Just miles from beaches, mountains, and state parks, Monterey is the perfect jumping-off point for exploring California’s midcoast. Beloved for its beach town charm and natural beauty, Monterey has always attracted artists, writers, and those who are looking for a different side of California.
The city itself has endless cultural and culinary attractions from the works of Salvador Dali and Ansel Adams to the fresh seafood and locally produced wines visitors can find in almost every restaurant.
Monterey also acts as the gateway to the Pacific with daily whale watches, fishing charters, and sailing tours leaving from Old Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row daily.
Things to do in Monterey
Located just a few hours south of San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway, Monterey is the ultimate day trip from the Bay Area. A vacation in Monterey promises nice views, food, as well as multiple outdoor attractions for all types of visitors. Here are the best things to do in Monterey:
Monterey Bay Aquarium
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is hands down the best aquarium on the West Coast. The aquarium has a large diversity of marine life exhibits and attracts families and kids. It is also unique in that its 35,000 animals from 550 species are mainly taken from local habitats to showcase the diversity found off the Pacific Coast of California.
But this is not just an aquarium; it is also one of the best marine research and conservation facilities in the country. Since it first opened in 1984, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been a pioneer in the field. They were the first to successfully have a great white shark and the first to display a live kelp forest which requires using unfiltered water directly from the bay.
The aquarium has two wings and it is recommended to spend at least two to three hours to see all the exhibits. You can also alternatively opt for behind the scenes tour which costs an extra $15 on top of the $49.95 ticket price and takes more time but is worth it.
This stretch of the Monterey seafront was once home to sardine canning factories. In the 1950s, Monterey was the center of California’s sardine industry. But it gradually failed due to overfishing and change in environmental conditions.
The area came to be called Cannery Row in honor of John Steinbeck’s novel ‘Cannery Row’ of the same name based in Monterey, California. Many of the old canneries were gutted and redesigned to house upscale restaurants, hotels, and boutiques. Today, Cannery Row has become the main tourist attraction in Monterey.
Cannery Row is great for a stroll. It is bookended by two beaches which draw in families and tourists during the day. Once the sun sets, the families are replaced with couples heading to romantic dinners and groups of friends looking for a well-made cocktail.
Monterey State Historic Park
The Monterey State Historic Park, located in the historic district of Old Monterey, is a collection of historic pioneer buildings, historic homes, and commercial buildings. While it is isn’t an outdoor nature park but rather an urban park, it is one of the top attractions since it represents the history of Monterey.
Some of the most notable buildings inside the park are the first theatre in California, old Customs House, and the only whalebone sidewalk left in America. Visitors can go on daily guided tours of the 17 buildings that make up the park or self-tour the area at their own pace using a free cell phone app.
Three of the buildings have been converted into museums that explore different stages of the area’s history from the time of the Esselen people to the area’s Spanish influence, to Monterey’s more recent history of whaling and commercial fishing.
Old Fisherman’s Wharf
Located across from the Customs House in the Monterey State Historic Park, the Old Fisherman’s Wharf was built in 1870 to bring people and goods to and from Monterey. The old fish market was also located on the wharf.
Today, the Old Fisherman’s Wharf has been turned into the culinary heart of the city. The restaurants here tend to focus on local seafood but range from casual open-air clam shacks to upscale raw bars.
This is also one of the main tourist destinations in the city and one of the only areas where you can find souvenirs, hand made gifts, and candy stores. It’s also the main entrance for tourists to see Monterey from the water via a variety of harbor cruises, sailing tours, and whale watches expeditions.
Coast Guard Pier
The Coast Guard Pier, located in Monterey, is on the other side of the San Carlos Beach from Cannery Row. The 1700-foot long breakwater is home to the Coast Guard’s small boats, fireboats, and the US Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Long Island.
A walk along the pier is a favorite with visitors. It is mainly used for watching the seabirds, sea lions, and otters in the Monterey Bay, as well as for fishing on the north side. This is the best place to start a day on the water. The parking lot is only $10 to park all day and the pier is easy walking distance to Cannery Row and Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
Monterey Museum of Art
The Monterey Museum of Art is primarily dedicated to conserving and displaying the art of central and northern California. It also preserves several images of early California from the Carmel Art Colony.
