby Salinas, and much of his writing was about this area, including the novella Cannery Row. I strongly recommend reading Cannery Row before your trip, as it will really enhance your visit! Or perhaps you recognize Monterey as the setting of the TV show Big Little Lies. The show was filmed all over town (although, for no good reason, there were a LOT of unnecessary shots driving over the Bixby Bridge… which is actually 45 minutes south of Monterey!) And if that doesn’t ring a bell, then you’ve probably heard of the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is arguably the best in the country, and possibly the world. (I’m ready to argue about it, anyway.)
- When is the best time to visit Monterey? The best time of year to visit Monterey is in spring between March and April. California’s springtime will be in full bloom, and this time of year also overlaps with the monarch butterfly migration, grey whale migrations, and the ice plant bloom in Pacific Grove. The second best time of year to visit Monterey is in the fall between September and October: the weather is perfect and it’s more likely to be clear and sunny. The worst time to visit Monterey is between May and August, when the entire coast is shrouded in “June gloom” and cold, foggy days are the norm. Yes, this is one of those weird northern California coastal quirks – summer is the worst time of year here! We visited in November, and the weather was clear, sunny and warm.
Things to Do in Monterey
History, culture, arts, and outdoors are just the beginning of Monterey things to do. Throw in some wine-tasting, marine critters, and fresh seafood, and you’re all set for an incredible coastal getaway!
A world-class aquarium, fascinating history, a rich arts scene, and some of the country’s best wines make this small town a must-visit destination. Here are the best things to do in Monterey.
Explore Cannery Row
Once lined with sardine canneries (which I’m sure smelled … great…), this central stretch of town is now home to Monterey’s world-famous aquarium, a few beaches, the InterContinental The Clement Monterey, and many other shops, and is the bustling epicenter of Monterey.
In between the shops and restaurants, you’ll see evidence of Monterey’s storied past. Walkways criss-cross overhead, which once housed industrial equipment to shuttle sardines from the ocean into the canning facilities, and a charming walking path has replaced what was once a bustling railway which transported cans of sardines and passengers up and down the California coast.
Murals portraying the area’s diverse population of workers appear in between storefronts, and the small, well-preserved homes that once housed those workers interrupt and otherwise modern stretch. Keep an eye out for signs explaining the historical significance of these landmarks or you might miss them!
If you’ve read John Steinbeck’s novella Cannery Row, then you’re already familiar with this street and its history. And if you’ve never read his novel, then pick up a copy before heading out on your adventure in Monterey! It will add a fascinating layer of depth to this bustling area and the people who lived there in decades past.
Other than popping into every shop that strikes your fancy, here are a few highlights along Cannery Row:
- See the real-life inspiration behind Steinbeck’s Cannery Row: Steinbeck’s influences can be seen everywhere along this stretch, and I’m not just referring to Cannery Row Monument on Steinbeck Plaza. The real-life inspiration for his novella and all of the historical places and people which were immortalized as characters from his book can be seen here. For instance, the original, still-preserved Pacific Biological Laboratories building (aka Doc’s Lab) still sits at 800 Cannery Row, where it was once inhabited by famed marine biologist and BFF of Steinbeck Ed Ricketts. To see it all and connect real life to the book, take this self-guided walking tour!
- Take a Guided Tour: This tour brings Steinbeck’s characters to life as you explore Cannery Row on foot. Learn about the history of Cannery Row, its significance in Monterey, and its role in Steinbeck’s literature.
- McAbee Beach is the perfect escape from town. Steps from Cannery Row – literally, down a set of stairs right off Steinbeck Plaza – this sandy expanse (at low tide, at least) is an ideal spot for picnicking, kayaking, or just taking in the view. In contrast to some of the more wild and pristine beaches in the area, McAbee is lined with old concrete walls reminiscent of Monterey’s industrial past.
Stroll the Boardwalk at Fisherman’s Wharf
Old Fisherman’s Wharf was first built in the mid-1800s for passengers and freight arriving in Monterey. The Wharf, run by the Monterey City Council beginning in 1913, supported the different industries and populations that used the waters of Monterey Bay. Chinese fishermen came for abalone and squid, Portuguese whalers came for the blubber of resident gray and humpback whales, Japanese fisherman came for salmon and abalone, and the Italian fisherman ignited the boom in the sardine industry.
In 1923, at the height of the sardine explosion in Monterey, the largest shipment of sardines was about to depart Fisherman’s Wharf. A ship that was about to be loaded with 20,000 cases of sardines tipped onto the wharf due to rough weather, and more than one hundred feet of the wharf collapsed. Needless to say, a lot of sardines were returned to the bay that day. (In hindsight, this incident definitely should have been taken as a sign of the impending collapse of the sardine industry, but ya know … there was money to be made!)
The Wharf was reconstructed and expanded, and the sardine industry continued to boom right up until it completely crashed after World War II, when the population of sardines was depleted thanks to overfishing (whoops). And like the rest of Monterey, Fisherman’s Wharf became a tourist attraction instead of a center of fishy industry!
