32+ Exciting Things To Do In Monterey Bay, CA

Considering a trip to Monterey? Whether it’s just the town of Monterey you plan to see, or the entire Monterey Peninsula, get ready for a jam-packed itinerary of fun, food, and flora, and fauna. This is truly an ideal California getaway destination.

Monterey, CA can’t really be pegged as either an urban city or sleepy seaside town. Sure, the atmosphere here is super-relaxed, but there’s such a wide assortment of things you can do here. Not only can visitors learn about the town’s historical significance, but they can also enjoy various beaches as well as scenic walking trails.

The region also has one of the most diverse marine environments in the world! Monterey is famous for its year-round whale watching, adorable sea otters, and of course the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium.

From amazing food and dining opportunities to even more incredible outdoor and nature opportunities, Monterey has everything one would need to have an amazing day or weekend.

Given that there’s so much to do in Monterey (as well as around Monterey), you can really have yourself a jam-packed weekend adventure here! Don’t have a weekend to spare? No problem. Monterey makes for a fun day trip from San Francisco or anywhere in the SF Bay Area.

No matter where you’re coming from, we’re here to make your travel planning easier. Read on to learn all about Monterey and then discover some of our favorite things to do in Monterey, CA!

This post may contain affiliate links. You won’t be paying a cent more, but in the event of a sale, the small affiliate commission I receive will help keep this blog running/pumping out useful and free content. Thanks a lot!


THE BEST TIME TO VISIT MONTEREY, CA

There is no real “best time to visit”. Due to its Mediterranean-like weather, Monterey is a year-round destination. Because of its stable weather conditions, there’s always a variety of activities you can do when you visit, no matter the time of year.

Spring is beautiful on the Monterey Peninsula, with wildflowers blooming everywhere and moderate weather.

Summer brings cooler, foggier, and windier weather (compared to the spring and fall seasons). If you plan on travel during the summer months, do note that marine overcast is most prevalent during June to July. These would be the months to avoid if you want to ensure blue skies and sunny days. The overcast generally burns off by mid-day.

Fall brings warm temperatures and sunny skies during the Indian summer.

Winter does bring slightly colder weather and occasional rain, but winter sunrises and sunsets are especially beautiful here. For optimal whale watching, November is the best time to visit.

If I had to pick the best time to visit, I’d recommend late September to early October. These are the months where the marine overcast and fog are absent (and so are the summer crowds). Warm, sunny days and uncrowded streets? Yes, please!

Best Time To Visit Monterey Bay CA - Travels With Elle

Whichever season you decide to visit, be sure to pack layers. You are going to be headed to a coastal destination, after all. It can get cool and breezy at any point in time, especially when you’re near or on the ocean.


HOW TO GET TO MONTEREY, CA

If you’re flying to Monterey, CA…

Monterey Regional Airport (MRY), located just 10 minutes door-to-door from downtown Monterey, has flight services from several major US cities, so this can be an airport to considering flying into.

Many visitors to Monterey, however, will fly into larger, international airports. Flights to/from these airports will be cheaper than flying into Monterey Regional Airport. These include:

  • SJC – Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport in San Jose, CA
  • OAK – Oakland International Airport in Oakland, CA
  • SFO – San Francisco International Airport in Millbrae, CA

From the airport, simply rent a car and make your way over to Monterey! You will need a car for this trip.

If you’re driving…

The majority of visitors will arrive by road. There are two routes to Monterey by car: Highway 1, which runs from San Francisco to Los Angeles along the Pacific coastline, and US Route 101, which runs through the rich valley.

Here are some driving times from notable California cities:

  • San Jose – approximately 1 hour
  • Oakland – approximately 1.5 hours
  • San Francisco – approximately 2 hours
  • Sacramento – approximately 3 hours
  • Los Angeles – approximately 5.5 hours

HOW MANY DAYS TO SPEND IN MONTEREY, CA

Monterey is so easy to get to from the Bay Area. It’s no wonder why it’s such a popular weekend getaway from San Francisco (or the rest of the SF Bay Area)!

To really experience the entire area, I’d recommend 2-3 days. This equates to a normal weekend trip or a long weekend trip (perhaps a holiday weekend or with 1 day of PTO tacked onto a regular weekend).

I’m blessed enough to live in the Bay Area, 1.5 hours away from Monterey. As such, I’ve only ever done day trips down to explore Monterey. If you are based in SF or somewhere else in the Bay Area and don’t want to spend the night in Monterey, it is possible to do a day trip. If you can start early enough, you can still see a good amount of the city and its surrounding attractions.


