Best Things to do in Monterey, CA (A Complete Visitor’s Guide)

Best Things to do in the Monterey Peninsula, CAThe Monterey Peninsula is one of our favorite areas to visit in the US. This magical area just south of the San Francisco Bay area offers an unbeatable combination of fabulous scenery, charming towns and great weather that’s near-perfect year around. We’ve visited the Monterey area several times during our road trips in California and I’m sure we’ll be back again!

With that in mind, I’ve put together a quick list of places to see and things to do in the Monterey Peninsula area, including Monterey, Pebble Beach, Pacific Grove, and Carmel-By-The-Sea. I’ll wrap up this post by sharing some of our own personal experiences and adventures in the Monterey area!

Natural Attractions, beaches, and parks

The Monterey Peninsula sits along the south end of Monterey Bay, so no trip to this area would be complete without visiting the bay itself. Whether you want to be on the water or just next to it, there are many activities.

The Coastline

The peninsula is home to several state parks and city beaches, many of which are free.

For a beautiful beach experience, try the Del Monte Beach in Monterey, the Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove or Lover’s Point Park in Pacific Grove.

Driving south and entering Highway 1, you can immerse yourself in the dramatic scenery of Big Sur, where the Santa Lucia mountains meet the ocean. Take half a day to visit Point Lobos State Natural Preserve in Carmel (free if you park outside the entrance and walk or bike in) or Garrapata State Park in Carmel. They both offer trails that take you to beautiful ocean vista points. Keep an eye out for whales and other animals!

Some photos from our visit to Point Lobos State Park –

Marine life watching in Monterey Bay

The bay is filled with life! You can view whales, dolphins, sea otters, seals and so much more. Tidepooling is always an option – with Lovers Point Park being a good spot for that.

A whale watching tour in the season can give you a better chance at spotting whales and other marine mammals. If you’re very lucky, you might see a blue whale! You can also get close to marine wildlife by going on the water in one of these –

  • Boat tours of the bay
  • Kayak rentals
  • Scuba diving or snorkeling
  • Surfing

The Monterey Bay Aquarium

While not a natural attraction in its own right, this place is a must-see for lovers of the ocean. Take half a day to go through the various tanks and displays. Kids love the interactive games and touching pools and there’s even a special area for toddlers.

Our kids enjoying the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Our kids enjoying the Monterey Bay Aquarium

This is THE Monterey Bay Aquarium, considered one of the best of its kind in the world, so well worth the steep entry fees.

The Monarch Grove

The town of Pacific Grove in the Monterey Peninsula is home to a special grove where monarch butterflies stay during their migration. You can see the butterflies just hanging from the trees if you visit between October and February. Check out the details on the city website.

Historic Sites and Landmarks on the Monterey Peninsula

This area has a long and rich history. The city of Monterey was founded in 1770, so you can see lots of historical landmarks in the area. There are also many iconic sites often associated with the Monterey Bay area. Here are some ideas to consider for your visit:

  • Take the Carmel Scenic Road Walkway. You’ll have ocean views on one side and unique, multi-million dollar homes on the other side. You’ll pass by iconic, centuries-old trees and houses built in the early 1900s. The Blue Gum Eucalyptus at Ocean and San Antonio measures over 22 feet in circumference! You can also view the exterior of the homes lived in by former mayor and actor Clint Eastwood.
  • Not quite on the bay, El Estero Park is across the street from Monterey Bay State Beach, situated on El Estero Lake. It’s home to Dennis the Menace Playground, which was developed with the help of Hank Ketcham, creator of the comic strip. It’s been around since 1956 and is an excellent place for kids to blow off some steam.
  • Presidio Museum of Monterey is all about the area’s military history. There is no admission fee, and free parking is also available. Museum hours vary; check the website for more details.

Or just walk down Cannery Row, Old Fisherman Wharf and the piers. It’s a lovely stroll, and if you like, you can continue your walk along the promenade for more great ocean views.

Walking in Monterey - one of the great things to do in the Monterey Bay Peninsula

Pebble Beach

Pebble Beach is a privately-owned community. The most recent owner is a corporation held by several partners, including Clint Eastwood. This community is considered an unincorporated area, located along the southern edge of the Monterey Peninsula between Pacific Grove and Carmel.

People are often fascinated by its exclusivity. Many very wealthy people live and stay here, and because it is not public land, non-residents must pay a toll to enter. Nonetheless, many visitors consider Pebble Beach a must-see for the area, so here are some suggestions.