Today, this pier is full of shops, restaurants, confectioneries, and whale-watching tours. On the weekends, you’ll often find the plaza out front stuffed with local vendors selling handicrafts and artwork or performing live music or magic tricks. It’s Monterey’s very own beach boardwalk!
- Carousel Candies: There’s no shortage of candy stores, taffy pullers, and fudge makers along Fisherman’s Wharf, so it’s hard to pick a favorite, but Carousel Candies is at the top of our list. Pick up all the fudge, chocolates, saltwater taffies, and dipped apples you can eat (plus more to take home) at this heavenly-smelling, bright pink establishment. We recommend the penuche fudge — oh, and if you buy two pieces of fudge, you get one free!
- Take a self-guided walking tour: This tour highlights the history of Fisherman’s Wharf, Portola Plaza, Custom House Plaza, the Pacific House Museum, the First Brick House Museum, and other historic Monterey buildings. This tour is a must for history lovers — or fans of the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies (you can see places where some scenes were filmed!).
- Water and Leaves: If all the walking, shopping, and fudge have got you dragging, perk up with a cup of tea or mug of coffee at Water and Leaves. This hip and trendy cafe features a local and sustainable menu of carefully crafted drinks and fresh pastries. You’ve also never sweetened your tea like they do it here — with six (yes, six) flavors of honey on tap. Plus, you can’t beat the view.
Learn About Monterey’s Rich History
Monterey played a critical role in the history of not just California, but also Spain, Mexico, and the USA. You see, Monterey was the capital of Alta California, a massive Spanish and later Mexican territory that included most of modern-day California, Nevada, and Utah, and parts of Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.
So yeah: it was kind of a big deal. Of course, just because Spain and Mexico claimed the area as their own didn’t necessarily mean much – much of Alta California was still fully under Indigenous control! Before Spain arrived to colonize the area, Monterey was part of the territory of the Ohlone tribe, who also lived in modern-day San Francisco and Oakland (and still do to this day).
When California was taken over by the United States in the mid-1800’s, Monterey welcomed groups of immigrants from Japan and China, joining the Mexican residents still living in the area. Monterey quickly became a center for industry, with a diverse population of workers to fuel its rapid growth and expansion.
In the mid-1800’s, shortly after being claimed by the United States, Monterey quickly became a hub for the bloody, booming whaling industry. Monterey Bay is a stop along the annual migration for Grey Whales (and many other whales), which meant it was also a fantastic place to hunt and kill whales to use their blubber as fuel.
Unfortunately, killing animals en masse is a great way to destroy their population and ruin your own industry, a fact that Monterey, unfortunately, had to learn twice. You can learn more about Monterey’s whaling history at the Old Whaling Station on Heritage Harbor.
Not to be deterred by the collapse of the whaling industry, in the early 1900’s Monterey soon re-emerged as a center for sardine fishing and canning. The sardine canning industry transformed Monterey, as new canneries popped up overnight along today’s Cannery Row. Sardines were fished from Monterey Bay by the boatload, transported across the street (along walkways that can still be seen today) to be canned or turned into fertilizer, and dropped off onto waiting railroad cars directly behind the canneries. Business was booming, and Monterey was soon known as the sardine capital of the world!
But as the sardine canning industry grew, the sardine population declined. And during WWII, even as soldiers all over the world relied on cans of sardines for their rations, the industry ground to a sudden, screeching halt. Monterey learned its second lesson in destroying animal populations for profit, and the industrial era of Monterey ended.
You’ll see evidence of Monterey’s sardine canning history all over Cannery Row, in converted and abandoned canneries still dotting the shoreline. Our hotel,InterContinental The Clement Monterey, was once a cannery, as was the Monterey Bay Aquarium and many other buildings along the town’s central strip. Be sure to read all the signs along the waterfront as you explore!
Today, Monterey’s economy relies on tourism rather than industry, and it is best known for its pioneering approach to marine conservation and research.
Here are a few spots in town to dive deeper into Monterey’s fascinating history:
- Monterey State Historic Park: A great place to start learning about Monterey’s history, the Monterey State Historic Park is a collection of historic buildings and gardens, including the site where the Spanish first arrived in the early 17th century. Join a guided tour or take a self-guided tour along the Monterey Walking Path of History to see old whalebone sidewalks, historic homes, and delightful gardens.
- Pacific House Museum: On a self-guided walk through the Pacific House Museum and Memory Garden, you’ll trace a piece of California’s rich history, spanning its Native American origins through Spanish, Mexican, and American arrival in Monterey. The museum is housed in a 1847 building first used as a U.S. Navy storage facility. Before becoming a museum, the building served as a courthouse, pub, church, and more, so you’ll literally be experiencing a piece of Monterey’s past!
- San Carlos Cathedral: The oldest church and first stone building in California, the San Carlos Cathedral dates back to 1794. It’s now a working parish and was recently restored, but the architectural beauty is still something visitors can appreciate today. Next door there’s a museum, where you can find old photos and drawings of the chapel and pieces of the church’s historic whale-bone sidewalk. You can also take a docent-led tour to enrich your experience of this historic landmark.