MAP OF THING TO DO IN MONTEREY, CA (AND BEYOND)


32+ EXCITING THINGS TO DO IN MONTEREY, CA

Traveling with kids? Planning a solo adventure down the California coast? Looking for a romantic getaway with your significant other? No matter the case, Monterey’s got something for all of you. Here are some exciting things to do in Monterey Bay. 

MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM

Monterey Bay Aquarium - Travels With Elle

Of course, we had to start off with this one! The world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium can be found on Cannery Row, right by the Pacific Ocean. Visiting the aquarium is one, if not the most, popular thing to do in Monterey for kids and adults alike.

This public aquarium boasts over 600 different flora and fauna species, mostly native to California. You can explore a variety of marine habitats, from kelp forests to the rocky shores of California.

All in all, there are a total of 45 interactive exhibits that showcase a variety of wildlife including octopi, invertebrates, birds, and jellyfish, with additional activities like guided tours to add to the experience.

CANNERY ROW

Cannery Row - 32+ Exciting Things To Do In Monterey CA - TravelsWithElle

Cannery Row is a historic district that you may have read about through the writings of John Steinbeck, namely in the book called Cannery Row.

A little bit of a history lesson: From 1908 until the end of WWII (with the exception of the Great Depression-era), canneries flourished along the waterfront in Monterey. Shortly after WWII, sardines mysteriously disappeared from Monterey Bay, causing canneries to close up shop for a few decades.

In the late 1960s, the area was revived and turned into a tourist destination.
The same buildings that were once used for cannery processes have since been turned into shops, hotels, eateries, attractions.

Buying chocolate and salt water taffy, taking kitschy western photos in costumes, and shopping for souvenirs are some of the things you can do at Cannery Row now.

It’s a cute little entertainment area with a very nostalgic vibe!

OLD FISHERMAN’S WHARF

Old Fishermans Wharf - 32+ Exciting Things To Do In Monterey CA - TravelsWithElle

The Old Fisherman’s Wharf is another one of Monterey’s most nostalgic places to visit. In the 1900s, this area served as a wholesale fish market.

Despite no longer being a fish market today, the Old Fisherman’s Wharf retains its fishing port theme. Here, you’ll find a wide variety of seafood restaurants that range from casual to fine dining, all offering unbeatable views of the California coast.

There are also a few souvenir shops sprinkled throughout Old Fisherman’s Wharf selling candy, clothing, art, jewelry, and souvenirs.

Fisherman’s Wharf is also the departure point for Monterey whale watching cruises. You can also enjoy sailing trips, fishing charters, and glass-bottomed boat tours from the wharf.

GO ON A WHALE WATCHING TOUR

Monterey is without a doubt one of the best places in the world to go whale watching. Whale watching tours are offered year-round in Monterey. Depending on the time of year, you might see gray whales, humpback whales, blue whales, or killer whales. You may also catch a glimpse of a few dolphins, porpoises, and a variety of sea birds on your tour.

While sightings aren’t guaranteed, you are more likely than not to see whales and other marine life on this half-day tour!

MONTEREY STATE HISTORIC PARK

Monterey State Historic Park - 32+ Exciting Things To Do In Monterey CA - TravelsWithElle

The Monterey State Historic Park is a collection of historic buildings that you absolutely must check out if you are a history buff or enjoy learning about local history.

Why Monterey plays a significant role in CA history? Monterey served as California’s capital under three different regimes: first Spain, then Mexico, and finally the United States.

Follow the Path of History through downtown Monterey to see the historic adobe buildings and heritage gardens (and even a whalebone walkway). As you walk along the path, you’ll come across at least a dozen different buildings, each allowing you to learn more about its significance in Monterey history.

Monterey State Historic Park - 32+ Exciting Things To Do In Monterey CA - TravelsWithElle

The area is relatively compact and the buildings/structures are linked by yellow tiles on the sidewalks, making it very easy to explore.

Be sure to check out the exhibits at the Pacific House Museum prior to your walk. Guided walks may be offered on the day you visit–I’d recommend joining one if you can!

KAYAK OR SUP IN MONTEREY BAY

If you are looking for an alternative way to explore the beautiful waters of Monterey Bay, kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding is a great option. And you won’t have to worry about getting seasick because Monterey Bay’s water is sheltered and calm.

