Looking for all the best attractions in California’s Cradle of History? Our guide to all the best things to do in Monterey is all you need!
Renowned for its prosperous marine life, Monterey, California is home to one of the largest national marine sanctuaries in the United States.
In this scenic coastal city in Northern California, you can expect to find some of the most breathtaking viewpoints, favored by and inspiring for photographers, authors, and artists alike.
Many iconic authors, including Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry Miller, have lived in the area.
And though Monterey is adored for its thriving marine life and coinciding world-famous nature-based attractions such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, there is so much more to this city!
History buffs and wine enthusiasts flock to Monterey where history and wine are aplenty. The city was the capital under Spanish, Mexican, and United States rule at one point in history.
Wine aficionados can take their pick as the area of Monterey is home to numerous world-class wineries and tasting rooms.
And at just 2.5 hours away from San Francisco, there are lots of cool day trips you can take in this corner of California’s Central Coast.
Located along the iconic Pacific Coast Highway, you may pass the famous Bixby Creek Bridge as your drive into Monterey. And once you arrive in this scenic town, there is so much to explore in terms of culture, nature, and history!
Table of Contents
- The Best Things to Do in Monterey, California
- 1) Peer At World-Class Exhibits At The Monterey Bay Aquarium
- 2) Walk Amongst History At The Monterey State Historic Park
- 3) Spend A Family Day In The Sun At Lovers Point Park
- 4) Visit The Monterey Museum Of Art
- 5) Take The Kids To Learn & Play At The Monterey County Youth Museum
- 6) Sink Into Luxury At Pebble Beach
- 7) Laze In The Sun At San Carlos Beach
- 8) Tour The Historical Colton Hall Museum & Jail
- 9) Listen To Inspiring Jams At The Monterey Jazz Festival
- 10) Taste The Sea At The Old Fisherman’s Wharf
- 11) Go Fishing At The Monterey Coast Guard Pier
- 12) Thrift Away At The Cannery Row Antique Mall
- 13) Enter The Charming Beachside Village Of Carmel-By-The-Sea
- 14) Try Some Outdoor Activities at Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
- 15) Explore The Historic Downtown Monterey
- 16) Hike, Snorkel, & Dive At The Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
- 17) Travel & Sip Down The River Road Wine Trail
- 18) Learn About California’s Early History At The Custom House Plaza
- 19) Stay Active At El Estero Park
- 20) Bask In The Architectural Beauty Of The Carmel Mission Basilica Museum
- 21) Stroll Through The Pacific House Museum & Memory Garden
- Where to Stay in Monterey, California
The Best Things to Do in Monterey, California
If you’re struggling to find what to do in Monterey, look no further. Our list compiles the best things to do in Monterey for an unrivaled vacation.
Framed by the Santa Cruz Mountains, the kelp forests of the Pacific Ocean, the tide pools and beaches of the Central California coast, and the bustline Monterey Harbor, this city is absolutely gorgeous and full of things to do.
From visiting the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium to soaking in the views of the Pacific Coast to sipping locally-made wines on the River Road Wine Trail, you can take on the best of Monterey using this list!
Check out our ultimate guide to the best things to do in California for more ideas in the Golden State!
1) Peer At World-Class Exhibits At The Monterey Bay Aquarium
The first to ever exhibit a living kelp forest, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is famous for standing out with its exemplary habitats and exhibits.
The mission of Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire and educate others on the importance of conservation through its exhibits, educational opportunities, and the aquarium’s own conservation efforts.
Throughout the aquarium, guests can bask in the glory of the underwater world through species such as sea otters, jellyfish, penguins, and sharks.
More than 80,000 animals and plants call the Monterey Bay Aquarium home, though some are there for rehabilitation, like the aquarium’s sea otter rehabilitation program.
As a visitor, you get to take your time peering at the 200+ exhibits to learn about the fascinating creatures!
- Address: 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940, United States
- Hours: 10 am – 5 pm
- Cost: $59.95
2) Walk Amongst History At The Monterey State Historic Park
A National Historic Landmark, Monterey State Historic Park is considered one of California’s most reputed historic sites. Monterey was the capital under Spanish, Mexican, and United States military leadership.
The Monterey State Historic Park preserves, protects, and exhibits a significant collection of historic structures in Old Monterey.
