If you love scenic views and sea creatures then you’ll want to visit Monterey, California! The best things to do in Monterey are all centered around its proximity to the water.
This small city on California’s central coast is a charming tourist hub. Monterey makes for a fun weekend getaway from San Francisco or a stop along a Pacific Coast Highway road trip.
In addition to marine wildlife, Monterey is also home to a lively arts scene. Artists, writers, and musicians can easily find inspiration among the crashing waves of the coast and the quintessential California sunshine. (Fun fact: Monterey has California’s first theater, in which soldiers put on performances in 1847-1848.)
It’s easy to fit all of the best things to do in Monterey into a day or two. Just don’t forget to wear some comfy shoes and sunscreen!
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- From San Francisco: Monterey is about a two-hour drive south via US-101 or two and a half hours via US-1 (the Pacific Coast Highway).
- From San Jose: If you want to fly into Monterey, the closest airport is San Jose, which is about an hour and fifteen-minute drive away.
Having a car is the best way to travel around Monterey. While the town itself is fairly walkable, you will need some transportation to go in and out of town.
You can easily rent a car from the airports in either San Francisco or San Jose.
Where to Stay in Monterey
- Where we stayed (budget option): The Best Western Park Crest Inn was clean and pleasant, with easy parking.
- Mid-range option: Hotel Abrego had been our choice but booked up quickly.
- B&B option: My parents stayed at the Seven Gables Inn on Monterey Bay during their honeymoon and it’s as gorgeous as ever.
- Splurge option: I walked by the lovely Spindrift Inn and would definitely stay in an ocean-view room for a special occasion!
Five Best Things to Do in Monterey, CA
Monterey Bay Aquarium
One of the most popular things to do in Monterey is to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium…and for good reason! Even if aquariums or museums aren’t “your thing,” it is still worth checking out.
A lot of care has clearly gone into the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The layout is well thought out, seamlessly taking you through the different sections. You can learn as much or as little as you’d like as you wander past creatures of all kinds.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is located right on the water in what used to be one of the big fish canneries. (They have an exhibit inside about the cannery itself.) Now, it is a place dedicated to ocean life research and conservation.
Some of my favorite sections of the aquarium were the Kelp Forest, the sea otters’ enclosure (they’re so cute!), and Open Waters. There’s something soothing about watching jellyfish ungulate or sea turtles glide by.
Once you’ve seen inside the aquarium, step outside onto their impressive decks that overlook the Pacific. There are several viewing stations where you can keep an eye out for wildlife in the waves.
Another of the most popular things to do in Monterey is to walk along Cannery Row. If you’re visiting the aquarium, Cannery Row is impossible to miss.
In the early 1900s, fish canneries were a big part of Monterey’s industry. Sardine fish were caught and brought into big factory buildings near the water to be canned (like the one the Monterey Bay Aquarium is in).
John Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row, was published in 1945 and takes place in Depression-era Monterey. He wrote about the area’s different inhabitants, inspired by real people.
Today, the cannery buildings are full of tourist shops and restaurants, with small parks on the street and views of the water. There are also educational plaques detailing Cannery Row’s history.
Breakwater Cove Marina
When I heard the noise coming from Breakwater Cove Marina, I almost thought it was fake. I thought maybe Monterey just pumped sea lion noise in through speakers near the beach- that’s how loud it is!
Turns out, one of my favorite things to do in Monterey is to watch the sea lions at Breakwater Cove Marina. Dozens of sea lions swim, play, and sleep on the rocks.
The marina is open to the public and you can walk along the sidewalk and be quite close to the sea lions! They really are just ocean puppies, and they behave as such.
Old Fisherman’s Wharf
Another of the most popular things to do in Monterey is to visit Old Fisherman’s Wharf. The colorful buildings sitting over the water have shops, restaurants, and offices for boat tour operations.
The wharf has been around since the 1800s, though the first restaurant there didn’t open until 1919. Today it’s still a popular spot to enjoy seafood, with many seafood restaurants to choose from, like Old Fisherman’s Grotto or Café Fina.
However, if you have any room left after your meal, you then have to swing by one of the candy shops and try some saltwater taffy!
Lastly, one of the best things to do in Monterey is to cruise along the 17-Mile Drive. This road winds along the coast of the Monterey Peninsula, cutting through golf links, with fun vantage points at which to stop.
How long does it take to drive the 17-Mile Drive? That’s up to you! If you didn’t want to stop at all, you could do it in about an hour. However, part of the fun is getting out of the car. Maybe you bring a picnic lunch to enjoy when you find a spot you like!
The 17-Mile Drive in Monterey costs a toll of $11.25 per car and you must enter through one of the four gates. I recommend starting at the Pacific Grove entrance and leaving through the Carmel gate.
Some of our favorite points of interest along the 17-Mile Drive were:
The Restless Sea area was the first place we stopped along the drive. This section of the coast is one of the most active along the 17-Mile Drive likely due to underwater rocks. It was mesmerizing to watch the ocean constantly churn and crash over the rocks.
Bird Rock and Seal Rock
These rocks are exactly what they sound like; one is covered in birds, and one is covered in seals!
On Bird Rock you can spot seagulls, cormorants, and pelicans hanging out. On Seal Rock you can spot harbor seals and/or sea lions sunning themselves. (You can also sometimes see seals at the Cypress Point Lookout.)
The Lone Cypress
This cypress tree does look pretty lonely on its rocky outcrop, but it gets plenty of visitors because it is one of the most popular stops along the 17-Mile Drive. The Lone Cypress is over 250 years old! In order to preserve it for as long as possible, access to the tree itself is prohibited; but you can admire it from a distance.
If you have more than a day in Monterey to spend exploring, here are some other fun Monterey activities:
- The Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail: You can follow this well-cared-for path from Cannery Row to Old Fisherman’s Wharf, walking along the water.
- Local art galleries and shops: Check out works by local artists at galleries both along Cannery Row and near Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
- Whale Watching: Monterey is one of the best places in the U.S. to see whales, especially in winter and spring. Even if you don’t see any whales, there is plenty of marine wildlife to be seen in Monterey Bay.
- Check out these possible tours below:
I hope this post has helped if you were looking for things to do in Monterey, or maybe it’s just inspired you to visit! I had a delightful time in Monterey and will definitely be back again one day.
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