Located just two hours from San Francisco, Monterey is an amazing weekend escape in California. Playground to the rich and famous, Monterey has something for everyone. With a beautiful coast, beaches and endless outdoor activities, the whole family will enjoy their time exploring the best of Monterey. Whether you plan a weekend getaway or decide to make it home a base to explore the California Coast for a week or two, there is something for everyone. And these are the best things to do in Monterey, California and not to miss attractions to make the most of your trip.
Best Things to do in Monterey, California
Note: Some activities and attractions may be affected by COVID-19. Check for closures and restrictions before planning your vacation. Visit the Monterey Website for updates.
We spent a few days in Monterey before starting a road trip down the Pacific Coast through Big Sur. Download this Big Sur self guided tour to see all the top attractions between Monterey and Pismo Beach to make the most of your visit. This is one of the great drives in California. Check with SeeMonterey for more details.
1. Kayaking Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Hands down our favorite of all things to do in Monterey was getting out on our kayaks to explore Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Seeing the coast from the water is one of the more unique experiences. But getting up close and personal with marine life such as the endangered sea otters, sea lions, and bird life of Monterey Bay is what makes it so special. The cute sea otters were once almost extinct, but thanks to the Monterey Bay Aquarium efforts, they helped to make sure these little guys thrives. Now they there are groups of them floating atop kelp forests relaxing in the bay.
- Book your kayaking trip and other outdoor activities at Adventures by the Sea located at 685 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940, United States
- Time to visit – 2-3 hours
2. Breakwater Cove and the Coast Guard Pier
If you want to see marine life in Monterey but aren’t keen on kayaking, make your way to the Breakwater Cove and the Coast Guard Pier to watch hundreds of sea lions bask in the sun. No visit to Monterey would be complete without witnessing the abundance of marine life. Sea lions are one of the top attractions in Monterey and you cannot leave without seeing them. They make their home on the rocks and chill out as they play in the water. It is definitely one of the most uplifting things to do in Monterey.
3. Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey Ca
The most famous of places to visit in Monterey is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Located at a former sardine canning factory, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has interactive displays and an open sea exhibit displaying hundreds of species of marine life. While I am not a huge fan of aquariums, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a leader in conservation to preserve wildlife in the waters off shore. Most notably it has helped to bring back the Southern sea otters and to help ensure the survival of sharks and bluefin tuna focusing on the population biology and ecology of these species.
- Location: 886 Cannery Row, Monterey directly on the waterfront.
4. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary itself stretches all the way from San Francisco and is not only one of the best places to visit in Monterey, it’s in all of California. With tide pools sea kelp forests, an abundance of marine life, this is a must visit in California. The best way to explore the marine life and scenery of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is on a whale watching tour.
5. Cannery Row
Monterey was once known as the sardine capital of the world with canning and fish factories dominating the waterfront. Today the historic district of Cannery Row is filled with shops and restaurants lining the street making it one of the top things to see in Monterey. John Steinbeck made the street famous in his novel Cannery Row written in 1945 depicting life in Monterey during the Great Depression. Make sure to grab some clam chowder at the Old Fisherman’s Grotto. (Voted Best Clam Chowder in Monterey County 16 years in a row).
Cannery Row is busy and crowded, but if you want to trace the footsteps of the Cannery Row from the days of Steinbeck walking tour, get this audio guide to the visit the locations made famous in his writings.
6. E-Bike 17 Mile Drive
Taking a drive along 17 Mile Drive is one of the top things to do in Monterey County and we highly suggest it. Starting in Pacific Grove, we rode an electric bike along the Monterey Peninsula from Pacific Grove to Carmel by the Sea. If you are looking for unique outdoor activities renting in an e-bike will do the trick. It’s a great way to see all the points of interest without having to deal with traffic. As cars line the entrance, we wizzed right on through.
Book your e-biking tour of Monterey from Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach at Big Sur Adventures. 125 Ocean View Blvd #122, Pacific Grove, CA 93950
7. 17 Mile Drive Attractions
There are so many things to see on 17 mile drive it deserves its own post, which we have here, but here are a few not to miss attractions. We entered at Pacific Grove Gate and then made our way to Carmel by the Sea. Big Sur Adventures had a truck ready to pick up our bikes so we could continue on in Carmel.
- Lone Cyrpus – The cypress tree of Pebble Beach lost a limb in 2019 so I have a feeling it won’t be so popular anymore.
- Ghost Tree – Instead, make sure to stop at the Ghost Tree, we found this one to be more photogenic regardless.
- John Denver Memorial
- Seal Rock Creek Beach, Spanish Bay Beach
- Pescadero Point in the Del Monte Forerst
- See all of the top attractions at 17 Mile Drive – What to See on the Scenic Drive of Pebble Beach
If you are driving yourself, download this 17-Mile Drive self guided tour to make sure to see all of the popular attractions from Monterey to Carmel along the Monterey Peninsula.
8. Old Fisherman’s Wharf Monterey
Old Fisherman’s Wharf is the historic wharf of Monterey that is now one of the star attractions of Monterey. It is definitely at the top of everything list of things to do in Monterey and it is packed with restaurants, shops, art galleries and cafés. It’s a pleasant afternoon and it is from here that you can book whale watching tours to Monterey Bay.
Places to Eat at Old Fisherman’s Wharf include Paluca Trattoria with outdoor dining on the wharf and and Abalonetti for seafood.
9. Monterey State Historic Park
Take a walk through history at the Monterey State Historic Park. This collection of about a dozen buildings located near Old Fisherman’s Wharf let’s you see historic buildings dating back to the 1800s. Visit the Customs House which is the oldest government building in California or check out the Old Theater that claims to be the oldest theatre in California.