Visitors can walk where Spanish explorers first stepped in 1602 and where the iconic author Robert Louis Stevenson once strolled about in 1879.
Within the park, you can also find the last whalebone sidewalk remaining in the United States and the oldest government building in the state.
- Address: 20 Custom House Plaza, Monterey, CA 93940, United States
- Hours: 12 pm – 4 pm Tuesdays – Thursdays, 10 am – 4 pm Fridays – Sundays
- Cost: $10
If you’re heading south after Monterey, check out our list of the best things to do in Southern California!
3) Spend A Family Day In The Sun At Lovers Point Park
Less than ten minutes from Monterey in Pacific Grove, Lovers Point Park is settled within the Lovers Point State Marine Reserve, one of four small marine protected sites in the nearby area.
This beautiful park attracts locals and tourists with desirable amenities, scenic views, and access to various outdoor recreational opportunities. The perfect family-friendly location, the park features a children’s swimming pool for the kids to play in within sight of the rugged Monterey Bay Coastline.
Visitors come to this area of Pacific Grove to participate in various activities, including swimming, suntanning, fishing, surfing, picnicking, and numerous other water sports.
The Coastal Recreation Trail is a popular running and biking trail that snakes along Monterey’s coastline. Extending for 18 miles, the Coastal Recreation Trail starts at Lovers Point Park, so you can take on some of the trails from here as well.
Explore the area more efficiently with an e-bike rental! This local rental includes GPS-guided tours so you can learn while you’re biking around Monterey.
- Address: 631 Ocean View Blvd, Pacific Grove, CA 93950, United States
- Hours: 24/7
- Cost: Free
4) Visit The Monterey Museum Of Art
Founded as one of the American Federation of Arts chapters in 1959, the Monterey Museum Of Art is dedicated to preserving, collecting, and showcasing art from California from the 19th century to the present.
The Monterey Museum Of Art features almost 10,000 pieces of work in its permanent collection, making it one of California’s most reputed art museums.
Throughout the year, the museum also hosts rotating exhibitions to broaden its spectrum of art for visitors to peer and ponder over.
Many pieces highlight a significant part of California’s history, while others focus on the present and future of California’s contemporary art and its expression.
- Address: 559 Pacific St, Monterey, CA 93940, United States
- Hours: 11 am – 5 pm Thursday – Sunday
- Cost: $15
Read Next: Don’t miss any of the best places to visit in California!
5) Take The Kids To Learn & Play At The Monterey County Youth Museum
The Monterey County Youth Museum, also known as MY Museum, is a dedicated space downtown where children can come to learn and play!
With the mission to create an environment where creativity, curiosity, and education thrive, the Monterey County Youth Museum welcomes all ages to explore its interactive exhibits.
There are more than 50 exhibits, plus nine gallery areas open to exploration for visitors to spend the day playing and learning.
For example, kids can golf with the kid-sized putting green or get busy at the construction site with tools ready to complete the task. Each exhibit is specially designed for kids to partake in a boatload of fun activities.
- Address: 425 Washington St, Monterey, CA 93940, United States
- Hours: 10 am – 3 pm Wednesday – Friday, 10 am – 5 pm Saturday & Sunday
- Cost: $10
6) Sink Into Luxury At Pebble Beach
A community situated on the Monterey Peninsula, Pebble Beach is world-famous for being the only golf course to host the USGA championships consecutively throughout the years.
It is also notorious for homing Pebble Beach Resorts, which features three award-winning hotels, world-class golf courses, fine-dining restaurants, The Spa at Pebble Beach, and the scenic 17-Mile Drive.
The Spa at Pebble Beach offers the ultimate luxury with its 15 massage rooms, full-service salon, outdoor pool, five facial rooms, conservatory, sanctuary, and Flotation Wrap Suite. It is one of 90 spas that has accomplished the feat of receiving the Forbes Five-Star Award.
The spa’s services are committed to using the natural healing properties of minerals, plants, and herbs indigenous to the area.
The scenic 17-Mile Drive courses along the Monterey Peninsula, traveling through Pacific Grove, Carmel Bay, and Pebble Beach. Many partake in a drive on this route to bask in the picturesque west coast viewpoints, luxurious mansions, sprawling golf courses, and other points of interest, such as the Del Monte Forest.
7) Laze In The Sun At San Carlos Beach
Sometimes referred to as Reeside Beach Access, San Carlos Beach is located on the west section of Cannery Row near the Coast Guard Pier.
