18 Best Things to Do in Monterey

Jagged cliffsides and volatile aquamarine waves crashing and churning the kelp forests below, an abundance of marine life found nowhere else in the world, fairytale villages, historic buildings, and Spanish influence—this is Monterey Bay, one of the most beautiful towns on the California Coast.

Only a stone’s throw across the bay from Santa Cruz, Monterey’s quirky younger brother, this region of California offers something for everyone. This seaside town nestled in the Carmel Valley makes the perfect day trip from Santa Cruz if you’re a traveler staying at one of our vacation rentals or on an epic Highway 1 road trip exploring California’s Central Coast from Big Sur or San Francisco.

Once you’ve enjoyed your drive from Santa Cruz to Monterey, it’s time to soak up all this cute coastal town has to offer.

Here are our favorite things to do in Monterey, California.

1. Monterey Bay Aquarium

Photo Credit: photocritical

The crown jewel of aquariums in the country, the most famed attraction in Monterey, this aquarium found on the historic sardine Cannery Row is world-renowned for its interactive exhibits found nowhere else.

Come see sea otters, the uncontested mascot of Monterey, or visit the iconic 1.2 million gallon open water exhibit hosting several species of sharks, turtles, and the massive Mola Mola fish. The jellyfish exhibit and three-story Kelp forests are also crowd favorites. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is great for an afternoon and perfect for the whole family, it will have you wanting to get back in line to see it all over again.

2. Go Whale Watching

Take to the sea, brave the waves, and witness gentle giants up close. Monterey Bay is famous for its whale activity, and the bay serves as a natural stopover during their great migrations. With such an abundance of whales, there truly is no bad time to go whale watching. Humpback season is around March to November and peaks in the middle of summer. Gray whales are best to be seen December – May with a peak in January and March. Killer whales can be seen year-round but tend to peak in April-May.

Read our guide to help you choose the best Whale Watching Tour.

3. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

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Part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Point Lobos is an acclaimed state park that boasts dramatic vistas, picnics, and dive sites that are some of the most biodiverse in the world. To quote landscape painter, Francis McComas, ‘ The greatest meeting of land and sea’, once you visit, you’ll see why so many painters, photographers, and even scuba divers flock from around the world to this breathtaking reserve.

4. Cruise the 17-Mile-Drive

It says a lot for such a short stretch of road to gain so much notoriety. But when you witness the natural beauty, you’ll understand.

This winding seaside route is a road trip dream and will make you wish it went on forever. Starting in Pacific Grove and ending in Pebble Beach, hit the road for a chance to catch the sunset or perhaps have a nice picnic overlooking the dramatic landscapes below.

Be on the lookout for iconic stops like The Lone Cypress, Spanish Bay, Stillwater Cove, the Del Monte Forest, and, of course, the world-class golf courses at Pebble Beach. An entrance fee of $11.25 per vehicle is required to enter Pebble Beach as well as the scenic drive.

5. Old Fishermans Wharf

Photo Credit: jejim

Soup of the day? Clam Chowder. No trip to the charming Monterey peninsula is complete without a visit to this historic wharf. If you book whale-watching or deep-sea fishing trips, you will most likely embark from here.

But this historic pier, built in 1845, offers much more than just glass-bottom boat tours and fishing excursions. Outstanding fresh seafood cuisine, shopping, fishing, and those stunning Southern California sunsets. Not to mention, right next door is where you can watch the local sea lions laze about on the beach and play in the water.

6. Monarch Grove Butterfly Sanctuary

In winter, monarch butterflies flock to this region of California during their migratory flight to wait out the cold. The best place to witness this magical phenomenon is Pacific Grove, which is right in the heart of Monterey County, at the Monarch Grove Butterfly Sanctuary. While most species of Monarchs live only 4 to 5 weeks, the generation that rests in Pacific Grove lives up to six months!

Every October, the eucalyptus forests around Pacific Grove fill with massive clusters of butterflies huddling to conserve heat and the result is a visually stunning kaleidoscope display of nature.

The sanctuary is free to visit, but beware, the fine for touching a butterfly is a staggering $1,000. Butterflies can be seen here from October to February before they move south in the spring.

7. Coastal Recreational Trail

For the active and adventurous traveler, the Monterey Coastal Recreational Trail is the perfect place to get outside and enjoy the 18-mile stretch of paved path as you follow the old Southern Pacific Railroad route along the coast.

A great way to beat the traffic and main roads, as the trail will take you through popular spots like the Aquarium, Cannery Row, and Old Fisherman’s Wharf. Bicycles and kayaks are available to rent at numerous small businesses along the trail, such as Adventures by the Sea and Monterey Bay Kayaks. Spot wildlife like sea lions, elephant seals, and sea otters as they frolic in the kelp or laze away on the shores.

8. Spot Sea Otters

The best places to spot sea otters in Monterey are:

  • Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Cannery Row
  • The Breakwater
  • Lovers Point
  • Otter Point
  • Point Piños
  • Point Joe
  • Bird and Seal Rocks
  • Cypress Point
  • Pescadero Point
  • Carmel Point
  • Point Lobos

If it’s quiet enough around you, be sure to listen to the tapping sound of them breaking shells with rocks on their tummies. Kayaking is a great way to get a closer look at these animals in their natural environment as you glide through the calm deep blue water and kelp forests.

