Monterey Attractions | What to do in this Californian coastal gem

More than just the inspiration for Steinbeck or the location for TV breakout hit, Big Little Lies, Monterey and the surrounding west coast area – particularly Big Sur – is a must-visit location. Think breathtaking coastal drives, camping, hiking and white sand beaches. But, where to start your Monterey sightseeing tour? Here are a few suggestions for the best Monterey attractions and recommendations for exploring Big Sur.

However, first up, our number one tip for travelling in the area? Head into any store or hotel and ask for your copy of the free newspaper, Monterey County Weekly. The paper lists all the events happening in the town and since Monterey often has weekend festivals (particularly in summer), you could find yourself in the midst of a Greek, Italian, Turkish or even Japanese celebration.

If you’re also keen on Jazz, make sure to visit in September, for the world-renowned Monterey Jazz Festival.

Read next: Looking for the ultimate USA road trip? We’ve got you covered here.

Monterey – what to do

Monterey Bay Aquarium

It’s the number one tourist attraction in the area for good reason and a must on any California road trip. Submerge yourself in a world of leopard sharks and jellyfish in one of the world’s tallest aquariums (the windows just go on forever). They have different exhibits throughout the year which are worth attending, as are the daily feedings of the otters.

Whale Watching

Head to Fisherman’s Wharf in the spring or the late autumn to see majestic humpbacks making their way to Mexico, or returning with their calves. You might also spot a pelican or two.

Cannery Row

Take a walk down Cannery Row, the waterfront street that is the site of heaps of now-defunct sardine-canning factories. The street was actually Ocean View Avenue but renamed in the 1950’s to honour Steinbeck and his novel of the same name.

Pebble Beach

Take 17 mile drive in Pebble Beach; one of the most scenic drives in the world. Iconic stops include The Lone Cypress, as well as Spanish Bay and Pebble Beach Golf Links. Keep in mind that there is a $10 gate fee to drive through it, only payable in cash.

Laguna Seca

Fifteen minutes outside of Monterey off Highway 68, this raceway often has high-speed races and even concerts to enjoy. Check out their website for the latest calendar of events.

Elkhorn Slough

Basically a sanctuary for birds, seals and otters, this is a spectacular stop for Monterey sightseeing and approximately a 20 minute drive north on Highway 1. You can choose from a boat trip or, if feeling more adventurous, a kayak, which is preferable if you’re looking to take your time and really get back to one with nature.

Point Lobos

Keen on hiking and exploring? Pay a quick visit to Point Lobos, a state park in the area. We loved Whaler’s Cove where some local park rangers give you a full rundown of the area. You can drive in and park but since the park is popular, you often need to park on Highway 1 South. This is not really advisable since there are often break-ins, so ensure you don’t leave any valuables in the car.

The Barnyard, Carmel Valley

Essentially a unique shopping area with heaps of restaurants, shops and art galleries, this is a great way to really experience Monterey life.


Last, but definitely not least, visit the wineries!  Go south on Highway 1, turn left onto Carmel Valley Road and you’ll be in vino heaven as wine estates are dotted along the road all the way to the Carmel Valley village. A few favourites are Georis (for the Bordeaux!), Mercy, Boekenoogen and Parsonage.

Where to stay in Monterey

While Monterey is definitely not the cheapest place to live in California, you can get yourself some great accommodation deals. Here are a few that we’d recommend you check out.

LuxuryMonterey Plaza Hotel – situated smack bang on Cannery Row, this hotel is built right on the ocean and is conveniently located near the Aquarium. You could also try the Clement Hotel, although their restaurant leaves a lot to be desired…

Mid-rangeHilton Garden Inn – A stone’s throw from the Peninsula College, this hotel offers standard rooms with a little fridge and a microwave. A good option on a reasonable budget. Alternatively, try the Marriott in downtown Monterey or the Hotel 1110; a firm favourite with a roof deck overlooking the ocean (it can be a bit difficult to park here though!).

BudgetThe Monterey Hotel – On Alvarado street, it’s got a great location and very reasonable rates. We like that it has a boutique feel to it.

Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur

Big Sur

Essentially a 40 minute drive from Monterey down Highway 1 South boasting rugged mountains, redwood forests and a gorgeous Pacific coastline, Big Sur has been immortalized by Jack Kerouac in his book of the same name. It’s most famous for its camping options and best-visited between April to October. Although, of course, visiting in the high season means you need to plan and make reservations ahead of time!

Where to stay in Big Sur


Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground – right off Highway 1, spread out under the redwoods in this fantastic site

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – this is the prime camping spot because it overlooks the ocean. Again, make sure to reserve ahead of time!

Andrew Molera State Park – also has some camping spots you could consider


To be honest, hotels in this area are generally very high-end and can break the bank. There are a few options though:

Luxury – Post Ranch – the most expensive, with room rates at around £700 (approx. $900) a night. The restaurant, however, is very reasonable. Just make sure you make a reservation beforehand.

Mid-rangeBig Sur River Inn/ Big Sur Lodge – Both about £150 ($200) a night and a solid option

BudgetDeetjens Big Sur Inn – Cheaper and a little more of a ‘rustic’ option

We would however recommend our favourite spot in Big Sur – Tassajara Hot. While its pricey (about £240 / $300 a night), they have a wonderful spa including hot springs which will leave you incredibly relaxed. For the more straitlaced, keep in mind that some areas are nude!

For other places to stay in Monterey or Big Sur you can check the latest prices here.

Getting around Monterey

It’s definitely worth thinking about renting a car anywhere in America, especially if you’re keen to explore the surrounding areas.

Why not check out the latest prices and deals on RentalCars.

Have any recommendations that we’ve missed? Get in touch with us!

What camera equipment and other gear do we use?

We’re living proof that you don’t need the most expensive gear to travel the world and take good photos. Here are some of our must have items that make it into the packing list for all our travels.

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