Rentals are available at several locations including Pacific Grove Adventures and Monterey Bay Kayaks. You can choose to launch at various places, including Cannery Row in Monterey, Lovers Point Park in Pacific Grove, and Stillwater Cove in Carmel.

Don’t want to deal with the logistics of getting on the water? You can join guided kayaking tours as well.

GRAB BEERS AT DUST BOWL BREWING

Dust Bowl Brewing Co - 32+ Exciting Things To Do In Monterey CA - TravelsWithElle

In May 2009, Dust Bowl Brewing Co. produced its first beer known as Hops of Wrath IPA (oh, the Steinbeck pride this region carries) and as a result, we now get to enjoy one of the best places to grab a beer or two after a long day of exploration! They offer two unique taproom settings, one in its hometown of Turlock, CA and one located in Monterey, CA.

The brewery features two 20 tap towers, indoor seating with expansive views into the brewery, a large beer garden with fire pits, as well as life-size games to entertain yourself with. They have Music Thursdays on Thursday evenings from May to September.

MONTEREY BAY COASTAL RECREATION TRAIL

Coastal Recreational Trail - 32+ Exciting Things To Do In Monterey CA - TravelsWithElle

If you want to spend a good few hours outdoors, then consider a walk or a bike ride on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. This 18-mile trail, running from Castroville to Pacific Grove, is situated in the best possible spot–right up along the coastline!

As you run, walk, or ride your bike, catch views of the beautiful boats and marine life along the way. You’ll also be passing by various picturesque beaches and parks that you can stop at for a picnic.

Need a break? Grab a seat and enjoy the view from one of the many benches or picnic tables along the route. There are also various snack bars and restaurants dotted along the trail.

If you want to experience the trail but don’t have time for all 18 miles, you can pick up the trail at Cannery Row and walk south to Pacific Grove and back, for a total of approximately 3 miles. Major attractions along the way include Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row, Old Fisherman’s Wharf, and the American Tin Cannery outlet mall.

You can rent bikes at Adventures by The Sea–they have 3 locations within Monterey.

PACK A BEACH PICNIC

big sur sand dollar beach

Pack a picnic and enjoy the scenery at a few of Monterey’s many beautiful beaches. A few of the local favorite spots to picnic include Lover’s Point, El Estero Park, and Carmel Beach.

Don’t want the stress and mess of packing your own picnic? Stop by Paris Bakery or PigWizard (best sandwiches in Monterey) to pick up some snacks and gourmet sandwiches!

RIDE THE TROLLEY AROUND TOWN

Reduce your carbon footprint and skip the hassle of circling around for parking by catching the free MST Monterey Trolley. These cute little trolleys are not only a unique way to see the city but are extremely convenient with departures every 10-15 minutes from 10am to 7pm.

The route serves Downtown Monterey, Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The trolley runs daily throughout the summer months (Memorial Day through Labor Day) and on weekends during the off-season.

CHECK OUT SOME TIDE POOLS

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve - Big Sur Itinerary

No trip to Monterey is complete without some good old-fashioned tide pooling! Tide pooling is best done when the tides are low but you can almost always find something fascinating year-round. Keep your eyes open for an array of mollusks, fish and crustaceans! What’s best about this activity is that it’s completely free!

A few popular places to go tide pooling include Point Lobos State Reserve, Point Pinos (in Pacific Grove), Asilomar State Beach (in Pacific Grove), and Lover’s Point Beach (in Pacific Grove).

HANG OUT AT LOVER’S POINT PARK

17-Mile Drive - Epic Big Sur Road Trip Stops - TravelsWithElle

When I think of relaxing in the outdoors and enjoying coastal breezes, the first thing that usually comes to my mind is Lover’s Point! Lover’s Point is a local favorite, featuring epic views of Monterey Bay, easy access to the beach, and even barbecue pits for use! What better way to bask in the coastal sunshine than with a lovely picnic or BBQ?

If you are an early riser, you need to catch a sunrise in Monterey. Lovers Point Park is one of the best places to watch the sun ascend over the Pacific.

VISIT A FARMERS MARKET

portland farmers market

Monterey County is known as the “Salad Bowl of the World”. And they don’t get this name for no reason! It’s no surprise that Monterey County is home to many farmers’ markets. While you’re here, spend a few hours in the morning visiting one or two.

Many of these markets not only have fresh produce but also food booths from local chefs and restaurants serving up local specialties. Within Monterey County, there’s a farmers market on almost every day of the week (and even two farmers’ markets on several days of the week).

The Farmer’s Market at Old Monterey Marketplace on Tuesdays is a local favorite, with live entertainment from local musicians. Learn more about the different markets here.