Take a Self Guided Walking Tour
You’ll stroll past beaches, under cypress trees, and past historic canneries on this lovely 2-hour self-guided walking tour. You’ll also learn all about Monterey’s history of sardine fishing, as well as the landmarks and people who inspired John Steinbeck’s novella Cannery Row.
Even if you don’t follow the tour exactly, I recommend reading through it to get some context for this area! We saw most of the landmarks on our walk from the hotel to get breakfast at Tidal Coffee, and knowing that history made the murals, statues, paths and buildings come alive as we explored the streets of Monterey.
Hit the Beach
Monterey is a coastal town, and that means one thing: beaches! There are beaches all over Monterey and the Monterey Peninsula, from right in the center of town at McAbee Beach (steps from our hotel) to Del Monte Beach, Monterey State Beach, and Sand City beach just up the road.
That said, take it from a Northern Californian: some beaches are, er, better than others. (Although don’t worry, none of the beaches in Monterey are as miserable as our own home beach, Ocean Beach in San Francisco, which is essentially the Arctic tundra.)
Here are the best beaches in Monterey and the surrounding areas:
- Carmel Beach: Beaches aren’t scarce in California, but Carmel beach is something special. Soft, white sand, excellent surf, and perfect sunsets make this stop worth your time. Bring an evening picnic, take a long walk on the scenic path, or just sit and listen to the waves crashing onto the beach. This beach is also dog friendly, so you just might make a few furry friends. (Oh, and keep an eye out for Mulan! She’s a big fan.)
- Lover’s Point Beach: Lover’s Point Beach is in the neighboring town of Pacific Grove and is a hotspot for boating, kayaking, and surfing. Because of the orientation of the Monterey Peninsula, it actually faces east — so you can count on a beautiful beach sunrise if you wake up early enough! A breakwall makes for calmer waters, so if you can bear the cold, it’s a good place to take a dip. (Just in case, though, bring a wetsuit. The Pacific is freezing!)
- Asilomar State Beach: This gorgeous beach, just west of Pacific Grove, is a mix of beautiful sandy shores and hidden, rocky coves. The Asilomar Coastal Trail takes you along the length of the beach, making it easy to explore the dunes, tidepools, and coves.
Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium
The world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the largest aquariums in the world – and one of the best! Located in a converted sardine cannery (of course), the non-profit aquarium is centered around research and marine conservation and is home to thousands of marine species, including many that are found only here in Monterey Bay.
In the aquarium’s 35 exhibits, you’ll see playful otters, marvel at mesmerizing jellyfish, learn about cephalopods and meet the great Pacific Octopus. You’ll experience the inside of a wave as it crashes over you, see divers feeding stingrays and sharks, and meet penguins, puffins, and coastal seabirds.
In one of my favorite exhibits, you’ll also find out what makes Monterey Bay’s waters so special: its enchanting kelp forests! Filled with teeming marine life, the kelp grows 100 feet tall and gently waves back and forth – and you’ll get to see it all up close, as if you were scuba diving in the waters just outside the aquarium’s back doors (which is also on our bucket list).
It’s truly incredible, and you’ll gain a new appreciation for the kelp forests that are home to Monterey Bay’s unique marine ecosystem – the perfect context for going kayaking, diving, or boating through the Bay.
But my favorite attraction at the aquarium is the sea otter habitat, where the world’s cutest marine mammals frolic and play. Monterey Bay Aquarium is known for its role in rescuing and rehabilitating sea otters. In the early 1990s, there were only 50 southern sea otters left in California. The situation became so dire that many people thought these animals would go extinct within just a few years. But thanks to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s careful efforts, that didn’t happen.
You’ll see tons of otters playing in the water around Monterey, and if you look closely, you might see little tags on many of them, identifying otters that spent some time at the aquarium before being released back into the wild!
Today, nearly all the sea otters in California live near Monterey Bay (you’ll also see many of them in Morro Bay, Jeremy’s hometown). The aquarium’s rescue program has played a key role in this success story, and these animals continue to be ambassadors for the habitat restoration that is crucial if we want to protect our oceans! You can even meet the sea otters before your trip on the live Sea Otter cam.
Be sure to purchase a ticket for the aquarium before your trip.
Go Whale Watching
Whale-watching in Monterey is a bucket list experience. Monterey offers some of the best whale watching in California, which in turn is some of the best in the country (yeah, we’re pretty awesome). Oh, and it was also the first: whale watching as an organized activity dates back to 1950 when the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego was declared a public spot for the observation of Gray Whales.
Monterey Bay is one of the best places to see gray whales in Northern California. There are two seasons for whale watching in Monterey Bay. Visit from mid-December through mid-April to see gray whales, dolphins and orcas as they migrate south, or visit from mid-April through mid-December to see humpback whales, blue whales, dolphins, and orcas. (Psst: for more details, we’ve got an entire post about whale watching in California!)
