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13 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Monterey

Written by Brad Lane
Updated May 26, 2022

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Monterey is a small coastal city in California with many historical sites and modern attractions. It was the capital of Spanish California from 1770 to 1882, and, at one time, Monterey was an important city in the fish canning industry. The industry collapsed with the disappearance of the sardine, but the town's Cannery Row was forever immortalized by local author John Steinbeck and his novel of the same name.

Today, the original fish packing area is now a beautifully restored neighborhood, with shops and restaurants and several tourist attractions. Also along the waterfront are Fisherman's Wharf and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. These world-famous places to visit offer full-day adventures and are the reasons behind many Monterey vacations.

Monterey is also blessed with several stunning landscapes. Nearby, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a crown jewel in the California state park system. And in neighboring communities on the Monterey Peninsula, like Carmel-by-the-Sea and Pacific Grove, places like 17-Mile Drive and Carmel Beach offer even more lovely coastal scenery.

Plan your visit with our list of top attractions in Monterey.

See also: Where to Stay in Monterey

1. Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium

One of the most popular things to do in Monterey is a visit to the always entertaining Monterey Bay Aquarium. Exhibits are engaging and well laid out, and the setting on the water's edge is perfect.

If you time your visit right, you can see some of the daily shows and watch penguin or sea otters being fed by aquarists, or see tuna, sharks, turtles, and other marine life feeding through a huge window at the Open Sea exhibit.

The aquarium focuses on the rich marine life of Monterey Bay, but special exhibits offer insight into other areas. The architecture of the elaborate aquarium complex was adapted from the former Hovden Cannery, which stood here from 1916 to 1980 and was one of the largest of the eighteen in Cannery Row.

Address: 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, California

Official site: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/

2. 17-Mile Drive

17-Mile Drive
17-Mile Drive

For beautiful scenery and stunning views, 17-Mile Drive is a must if you are in the area. It's only a few miles from Monterey, on the south side of the Monterey Peninsula, within the delightful seaside town of Carmel.

Although there is a much more direct route from Monterey to Carmel, the landscape and many charms of the countryside make it well worth going the long way around on 17-Mile Drive. This route begins at Pacific Grove Gate and runs through the Del Monte Forest, with an abundance of cypress trees and Monterey pines, past picturesque beaches, isolated cliffs, and several famous sites.

Of particular note are the beautiful views north and south from Cypress Lookout, the landmark tree known as The Lone Cypress, the famous Pebble Beach Golf Links, and The Lodge at Pebble Beach. At the end of the drive, take some time to explore the town of Carmel.

3. Cannery Row

Cannery Row
Cannery Row | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Cannery Row is a waterfront street that originally served as a fish packing area but today is one of Monterey's main tourist areas, with shops, restaurants, and a scenic waterfront. It has evolved over the years from its origins of warehouses, bordellos, and low-budget hotels to a relatively upmarket row of chain shops, boutiques, and restaurants. And today, it's a lovely place to stroll.

Local author John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, immortalized this vibrant area with his 1945 novel, Cannery Row. Several tributes to the book and author are found throughout modern-day Cannery Row, including Steinbeck Plaza and the Cannery Row monument.

Restaurants and oceanfront, Cannery Row
Restaurants and oceanfront, Cannery Row

It's easy to combine a visit to Cannery Row with stops at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Fisherman's Wharf. The Monterey Bay Coastal Trail connects all these must-see attractions, touring a beautiful coastline between each stop.

Official site: http://www.canneryrow.com/

4. Old Fisherman's Wharf

Old Fisherman’s Wharf
Old Fisherman's Wharf | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Old Fisherman's Wharf is another popular seaside, tourist-oriented area, not far from Cannery Row. It has several colorful shops and restaurants and is a great place for seafood, with some restaurants passing out samples as you walk by.

Visitors to Old Fisherman's Wharf stroll around the oceanfront for views out over the bay and see sea lions sunning themselves. Whale watching excursions, deep-sea fishing charters, and glass-bottom boat tours leave from the wharf.

