There are plenty of things to do in Monterey once you start investigating. It’s a perfect basecamp for exploring Big Sur, the Pacific Coast Highway, and Pinnacles Park. But that’s not all visitors should value this quaint town for!
Situated on the edge of Monterey Bay, along central California’s rugged coastline, Monterey is small, picturesque, and welcoming. It lacks the hustle and bustle of nearby San Jose, which is a good thing because Monterey serves a up healthy doses of charm and tranquil vibes. Its small size and laid back nature make Monterey a perfect destination for a weekend vacation from San Francisco, Sacramento, or San Jose. Monterey also happens to be the perfect starting point for exploring Big Sur, which is how we first came to visit this city on the bay.
So, let’s get into it. Below are our picks for things to do in Monterey based on our own experiences. There are obviously things we have left off this list that others might find joy and value in. If you think we have made an egregious omission DO let us know in the comments or on Twitter!
Table of Contents
Things to Do in Monterey
Please note – Some of our selections contain affiliate links. These allow us to earn a small percentage every time you make a booking. Using our links enables us to provide all the information found on this site free of charge.
Visit Big Sur
Big Sur, otherwise known as Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, is among the most beautiful places we have ever visited in the United States. This gem of a park sits on the western slope of the Santa Lucia Mountains, and towers over the Big Sur River Gorge.
Initially we were drawn to Big Sur after reading the 1962 novel Big Sur by the self proclaimed “King of the Beatniks” Jack Kerouac. We fell in love with his descriptions of the park, and decided to visit it on a road-trip between San Diego and San Francisco. The park did not dissapoint, to say the least. It is certainly one of our favorite places in the United States, and the world in general.
Hiking around Big Sur is a joy, as is camping, and taking a dip into a hot spring when you find one. There is little better after a long day of hiking than soaking yourself in a pool of bubbling hot spring water. You’ll be able to do that in Big Sur if you plan your hiking route accordingly.
Monterey is the perfect city to base your Bug Sur explorations out of, like we did. It’s close enough to be extremely convenient, and the drive to and from Monterey to Big Sur is unforgettable. So, Once you get your fill of hiking and camping in Big Sur, head back to Monterey to recharge!
TOUR OPTION: If you aren’t much of a hiker, or want an awesome private tour of Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur’s coast have a look at this tour for a group of four people.
Hang Out In Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf is (arguably) Monterey’s chief attraction. Here you can eat fresh seafood while taking in views of the harbor. You can sip a beer on the deck of a bar and catch a sunset. Fancy a bit of fishing, or maybe even some whale watching if you’re lucky? Yup, you can do that here as well. Or you can take a stroll and go shopping in a variety of stores.
The wharf is also your access point to a variety of ocean activities, some of which we will mention again down below.
For a full list of things you can do in Fisherman’s Wharf have a look here.
A Walk Down Cannery Row
Historic Cannery Row was made famous by the John Steinbeck book bearing the name of this district in Monterey. Once an industrial hub, this former sardine canning neighborhood is now a restored relic, ripe for tourists to explore.
On Cannery Row visitors will find an assortment of restaurants and bars, shops and stores. Having a stroll down Cannery Row is one of the quintessential things to do in Monterey, so make sure to add it to your itinerary.
Carmel by the Sea and Carmel Valley
Carmel-by-the-Sea is beyond cute, and beyond charming. This little town on the Monterey Peninsula is known for its beautiful beach, its fairy tale like cottages, and its uber relaxed atmosphere.
Listing all the things you can do out of Carmel-by-the-Sea would need its own article, so let’s just say that you HAVE to set out and explore Carmel while staying in Monterey.
Drive the Pacific Coast Highway
Majestic vista views of the California coast await anyone taking a road trip down the Pacific Coast highway. The views and shoreline between Big Sur and Monterey are particularly stunning. One can spend entire days just admiring the beauty of the Pacific crashing into the cliffs lining the coast.
We can not overstate the gorgeous terrain found here, and our own trip along the coast was a slow one, as we stopped at almost every available turn off. Explorers will find tiny beaches and cozy coves dotting the coast on this 30 mile stretch of road, all of which are deserving of attention.
TOUR OPTION: To book a Pacific Highway tour check this one out.
Explore the Beauty of Point Lobos
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a gorgeous slice of nature. This protected park sits along the coast and is home to an intricate, and stunning, eco-system. It’s well worth a visit, and its close proximity to Monterey and Carmel make it super easy to access during your stay.
Remember that when visiting Point Lobos you are entering protected land. This means you should obey all instructions and directions for how to conduct yourself while there. Walk only on marked trails, leave nothing behind, let the animals be without disturbing them, and take nothing away with you other than memories.
Climbing and Caving in Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles Park derives its name from the craggy volcanic stone formations which dot the park, reaching into the sky like great grey fingers.