Monterey State Historic Park is located downtown interspersed throughout old Monterey. Book your tours at the Custom House (adjacent to Old Fisherman’s Wharf)
10. World Class Golf
The Pebble Beach Golf Course is often ranked the number 1 public golf course in the country and many people come to Monterey for world class golfing vacations. Other golf courses include, Spyglass Hill, Del Monte Golf Course, and the Pebble Beach Golf Academy.
11. Hear the Bagpiper at the Links of Spanish Bay
Even if you are not a golfer, the Spanish Bay Golf course is worth seeing for the beautiful dunes located on the sea. Each evening the bagpiper plays his pipes as the sun sets over Spanish Bay beach.
12. Carmel By the Sea
Carmel By the Sea is a community just 10 minutes from Monterey located on Carmel Bay. While it is another great place to spend some time, you can easily pop over for a day trip. We actually split our time between Monterey and Carmel and enjoyed each place equally. There is a beautiful beach at Carmel by the Sea and some excellent restaurants.
13. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Where to Stay in Carmel By the Sea
We stayed in Carmel by the Sea which is very close to Monterey and loved our time at The Hideaway located just a half a mile from the beach but also centrally located downtown. It was close to restaurants and was a nice and central location.
While e-biking through Monterey County our guide told us that one of the must-visit attractions in Monterey is the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Known as the crown jewel of the state park system in California, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve offers plenty of outdoor activities with 13 hiking trails offers hikers both easy and challenging opportunities, and wildlife watching to being a popular scuba diving spot for diving among the kelp forests. Take a walk on the Cypress Grove Trail to see the Monterey cypress trees hanging on the sea cliffs to make up for the lone Cypress on 17 Mile Drive. It is also a great place to spot gray whales migrating from December to May.
14. Monterey Museum of Art
If you are looking for things to do in Monterey that are indoors, a visit to the Monterey Museum of Art is one of the popular attractions to see California Art and artists. Ansel Adams lived in the Monterey Peninsula from 1962 to 1984 and his photography is showcased at the museum.
15. Monterey Coastal Trail
If you are looking for free things to in Monterey, the Monterey Coastal Trail is a great place to visit. The entire trail stretches 18 miles from Castroville to Pacific Grove. Passing by the top attractions in Monterey like the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There are plenty of places to stop to take in the views.
16. El Estero Park and Dennis the Menace Playground
If you are looking for some family-friendly things to do in Monterey, head over to the Dennis the Menace Playground at El Estero Park. The creator of Dennis the Menace himself helped design the playground located in 1956. Even if you don’t have kids it’s worth popping by to see this thoughtfully laid out park complete with a giant ship, slides, buildings and lots of things for kids to climb on (so keep a close eye). Located on El Estero Lake, there’s a skateboarding park, picnic tables, and an outdoor exercise course.
17. Monterey County Youth Museum (MY Museum)
Another family friendly activity is visiting the Monterey County Youth Museum, surrounded by Dennis the Menace Park which as interactive exhibits for the kids to enjoy.
Popular Monterey Tours
18. Whale Watching
There is no doubt that whale watching tours are one of the top things to do in Monterey. It is one of the best places in California for whale watching year-round. We even saw whales from our hotel in Big Sur while having breakfast one morning. It’s amazing. Book this highly rated tour to explore the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in search of whales.
19. Wine Tasting
It’s not only Napa Valley or Senoma that are wine regions in California, Monterey County has its own vineyards. But you don’t have to go out inn search of them, many have wine tasting rooms downtown Monterey. A taste of Monterey Wine Market and Bistro is one of the most popular attractions giving visitors a taste of Monterey wine country.
You can also follow the River Road Wine Trail to visit the tasting rooms of estate wineries that have views of the beautiful Salinas Valley. (known as the Salad Bowl of the World)
20. Pacific Coast Highway
With its close proximity to the Pacific Coast Highway, Monterey is a great base for exploring this iconic ocean road. There are plenty of sites that you can visit on a day trip from Monterey to Big Sur. Monterey is only a 40 minute drive to Big Sur and on the way you’ll be able to see such iconic sites as the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Garrapata State Park, and The Bixby Creek Bridge.
- Check out the series Big Little Lies starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman to see how the ultra rich live their lives in Monterey and Big Sur.
Where to Stay in Monterey
Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa – With a central location just a short walk to San Carlos Beach. This is a great location to make a base. Kids will love being close to Dennis the Menace Playground and it overlooks Monterey Bay.
Portola Hotel and Spa – This is a great location connected to the Monterey Convention Center. It is just a five minute walk to Fishermen’s Wharf and Cannery row.
Intercontinental, The Clement – Another central location close to popular attractions in Monterey including Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row. If you want a break from the kids, they offer in room childcare.
The Lodge at Pebble Beach – Stay at this exclusive resort with ocean front and ocean view rooms in complete luxury. This historic hotel dates back to 1919 and is close to several places to see including Seal Rock Creek Beach and the Lone Cypress.
How to Get to Monterey, CA
The best way to get to Monterey is by car. We recommend renting a car and making a road trip. You can compare prives at RentalCars.com. California was made for driving and it really is the best way to get around. Monterey is a 2 hour drive from San Francisco.
And Monterey is 5 hours from Los Angeles. It is popular to drive the Pacific Coast Highway 1 from L.A. but check to see what is open as there have been mud slides and road closures.
If you don’t have wheels you can book tours from San Francisco and multi day trips from Los Angeles.
This Family friendly day tour takes you to Cannery Row, A visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium plus stops at Carmel and Pebble Beach.
Or for a longer tour to explore more of California including Monterey, you can book this Wild West Tour from Los Angeles where you take a drive up the Pacific Coast before heading on to San Francisco, Yosemite National Park and Death Valley.