MONTEREY MUSEUM OF ART

Got an appreciation for local arts and culture? The Monterey Museum of Art is a museum that primarily showcases a collection of California art and photography dating from the 19th century to the present. rotating displays. It also offers other temporary exhibitions.

There are two different locations – one on Pacific Street and one also known as La Mirada. Across both properties, the permanent collection has more than 14,000 items in total.

At the Pacific Street location (The Monterey Museum), you’ll be treated to contemporary art and photography by big shots like Armin Hansen, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and William Ritschel.

The La Mirada location (The Monterey Museum of Art – La Mirada) offers a different experience. To view the collection, you’ll be walking through a grand mansion surrounded by lush greenery (there’s even a delightful rose garden on the grounds). This location focuses primarily on rotating exhibitions.

TAKE THE KIDS TO DENNIS THE MENACE PARK

The creator of Dennis The Menace, Hank Ketchum, was a resident of Monterey and was involved in creating a fun haven for kids. Dennis the Menace Park at Lake El Estero is a local favorite when it comes to letting the kids run free.

The park features many play structures, slides, a lion-shaped drinking fountain, and even a maze. If you’re traveling to Monterey with children, make this one of your stops, your kids will have a blast here!

VIEW THE WILDLIFE AT COAST GUARD PIER

If you plan to visit Monterey for photography or wildlife viewing, the Coast Guard Pier needs to be on your itinerary. Located between Old Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row, Coast Guard Pier is frequented by many sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, and seabirds.

Apart from a small parking fee, access to the pier is free. Fishing is allowed on the north side of the pier.

CATHEDRAL OF SAN CARLOS BORROMEO

The Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo is California’s oldest building made from stone. It was built sometime between 1791 to 1794, a few decades after Father Junipero Serra and Don Gaspar de Portola established Monterey in 1770.

Shortly after building the Mission de San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey, the mission was eventually moved to Carmel. As such, the building ended up being used primarily by soldiers that remained to guard the newly created Spanish Presidio.

This National Historic Landmark is located within walking distance of Fisherman’s Wharf in downtown Monterey and is worth a visit if you enjoy history and architecture!

VISIT THE COLTON HALL MUSEUM

Want to continue your tour of California history? Visit Colton Hall Museum in Monterey to learn all about the building where California’s first constitution was drafted in 1849.

Located just nearby is the Old Monterey Jail, where due to its thick granite walls, no one ever escaped during its existence from 1854-1956!

SAMPLE LOCAL WINES

Cannery Row Wine - 32+ Exciting Things To Do In Monterey CA - TravelsWithElle

You’ll be glad to know that you don’t need to travel all the way to the Napa Valley to get your wine tasting on! Monterey is home to over 150 wineries with a wide variety of grape varietals grown in the region.

Monterey, due to its cool climate, is well-suited to growing Riesling and Pinot Noir grapes. And just a short drive further south and east where the weather is warmer, Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet and Merlot thrive. Monterey County was even named as one of 2013’s “Top Ten Wine Travel Destinations” in the world by Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Come wine taste while you’re in town! You will find several tasting rooms in downtown Monterey, such as Sovino Wine Bar & Merchant and Bargetto Winery. If you’re open to venturing out slightly further, check out Talbott Vineyards in Carmel, Folktale Winery in Carmel Valley and Wrath Wines in Salinas Valley.

OTHER THINGS TO DO IN MONTEREY BAY, CA

DO THE SCENIC 17-MILE DRIVE THROUGH PEBBLE BEACH

17-Mile Drive - Epic Big Sur Road Trip Stops - TravelsWithElle

The 17-Mile Drive is an exclusive stretch of road full of dramatic coastal cliffs, peaceful beaches and forests, and world-class golf courses. It sure is beautiful! But the catch? You do have to pay an entrance fee just to drive on it.

Admission is $10.75 per vehicle. The gate fee is reimbursed with a purchase of $35 or more at all Pebble Beach Resorts restaurants, excluding Pebble Beach Market. Bicycles can get in for free if they enter through the Pacific Grove gate.

There are four entry gates where you will stop to pay the entry fee and pick up a map. The one closest to Monterey is the Pacific Grove entrance, though if you’re already on Hwy 1, the Highway 1 entrance may be the most convenient. Follow this driving map as you wind through and admire the beauty along the way.