This lovely beach welcomes visitors to partake in its scenic environment of sandy beaches and grass lawns for picnics and get-togethers out in the great outdoors.
More than anything, San Carlos Beach is known for its scuba diving and snorkeling, where visitors can explore the prosperous waters of the Monterey Peninsula.
There’s also a nearby coastal trail that winds along the beach, available for walkers, runners, and bikers to stay active, get some sun, and bask in the incredible views of the beachy coastline.
After some beach time, head to the nearby Cannery Row neighborhood where there is lots of food and entertainment.
The nearby Del Monte Beach is another beautiful place to soak in the sun. Book a private surfing lesson here if you want to learn how to ride the waves like a local!
8) Tour The Historical Colton Hall Museum & Jail
Built in 1847-1849 by Monterey’s first alcalde in the American Period, the Colton Hall Museum & Jail is a museum and government building.
Founded to serve as a town meeting hall and public school, the museum is where the first Constitution in California was drafted in 1849. Colton Hall Museum & Jail visitors can walk through history and peer at the exhibits dedicated to early Monterey and California.
Adjacent to Colton Hall is the Old Monterey Jail, established in 1854 and remained in service until 1956.
Tours take visitors through the Colton Hall Museum & Jail to admire the period architecture and furniture and the ability to ask docents any questions about the history of these impactful structures.
- Address: 570 Pacific St, Monterey, CA 93940, United States
- Hours: 10 am – 4 pm Saturdays and Sundays
- Cost: Free
9) Listen To Inspiring Jams At The Monterey Jazz Festival
An annual music festival that debuted in 1958, the Monterey Jazz Festival has become one of the best things to do in Monterey, California. It is the world’s longest continuously-running jazz festival.
The festival is held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds every year, sharing and celebrating America’s creativity, culture, and history through legendary jazz composers, musicians, and up-and-coming stars.
The Monterey Jazz Festival plays a variety of tastes, including folk, blues, jazz, and American song, welcoming old and new favorites for visitors to cherish and be inspired by.
The festival is a nonprofit committed to educating and empowering others through local, regional, national, and international programs held every year.
For example, the Next Generation Jazz Festival is held by the Monterey Jazz Festival, where the best student bands across the nation are gathered to perform each spring.
Plan to spend more time in the Northern California region? Here is our ultimate guide to the best things to do in Northern California!
10) Taste The Sea At The Old Fisherman’s Wharf
Established in 1845 for freight and passenger service, the Old Fisherman’s Wharf in downtown Monterey quickly became a hot tourist destination known as the “Monterey Bay Whale Watching Capital of the World.”
Many prevalent water-based tourist attractions exist at the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, from whale-watching tours and bay cruises to deep-sea fishing trips to glass-bottom boat rides.
So it’s not much of a surprise that the Old Fisherman’s Wharf is also reputed for its award-winning dining and fresh seafood of local catches.
And while you’re at the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, don’t miss out on trying the region’s hyped-up clam chowder that is sure to delight or the salt water taffy!
While in the area, don’t miss out on a chance for whale-watching! On this whale-watching tour, trips are excitingly narrated by a marine biologist or naturalist for interesting and educational facts and tidbits about these massive marine mammals.
- Address: 1 Old Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey, CA 93940, United States
- Hours: 9 am – 10 pm
11) Go Fishing At The Monterey Coast Guard Pier
The Monterey Coast Guard Pier, also called the Coast Guard Jetty, is a picturesque spot that can be a romantic stroll with sunset views along the pier or a thrilling competition to catch the biggest fish.
There’s no entry fee to access the pier, so if you’re looking for an affordable and scenic option on your trip, this is it!
Fishing on the iconic pier does not require a license. If you’re an angler, prepare to compete with the horde of sea lions that like to bask and feed in the waters by the pier.
If you plan on merely taking a stroll across the pier, you can view the sea lions bathing in the sun as they laze along the rocky shoreline and swim fluidly through the water.
The pier is near many of the best things to do in Monterey, including Carmel Beach, Cannery Row, San Carlos Cathedral, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Old Fishermans Wharf.
- Address: 100 Lighthouse Ave, Monterey, CA 93940, United States
12) Thrift Away At The Cannery Row Antique Mall
For the thrifter and antique shopper, Cannery Row Antique Mall is heaven!