5. Monterey and Del Monte State Beaches

Monterey State Beach
Monterey State Beach | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Beaches in Monterey come in all shapes and sizes. From rugged alcoves littered with wildlife to broad beaches better for swimming, there's something for all types of ocean vacations. One of the most popular stretches of seaside begins just east of Monterey Municipal Wharf #2. Here, the sand spans for miles up the coastline, connecting several designated beaches.

Monterey Municipal Beach is the closest to the wharf. It's not a long beach, but it's very popular, thanks to its proximity to parking and the rest of the waterfront district. It's also a popular beach for swimming and accessing the water, as the wharf blocks the otherwise unsafe swimming conditions found in the rest of the region.

Monterey State Beach and Del Monte Beach are next along the coast from Monterey Municipal Beach. The state beach is divided into two sections, with Del Monte State Beach in the middle. The section of Monterey State Beach closest to the wharf also goes by the name Window on the Bay Beach, perhaps due to the landscaped entry points afforded by Monterey Bay Park.

Del Monte State Beach
Del Monte State Beach | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The northern section of Monterey State Beach surrounds the Monterey Tides hotel. Del Monte Beach, in the middle, offers a nice long and quiet stretch of ocean. No immediate parking is available, making this beach the spot to go to avoid the crowds.

6. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

South of Carmel, about 15 minutes from Monterey, is a beautiful stretch of coastline encompassed by Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. The reserve is one of the best places to visit for photography, walking, or simply appreciating nature. Plan to arrive early, as parking is a challenge on the weekends.

The outstanding scenery comprises dramatic granite cliffs and unusual rock formations created by the erosion, as well as headlands, caves, and rock-enclosed ponds. Waves crash on the rocks, while tidal pools reveal small marine life. Several beaches are also at Point Lobos, including the largest stretch of sand, Gibson Beach.

A number of interesting hiking trails in the area offer fabulous views over the headlands, ocean, and meadows. Nearly all points of interest require a short if a not moderate hike to reach. If lucky, visitors spot sea otters; seals; sea lions; and during the winter months, whales.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve also includes a large section of underwater area, where scuba diving is popular.

7. Wildlife Viewing at Coast Guard Pier

Coast Guard Pier
Coast Guard Pier | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

If interested in wildlife viewing or photography in the Monterey area, this is the place to come. Located between Old Fisherman's Wharf and Cannery Row, next to San Carlos Beach, Coast Guard Pier is frequented by large numbers of sea lions, harbor seals, and sea otters, as well as seabirds. You'll be able to hear the seals barking as you approach.

The pier is actually a 1700-foot breakwater built in the 1930s and later covered over with a wharf. Today, it is the home port of the US Coast Guard Cutter Long Island. Fishing is allowed on the north side of the pier.

Apart from a small parking fee, access is free. The pier is also accessible from the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail if you're traveling from other attractions in the area.

Apart from a small parking fee, access is free.

8. Monterey State Historic Park

Monterey State Historic Park
Monterey State Historic Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Monterey State Historic Park is next to the waterfront in Old Monterey, which was once the capital of California. The park consists of historic homes and buildings, some of which are adobe, and many date to the early 19th century.

The area is relatively compact, and attractions are linked by following yellow tiles on the sidewalks, making it very easy to explore. In addition to the stately homes and buildings, the gardens are particularly impressive. These range from stunning rose gardens to cypress hedges and an educational herb garden.

From the Custom House Garden, you can see out to Monterey Harbor. Look down while you're walking through the park to see the rare whalebone sidewalk. The state historic park is often a jumping-off point for exploring Cannery Row and the rest of the waterfront.

Address: 20 Custom House Plaza, Monterey, California

9. Monterey Bay Coastal Trail

Monterey Bay Coastal Trail
Monterey Bay Coastal Trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

This 18-mile paved path follows the coastline from Castroville to Pacific Grove. You can walk, jog, ride a bike, push a stroller, walk a dog, or zip along on a skateboard.

