8 Great Monterey California Activities • McCool Travel

Fun things to do in Monterey include scenic drives, amazing selfie spots, Monterey Aquarium tips, Carmel, Pebble Beach, and many classic, fun Monterey California activities.

Getting to Monterey CA is easy—two options are flying directly into Monterey Airport or into San Francisco and driving two hours (McCool Travel tip: here is a wonderful scenic drive from SFO, also see our Ultimate US Coastal Scenic Drives Travel Guide).

Monterey Bay California provides some of the world’s most spectacular land, coastline, and scenery. Robert Louis Stevenson called the Monterey Peninsula, “the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world.”

I lived in Monterey (and the adjacent town of Pacific Grove) for a few years and visited dozens of times (prior and since). Below are some of my favorite Monterey California activities and some recommended places to eat in Monterey California.

These things to do in Monterey CA appear in a timeline, from a potential afternoon arrival and covering a couple of days. A car is necessary to effectively follow this itinerary.

ocean waves hitting rocks in Pacific Grove Monterey
ocean waves hitting rocks in Pacific Grove is a favorite thing to do in Monterey

8 Great Monterey California Activities

1. Pacific Grove Monarch Butterfly Migration

In the winter, monarch butterflies migrate through Pacific Grove. It is phenomenal to see trees and bushes filled with thousands (millions?) of colorful butterflies. After visiting the Monarch Grove Sanctuary, if you have time, explore the Asilomar Conference Grounds.

At this time of the year, sunset is around 5pm. About 4pm (or 1 hour before sunset whenever you visit), head to Vivolo’s for carryout clam chowder and a sourdough bread bowl. Drive along Ocean View Blvd to Sunset Drive (about 3 miles), find a nice place to park, and enjoy the clam chowder and a world class sunset.

thousands of colorful Monarch Butterflies
Monarch Butterflies in Pacific Grove CA. photo via organicfoodtheories.blogspot.com

2. Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove

After sunset, drive back along Ocean View Drive and park around 17th Ave and Union St. Walk down 17th Ave (toward Monterey Bay) and around Lover’s Point Park.

woman reading in field of red flowers next to ocean
what to see in Monterey CA: Pacific Grove photo via thevamoose.tumblr.com

If there is extra time before your dinner at Pepper’s (reservation recommended), stroll around the quaint Pacific Grove downtown.

remarkable seaside landscape of Lover's Point
Pacific Grove Lover’s Point is a top Monterey California attraction photo via montereybayunderwater.com

3. Monterey Bay Coastal Trail

Start your Monterey CA getaway morning with an oceanfront walk. Park near Central Ave and 1st St in Pacific Grove, walk along the coastal trail to Lover’s Point and back. You will see magnificent properties including Green Gables Inn and The Seven Gables Inn—perhaps you will stay in one of these glorious California inns.

elegant yellow buildings along seaside
Seven Gables Inn in Pacific Grove CA is a favorite place to stay on the Monterey peninsula: photo via thesevengablesinn.com

Eat breakfast at First Awakenings in the American Tin Cannery.

McCool Travel tip: request and wait for an outside table at First Awakenings if the weather is nice.

4. Monterey Bay Aquarium

Plan on spending the rest of the morning at the incredible Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is a short walk from First Awakenings. Park in Cannery Row Lot 7 if you cannot find a better spot.

grand view from Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium is an amazing thing to do in Monterey CA photo via montereybayaquarium.org

For lunch, leave the aquarium and walk along Cannery Row. Walk up Prescott Ave to Gianni’s Pizza on Lighthouse Avenue. Not in the mood for pizza? There are plenty of other dining options along Lighthouse Ave.

After lunch, return to the aquarium and Cannery Row to shop and explore.

5. Explore Downtown Monterey California

Spend the rest of the day in downtown Monterey. Younger children will love Dennis the Menace playground in El Estero Park.

