Monterey is truly one of California’s dream destinations—there are no other places quite like it on the West Coast. The small city often gets overlooked in favor of more well known coastal destinations like L.A., San Diego, and San Francisco, but in-the-know travelers know Monterey is worth a visit.
Once a sleepy fishing village, there are now so many things to do in Monterey that the hardest part of visiting is narrowing down the list of what to see and do. Fortunately, Monterey still retains much of its small-town charm—and if you can break yourself away from the restaurants, piers, and sights of downtown, there are plenty of things to do in Monterey, CA just a short drive away. Monterey has a huge wine-growing region to the east, with more than 150 vineyards producing wine under the Monterey AVA (American Viticultural Area) designation.
These are some of the best things to do in Monterey.
1: Protect the Oceans at the Monterey Aquarium
Potentially Monterey’s most famous draw, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the best places in the U.S. to dive into the Pacific Ocean without ever getting wet. As one of the best aquariums in the world, it is the perfect spot to learn about the diversity of the Pacific Ocean and take a look at some rare and endangered species you’d seldom see in the wild.
The aquarium has sharks, a glow-in-the-dark jellyfish exhibit, penguins, otters, and exhibits focused on ocean habitats like “deep sea” and “kelp forest” exhibits. The aquarium is also a leader in ocean research and conservation, so every visit helps keep the oceans a little healthier and cleaner for the animals that call it home. It’s a great spot for kids or adults to visit.
2: Tour the Carmel Mission
California’s history is more than just the Gold Rush, and you can learn about the state’s earlier history at the Carmel Mission, officially called the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. In the 1700s and 1800s, missions were built across California to serve several purposes; namely, to convert the Native Americans and help secure Spain’s claim on the new world’s western coast. Today, they’re some of the oldest buildings in California.
At the Carmel Mission, one of the most unique places to visit in California, be sure to stroll through the various museums to learn about the missions’ history, how people lived in and around the missions in the 1800s, and browse the institution’s rotating art collections. As you likely guessed from the name, the Carmel Mission is near Carmel-by-the-Sea, so it’s easy to fit into a day spent sightseeing just south of Monterey.
3: Go Wine Tasting in the Monterey AVA
Monterey may not be Napa, but it’s still northern California, and that means the wines produced here are world-class. One of the best things to do in Monterey is to spend an afternoon wine tasting, especially since it’s less than 20 minutes to some of the best vineyards and tasting rooms in this part of California.
Because the Monterey AVA is enormous, it encompasses everything from low-lying coastal areas to higher-elevation areas with colder average temperatures. That means you can grow nearly any kind of wine here, from deep cabernet francs to crisp chardonnays and roses.
You’ve got a few different options for how you want to taste wine: you can do a walking tour of tasting rooms in Carmel-by-the-Sea or Monterey, drive or take a tour of the River Road Wine Trail around Salinas, or cruise the Carmel Valley and stop at whatever winery piques your interest. There’s no shortage of great wines in one of California’s best wine regions.
4: Stroll Along Historic Cannery Row
You can’t take a trip to Monterey without visiting Cannery Row, one of the most famous streets in the United States. Monterey’s fishing industry started to boom around the turn of the century, and sardine canning became a primary industry on the coast. This street is steps from the ocean, making it easy to bring the freshly caught fish here for canning and shipping—hence the name “Cannery Row.”
Many of the old factories have since been converted into restaurants and shops, and the beach just next to Cannery Row is an excellent place to rent kayaks and paddleboards. You’ll also find everything from escape rooms to old-timey photoshops to a wax museum and magic shop. The best way to visit Cannery Row is to set aside a few hours to wander in and out of shops at your leisure (and maybe bring a swimsuit if you plan on a kayak tour).
5: See the Sights of 17-Mile Drive
Monterey is already one of Northern California’s biggest highlights, and the famous 17-mile drive encompasses the best parts of Monterey—so it’s truly a can’t-miss drive. The short stretch of Highway 1 runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean and passes by some of the best sights on the coast.
You’ll see Bird Rock, home to sea birds, sea lions, and harbor seals; the Lone Cypress, which may be California’s most famous tree; the stretch of coast known as the Restless Sea, where waves aggressively crash against the rocky cliffs; and the often-photographed segment of cypress “ghost trees.” Bring your camera and a sense of adventure—it’s one of the best ways to spend an afternoon in Monterey. There’s a small fee to drive along the private road, but if you go with a tour, they’ll take care of all the details (and often provide lunch or snacks along the way).