You can get a good view of the whales from shore as they come to feed in the Monterey Submarine Canyon, which is where most whale watching tours embark from, as well as at Point Lobos Natural State Preserve. You can also see whales offshore at Garrapata State Park, especially if you do the hike to Sobrantes Point & Whale Peak.
But for the best whale watching experience and to really get up close and personal with these giant, majestic creatures, take a Whale Watching Tour. Departing from Old Fisherman’s Wharf, this tour will also give you a great point to spot sea lions as you go in and out of the harbor. The tour takes you into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where whales are spotted almost every day. The tour lasts 3-4 hours and is hosted by a marine biologist who explains conservation efforts in place to protect the whales and other wildlife in the area.Travel Tip: Are you as fascinated by whaling history as I am?? Pay a visit to the Whalers Cabin & Museum in Point Lobos and the Old Whaling Station near Fisherman’s Wharf to learn about California’s whaling history. And for more information about what whales frequent California’s coast and when, head to our whale watching in California guide!
Go Kayaking in Monterey Bay
Kayaking in Monterey Bay is the best way to explore the stunning coastline and experience Monterey’s phenomenal marine wildlife. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is home to an incredible amount of marine life (including more than 30 species of whales and dolphins), rich kelp forests, salt marshes, mudflats, deep-sea corals, and much more. And the area has some of the best kayaking in all of California!
From your kayak, you’ll see seals and otters swimming right next to you as they frolic in the kelp beds, between boats in the harbor, and along beaches like Lovers Point Park. You’ll also likely see (and hear) sea lions swimming and barking.
We go kayaking every time we visit Monterey (Mulan is a huge fan, and has her very own lifejacket) and we’ve seen dozens of otters and sea lions each and every time.We recommend renting kayaks in Monterey from Adventures by the Sea and heading out on a self-guided trip. Or if you’re new to sea kayaking, take one of their guided tours.
Eat Fresh Seafood
If there’s one type of food Monterey is known for and does really, really well, it’s seafood. And no wonder, since fresh seafood is swimming right outside town.
In addition to being super fresh, you can count on eating some sustainably caught seafood. The Monterey Bay Aquarium runs a Seafood Watch program, which helps guide consumers and restaurants in buying and serving sustainable seafood. The program isn’t just local: it serves as a global leader in the sustainable seafood movement and works directly with producers, governments, and organizations to improve their fishing practices.
Many local restaurants serve up fresh-as-can-be seafood in adherence to the Seafood Watch program, so you can enjoy sustainable (and delicious) sea-to-table dining.
Monterey is known for a few local specialties. There’s a specific Monterey Bay style clam chowder, which is made with bacon to add a rich, umami flavor that perfectly compliments the cream, potato, and seafood chowder. You’ll see clam chowder on just about every menu, often in an accompanying sourdough bread bowl (thank San Francisco for that delicious addition – you’re welcome, everyone!).
Cioppino, a rich mariner’s stew made with a wide variety of fresh seafood in a tomato saffron broth – sometimes served with pasta – appears on the menus of almost every restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf. The dish reflects Monterey’s Italian immigrant history, and it’s definitely a local favorite (and Jeremy’s favorite, too).
And of course, local seafood is always the star in Monterey: try an order of fresh oysters, sweet dungeness crab, fried sand dabs, and whatever the “catch of the day” is.
- Old Fisherman’s Grotto: from the outside, it might not look like much. But inside, the restaurant has that old money feel as though Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra were going to be seated in the cushy booth behind you. But the real draw here isn’t the fancy interior – it’s the food. You see, Jeremy grew up eating clam chowder in a bread bowl with seemingly every single meal. He can identify the age of clams by smell – ok, not really, but you get the idea. The point is, the clam chowder here is next level – it’s even won the local “best clam chowder” award for the last 16 years. Their “Monterey Style Chowder” has a slight hit of smoky bacon that adds depth and flavor – try it in a garlic butter toasted sourdough bread bowl. Oh, and don’t skip the crab: we ordered a fresh crab cocktail which features approximately fourteen crabs worth of sweet, flaky deliciousness. (Top your chowder with it for maximum Northern California-ness!)
- Cafe Fina: This small restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf served, to our surprise, the best Cioppino we’ve ever eaten. The tomato and saffron broth was flavorful and rich, and the seafood – I mean, they must empty the bay for every bowl judging by how much seafood they cram onto it: calamari, fresh fish, shrimp, mussels, clams… mmm. The stew was served on a bed of delicious linguini, which is an addition I can’t believe isn’t standard. Pretty much every restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf has a Cioppino, but in our opinion, Cafe Fina is the best place to try it!
- The C at the InterContinental The Clement Monterey: Located right on the boardwalk in Cannery Row, the floor-to-ceiling windows and charming outdoor patio have some of the best ocean views on Cannery Row – perfect for watching the sunset! The C restaurant sits directly on the ocean, so if you’re seated outside, you’ll hear the sound of the waves pounding the shore as you eat. If you’re lucky, you can even see otters playing in the kelp forests just offshore! The menu features a sustainable sea-to-table selection of local seafood fare. Everything on the menu is a standout, like the Prawns & Dungeness Crab Pappardelle with oven-roasted tomatoes, capers, and lobster crème fraȋche. Come here to watch the sunset and relax with a glass of wine!
