30 Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Area

30 Things to do in the Monterey Bay Area of California

The Monterey Bay area is one of my favorite parts of California. It’s a powerful combination of stunning natural beauty, wildlife, a charming small-town atmosphere, beaches, plenty of outdoor activities, and good wine. It’s a region that deserves at least 4 days…anything less and you’ll be making a list of things you’ll need to do next time.

Some of the best travel guidebooks for the Monterey Bay area: (click on the image for the link to the book)

Here are my 30 things to do around Monterey Bay, but I’d love to hear yours. I’ve included suggestions of where to go, eat and stay in the Monterey Bay area: Monterey, Pacific Grove, Carmel, Carmel Valley and Big Sur. Additional resources are listed at the bottom of this post. 

Monterey:

Monterey Bay Aquarium

30 Things to Do in Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the best aquariums in the U.S., and its focus on education and conservation make it especially worthy of a visit. The aquarium is known for its location–right on the Monterey Bay with views of sea otters and seals from the aquarium’s windows, the sea otter exhibit, the giant kelp forest (reflecting what’s in the waters of the bay) and its special exhibitions that currently includes a show of cephalopods. With many interactive exhibits, it’s also a great place for children.

The aquarium entrance is expensive–check with your accommodations to see if they have passes, but also know that the entrance fees support the aquarium’s important conservation work.

30 Things to Do in Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

Insider’s tip: Add on a private one-hour tour. I took one of these as a guest of the aquarium and was blown away by the guide, who was both knowledgeable and interesting, and how fun it was to go behind the scenes of the aquarium. Highly recommended, especially for families!

Whale watching on the Bay with Fast Raft

30 Things to Do in Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

Kate Spencer is one of the captains of Fast Raft, an eco-tour company that provides the perfect way to see wildlife in the bay. Fast Raft uses a small but fast boat that holds just 6 people. I took a tour with her and left wondering why I hadn’t done it sooner.

Kate customizes the tour to what you want to see, offers tours at various times of day (including, for example, sunset tours), and knows exactly where to see whales, dolphins, sea otters, and more. Her boat is small enough that it doesn’t disturb the animals, so sometimes you’ll find that animals will come right up to the boat. Check out their Facebook page for incredible videos and photos from their daily tours.

Walk Historic Cannery Row

30 Things to Do in Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

Cannery Row has a multicultural history of immigrants from Europe and Asia who came here to work in the canneries and fisheries. Nowadays this area has become the center of Monterey’s tourism, and there are plenty of tacky shops to prove it, but if you look deeper, you can see glimpses of its interesting past. A tour led by knowledgeable historian Tom Thomas is said to be the best way to get to know this area.

Taste wine at A Taste of Monterey

30 Things to Do in Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

This wine bar and bistro has one of the best views in Monterey. Located near the aquarium on the second floor of an old cannery, Taste of Monterey has more than 90 wines from the Monterey area. You can taste a flight, order a glass, and relax over good food and views of sea otters, seals, and more right outside the windows. Highly recommended.

Monterey State Historic Park

30 Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

It was here that the Spanish first landed in 1602. Later, Monterey became an important port and California’s capital. The Monterey State Historic Park is a complex of historic buildings (some of the oldest structures in California), gardens and walkways that span two miles–you can walk the historic park and all gardens are open daily, but the old adobe buildings can only be entered with a tour. Find out about tours here. You can combine this with a visit to the nearby wharf or a longer walk or bike ride to Cannery Row.

Kayak in Monterey Bay

30 Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

Kayaking is a great way to get to know the bay and possibly get up-close views of wildlife, but be careful–it’s important to give animals such as sea otters and seals space to not disturb them or their young. More information here and here.

Watch the seals, especially during birthing season

30 Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

Marine mammals are a common sight around here–sea lions and harbor seals can be seen getting sun on the rocks and relaxing on boats in the harbors, but spring is a special time to view them. Spring is birthing season, and by April, the beaches of the Monterey Peninsula are home to moms and their new babies.

Fences are put up in many places to give the seals protection from onlookers. Mothers can easily become alarmed by loud noises or people getting too close, and this can lead to babies being separated from their moms–baby seals are orphaned every year in this way, so enjoy seeing the babies, but keep your distance and voices low.

Where to eat in Monterey:

C Restaurant & Bar

30 Things to Do in Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

The view of the bay from C Restaurant & Bar

C Restaurant & Bar is located just steps from the Monterey Bay Aquarium inside the Intercontinental Hotel. The food is excellent and because the restaurant is right on the water, the views are fantastic.

