Monterey, with one of the most diverse marine environments on earth, is famous for its whale safaris, which can be done year-round, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is fun for kids and adults. It also has a rich history and scenic hiking trails.
There is so much to do in and around Monterey that you can plan an extended vacation in the area: a week or more by plane to explore Monterey and the charming surrounding towns. But Monterey Bay, with its relaxed atmosphere, is also the perfect place for a weekend getaway or even a relaxing day trip from San Francisco or the SF Bay area.
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Where to eat in Monterey
The best time to visit Monterey, California
Businesses in Monterey
Take a whale watching tour
Monterey is without a doubt one of the best places in the world to spot whales. At Monterey Submarine Canyon, you can see whales and dolphins close to shore, even with the naked eye.
But for a better experience, book a whale watching tour. On a visit a few years ago, we saw nearly 50 whales battling sea spray, fountains and blowouts. It was a beautiful sight to behold. Although whale watching is not guaranteed, you are more likely to see whales and other marine animals.
Whale watching in Monterey Bay is offered year-round. Depending on the season, you may see gray, humpback, blue or orca whales. Fin whales and minke whales are less common.
During the trip, you will also see dolphins, porpoises and a variety of seabirds. If the weather is nice, the scenery is also breathtaking.
This high-quality half-day whale watching tour departs from Fisherman’s Wharf and offers a 3.5-hour cruise in Monterey Bay in search of whales, dolphins, sea lions and birds. Onboard commentary is provided by a naturalist or marine biologist. Book this tour now!
Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The famous Monterey Bay Aquarium is located in a building on Cannery Row, right in the middle of the ocean. A visit to the aquarium is one of the most popular things to do in Monterey, for both children and adults.
The aquarium offers a variety of marine habitats, from kelp forests off the rocky coast to the ocean. From sharks and sea bass to giant Pacific octopuses and colorful pond dwellers, there are many interesting creatures to see.
We love the aviary, which is home to many native birds, including the endangered western snowy plover. Oystercatchers, phalaropes, stilts and curlews are some of the other birds you can see here. And of course, there’s the penguin exhibit.
During the season, the aquarium is very busy during the day, especially on weekends. If possible, plan your visit during the week and come early, during business hours.
Kayaking or off-roading in Monterey Bay.
If you are looking for an active way to explore the beautiful waters of Monterey Bay, consider kayaking or paddleboarding. The waters of Monterey Bay are protected and calm, making paddling here fun.
Rentals are available at several locations around town. The most popular launch sites are Cannery Row in Monterey, Lovers Point Park in Pacific Grove and Stillwater Cove in Carmel. Guided tours are also available.
Walking through Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, you will see otters frolicking in the kelp, seals swimming in the water or basking on the rocks, and a variety of birds flying overhead or roosting on the rocks.
Don’t forget to watch fish in the water and enjoy the view of Cannery Row in Monterey from the water!
Wandering canning branch
Cannery Row is filled today with restaurants, stores and hotels, but was once the center of a large-scale sardine and canning industry. The setting of John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, Cannery Row, used to be called Ocean View Avenue.
From 1908 until the end of World War II, except during the Great Depression, canneries flourished here along the waterfront. But after World War II, the sardines mysteriously disappeared from Monterey Bay, closing the canneries and bankrupting the area.
In the late 1960s, developers revitalized the neighborhood and made it attractive to tourists by establishing numerous stores, accommodations and restaurants. Today, the street is thriving again and a walk along Cannery Row is a must for most visitors to Monterey.
Eating ice cream with a view of Ghirardelli!
Ghirardelli’s ice cream and chocolate store is one of our favorite stops on Cannery Row. Although San Francisco is where the company was founded, the Monterey store is a fun stop if you like sweets.
Sit on the balcony and have an ice cream. From the balcony you will have a beautiful view of the sea and from time to time a seagull will dive into the railing. Your ice cream is deliciously decadent and creamy.
The store also offers a wide range of Ghirardelli chocolate squares in various flavors (you can even try one on the way in!), as well as various souvenir wrappers.