17-Mile Drive

17-Mile Drive has five entrances at various locations. Only cars are allowed along this road (no motorcycles), and it is open to the public from sunrise to sunset.

The fee is $10.25 per vehicle, which can be refunded with any purchase of $35 or more at certain businesses within Pebble Beach. 17-Mile Drive is the only way to view the historic Lone Cypress up close, as well as the community’s namesake beach. As a tip from locals, if you enter the gate in Pacific Grove by bicycle, there is no toll.

Cypress Trees at Pebble Beach
Cypress Trees at Pebble Beach

Pebble Beach Events and Festivals

Pebble Beach is home to golf courses that house prestigious tournaments. The U.S. Open occurs there every few years in June, and the Pro-Am happens in February. During this time, the area may close to the public.

You can also attend the Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival in April or Concours d’Elegance in August.

Places to Visit in Pebble Beach, CA

There are only a few areas open to the public. Advance recommendations are recommended for all facilities in Pebble Beach. Here are a few of the top-rated places:

  • Pebble Beach Golf Links, the #1 public golf course per all three major golfing publications.
  • The Bench restaurant at The Lodge at Pebble Beach (open for lunch and dinner)
  • Pebble Beach Equestrian Center
  • The Spa at Pebble Beach

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel, CA is its own little world and very different from the other places on the Monterey Peninsula. It has a charming downtown area with options to explore for every taste.

  • Walking tours
  • Day Spas
  • Galleries
  • Carmel Mission Basilica (Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo)
  • Shopping on Ocean Avenue or The Barnyard Shopping Center
  • Golden Bough Playhouse
  • Golfing

Food and Restaurants in the Monterey Peninsula

Some of the best chefs in the world call the Monterey Peninsula home. There are many food tours, but you might have more fun just trying places out individually. Guaranteed, you will not run out of options. I organized the restaurants below by type, based on review websites (no, we have not tried them all ourselves!).

Local Cuisine

This area is well-known for its seafood options. Here’s a tip from locals: if you visit Cannery Row in Monterey, many of the restaurants will have free clam chowder tasting outside. There are so many choices you may not have room for a meal after you try them all!

  • Sea Harvest Fish Market and Restaurant in Monterey
  • Monterey’s Fish House in Monterey
  • Passionfish in Pacific Grove
  • Vivolo’s Chowder House in Pacific Grove
  • Rocky Point Restaurant in Carmel
  • Old Fisherman’s Grotto in Monterey

California and American Cuisine

California cuisine is favorite also, as well as dishes using sourdough bread (a staple from nearby San Francisco), and artichokes (grown locally in the Monterey Bay Area). Most of these dishes fall into the “American Cuisine” category, so I combined the two.

  • Red House Cafe in Pacific Grove
  • Old Monterey Cafe in Monterey
  • First Awakenings in Pacific Grove
  • Loulou’s Griddle in the Middle in Monterey
  • Mission Ranch Restaurant in Carmel

Sandwiches and Delis

If you want to pack a picnic lunch and eat outside, the Monterey Peninsula has plenty of options for you. Here are just a few.

  • Compagno’s Market & Deli in Monterey
  • Randy’s Sandwich Shop in Monterey
  • Bruno’s Market and Deli in Carmel

Vegetarian and Vegan Food

Whether you do it for the animals or are just looking for something healthy to eat, this area caters to those who prefer to eat vegan or vegetarian.

  • Julia’s in Pacific Grove
  • Saffron Cafe in Monterey
  • El Cantaro in Monterey
  • Happy Girl Kitchen Company in Pacific Grove

Farmer’s Markets and Local Specialty Foods

If you prefer to do your own cooking while you’re in town, why not visit vendors that are local to the area?

  • The Farmer’s Market at Old Monterey Marketplace is held year-round on Tuesday evenings in Monterey. Hours vary by season. See the website for more details.
  • The city of Pacific Grove Farmer’s Market happens on Mondays from 3-7 pm. 70% of produce sold there is certified organic.
  • Farmer’s Market in Carmel occurs Thursdays, 10 am to 2 pm.
  • Grove Market in Pacific Grove is family-owned and operated, and specializes in local products.
  • Monterey’s Tasty Olive Bar in Monterey — the name says it all.

Events and Festivals in the Monterey Peninsula

Every month, the Monterey area has something going on. It’s a long list, which you can see in its entirety here, but I’ll give you some of my favorites:

  • Whalefest in January
  • Pacific Grove Good Old Days in April
  • Carmel Art Festival in May
  • Artichoke Festival in June
  • First Night Monterey in December

Places to Stay While Visiting The Area

There are a lot of choices, but I picked out a few that have bay views and are close to amenities.