Peter B’s Brewpub

30 Things to Do in Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

If you’re looking for something casual, you may enjoy Peter B’s Brewpub, where local craft beer and innovative pub food are served.

Pacific Grove:

Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds30 Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

Asilomar State Beach is not well known to visitors but is one of the nicest places to walk on the peninsula. Walk along the water to explore tide pools and see ocean birds, seals, and surfers. Just before sunset is an especially nice time as the light changes so quickly over the ocean. Across the street from the beach is the Asilomar Conference Grounds, where you can walk the paths through the dunes and see the Arts & Crafts architecture of the conference buildings.

Walk the neighborhoods and see xeriscaping

30 Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

The Monterey Bay area is not just a place for tourists; people live here and are very proud of their towns. Creative landscaping and front lawns that have no sign of grass are the trend in California, and the cities of Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Carmel provide the year-round temperate climate for a variety of beautiful plants.

Butterflies in Pacific Grove

Photo credit: Glen Thomas Franco Simmons on Flickr.

Photo credit: Glen Thomas Franco Simmons on Flickr.

Pacific Grove, the town between Monterey and Carmel, is one of the important migration stops for the Monarch butterfly. They stay here in the winter. Visit the Monarch Grove Sanctuary to see clusters of butterflies clinging to the trees. You will probably also see deer walking in the sanctuary. The butterflies are here from about mid-October to mid-February.

The 17-Mile Drive (begins in Pacific Grove)

30 Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

This drive between Pacific Grove and Carmel is just so beautiful. Plan to go slowly, get a map at the entrance (where you pay a $10 fee), and stop often. The history and views of the ocean and forest are to be savored.

Walk Pacific Grove Ocean Trail to Monterey

Photo credit: Im Me on Flickr

The walking trail that goes from Monterey through Pacific Grove is my idea of heaven. You can simply walk and watch the sea birds and seals or have a rest on a bench and just watch the ocean in front of you. If you love to be outdoors like I do, you’ll enjoy taking a leisurely stroll on this gorgeous walking path. Close to the walking path is Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest continually operating lighthouse on the west coast. It’s open 1-4 Thursday-Monday.

Where to stay:

30 Things to Do in Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

There are many vacation homes that you can rent on a site like Airbnb or directly through the local rental company Sanctuary Vacation Rentals. I’ve stayed in a few of Sanctuary’s rentals (like this one), and they are perfect for a family getaway. The drawbacks, however, are that they’re expensive and the check out time is very early.

Carmel-by-the-Sea:

Shop in Carmel

30 Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

The village of Carmel-by-the-Sea has a quaint downtown of several square blocks that are filled with unique shops and boutiques. I especially like going there before Christmas to see the shop windows beautifully decorated for the holidays. Some of my favorite small shops are Thinker Toys for kids, Jane Austen at Home (above), and Cottage of Sweets, but more shopping options can be found at the Carmel Plaza and nearby Barnyard.

Carmel Beach

30 Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

California beaches can be rocky and cold and even uninviting, but this one is different. The sand is perfectly soft and white. The views are stunning. The beach is not just a flat piece of land–it’s hilly and the dune invites you to sit and watch the surfers and frolicking dogs down below.

Behind the beach are cypress trees and paths of colorful ice plant to explore. Fires are allowed on the beach, so bring supplies, a bottle of local wine, and food (try 5th Ave. Deli for boxed meals perfect for the beach), and stay a while. But remember, this is the Pacific, so bring layers as it gets chilly here.

Carmel Mission

30 Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

One of the most beautiful structures in central California, the Carmel Mission is a collection of buildings from the 18th century that formed one of the missions that the Spanish built along California’s coast. The main attraction is the imposing church, but the details on the entire property are not to be missed. Visiting hours and other information can be found here.

Go Wine Tasting in Carmel

30 Things to Do in Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

Carmel is home to about 14 wine tasting rooms of wineries from the surrounding area. The Monterey wine region (which was named a top wine travel destination of 2013 by Wine Enthusiast!) includes eight sub-AVAs that vary in climate. Those closer to Monterey have cooler temperatures and more cloud cover, while those farther south and inland tend to be warmer and sunnier. The result is a nice variety of wines made in the region, but the real winners here are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Stop at the Carmel Visitor Center on San Carlos between 5th and 6th and pick up a Carmel Wine Walk Passport. For $65, you can try a flight of wine at any 9 of the 14 participating tasting rooms. This is ideal if you are staying nearby and may be able to enjoy a couple of these a day, or if you plan to visit Carmel more than once. The passport is valid for the whole year. My favorite tasting room is Blair Estate for its elegant Pinots and interesting stories from the vintner himself, Jeffrey Blair (above). You can find out more about wine tasting in Carmel here.