- Schooners: This restaurant in the Monterey Plaza hotel has a heated terrace that basically hangs over the ocean! Schooners serves American cuisine – with a focus on seafood, of course. Relax with a classic burger and beer or live it up in luxury with a decadent seafood tower.
Go Tide-Pooling at Point Lobos
Point Lobos is a state park known for its abundant marine life and beautiful hiking paths. But that really doesn’t capture the magic of Point Lobos, so I’m going to quote the master California writer himself, John Steinbeck, with this beautiful excerpt from Cannery Row:
“It is a fabulous place: when the tide is in, a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam, whipped by the combers that roll in from the whistling buoy on the reef. But when the tide goes out the little water world becomes quiet and lovely. The sea is very clear and the bottom becomes fantastic with hurrying, fighting, feeding, breeding animals. Crabs rush from frond to frond of the waving algae. Starfish squat over mussels and limpets, attach their million little suckers and then slowly lift with incredible power until the prey is broken from the rock. And then the starfish stomach comes out and envelops its food. Orange and speckled and fluted nudibranchs slide gracefully over the rocks, their skirts waving like the dresses of Spanish dancers. And black eels poke their heads out of crevices and wait for prey. The snapping shrimps with their trigger claws pop loudly. The lovely, colored world is glassed over. Hermit crabs like frantic children camper on the bottom sand. And now one, finding an empty snail shell he likes better than his own, creeps out, exposing his soft body to the enemy for a moment, and then pops into the new shell. A wave breaks over the barrier, and churns the glassy water for a moment and mixes bubbles into the pool, and then it clears and is tranquil and lovely and murderous again…”John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
So yeah. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, you must read Cannery Row before/during/after your trip!
Anyway, Point Lobos is wonderful, and the tidepools are tiny, enchanted pools filled with entire miniature universes of marine life. Ugh, now I’m just embarrassing myself trying to describe it after that Steinbeck quote. Ignore me.
Head to Weston Beach in Point Lobos for tide pooling. Travel Tip: You’ll want to arrive 90 minutes before low tide – check the tide tables to find out when low tide is. At true low tide, critters hide and hunker down waiting for the tide to rise. But arrive a little before and the water will be just shallow enough to see them before they hide!
During our trip, low tide fell right before sunset, which meant we were hunting for bright orange starfish and waving sea anemones in the tidepools during golden hour. We climbed to the top of the rocky boulders bordering the tidal basin and watched the sun sink low behind the horizon. It was magical.
Explore the Monterey Bay Recreation Trail
Stretching 18 miles down the coast, the Monterey Bay Recreation Trail traces what was once a railroad line running from San Francisco right up to the loading docks of the canneries of Monterey. Today, it is a beautiful and well-maintained walking and biking trail that cuts right through town and along the coast!
The trail passes by the colorful piers of Fisherman’s Wharf, sandy beaches filled with lounging harbor seals, blooming pink ice plant fields (nicknamed “the magic carpet”), and colorful and ornate Victorian homes along Pacific Grove.
Bike, rent a surrey, or walk the trail south for as long as you like before turning around and heading back to Monterey. You can pick up a bike, e-bike (y’all, they’re SO fun) or a 4-person surrey bike at Adventures by the Sea just off of Cannery Row.
Take a Hike
With near-perfect weather, ocean views, and beautiful forests, Monterey and the surrounding peninsula make for some amazing hiking — and you don’t have to go far (or climb high) to enjoy it.
When hiking near Monterey, you can expect sweeping views of the Pacific coast and trails that wind through enchanting redwoods and Monterey pines.
And with many of the trails tracing the coastline, you may even catch a glimpse of marine wildlife and seabirds. Lace up your boots and get your camera ready!
- Asilomar Trail: This one-mile trail extends the length of the sandy and rocky Asilomar State Beach, south of Pacific Grove and on the western edge of the Monterey Peninsula. The trail itself is amix of packed sand and boardwalk and is wonderfully flat — perfect for running or strolling. Plus, it’s a great way to explore Asilomar Beach — just hop off the boardwalk wherever you want.
- Soberanes Point and Whale Peak: This 2-mile loop — with a spur to Whale Peak — circles Soberanes Point in Garrapata State Park. This park, south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, includes everything from ocean beaches to redwood forests, with rocky headlands in between. The Soberanes and Whale Peak Trails provide epic ocean views with a chance to see some of the park’s resident wildlife — sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals, and even migrating gray whales! Head to our whale watching guide for more information on what you might see at different times of the year.
- Jacks Peak and Skyline Trail: This short .8-mile loop at Jack’s Peak Park is a great bang for your buck if you’re short on time. You’ll hike through one of the three remaining natural stands of Monterey Pine, see a waterfall and, in springtime, plenty of colorful California wildflowers. There are more than eight miles of trails to choose from in this park, but hiking on the Skyline trail gives you impressive ocean views from the top of a ridgeline and a chance to see Miocene-epoch fossils.
