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A vacation in Monterey, California, offers a little bit of everything for everyone. In a single day, travelers can visit the beach, mountains and farmlands! This is the ideal multi-day getaway itinerary for families who enjoy a wide range of activities. Get tips on sightseeing, where to spend downtime, delicious dining and fun things to do in Monterey CA.
The writer was hosted.
14 Top Things to Do in Monterey California
With a vast number of tourist attractions and hidden gems, it can be a challenge to know where to start in Monterey CA. Even with just two days, you’ll have more than enough things to do. Located on the state’s rugged central coast, Monterey is within a few hours driving distance south of San Francisco.
Monterey County includes cities such as Seaside, Big Sur, Pebble Beach, Carmel, Pacific Grove and Salinas Valley. Each town offers its own diverse activities. Walkable areas like Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf make it easy for visitors to explore at their own pace.
My family of 6 discovered plenty to do that pleased a wide range of ages. We made the west coast road trip from our hometown of San Diego. There is so much to experience in Monterey that only two days in this incredible area definitely isn’t long enough to see it all!
I’ve included suggestions for full day, half-day and short activities in the Monterey area. When you only have a few days, here are the 8 best things to do in Monterey California, with 6 more activities to add on if you have the time.
1. Monterey Bay Aquarium
When most people mention things to do in Monterey, California, generally the first question is, “Are you going to the aquarium?” Yes, a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must, even if you’ve been to other aquariums in the past.
What makes the Monterey Bay Aquarium so special? Just like the San Diego Zoo in my hometown, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a leader in animal conservation with a passion that shows in their exceptional exhibits.
What to see and do at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Watching the marine life is both hypnotizing and educational. Sardines, a green sea turtle and a dolphin fish glide past the Open Sea window. My son gasped when he saw the 28-foot tall Kelp Forest with leopard shark and octopus.
The daily feedings here are can’t-miss. I loved watching the various jellyfish drifting in their tanks. And be sure to make plenty of time for free-play in the kid-approved Splash Zone. Take a step outside onto the Aquarium’s ocean-view decks to spot sea otters in their natural habitat.
I truly recommend that you not visit on the weekends as you’ll likely be packed in tighter than a can of sardines! Aim for a mid-week visit and allow yourself plenty of time for exploring all of the exhibits. Monterey Bay Aquarium is easy to find at the end of the block – 886 Cannery Row Monterey, CA 93940
TravelingMom Tip: Skip the crowded and overpriced cafe inside the Aquarium and leave for lunch. In and out privileges are allowed with a ticket.
2. The Best Place to Play and Picnic
Located close to Fisherman’s Wharf is El Estero Park where families can picnic, walk, rent paddle boats, bird watch and fish.
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A stop inside the Dennis the Menace Playground is a must for young kids. The playground features multiple play structures, bridges, an authentic Southern Pacific steam engine and a maze. The Dennis the Menace park is the perfect place for adults and kids to play together and we add time in our schedule to visit during each trip to Monterey.
3. Take a Bike Ride for Fresh Sea Air and Exercise
Biking on vacation is one of the best ways to combine sightseeing with outdoor activities. A memorable part of our visit to Monterey was the family surrey bike ride with Adventures by the Sea. After fitting the children with helmets and receiving basic instruction on where to ride, we were off for a tour of the coastline via our surrey bike. We cruised the coastline on a bicycle built for six with an amazing view of the Pacific. Our two littlest rode in the front, happily ringing the bell to those passing by!
TravelingMom Tip: Take note that even on a sunny day, the air blowing in from the ocean can be chilly. Lock up the surrey mid-ride and take photos of the beautiful coastline. By the time we reached Lovers Point Park, the vigorous pedaling had warmed us up!
If bicycling isn’t your thing, Adventures by the Sea in Monterey offers other family activities, like kayak rentals, tours and stand-up paddle board rentals and lessons. Pick up rental equipment at several Adventures by the Sea locations in the Monterey area.
4. Where the Mountains Meet the Sea
One of the things to do in Monterey California is to take in its beauty. Hop on historic Highway 1 for the view of a lifetime in Big Sur. The rugged beauty of this area is legendary, with steep granite cliffs dropping down to the Pacific Ocean. A scenic drive (about 2 hours) from downtown Monterey, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park offers plenty to explore.
Not to miss is the view of the 80-ft McWay Falls that pours through the redwood forest directly into the ocean. Walk the hiking trails through Big Sur to a precarious vantage point to view the Falls.
TravelingMom Tip: Be aware that there are often road closures in this area. Be sure to check the Monterey travel alerts before heading out.
5. Farmland Tours
Farmland abounds in the Monterey area. Consider a farm visit with tastes straight from the garden. Located just down the road from their original farm, Earthbound Farm’s Farm Stand in Carmel features a market, organic cafe and outdoor exploration.
Pick fresh herbs from the garden or nibble fruit from the berry patch as a means to get recharged, organically. Entertain the family with a Kids’ Alphabet Garden and labyrinth on their farm plot.