Allow 2-3 hours or more for the whole drive, especially if you plan to stop and eat. Must-stop points along the route include the famous Lone Cypress, Bird Rock, Fan Shell Beach, and the Cypresses of Crocker Grove. There are various pullouts where you can stop to photograph and admire the sweeping coastal views.

lone cypress 17 mile drive - Best Things To Do Monterey CA - TravelsWithElle

Make reservations for a sit-down meal at The Inn at Spanish Bay or The Lodge at Pebble Beach. Or for a more casual experience, pack a picnic breakfast/lunch and enjoy the scenic sights at Seal Rock.

For another fun and engaging way to experience this scenic route, check out this popular 3-hour electric bike tour from Pacific Grove. You’ll be traveling with an expert guide, who will provide commentary along the way and guide you to the best viewpoints on the route.

PEBBLE BEACH GOLF LINKS

Traveling with a golfer, or perhaps you’re a golfer yourself? Well, you’re in luck, because Pebble Beach Golf Club, located along the 17-Mile Drive just north of Carmel, is a real treat for those who appreciate the green. Seriously, people travel from across the world to play here!

Pebble Beach Golf Club is often deemed one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world. Golf experts/enthusiasts make reservations for the gold course well over a year in advance.

Be forewarned, it’s hard to snag a reservation here (not to mention it’s quite expensive). But with enough planning, you just might be able to secure some tee time. The best way to lock in a tee time is to schedule at least a two-night stay at a Pebble Beach Resort, which includes The Lodge at Pebble Beach, Casa Palmero and The Inn at Spanish Bay.

VISIT CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA

Carmel By The Sea - Travels With Elle

Carmel is one of the cutest little towns I’ve ever laid eyes on–it’s a quaint and romantic seaside village with a great selection of shops, galleries, cafes, wine bars, and restaurants. You will not be able to resist the charm that the town of Carmel carries, evident the minute you step out of your car.

Carmel is a great town to grab a bite to eat and go wine tasting. If you want to stay the night here, it’s a great place to unwind and relax, though the B&B lodging options here might be pricier than in neighboring cities like Monterey.

If you have the time to spare, I’d highly recommend slowing down to explore the hidden courtyards and passageways in this picturesque village!

TAKE A FOOD AND WINE TOUR

Explore the culinary delights of Carmel, located a few minutes just down the coast from Monterey, on this food and wine walking tour. With a knowledgeable foodie guide, you’ll learn about the history and gourmet culture of Carmel as you visit local eateries to sample regional favorites as well as ethnic dishes.

You can expect to sample chocolates, pasta, olive oils, wines, and farm-to-table preparations at popular local restaurants and boutique shops!

EXPLORE POINT LOBOS STATE NATURAL RESERVE

Point Lobos Natural Reserve - Big Sur Road Trip Itinerary

Point Lobos Natural Reserve is home to lots of sea birds, sea lions, harbor seals, elephant seals, and sea otters. It is also a year-round stopping point for orcas.

In this local favorite natural reserve, you will find a few hiking trails, hidden beaches, and many viewpoints to keep you busy for 1-2 hours. There are a ton of walks and trails to choose from, and most of them are relatively easy and can be done without breaking too much of a sweat.

Point Lobos Natural Reserve - 32 Best Things To Do Monterey CA - TravelsWithElle

While the entire reserve is beautiful and worth exploring, don’t miss China Cove and Bird Island Lookout (on the south end of the park). Here, you’ll find coves filled with some of the clearest waters in all of Big Sur. If you’re looking for a short hike here (since you’ve got a whole day of exploring still ahead of you), I’d recommend the South Plateau Trail to Bird Island hike. This hike is only 1.6 miles long.

DISCOVER THE HISTORIC TOWN OF PACIFIC GROVE

The town of Pacific Grove is as charming as it is historic, and it would be a shame to leave Monterey Bay without having checked it out. Take a quick oceanfront stroll around Pacific Grove and you’ll immediately notice the many beautiful heritage buildings and homes there.

Among the many things to do in Pacific Grove (some already mentioned above), here are a few you cannot miss:

  • Catch a sunrise at Lover’s Point Park.
  • Take a self-guided walking tour to check out the historic homes in downtown Pacific Grove.
  • Walk the Asilomar Coastal Trail – this peaceful trail runs along the ocean, and allows you the opportunity to explore the rocks and tide pools along the way.
  • Have a picnic at Asilomar State Beach.
  • Watch the sunrise at Lovers Point Park.