Or you can just search Booking using your own dates and filters. This is a direct link to their Monterey area listings. In the past years, Booking.com is the one site we always use to reserve hotels from and we’re very happy with them.

What’s the best time of year to visit the Monterey Peninsula?

Lone-Cypress-at-Monterey

This area is known for its year-round cooler temperatures. You would think coming in the summer would yield the nicest weather, but historically, September is the warmest month, with average highs of around 70 degrees. So the fall is the best time to visit weather-wise, which has the bonus of avoiding summer crowds.

A spring visit is my second choice. The weather is cooler from March through June (averaging in the low-to-mid 60s), but again you’re likely to encounter fewer tourists this time of year.

Rain is heaviest from late fall to early spring, but regardless you will want to wear layers during your visit. And even though it might be cold and windy, putting sunscreen is a must. The nearby water will reflect and magnify the sun, even on cloudy days.

Remember – it can be very cold near the coastline, even during summer. When we visited in July 2015, we went from 105 degrees Fahrenheit in the valley of California down to the lower 60’s in Monterey itself. In the same day.

Frequently Asked Questions about Visiting Monterey

I checked to see what people ask before they come to Monterey and thought I’d put together a quick FAQ to cover everything.

Where is Monterey?

Monterey is a city in California, located along the US West Coast. This where it is on the map –

Where is Monterey

Monterey Peninsula vs Monterey Bay vs. Monterey – what’s the difference?

Let’s take a closer look at the map for a basic overview of the geography of the area –

Monterey bay map

In red, you can see the city limits of Monterey itself.

The Peninsula

Right next to Monterey, you’ll find Pacific Grove, Carme-By-The-Sea and Pebble Beach. They all share the space on a little “bump” that goes into the ocean. That bump is the Monterey Peninsula. A peninsula literally means “almost an island”, and the idea here is that this mass of land is surrounded by water from south, west, and north.

The Monterey Bay

The Monterey Bay is a far larger area. The Monterey Peninsula marks the southern end of the bay while the city of Santa Cruz marks its northern end. In between, there’s that section of the ocean that’s known as the Monterey Bay.

How far is Monterey from San Francisco?

The city of San Francisco is about 120 miles away from Monterey. If the traffic is ok, you should be able to cover the distance within a couple of hours. Mind you, heavy traffic in San Francisco or any of the cities in between could make the trip last up to three hours.

How far is Monterey from Los Angeles?

Google Maps says that Monterey is 343 miles away from Los Angeles and puts driving time at five and a half hours. However, this really depends on where you’re coming from in LA and the time you leave. If you’re coming from LAX airport and leaving during the afternoon rush hour, the trip could easily take you 8 hours.

And that’s if you’re taking the highway – the i-5 all the way to Route 46 and then via the James Dean Memorial Junction to the 101. That’s the shortest route between Los Angeles and Monterey.

Many travelers choose to take Highway 1 between the two locations, for a much more scenic drive along the ocean. This route takes you through Santa Maria, Morro Bay, and Big Sur and can easily last 14+ hours. There’s so much to see and do along the way, you should take at least 2 days to travel at ease and enjoy the way.

What does the name Monterey mean?

This entire area of California was under Spanish rule hundreds of years ago and that’s reflected in many of the names. Monterey comes from two Spanish words: Monte + Rei. Monte means “mountain” and “Rei” means king. So, king of the mountain!

What we enjoyed the most while visiting the Monterey Peninsula

During our first visit to Monetery, our kids were only 7 and 9 years old respectively. We spent three days in Monterey, exploring the aquarium, cannery row and other areas in town. Our kids also enjoyed the local park, with the famous Denice the Menace playground. We rented a pedal boat for them and the went off sailing on the lake.

That was quite the adventure! We also spent a day exploring Point Lobos State Park where we hiked and went down to explore the beach at China Cove.

During our second visit to Monterey, we returned to the beaches and also explored the Monarch Grove – which we loved! This was a short visit, at the end of our travels across Highway 1, from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

We used our third visit to Monterey for a whale watching trip where we saw whales feeding off the shores of Point Lobos State Park. We also did some tidepooling at Lovers’ Point beach and even used the city as the starting point of a day trip to Pinnacles National Park.

Overall, we loved the local vibe. This is an awesome place to visit as a family, or for a romantic getaway. I hope you’ll add the Monterey area to your own destination list! Do let me know if you have more recommendations for the area or if you have any questions about your own trip. Just leave me a comment below to do that!

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