Art Galleries in Carmel

30 Things to Do in Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

Carmel is home to almost 100 beautiful art galleries in the space of just one square mile. You can’t help but notice them as you walk the streets of the village downtown, but save some time to pop in one or two (or a few) and see this town’s appreciation for the arts reflected in the work shown in its galleries.

Where to eat in Carmel:

Carmel has many good fine dining options, but reservations are recommended, especially during high season.

The Grill on Ocean Ave.

The Grill is a find for someone like me–it’s elegant but also family friendly. My kids enjoyed coloring on the paper-covered tables and their entrees from the kids’ menu, but we loved the California style food!

Dametra Cafe

30 Things to Do in Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

Dametra Cafe on Ocean Avenue serves typical Mediterranean dishes like appetizer platters of hummus and dolmas as well as wraps for lunch, pastas and Greek inspired entrees. Perhaps the best thing about this casual restaurant is the fun and inviting atmosphere. In the evenings things can even get a little wild, with the staff singing and playing music, and a good time seems to be had by all.

La Bicylette

30 Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

This French restaurant is always crowded and seems to be a locals’ favorite. The menu changes daily and utilizes only the freshest local ingredients, including items grown in a children’s garden.

Where to stay in Carmel:

Carmel does not allow big chain restaurants or hotels in town, so you will find a lovely variety of small inns and B&Bs here. I highly recommend staying in a small hotel in Carmel because it allows you a more immersive travel experience. Carmel is a small town, so from the hotel, you’ll be able to walk everywhere, and there is something for everyone here in Carmel. The town is known for its tolerance of dogs, so most (if not all) the hotels are pet-friendly.

30 Things to Do in Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

The view from the balcony of our suite at Hofsas House in Carmel

One option that is pet friendly and family friendly is the Hofsas House, a comfortable hotel within a few blocks of Carmel’s downtown. It’s been family run for three generations. Rooms on the upper floors have ocean views, a wonderful sight at sunset!

Big Sur, South of Carmel

Point Lobos State Reserve

IMG_2238

It took a few visits to the Monterey Peninsula for me to finally heed my friends’ advice and get to Point Lobos, but it quickly became one of my favorite stops on the coast. Imagine gorgeous cliffside hiking trails with endless views of the ocean. Add wildflowers, seals, cypress tress, birds, and unnaturally vibrant hues of blue in the water, and you have a walk at Point Lobos. Bring a picnic and plan to stay a while. My favorite walks are the Bird Island Trail and the Cypress Grove Trail.

Drive down Highway 1 through Big Sur

30 Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

A drive down Highway 1 through Big Sur is an iconic California experience, and for good reason. Try a morning hike at Point Lobos and then a drive down to the Big Sur Roadhouse (see below) for lunch before continuing on with stops at McWay Falls or Garapata State Park, or, if you’re pushed for time, return for a late afternoon back in the Monterey/Carmel area or Carmel Valley. See more about a drive down Highway 1 here.

Eat at Big Sur Roadhouse

30 Things to Do in Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

Contemporary yet rustic design and comfort food inspired by New Orleans…yes, Big Sur Roadhouse is the place to stop for lunch during your visit to Big Sur (but, to the approval of road trippers, it’s open all day).

Esalen

30 Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

The Esalen Institute is a unique and special place in California. It’s been an important hub of spiritual and intellectual exploration since the 1960s. People come here not only for its diverse workshops on philosophy, spirituality, relationships, music, and yoga, but also for its beautiful cliffside grounds between the ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains.

Perhaps its most famous feature is Esalen’s unbelievable hot spring baths (which are co-ed and clothing optional, by the way). If you’re not staying at Esalen, you’re not allowed to come inside. Those who are staying can use the baths anytime, but Esalen opens its doors to the public late at night to use the baths from 1:00 to 3:00 a.m.

Esalen is expensive, but after having visited a few times, I can say that it’s worth it. At least once. Information about personal retreats and workshops are available here.

Carmel Valley:

Quiet Carmel Valley is located just east of the Monterey Peninsula. Carmel Valley Road takes you from Highway 1 east through Carmel Valley. Its location surrounded by mountains makes a lovely place for a drive, but try staying a while–I think you’ll love Carmel Valley. See more about my recent stay in here.

Garland Ranch Regional Park

30 Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Area |This Is My Happiness

This large regional park is a nice place to spend a half day if you enjoy the outdoors. There are hikes that range from easy (which we did with our kids) to strenuous. The park is dog-friendly and has off-leash areas for dogs to run. The park includes Carmel River and a redwood canyon and has places for horseback riding and mountain biking. More information here.

