Located along Highway 1 on the central coast of California, Monterey may surprise you. Yes, there are plenty of beautiful beaches in this seaside town, but there are so many more fun things to do in Monterey, CA, than hanging out on the coastline.
Steeped in some of California’s richest history, the Monterey Peninsula includes highlights like the Colton Hall Museum, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Cannery Row. Of course, among the city’s top tourist attractions, you’ll also find lovely stretches of sandy beaches, golf courses, and acres of parks.
Ready to find out what to do and where to go? Start planning your trip with this guide to the best places to visit in Monterey, California.
Best places to visit in Monterey, CA
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Brimming with irony, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is housed in a former sardine cannery on Cannery Row. The aquarium has helped the local marine life regrow and thrive, bringing much of it back from near extinction, specifically the Southern sea otters.
Traveling with family? Kids will love gazing at the unique tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, featuring sea kelp forests, tuna varieties, and jellyfish in a circular flow display. The aquarium also helps preserve local birdlife and has a separate aviary to house and showcase a variety of species. Choose from the 45 different interactive exhibits. If you’re interested in learning more, guided tours are also available.
Since it’s one of the top tourist attractions in Monterey, California, be sure to arrive at the aquarium and get your tickets early during the summer months, especially on weekends. The website has numerous live cam feeds if you want to check them out before visiting.
Old Fisherman’s Wharf
Once a working sardine wharf and fish market, Old Fisherman’s Wharf is now a thriving tourist destination. Choose from the wharf’s many fresh seafood restaurants, along with other vendors selling arts, crafts, and souvenirs.
Old Fisherman’s Wharf is also the departure location for whale watching tours, fishing charters, and even glass-bottom boat tours. Humpback whales and blue whales populate the waters of Monterey Bay during migrating season. Watch out for the bubbles on the surface to help you locate a pod of feeding humpbacks.
If you’re hungry, the Old Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the city’s top spots to grab some delicious local food for lunch or dinner. Understandably, there’s an abundance of seafood restaurants around the pier. For an extra memorable meal, savor some clam chowder in a garlic bread bowl at Old Fisherman’s Grotto.
To add to the festive atmosphere, the wharf also hosts regular events throughout the year. Enjoy the weekly Wine Wednesdays, featuring live music at the Rockfish Harbor Grill. Check out their official events calendar here to see what’s on during your trip.
You’ll know you’re getting close to Old Fisherman’s Wharf when the uniquely pungent odor of the resident harbor seals welcomes you. Once you catch sight of their fun antics and feast your eyes on the fares of the market, your nose will point you in a new direction!
Pebble Beach Golf Links
If you’re a golf fan, then you’ve probably heard of Pebble Beach Golf Links. Located in Pebble Beach, California, just a stone’s throw from Monterey, Pebble Beach is one of the world’s most famous golf courses.
Ranked the number one public golf course in the United States, Pebble Beach has hosted the U.S. Open a whopping six times. In 2023, Pebble Beach Golf Links will also host the U.S. Women’s Open. The kids also get to take a swing on the chip and putt. There’s something for everyone in the family at Pebble Beach.
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Nudged right up against the Pacific Ocean, the views of Carmel Bay from the golf course are spectacular. In addition to the golf, Pebble Beach Resort also offers trail rides on horseback, weddings, tennis courts, spa treatments, and course-side dining.
Looking for a beautiful way to get from Monterey to Carmel? You’re in luck! One of the most beautiful and scenic routes in Central California is the 17-Mile Drive. Starting in Pacific Grove, the road trip weaves along the shoreline, unleashing spectacular coastal scenery and natural beauty along the way. The route ends at the northern edge of Carmel-by-the-Sea, one of the Central Coast’s most popular vacation destinations.
Don’t have a car or don’t want to wait in the long line of cars? Rent an e-bike for the 17-mile Drive. Whiz past the line of waiting cars and enjoy the fresh sea air the entire way.
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The drive begins in Monterey County and winds through the Del Monte Forest, featuring the unique local Monterey Cypress trees. 17-Mile Drive also passes through the famed Pebble Beach Golf Course and other natural attractions before spitting you out in the lovely town of Carmel, California.
Are you a history buff, a Steinbeck novel reader, or a lover of the finer things? Cannery Row has something to entertain everyone.
Previously called Ocean View Avenue, Cannery Row was once the hub of Monterey’s sardine canning industry. Since there are no more sardines in Monterey Bay, the old canneries and warehouse buildings have been transformed into one of the city’s hottest tourist spots.