BUY STRAWBERRIES AT SHINTA KAWAHARA FAMILY FARMS

I don’t know how they do it, but this farm has somehow cracked the code for sweet and delicious strawberries bite after bite. They only grow Albion variety strawberries, which is ay-okay to me because they’re the most delicious things ever.

I honestly have so much love for these strawberries (maybe even borderline obsession…). Since discovering Shinta Kawahara Family Farms, my strawberry loyalty has remained theirs. I’m actually so glad that I’m able to buy their strawberries at my local market (Kuni Bea Farms is the brand to look out for).

If you want to pick up some really fresh and sweet strawberries during the spring/summer seasons, pay their strawberry stand a visit! They truly work every day to grow and deliver the most delicious and the highest quality strawberries possible! Visit their site here to learn more.

EXPLORE MOSS LANDING

Moss Landing, located 20 miles north of Monterey, is a little fishing village that’s popular for antiquing, surfing, and nature watching. It’s located at the mouth of Elkhorn Slough, one of California’s largest wetland areas and home to hundreds of animal species.

Once you hop out of your car to explore, you’ll find antique shops, art studios, fresh seafood markets, and a few great restaurants all within walking distance of each other.

After you’ve done some strolling, head to Phil’s Fish Market and Eatery, a super well-known food joint featured on Food Network’s Road Tested and Throwdown with Bobby Flay. It’s a local favorite!

SEE WILDLIFE AT ELKHORN SLOUGH RESERVE

If you’d like to get a bit closer to the wildlife, head to the Elkhorn Slough Reserve, a unique ecosystem home to seals, sea otters, sea lions, herons, egrets, and other wildlife.

This is the perfect place to rent a kayak and get out on the water. The sheltered slough is one of the calmest spots on the Pacific Coast to begin your kayaking adventure! Alternatively, hop onboard a 37’ catamaran on this Elkhorn Slough Wildlife Tour.

VISIT THE NATIONAL STEINBECK CENTER IN SALINAS

If you’re a fan of John Steinbeck’s works, then you’ll know that many of his novels are set in the Monterey area. If witnessing John Steinbeck memorabilia sounds like your definition of a good time, then you will want to stop by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.

The museum hosts an impressive collection of Steinbeck-related stuff, including photographs, manuscripts, letters, films, and other artifacts. There is also a multi-sensory exhibition that serves to showcase Steinbeck, his works, and the Salinas Valley to visitors.

But wait, it doesn’t end there! John Steinbeck actually grew up in Salinas, so you can also visit the John Steinbeck House (his childhood home), located near the museum.

EXPLORE SEASIDE AND SAND CITY

Got a little bit of extra time and want to hop off-the-beaten-path? Explore Seaside and Sand City, located minutes from each other. These little cities are becoming hubs for adventure, food, and art.

Seaside: The former site of Fort Ord is now an up-and-coming destination complete with two golf courses, an easy entrance to Fort Ord National Monument, and some of the best beach access on California’s Central Coast. Head over to Marina State Beach to explore the sand dunes, which reach heights rarely seen on the California coast!

Sand City: Once a factory district where sand was made/processed (hence the name), its industrial areas later became a popular place for artists to work and live (illegally). Rather than kicking out these artists, Sand City decided to support them and legalize their live-work lofts, and now the tiny town is packed with resident artists. Grab some coffee at Coffee Mia, head to the beach for a stroll, and take a minute to catch the paragliders in the air at Sand City!

At each of the towns, you can also browse local stores and art galleries.

DRIVE DOWN THE BIG SUR COASTLINE

Big Sur Road Trip - 32 Best Things To Do Monterey CA - TravelsWithElle

Imagine a place where sweeping panoramic views, incredibly blue and emerald waters, and perfectly rugged coastline rules the land. Yep, that’s Big Sur.

If you’ve got an extra day or two to spare, make sure to dedicate some of that time to explore Big Sur. I’d highly recommend taking a road trip down Highway 1 to see the unspoiled natural beauty the area has to offer. Check out my Big Sur road trip guide for more details on some of the best stops along the 1!

TOUR VINEYARDS IN CARMEL VALLEY

Agriculture Wine Vineyard Grapes Winery California

Carmel Valley, aside from being a relaxing place to drive through (and especially beautiful in the springtime when wildflowers are in bloom), is known for its many wineries.

The valley is well-known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines.

Stop at the Earthbound Farms stand, to tour the demo gardens and have a simple but delicious lunch or soup and salad, made with fresh ingredients from the farm.

