From hiking to enjoying the ocean and visiting the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, there is so much to do in the Monterey Bay area!
A beautiful coastal beach town in Central California between San Francisco and Big Sur, Monterey is a must-visit if you’re vacationing in California. Monterey is located on the southern tip of Monterey Bay, which is the largest marine protected area in the world. Here, you will find humpback whales, sea otters, elephant seals, and more incredible marine life.
Monterey is the perfect place to relax, unwind, and explore nature. With lots of state parks and hiking trails, you can explore some of the gorgeous wildlife that call Monterey Bay home, with many trails also offering breathtaking views of the coastline. While in Monterey, you definitely need to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium! This large, world-renowned aquarium is your window into the world of the marine habitats of Monterey Bay. There, you can learn all about the marine life that live right outside of the Aquarium in the ocean below!
During your trip to Monterey Bay, there are lots of amazing historical sites to see, including the Carmel Mission and Bixby Bridge. There are also plenty of fun shops and delicious restaurants to enjoy throughout your trip.
So, if you’re traveling to Monterey, California soon, make sure to check out The Colorventurer’s Guide to Monterey below!
Things to Do:
Monterey Bay Aquarium
If there’s one spot you have to visit during a trip to Monterey, it’s the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Located on the rocky edge of the ocean along Cannery Row, Monterey Bay Aquarium is filled with lots of fun exhibits, like “Open Sea,” “Sea Otters,” and “Kelp Forest”—all of which give guests a glimpse into the marvelous world of our ocean. Enjoy the mystique of the vast ocean blue at “Open Sea” where you can encounter some of the ocean’s most impressive animals, like green sea turtles and hammerhead sharks. The two-story “Sea Otter” exhibit is home to resident sea otters that have been deemed non-releasable by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These sea otters not only serve as ambassadors for their threatened species, but are also surrogate mothers to orphaned pups behind-the-scenes. Those pups are then released back out into the ocean where they can have babies of their own. Watch the sea otters float at the surface or train with their keepers at the second-story viewing area, or watch them swim beneath the surface from the first-story viewing area. The Aquarium’s signature three-story exhibit, “Kelp Forest,” is the largest and most successful living kelp forest outside of the ocean and transports guests to the cold, nutrient-rich waters of Monterey Bay.
The Aquarium is also filled with an abundance of other educational exhibits, including the “Splash Zone” which is great for kids. Plus, there are plenty of incredible interactive exhibits and stations where guests can learn about the affects of single-use plastic on marine life and the threats that marine animals face in the ocean.
To plan a visit to the Aquarium, head to their website: https://www.montereybayaquarium.org/.
Once you’ve stopped by the Aquarium, head outside and walk down Cannery Row! A waterfront street bordering Pacific Grove, Cannery Row is filled with fun shops and restaurants. Plus, while walking down Cannery Row, you can learn about its history! Cannery Row was once the site of a number of now-defunct sardine canning factories. The last cannery closed in 1973.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a great place to grab some delicious seafood or go shopping for some fun souvenirs to take home. Also, if you’ve ever wanted to go whale watching or cruise around the Bay on a boat, you can catch those here, too! Make sure to head to the end of the wharf to check out all of the sea lion lounging in the Bay!
Dennis the Menace Park and Paddle Boats
If you have any kids tagging along on your trip to Monterey, Dennis the Menace is a great place to stop to let the kids run around and get some energy out. There are lots of fun play structures for the kids to play on, including slides, swings, a giant suspension bridge, and more.
For some added fun, head over to the paddle boats across the park by the miniature lake. There, you can rent a paddle boat (some in the shape of swans and rubber duckies!) for 30 minutes or an hour and paddle across the lake with all of the ducks and geese.
Point Pinos Lighthouse
Point Pinos Lighthouse was first lit on February 1, 1855 to guide and warn ships along the rocky Pacific coast. It is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast and even still has its original lens. According to the city of Pacific Grove, Alcatraz Island Lighthouse preceded Point Pinos Lighthouse by eight months but was replaced in 1909 by the expanding prison.
You can visit Point Pinos Lighthouse for a tour to learn more about the history of the lighthouse as well as the first appointed female keeper of Point Pinos. You can find more information about tours at https://www.cityofpacificgrove.org/visiting/pt-pinos-lighthouse.