This famous mall on Cannery Row has over 100 antique dealers and rare finds in a historic building. The structure once served as a canning company in 1927.
The Cannery Row Antique Mall has preserved and showcased the original structure’s architecture and machinery to strengthen the aura of refinement and history.
After picking and prodding through the Cannery Row Antique Mall, hop over for drinks at the Pierce Wine Tasting Room of Pierce Ranch Vineyards, Schooner’s Coastal Kitchen & Bar, or Tidal Coffee for a caffeine boost!
- Address: 471 Wave St, Monterey, California 93940, United States
- Hours: 11 am – 6 pm
13) Enter The Charming Beachside Village Of Carmel-By-The-Sea
A ten-minute drive from Monterey, Carmel-By-The-Sea is a small charming beach city full of fairytale cottages, intricate art galleries, and white-sanded beaches.
Carmel-By-The-Sea is adored by travelers and locals, the village-like area teeming with history and an enchanting atmosphere that has drawn in artists and authors for over a century, including big names like Jack London and Mary Austin.
More than 100 art galleries are spread out in Carmel-By-The-Sea, each showcasing a unique twist and taste of collections ranging from contemporary to 19th-century Impressionism.
Sit down for a cup of tea at Tuck Box, one of many buildings featuring the fairytale cottage architecture. The cafe specializes in afternoon tea, setting the endearing mood of the world-famous wonderland of Carmel-By-The-Sea.
This wine-tasting tour takes visitors through Carmel Valley to learn about local wine production, sample local wines in tasting rooms, and bask in the breathtaking views through Carmel and Monterey’s wine country.
14) Try Some Outdoor Activities at Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
A federally protected marine site, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary stretches from Cambria to Marin and is located near Big Sur and the Pacific Coast Highway.
Larger than Yellowstone National Park, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is one of the United States’ largest national marine sanctuaries.
Exploring the thriving underwater world of the sanctuary, you’ll find one of the continent’s largest underwater canyons and deep ocean environments close to shore.
Known widely as the “Serengeti of the Sea,” the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary boasts more than 525 species of fish, 180 species of seabirds, and 36 species of marine mammals.
One of the best things to do in Monterey is at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where you can journey the waters by snorkeling, surfing, boating, kayaking, and diving! There is no better place to mingle with marine life than here!
Explore more of Northern California’s natural beauty in Lake Tahoe!
15) Explore The Historic Downtown Monterey
A booming hub spot for historical, cultural, and social activities, downtown Monterey is teeming with unique sights, landmarks, and local Monterey history.
More commonly known as Old Monterey, or the Historic District, downtown intertwines its significant historical past with the modern future in its architecture, design, and natural charm.
As you walk downtown, intricate statues of historical figures decorate the streets. And down Alvarado Street, the main street of Old Monterey, are numerous historical structures, such as California’s First Theater, the Cooper Molera Adobe, and the Colton Hall.
For an immersive culinary experience, book a guided food walking tour downtown. Your local guide will take you to all the best food places and you’ll get to learn about the area while tasting delicious food.
16) Hike, Snorkel, & Dive At The Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Renowned as the “Crown Jewel of The California State Park System,” the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is esteemed for its awe-inspiring viewpoints adored by artists, photographers, and visitors.
Once known as a sacred place to the indigenous people, the reserve is preserved today as a historical and environmental wonder.
The offshore area of the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve conjoins with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which is considered one of the world’s richest underwater habitats renowned for divers and snorkelers worldwide.
Within this sanctuary are 70-foot-high kelp forests home to thriving sea otters, rockfish, lingcod, and other types of marine life.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve has plenty of trails along the stunning California Coast where you can admire this prosperous site firsthand. One of the most favored is the Cypress Grove Trail, which curves through one of the world’s last two stands of Monterey cypress trees that grow naturally there.
- Address: 62 CA-1, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923, United States
- Hours: 8 am – 7 pm
- Cost: Parking is $10
17) Travel & Sip Down The River Road Wine Trail
For wine lovers, one of the best things to do in Monterrey is participating in Monterey’s River Road Wine Trail!
Running for almost a century, this wine trail takes wine drinkers and connoisseurs through the Monterey region of nine American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).
These world-class grape-growing regions have more than a few wineries featuring high-quality wines of famous crafts, including Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Take a trip down the River Road Wine Trail to get a taste of the many local wineries and the hand-made craft blends while basking in the spectacular scenery of vineyards and coastline!