This newer national park is a great destination for climbers, campers, and cave explorers. Pinnacles is home to two large cave complexes, the Bear Caves and the Balconies Caves, offering a unique glimpse of subterranean life in the bowels of the California crust. Climbers will find over thirty rock formations to conquer here, which sweeping vistas as a reward for their dedication.
Birdwatchers have a chance at spotting the endangered California condors in Pinnacles, making it one of the few places in the United States where this is possible. These majestic birds have up to a 10 foot wing span, and soar high above the rocky formations of the park.
Hang at Marina State Beach
Steady winds on this pretty little beach make it a perfect destination for hang gliders. Or, if you aren’t that adventurous you can simply visit it for the views, some morning surfing, or even a bit of kite flying.
The beach is situated right near the Marina Dunes Preserve, which is home to over 170 acres of protected dunes. Visitors will discover the highest dunes found on the Central Californian Coast. Pretty rad, right?
Visit the Salinas Valley
Salinas Valley is sometimes called the “Salad Bowl of the World” due to its rich agricultural history. If you have any interest at all in the works of John Steinbeck you owe yourself a visit to Salinas. We recall reading East of Eden as young adults and falling in love with the valley due to the loving manner in which Steinbeck wrote about his childhood home. A visit here helped us visualize the writing, and we enjoyed it immensely.
Huge bonus – Salinas is home to a ton of delicious and authentic Mexican food, so if you’re like us you’ll stuff yourself in the most heavenly of ways while visiting.
Hike the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail
If you’re looking for a easy walk along the coast the Monterey Bay Coast Recreation trail is just what you need. This 16 mile paved path follows the route of the old Southern Pacific Railway, and makes for a scenic journey.
Kayak Elkhorn Slough
Say hello to sea otters, wave at the birds and navigate over 6 miles of waterways in Elkhorn Slough. One of the more unique activities around Monterey this tidal salt marsh is one of the largest in California.
If you fancy a relaxing kayaking excursion add this activity to your list of things to do!
Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo
History buffs should definitely add a visit to the San Carlos Borromeo Cathedral to their list of Monterey activities.
San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey was founded in 1770 on the shores of Monterey Bay. It is the oldest continuously functioning Roman Catholic church in California, along with having the honor of being the first stone building in the entire state.
Outdoor masses are held in front of the Cathedral on Sundays.
Whale Watching in Monterey Bay
Monterey Bay is a perfect spot for whale watching, almost all year round. Spring, summer and fall are all a good time to catch glimpses of the majestic humpback whale. Winter to spring brings migrating groups of grey whales. Killer whales can be spotted in April and May. Last, and certainly not least, massive blue whales can be seen feeding in the bay in the summer months.
TOUR OPTION: Check out this well priced whale watching tour in Monterey for more information!
A Wonderful Wine Tasting Tour
Wine lovers, rejoice! The River Road Wine Trail in Monterey County offers a unique and delicious wine tasting experience. You can explore 7 wineries, tasting rooms, and vineyards along this stretch of road on the Santa Lucia Highlands above the Salinas Valley.
A beautiful, and boozy, experience that lovers of California wines will surely love.
Farmers Markets, Lots of Them!
If you are a regular reader of this website you will know that we LOVE Farmers Markets. What better way to learn about local cuisine, sample fresh local produce, AND support small businesses? Farmers Markets can give you fascinating insight into local life at any given destination, and they are a gem we will always treasure.
Monterey happens to be home to not one, not two, but multiple Farmers Markets. There is one just about every day of the week! Go browse, eat, drink, and spend your money in support of small independent local businesses. It’s a win-win for everyone involved. Definitely something to add to your list of things to do in Monterey!
Learn more about the many Monterey markets here.
Skydiving Over Monterey
Feeling like it’s time to jump out of a perfectly functional airplane? We’ve done it, and recommend the experience to anyone who needs to overcome the fear of letting go.
With that in mind Skydive Monterey offers the highest tandem jump in the world. SO why not add a cheeky skydive to your list of things to do in Monterey?
Point Sur Light Station
On your way south to Big Sur from Monterey, along the rugged coast, sits the historic Point Sur Light Station. It’s well worth a stop to take in the views, and see the building that has guided so many ships to safety while they navigated the treacherous shorelines on this part of the coast.
Tee of at Pebble Beach
On the road between Monterey and Carmel sits Pebble Beach. Pebble Beach is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful golf courses in the entire world. If you are a golfing aficionado you owe yourself a visit to this fabled course.
Miscellaneous, but Awesome, Tours to Take in Monterey
A guided e-bike tour of some scenic spots along the coastal highway.
Where to Stay in Monterey CA
And there you have it folks. As you can probably already tell Monterey is a pretty cool place to visit. If you think we missed an essential Monterey activity definitely let us know. As always safe and happy travels! We’ll see you on the road.
Photo Credits –
All photos courtesy SeeMonterey.com unless otherwise noted.