Technically outside of Monterey, it’s always a lot of fun to visit Carmel-by-the-Sea when vacationing in Monterey. Carmel has lots of quaint shops along Ocean Ave. (the main street) that you can see. One of my favorite shops to stop by is the Cottage of Sweets. Bursting with delicious British and European sweets, you are sure to find an exciting treat! I always love to visit Carmel Plaza, Carmel’s upscale, outdoor shopping center. There, you can find something for everyone with stores like Sur La Table, Anthropologie, and Kate Spade! There is also lots of amazing restaurants you can visit, including the Carmel Bakery which is a great place to grab some baked goods; you know it’s always has such a long line, so you know it’s good!
If you want to spend some time at the beach during your trip, Carmel Beach is a fun place for the whole family. With an expansive sandy beach and calming waters, the beach is a great way to relax during the trip.
San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission
Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo, or the Carmel Mission, was originally founded on the shores of Monterey in 1770 and is the second mission to ever be founded in California. Founded by Father Junipero Serra, who lays in rest at the Carmel Mission, it was moved to its current location at the mouth of the Carmel River in 1771. The Carmel Mission is one of the most authentically restored Roman Catholic mission churches in California.
I always enjoying seeing the historical architecture and how they always stage the mission to look like how it would have when Father Serra lived at the mission. You can learn more about the mission and tours on their webpage at https://carmelmission.org/visit/about-the-mission/.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Just outside of Carmel, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a lovely place to get a hike in while gazing out at beautiful ocean views and encountering spectacular and rare plant life. Hiking trails lead along the shoreline and lead to hidden coves.
If you’re wondering where this natural reserve got its name, it comes from the offshore rocks at Punta de los Lobos Marinos, Point of the Sea Wolves, where the sound of the sea lions carries inland, making it sounds like wolves.
You can find more information for your visit at the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve website.
Along the Big Sur coastline on Highway 1, you’ll encounter Bixby Bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in the state. Deemed Big Sur’s version of the Golden Gate Bridge, there are several turnoffs to visit this breathtaking bridge for some Instagrammable images.
Completed in 1932 for just over $200,000, Bixby Bridge is one of the highest bridges of its kind in the world. Looking over the rocky cliffs, one can understand that this was certainly not an easy bridge to build. First, a massive wooden framework had to be built with materials carried in by truck on the then-narrow, one-way road. Then, 45,000 individual sacks of cement had to be hauled in, before model heavy machine was available to do the heavy lifting. Pretty crazy, right? It certainly makes Bixby Bridge that much more beautiful.
Pfeiffer State Park and Pfeiffer Beach
Enjoy some beautiful hiking trails at Pfeiffer State Park in Big Sur. Along the scenic trails, hikers can walk by the banks of the Big Sur River and among the redwoods, conifers, oaks, sycamores, cottonwoods, maples, alders, and willows.
If you want some beautiful ocean views at a quiet and relaxing beach, you can head down to Pfeiffer Beach. Turn off for this popular beach on Highway 1, approximately one mile south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park’s entrance. Pfeiffer Beach is not a California State Park and does charge a separate entry fee. For more information on both locations, visit the website.
Where to Eat:
This classic French bakery is a great place to enjoy a light breakfast of pastries and coffee during a trip to Monterey. Patisserie Bechler also offers scrumptious cakes, cookies, and tarts. If you want to enjoy more of a brunch or light lunch, the bakery also serves crepes, quiches, and sandwiches. My personal favorite to get at Patisserie Bechler is the hot chocolate! Rich, decadent, and creamy, it is such a delicious addition to some pastries or desserts!
Rosine’s Restaurant is, hands-down, a must-visit if you’re vacationing in Monterey. Rosine’s is the perfect spot for a delicious dinner, from steak dinners to tasty pasta dishes. However, the best part is the dessert! At Rosine’s, make sure to get a slice of one of their big cakes! Several layers tall, a single slice of cake is so big, you could easily share it with the whole table! While waiting for your food to arrive, walk on down to their dessert case and gaze with heart eyes at their selection of desserts. Rosine’s offers a multitude of delicious cakes, including traditional yellow cake with chocolate frosting, German chocolate, and cakes loaded with chocolate candies (like KitKats!). If cake isn’t your cup of tea, you can also score a piece of pie or even some crème brûlée.
I hope you have a great time and get lots of vitamin “sea” during your trip to Monterey!