How to experience the best of Monterey, California
Monterey, on California’s central coast offers adventure and exploration, culture and food and sunny afternoons at the beach. The wide empty road, salt-tinged sea air and ornamental Cypress trees all work to create a unique and stunning environment.
Monterey county is home to famous sights like 17-mile drive and the Spanish Bay golf course, charming towns like Carmel-by-the-Sea and Pacific Grove, the world-class Monterey aquarium, and stunning State Parks and beaches, here’s where to see the best of the best.
Must-do in Monterey
Point Lobos State Reserve
While Monterey County is a fully customizable destination, you can’t miss Point Lobos State Reserve. This dramatically beautiful and distinctly California park boasts forests, sea cliffs, wild flowers and tide pools all in one place. Point Lobos State Reserve also has some of the most amazing views in central California (which is saying a lot) and it is accessible for all travelers young and old – with paved paths and adventurous hikes.
17-mile drive is another must-do attraction in Monterey. This iconic stretch of highway 1 takes you past some of California’s loveliest (and, of course, most elite) homes, as well as the breathtaking white sand Spanish Bay beach. Along the way are stands of ancient Cypress trees, and of course plenty of seals and sea lions.
For a special Spanish Bay experience, make your way to the Inn at Spanish Bay at sunset, when you can watch a bagpiper play along the sea cliffs every night of the year — a nod to the Scottish-style golf course.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Animal lovers (and kids) will want to make a stop at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of America’s most popular aquariums. It’s a massive facility and a great place to learn about California’s marine ecosystems. The aquarium is at the end of Monterey’s historic Cannery Row, the city’s main tourist stretch. From there, it is also easy to check out the Monterey pier and enjoy sea food or a sweet treat overlooking the water.
Lastly, round out your visit to the central coast by making the drive to Bixby Creek Bridge, about halfway between downtown Monterey and the entrance to Big Sur. The bridge featured in films as well as stealing the show in dozens of car commercials. It’s a photographer’s dream—an architecturally striking bridge in a magnificent wild locale.
Although Monterey is a famous tourist destination, there are plenty of places and activities to surprise you and keep return visits interesting.
Monterey County has a bounty of agriculture nearby, and the farmers’ markets are incredible. There is one nearly every day of the week, but the one in Monterey on Tuesday nights is the largest. It has fresh produce, but also food stands from local restaurants and art vendors.
Beyond Monterey proper lie the quaint villages of Carmel-by-the-Sea and Pacific Grove. They are both just a few miles from Monterey. Carmel is perfect for window shopping, with boutiques, galleries and gift shops. Make a stop at the Tuck Box for an English style tea in a storybook-style cottage, or grab sandwiches from Nielsen market to eat alfresco; Carmel has a historic mission and several nice parks to enjoy a picnic. Downtown runs straight into the town’s long, white sand beach, so you can end the afternoon there.
Pacific Grove is the less popular of the two, but it is a classic seaside village, complete with Victorian architecture and a tight knit community. The Lovers’ Point Beach in Pacific Grove has a great view, and right up the street is the Lovers’ Point book shop, which in addition to their awesome literary selection has a cafe with unique drinks (try the signature lavender latte). Pacific Grove is also home to Asilomar, a retreat center with hiking trails through forests and along sand dunes and sea cliffs.
Where to eat & drink
Monterey’s food has upscale dining in spades as well as casual watering holes. For seafood, the classic Sardine Factory or more rustic Monterey Fish House are both good options. The best sandwiches in Monterey County are without a doubt found at Mundo’s; make sure to try the Argentine tri-tip.
Enjoy local brews and beer snacks at Alvarado Street Brewery or check out the Central Coast outpost of Bay Area brewery Fieldwork, which opened a beer garden in Monterey recently; both spots have great ambiance, and children and pets are welcome.
For wine drinkers, there are plenty of options on the Central Coast, which, although not as well-known for wine as Sonoma or Napa, produces plenty of world-class wines. Cowgirl Winery in Carmel Valley has a nice tasting room with a Western twist– it's located in a reclaimed wood barn, and also includes a boutique that sells local jewelry, gifts and, of course, cowgirl hats.