45 Unique Things to Do in Monterey California

Monterey is filled with a wealth of activities you and your entire family can enjoy. Known for its diverse marine environment and historic Cannery Row, Monterey is the perfect destination for a fun vacation. Besides the prominent attractions, like whale watching, Monterey is filled with scenic walking trails and a rich history that will crave you wanting more.

Exploring Monterey is just a tip of all the stunning attractions you can do along the PCH. If you are debating visiting this charming town, we invite you to look at some of our favorite attractions during your getaway; you won’t regret it.

Always remember to double-check dates, opening times, and weather conditions before traveling.

Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey CA

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Of course, the top of our list will be the aquarium; you can’t go to Monterey and not stop in. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is world-famous and sits at the end of Cannery Row, right along the ocean. Featuring a variety of marine habitats, a kelp forest, and an open view of the ocean and rock shores, you won’t be bored visiting the aquarium.

For visitors who aren’t accustomed to marine life, you can get your full dose of sharks, giant Pacific octopuses and tide pools that invite you to explore and touch all types of sea life. Besides a beautiful jellyfish exhibit that will leave you breathless, the aquarium has an aviary that features a variety of local birds, and of course, you can’t miss out on the penguin exhibit.

The aquarium will get busy during their peak season, so make sure you go during the week if possible or when doors open on the weekends.

Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey California

Old Fisherman’s Wharf

Built in the mid-1800s, Old Fisherman’s Wharf was created to receive passengers and freight ships coming into the Monterey Bay. In 1919 the first restaurant opened on the Wharf, and from there, the rest is history. In 1923 everything business owners worked towards came crashing down, literally. The largest load of sardines to ever be shipped to Monterey, we’re talking 20,000 cases, was due to load onto the S.S. San Antonio. Between the large load and bad weather, the ship leaned too heavily onto the Wharf and caused 132-feet of the pier to collapse and spill 10,000 cases of sardines into the harbor.

While this damage was costly, it allowed the Wharf to grow an additional 750-feet during reconstruction. After reconstruction, the Wharf still brought in sardines to be canned but turned their focus onto being a tourist destination instead. Today, the historical Wharf houses delicious restaurants, fish markets, tour operations, and souvenir shops.

Walk along the Wharf and find a tour that works best for you; this includes whale watching or glass-bottom boat tours. Their saltwater taffy shop is a must stop in, and if you’re feeling a little hungry, stop into Old Fishermen’s Grotto for some delicious and fresh seafood.

Monterey State Historic Park

If local history is your thing, check out the Monterey State Historic Park. During a guided tour, you will learn about Monterey being California’s capital under three different regimes: Spain, Mexico, and the United States. In the 18th century, Monterey began being colonized by the Spanish, and you can see this with the Presidio and Mission de San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey. Throughout your tour, you will be greeted with tons of historical buildings and adobe homes.

While in the state park, don’t forget to stop at The Larkin House, a National and California Historical Landmark. It was built in 1835 and is reported to be the first two-story house built in California. Prior to entering the park, you can even view exhibits at the Pacific House Museum.

Monterey Canning Co in Monterey California

Cannery Row

Known as the heart of Monterey, this historic district has been mentioned in numerous writings by John Steinbeck, and he even has a novel titled Cannery Row that was published in 1945. Cannery Row has been voted one of the best places in the United States to visit and is a popular tourist destination along the Central Coast. Prior to being a tourist hot spot, the area was used for the busting canning industry. Buildings once used for canning and processing are now being used for shops, hotels, and restaurants.

Cannery Row is lined with fun boutique shops, cute local eateries, and stunning hotels that you can stay at, all while getting a gorgeous view of the ocean.

Point Sur Lightstation

Sitting right along the coast on a large chunk of volcanic rock is the Point Sur lightstation. In 1886 the light station was built and had been sitting in the same spot for centuries. The construction began after several ships began colliding into the rocks during the 1800s, and three years after construction, it opened. Getting to the lighthouse wasn’t an easy task either, and it saw few visitors when it first opened. In 1972 the lighthouse turned automated and soon became a loved tourist destination.

Today, the light station is a historic landmark and is California’s only publicly open lighthouse.

Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail

Check out the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail for all outdoor enthusiasts or people who love free things. This trail is one of the most popular spots to hit when visiting Monterey, and it hugs that Southern Pacific Railway route. The trail stretches 18-miles long, starting in Castroville and ending in Pacific Grove; it’s great to visit when you want to get a little exercise and sunshine.

While along the trail, you will be right on the waterfront and while strolling, you will come across parks, beaches, and sometimes a little café. The trail allows skaters, cycling, and you can even rent some water transportation if you’re inclined.

Monterey Museum of Art

In 1959 the Monterey Museum of Art opened to help showcase local art that dated back to the 19th century. The Museum has two separate locations, one on La Mirada and the other on Pacific Street, and between the two locations, there are over 14,000 pieces of art. 