Visit the wineries of Carmel Valley

30 Things to Do in Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

Photo courtesy of Holman Ranch Vineyards

The Monterey AVA has good wine and beautiful scenery, and Carmel Valley has several nice wineries that will help you get to know this wine region. Try Bernardus Winery, Holman Ranch Vineyards, Cima Collina, and Joullian Vineyards, which are all within walking distance of each other. Learn more here.

Where to eat in Carmel Valley:

Earthbound Farms

30 Things to Do in Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

This famous organic farm is located right off the main road that goes through Carmel Valley. Besides gardens that you can walk through on your own or with a guided flower walk, there’s the Farm Stand where you can buy a simple lunch made from organic ingredients and eat outside at the picnic tables.

For finer dining options, try Edgar’s at the Quail Lodge & Golf Resort, Corkscrew Café in Carmel Valley Village, or some of the restaurants at the Barnyard shopping center.

Where to stay:

The Quail Lodge & Golf Resort

30 Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Area | This Is My Happiness

My family and I recently stayed at the beautiful Quail Lodge & Golf Resort and absolutely loved it. The rooms are large and private with a patio, an oversized bathroom, and a gourmet coffee maker. The lodge is luxurious yet family and pet friendly; in fact, we borrowed mini golf clubs for our kids to use on the putting green outside our room and received a pet welcome kit for our two dogs. The grounds of the property are beautiful, and the location just next to the mountains was quiet and peaceful. And don’t let the mention of “golf” in the name misguide you–I have no interest in golf but highly recommend this place!

Portola Hotel is another family-friendly option (check out their Pirates program!).

What else? There is still plenty for me to discover in the Monterey Bay Area. On my wish list are the state parks in Big Sur, the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Pinnacles National Monument (about an hour east), Elkhorn Slough by boat or kayak, Carmel Valley village, and the wineries of Carmel Valley.

What would you add to this list of things to do in Monterey and the surrounding area?

Additional resources:

Point Lobos State Reserve

A Drive down Big Sur

Carmel-by-the-Sea in Photos 

A Pre-Holiday Getaway in Carmel & Carmel Valley

The Carmel Mission

And my other “30 Things” guides:

30 Things to Do in San Francisco

30 Things to Do in Napa Valley

30 Things to Do in Northern California

30 Things to Do in Florence, Italy

30 Things to Do in São Paulo, Brazil

27 Comments

  • What a great resource!! We are heading there next month and have many of these things already on our to do list but I’m so happy to see your additional suggestions.
    Tamara @ We3Travel recently posted..Snow Tubing in Quebec: For Daredevils or SissiesMy Profile

  • Wow, I’m going to keep this guide handy as I’m in Southern CA and am due for a N CA trip and you’ve given me so many great ideas on what to do. Thanks for this and glad to hear your opinion on Esalen. I have never been sure about that place, but sounds like a must try.
    Kelly @ TastingPage recently posted..Thailand: BangkokMy Profile

  • Lanny says:

    Thanks so much for your kind mention of our little Cottage of Sweets in you great article. We are proud to be a part of such a great community as the Monterey Peninsula.
    Lanny & Linda Rose, Owners Cottage of Sweets

    • Jenna says:

      We always stop in your cute shop for some of your chocolates, and the last time my kids got 2 of those big lollipops you sell.

  • Alan Stacy says:

    Next time you’re visiting the Central Coast, please stop by for a poetic tour of Robinson Jeffers Tor House in Carmel. Historic, architectural, and literary, the tours of home, gardens and Hawk Tower are peppered with stories of Jeffers’ life and work, his love of land and sea, and of course his poetry. Reservations suggested. Open for tours Fridays and Saturdays 10 – 3. You will love it.

    • Jenna says:

      I’ve heard about it and have been wanting to visit, so I will do so next time! Thank you for the tip, Alan!

  • Mike James says:

    You have said absolutley nothing about the Salinas Valley area-Castroville; Salinas, with the Pastures of Heaven, Old Town, and the National Steinbeck Center; Soledad, with its Mission and the Pinnacles National Monument; and San Juan Bautista, with its Historical Park and Mission-Let alone King City, Marina, Seaside and Jolon. You all need to quit being so biased toward the big-money areas and talk more about the people’s Monterey County.

    • Jenna says:

      Hi Mike,

      Thank you for those suggestions. I actually mentioned the Steinbeck Center and Pinnacles at the bottom of the post as places I’d like to visit next time. I have been to the Monterey area several times, and honestly, there’s so much to do there that I haven’t explored the areas you mentioned yet (but I’d like to). I also took out the term “Monterey County” from the post to be more specific and accurate, so I apologize if that misled you.