9. See the Carmel Mission

Photo Credit: travelview

Not only for the Catholics among us, this beautiful 18th-century mission built in its traditional Mexican style is worth a visit by people of all creeds. Keep in mind that it is an active parish, so visiting hours and tours can be affected by events. The entrance fee for adults is $10 and includes a self-guided tour.

10. Take a Walking Tour

There is no greater way to take in the sights, the history, and the culture of Monterey Bay quite like signing up for a walking tour. Let local guides take you all the way back to the Spanish settlers’ origins through historic districts like Cannery Row and The Old Fisherman’s Wharf. The Original Monterey Walking Tours is a great locally-owned option for guided tours of downtown Monterey and comes highly recommended.

11. Visit the Colton Hall Museum & Jail

Photo Credit: Daniel Hartwig

This important museum is also the birthplace of the state of California. It was here that back in 1849, it was debated that California become a free state. If you want to learn more about California’s beginnings or life in early Monterey, this is your educational stop.

12. See the Historic Old Custom House

The Old Custom House is America’s single oldest standing government building. Constructed in 1827 by Mexican Authorities, this unassuming building is a tribute to the region’s shared heritage. Spain, Mexico, and then the United States each colonized this region and made Monterey, California, its capital. If you’re a history lover, it’s worth a visit!

13. Getaway From It All in Castroville

Photo Credit: David A Litman

A small agricultural town just a few miles removed from Monterey Bay, known as the ‘artichoke capital of the world.’ Once you arrive, it’s easy to see why, stop by the Giant Artichoke Restaurant to try locally grown ‘chokes prepared in every imaginable way. Take some home as a souvenir from Pezzini Farms, where they’ve been growing the violet-thistle crop for over eighty years.

14. Dennis the Menace Playground

Built in 1956, this playground named after the famed comic strip character has entertained kids for nearly five decades. This structure was built into the El Estero Park complex with donations from Hank Ketchum, the comic strip author. Today, it’s the perfect place for parents to take their little ones to burn off some energy and live up to the park’s namesake. With slides, suspension bridges, and a climbing wall, Dennis the Menace Park is a playground of every childhood fantasy!

15. Take in Culture at the Monterey Museum of Art

Photo Credit: Belyay

Monterey Museum of Art (MMA) is a center that showcases the rich cultural diversity of the central Californian region through visual art exhibitions. Contemporary, photography, Asian, and Spanish American, there are around 20 exhibits at these art galleries annually. Permanent pieces include work by notable painters like Pablo Picasso and world-renowned nature photographer Ansel Adams.

16. Indulge in a Shopping Spree

Monterey Bay has no shortage of boutique shops, art studios, and shopping centers. Its retail options are as diverse as its natural beauty and wildlife. The Carmel by the Sea area stands out among most due to its enchanting architecture that looks straight out of a fairytale.

Over 100 artists have studios in this area, and the one-mile stretch of quaint village bliss is lined with family-owned retail boutiques, wineries with tasting rooms, souvenirs, and antiques.

17. Take a Day Trip to Old Town Salinas

Photo Credit: Ken Lund

Located only 20 miles east of Monterey, Old Town Salinas offers another one-of-a-kind shopping experience. Antiques, home furnishings, wine tasting, and sporting goods stores dot Main Street, which has a Western pioneer town vibe and a mixture of historic buildings and Victorian architecture. It is well worth the trip for antique enthusiasts and the curious!

This area was also a favorite of Nobel-prize winner John Steinbeck, who called it the “valley of the world.”

18. Go Beach Hopping

Being the odd-shaped peninsula that it is, Monterey hides stretches of soft white sand and calm waters tucked within its rugged coastline. These are the most beautiful beaches in town.

Asilomar State Beach

Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove is a pet-friendly one-mile stretch of sand and rocky outcrops that comes complete with a boardwalk to stroll! This is a perfect place for swimmers, sunbathers, and avid tide pool explorers alike to enjoy this tucked-away cove overlooking Spanish Bay. The is one of the best beaches and is even accessible by wheelchair for those with limited mobility.

Carmel Beach

Carmel Beach is the quintessential beach lovers paradise. Soft white sand stretches in both directions with placid waves lapping at your toes.

Del Monte Beach

Located in Monterey State Beach, Del Monte Beach is popular with surfers, beachcombers, and strollers.

Lovers Point Park

Lovers Point Park is perfect for whale lovers. It is known locally as the best place to spot gentle giants from shore. This park offers breathtaking ocean views, and even if you don’t see a whale, the sunsets here will never disappoint.

Stay Near Monterey

Windswept Cypress trees, rugged coastlines, tranquil white sand beaches, art studios, and whale watching tours. There really is no place quite like Monterey. So much diversity means so much to explore.

If you stay at one of Beachnest Vacation Rentals, you’ll be rewarded with no shortage of adventure and fun by the sea. There’s no excuse not to pack the car and take a scenic road trip getaway or relaxing day trip.