What to see and do at Earthbound Farm Organic Farm Stand
Plan your visit during lunch so you can dine at their organic cafe. Enjoy smoothies, salads, soups and sandwiches along with freshly baked desserts. While we ate our lunch on the patio, the children played on the lawn, climbed a tree and reclined on the over-sized Adirondack chairs.
Take a tour of the grounds with a resident expert organic gardener. We toured with Farmer Janna, who enthusiastically talked about some of the ways she cultivates seeds, grows organically and shares her love of gardening with the community.
Free admission and special events are offered throughout the year at Earthbound Farm Organic Farm Stand. The market and cafe feature food and gift items for sale.
6. Indulge in a Local Sustainable Dinner
When in Monterey, one must indulge in the local specialties. That’s seafood, to be specific! How could we turn down an invitation to dine in Carmel-by-the-Sea at Flaherty’s Seafood Grill and Oyster Bar?
Flaherty’s has been practicing sustainability for over 40 years, which tells you a lot about the quality of not only the seafood but of the restaurant itself. With the casual oyster bar on the left and the more upscale grill on the right, these two dining rooms join together over a menu that truly satisfies seafood lovers.
Between the big bowl of clams and mussels, local calamari steak, coconut shrimp and lobster ravioli with grilled scallops, the dishes at Flaherty’s Seafood satisfied on multiple levels! Flaherty’s is both family and pet-friendly. Guests with dogs are able to dine in the alley between the two restaurants.
7. Brewpubs & Wineries that Please Adults & Kids Alike
Peter B’s Brewpub is Monterey’s first craft brewery. They finely combine amazing food, a broad mix of brews and a relaxed family atmosphere. Naturally the menu offers some wonderful seafood dishes including a ceviche appetizer or their signature clam chowder. Kids will enjoy simple choices like the junior pizza (which is what my son ordered).
Located behind the Portola Hotel & Spa, Peter B’s Brewpub can be tricky to find. Sit back and enjoy a favorite sports event on one of the many televisions. Bring your dog to sit outside by the fire pits on the patio and order a “Bark Bowl” for pup’s dinner!
TravelingMom Tip: I’m not a big beer drinker but if you’re at Monterey’s first craft brewery, you have to at least try a brew! We ordered a flight, which allowed us to sample several different house-made craft beers.
Monterey is known far and wide as a wine country, with world-class, award winning sips. Stop by one of the many wine tasting rooms located on Cannery Row and in downtown Monterey. For a kid-friendly experience, choose locations that offer food and non-alcoholic beverages.
8. Beachside Hotel
Who wants to spend their vacation time commuting? Not me! When choosing your hotel, it’s all about location. I like to stay in a hotel close to all the things to do in the area.
The Monterey Tides Hotel, located in Seaside, has location tied up in a neat package. In just ten minutes, you can drive from your hotel to Cannery Row and 15 minutes to Carmel-by-the-Sea. This boutique-style hotel is nicely appointed, with a chic lobby and serenely decorated guest rooms. Plus the view of one of the best beaches on the Pacific Coast? Impressive!
More about the Monterey Tides Hotel
The Monterey Tides Hotel is the only area hotel with a privately-owned beachfront. The rooms are on the smaller side but with the extension of the porch in front, we kept the doors open most of the time when in the room. Because at the Monterey Tides Hotel, it’s all about that ocean view and the smell of the beach air.
Play on the beautiful beach during the day and fall asleep to the sound of the sea waves crashing at night. There are patio areas on the main floor with plenty of seating and bonfire pits at night with direct access to the beach. After splashing in the cold ocean waves, my kids warmed up in the heated pool and hot tub.
With so many things to do in Monterey, California, you might forget to include downtime at the Monterey Tides Hotel. But do take the time to enjoy the incredible view, Bayside Bar & Lounge or while preparing s’mores at one of the many bonfires. (The hotel offers firewood and s’mores kits for sale.)
Other Hotel and Vacation Rentals Near Monterey CA
6 More Things to Do in Monterey CA
I’ve focused on the activities that my family and I experienced during our two days in Monterey. These are a few more additions to the itinerary, should you have the time.
Cannery Row – We might not be able to see this historic street the way John Steinbeck saw the old Monterey. Today boutique shops mingle with art galleries and restaurants. But it’s still equally vibrant and fun to explore.
Whale-Watching – Spot migrating humpbacks, blue whales and gray whales along with other species year-round. Catch a whale-watching tour, fishing trip or boat tour from Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
Tidepooling – Pack slip-resistant water shoes and explore the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Visitors may view and carefully touch coastal sea life.
Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail – Running 18 miles from Castroville to Pacific Grove, these hiking trails offer wildlife viewing, including sea lions.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve – Take one of the self-guided walking tours or docent-led walks to learn more about this diverse hiking area. Check out the Whalers Cabin, a historical building dating back to the 1850s.
17-Mile Drive – Have your camera ready for some of the prettiest views anywhere. Drive the Monterey Peninsula, spotting landmarks like the Lone Cypress tree on the way to Pebble Beach premier golf course.