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A visit to Monterey, California, is like no other. In one single day, travelers can visit the beach, mountains and farmlands! Our Day Trips TravelingMom recently spent two days in Monterey with her husband and four children. She has the ideal 2-day itinerary for families who enjoy a wide range of activities, rejuvenating downtime and delicious dining.
8 Best Things to do in Monterey, California
Even with just two days, you’ll have plenty of things to do in Monterey, California. Located on the state’s rugged central coast, Monterey County includes cities such as Seaside, Big Sur, Pebble Beach, Carmel, and Salinas. 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 (with four kids from 1 to 13) discovered plenty to do that pleased a wide range of ages. There is so much to experience in Monterey that only two days in this incredible area just isn’t long enough to see it all! When you have only 2 days, here are the 8 best things to do in Monterey California.
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1. Location! Hotel That’s Close to Everything
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, 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.
More about the Monterey Tides Hotel
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.
The hotel windows have electric double drop-down shades (one for privacy that allows you to see out and the other that blocks light).
While watching my husband and boys play in the ocean, I feed the baby. And at night the sound of the sea waves crashing lulled us to sleep, which was just so lovely. 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, Bar Sebastion, or to mingle with other guests while preparing s’mores at one of the many bonfires. (The hotel offers firewood and s’mores kits for sale.)
2. The Monterey California Must-Do
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.
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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 sardines, green sea turtle and dolphin fish glide past the Open Sea window was hypnotizing. 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.
Though the food at the Cafe was tasty, menu items don’t come cheap. For those on a budget, I’d recommend opting for a more reasonably priced meal elsewhere.
My son and I enjoyed a $26 lunch of a simple hot dog and burger with fries inside the Aquarium. Meanwhile, my husband and two teenagers lunched from the hot food buffet at Whole Foods Market for only $15 total!
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
3. Adventures by the Sea: Fresh Sea Air and Exercise
One of the most memorable adventures on our visit to Monterey was the family surrey bike ride with Adventures by the Sea. After fitting the children with helmets and receiving a 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. My baby girl’s hands were icy cold when the wind blew. We were able to lock up the surrey mid-ride and take photos of the beautiful coastline. By the time we reached Lovers Point Park, the vigorous pedaling 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. Get Recharged, Organically
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 and organic cafe. Pick fresh herbs from the garden or nibble fruit from the berry patch. Entertain the family with a Kids’ Alphabet Garden and labyrinth on their farm plot. 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.
Tasty Organic Food at Local Farms
We delighted in the flavorful foods from the organic cafe, and I wished that we had such a place in our neighborhood! Our children chose a variety of soups and sandwiches to eat. My husband and I each created the most amazing salads from the pick-your-own toppings bar inside the cafe. My berry smoothie had a unique blast of flavor from ginger and cinnamon and was truly the best I’ve ever sipped! The freshly baked desserts (lemon meringue pie and apple oatmeal cake) were the perfect topper to a delectable lunch. I highly recommend stopping by for a meal.
Take the Farmer Janna Tour!
We recommend taking a tour of the organic grounds with Farmer Janna. Janna is enthusiastic about the farm. She talked about some of the ways she cultivates seeds, grows organically and shares her love of gardening with the community.
She inspired us so much that by the end of our visit my husband and I were excitedly planning how to start composting, build gardening beds, and finally getting our herb garden going!
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.
5. 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.
Let Flaherty’s convert you to seafood!
As someone who doesn’t love all seafood, I’ll admit that I was nervous at first to dine in a restaurant with such a seafood-focused menu. I am happy to report that Flaherty’s converted me with its exquisite dishes.
We chose two appetizers to ease ourselves in – baked brie and roasted garlic with fruit chutney and ciabatta chips and a big bowl of clams and mussels. I’d never sampled either a clam or a mussel before.
I began by sipping the broth. The amazing blend of flavors (not “fishy” at all!) surprised me — and I returned to the bowl for more. We sopped up the liquid gold with bread and couldn’t wait for dinner to be served!
Upon the recommendation of our server, my husband and son ordered the local calamari steak. Served with pasta and veggies, the calamari included a light sauce of roasted garlic butter, Pinot Grigio, capers, lemon, and sourdough crumbs.
I’ve never wanted to try calamari before, but after one bite, no one could keep me from tasting it again! It was amazingly delicate and absolutely delicious.
My daughter chose coconut shrimp (which I barely saw because she devoured it!). I ordered the Chesapeake Bay lobster ravioli with grilled scallops in a lobster sherry cream. Usually I’m all about the heavy cream sauces but I felt like it might have slightly overpowered the delicate lobster ravioli. I’d recommend choosing a dish that really highlights the delicious, high-quality seafood that Flaherty’s serves.
Flaherty’s is both family and pet-friendly. (Guests with dogs are able to dine in the alley between the two restaurants.)
6. See the Mountains Meet the Sea
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.
Though we weren’t able to visit Big Sur this time, during a previous visit, we hiked through the woods and walked the precarious vantage point to view the Falls.
TravelingMom Tip: Be aware that there are some road closures currently in this area. Be sure to check the Monterey travel alerts before heading out.
7. A 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.
And when little ones are ready to play hard, a stop inside the Dennis the Menace Playground is a must (although the playground was closed for upgrades on this recent visit). With multiple play structures, bridges, an authentic Southern Pacific steam engine and a maze, the Dennis the Menace Playground is the perfect place for adults and kids to play together.
TravelingMom Tip: I’d recommend grabbing a picnic lunch (we like the inexpensive hot food buffet options at Whole Foods) and spending time here to let children play.
8. A Brewpub that Pleases Adults & Kids Alike
Monterey’s first craft brewery, Peter B’s Brewpub finely combines amazing food, a broad mix of brews, and a relaxed family atmosphere.
The menu offers some wonderful seafood dishes. We started with a ceviche appetizer served with chips. The highlight was the amazing buffalo cauliflower. My kids and I would have devoured this in 3.2 seconds if I’d not reminded everyone to slow down. They were delicious! Tempura battered cauliflower coated with buffalo sauce and served with bleu cheese dressing, this was one tasty way to start dinner.
My husband and daughter each tackled Carl’s Back Yard burger, a towering thick patty stacked with house-made triple stout BBQ sauce, Applewood bacon, onion rings & cheddar cheese. (My husband finished his, the 13-year old tried her best!) My son ordered his first ever Philly cheese steak and in traditional teenage boy manner, ate every bite (I think he loved it).
Our fantastic server, Irvin, steered me in the right direction by recommending Arturo’s Tacos. I picked Atlantic cod. The tacos are also prepared with your choice of Oaxacan chicken or carnitas. My only complaint is that there are three tacos and I could have eaten at least three more, they were really good! I compensated by nibbling on my son’s kid’s meal pepperoni pizza, which was as yummy and authentic as any Italian restaurant version.
Where to find Peter B’s Brewpub
Located behind the Portola Hotel & Spa, the restaurant can be tricky to find. Sit back and enjoy a favorite sports event on one of the many televisions. Bring your pet to sit outside by the fire pits on the patio.
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.