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I first visited the Monterey Peninsula as a kid during a spring break road trip. While there were just as many things to do in Monterey and its surroundings back then, the only memory I have of the trip is of the famous 17-Mile Drive.
Fortunately, the Monterey Peninsula makes for a fantastic weekend getaway from San Francisco, and we’ve now had the chance to explore more of its offerings. In no particular order, here’s a list of our favorite things to do in Monterey, Carmel, and the surrounding area.
Table of Contents
Our favorite things to do in Monterey proper
I like to think of Monterey as the younger, more happening sibling on the peninsula. It’s where there are more events, more nightlife, and more kid-friendly activities.
If you want walkable nightlife options or more options for the kiddos, I’d definitely suggest staying in Monterey. Our recommendation here is the Portola Hotel & Spa (it’s dog-friendly!).
1. Monterey Bay Aquarium
I don’t think you can talk about Monterey without bringing up its aquarium. It’s arguably the best aquarium in the country: highly educational without being academic and laid out in a way that’s conducive to exploring.
And it’s not just for kids!
My first real experience was an adult (we either didn’t go when I was a kid or I don’t remember it), and I was still awed. My favorite is definitely the otters.
If you’re staying near downtown and don’t want to drive over, you can either take a long stroll or the free city trolley.
2. Explore Cannery Row
Pre- or post-aquarium, spend some time wandering around Cannery Row. Yep, this area used to be fishing canneries in Monterey’s heyday.
Today, it’s home to a number of wine tasting rooms and taprooms weaved in between the dozens of restaurants. There are plenty of family-friendly activities as well, from mini-golf and escape rooms to wax museums and surrey bike rentals.
3. Have breakfast at Parker-Lusseau
Usually, I love giving food recommendations. I have to admit though, we’ve yet to have many meals in the city of Monterey that felt stellar enough to highlight. But this little French bakery? Hot damn.
Do yourself a favor and hit up one of its three locations. Make your order and then add the almond croissant if it wasn’t one of your initial choices. You can thank me later.
4. Whale watching
Monterey Bay is known as a great whale-watching spot because there’s a high likelihood of seeing whales and other marine wildlife during all months of the year.
From mid-December to mid-April, it’s grey whale migration season. Dolphins and killer whales are also common sightings during those months. The rest of the year, you can see blue whales, humpback whales, dolphins, and killer whales, among other animals.
We went in mid-October with Monterey Bay Whale Watch and saw dozens of dolphins of different species, rays, sea lions, and plenty of sea birds. We also got to watch a mommy-calf pair of humpback whales while they fed, which felt like a very intimate experience.
P.S. It does get very, very cold out in the windy ocean, so make sure to bring enough layers!
5. Grab a craft beer
Downtown Monterey is extremely walkable, and it happens to be home to a few craft breweries as well.
Our suggestion? Start at Peter B’s Brewpub during happy hour (daily 4-6:30 p.m.), work your way over to Alvarado Street Brewery, and end up in Fieldwork Brewing Company’s beer garden (fire pits and heaters included).
6. Walk Fisherman’s Wharf
Kitschy “general stores,” competing seafood restaurants dishing out clam chowder samples, and the sea salt-aged boardwalk — what’s not to love about old-school wharves?
But seriously, do grab some clam chowder to warm you up. They’re delicious!
Our favorite things to do in Carmel proper
Compared to Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea is the older, more sophisticated sibling. The number of art galleries in this tiny, walkable town is astonishing.
I would recommend staying in Carmel if you want a quieter retreat or if you want to be closer to the many hiking options nearby. Like elsewhere on the peninsula, Carmel is also incredibly dog-friendly. Almost every store in town either welcomed puppers or had water bowls outside for them.
1. Carmel Beach
What can I say? I’m a beach bum.
Carmel Beach is a picturesque white sand beach lined with Monterey cypresses. It’s got solid surfs, it’s dog-friendly, and it’s one of the last beaches in California to allow alcohol. So grab a drink and enjoy the sunset with your toes in the sand. You can even build a beach fire in one of the city-supplied fire pits.
For slightly less popular beaches, go toward the southern part of town and check out Carmel River State Beach and Monastery Beach.
2. Carmel Wine Walk
I know, Monterey and Carmel aren’t the first names to come to mind when you think California wine, but there are actually a number of vineyards in the region!
A dozen or so of them have tasting rooms located across downtown Carmel. With a $100 wine walk “passport,” you can get tastings at 10 of the tasting rooms.