Depending on what you like, Pacific Street offers beautiful art and photography, while La Mirada gives you a stunning mansion and rose garden. The Museum also offers art classes, educational programs, and camps if you’re sticking around Monterey for a bit. 

Colton Hall Museum 

Colton Hall is perfect for history buffs since it was where California achieved status as the 31st state of America. Going to this Museum is free, and it has been around since the 1800s. The first constitution of California was drafted at Colton Hall, and it served as an essential state building during the 1800s. 

In 1949 the Museum was set up to host information and artifacts vital to the state and governance from the past to the present. 

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary 

You won’t want to miss this stunning protected area of Monterey that offers beautiful views of wildlife while visiting Monterey. This sanctuary is one of the most impressive marine locations in the country and stretches from Cambria to San Francisco. The area is filled with tide pools, wildlife-filled seamounts, and a forest of kelp. 

This location is perfect for the entire family, and you can even spend a day out on the water in a kayak or diving to explore as much of the sanctuary as possible. 

Sloat Monument 

It looks like a giant rock to some, but there is a lot to be said about the Sloat Monument. It was built for Commodore John Drake Sloat, who played a major role in the war between America and Mexico in 1846. Due to the help of Sloat, the U.S. was able to win California as a state from both the British and Mexico. 

The monument was built in 1910 to remember the Commodore who used his intelligence wisely to help the U.S. gain another territory during the war. 

Old Monterey Jail

Sounds creepy right? This jail was used for an entire century, and while it held inmates, no one ever escaped. The prison was built in 1854 to hold criminals as the town grew larger. The jail wasn’t around long, it closed in 1959, and a year later, it was open to the public for tours. 

History buffs will love to see this jail since it was built shortly after winning California as a territory. Be warned; there were very few luxuries and amenities as this prison, so you know guests didn’t have a great time. 

17-Mile Drive

You might be wondering who goes to Monterey for the drive but trust us on this. The 17-mile drive sits along the Monterey Peninsula, allowing you to enjoy the finer things in life. This road allows you to drive and view the beautiful landscapes that the city has to offer. While exploring, you’ll see stunning cliffs, beaches, forests, and historical sports.

There are many areas to stop at to take photos or enjoy a nice lunch, so don’t rush when you’re taking this drive. 

The Old Whaling Station 

Originally constructed as a family home in 1847, this home soon became a headquarters for The Whaling Company in 1855. The Whaling Company wasn’t a company to be proud of, though; they would kill whales at sea and bring them in to be processed for various goods like corsets or umbrellas. 

In 1986 commercial whaling was stopped and today stands the building to show the gruesome industry that once lived. Even though the industry wasn’t the best, the station is a historical landmark today owned by the state. In 1980 it was opened to the public as a free attraction and Museum. 

Casa del Oro 

Also known as the Joseph Boston Store, Casa del Oro was the first-ever general store in Monterey. It was built in 1845 and leased to Joseph Boston, who stocked it with general items like coffee and soap. Later it was used as one of the city’s first banks since there weren’t any other locations in town to put a safe. 

Casa del Oro, translating to House of Gold, became its nickname due to being the first bank in the city, and during California’s gold rush, miners would flock to the area to store their gold. 

The Moon Tree

You might be wondering why we added a tree on here but trust us when we say you’ll enjoy this unique experience. In 1971 Stuart Roosa took off on Apollo 14 and completed a mission to the moon. While in orbit, he brought numerous seeds to germinate and grow while he was in space. 

When he returned to earth, he gave over 400 seeds to the Forest Service, one being The Moon Tree. The tree is a Redwood, and while there were no changes in its germination or growth, it was planted as a memorial to Roosa. 

The Custom House 

Built-in the 1820s by Mexico, this small house collected taxes on merchandise that passed through Monterey going to other parts of America, Russia, and England. After Sloat claimed California, the U.S. flag was raised at the Custom House, and it continued to perform the same duties for Americans instead of Mexico. 

Today the Custom House is open to the public to glance at what it was like in the 1840s when custom officials would expect goods before shipping them out. It’s a great stop for history and to learn a little more about the trades that went through the state and city. 

The Golden State Theater 

Sitting along Alvarado Street, this theater has been redesigned since it was built in 1926. Today the theater is open for several events and can hold 1,000 people on their plush seats. It is one of the biggest theaters in Monterey and is great to view a film festival or concert. If you have the cash, you can even rent it out for a private event. 

If the theater is open without any events, stop in to get a glance at the stunning sky canopy ceilings and beautiful mezzanine. 

Monterey Jazz Festival 

Every September, the Monterey Jazz Festival takes over the town for three days and two nights bring numerous famous artists to the city for performances. This is the longest-running jazz festival ever and is packed with activities and events that anyone can enjoy. 