- Point Lobos State Reserve: South of Carmel Bay, Point Lobos State Reserve is an absolute gem on the Central Coast. The geology, plants, and animals are unique — and downright gorgeous. Part of the state park system, this “reserve” has a higher level of protection than other parks, so it’s really important to stay on trails and leave everything how you found it. There are lots of trails to choose from based on how much time you want to spend, but the 6.5 mile Point Lobos Loop Trail takes you all over the reserve for a taste of everything the park has to offer!
Patronize the Arts
It doesn’t take much time in Monterey and the surrounding communities to notice the abundance of art. Northern California has a well-deserved reputation for quirkiness and artistic expression, and this area is no exception! Galleries, murals, and museums abound.
Here are a few places to patronize Monterey’s local art scene:
- Monterey Museum of Art: For a mix of new and old California art, head to the Monterey Museum of Art. Works date from the end of the nineteenth century to present day, and the museum emphasizes the diversity of California’s “past, present, and future.” Permanent collections include works by a range of California painters as well as the famous photographs of Ansel Adams (of Yosemite fame). The museum itself is beautiful, too, with expansive windows and exposed beams.
- Salvador Dalí Exhibition: The Salvador Dalí Exhibition houses the largest privately-owned collection of Dalí work on the West Coast. This exhibition celebrates Dalí’s love of and connection to Monterey, where he lived in the 1940s after fleeing the war in Europe. The collection includes more than 580 pieces, including etchings, tapestries, sculptures and lithographs! Things might get a little weird… and if you really want to, uh, enhance your visit, perhaps partake in one of California’s perfectly legal herbal crops before your visit. (When in California, right?)
- National Steinbeck Center: Okay, so the Steinbeck center isn’t technically in Monterey — it’s in Steinbeck’s hometown of nearby Salinas — but with Steinbeck’s significant presence in the history of Monterey and Cannery Row, we had to include this spot. If you’re a fan of any Steinbeck novel (or if a visit to Monterey garners your interest – AND IT SHOULD) you can’t miss a visit to the National Steinbeck Center. With first edition books, artifacts, interactive exhibits, and themed theaters based on his novels, this museum brings to life both Steinbeck and his intimate connection to his home. If we’ve been too subtle in this post, allow me to come right out and say it: Steinbeck is one of the greatest American authors, and you need to read some Steinbeck!! Start with Cannery Row for your trip, but after that, we recommend Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, or Of Mice and Men. Oh, and while you’re in Salinas, head to Mangia, a delicious husband-and-wife owned Italian restaurant right on charming main street in Oldtown Salinas. Be sure to order the Bruschetta di Nonna, topped with generous dollops of housemade ricotta, pesto, chopped pistachios and a honey drizzle with a chili kick.
Enjoy the Scenery on the “17 Mile Drive”
The 17 Mile Drive features a pretty — and ritzy — stretch of California coastline. This exclusive drive has some can’t-miss sights, but to access them, you’ll need pay $10.50.
Why is there a fee to drive this particular stretch of coast, you ask? It’s owned and maintained by the Pebble Beach Company. The road accesses Pebble Beach Resorts, including the famous Pebble Beach Golf Links. Which, if you’re into golf, is a pretty big deal.
You can, however, get your fee reimbursed if you stop to dine at one of the resort restaurants (and pay $35). Which we do recommend at sunset – more on that below!
But there’s a lot more than…golf that makes this a spectacular drive. Picture-perfect Pacific beaches, forests, and oceanside mansions will give you a thrill, plus there are some particular landmarks that you’ll want to stop for.
The Lone Cypress stands proudly on a craggy rock outcropping, framed by the foaming Pacific Ocean. This tree – which is also the logo for the Pebble Beach Company – is probably somewhere around 250 years old, so while it’s not ancient, it’s been around longer than our country.
This cypress tree and its neighbors — other Monterey Cypress — are also rare. They only grow in two places in the world: in Pebble Beach, and at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
The entire drive is scenic and beautiful, but make sure to also pull over for some of our favorite stops: Spanish Bay Beach, Restless Sea, Seal Rock, and Crocker Grove. You can also stop at the Pebble Beach Visitor Center if you want to learn more about the area’s history, or Pebble Beach Golf Links if you have any interest in golf.
If you want to get even more out of this drive, you can get this self-guided audio tour. Get detailed information and history about all of the stops along the drive so you can enjoy it to the fullest.If you still want the benefit of a guide but you’d prefer a more active tour of 17-mile drive, you can take an e-bike tour instead. This 3.5-hour tour lets you explore the drive at a slightly slower pace, plus you can enjoy the wind in your hair as you bike along the coast.
- Travel Tip: There are several stunning scenic drives in this area! Here’s a list of a few more.
Go Wine Tasting
Although Monterey isn’t one of California’s many wine countries, it’s still in California, so … that means wine. And when in California, wine tasting is a must.