6: Spend the Afternoon at Fisherman’s Wharf
If Cannery Row is the most famous road in Monterey, then Fisherman’s Wharf is the most famous pier. Jutting far into the ocean, the pier was originally built in the 1860s to serve as the booming fishing industry’s economic center. But when the sardine industry began declining in the 1940s, the wharf was re-imagined, focusing on tourism, which is what it’s known for today.
On the pier, you’ll find restaurants, candy and ice cream shops, souvenir and gift shops, and a theater. If you’re looking for the best things to do in Monterey, you’ll find many of them here, as it’s the starting point for whale-watching tours, glass-bottom boat rides, and bay cruises.
TV fans will want to swing by Palucca Trattoria, where HBO filmed scenes for its hit show “Big Little Lies,” while nature lovers will want to sign up for a whale-watching tour. You’re likely to see humpbacks and blue whales in the summer and fall.
7: Hit the Links at Pebble Beach
Few golf courses have the cache of Pebble Beach, and that’s for a good reason—playing a round here is one of the best things to do in Monterey if you have any interest in golf. The public course has hosted several U.S. Opens, probably because it has some of the most beautiful holes in the country, with several set on cliffs jutting out into the ocean. The club manages several courses, but opt to play the Pebble Beach Golf Links if you want to walk in the footsteps of greats like Tiger Woods and Greg Norman.
Even if you don’t play golf, you may still enjoy the clubhouses, which have great views (and equally tasty cocktails). Or opt to visit the Pebble Beach Golf Academy, where a skilled instructor can teach you the basics at the driving range or use 3D swing technology to take your game to the next level.
8: Photograph a Famous Cliffside Bridge
The Bixby Bridge, which unofficially connects Monterey and Big Sur, was built back in 1932. It was quite the feat of engineering, especially considering the bridge’s height—it’s one of the tallest concrete span bridges in the world. Numerous pullouts just north and south of the bridge provide plenty of photo opportunities.
At 360 feet long, you’ll likely want a wide-angle lens or panoramic photo to capture it. No matter what time of day you visit, you’re in for great views—there’s ocean fog in the morning, bright blue skies and seas mid-day, and incredible sunsets in the evenings.
If you’re headed to Big Sur, consider stopping at the bridge in the morning before adventuring south, then timing your return around sunset. Driving to Big Sur is one of the best things to do in Monterey, and the Bixby Bridge is just icing on the cake.
9: Take a Walking Tour of Carmel’s Fairytale Houses
Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of the cutest towns in the entire United States. Founded as an artist commune in the very late 1800s, the town is a checkerboard of cobblestone streets dotted with theaters, art galleries, wine-tasting rooms, artisan shops, boutique hotels, and locally-owned cafes. It’s also one of the most dog-friendly cities in America, so if you like pups, spend time people- and dog-watching at Carmel’s beach.
One of the things Carmel is most famous for is its series of “fairytale houses.” The first one was built in 1924 as a showroom for a local artist’s handmade dolls, but the architectural style caught on, and soon, residents built dozens more. They’re all still in use, and while some are restaurants and cafes, others are private homes. Swing by the Carmel Visitor’s Center to pick up a walking tour of the downtown area, which will take you past many of the homes and other historic buildings.
10: Spend the Morning on the Water
Monterey’s coastline is beautiful when viewed from shore, but getting out on the water gives you another perspective of the coast’s rugged beauty. Taking a guided kayaking tour is one of the best things to do in Monterey since the bay is teeming with wildlife. You’re likely to see sea lions, jellyfish, playful otters, and maybe even whales or dolphins, depending on the season.
You can rent a kayak and wetsuit to paddle on your own if you’re an experienced kayaker, but going on a tour is a great way to add an educational component to your adventure. Tours are almost always led by very knowledgeable wildlife enthusiasts, so they can tell you about the wildlife you’re seeing and help answer questions you may have about Monterey’s marine ecosystem. Most tours include a wetsuit rental since it can get breezy on the water, but you can also wear waterproof jackets and pants if you prefer.
11: Hike Through Garrapata State Park
The coastline just south of Monterey is dotted with gorgeous state parks, including the well-known Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Point Lobos State Reserve. But both get quite crowded, so if you want the same amazing views with fewer people, head instead to Garrapata State Park, about 15 minutes south of Monterey. The park has just over two miles of coast and some great inland hikes with amazing views. And if you like being active, you’re in luck, since the Soberanes Canyon Trail climbs past some of the coast’s most beautiful terrain.
The hike is around 2.5 miles each way and goes past California redwoods and a waterfall as it winds through coastal forest. From the 1,700-foot summit, you’ll be able to look out on the fantastic coastline. If you’re lucky, you may even spot migrating whales. Bringing binoculars can certainly make that much more likely. But if you don’t want to hike, no problem—there’s a much shorter walk to a lookout point that only gains about 50 feet.
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