There’s a U.S. destination that seemingly has it all: pristine beaches, whale watching, dramatic overlooks by the bay where you can listen to the waves and hear the sounds of the sea lions that gather. Monterey, California, has all of this plus plenty to do on Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf. Monterey celebrates 250 years this year with historical walking tours and food and history tours. If all of this wasn’t enough to draw the 4.6 million tourists Monterey sees each year, then it could be the seafood. If you crave fresh seafood, bounties of calamari, oysters, and crab in various incarnations wait for you in Monterey.
I was hosted by the Monterey County CVB and stayed at the Asilomar Conference Grounds at Asilomar State Park. I also enjoyed a food and history tour of the city and a visit to the aquarium. Here’s what I found.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a destination on its own. More than 2 million visitors each year come to view the more than 35,000 creatures that represent more than 550 species. Located on the waterfront, the aquarium looks out over one of the most beautiful coastlines in California. This nonprofit facility located along Cannery Row features more than 200 exhibits that are windows to the wonders of the ocean.
Spend a few hours or the entire day discovering and watching sea life. Purchase a day pass or a membership to support this nonprofit, which is dedicated to education and inspiring conservation of the ocean.
You can also visit as an armchair traveler: Watch one of their live cams to view the sharks, penguins, or even Monterey Bay itself. The sea otter exhibit is particularly fun to watch from home as the otters are known to pound on toys containing food, which are given to them to stimulate their natural behavior of pounding and working to get food out of shells.
Designated as the Official Regional Wine Visitor’s Center, A Taste of Monterey showcases the fine wines of 90 Monterey County wineries with a wine bar, educational center, market, and bistro. Located in a renovated sardine cannery, you’ll connect with the Monterey wine industry in a historical setting. Taste wine with the stunning Monterey Bay as a backdrop. A Taste of Monterey welcomes more than 100,000 guests annually and presents 250 wines from 75 different wineries. And since you won’t be able to sample more than a few wines in the tasting rooms, you may want to return home with access to Monterey County vines via the Monterey Wine Club.
You can also take the River Road Wine Trail, located less than 20 miles from Monterey. This association of Monterey County wineries offers a chance to taste local wines in tasting rooms located mainly along the River Road/Foothill corridor. Sample limited release vintages in an intimate setting, often with the actual winemaker.
Rent An E-Bike
Electric bicycles are a great way to get around Monterey. Big Sur Adventures is one of a few companies that provides 750-watt motor bicycles that make hill climbing and long distances easy for every rider. Rent an electric bike to discover the downtown area, Cannery Row, or Fisherman’s Wharf on your own, or take a guided bicycle tour of the Pacific Grove coastline, Pebble Beach, or another scenic area. The 17-Mile Drive Tour takes you on one of the most picturesque rides past seaside views, famous golf courses, and amazing mansions on a 3.5-hour tour rated for beginner to intermediate riders.
For a more challenging ride, the Old Coast Road Tour takes you on a backcountry adventure that follows the original wagon trail into Big Sur. The tour lasts 3 hours and is deemed intermediate because pedaling is required. Fans of the Emmy-winning series Big Little Lies can view filming locations on a ride down the coast. This tour lasts 2 to 2.5 hours and is rated beginner to intermediate.
Path Of History Tour
As Monterey celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, take a self-guided walking tour of the Path of History. Follow the yellow tiles in the sidewalk or download a map or tour app. You’ll discover important adobes and structures like Colton Hall, Custom House Plaza, Pacific House, and the Golden State Theatre.
Discover The Coast
There’s an ocean activity for every water lover in Monterey Bay. Take a whale watching tour that sets sail from Fisherman’s Wharf, learn to surf, or take a guided kayak tour. You can even take a shark tour! Drive one of the most scenic routes in the world: the 17-Mile Drive. There, you’ll see the Lone Cypress, can stroll the boardwalk above the beach at Spanish Bay, and more.
Eating And Drinking In Monterey
There are an array of dining options in downtown Monterey, along Cannery Row, beachside, and on Fisherman’s Wharf. During my visit, I took a food tour with Monterey Bay Food Tours to experience the freshness and variety of Monterey’s offerings. During the several-hour tour, Casey Aguilar, who started the first and only walking food tour in Monterey, explained the history of the buildings as we walked gardens and sampled a variety of tasty seafood dishes, drinks, and desserts.
