I moved to California knowing that it wouldn’t be home forever, but just recently have I started taking advantage of my surroundings. I’ve been saving money for the big trips while enjoying the small stuff nearby, and haven’t had to go far, really! San Francisco is just a skip away from some of the world’s best national parks, home to a few of the best music festivals, and full of enough quirky activities to keep you busy for a lifetime. And as much as I would have hated to admit it 3 years ago, I’ve got to say – California is pretty damn awesome. Last weekend, I finally got myself out on a much awaited trip to Monterey. I heard that the Monterey Bay Aquarium was pretty rad, but I knew that there had to be more things to do in Monterey beyond just voyeuring at marine life. I finally locked in a whale watching excursion, hopped in the car at an hour too early for Sunday, and set off for Monterey.
Headed to Monterey? I’ve pulled a list of 8 can’t miss travel experiences and things to do in Monterey! Don’t just see it, experience it.
The 8 Best Travel Experiences in Monterey
1. Go Whale Watching
It may be a universal truth that any place identified as a “fisherman’s wharf” is more of a tourist trap than a boatman’s reprieve, but as soon as you leave the dock, whale watching in Monterey is well worth your while. Depending on the time of year, a trip out to Monterey Submarine Canyon (about one hour by boat) will land you amongst feeding dolphins, killer whales, blue whales, and beyond. Tip: Look for deals on Groupon to get the best rate on your whale watching trip in Monterey! Smaller boats are always better if you can afford it.
2. Pitch a Tent in Big Sur
A drive along the Pacific Coast Highway is an iconic one for a reason. If you’re lucky enough to be in Monterey without storm or fire, be sure to drive Big Sur – the stretch of Highway 1 between Carmel and San Simeon. Winding along cliffs and coastline on a tiny 2-lane road is an adventure in and of itself, but snag a campsite near McWay Falls and Cove for a seriously gorgeous stay. Not only is this one of the best things to do in Monterey, but arguably one of the best spots to camp in all of the USA. While you’re there, don’t miss Pfieffer Beach and the Bixby Creek Bridge! Check out RoverPass for some of the best campgrounds in Monterey. Tip: Check the news before visiting as this stretch of highway and state park often close for a natural disaster. Big Sur has been closed every time I’ve tried to visit!
3. Swim with the Fishes at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
I have strong opinions on animal tourism, but I’d heard great things about the Monterey Bay Aquarium ($49.95) before I ever decided to go. The aquarium operates as a non-profit and has a conservational and educational focus. With sea otters, penguins, a massive kelp forest, and a stunning assortment of jellyfish, you can’t help but enjoy this look into the deep. Note: Be sure to do your research before visiting any zoo, aquarium, or wildlife park. I’m still a bit leery of touch tanks, larger fish, and mammals in captivity. That being said, I found the Monterey Bay Aquarium exhibits to be spacious and appreciated that the majority of their animals were rescued and incapable of living in the wild.
4. Soak it out at the Refuge Spa in Carmel
Refuge aims to provide affordable relaxation through thermal pools. With a cedar sauna, 6 medium-hot pools, 4 plunge pools, and relaxation areas on 2 acres of land, you can spend the day rotating between pools and taking in “the Refuge Thermal Cycle’s” long list of benefits. Admission is only $44, which puts just about any competing spa experience to shame. Tip: Bring your own towel and robe to avoid the extra $12 charge.
5. Stay in a Yurt or Human Nest at Treebones
I’ve done a hell of a lot more camping than glamping, but Treebones Resort at Big Sur is my when I have thousands of dollars to spare kind of place. For between $150-$500, you can stay in a human nest, yurt, or autonomous tent, and enjoy some of the best views in all of California. The yurts and tents come furnished, while the human nest is pretty much (…exactly) like it sounds. If you want your accommodation to be a full-on experience, Treebones is inevitably one of the most unique things to do in Monterey. Tip: This place books up months in advance. If you’re flexible on when to go, follow Treebones on Twitter for last minute cancellations and availability.
6. Bike [Don’t Drive] the 17-Mile-Drive
Deemed as one of the world’s most scenic stretches of road, 17-Mile-Drive meanders along the coast, passing the famed Pebble Beach Golf Course and incredible estates. I was hungry and tired by the time I decided to undertake the drive and was only 3-miles in before regret started to seep in. Don’t get me wrong – the scenery was lovely! But I didn’t pay $10 to drive past rich people’s houses and elbow my way into tourist hoards for a single, foggy photo of the Lone Cypress. If you’ve got the time, don’t make my mistake! Rent a bike early in the day and you’ll get to blow right past the entry point without the fee. With nice lighting, thinner crowds, and the opportunity to experience the scenery without stopping every .7 miles for a parking spot, you’ll actually be able to appreciate the beauty of the drive. Tip: California has plenty of other drives worth taking! Check out the best routes in California on The Manini Experience or explore other open roads in the US on Maria Abroad.
7. Eat Garlic + Artichokes in the Nearby Food Capitals
If you’re into local food, you won’t want to miss Gilroy’s garlic or the Castroville artichokes. These towns are, after all, the aforementioned food world capitals! Stop to shop for cheap produce and sample the local specialties in all of their forms. If you can appreciate a good roadside attraction, this is certainly one of the most ridiculous things to do in Monterey. And you’ll need a picture of the town sign at the very least. Tip: In town during summer? Hit up the Castroville Artichoke Food & Wine Festival or the Gilroy Garlic Festival!
8. Paddle the Bay by Kayak
I’ve only recently discovered how awesome kayaking is, and kayaking in Monterey Bay is no exception. Whether you opt to go off on your own in a kayak rental or partake in a more extensive guided tour, you’ll have the opportunity to see sea otters, harbor seals, birds, and dolphins in their natural habitat. Tip: Check out Monterey Bay Kayaks, and rent your kayak in the morning to ensure the stillest waters.
Where to Stay in Monterey
Monterey is packed with Travelodges, Ramadas, and Days Inns, but here are a few of the more personality-filled spots that you might consider for your stay in Monterey.
Treebones Resort | Treebones is a kind of legendary place to stay if you’re traveling through Big Sur. You can choose to overnight in a yurt, an autonomous tent, or even a human-sized nest if you’re feeling adventurous, but don’t let the rustic language fool you. The place is far more glamping than camping. 1-hour drive from Monterey! Yurts from $320.
The Jabberwock Bed & Breakfast | The Jabberwock Bed & Breakfast is all about location. It’s just 8-minutes from the beach and a few blocks from Cannery Row while still sitting on nearly half an acre of gardens. The house itself is historical and furnished with eclectic vintage pieces, making this Monterey property quite tough to beat. Doubles from $219.
Airbnb | There are plenty of cute places to stay in Monterey. If you want to ditch the hotel scene, spend some time on Airbnb to find a seaside cottage or studio hideaway for your trip to Monterey. New to Airbnb? Get $40 off your first stay or explore other properties from $50.