Wondering what are the best activities to do in Monterey CA?
As a Northern Cal local, I can say that Monterey is one of my favorite go-to spots for a relaxing break from the busy Bay Area.
Monterey, California is one of the most picturesque gems of the central coast. It’s nestled into the Monterey Bay, close to its famous sibling, Carmel and has a significant place in California’s history.
Monterey blends its legendary beauty and miraculous marine life with a whole bunch of great activities that the whole family and all your friends will love.
Keep reading for all the reasons you should visit and all the best activities to do in Monterey, CA.
Fun Things & Activities to do in Monterey, CA.
There’s a lot to do in Monterey! In this guide I will mention 25 of those fun activities, but if you’re short on time, don’t stress and focus on these top 5 picks for things to do without getting in your car.
1. Walk along Old Fisherman’s Wharf
2. Spend time in the Old Town Histopric District
3. Walk from the Old Town to Cannery Row
4. Enjoy the Famous Cannery Row
5. Don’t miss the Monterey Bay Aquarium
#1 Walk Along Old Fisherman’s Wharf
The heartbeat of Monterey is its connection to the sea and its fisherman culture.
The famous Fisherman’s Wharf is adjacent to the National Historic Park in Old Town.
Wander the wharf and shop for souvenirs, have great fish and chowder, and watch the boats and sea lions in the water.
#2 Spend Time in the Old Town Historic District
Standing in the min square of Monterey, next to Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ll be in the Monterey National Historic State Park.
Monterey was the capital of California under Spanish and then Mexican rule from 1776 – 1848. Given its significance in California’s history, parts of the city are a Monterey State Historic Park.
The Old Town National Historic District includes 17 buildings. Here you’ll find the landmarks, buildings, and museums, like the Colton Hall Museum and Pacific House Adobe, the Custom House, the first brick building in California, and more that guide you through the history of the region.
Gather info for walking tours at the Monterey National Historic Park building at 20 Custom House Plaza next to Fisherman’s Wharf.
With so many sites, this is one of the activities in Monterey, CA that you may have to come back again and again to complete!
#3 Walk from the Old Town to Cannery Row
The path that leads from Old Town and Fisherman’s Wharf, along the waterfront is a .7 mile trail.
Trust me, this is a much nicer experience than trying to park near Cannery Row!
It’s a wide, paved bike and walking path with perfect views of the water the whole time. There are several lookout points and mini parks for you to stop for photos, and for watching and listening to the sea lions soaking in the sun on their favorite rocks.
#4 Enjoy the Famous Cannery Row
You can’t go to Monterey without visiting the one and only Cannery Row.
Made famous by John Steinbeck in the 1940’s when he published his book entitled Cannery Row, it is now the ultimate in touristy shops, restaurants, and upscale hotels on the water.
This was once the place where people worked in the canneries with sardines and fish. You’ll find the Monterey Bay Aquarium at the end of the Row and lots to look at and buy along the way!
#5 Don’t Miss the Monterey Bay Aquarium
We’ve enjoyed the Monterey Bay Aquarium countless times and have never tired of this amazing place.
With the kids, or without, its fascinating for all ages. This is THE premier marine life museum and education hub in California and beyond.
You’ll find sharks, sea otters, penguins, and jellyfish. Thousands of species of fish and marine life, including a living kelp forest.
Plan on a at least a 3-4 hour visit to really enjoy all the exhibits. It’s not cheap, so be prepared! Totally worth it in my opinion. $59.95 adults, $49.95 Seniors, and $44.95 for kids. Under 4 are free.
#6 Visit the Monterey State Beach
This very beautiful and popular beach is right off Highway 1 at the Seaside Exit. and is the largest of the Monterey public beaches.
It’s a favorite spot for surfers, but is also great for relaxing and exploring tidepools. The
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary waters at this beach make it a hub for scuba divers and snorkeling. You can also fish, kayak, play volleyball, and fly a kite here. And your dog is welcome on a leash!
#7 Whale Watching
Northern California whale watching is a very popular activity because the season for migration of many different whale species is pretty long.
This is a bucket list activity to do in Monterey, CA for sure!
You’ll find several boat tours along Fisherman’s Wharf.
Blue Whales May – October
Killer Whales April – May and August – October
Gray Whales December – May.
#8 Rent Surrey Bikes
Biking in Monterey is a great way to see the town and enjoy a little exercise at the same time. There are Surrey Bikes for rent around town as well as electric bikes and manual bikes.
I think the surrey’s are fun becasue you can a small one fits 3 people and a large one fits 6, so the whole gang can enjoy the adventure together!
Look for Adventures By The Sea at 685 Cannery Row to rent bikes, kayaks, and paddle boards. You can also take tours with them.
# 9 Take a Snorkeling or Diving Lesson
The water on the coast of the Monterey Bay is called the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. And the Sanctuary has over 6000 square miles of water so apparently, there is plenty of space for Scuba Diving and Snorkeling!