Explore historic buildings and sites in Monterey State Historic Park, including where Spanish settlers arrived in 1602. Something is always happening at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Perhaps during a longer stay you can experience a whale watching or glass bottom boat tour, rent kayaks, or go on a sailing or fishing trip.

kayaking in Monterey Bay
kayaking in Monterey Bay photo via portolahotel.com

There are many wonderful places to have dinner in Monterey but I like Sandbar & Grill on Wharf 2—not as touristy as places at the main wharf.

6. Bicycling in Monterey

An easy bike ride from downtown Monterey, on the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, is Del Monte Beach and Monterey State Beach. Here you can play on the dunes, fly kites, and surf (or watch).

Del Monte Beach, Monterey
places to visit in Monterey California: Del Monte Beach photo via waymarking.com

Heading inland, ride on the Laguna Grande Trail along Laguna Del Rey. On Fremont Ave are several places to eat including The Breakfast Club. Below I talk about one of my favorite Monterey activities, bicycling along 17 Mile Drive.

7. Monterey California Scenic Drives

One of the top Monterey California activities is gorgeous scenic drives.

Drive toward the airport on highway 68. Turn right on Olmsted Rd and drive up Jack’s Peak. Jack’s Peak Park has excellent trails for hiking and biking but for now we will just enjoy the magnificent views of Monterey Bay.

Jack's Peak, Monterey California
Monterey California Sights: Jack’s Peak photo pvia seemonterey.org

On foggy mornings, you will be above the fog at this spot and be able to take a sweet Instagrammable shot of Monterey Bay. Going back downhill, turn right on Via Malpaso before highway 68.

Turn right on Enlace Rd and continue (on Tehama Rd) to Carmel Valley Rd. Turn left and follow Carmel Valley Rd as far as you want, but at least past “the village.” Many car commercials are filmed on this wonderful tree-canopied, white fence lined road.

There are several wineries to visit. Tassajara Rd is a good place to turn around (although continuing until it turns into Arroyo Seco is fun excursion for a longer day).

golden fields along Carmel Valley Road
scenic drive on Carmel Valley Road photo via udctours.com

Drive back toward highway 1 and, if you are ready for lunch I vouch for Bistro 211 in Crossroads Center (McCool Travel note: now closed) but would like to try Tran’s Noodle House in The Barnyard. Next stop is the Carmel Mission, followed by lunch at Katy’s Place (if you did not eat earlier).

classic architecture of Carmel Mission
things to see in Monterey CaliforniaCarmel Mission photo via fortwiki.com

Monterey California is also gateway to Big Sur, perhaps the greatest road trip drive in the world.

See also our article about USA’s best coastal drives.

8. Carmel CA and 17 Mile Drive

Next stroll the streets and explore the quaintness of the village of Carmel-by-the-Sea including—especially including—devoting as much time as possible at the remarkable Carmel Beach.

woman relaxing on Carmel Beach, one of the top Monterey California activities
things to do in Monterey CA: Carmel Beach photo via carmelbythesearentals.com

Leaving the beach, drive along Scenic Rd (it really is), stopping as much as you want. If you do not make any turns, you will end up on Carmelo St. Turn left on 4th Ave, which will turn into San Antonio Ave and then Carmel Way.

Soon you will be at the entrance station to 17 Mile Drive. 17 Mile Drive traverses some of the world’s most prestigious properties and is one of my favorite drives on Earth.

When I lived in the area, I rode my bike along 17 Mile Drive on most weekends I did not travel. Take time to stop at the Pebble Beach shops (watch golfers tee off and then walk the amazing 18th and 17th holes), Pescadero Point, Lone Cypress, Sunset Point, Cypress Point, Seal Rock and Bird Rock, and Point Joe.

visitors photographing Lone Cypress in Pebble Beach
Lone Cypress on 17 Mile Drive is one of the most popular Monterey California activities photo via latimes.com

Near the Pacific Grove exit gate have dinner at Fishwife (reserve a table with view).

Some top Monterey CA restaurants mentioned (in order):

Other recommended places to eat in Monterey CA:

What are your favorite things things to do in Monterey California?

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