The museum is divided into two facilities. Traveling exhibits are found in the historic La Miranda estate while the Pacific Street location houses eight permanent galleries of the museum’s collection.
The galleries include a vast collection of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean art, Impressionist art from Henri Matisse and Salvador Dali, and California art from Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. A single $10 ticket gives visitors access to both locations for the day.
Colton Hall Museum & the Old Monterey Jail
Colton Hall Museum, located in downtown Monterey, is one of the most magnificent historic sites of California’s history. It was here that the state of California was born, it was here that the California constitution was drafted in 1849.
Visitors can see a recreation of the meeting room at Colton Hall. The museum also has several exhibits depicting the pioneer history of Alta California or the Neuva California province of New Spain in the early 19th century.
The building changed functions whenever Monterey needed it to and has served multiple purposes throughout its history. It was originally built in 1948 as a town hall and later was also a public school. Since then it has also been a courthouse and a police headquarters. Now the grounds have been turned into a museum and are often the site of events like the summer concert series and the launching point for Christmas at the Adobes every December.
Adjacent to the Colton Hall Museum is the Old Monterey Jail. The historic building served as a jail for over a century and during the entire time, no prisoner could escape its majestic walls. You can tour the Old Monterey Jail as a part of the Colton House Museum.
Whale watching tours
There are seven whale tours and charters in Monterey but the best option is to book a tour with Monterey Bay Whale Watch. These year-round tours are run by an actual marine biologist.
During the daily tours, Nancy Black – the owner and operator – introduces guests to the richness of the underwater ecosystem off of Monterey and Big Sur. The tours range from three to four hours and guarantees at least one sighting.
From January to March the main objective is to find a migrating gray whale. From April to December, the tours look for blue whales and Orca, particularly the local celebrity “Frosty” the albino orca.
For shorter visits to Monterey or those whose stomachs can’t handle three hours of whale watching at sea, a 35-minute bay tour is a perfect option. Tickets are just $18-$20 depending on the operator and tours take place hourly every day from June through October.
The Little Mermaid Harbor Cruise is the only boat in the area with a glass bottom. The Tour stays within the limits of the bay offering a nice view of Monterey as well as chances to get up close and personal with the otters, seals, and sea lions that call the bay home.
Seafood & Wine tasting
Monterey is famous for its seafood which comes fresh of the bay every day. Try the catch of the day at the local seafood restaurants and wash it down with a glass of wine from the area’s wineries. There are several wineries located in central California close to Monterey and all of them have excellent regional wines.
There are plenty of ways to sample the area’s staple food and drinks. Eat the special oak-grilled seafood at Monterey Fish House or sample the Hawaain fare at Hula’s Island Grill. Couples love the romantic ambiance of Bistro Moulin. Visit the A Taste of Monterey, a wine bar and bistro on Cannery Row which offers wine from over 90 local wineries.
For visitors who want to taste as much as they can, the Cannery Row Seafood Tour takes guests in and out of a handful of different restaurants. The $130 ticket (there is a two-ticket minimum purchase) covers all of the food, wine, and cocktails along the way as well as the gratuity. Consider booking early, the tour only runs Saturdays at 11 am and the spots fill up fast.
Dennis the Menace Playground & Lake El Estero
Built into the curve of Lake El Estero, this park is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. The playground offers slides, a suspension bridge, and a rock-climbing wall. There is a play structure surrounded by a hedge maze adding an extra layer of adventure to the experience.
While the playground is the most popular part of the park, it is only one small part of the full 45 acres recreation park at El Estero. On land, there are baseball diamonds and a skate park while the lake has paddle boats for rent.
The lake itself has a fascinating history. It was originally a saltwater lagoon but has since been cut off from the ocean. Today the lake is excellent for birding and home to many species of birds including seagulls, herons, pelicans, ducks, and geese. The lake environment is also home to diverse species of fishes and other marine life including turtles as well as a variety of plants and trees including pines, cypress, and coastal live oaks.
Monterey Bay Coastal Recreational Trail
The 18-mile long Monterey Bay Coastal Recreational Trail runs along the old Southern Pacific Railway from Castroville to Pacific Grove. The waterfront trail is a premier attraction of Monterey for outdoor explorers.