As you take a walking tour around the waterfront district, you can learn the history of the area via informative plaques at routine intervals. Featured in a John Steinbeck novel of the same name, Cannery Row overflows with a variety of boutique stores, wine-tasting rooms, art galleries, cafes, souvenir shops, fine restaurants, sculpture gardens, and more.
Whether you’re a wine aficionado or a wine beginner, a trip to A Taste of Monterey for some wine tasting is in order. Take in one of the best views of Monterey Bay while enjoying a taste of more than 90 different wines from local wineries and vineyards, paired with delicious Mediterranean food. Just be sure your legs are stable before departing!
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary truly is a safe harbor for the local sea life of California. Stretching from Monterey up to San Francisco, this large coastal water refuge is one of the area’s top points of interest. Expanding upon the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s preservation efforts, this protected area is teeming with wildlife.
While the sea life is viewable from the coast, it’s best viewed from within. Book a whale watching tour on the Old Fisherman’s Wharf to spot humpback whales and dolphins. Or rent a kayak at the pier to embark on a self-guided kayaking adventure on the bay. For more adventurous tourists, another option is to go diving among the kelp forests.
Whichever way you choose to experience the natural sea life of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, be sure to plan enough time to thoroughly enjoy all the opportunities this natural paradise has to offer.
Del Monte Beach
Del Monte Beach is a soft stretch of sand starting at the end of the marina at Old Fisherman’s Wharf and running along Del Monte Avenue. You can walk along the beach all the way from Monterey to the town of Del Monte, ending at Monterey State Beach.
In addition to the sand and surf, Del Monte Beach has gorgeous sand dunes with boardwalks intertwined throughout for walks both on and off the sand. The dunes separate the bustling town from the oceanfront. Walking along either the beach or the dunes gives you a sense of oneness with nature.
Del Monte Beach is dog-friendly, and bonfires are permitted. Be sure to bring the s’mores and blankets, and get set for a night to remember.
If you’re feeling a bit peckish, head to the fishing pier at the western end of the beach to enjoy a delicious seafood meal and drinks at Sandbar & Grill, a favorite for locals and travelers alike. Other great options in the area include Loulou’s Griddle In the Middle for breakfast and Sapporo Sushi & Steakhouse for lunch and dinner.
Monterey State Historic Park
Did you think that Sacramento was always the capital of California? Think again! Monterey was the first of six different Californian capitals. Take a walk through Monterey State Historic Park for an enlightening and enriching experience through the state’s history.
Many of the historic buildings along the two-mile route date back to the early 19th century. The Custom House was built by the Mexican government. Located on Custom House Plaza, it’s the oldest government building in California. Today, you can tour the Custom House as a museum.
Step into the Pacific House Museum, a beautiful two-story adobe home housing a wealth of interactive exhibits. The artifacts and displays skip through California’s entire history from its Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and, finally, American governance eras.
Showcasing how the early whalers used every part of the animal, you can visit one of the last remaining whalebone sidewalks still in existence in the country near the Old Whaling Station. The whale vertebrae were cut into diamond shapes and laid as paving stones.
Lovers Point Park
If you want to do as the local residents do, head down to Lovers Point Park. You can rent a bike or kayak, go surfing, or play beach volleyball. Locals also enjoy packing a romantic picnic lunch to enjoy on the sandy beach or the soft green grass. There’s a swimming pool for the younger ones and lots of sidewalks to skate or stroll on.
Take the hike out to the rocky Lovers Point for a more touristy approach. Jutting out into the edge of Monterey Bay, the rocks delight those who venture out, with spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and the bay itself.
Monterey Museum of Art
There are two separate locations for the Monterey Museum of Art. The more prominent is located on Pacific Street and specializes in showcasing Californian artists. Arguably the most famous of the featured artists in the collection is celebrated landscaped photographer Ansel Adams.
The other art museum in Monterey, known as La Mirada, was once a private home, now turned art gallery. La Mirada hosts weddings on its expansive mansion grounds, including in its beautiful garden.
For fans of Elizabeth Taylor, she stayed in this home with Richard Burton, and their likenesses remain on the wall of ‘their’ room.
These museums also sponsor various community programs, camps, and classes for children and adults.
McAbee Beach is a tiny spot of sand caught between the Cannery Row shops and restaurants. Mostly rocky during high tide, a stretch of sand dotted by tide pools shows itself during low tide.
