31 Best Things to do in Monterey, California

As a slow traveling cat, I take great pleasure in my visits to the charming town of Monterey, California. Located a little over 2 hours south of San Francisco, Monterey boasts an abundant marine world, a storied past, and a laid-back lifestyle. I was particularly captivated by the town’s historical involvement in the sardine canning trade. Oh, how I yearned to saunter through the streets of Cannery Row during the zenith of those days!

Beyond Monterey’s ever-evolving relationship with the sea, there are plenty of activities for your human companion including hiking, wine tasting, and exploring historical buildings. In fact, with so much to do in such a small town, it may be hard to know where to start. Do not fear, my human companion and I have crafted a list of the best 31 things to do in Monterey, California. 

Why choose Monterey?

The west coast of the United States is packed with better-known destinations like San Fransisco, Los Angeles, and Napa County. So why choose the smaller, lesser known destination of Monterey? 

It’s simple – Monterey provides a wide range of experiences while maintaining a laid-back attitude. This area is best known for its natural beauty and conservation efforts. However, it also has a rich history and plenty of upscale dining and shops for your entertainment. 

If you are looking for a relaxed vacation that features all the best parts of California, you should consider getting away from the crowds and visiting the town of Monterey. 

How to get there

Things to do in Monterey California - Old Fisherman's Wharf
Old Fishermen’s Warf

Depending on your location, most people can book a direct or connecting flight to the Monterey Regional Airport (MRY). The major airlines that fly here incldue: Alaska, United, and America. This airport is small, convenient, and located just 3 miles outside of town. 

If you are unable to book a flight to MRY, the closest major airports are San Jose (75 miles) and San Franscisco (107 miles). Even though San Franscisco is further away, you may still want to choose this airport to get some time to explore the beautiful town of San Franscisco before starting your Monterey adventure. Even though you can expect a 2-hour drive, the scenery will be gorgeous. 

If you live close enough, you may also consider driving into Monterey. A drive up or down the California coast is always a treat and, if you are coming from the east, you will likely pass through the Sierra Nevadas, which is a different kind of beauty to behold. Either way, taking road trip through the US can be an amazing adventure.

Your final option for traveling to Monterey is to take a train. The Coast Starlight service on Amtrak will get you to Salinas. From there you’ll need to take a bus into the main transit center in Monterey. 

Where to Stay

Depending on the type of experience you prefer, Monterey offers many options for accommodations. 
The best hotels in Monetery fall into two main clusters: Old Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row. Staying in Old Fisherman’s Wharf is a casual vibe and will give you plenty of access to some of the best restaurants in town. Overlooking a small marina, this is the best neighborhood to put on tennis shoes and walk around the boardwalk. The Portola Hotel & Spa is always a crowd-pleaser in Old Fisherman’s Wharf.

If you are looking for something slightly more upscale, then check out the hotel in Cannery Row. Here you’ll have more access to high-end shops, the famous Monterey Aquarium and still have waterfront access. If you’d like to stay in this neighborhood, check out the InterContinental or, if you prefer a boutique hotel, the Spindrift Inn is also a fantastic option. 

Your final option is to look at vacation rentals through a site like Airbnb. The benefit of going this route is more space and the opportunity to truly live like a local. You can also generally find accommodations outside of the main hubs, enabling a quieter atmosphere and lower prices. 

The 31 Best Things to do in Monterey, California

Now that you know all you need to know about planning your trip to Monterey, it’s time to start building your itinerary. Read on for 31 of the best activties in Monterey and its surrounding area.

1. Take a Stroll Through Old Fisherman’s Wharf

Once a wholesale fish market, Monterey’s Old Fisherman’s Wharf is still a hub for marine activities. Here, you’ll find an active marina full of tour operators, private boats and fishing charters. Spending an afternoon at Old Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the best things about visiting the town of Monterey. Make sure to check out some of the shops and cafes for a truly unique experience. 

2. Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Things to do in Monterey California - the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Opened in 1984, this famous aquarium is located in a renovated sardine factory. The unique space features more than 600 species of marine life. Pools and tanks display marine life in sustainable exhibits that invite you to interact with the wonders you encounter.

