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Head to one of the best Central Coast destinations and experience the top things to do in Monterey.
6 min read
December 31, 2020
As the crisp ocean air blows through your hair in Monterey, you’ll notice the striking combination of a small-town ambience with exhilarating natural wonders and wildlife. There’s nothing quite like this stunning coastal town, and it’s only a couple of hours away from San Francisco and other major NorCal metropolises, making it a prime destination for city slickers looking for a Central Coast escape. Unforgettable adventures await you, so it’s time you pack your bags and head to charming Monterey.
Once you arrive, it won’t take you long to realize that Monterey is a special place—as one of the best Central Coast getaway destinations, the town offers an abundance of unforgettable activities. Whether it’s whale watching or playing golf, here are our favorite things to do in Monterey.
Thanks to Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, Ocean View Avenue was renamed Cannery Row in January 1958. The waterfront street bordering the city of Pacific Grove is exactly how the famous author describes it—a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Back in the day, Cannery Row in Monterey was essentially a street full of sardine canning factories. Now, it’s a popular tourist destination that houses the hottest Monterey hotels and restaurants.
As you’re strolling through Cannery Row, head over to the north end of the street to check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium—one of the best aquariums in California. When the aquarium opened in 1984, it was the first of its kind to exhibit a living kelp forest. Here, you’ll find the most elaborate displays of jellyfish, too. Visitors walk into the Monterey Bay Aquarium to submerge themselves amongst these ancient creatures. If jellyfish aren’t your favorite sea creatures, check out the shark, sea turtle, and coral exhibits at this downtown Monterey attraction.
The Golden State Theatre was erected in Monterey, California, back in 1926—it was considered to be the largest theater between S.F. and L.A. For a while, the theater was the definition of an opulent movie palace not just in Monterey, but in the entire country. World-renowned musicians like B.B. King and Willie Nelson have taken the stage here. So, whenever you’re driving from San Francisco to Monterey, make sure to attend a show at the Golden State Theatre.
Even if you experience the Scenic 17-Mile Drive a million times, the scenery will always dazzle you. Hugging the stunning Pacific coastline, the road takes you past imposing mansions, verdant golf courses, and several must-see attractions. The 17-Mile Drive allows you to experience the natural beauty of the Monterey Peninsula. You’ll also come across the symbol of Pebble Beach: the Lone Cypress. Easily one of the best things to do in Monterey, the 17-Mile Drive is sure to leave a lasting impression on you.
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Did you know that the first designated California Historical Landmark is in Monterey? The Old Customhouse is the oldest U.S. government building in the Golden State. The building was constructed in the 1820s by the Mexican government back when Monterey was part of Alta California. The purpose of the Customhouse was to collect taxes on imported goods such as sugar, rice, coffee, and other products. It was right here where Commodore John Drake Sloat raised the American flag and claimed California as a part of the U.S. On June 1, 1932, the Old Customhouse became the first California Historical Landmark.
Whale watching in Monterey is an unforgettable experience. Orcas, humpback, gray, and blue whales can dive as deep as 7,000 feet underwater, but during whale watching season, these colossal marine mammals can easily be spotted at Monterey Bay. Book a tour with Monterey Bay Whale Watch or Princess Monterey Whale Watching to view the enormous sea creatures. No matter how many times you go whale watching in Monterey, each experience is unique.
Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey has come a long way. Previously an active wholesale fish market, it is now the hottest tourist attraction in the area and is lined with delectable seafood restaurants, souvenir shops, art galleries, and jewelry stores. Tasting handmade saltwater taffy from Carousel Candies is a must when visiting Fisherman’s Wharf. You should also check out one of the largest paintings of the famous Lone Cypress Tree at Harbor House Gifts and try Crabby Jim’s famous clam chowder when you’re at the Monterey pier.
Extending 18 miles from Castroville to Pacific Grove, the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail is situated along the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The path is one of the most unique features in the area; you’ll see the top attractions in Monterey along the way—Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf peek at you while you’re traversing the trail. Every step you take on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail offers striking views of pristine beaches and lush parks.
Designed by Robert Muir Graves in 1963, Monterey Pines Golf Course is an 18-hole, par 69 golf course known to residents as the “Navy Course.” This local’s favorite is regarded as the best golf course in Monterey, CA. The well-maintained grounds are perfect for getting in a good practice round that’s also simultaneously challenging. Featuring breathtaking scenery, Monterey Pines Golf Course is the ideal place to play a round or two without breaking the bank—it definitely deserves to be on your California golf course bucket list.
Want to have a truly unforgettable experience? Take the highest jump on California’s Central Coast with Skydive Monterey Bay and drop 18,000 feet through the air. Crashing waves and sand dunes slowly emerge as you soar among the feathery clouds of Monterey’s blue sky. By the time you take in the stunning panoramas from a bird’s-eye view, you’ll completely forget about your fear of heights. There’s nothing more memorable than skydiving over Monterey Bay.
The Point Sur Lighthouse sits atop a 361-foot-tall volcanic rock, keeping an eye on the boats to warn them of dangerous areas. Established in 1889, the hilltop lighthouse measures 40 feet tall and stands 270 feet above sea level. Touring the Point Sur Lighthouse is a must—it’s the only complete turn-of-the-20th-century light station open to the public in the Golden State. The designated California Historical Landmark invites visitors for a three-hour walking tour on Wednesdays and weekends so they can learn more about the history of the lighthouse.
The Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo is the oldest stone building in the Golden State. Also known as the Royal Presidio Chapel, the sandstone cathedral was built between 1791 and 1794 in the Spanish Colonial style. The cathedral is also the only existing building in the original Monterey Presidio; as the oldest continuously operating parish in California, the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo was registered as a National Historic Landmark in 1960. Ask any history buff about their favorite thing to do in Monterey, and the most common answer you’ll hear is paying a visit to the 200-year-old structure.
Built in 1854, the Old Monterey Jail served as the city’s jail for a little over a century. No one ever managed or dared to escape the prison’s thick granite and iron walls. The firmest iron-work produced at the time was used to construct the impenetrable fortress—almost no wood was used. The Old Monterey Jail was officially closed in 1959. Now, the historic site is open to the public as a part of the Colton Hall Museum. Visiting the jail is always an interesting thing to do in Monterey.
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