GARRAPATA STATE PARK

The Perfect Big Sur Weekend Itinerary

Garrapata SP is located 30 minutes south of Monterey, CA. Within the Garrapata State Park, you’ll find a pretty great hiking option. The Soberanes Canyon Loop is a 4.7 mile lightly trafficked loop trail that features a waterfall, awesome coastal views, redwood forests, and seasonally blooming wildflowers.

You’ll climb your way up on the Soberanes Canyon Trail, and your return will be down the Rocky Ridge Trail. The trailhead is located on the east side of Highway 1, across from the Gate 8 sign.

If you’d rather just explore here for half an hour or so, take the shorter, 1.3-mile hike via the Soberanes Point Trail. This loop trail is located on the west side of the highway via gates 8, 9, or 10. The trail loops around Soberanes Point, offering wonderful views of the coast. A side trail takes you to the top of Whale Peak.

Pro Tip: Winds can pick up here. Be prepared by bringing a windbreaker and even a hat or beanie.

CALLA LILY VALLEY

Two minutes from Garrapata Beach is a true California coast hidden gem! Calla Lily Valley is such a unique spot, and not a lot of people know it exists! How often do you get to see an entire valley of blooming lilies?

This area is only in bloom in the spring so if you’re heading to Monterey Bay or Big Sur from February to late-April, you’re in luck! Be prepared to witness a sea of Calla Lilies just naturally growing in a tiny valley with its own little creek!

How to get there: Parking is available along the dirt pullout at Gate 19 for Garrapata State Park, near mile-marker 63. Please note, signs are small and difficult to see. There is a small, almost hidden gate you’ll need to walk through. From there, take the right fork, heading north to the bluff overlooking the beach. Continue north and follow the trail down the stairs to Doud Creek, where the Calla Lilies bloom. Follow the trail through the valley out to the beach.

calla lily valley big sur ca

WHAT TO EAT IN MONTEREY, CA

Abundant seafood, check. Local farms, double check. Good wine, triple check! This is what makes eating so delightful in the Monterey Bay! Check out a few of our favorite food spots below:

  • Sea Harvest Fish Market – a super fresh fish market that also serves a whole variety of delicious hot entrees. Here, you can choose your fish of choice and they’ll turn it into fish and chips!
  • Old Fisherman’s Grotto – anything seafood will be great there; don’t miss their famous clam chowder.
  • The Sardine Factory – an elegant dining establishment; the prime rib offered on Fridays and Saturdays is a favorite, as are the medallions of filet mignon. Definitely order a cocktail as well, they are wonderful. 
  • PigWizard – pick up sandwiches here before heading out on your picnic!

WHERE TO STAY IN MONTEREY, CA

If you are looking to splurge on a hotel…

Spindrift Inn – Located directly on the beach, the Spindrift Inn offers elegant accommodations in the heart of Monterey. A complimentary continental breakfast is provided (on a silver tray if you’d like). Probably one of the cutest hotels I’ve ever laid eyes on!

Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa – This luxury beachfront resort offers traditional room decor, a deluxe rooftop spa, an oceanfront restaurant, and bikes you as a guest can use to explore Monterey.

Intercontinental The Clement Monterey Hotel – another higher-end hotel option, located right on Cannery Row. The hotel features an onsite spa, a pool, and a children’s club. Rooms are spacious, elegantly furnished, and some rooms even provide ocean views. The Intercontinental is within walking distance of lots of shopping, wine tasting, and dining opportunities.

Intercontinental Monterey - Where To Stay Monterey CA - TravelsWithElle

For a more budget-friendly option…

Villa Franca Inn – Located 10 minutes’ walk from Monterey town center, the Villa Franca Inn offers bright, clean and modern guest rooms which include free WiFi, a microwave and fridge, and TV.