Be sure to visit the kelp forests, where you’ll find brightly colored fish, sharks, snails, starfish, and green anemones. Finally, move on to the Splash Zone and make friends with sea lions and a penguin or two.

3. Shop on Cannery Row

The sardine industry dwindled in the 1950s, but Cannery Row continues as a popular tourist area (and a known reference in John Steinbeck novels). These days, you’ll find upscale boutiques and souvenir shops next to restaurants, bars, and museums. This is a great place to buy unique food like pickled garlic, gourmet tomato sauce, and creative confections. Here you’ll also find Cannery Row Antique Mall, one of the largest antique stores on the Central Coast.

4. Drive on 17-Mile Drive

The 17-Mile Drive is a scenic roadway that begins in Pebble Beach and winds along the Monterey coastline. The road is just over 17 miles long and connects California State Route 1 to Carmel-by-the-Sea. There are a number of pull-offs where you can enjoy the views and take pictures. There are also several golf courses, restaurants, and hotels located along the drive if you’re looking for a place to stay or want to grab a bite to eat.

5. Sip wine at Taste of Monterey

Lesser known than Napa or Sonoma, Monterey County makes equally astounding wine. Take some time to explore the different wines of the area at Taste of Monterey, a seaside wine bar with wines from over 95 local wineries. 

6. Hike on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreational Trail

This 18- mile trail is a popular paved path that stretches along the coast from Castroville to Pacific Grove. Divided into lanes, it is a favorite for walkers, runners, bikers, and the occasional skateboarder. The trail can be easily accessed near Cannery Row and provides views of the ocean, rocky cliffs, and dramatic clouds. Make sure to plan to take your time, you’ll find several stops for shopping and eating along the way!

7. Learn About the Past at Monterey State Historic Park

Downtown Monterey CA - Cannery Row
Cannery Row

Located close to the center of town, Monterey State Historic Park is a great place to really dive into the history of Monterey.  Established by the Spanish in 1770, Monterey has existed under the rule of Spain, Mexico, and the United States. Between 1821 and 1846, under Mexican rule, Monterey boomed becoming the main port of California. Many of the buildings erected during this time can be found in the Old Monterey historic district, located within the park.  

During your visit look out for the Custom House (California’s first customs service), Pacific House (a hotel and meeting hall), and Larkin House (the home of Thomas Larkin, the “most powerful man in early California”). The park is also home to the first brick house in the state.

8. Appreciate Jazz at the Monterey Jazz Festival

If you are lucky enough to be in Monterey near the end of September, make sure to check out the Monterey Jazz Festival. The longest continuously running jazz festival in the world, this annual festival is held outdoors at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. Launching in 1958 the Monterey Jazz Festival, or MJF for short, has hosted jazz luminaries like Billy Holiday and Louis Armstrong. 

9. Warm up with a Cup of Clam Chowder

The best restaurant for clam chowder in Monterey is a hotly debated topic, however, no one disagrees on the joy of a warm cup of chowder while watching the evening fog roll in. Enjoying Monetrey’s rugged coastline alongside fantastic food is a must-have experience while in the area. Some of the best places to check out are Old Fisherman’s Grotto and Flaherty’s Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar. 

10. Experience the Setting of a John Steinbeck Novel

Steinbeck fans will recognize Cannery Row as the backdrop for a trio of famous novels: Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday. When exploring the tide pools of the rugged coastline, it’s easy to picture the beloved character Doc, based on a real-life marine biologist, Ed Ricketts. Make sure to keep an out for relics of Stienbeck’s time, when the neighborhood was less than desirable. 

11. Buy a Souvenir to Commemorate Your Trip 

No matter what you do during your time in Monterey, California, you are sure to have a memorable trip. Take some time to stop by some local shops to find your perfect souvenir. Fisherman’s Wharf is a great spot to check out local shops. If time permits, we also recommend shopping on Cannery Row. 

12. Look for Humpback Whales on a Whale Watching Tour

Another popular activity to is to take one of Monterey’s whale-watching tours. Best seen in the summer (July-August), humpback whales like hang out near Monterey from March through November. Generally running from 2.5 to 4 hours, there are several tour operators based in Old Fisherman’s Wharf. Not sure where to start? Check out Discovery Whale Watch, which Trip Advisor rated the number 1 whale watching tour in Monterey.