Look for the dive shops and boat tours on Cannery Row for more information about where, when, and how!
#10 Picnic on Del Monte Beach
The Del Monte Beach is close to Old Town Monterey and is a popular beach, but not as big at the Monterey State Beach.
Its a cozy beach perfect for sitting and enjoying your lunch or snacks and take a break from the crowds on Fisherman’s Wharf.
You’ll find plenty of surfers here as well, because the waves may be a little more rough.
This beach also allows scuba diving, snorkeling, and swimming, but note that there are no lifeguards on duty.
#11 Hang Out at the San Carlos Beach
The San Carlos Beach is a smaller beach area right at the start of Cannery Row by the boat launch ramp. You’ll see a lot of divers here because its a great spot for the beginner diving classes.
#12 Take a Moment at McAbee Beach
Along Cannery Row, if you peek throught the buildings, you’ll find a walkway to McAbee Beach, a cove with boulders and a small sandy area. Keep an eye out for Otters!
Its very scenic and is a great spot to hang out and enjoy the waves for a bit as a break from the busy Cannery Row tourist scene.
#13 Play at the Famous Dennis the Menace Park
Monterey’s famous playground that was donated by Hank Ketcham, the creator of Dennis the Menace, has been a favorite spot since opening in 1956.
The park is on Pearl Street and has a full playground, a maze, and even a climbing wall. Very cool!
#14 Make your way to Lover’s Point
Lover’s Point Beach and park is in on 17th Street in Pacific Grove, just 10 minutes south from downtown Monterey.
It’s a community park for swimming, picnicking, fishing, and surfing. In addition to the sandy beach, there is also a grassy area and volleyball courts, and a children’s pool.
This is a popular spot for event rentals as well, but also a great viewing stop on the tip of the Monterey Penninsula.
#15 Enjoy the Trails at Asilomar State Beach
Asilomar is a one mile sandy beach with a rocky coast that used to be called Moss Beach in Pacific Grove.
The Asilomar State Beach and Conference Center is very close to Pebble Beach and is just 12 minutes from Monterey.
The grounds of this state park offer trails, a beach, a dune preserve, and beautiful lodging and dining in the historic facilities.
#16 Find Time for Shopping!
Who doesn’t like to do a little shopping on vacation?
While there is plenty of shopping to do along Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row in Monterey, it tends to be very souvenier and tourist shopping.
So, if your looking for something else, then be sure to shop in downtown Monterey on Alvarado Street as well. There, you’ll find some independent boutiques and shops.
#17 Drive along the Iconic 17 Mile Drive
I had to make #17 be the 17 Mile Drive!
This is the famous scenic drive through Pebble Beach with 17 spots along the way to stop and enjoy.
It’s gorgeous any time of the year but I highly recommend doing the drive to catch the sunset over the ocean with the cypress trees in view. Truly special.
You can enter at the Pacific Grove entrance and exit in Carmel, or do the reverse.
Take Highway 1 to Exit #68 toward Pebble Beach and you’ll see signs for the entrance to the 17 Mile Drive.
#18 Make Carmel-By-The-Sea part of your Monterey Itinerary
Visiting Carmel and The Carmel Beach will be a highlight of your trip to Monterey.
The Carmel Beach at the end of Ocean Avenue in Carmel-By-The-Sea is a lovely, white sand beach with stunning mansions overlooking the ocean.
The town of Carmel is filled with fairytale cottages, charming and quaint streets, and plenty of shops and restaurants.
Just a 15 minute drive from Monterey, it’s a different kind of beach town and absolutely worth the trip.
#19 Explore the Carmel Mission Bascilica
The Carmel Mission located in Carmel-By-The-Sea on Rio Rd is just a 13 minute drive from downtown Monterey.
It was founded in 1770 by Fr. Junipero Serra and is one of the 21 missions that were built in California.
Originally started in Monterey, the Carmel location was made its permanent home. It is an authentically restored Franciscan mission.
You can take tours and enjoy the gardens or attend a service there.
#20 You Must Visit the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Visiting Point Lobos should be on your must do list when spending any time in Monterey or Carmel. It is by far one of the most gorgeous spots in California.
It’s a stunning nature preserve along the coast with trails and views for days! Enjoy the wildlife and the emerald green water, look for whales, and soak up the sun and salt air.
Trust me, you don’t want to miss Point Lobos. It’s just 15 minutes from Monterey.
#21 Hit the Links at Pebble Beach
Pebble Beach is the home of the famous golf course which is located between Pacific Grove and Carmel. If you’re a golfer, then save your pennies and enjoy a day on the links here!
You’ll find hotels and restaurants within the gold club area that have remarkable views.
Or if you’re not a golferlike me, then at least take the 17 mile drive to experience the beauty of Pebble Beach from your car!