LOCAL/ANNUAL EVENTS IN MONTEREY, CA

  • Pebble Beach Food & Wine (April) – a multi-day fine dining foodie event showcasing celebrity chefs and winemakers; enjoy cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, lunches and dinners.
  • Big Sur International Marathon (April) – a spectacular road race set at one of the most breathtaking courses in the world! This race was named as one of the country’s top three marathons (behind Boston and New York) by Runner’s World magazine.
  • Cali Roots Music & Art Festival (May) – annual 3-day music and art festival featuring reggae, reggae rock, folk, and hip hop acts.
  • Monterey Wine Festival (June) – Featuring awesome wines from all over California including Sonoma County, Paso Robles, Lodi and Monterey County.
  • Castroville Artichoke Festival (July)
  • The Monterey Beer Festival (July) – enjoy tasting an array of outstanding beer and food. There are live bands as well.
  • Monterey County Fair (Late August/Early September)
  • Monterey Bay Greek Festival (September) – Monterey becomes a part of the Mediterranean as the Greek Festival takes over Custom House Plaza, Monterey State Historic Park in downtown Monterey.
  • Monterey Jazz Festival (September) – Spanning three days and seven stages, this festival features multiple famous jazz artists in a lineup of amazing performances.
  • California Rodeo Salinas (September) – An annual event drawing over 50,000 fans each year for action-packed rodeo events such as bull riding, team roping, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding and more.
  • Carmel Mission Fiesta (October) – A festival celebrating the region’s Spanish and Mexican heritage,
  • Taste of Carmel (October) – Local restaurants and food establishments serving their culinary creations at a series of events

ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST FOR MONTEREY BAY, CA

Aside from the normal clothing and toiletries you’d pack for any regular trip, here are the things I’d recommend you not leave home without for your trip to Monterey, CA:

  • Packing Cubes | Start packing the smart way. The key to smart packing is going to be compartmentalization, aka your packing cubes. This set comes in a bunch of different sizes, so you can create a separate compartment for undies and socks, one for clothing, one for toiletries, and one for anything else you may want to organize. By using packing cubes, it’s so much easier to pull out only what you need, rather than dig through all of your luggage to find that one thing you’re looking for.
  • Travel Daypack | I’m a huge fan of the Fjallraven Kanken Mini Backpack. It stylish and has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
  • Walking Shoes | One pair of closed-toed shoes (walking shoes or running shoes) is always crucial for any trip. These ones that I’ve been traveling around with are super light and breathable. I can even walk 15+ miles in them before getting sore feet.
    • For women: Adidas Cloudfoam runners are classic-looking and ultra-comfortable.
    • For men: ON Running Shoes have risen in popularity, and for good reason! They are comfortable as heck, my boyfriend loves his pair.
  • Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
  • Travel Adapter | If you’re traveling from abroad, a universal travel adapter is a necessity. This 5-in-1 travel adapter is perfect for travel use with cell phones, laptops & other devices anywhere in the world.
  • Umbrella | An umbrella, particularly a wind-proof umbrella, is crucial when traveling to destinations with varying/unpredictable weather. If you have an umbrella with you, then it means the rain can’t stop you from enjoying your trip and exploring the outdoors.
  • Portable Cooler | Coolers are a must for any trip where picnics are in the itinerary. Not only will you be able to keep beverages cold and refreshing, but you will also be able to keep perishables fresh. A portable hard cooler will allow you to pack picnic lunches, bring cheese and jams, and more. If you’re looking for the best cooler technology out there, the Yeti Portable Cooler is top of the line, with ColdCell Insulation that offers superior cold-holding compared to other soft coolers.
  • Swiss Army Knife | A multi-tool is great to have in any car, regardless of if you’re going on a road trip or not. It can be useful in so many situations! There have been so many instances where I’ve needed to cut something or open up hard-to-open packaging while away from home, and this has been a lifesaver.
  • First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk! Note: This is not the same as the roadside emergency kit.
  • Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
  • Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
  • Adventure Sandals | Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose summer sandals. If you’re planning on spending some time on the beach or doing hikes with river crossings, you should definitely consider getting adventure sandals — they’re comfortable for long-distance walking, safe for submerging in water, and super durable.
  • Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any outdoor adventure on the coast. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a puffier windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
  • Puffy Jacket | You’re going to need layers in Monterey, which tends to get breezy in certain areas. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of outdoor adventuring!
  • Hiking Daypack | Only required if you plan on hiking. I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
  • Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key for any outdoor destination. Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun. As a bonus, bandanas and Buffs can be used as headbands to keep hair and sweat off of your face. Soak your bandana or Buff then put it on your head, face, or neck for a quick cool down.
  • Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need when you’re hopping from the beach to a car or need to dry your feet off. This one here is a great option.
  • Hand Sanitizer Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
  • Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
  • Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing to all the great breweries and eateries… the last thing you want is to be stranded with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
  • Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
  • Medications | Motion sickness pills for those windy roads, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, etc.
  • Sunscreen
  • Picnic Supplies

Read More:

Big Sur Road Trip: 2-Day Itinerary Of The 23 Best Things To Do In Big Sur, CA

20+ Best Towns Between San Francisco to Los Angeles: California Coast Road Trip

The Most Comprehensive Carry-On Packing List for Summer Travel

Pin This:

Leave a Comment