10 Top Things to Do in Monterey, California

If the siren call of the sea is calling to you, there is no better place to answer than in Monterey, California. Located around 100 miles south of San Francisco, the sleepy coastal town invites visitors to admire the stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, partake of fresh seafood meals, and explore the quaint, nostalgic downtown area. 

Monterey may be relaxing, but there are still a ton of activities to keep tourists busy. Historic museums recounting the early days of California's origins, heading out on the water for whale watching or plunging below the sea to scuba dive are only a few of the options to fill out the day before grabbing a sunset cocktail by the pier. 

Should you run out of time to see the myriad of fun Monterey attractions during the trip—it's a great excuse to come back.  

01 of 11

Walk from Fisherman's Wharf to Cannery Row

The pier in MOnterey

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre 

Fishermans Wharf, Monterey, CA 93940, USA

It's a beautiful half-hour stroll between Fisherman's Wharf and Cannery Row. Along the way, you may see California sea lions (often hanging out on the rocky jetty by the Coast Guard Station), harbor seals and sea otters.

The benefit of walking between the locations is that you won't have to hunt for a parking place twice; the scenery is entrancing, and there are no shortage of places to sit and take it all in if you get tired.

02 of 11

Admire Marine Life at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Visitors at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Galen Rowell/Getty Images
886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940, USA
Phone +1 831-648-4800

With a focus on the marine life of the Monterey Bay that's just outside its windows, the aquarium is a favorite of kids of all ages, with live sea otters, touch pools, and special exhibits that make it seem new every time you visit.

This is a popular attraction and can be very busy with crowds packing the halls to see the kelp forest, anchovy tank, and the giant octopus, so arrive early for a quieter visit. Check the Monterey Bay Aquarium Visitor Guide for the latest and greatest attractions. 

03 of 11

See the California Sea Lions

Sea Lions in Monterey
John "K"/Flickr

Nearly a quarter of a million California sea lions live along the coast and on a busy day, it sometimes seems like every single one of them is visiting Monterey. You can spot them lounging on the rocks, swimming in the marina, and bobbing in the kelp beds. You'll hear them before you see them—their barking calls are loud and distinctive.

These sea lions are very social, and large groups of them are often found sunning themselves together. They look small and cute from a distance, but an adult male can weigh 850 pounds and grow to seven feet long. Females are smaller, about 220 pounds and six feet long. The pups are born in the summer and stay with their mothers for about 5 to 6 months. Grab a photo of them, but make sure to keep a respectful distance. 

04 of 11

Go Whale Watching

Monterey Bay
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Monterey Bay is one of the best places on the West Coast for whale watching, with the longest season in California. In fact, it more or less lasts all year. The only thing that changes is what you might see when you head out to sea. It might be humpback whales feeding, orcas pursuing a gray whale and her calf, or even a rare beaked whale.

There are many local tour operators, like Monterey Whale Watching, which ferry tourists out daily on charter boats complete with heated cabins, refreshments, and expert guides. Most tours take around three hours to complete. 

Additionally, you could take a harbor cruise on the glass-bottomed boat Mermaid to get a sea lion's eye view of the Monterey Bay. You'll get close to some of the Bay's animals and see the town from a different point of view.

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05 of 11

Explore the History of Cannery Row

Cannery Row, Monterey
Betsy Malloy Photography
Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940, USA

Cannery Row is the street running parallel to the Monterey shoreline and gained fame from the same named novel written by John Steinbeck in 1945. 

Cannery Row is a mix of old cannery buildings, with sardine processing equipment rusting in empty lots next to fancy hotels. While that might sound less than appealing, it has a certain rumpled kind of charm. Fans of the book will especially enjoy catching sight of the historic worker homes and Reduction plant. 

A self-directed walking tour of Cannery Row is a great way to dive into the area and takes about 1.5 hours to cover the half a mile distance to Fisherman's Wharf.

06 of 11

Watch the Sea Otters

California Sea Otter Eating a Crab
Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images/Getty Images

There's no more charming animal on the California coast than a sea otter, and Monterey is one of the most reliable places to see them. They're also a remarkable comeback story, up from the brink of extinction in the 19th Century to a population of 100,000 worldwide and 3,000 in California.

You'll usually find them resting in the kelp forests not far from shore, where they wrap themselves in the kelp's leaves to keep from floating away. The otters can dive more than 300 feet deep looking for food and often come up with a shellfish that they crack with a rock—making for a perfect photo opportunity. 

07 of 11

Shop and Eat at Fisherman's Wharf and the Marina

Fisherman's Wharf, Monterey
Betsy Malloy Photography
Fishermans Wharf, Monterey, CA 93940, USA

Fisherman's Wharf is Monterey's most popular tourist attraction, and home to almost a dozen restaurants and souvenir shops, as well as a generous number of walk-up fish stands. Grab a seat outside or make a reservation for a window table at one of the restaurants for a stellar view of the sunset while enjoying a bite.

Go all the way to the end to check out the bay view from the observation deck. The glass-bottom boat tours, whale watching tours, and fishing expeditions all leave from the wharf.

08 of 11

Tour the Dali17 Museum

At the Dali 17 Museum in Monterey
Betsy Malloy Photography
5 Custom House Plaza, Monterey, CA 93940-2430, USA
Phone +1 831-372-2608

This museum is dedicated to one of the twentieth century's most renowned artists, Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali. The Dali 17 (the 17 is for the 17-Mile Drive nearby), is full of works by the artist, who lived in the Monterey area for a few years in the 1940s.

The collection is the most extensive private Dali collection on exhibition in the United States and includes rarely seen works like his book of illustrations. It's also the only collection that showcases photographs from Dali’s fundraiser party A Surrealistic Night in an Enchanted Forest, which was held at the old Del Monte Hotel in Monterey.

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09 of 11

Tour Monterey State Historic Park

Monterey State Historic Park
Betsy Malloy Photography
20 Custom House Plaza, Monterey, CA 93940-2430, USA
Phone +1 831-649-2907

Monterey is one of California's oldest towns. Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno first came here in 1602 and the Spanish returned in 1770, creating their first military settlement.

Head onto the grounds of the Monterey State Historic Park for a step back into history by exploring the preserved collection of homes and buildings. Finding the path is easy with yellow-tiled markers showing the route that travels by a dozen buildings, including the Customs House, the state's oldest government building. 

Guided tours are offered within some of the buildings. 

10 of 11

Kayak on the Bay

Walking on Asilomar Beach at Sunset
Myles Tan/Flickr

As you might expect with a location right on the bay, Monterey is great for water activities. The relatively calm current makes kayaking on the bay perfect for beginners, while experts can head out to sea for a bit more action.  Adventures By the Sea rents kayaks, outerwear, life jackets, and gear, and is based right on Cannery Row. 

Scuba diving is another popular option, with more than 65,000 divers taking to the water each year. Visibility is typically around 10 to 30 feet, and with a Marine Sanctuary nearby there are plenty of aquatic creatures to spot. 

11 of 11

Enjoy a Meal at Monterey's Best Restaurants

Mission Ranch in Carmel
Jay Cross/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

If you're looking for a restaurant to enjoy a nice meal around Monterey, you're sure to find something that—as Goldilocks would say—is "just right." You can find almost any kind of experience, from a casual breakfast with a five-star view to an unforgettable meal in a Michelin-starred dining room. They're all in the guide to the Monterey peninsula's best restaurants.

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10 Top Things to Do in Monterey, California