Wine tasting is one of the best things to do in Monterey, California, and this trail is a great way to pack in lots of wine knowledge and tastings into one exciting day!
If you love wine, you should also try to visit Santa Barbara, also known for its wineries!
18) Learn About California’s Early History At The Custom House Plaza
A National Historic Landmark, the Custom House Plaza is the oldest government building in California.
Constructed in 1827, this location has been under the reign of the Spanish, Mexico, and the United States. It acted as the seat of government for the Spaniards who ruled over Alta California in Monterey, which operated as their capital.
The plaza and the historic districts around it are living museums preserved to represent and share the early history of Monterey.
Visitors can tour the plaza and join a walking tour of the “Path of History,” 55 historic buildings set in Monterey State Historic Park.
19) Stay Active At El Estero Park
Surrounding Lake El Estero, El Estero Park is a family-friendly park that welcomes tourists and locals alike to take the day off and enjoy the great outdoors!
Within the park is the El Estero Exercise Course, which winds and curves around the lake, a favored scenic activity encouraging visitors to stay active while savoring nature.
For the skater boys and girls, the Monterey Skate Park is another excellent way to keep active on vacation.
The park was designed by local skateboards, so the design has a unique twist. Anglers can hook, line, and sinker a catch off Lake El Estero’s fishing piers for fun memory-making memories with friends and family.
- Address: 725 Pearl St, Monterey, CA 93940, United States
- Hours: 6 am – 10 pm
- Cost: Free
Read next: 21 Best Things To Do In San Francisco
20) Bask In The Architectural Beauty Of The Carmel Mission Basilica Museum
Considered one of the best restored Franciscan mission churches in the states, the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmela was first established in 1770.
The Carmel Mission Basilica Museum protects and presents four galleries that provide insight into Monterey’s history and every mission based in California.
The mission is an active parish. Visitors are welcome to attend Mass. Guests can also explore the grounds and peer at and learn through exhibits, displays, architecture, and history during museum hours.
- Address: 3080 Rio Rd, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923, United States
- Hours: 10 am – 3:45 pm Wednesday – Saturday, 11:30 am – 4:45 pm
- Cost: $13
21) Stroll Through The Pacific House Museum & Memory Garden
A historic adobe house, the Pacific House Museum features interactive exhibits dedicated to the Holman Collection of American Indian artifacts and California History.
A walk through the museum takes visitors back in time, starting at the Native American era and through the Spanish, Mexican, and American reign over the area. And at the back of the museum is the hidden gem – the Memory Garden.
This garden was designed in 1927 and remains one of the most visited attractions in Monterey State Historic Park.
The spectacular beauty of the Memory Garden has made it a favorite for photographers and for hosting weddings.
The stucco walls, trickling fountain, and vibrant garden are a completely charming setting perfectly paired with the historical structure of the Pacific House Museum.
- Address: Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail, Monterey, CA 93940, United States
- Hours: 10 am – 4 pm Tuesdays – Sundays
- Cost: Free
Where to Stay in Monterey, California
Now that you know the best things to do in Monterey, let’s check out the best places to stay during your visit!
You can visit Monterey as a day trip from San Francisco, but it’s better to spend a few days here to really soak in all the beauty and adventure this city has to offer.
Best Hostel in Monterey, California
Hi Monterey Hostel is within walking distance of some of the best Monterey attractions, including the Monterey Museum of Art and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The hostel is in the Cannery Row District, so guests can easily access Monterey’s top attractions and activities!
The hostel is currently looking for donations as they struggled financially during COVID-19. If they can reopen, they will be the #1 hostel in this corner of California!
Best Mid-Range Hotel in Monterey, California
Only a five-minute walk from the Monterey Regional Airport, Comfort Inn Monterey Peninsula Airport is settled perfectly along the scenic coastline.
The hotel is dedicated to the highest standards of cleanliness, with premium bedding to sink into at the end of an adventurous day exploring Monterey.
Best Luxury Hotel in Monterey, California
The luxurious beachfront Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa features stunning viewpoints on its historic property perched over the Pacific Ocean.
Every part of the hotel exudes an elegance intertwined with kind hospitality. Take advantage of the spa treatments so you’re feeling refreshed for your adventures in Monterey, California!
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