Benches along the way provide rest spots. Snack bars are ideal for grabbing a quick bite, or you can settle in at one of the restaurants for a leisurely lunch.

The trail offers a pleasant way to make your way around Monterey. Major attractions along the way include Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row, Old Fisherman's Wharf, and the American Tin Cannery outlet mall.

10. Dennis the Menace Playground

Twisted trees in Dennis the Menace Playground
Twisted trees in Dennis the Menace Playground

Dennis the Menace Playground is named after the comic book character and is a locals' favorite when it comes to kids' parks. It's also a great place to take children when visiting Monterey.

The park features slides and other play structures, a maze, and a lion-shaped drinking fountain for children. Mr. Hank Ketchum, the creator of Dennis the Menace, was a Monterey resident and was involved in the creation of the park.

Address: 777 Pearl Street, Monterey, California

11. Lovers Point Park and Beach

Lovers Point Park
Lovers Point Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Lovers Point Park is one of the beautiful parklands on the Monterey Peninsula. It's at the end of 17th Street in Pacific Grove and accessible via the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail. The park encompasses 4.4 acres, including open grassy areas, beautiful sandy beaches, and the rocky outcropping known as Lovers Point.

The beaches at Lovers Point Park are unique in that they face east. This provides a rare opportunity for early risers to enjoy the sunrise on the West Coast. And the beaches are popular throughout the rest of the day, many thanks to their idyllic surroundings.

Spend some time exploring Lovers Point at the park and admiring the long views up and down the coastline. And for those that build up an appetite, the on-site Beach House Restaurant offers several casual options nearby. Plenty of picnic tables within the park support picnicking outside.

The park is also a convenient place to access the water with your kayak or canoe, scuba gear, or stand-up paddleboard.

12. Monterey Museum of Art

Monterey Museum of Art
Monterey Museum of Art | Ed Bierman / photo modified

The Monterey Museum of Art has a large focus on California art and artists. There are two separate locations: The Pacific Street location, simply called the Monterey Museum, focuses on photography and contemporary art, with names like Ansel Adams, Armin Hansen, William Ritschel, and Edward Weston to name just a few.

The second location, the Monterey Museum of Art - La Mirada, is housed in a beautiful old mansion surrounded by lush grounds and a lovely rose garden. It displays changing exhibitions.

Official site: http://www.montereyart.org/

13. San Carlos Beach

San Carlos Beach
San Carlos Beach | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

San Carlos Beach is next to the Coast Guard Pier and easily accessible via the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail. It's a popular spot for scuba diving and discovering the sunken treasures from the nearby Cannery Row. It's also a popular spot to simply admire the postcard ocean scene, or enjoy a meal outside, with picnic tables and parkland at the backend of the beach.

Within Cannery Row, McAbee Beach also provides a nice coastal respite from the surrounding tourist attractions. This small beach is only accessible at low tide and is another common spot to start a scuba diving adventure. The Cannery Row Monument, part of the Steinbeck Plaza, sits above the beach and has several seating options and viewpoints.

Where to Stay in Monterey for Sightseeing

We recommend these great hotels in Monterey with easy access to top attractions like Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium:

  • Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa: This luxury beachfront resort offers traditional room decor, a deluxe rooftop spa, oceanfront restaurant, and loaner bikes.
  • Spindrift Inn: The Spindrift Inn is a mid-range oceanfront resort. Some of the best touches are the plush canopy beds, wood-burning fireplaces, marble bathrooms, and the rooftop garden.
  • Best Western Plus Victorian Inn: You can find affordable rates at this Victorian-style building, along with cozy rooms, gas fireplaces, and free breakfast and evening reception.
  • Lone Oak Lodge: This is an excellent budget hotel with modern room decor, cottages with kitchenettes, and a Jacuzzi room and sauna.
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