I took a food tour in Chicago once that left most of us hungry at the end. That won’t happen in Monterey. Not only will you get beer and wine samples, you’ll also receive a succulent variety of fairly large portions at five or six different stops. The restaurants may change, but during our visit, the first stop was for an almond croissant from Paris Bakery alongside a coffee from Nitro Cycle, a mobile coffee shop. Second stop was at Paluca Trattoria, featured in Big Little Lies Season 1, for a glass of wine and a lobster ravioli overlooking the bay. Next up was a sampling of treats at Epsilon Fine Greek Restaurant, then a Banana Split Stout and meatloaf with mashed potatoes at Melville Tavern, a chocolate mousse in the garden from Alta Bakery (it was delicious and interesting, as a native of Kansas City -- where Christopher Elbow chocolates reign -- to learn that the chef and co-owner at Alta Bakery trained under Christopher Elbow to make his painted chocolates), and a tour and tasting at Revival Ice Cream. We finished at Puma Road Winery with cheese from Schoch Family Farmstead (the only Monterey Jack cheese still made in Monterey County) and chocolate from Heritage Chocolates Corralitos. No, we definitely didn’t leave hungry. It was a delightful day of tasting some California firsts and other local products.
Shopping In Monterey
You won’t want for shopping opportunities in Monterey, either. Many are within walking distance. There are an abundance of boutiques and tourist shops at Fisherman’s Wharf, along Cannery Row, and in the old downtown area.
Downtown, while taking the walking history tour, stop into places like the Old Monterey Farmers Market, which takes up 3.5 city blocks and is open year-round. Also downtown is the unique Joseph Boston Store, which offers 1850s-themed merchandise, history books, and locally made artisan products like elderberry cordials and syrups, soaps, honey, jams, and teas. Enjoy the outdoor gardens there; proceeds from the store support the preservation of the historic gardens of Monterey.
Cannery Row is home to waterfront hotels, boutiques, and restaurants. This one-time sardine packing district, immortalized by John Steinbeck, is now a lively shopping district. If tourist items are on your shopping list, be sure to visit Fisherman’s Wharf to shop for candy, jewelry, gifts, and more while watching the sea life on the bay.
Where To Stay In Monterey
I stayed at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in nearby Pacific Grove. This former YMCA camp located inside a state park is rustic and charming. Where else can you feel like you’re in the mountains yet be located right on the ocean? Pacific Grove sits at the tip of the Monterey Peninsula. The Asilomar Conference grounds encompass 107 acres of protected California State Park beachfront land between Monterey and Pebble Beach. Asilomar is the combination of two Spanish words: asilo, meaning “refuge,” and mar, meaning “sea.”
Asilomar has been America’s refuge by the sea, an idyllic oceanfront getaway, for more than 100 years. Julia Morgan, Hearst Castle architect, designed the original buildings at the recommendation of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, William Randolph Hearst’s mother. You can stay in historic buildings or cottages; all rooms are rustic and low on technology -- on purpose -- to keep the atmosphere simple and relaxing, so there are no televisions, telephones, or coffee makers in the rooms (I did request, and receive, a coffee maker since I like coffee while working). There is Wi-Fi in the rooms, though. Dining options include the Crocker Dining Hall. which serves California fresh menus and Phoebe’s Cafe, which features organic beverages, sandwiches, salads, and sweet treats. You’ll feel like you're away from it all, yet it’s only a short drive to Monterey.
Or stay right in the center of activity at Cannery Row at the Monterey Bay Inn. The views, no matter which room you pick, are amazing. Choose between views of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, San Carlos Beach, the boat harbor, or Cannery Row. This luxury “green” hotel offers spacious rooms with dramatic views, private balconies, marble and granite bathrooms, and an ideal location for shopping and exploring Monterey. Green Certification means the Monterey Bay Inn meets the Green Seal Environmental Standard for Lodging Properties for waste minimization, water and energy efficiency, hazardous substances handling, and environmentally responsible purchasing.
Monterey Visitor’s Pro Tip
You’ll want to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium during off-peak hours as there are generally hundreds of schoolchildren visiting during peak hours. During my visit on a Sunday, we were told to wait until about 4 p.m. to miss the crowds.
Vacationing in California? Don’t miss “Exploring Steinbeck Country: 8 Fascinating Things To Do” or our tips on how to spend a perfect day in Stinson Beach.