13. Snorkel at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Located a short, 20-minute drive south of Monterey, Point Lobos is sometimes referred to as “The crown jewel of the California State Park System”. It only takes a few minutes of soaking in the sights to see how this beautiful piece of land earned its title.

Known as one of the most picturesque stretches of Californian coastline, this park provides amazing hiking and snorkeling. If you are looking for a less active day, Point Lobos is also an excellent location for picnics, scenic drives, and wildlife photography. 

14. Visit Folktale Winery and Vineyards

About 20 minutes outside a town, you’ll find a lovely vineyard called Folktale. Featuring a large outdoor seating area with plenty of wines to taste and food to pair, this is a great place. to spend an afternoon. They even offer live music on Saturday and Sunday evenings, so make sure to call ahead to reserve your table for this uniquely California experience. 

15. Catch the Sunset at Lovers Point Park

Things to do in Monterey California - visit Lover's Point
Sunset at Lover’s Point

No list of things to do in Monterey California would be complete without a sunset over the sea. The best place to catch this stunning site is Lovers Point Park. Located on the northern tip of the Monterey Peninsula, this park is surrounded by water and diverse rock formations making for some truly stunning photo opportunities.   

16. Play Golf on the Best Public Course in the Country

Pebble Beach Golf Links was unanimously voted the number one public course in the United States. Known for hosting 6 US Opens (the most of any course in the last 50 years), a round of golf is a must-do for any enthusiast of the sport. 

17. Appreciate the Monterey Museum of Art

Opened in 1959, with a focus on California art, the Monterey Museum of Art is located downtown. The biggest collections focus on California art before 1945 and photography, however, their inventory is always growing. This lovely museum also has constantly rotating exhibits, so make sure to check out their website to see what’s available during your travel dates. 

18. Put your Toes in the Sand at Del Monte Beach

Most people think of the Monterey coastline as rocky with big, crashing waves, making it nicer to look at than swim in. This is because not many people know about Del Monte Beach. Tucked away behind a residential neighborhood on Del Monte Avenue, this is a rare sandy beach with plenty of access for sunbathing and swimming on a sunny day. Whether you are looking to fully submerge yourself in the Pacific Ocean or just get some sand between your toes, set your GPS to Del Monte Beach. 

19. Visit the Local Bookstore and Cafe

Looking for a break for all of your sightseeing? Bookworks is just your place. This unique local store not only has an amazing selection of books for purchase but also features a cafe and reading area where you can unwind in between your Monterey adventures. 

20. Play on the Dennis the Menace Playground

Dennis the Menace, a mischievous comic book character, is the namesake of this colorful playground in El Estero Park. With features like ramps, a sandpit, and a water spray area, the playground is designed for kids of all abilities. It also includes a field where families can enjoy a game of catch or Frisbee. The playground is not only a tribute to Dennis but to his creator Hank Ketcham who lived in nearby Carmel Valley.

21. Explore Asilomar State Beach

Located on the Monterey Peninsula, Asilomar State Beach is a great example of the quintessential Monterey coastline. Mostly filled with jagged rocks, this area is fun to explore with a good pair of hiking boots. With that said, however, you can still find a few sandy inlets on this one-mile stretch of coastline. Popular activities at Asilomar include hiking, kayaking, and windsurfing. 

22. Stop by Point Sur Lightstation

Looking over the bay since the late 1800s is Point Sur Light Station and former Naval facility. A visit here is a trip back to a time when mariners feared shipwrecks and lonely watchmen protected them with flashing lights. Tourists are invited to take a three-hour trip around the facility, including a panoramic view of the ocean.

23. See the Birthplace of California: Colton Hall Museum

Things to do Monterey California - wine tasting
Wine tasting

Not many people know that the town of Monterey hosted the first-ever California constitutional convention. In 1849, 48 delegates gathered in Colton Hall to debate California becoming a free state. Today this historical building acts as a museum, housing original documents from that time. Come walk the same halls as the delegates that changed the course of history!