#22 See the Magic at
The Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
The Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary on 250 Ridge Rd. in Pacific Grove is nothing less than a miracle of nature.
The Monarch Butterfly migration in the Fall of each year brings thousands of monarch butterflies to this sanctuary in Pacific Grove.
Pacific Grove is nicknamed Butterfly Town USA for a reason!
Visit in the months of October – March, 7 days a week until sunset for free with free parking to enjoy the phenomenon!
#23 Photo Op at the Bixby Bridge
The iconic Bixby Bridge in Big Sur is just a 30 minute drive south of Monterey.
It is by far the most picturesque bridge along the coast. It was designed to help residents of Big Sur have the access they need during the winter months when the rains are so heavy.
The bridge blends into the landscape in a way that is both artistic and not obtrusive.
This also happens to be the bridge made even more famous by the Big Little Lies TV show!
You can find a parking lot on the northside of the bridge at the west side of Highway 1 to stop for photos. Be patient, it’s a very popular photo stop!
Where To Stay In Monterey
Monterey, like any great California coastal town has many choice of hotels, inns, B&B’s etc. I’m going to suggest you stay close to all the activity so you can walk everywhere.
The Portola Hotel & Spa
2 Portola Plaza, Monterey
Located right in downtown Monterey, the Portola is a large, well appointed, luxury hotel, that offers full spa facilities with excellent ratings. It’s not right on Cannery Row like some hotels, so its a little more quiet. I’ve stayed here a few times and find it to be a great choice. It’s in a perfect location with access to all the main Monterery activities you want to do. Its literally within walking distance to all the landmarks, shops, and restaurants in town. Prices start at $191
What is Monterey most famous for?
Monterey is very important for its profound historic significance in the early days of California’s development. However, Monterey is probably most famous for its part in renowned American author, John Steinbeck’s life.
He and his second wife and son lived in Monterey in the 1940’s.
Steinbeck wrote one of his most famous novels, Cannery Row, while living in the area.
The book depicts the fishermen, canneries, bordellos, and characters that made Cannery Row notorious around the world. Even though, in its day, Cannery Row was considered offensive to some, it is now a novel that is taught in literature classes around the country.
There’s a monument on Cannery Row celebrating Steinbeck and the people who inspired him.
When is the best time to visit Monterey?
Visiting Monterey in the Springtime, is a great choice because there is likely to be warmer weather, more sunshine, and fewer crowds.
That being said, because of the regions micro climates, you may find foggy moringa and sunny afternoons in the summer and fall that are quite lovely.
Winter in the central coast can be damp and chilly, but certainly is many people’s (including me) favorite time of year in the area. So few people and still a lot of things to do.
Carmel or Monterey? Monterey or Carmel?
Which is better?
If you’re trying to make a choice between Carmel or Monterey, good luck!
They’re both great for different reasons. So, I’ll tell you how I have resolved this dilemma after 40 plus years of visiting the area.
The choice truly depends on what your preferences are and what kind of experience you hope to have. In the ven diagram of these two towns, both will end up with a lot of similarities and a lot of unique specialities.
This is why I recommend you stay in one, but visit both towns during the trip. Here are some deets.
→ Carmel has an incredibly quaint atmosphere and is renowned for its charming and storybook-like setting. Picture fairytale cottages, beautiful gardens, and cobblestone streets. Its one square mile make it the most walkable of vacation towns.
→ Carmel has a strong artistic community, with alot of galleries and boutiques with bespoke creations.
→ Carmel Beach is unparalleled in my opinion, in all of Northern California for its soft white sand, clean water, extraordinary views, and spectacular ocean side homes.
→ Carmel’s plethora of upscale shopping and dining experiences check off all your vacation must-haves.
→ Monterey has a rich and significant history making it among California’s most important seaside locations. The evolution of Monterey from its origins and maritime past give visitor’s some insight into California’s early days.
→ Monterey is known for having one of the most important Aquariums in the country and is second to none in its research and education of marine life.
→ Monterey is a hub for a lot of outdoor activities such as kayaking, whale watching, scuba diving, and bike riding.
→ Monterey is obviously a seafood lover’s paradise. Fresh fish is available everywhere along with local wines, and lots of chowder.
→ Monterey’s Old Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row offer as much tourist shopping and dining as any visitor can ask for.
Can you see why it’s easier to plan on visiting both towns? Since they are just minutes apart and each offer great activities for fun and relaxation, why limit yourself to just one!
Now you’re an expert on all the activities to do in Monterey,CA.!
In a nutshell…
I hope you can discover the enchanting beauty of this region with my curated list of the best activities to do in Monterey, CA. that showcase the town’s unique charm.
From the iconic Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to Fisherman’s Wharf, and the scenic 17-Mile Drive, you’ll catch the breathtaking coast, learn a lot of history, and have a ton of fun!
The Central California coast has everything for everyone. Tell me what you like best!