The best part? You can share the passport with friends, and it never expires! So you can drop in for a tasting while shopping or go on a 10-tasting wine walk. No need to even worry about having a DD.
Shopping rarely makes it into my travel recommendations unless it happens to be for a destination that has amazing cultural and artisanal products. And Carmel, well, it doesn’t really have that.
But part of the charm of Carmel-by-the-Sea is in its mix of kitschy shops, luxury-and/or-outdoorsy boutiques, and eclectic art galleries. They dominate the landscape of downtown Carmel and are part of what makes it feel so quaint.
If you have the time, I’d suggest taking an hour or two to just stroll around and pop into whatever looks interesting. For a fun shop selling everything you didn’t know you needed, check out the Carmel Bay Company store. A lot of discipline is needed to not walk out with half the store.
Other fantastic activities on the Monterey Peninsula
In addition to Monterey and Carmel, there’s also Pacific Grove plus a number of unincorporated communities on the Monterey Peninsula.
The things to do on the Monterey and Carmel lists are almost all walkable or accessible with a quick Uber/Lyft ride, but this next section generally requires a car. They’re absolutely worth it though, and if you haven’t explored California’s central coast before, don’t miss out.
1. The 17-Mile Drive
This famous scenic drive weaves throughout the unincorporated golf-courses-and-resorts community of Pebble Beach.
At one point, I think it was free, but now the community charges $10.50 per car for entrance. So once you’re in there, take your time and stop often to enjoy the gorgeous views, including the iconic Lone Cypress.
2. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Just south of Carmel is the perennial hiker’s favorite: Point Lobos.
There are a ton of different routes you can take once you’re in the reserve, depending on how much time you have and what you’re interested in. Accessible routes are also available.
Some of our favorites include Sea Lion Point Trail and Granite Point Trail. While on the latter, make sure to stop by the historic Whalers Station Museum and Whalers Cabin (built by Chinese fishermen in the 1850s). You’ll also get to see Whalers Cove, where we’ve had the joy of seeing harbor seals during pupping season!
Point Lobos is really, really popular though, and there are only 150 parking spots. So either arrive early or late in the day — the park opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 5, with last entry at 4:30. If the lot is full by the time you get there, you’ll need to park along Highway 1 and walk into the park. Do heed the “no parking” signs.
3. Garrapata State Park
If Point Lobos is just too crowded, drive a little further and visit Garrapata State Park instead. It’s especially gorgeous during the spring wildflower blooms.
The park has some great coastal hiking with stunning views, and if you’re there during the right seasons, you may also see gray whales, sea lions, seals, and sea otters along the coast.
While most people only visit the coastal side of the park, Garrapata actually extends for quite a bit inland as well. If you prefer redwood groves, just hit the trails on the other side of Highway 1.
4. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
I think this is the park that many people think of when they think of Big Sur. In part, it’s because Pfeiffer Big Sur has the Big Sur River running through the middle of it.
It’s also home to the Big Sur Campground and various other Big Sur-named lodging options. If you want to stay at any of these, reserve here very, very far ahead of time.
Because we’re never that ahead in our planning, we’ve only ever driven through the park. I can’t say too much about specific trails — what we’ve seen is gorgeous though!
5. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Just a few miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Like its neighbors, it’s got a diverse mix of coastal and redwood forests. Trails range from 1 milers to half-day out-and-back options.
6. Big Sur
If you’re familiar with California’s central coast, you know this is a bit of a cheat. Technically, #2-5 are all part of the wonder that’s known as Big Sur.
Big Sur stretches about 90 miles along the coast, starting just south of Carmel all the way to Hearst Castle down in San Simeon (worth a visit as well). There are also a number of other parks in Big Sur besides the ones I mentioned.
Even if you don’t have the time to do any hiking — or just don’t want to — it’s well worth your time to take a drive down Highway 1.
It’s about 36 miles from Carmel to Julia Pfeiffer Burns, roughly a one-hour drive. The coast offers so many stunning views though, you’re sure to make some stops along the way.
However you choose to visit Big Sur, make sure to look up road and trail closures before you hit the road. From personal experience, I can say it’s absolutely no fun to have to turn around because the sole road is closed due to a landslide risk or something else.
7. Go camping!
Grab your camping gear and head out for some amazing camping under the stars in the Monterey Peninsula.
Hope you enjoy your time on the Monterey Peninsula. Pin it to share it!