Take a short breather from shopping and stroll to sit on the rocks at this Monterey beach. Bask in the afternoon sun as you gaze at the ocean views to the sound of waves crashing into the shoreline. Wait for low tide to take a leisurely walk along the sand. Bring along the kids to let them play in the tide pools, searching for a variety of sea creatures, from crabs to sea urchins.
Named after John McAbee, who originally purchased the land, McAbee Beach is another piece of Monterey history, with bits of the original buildings still jutting into the rocky outcrops.
Point Pinos Lighthouse
A historical visit to Monterey, California, wouldn’t be complete without a tour of Point Pinos Lighthouse. Dating back to the 19th century, only the Alcatraz lighthouse is older—and only by eight months.
Point Pinos Lighthouse still retains its original lens, whose beacon reaches 17 miles out to sea. As the lens was replaced in the Alcatraz lighthouse, Point Pinos now claims the oldest original working lighthouse title on the entire west coast.
The U.S. Coast Guard now operates the light as a museum. Visit the Point Pinos Lighthouse museum and its lantern room for unparalleled ocean views and a sky-high sightline of the surrounding bay. Be sure to add a journey here to your list of must-visit Monterey attractions.
Colton Hall Museum
Want to know where it all began? California became the 31st American state at Colton Hall. It was here that delegates drafted the California state constitution.
Colton Hall was built by Walter Colton as the first public building in California. After being used by the delegation, it was later used as a schoolhouse. Today the ground floor houses city hall departments, and the second floor is a public museum.
There’s no shortage of original documents on display from around Monterey during this period of transition. Admission is free, so take a moment to reflect on the history of the nation and those who brought it to pass.
San Carlos Cathedral
Looking for more historic things to see in Monterey? Step back into the Spanish Colonial era with by adding San Carlos Cathedral into your sightseeing itinerary. Also known as the Royal Presidio Chapel, the church was originally founded by Saint Junipero Serra in 1770. Although the original was rebuilt some 20 years later, the current building is listed as the oldest stone building in California and its longest running parish.
Step inside the San Carlos Catherdal to marvel at its grand archways carved in sandstone and artwork. Outside, take a stroll on the garden path surrounding the exterior. Keep on the lookout for the striking Junipero Oak, listed as a California landmark on its own.
El Estero Park
In the middle of the horseshoe-shaped El Estero Lake lies El Estero Park. This park is a great place for all things kid-friendly. The El Estero Park Center has various programs and activities for all ages.
Kids can enjoy the Dennis the Menace Playground and skate park. One of the best things to do in Monterey is to rent a paddle boat or swan boat for enjoying leisurely trips around the lake. There are also picnic areas and a jogging trail complete with spaced workout areas.
Also designed for kids is the Monterey County Youth Museum. It’s a massive, hands-on exhibit for kids to learn, play, and experiment. Known to the locals as My Museum, it’s located just a few blocks west of El Estero Park.
Asilomar State Beach
Asilomar State Beach overlooks the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, with its one-mile stretch of sand and a 3/4-mile coastal trail for walking, biking, and jogging. Dogs are also welcome along the shores as long as they’re kept on a leash.
One of the most beautiful beaches in Monterey, Asilomar State Beach is part of the Marine Protected Area. As such, there’s no collecting of shells or sea life in the tide pools. Fishing is also not allowed. On the southern end is Spanish Bay Beach, a wide, sandy surfing beach where dogs are not allowed.
There are free beach wheelchairs and walkers available for use. Find them inside the Phoebe Hearst Social Hall at the registration desk.
For the kids, there’s a downloadable coloring book that can be found here. It teaches about the local plant and animal wildlife. The coloring book also includes three 3D augmented pages where they can interact through a smartphone or tablet.
Point Lobos State Nature Reserve
The crown jewel of the California state park system, Point Lobos State Nature Reserve welcomes visitors to its unique and varied habitat. The park gets its name from the offshore rocks at Punto de Lobos Marinos, or Point of the Sea Wolves, where barking sea lions drift inland. It sits just off the Pacific Coast Highway, about 15 minutes south of Monterey, in the direction of Big Sur.
Point Lobos State Nature Reserve is a haven for painting, photography, and scuba diving. There are also trails for jogging and sightseeing, but it’s not suitable for biking or dogs.
For tech-savvy photographers, be aware that drone photography is strictly prohibited in the Point Lobos State Nature Reserve.
Thousands of seabirds call the reserve home, making it an ideal spot for avid bird watchers. For tourists who love being under the sea, download an app that allows you to follow along with divers as they explore kelp forests and a deep submarine canyon.