Planning a trip to Monterey, California?
It's such a beautiful area, with so many fun things to do.
We left the day after school got out and desperately needed a relaxing vacation. We kept our itinerary loose and found that Monterey was exactly what we wanted. There are plenty of fun things to do here, but you don't need to overschedule or plan a lot in advance to “win” Monterey.
Here are my family's favorite activities in and near Monterey, California.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
I'm not sure you can say you've been to Monterey unless you've visited the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. We spent 3-4 hours exploring the exhibits. My favorites were the otters and Open Ocean.
We ate an early lunch in the on-site cafeteria and snagged a table with a view of Monterey Bay. We spotted wild otters and sea lions while we ate. My 12-year-old son wants to be a marine biologist, and this was his favorite activity of the trip.
Learn more at https://www.montereybayaquarium.org/.
Cannery Row was the center of this region's fish canning industry in the first half of the twentieth century. Local author John Steinbeck immortalized this street in his 1945 novel Cannery Row. The neighborhood transitioned from seedy to swanky as the fishing industry declined and tourism grew.
Cannery Row is a few blocks long and is filled with shopping, dining, waterfront scenery and luxury hotels. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is located at the end of Cannery Row.
Learn more at https://canneryrow.com/.
Fisherman's Wharf is adjacent to downtown Monterey, about 1.5 miles from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row. Whale watching tours, fishing charters and private boats still dock here.
My kids loved all the candy shops on Fisherman's Wharf. My husband loved all the free clam chowder samples in the afternoon. We spotted an otter in the bay from Fisherman's Wharf and dropped a few quarters into the coin-operated binoculars for a closer look.
Learn more at https://www.montereywharf.com/.
Monterey State Historic Park
Monterey was an important port and early capital under Spanish and American Rule. The Custom House, built in 1827, was the center of the local government and economy. The U.S. flag was raised here at the end of the Mexican War, bringing California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico into the United States in 1846.
Twenty buildings, plus gardens and public spaces have been preserved as Monterey State Historic Park in downtown Monterey. You can tour some of them and learn what life was like then. We didn't spend a lot of time here, but enjoyed wandering through. It's all open and there is no admission charge.
Learn more at https://www.mshpa.org/.
Selfieville is one of Monterey's newest activities, and it's completely different from anything else on this list. I didn't think that I was Selfieville's target audience, but after a full day of touring Monterey, I walked into Selfieville feeling tired and walked out with fresh energy. It was really fun.
Selfieville is located in the upper floors of the historic Golden State Theatre. You'll start with a dazzling laser light show in the theatre, then photo op your way through two floors of murals, black lights, props, theme rooms and frames. My teen daughter got lots of “Where is that? I must go there!” when she posted her Selfieville photos on Instagram.
Learn more at https://selfieville.com/.
Monterey Bay is a great place to see whales. Several species live in the area year-round, and others migrate past this section of the California coast annually. You could see humpback, blue, and gray whales – among others.
We did not take a whale watching tour in Monterey, but have done it in other places. It's pretty amazing to spot a whale in the wild. There are several whale watching companies on Fisherman's Wharf. Book in advance for best availability. Dress for the weather, then add at least one layer.
Learn more at https://www.seemonterey.com/whale-watching/.
Ride the Free Trolley
We were advised by See Monterey to pay $7 to park all day in the Downtown East parking structure, then take the free trolley around the city. It was a good tip. Street parking and free parking are elusive near Monterey's popular attractions. There are several other parking structures downtown and on Cannery Row, but rates vary.
You can walk between downtown Monterey and Cannery Row. They are about 1.5 miles apart. There is a paved path along the shore for walking and biking.
If you plan to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium as soon as it opens, consider the public parking garage on Cannery Row or start your day with a scenic walk from downtown. We parked downtown and then realized that trolley service starts 30 minutes after the Aquarium opens. We easily filled the time at Fisherman's Wharf and Monterey State Historic Park, but missed getting an early start at the Aquarium.
Don't you love that sign? Moss Landing, just north of Monterey on Highway 1, is a great place to see sea otters in the wild.
Otters paddle by the dozens in the calm waters of Elkhorn Slough. It's also a great place for bird watching and other wildlife sightings. You can rent kayaks or book a boat tour nearby.
The Pacific Ocean and a beautiful sandy beach are just on the other side of the bluff. It was practically deserted on the morning we were there. It's not a great swimming beach because the waves are big and the water is cold. We enjoyed a morning walk and my kids found a few shells.
Learn more at https://www.seemonterey.com/regions/moss-landing/.
Related: Where to See Otters in Morro Bay
National Steinbeck Center
John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, near Monterey. The National Steinbeck Center is a new interactive museum in downtown Salinas. It has lots of hands-on and multimedia exhibits for all ages. My kids (ages 15 and 12) thought it was OK and I'm hoping they'll now appreciate Steinbeck more when they read Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath in school.
My husband and I are avid readers and we were in nerd heaven here.
Downtown Salinas is new and clean, with lots of fun shops and restaurants. I sent my kids to Starbucks with treat money when they finished early at the museum. My teen daughter LOVED the big antique shop a few doors down. John Steinbeck's childhood home is within a short walk, and is now a restaurant.
Learn more at http://www.steinbeck.org/.
Some of the fresh produce I buy in my neighborhood grocery store is grown here in Monterey County. Farm fresh strawberries taste so much better!
We saw lots of farm stands and stopped at several as we traveled this area. Our KOA cabin had a kitchen, so fresh local fruit was a fun addition to our meals. Bring your reusable shopping bags.
We spent two full days in Monterey County and I feel like we just scratched the surface. That said, the time we spent was satisfying. Monterey is a place you don't want to rush through.
I hope this list gives you a few ideas for your own family trip to Monterey, California. For more ideas, tips and itineraries, visit the official Monterey website at www.seemonterey.com
Disclosure: We received complimentary admission to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Selfieville for the purpose of review. All opinions are my own.