The trail connects Monterey’s most famous attractions including Cannery Row, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Old Fisherman’s Wharf. It is a great way to walk from attraction to attraction while skipping the crowded roads of Monterey. The trail has panoramic views out to the Monterey Bay and you can spot a variety of marine life along the trail.
The best way to explore the trail is by biking. You can also rent surreys – 6 person bikes with 4 wheels and a canopy. These are perfect for large families and those with small kids. All along the trail, there are places to rent kayaks, skates, bikes, and the surreys to take advantage of the coastal views and the California sun.
Monterey’s 17-Mile Drive is one of the most scenic drives in California and along the Pacific Coast Highway. The beautiful road spans 17 miles of coast from Monterey to Pacific Grove via Pebble Beach. The drive has everything from rugged coastal cliffs, cypress trees, white-sand beaches, and coastal forests.
Because the drive goes through the gated community of Pebble Cove, non-residents have to pay a toll of $10.50 to access it. While the road is known for its Pacific Ocean views and coastal vistas, there are plenty of man-made attractions along 17 Mile Drive.
There are a total of 17 attractions along the 17 miles. There are multiple golf courses for those who are looking to spend a day on the links. Have a picnic on the sands at Spanish Bay Beach and admire the rocky ocean at the Restless Sea. The road also passes through the 5,300-acre Del Monte Cyprus Forest, where there are multiple hiking trails.
Visitors should plan to spend anywhere from a couple of hours to half a day exploring the sites along 17 Mile Drive. Spend a day slowly driving on the coast, begin at the Pebble Beach Visitor Center, stop for lunch at any of the upscale restaurants along the way.
California Sea Otter State Game Refuge
Despite being right along Highway 1, the California Sea Otter State Game Refuge has a reputation for being difficult to find. For one, most of the refuge is located offshore. For another, the address listed for the on-site Education Center is misleading and many a visitor has gone home without finding it.
The key is to search for Berwick Park in Pacific Grove and then look for the building tucked behind the Green Cables Inn. The Education Center has displays and exhibits about the sea otters in Monterey and the work that has been done to protect them.
The site also functions as rehab for injured otters and handlers sometimes let visitors pet and play with otters that can’t return to the wild. The refuge also has many hiking trails along which you can spot sea otters.
Point Lobos State Reserve
Point Lobos is considered to one of the finest state parks along California’s coast. Only 550 acres of the reserve are on land, meaning that 95% of the park is underwater. That is one of the reasons that the area is known as one of the top diving locations along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Divers at Point Lobos get to swim with sea lions and otters through 40-foot tall kelp forests. Getting into the water to dive requires a paid permit. The price depends on the time of day and the season, on top of the $10 day-use fee. The money goes back into the reserve’s efforts to protect the rich ecosystem of the coast. Advance reservations for permits are highly recommended.
Point Lobos is a paradise for bird watching and spotting marine life. You can spot pelicans, egrets, seagulls, eagles, sea otters, and whales. The reserve has many shallow beaches which are perfect for families and a variety of hiking trails for all ages.
Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove
The people of Pacific Grove take their butterflies very seriously. The town has been known as “Butterfly Town, USA” since they voted in favor of an extra tax that would go toward creating and funding the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary.
During the fall, thousands of monarch butterflies spend their winter within town limits while on their way south to Mexico. At the sanctuary, visitors can see the thick clusters of butterflies clinging to branches of Cyprus, eucalyptus, and pine trees.
The best time to see the monarch butterflies is in February when they begin to mate. The trees are still full of them but hundreds also take to the sky to perform spiral mating flights. This si an excellent time to photograph these beauties. It is forbidden to touch the butterflies or bother them in any way, violations can land you up to $1,000 fines.
Day trip to Big Sur
Big Sur is known for the rocky cliffs that make up its winding coastline. It is also known for its numerous state parks, hiking trails, and panoramic coastal views. Located along the seemingly undeveloped stretch of Highway 1, Big Sur is an essential stop along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Most visitors are content to just drive the California Highway 1 and take in views of the Bixby Creek Bridge and the beautiful McWay Falls. Visitors who are looking for a little more adventure have can hike to Partington Cove or camp at Big Sur campground. They can also snorkel or scuba dive along the coast.
Admire the lighthouses and historic sites along the beautiful Big Sur and discover hidden beaches through the mostly uninhabited land spanning from the Pacific Coast to the Santa Lucia mountain ranges.
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