Whether you’re a John Steinbeck fan or just love being close to the ocean, Monterey is an ideal weekend getaway along California’s Central Coast. It’s big enough to offer visitors plenty to do but small enough to get around quickly and easily.
Stroll along the historic Cannery Row, kayak through the bay in search of sea otters, or just sit on the sand watching the waves roll in. And when you get hungry, head out for some local seafood. You will return home relaxed and looking forward to your next trip to Monterey.
Things To Do In Monterey
There’s a surprising number of things to do in Monterey and the surrounding towns, and most of it is focused on the sea. Thanks in part to the kelp forests just off the coast, the water is teeming with fish, sea lions, harbor seals, and sea otters, while the skies above are dotted with seabirds. The result is one of the most scenic stretches of coast in California.
Paddle Through The Bay
The waters off the coast of Monterey are a federally protected national marine sanctuary, and one of the best ways to explore it is in a kayak. As you paddle out, start looking for sea lions, seals, and sea otters. While kayakers are asked to stay at least 100 feet away from sea life, occasionally a curious seal pup will pop up next to a boat. Be sure to look down at the lush kelp forests that are full of marine life. Then look back at the rocky shore that is hiding dozens of tide pools.
If you’re already an experienced kayaker, you can just rent equipment from a local vendor like Monterey Bay Kayaks. But if you prefer an organized tour, check out a company like Adventures by the Sea. Tours are a great way to learn more about the area. And if you’d prefer other options for getting out on the water, try renting a hydrobike or paddleboard.
Stroll Old Fisherman’s Wharf
Monterey’s Old Fisherman’s Wharf dates to 1845, when passenger ships arrived four times a week, and the sardine industry was exploding. Over the next 50 years, the wharf was expanded several times, and it became a vital part of the city’s success. But when the sardines began to disappear, the wharf became more of a tourist attraction. Today, there are dozens of restaurants and shops along the wharf that draw visitors from around the world.
Take some time to explore the wharf and enjoy views of the harbor. You’ll likely see brown pelicans perched on the railings and may even spot a sea otter in the water. This is a great place for souvenir shopping if you need to bring home a few gifts. And whether you need a snack or a meal, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to choose from.
Explore Cannery Row
Ocean Avenue was once home to many fish canneries, a booming business during World Wars I and II. While he was living in Monterey, novelist John Steinbeck became fascinated by the people living in this part of the city around the time the sardine industry was rapidly declining. His enormously popular book Cannery Row brought worldwide attention to Monterey, and eventually the city council renamed the street to honor Steinbeck. In the late 1960s, the revitalization of Cannery Row began, and today it’s a popular shopping and dining spot.
On the ocean side of Cannery Row are a few scenic viewpoints. Grab a cup of coffee or an ice cream cone, sit back, and watch the waves roll in. If you enjoy wine, head indoors to A Taste of Monterey Wine Market & Bistro for a glass of your favorite vino along with spectacular bay views.
For more Steinbeck-related attractions in the area, see this piece.
Learn About The Ocean
At the end of Cannery Row is one of the best-known attractions in California, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. With 200 exhibits and 80,000 plants and animals, it is among the most impressive aquariums in the world. While it's a great place to bring the grandkids, adults will also find plenty to love.
Set aside at least half a day for the aquarium, because there is so much to see. Some of the most popular attractions include the sea otters, the penguins, and the giant Pacific octopus.
Please note that the aquarium is a very popular attraction! To save yourself time in line, purchase your tickets in advance online. And to get up close to the exhibits, be sure to arrive early.
Go Walking Along The Coast
When you’re ready for some exercise, head out on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. This paved trail hugs the coast for 18 miles beginning in the north at Castroville and ending in Pacific Grove. Along the way, you’ll pass Old Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. If you don’t have time for the whole trail, try starting at the aquarium and continuing south to Pacific Grove -- this very scenic stretch of trail is really enjoyable.
See Oodles Of Otters
About 30 minutes north of Monterey is Elkhorn Slough, a 7-mile tract of tidal marsh that’s home to plenty of birds, mammals, fish, and plants. But what is especially exciting about Elkhorn Slough is the large numbers of sea otters that can be seen there. Often these otters rest together in what is called a raft, behavior that is rare in the open ocean or an aquarium.
With 5 miles of trails open to visitors, hiking is one way to explore the slough. Another way is to reserve a 2-hour Elkhorn Slough Safari. Glide through the water on a pontoon boat while your guide discusses the slough’s ecosystem. Or rent a kayak to explore the water on your own (just remember to keep at least 100 feet away from the sea mammals).
Best Restaurants In Monterey
You’ll definitely want to sample the local seafood while you’re in Monterey. And fortunately there are plenty of great restaurants to try.
One of the best-reviewed restaurants in town is the Monterey Fish House. The owner has extensive ties to the Monterey community and has been working in local restaurants since he was a child. If you like oysters, then definitely start with at least a dozen. Then ask for the specials, since these will include fish caught the same morning in the bay.
The Fish Hopper is located along Cannery Row, so you may think it’s a tourist trap, but that’s not the case. Not only do they serve really fresh and delicious seafood, but it also comes with amazing bay views. If you want to try a local fish, order the sand dabs. Come around sunset for an extra-special experience.
Domenico’s on the Wharf is a Monterey institution. Opened in 1981, this casual fine-dining spot offers a large selection of fish and seafood along with lovely views of the harbor. The crab chowder is highly recommended by locals. Be sure to request a table by the window and keep an eye out for seals and sea otters.
Best Hotels In Monterey
Monterey has a wide selection of hotels, many with excellent bay views. And if you’re looking for luxury accommodations, you won’t be disappointed.
The Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa is located on Cannery Row within walking distance of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This high-end hotel offers many bay-view rooms, top-notch restaurants, and a spa that features rooftop hot tubs.
For a bay-view room with a balcony, consider the Monterey Bay Inn. Make it an especially romantic weekend by booking a room with a fireplace. This environmentally friendly property is also on Cannery Row, making it a convenient location for your weekend.
If you prefer a small and charming bed and breakfast, then the Jabberwock Inn is perfect. This Craftsman-style inn is set on a half acre of gardens and includes lovely views of Monterey Bay. In the afternoon, guests can enjoy wine and hors d’oeuvres, and after dinner, there are cookies and milk.
What To Know Before You Go
Monterey has a very mild climate with average daily temperatures ranging from 61 to 72 degrees. So be sure to dress in layers and bring a sweater or jacket for the evening, especially if you’ll be dining outdoors. Summer is a really busy time in this part of the state, so if you want to avoid crowds, come during the winter, spring, or fall.
With its beautiful ocean views, great attractions, and loads of good restaurants, it’s easy to fall in love with Monterey. After a memorable weekend here, you’ll likely make plans to return!