      This is a blog, so information is based on what I have personally experienced while traveling on my own. I don’t like the tone of your comment, especially saying “you all.” I didn’t intentionally include these places because they’re “big-money”; they’re so beautiful that they deserve a lot of attention, and (perhaps because there is more money there) they do a good job of getting the word out.

  • Andi says:

    I was just the in the area two weeks ago. I try to come here every season as it is just a wonderful area. Some of my favorites in Pacific Grove are Passionfish, Little Red House and Patisserie Blecher for the best croissants around!
    Andi recently posted..Friday Foodie – Paula of Call Me PMcMy Profile

  • Evan Oakes says:

    You forgot to mention tourism in the Salinas Valley! Ag Venture Tours, National Steinbeck Center, The Farm and Wild Things!

    • Jenna says:

      I’ve driven through a few times and love the views, but I haven’t stopped yet. On my list for next time! Thanks for the suggestion.

  • Kara says:

    I LOVE Monterey (PG, Carmel and the Valley), as you know! Great recommendations. There are a few places I haven’t checked out and will have to do so next time we head down. I second Andi’s mentions of Passionfish and Little Red House. You especially would love Passionfish. Not only is the food fantastic but the wine list is retail priced (not your typical restaurant mark-up) and extensive. In Carmel Valley, two other good places to eat, which are also kid friendly, are Corkscrew Cafe and Cafe Rustica (good thin crust pizzas). We’ve had some really good Italian meals at Cantinetta Luca in Carmel. I’m glad to hear you finally got to Point Lobos. It’s great. Another good hike down in Big Sur is Garrapata State Park. It’s a bit of an uphill killer but the views are totally worth it!

  • You’ve officially added the Pacific Grove Trail to my California to-do list. And I love the picture of the seals clustered on the red buoy 🙂
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..GO GREEN TIP #108: Using Permaculture Principles in TravelMy Profile

  • Suzy Guese says:

    This is just what I needed Jenna! I’m going to my little brother’s college graduation near San Francisco and wanted to take my husband down to the Monterey area. There is so much to see and do!
    Suzy Guese recently posted..Stop and Smell The Roses: A Pinrose Travel Perfume Review and GiveawayMy Profile

  • What a comprehensive and inspiring post! Love heading down to Monterey and Carmel, but we never have enough time on just a weekend trip to see it all. I’m going to have to plan another weekend there this summer to see some of the things on this list we haven’t seen yet.
    Leslie H (tripswithtykes) recently posted..Frequent Flyer Miles News You Can Use in 2015My Profile

  • Cassie says:

    Carmel Beach is my favorite place! On our last trip down that way I tried Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove, I think you recommended it?

    I’ve always wanted to go to Esalen. For a paid retreat, none of that 1:30am hot tub craziness (that would be an experience, but I can’t stay up that late!)
    Cassie recently posted..Exploring Downtown, One Sip At A TimeMy Profile

  • Victoria says:

    What a wonderfully detailed report. I am sitting down to finally write my own story about our CA road trip last summer and you will be my inspiration- as I am working on my own angle.

  • Tricia says:

    Jenna, since we’re back in the States for a while longer this spring, I’m eager to finally make it to Monterey. The wineries, coastal drives, and unique eateries especially appeal!
    Tricia recently posted..Into the Wild American West: Genoa, NevadaMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      Feel free to contact me if you want any more ideas. Such a lovely area. I think you’ll especially like Carmel Valley.

  • I used to live in Pacific Grove and Monterey. I have many things to add but will choose one.

    Get take out clam chowder and a sourdough bread bowl from Vivolos, 3 minutes before sunset. Then drive to the end of the peninsula, near Asilomar, for a world class sunset and meal (for a fraction of the price of anywhere else).
    Charles McCool recently posted..5 Minutes With Jean Newman GlockMy Profile

  • Heather says:

    Hi Jenna,
    This is a beautifully written post about the Monterey Bay area. I really enjoyed reading it.

    We live in Carmel, just a couple of blocks from La Bicyclette. It’s one of our favorite places to get take out pizza – especially love their butternut squash pizza when it’s in season. We also belong to Quail, which you mentioned. They have just completed a major renovation of their golf course, with new contoured fairways and glistening white sand in the traps. It’s still one of the best walking courses in the area.

    There are so many things to do in the Monterey Bay area. We are blessed to live in the area.
    Heather recently posted..151 Things to Do in Carmel CAMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your story on here. I’m glad I found your site. So much information that I’ll save for my next trip down there.

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