A walk along the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail.
If you want to burn off a few calories with all that chocolate and ice cream, take a walk on the beautiful Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. The trail is actually 18 miles long, from Castroville in the north to Pacific Grove in the south.
The coastal trail lies along the former Southern Pacific Railway line and is paved with two lanes, one in each direction. There are beautiful views and opportunities to spot wildlife and birds.
You can take the trail at Cannery Row and walk it to the southern terminus at Pacific Grove and back, about 3 miles total.
You can also take a gray bike tour or a regular bike tour in either direction. If you come with children, they will love the gray bike! Please note that some sections of the trail have dedicated bicycle and pedestrian lanes.
Enjoy the old Fisherman’s Wharf.
The Old Fisherman’s Wharf has a rich history. It was built in the mid-19th century to accommodate passengers and cargo. In 1919, the first restaurant opened on the wharf, serving fried abalone steaks.
More stores and restaurants followed, and after the debacle of 1923, Old Fisherman’s Wharf was rebuilt stronger and longer. The Wharf promoted the sardine canning business in Monterey.
After the sardines disappeared from the waters of Monterey Bay, the marina was transformed from a business center to a tourist destination. The marina became home to restaurants, fish markets, tour operators and souvenir stores.
Stroll along the pier for a beautiful view of the ocean and harbor, check out the stores (salty toffees are great!) and eat fresh seafood at the water’s edge.
Fisherman’s Wharf is the starting point for whale watching excursions in Monterey. From the marina, you can also take sailboat trips, fishing trips and glass-bottom boat tours.
Visit to the Monterrey State Historical Park
The Monterey State Historic Park, consisting of several historic buildings, is a must-see if you enjoy local history. Guided tours may be offered during your visit: join one of these to get a fascinating glimpse into the city’s past.
Monterey was the capital of California under three different regimes: first Spain, then Mexico and finally the United States. Monterrey began to be colonized by the Spanish in the second half of the 18th century.
The Spanish built the Presidio and Mission of San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey. The mission was then transferred to Carmel. The Mexicans built the Custom House, the first historic monument in the state of California.
During the walk you will see eleven historic buildings and makeshift homes, beautiful historic gardens and even a whale-watching tour. Before the walk, check out the exhibits at the Pacific House Museum.
Enjoy the Monterey Museum of Art
The Monterey Museum of Art has a permanent collection of California art and photography with changing exhibitions. It also has other temporary exhibitions.
Don’t miss California’s first works of art, which date from before 1945 and showcase the region’s history as an art colony.
Visit the Salvador Dali Museum
Art lovers will also want to visit the Salvador Dali exhibit at the Monterey History and Art Association, located at Custom House Plaza.
The permanent collection includes an impressive collection of sculptures, lithographs, tapestries and prints by Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali. It is the largest private collection of Dali on the West Coast of the United States.
Visit to the Cathedral of San Carlos
When Father Junipero Serra and Don Gaspar de Portola founded Monterrey in 1770, they built the Presidio de Monterrey and the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Monterrey.
The following year the mission was moved to Carmel, and the original church in Monterey served as a chapel for the Presidio soldiers. The present building dates from the late 18th century and is the oldest stone building in the country.
San Carlos was designated a cathedral in 1849. The church underwent major renovation and restoration in the early 21st century. Built in the Spanish-colonial style, San Carlos is the oldest functioning church in California, still in use.
The Royal Chapel of San Carlos, a National Historic Landmark, is just steps from Fisherman’s Wharf in downtown Monterey and is worth a visit if you enjoy history, culture, art and architecture.
Tasting of local wines
In downtown Monterey you will find several tasting rooms where you can taste California wines.
Some of our favorites:
- A taste of Monterey, which also offers meals and is located by the sea at Cannery Row. Ask for a waterfront table and sample local wines or homemade beers overlooking the ocean!
- Pierce Ranch Vineyards has a tasting room on Wave Street in downtown Monterey. The tasting room showcases limited-production wines from San Antonio Valley vineyards. Their wines are excellent.