24. Experience the Vibrant Coast Guard Pier

The Coast Guard Pier, also called the Coast Guard Jetty, is a great place to get a feel for how the locals live. Predominantly used for fishing (in California you can fish on public piers without a license), this is a also great place to view sea life.

Over the course of a walk down the Coast Guard Pier, you will likely see a combination of local fishermen, sea otters, kayakers, and divers all interacting in the rich marine ecosystem. The pier is connected to San Carlos Beach, which is another great place to relax and enjoy the unique views of Monterey Bay.  

25. See the Monarch Butterfly Migration

Each October thousands of monarch butterflies migrate to Monterey for the winter. You can check out their protected home in the Monarch Grove Butterfly Sanctuary through the winter months. Around February to March each year, the monarchs leave Monterey to return to their homes in the South. If you happen to be in the area in October, check out the annual Butterfly Parade, a small and colorful celebration in Pacific Grove. 

26. Visit the Golden State Theater

Golden State is a movie palace with an impressive history. Built in 1926 and partially renovated in 2005, the theater’s Moorish and Italian Renaissance architecture is a sight to behold. Take the time to notice the elegant entrance lobby with a floating floor and the skylight adorned with botanical canopies. Once hailed as the largest theater in the state, the 1,500-seat theater is now a venue for live shows and performances.

27. Take a Break at McAbee Beach

A quaint little beach next to Cannery Row, McAbee is where the locals like to hang out. This is a great place to take a break from shopping or simply get some fresh air after a filling meal. If you hang around long enough you may also see some locals launching their kayaks or donning on their scuba gear for exploration of the underwater ruins from previous coastal establishments. 

28. Check out one of the Glass-bottom Boat Tours

With Monterey being located right in the middle of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, you can imagine the abundance of marine life located just below the surface. In the town of Monterey, you can find several charters that will provide a tour of the bay in a glass-bottom boat. This is a great way to get up close and personal with sea life without ever getting your hair wet. Check out Little Mermaid Tours for an easy 30-minute cruise that leaves right from Old Fisherman’s Wharf. 

29. Day Trip to Beautiful Big Sur

About 30 minutes south of Monterey, Big Sur makes our list due to its one of-a-kind beauty. Generally considered the 70ish mile stretch on the Pacific Coast Highway between the Carmel Highlands and San Simeon, this area is world-renowned for its dramatic landscape, resulting from the Santa Lucia Mountain Range meeting the Pacific Ocean.

A great way to see Big Sur is by driving down the 1 Highway. You can also find recreational areas along the drive for beach combing and hiking. Finally, you can make a stop at Big Sur Village for a bite to eat and a chance to chat with some of the locals who get to live in this famous landscape. 

30. Play a Game of Volleyball at Monterey State Beach

Perhaps the best-known sandy beach in the area, Monterey State Beach is located on the northern side of Monterey. On the occasional sunny day, this is a great location to soak in the sun. Most of the time you’ll find beach goers walking, jogging, boating, fishing, kitesurfing, or playing a game of sand volleyball. 

31. Visit Carmel-by-the-sea

About a 15-minute drive south of Monterey, a trip to Carmel-by-the-sea should make any Monterey agenda. This charming seaside village is filled with unique shops, amazing views of the ocean, and surprising amount restaurants given its size of one square mile. If you are looking for somewhere to relax for the afternoon, check out Carmel Plaza

Conclusion on the Best Things to do in Monterey

In conclusion, the captivating town of Monterey offers natural beauty, rich history, and engaging entertainment. Located not too far from the hustle and bustle of city life in San Franscisco, Monterey is a great getaway with plenty of things to do. Whether you are looking to explore the great outdoors, sip small-batch wine, or learn about California’s history, there are enough diverse options to fill any traveler’s itinerary.

In a world where destinations often vie for the spotlight, Monterey’s unassuming allure is a testament to the power of a place that offers both respite and discovery in equal measure.

Read Next: American Roadtrip Holidays – Welcome to the ultimate guide

In the area? Check out: Sonoma County Hikes and Things To Do In Sonora, California.

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