Wine growing isn’t a new industry in this area: the first grapes were planted by Spaniards in the late 1700s. Since then, the wine industry in the Monterey area has exploded. Diverse growing conditions and microclimates allow growers to produce a wide variety of wines, including well-known Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.
But with the nearby beaches and idyllic ocean views, wine tasting in Monterey is about more than just the wine. There are tons of tasting rooms and wineries in the area, but here are a few of our favorites:
- Tasting rooms on Cannery Row: A Taste of Monterey is located near McAbee Beach and offers more than 90 local wines and has a great view. Bargetto Winery has two locations: one on Cannery Row and one at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains. At the Cannery Row location, you can enjoy a tasting on the patio with ocean views.
- Blue Fox Cellars: Located in Carmel Valley, this small, family-owned winery provides a hands-on tasting with the winemaker himself. You can sample wine and revel in the lovely mountain views from the outdoor patio, or take a break for some bocce ball in the courtyard. It’s a bit of a schlep to get there, but so worth the effort!
- The Wine Experience: Located on Cannery Row, the Wine Experience is “more than just a wine bar”: in addition to wine tasting, they offer classes, personalized wine labels, and custom blending. Whether you’re a wine novice or a connoisseur, this is the place to learn a thing or two. Blend your own bottle of wine or take a tasting class to develop your now-sophisticated palate!
- Pierce Ranch Vineyards: With a tasting room in Monterey, Pierce Ranch Vineyards is located in southern Monterey County and specializes in Portuguese and Spanish varieties. The tasting room is housed in a charming Victorian house just a block from Cannery Row. While wandering town, stop by for a tasting on the quaint front porch.
Want some more wine tasting options? Nearby Carmel-by-Sea has its own array of top-notch tasting rooms worth a visit. Here’s a list to help you choose what you’ll love, or browse a full directory of Carmel wineries. And speaking of…
With a name like Carmel-by-the-Sea, you know this little town has to be some kind of coastal fairytale town, and it is! Monterey’s next door neighbor – just a few minutes down Highway One – is a charming little town perched on a bluff overlooking the sea.
Carmel has a quaint, walkable “downtown” area filled with cafes and galleries and beautiful, storybook homes perched on hills rising above the ocean.
One of its claims to fame is that this is the home of none other than Clint Eastwood, who once served as town Mayor. (Clint Eastwood would go on to serve on the California State Park and Recreation Commission underneath Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. We, uh, kind of have a thing for electing actors as politicians here…)
The best way to experience Carmel during your trip to Monterey is to pop over for the afternoon and take a walk. Just one square mile in area, you can see most of this charming town by foot!
- Take a walking tour: This walking tour brings to life the architecture and history of Carmel-by-the-Sea. A local guide tells the stories of Carmel’s artists, cottages, and landmarks. We also recommend this local-created downtown Carmel walking tour, which will only take you about an hour (it’s a small town). This tour traces a scenic walkway, and this self-guided tour visits the many fairytale style, storybook homes in Carmel!
- Take a food tour: Check out the architecture, wine, and vibrant culinary scene with a Carmel food tour. Sample local dishes and treats like chocolate, olives, pasta, wine, risotto, or truffles. Delicious and informative, you’ll love the architecture and history as much as the food.
- Tour Carmel’s Galleries: Beautiful art often comes from beautiful places, and Carmel-by-the-Sea is no exception. This stunning Pacific coastline attracted an artsy mix of folks from the early days, and the same is true today with almost 100 galleries in one square mile of downtown Carmel. The Carmel Art Association is a great place to see the work of 90 local artists in a one-stop shop. Additionally, it is Carmel’s oldest and only non-profit art gallery.
For dinner, we recommend enjoying the prixe fix menu at Le Souffle, an entire restaurant themed around souffles! At this cozy little French restaurant, you’ll pick from a delicious 3 course menu that includes both entree and dessert souffles. We recommend the steak tartare to start, and for your main, try the the mushroom, gruyere, riesling and caramelized onion entree souffle – the pillowy interior paired with the crispy, cheesy top and luscious mushroom sauce is heavenly.
Visit Pacific Grove
Only two miles from the town of Monterey, neighboring town Pacific Grove is well worth a visit. On the northernmost tip of the Monterey Peninsula, Pacific Grove offers a dramatic, rugged, and beautiful coastline along with its own sandy beaches.
Pacific Grove welcomes more than just ocean-seeking tourists — in fact, it’s known for the seasonal influx of migrating Monarch butterflies! Visit in the winter to see some of California’s most colorful seasonal residents.
Speaking of color, Pacific Grove puts on a fleeting but gorgeous spectacle in April or May each year — a “magic carpet “ of vibrantly pink blooming ice plant flowers. Planted in the early 1900s, it covers the Pacific Grove Coast in a blanket of magenta each spring. (Sadly, ice plant is beautiful, but definitely not native and very invasive.)
This beautiful seaside town is also known for its charming Victorian homes, some of which have been turned into quaint bed and breakfasts. There’s definitely a bit of quirkiness to Pacific Grove, too, with sights like the Butterfly House adding to the vibrant colors of this adorable town.