- Bargetto Winery of the Santa Cruz Mountains has a tasting room on Cannery Row and another in Santa Cruz. We love their dessert wine.
Watch for wildlife, sea creatures and birds.
The Monterey Coast Guard Pier is a great place to observe marine life and seabirds. It is a great place to see and hear sea lions, as well as otters playing in the water, harbor seals and a variety of birds.
Along the trails and inland, away from the more commercial areas of town, you are likely to see deer, wild turkeys, a variety of land birds, and if you hike early in the morning, you may even see a lynx or coyote.
During one of our visits, we stopped at a rental agency along the Highway 68 corridor and even saw a mountain lion during our morning walk. I don’t know who was more surprised – the lion or us!
Enjoy wildflowers in season
In the spring, the hills around Monterey are full of wildflowers. No matter where you walk in Monterey, you’ll see wildflowers everywhere in the roadsides and along the trails. Poppies and wild mustard are everywhere.
The hills along Highway 68 and especially in Toro Park are a great place to look for wildflowers. At the height of bloom, you’ll see entire hills cloaked in purple as the sky lupines sparkle.
Buy souvenirs, antiques and art on Cannery Row. If you enjoy shopping, also visit the unique boutiques on Alvarado Street in downtown Monterey.
Along Cannery Row you will find art and photography galleries, as well as stores selling jewelry, clothing, gifts, interior design, wine and food. On Alvarado Street, there are good clothing stores.
Things to do near Monterrey
Drive along a shingle beach for 17 miles.
The 17-mile drive through Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach offers stunning coastal scenery. From the Sunset Drive entrance of Pacific Grove, drive along Spanish Bay for breathtaking views of the beaches, ocean and golf courses before heading toward Carmel.
Stops along the route include the famous Lone Cypress, the photogenic Monterey Cypress standing on the water, Bird Rock, Fan Shell Beach and Crocker Grove Cypresses. There are exit points where you can stop to admire the views and take photos.
Admission for one vehicle is $10.50 at the time of writing and is refundable if you spend up to $35 at the Pebble Beach Restaurant. Motorcycles are not permitted.
Fort Ord National Monument
If you love the outdoors, you should explore the Fort Ord National Monument, which has 86 miles of hiking trails. You can hike, bike or horseback ride through the monument, which offers many different environments, from rolling hills to meadows.
The trails at Fort Ord are open from sunrise to sunset and are ideal for observing wildlife, birds and wildflowers during the season. The monument is home to many species of wildlife, many of which are endangered and found nowhere else.
At Fort Ord you can see black-tailed deer, wild turkeys, bobcats, coyotes, California quail and even cougars. In the spring, the meadows and hillsides full of wildflowers are breathtaking. The monument is a great place to get out into nature.
Fort Ord has two main access points: from Highway 68 in Salinas and from the road reserved for Salinas. We usually visit the area from the Highway 68 entrance that leads to the beginning of the Badger Hills trail.
Visit the Steinbeck National Center in Salinas.
If you have enjoyed the many novels by John Steinbeck set in this region, be sure to visit the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. Steinbeck grew up in Salinas, and you can also visit John Steinbeck’s childhood home near the museum.
The museum houses an impressive collection of Steinbeck memorabilia, including manuscripts, family papers, photographs, letters, films and artifacts. The permanent multi-sensory exhibit is a fun and interesting way to learn more about Steinbeck and his work, as well as the Salinas Valley.
Visit of the vineyards on the river route in Salinas
The River Wine Road stretches along the Santa Lucia highlands and offers spectacular views of the fertile Salinas Valley below. The road is particularly scenic in the spring, when the hills turn emerald green.
Enjoy wine tastings in a relaxed atmosphere at River Road wineries, many of which are small, family-owned businesses. The person pouring your wine may even be the winemaker, having a chat with you as you drink.
Explore the historic town of Pacific Grove.