Across 20 acres of land are seven stages where you can be entertained and enjoy the music around you. Don’t forget to shop for some jazz memorabilia and trinkets while you’re out.

Monterey County Youth Museum

If you brought the entire family along, check out the youth museum. It’s a great museum that allows your children to explore and learn while visiting. There is a variety of interactive and hands-on exhibits that are all aimed at kids under 10. 

The Museum caters to kids learning through discovery, and if you get there at the right time, you can catch one of their special events. 

El Estero Park 

This recreational park wraps around Lake El Estero and has a variety of activities hosted throughout it daily. Visitors can use the path to hike it bike around the lake, plus there are three exercise stations located around it. 

The Dennis the Menace Playground is within the park, where your kids can enjoy play structures, slides, and a climbing wall. They even offer a hedge maze and giant adventure ship for the bigger kids who love adventure. 

The Farmers Market at Old Monterey Marketplace

Jump in and enjoy the local flavors of Monterey at the farmer’s market. The market is filled with community vendors that sell produce, clothing, handmade crafts, and more. You’ll be delighted at the amount of food and flavors the market offers, including Indian, Italian, local BBQ, and Mediterranean. 

The farmer’s market also offers events weekly and has live music, so you’ll never know what will pop up until you visit. 

The Antique Mall 

Located on Cannery Row, the Antique Mall is one of the largest on the Central Coast and has over 100 dealers. The building is from the Steinbeck era and overlooks the bay and ocean to give you stunning scenery while you’re shopping. 

The mall is filled with vintage pieces and ancient gems, so make sure you stop by and take a look. You’ll also be treated to a coffee shop, wine tasting room, and restaurant all in the same location. 

Ag Venture Tours 

If you love touring areas but don’t have the time to make the itinerary yourself, lie AG Venture Tours handle it. This small company specializes in tours from wine tasting to agricultural education and sightseeing. You can spend a full day learning about the history and wonders of Monterey, all with the help of a handy guide. 

While on tour, you’ll visit some of the most beautiful areas of Monterey and explore world-famous valleys that are all led by friendly and professional guides. 

Adventures by the Sea 

For the adventurers at heart, this kayak excursion is for you. Adventures by the Sea offers numerous ways to explore and adventure through Monterey, including kayak rentals and bike rentals. You can rent a kayak and enjoy an adventure watching whales and otters along the Monterey Bay Coastline or mountain bike through the peninsula. 

For the brave at heart, you can rent a paddleboard and get lessons from an expert, but trust us, that water is mighty cold. 

McAbee Beach 

Maybe you just want to visit the beach while visiting Monterey, and McAbee Beach is perfect. It is small but located right off Cannery Row. To get there, all you need to do is walk towards the water on Steinbeck Plaza; once you get to the edge, you’ll see a set of stairs that will lead you down to the beach.

The beach has some rocks that you can sit on, and at night the tide comes in high, so be warned. It is a great area to sit and enjoy the ocean while enjoying a bowl of chowder. If McAbee Beach is too small for you, San Carlos Beach Park and Del Monte Beach are not too far away. 

When you visit Monterey, you’re given more than a quaint little town along the coast. Instead, you’re thrust into a historically rich landmark that will expand your knowledge into the past of Monterey and how it became the historical spot, it is today.

While everyone in your family might not be a fan of the history side of the bay, there is still plenty of fun activities everyone can enjoy while visiting this stunning coastal city.

More things to do in Monterey CA

  • Carmel-By-the-Sea (easy to pop over from town)
  • Fort Ord Dunes State Park
  • Jacks Peak Park
  • Kayaking in Monterey Bay
  • Lovers Point Park and Beach
  • Mission de San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey (San Carlos Cathedral)
  • Monterey Bay Coastal Trail
  • Monterey Coast Guard Pier 
  • Monterey History & Art Association (Dali exhibit is a must!)
  • Monterey Mirror Maze
  • Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail
  • Monterey Zoo
  • MY Museum
  • Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
  • Presidio of Monterey
  • San Carlos Royal Chapel (a historic landmark)
  • Toro Park (especially during wildflower season)
  • Veterans Memorial Park
  • WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca (motor raceway)
  • Wine tasting through the Carmel Valley

Where to stay in Santa Monica

Find more Santa Monica accommodation options on Booking.com.

Santa Monica is fairly easy to get around. We recommend renting a car and exploring all there is to see. You can find the best prices on rental cars by clicking here.

When you’re not discovering Santa Monica on your own, we suggest treating yourself to a tour. From private wine tours to kayak and SUP tours, cooking classes classes to tours of celebrity-owned homes, there’s a little something for everyone. Browse all the Santa Monica tours available on Viator by clicking here.

If you want to capture the memories from your trip to Monterey, we recommend hiring a professional photographer. A Flytographer photoshoot is one of our favorite souvenirs from our travels and we want to share them with you!

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