Soak up Pacific groves colorful, quirky, Victorian charms with some of our favorite things to do:
- Eat at The Beach House Restaurant: Overlooking beautiful Lover’s Point Beach, The Beach House Restaurant and Bar might have one of the best views in Pacific Grove. Their casual menu features local seafood — try the Seafood Pasta for a taste of fresh salmon, scallops, clams, and grilled prawns in a tomato-caper sauce. The food, the view, and nearby Lover’s Point Beach make this the perfect spot for a romantic sunset dinner!
- Meet the Monarch Butterflies: Nicknamed “Butterfly Town, USA,” Pacific Grove welcomes thousands of monarch butterflies that spend the winters here (not unlike my mom’s annual retreat to Florida). From mid-October to mid-February, you can visit the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary to take a tour with a docent. No matter what time of year you visit, you can always check out the Monarch Gallery at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History to learn about these annual visitors.
- Go Tidepooling at Point Pinos Lighthouse: This historic maritime landmark is the oldest continually operating lighthouse on the Pacific, and still operates today. You can take tours of the old Victorian-era building, which also doubled as a social hub in Pacific Grove’s early days. Combine a visit to the lighthouse with some tidepool explorations — the “Great Tide Pool” at Point Pinos is one of the richest tidepools habitats in the world!
Watch the Sunset at the Inn at Spanish Bay
Monterey is perfectly situated for watching some truly stunning sunsets, and the best place to take it all in as at the Inn at Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach, just 3 miles away from downtown Monterey.
The outdoor patio at the Inn serves delicious food and drinks (we recommend ordering the ahi chips), which are best enjoyed on a couch at one of the cozy firepits. But that’s actually not the best part – the real draw? Bagpipes!
Each evening, a bagpiper appears in the mists to melodiously accompany the sunset as the coastal fog rolls in across the moors – er, hills. The bagpiper plays for about half an hour as the sun sets behind the horizon – it’s a truly magical celebration!
Located within the Pebble Beach golf resort and along the stunning 17-mile drive, this spot has some of the most scenic views in Monterey County – and you don’t need to be a guest at the Inn to enjoy their nightly sunset event. (You do, however, need to pay the standard $10.50 entrance fee, which will be deducted from your $35+ bill.)
- Travel Tip: The best time of year for stunning sunsets in California is during the winter. There’s actual science behind it involving offshore winds and lower humidity and … uh, sciencey stuff. Luckily, late winter is also the best time of year to visit Monterey, so that works out nicely!
Where to Stay in Monterey
On our most recent trip to Monterey, we stayed at beautiful InterContinental The Clement Monterey, which is the best-located hotel in Monterey – and that’s not an exaggeration.
Smack dab on the center of Cannery Row (in a converted historic cannery, of course) the hotel is less than a 3-minute walk to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, McAbee Beach, and the rest of the attractions along Cannery Row.
The hotel sits directly along the water, which meant that even our standard room came with an ocean view through floor-to-ceiling windows. We were treated to stunning sunrise views over the ocean each morning – and I’m not even a morning person!
But y’all, can we talk about the room? First of all, there was a gas-powered, cozy AF FIREPLACE. Second of all, our bathroom came with a massive bathtub – and a warm, fluffy robe. Which meant that I spent my Saturday night reading Steinbeck in a bubble bath while Jeremy and Mulan relaxed in front of the fire, listening to the rolling waves muffling the call of seagulls and barking sea lions outside.
Listen: we aren’t typically luxury hotel people. But then I got pregnant and well, things changed. Things like my ability to sleep through the night, especially on an uncomfortable mattress.
And after our stay at the InterContinental The Clement Monterey, I don’t think I can go back. It was perfect, and made our trip feel incredibly special!
If you’re visiting Monterey for a special weekend, we can’t recommend a stay at theInterContinental The Clement Monterey enough. If you’re on a tighter budget, check off-season and mid-week rates; we’ve seen availability as low as $200 per night, which is a freakin’ steal for a hotel this luxurious! Click the button below to check rates and availability for your dates.
Which of these things to do in Monterey are you most excited about? Is it the wine, the seafood, the tidepooling, the aquarium, or kayaking with otters? Oh, and have you picked up a copy of Cannery Row yet?! Drop us a comment below!
Psst: Planning to explore more of California? …. As California residents we have LOTS of other posts – browse them all or just take a look at these:
- Highway One Road Trip Itinerary & also The Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops
- The 10 Best Weekend Trips from San Francisco, California
- 8 Marvelous Things to Do in Mendocino, California on a Weekend Getaway
Psst: Save this post for later on Pinterest!
Disclaimer: Our most recent trip to Monterey was sponsored by IHG Hotels and we were graciously hosted at the fabulousInterContinental The Clement Monterey! (Y’all, I was very pregnant and it was, honestly, exactly what I needed.) As always, all opinions, bad jokes, poetic descriptions of cioppino, and aggressive suggestions to read Steinbeck are 100% our own and not our sponsor’s fault.