The town of Pacific Grove is quaint and historic, with many beautiful historic buildings and homes to admire and a spectacular waterfront to explore. Of the many things to do in Pacific Grove, here are a few you won’t want to miss:
- Hike along the Asilomar Coastal Trail: the trail winds along the ocean and you can explore the cliffs and tides along the way if you like.
- Spend time on the sandy beach of Asilomar.
- Take a tour of the historic homes in downtown Pacific Grove.
- Watch the sunrise at Laver’s Point Park.
Visit the charming coastal town of Carmel.
Carmel by the Sea is a picturesque place, with charming mansions of perfect image, a rustic plaza with secret passageways and flowery courtyards, and a pristine sandy beach. Here are some of Carmel’s highlights to include in your Monterey Peninsula itinerary:
- Visit the Carmel Mission. The basilica is beautiful and the gardens are stunning.
- Stroll through Carmel Village to admire the architecture and discover the boutiques and art galleries.
- Enjoy wine tastings and sample California cuisine from farm to fork in the many fine restaurants.
Go on a safari from Elkhorn’s birthplace to Moss Landing.
Moss Landing is a mecca for nature and outdoor enthusiasts. Located in Monterey Bay, about 20 miles north of Monterey, Moss Landing is an excellent place to view whales and other marine mammals, even from the shore.
If you love birds and wildlife, you will enjoy this high-quality boat tour of Elkhorn Slough, a living wetland full of birds, otters, sea lions and more. This one-hour excursion is a very relaxing one with fantastic wildlife photography opportunities.
You can also kayak in the Elkhorn Gorge: the water there is calm and protected, making it a great place to have fun. And if you like seafood, you can visit the fish market for the freshest and best seafood.
Lobos Hike Point State Nature Preserve and Garrapata State Park
The Point Lobos State Nature Reserve is one of the most beautiful parks in the state of California. Walk the trails of Point Lobos, many of which offer views of the ocean and the opportunity to see seabirds and marine animals. Take pictures of the beautiful China Bay and Gibson Beach.
The park is a short drive south of Monterey along scenic California Highway 1. Parking in the park is limited, so be sure to get there early if you want to find a spot.
If you don’t mind driving a little further along the Big Sur coast, you can also hike in Garrapata National Park, especially if you come at a time when the famous Calla Lily Valley is in the heart of the park.
Visit the vineyards of Carmel Valley
Just cross the Carmel Valley to relax. The landscape is bucolic, with horses grazing in the meadows, lambs frolicking in the garden in spring, and wildflowers blooming in season.
The Carmel Valley is known for its vineyards, so if you like wine tasting, plan a wine tasting visit! The valley is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines.
Stop by Earthbound Farms’ booth to see the demonstration gardens and enjoy a simple but delicious lunch or soup and salad made from fresh farm ingredients.
Look for street art on the Monterey Peninsula.
From Pacific Grove to Sand City via Seaside, there is plenty of street art to admire on the Monterey Peninsula. Most murals are by local artists and depict aspects of life on the peninsula.
In Pacific Grove, look for the historic “History of California” mural on the wall of the Central Avenue Pharmacy, created in 1968 by Irish artist Bernard McDonagh. Carmel has a shell mural at the corner of 6th Avenue and Mission Street.
Travel to Monterey, California
The Monterey Regional Airport is served by flights from several major American cities, so you can get there easily if you want. However, many visitors to Monterey also travel by car. Monterey is a must on your California itinerary!
Monterey is one of many weekend trips you can take to San Francisco (or the San Francisco Bay Area). The trip on the highway takes only two hours in normal traffic. If you start early in the morning, you can even make a day trip from San Francisco (or Silicon Valley) to Monterey.
The trip from Los Angeles to Monterey takes about 5 hours by highway. So plan a relaxing weekend to travel from the greater Los Angeles area to the Monterey Peninsula.
If you’re looking for a weekend getaway in San Diego. Monterey, about 6.5 hours, is perfect, especially if you decide to take a long weekend or add a vacation day to a normal weekend. Or plan a longer vacation and explore the entire beautiful Monterey Peninsula!
Looking for a rental car for your trip to Monterey? Check out the cars! They will screen different vendors to find the best price for you.
Where can you stay in Monterey, California?
Hotels in Monterey, California
The Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa offers stunning bay views, a full-service spa, a whirlpool with beautiful views and a private beach. The hotel is near Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It offers spacious and well-appointed rooms with a seating area. Book your stay here!
Intercontinental: The Clement Monterey Hotel is located on Cannery Row, within walking distance of stores, wine tastings and restaurants. On-site facilities include a spa, a pool and a kids’ club. Rooms are spacious and elegantly furnished. Some rooms offer full or partial sea views. Book your stay here!
The Portola Hotel & Spa is located in downtown Monterey, one mile from Cannery Row. Stores and restaurants are within walking distance. Rooms are bright and airy, with modern furnishings. The beds are described as super comfortable. The on-site spa is highly rated. Book your stay here!
Airbnb’s in Monterrey
This small seaside cottage is located in a quiet area, a short walk from the beach and a 10-minute drive from Cannery Row. The cottage has a queen size bed, making it an excellent retreat for couples. If you want to cook, there is a fully equipped kitchen. Book your stay here!
This elegant seaside bungalow has two bedrooms and one bathroom, perfect for a small family or two couples. The house is beautifully decorated, with bright colors and a fun atmosphere. Entertainment options include Netflix and Amazon Prime. Wi-Fi is fast and you have a full kitchen. Book your stay here!
This one bedroom beachfront guest house is close to all the towns and attractions of the peninsula. The bedroom is large, with a double bed, and the living and dining room are spacious and well equipped. A fully equipped kitchen is available. Book your stay here!
Where to eat in Monterrey
Esteban is a Spanish-Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Monterey. They have a beautiful patio for outdoor dining. The eclectic menu offers the best local seasonal produce and locally sourced meat and fish. We loved the vegetable tagine and the saffron arancini. For lighter options, join us for happy hour.
The Old Fisherman’s Cave is good for all types of seafood. The fish and chips are crispy and delicious. Their clam chowder is famous. Ask for a table overlooking Monterey Harbor!
Lulu’s Frying Pan downtown, located on the pier, is a tiny establishment but the food will not leave you hungry when you return. The pancakes are huge, but the fish and chips and award-winning clam chowder are also a must.
The Mill Bistro is located on Cannery Row. The bistro serves classic French dishes, carefully prepared. The sauces are rich and the flavors are excellent. Try the Norman pancakes, filled with chicken and mushrooms.
Fish Hopper restaurant is located in a picturesque setting in a former cannery building. All tables have breathtaking sea views and the outdoor terrace is heated. The menu features lots of fresh seafood, as well as steaks and pasta.
There are two delicious bakeries in Monterey. If you like sweet things, stop in for a pastry (or three!). Paris Bakery and Parker Lusseau are located in downtown Monterey.
Best time to visit Monterey, CA.
Monterey is a year-round destination. The Monterey Peninsula offers pleasant and beautiful weather in all seasons.
Spring on the Monterey Peninsula is beautiful. The hills are bathed in bright, cool green, wildflowers grow everywhere, and the weather is perfect for outdoor activities like hiking and biking.
Autumn brings warm temperatures during late summer. In summer, the sea layer comes most days, but it usually burns by noon. In dry years, winter sometimes brings rain, so bring rain gear or take a dry room. Winter sunrises and sunsets are beautiful here.
Bring layers to keep you warm on cold and windy days, especially in or near the ocean. Also bring closed-toed shoes for walking on the trail.
Want to learn more about Central California? Check out some of our articles on top destinations in Central California!
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Frequently asked questions
What can you do in Monterey now?
7 best things to do in Monterey | U.S. News Travel
What is Monterey California famous for?
Monterey has long been known for the abundance of fish in Monterey Bay. This changed in the 1950s when the local fish trade collapsed due to overfishing. Several old fishing shacks from the early 20th century still stand where they originally did along Cannery Row.
What can you do for free in Monterey?
Free activities in Monterey: my top 15 tips – SF Travel Tips
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