Best Places to Visit on the Monterey Peninsula

Best Places to Visit on the Monterey Peninsula

What many visitors consider “Monterey” is actually more than 10 cities including Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pacific Grove, Moss Landing, Pebble Beach and Carmel Valley. 

They brim with attractions. Taken together, they can claim to be the Golf Capital of the World, the Marine Science Capital of the World and One of the Best Places on the Planet to Scuba Dive, among other distinctions.

But the oldest city of them all, and the original capital of Alta California is Monterey, and it can fill up several days by itself. 

Here appear a half-dozen places to prioritize within Monterey proper, all within a couple miles, max, with an adventure down the coast to a Big Sur landmark thrown in for good measure.

Featured Photo Credit: Visit California

Photo: Courtesy of Visit California

17-Mile Drive

17-Mile Drive, Pebble Beach

In the hills above the fairytale-like town of dog-friendly Carmel-by-the-Sea (take a walk on Carmel Beach, three blocks from downtown), the one-and-only 17-Mile Drive — founded 1881 — is a must-see for nature lovers and photographers. Five gated entrances give access to the private estate nestled among Monterey cypress and pines of the Del Monte Forest, home to the famed Pebble Beach Golf Links. Admire outstanding ocean views at every turn; peek at multi-million dollar mansions; pull over at the lookout framing the iconic windswept 250-year-old tree, the Lone Cypress. Tip: Keep your $10.75 (per vehicle) admission ticket stub to redeem it against a meal (over $35) anywhere within the gates.

Photo: Courtesy of Visit California

Big Sur and PCH

Highway 1, Big Sur

Driving south from San Francisco, the Highway 1 vistas become increasingly dramatic along a stretch approaching Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea. Continue to Big Sur, featuring craggy  cliffs, towering redwoods, and the famous Bixby Creek Bridge, a graceful arch 260 feet high above a steep canyon overlooking mountains and ocean. One of California’s most photographed spots, the image is recognized globally. It’s not a pedestrian bridge and the parking lot fills up fast. Weekend crowds can be overwhelming, especially at sunset. Pick a weekday and go for sunrise instead. Tip: Roll your wheels indefinitely south for increasingly unpopulated turnouts with vistas to rival any of the more famous.

Photo: Courtesy of @myvoiceapp

Cannery Row

Cannery Row, Monterey

The iconic architecture is fun to check out, and there’s a lot more in store from there, including Steinbeck Plaza (and its relatively new mountain of a statue), adjacent McAbee Beach (a bit of a secret hangout), and an overpopulation of candy and dessert spots (including Candy Row). A number of restaurants proliferate too, plus great wine tasting venues, and a walk north (away from the Aquarium) to the quieter side of the Row leads to gorgeous San Carlos Beach and the Coast Guard Pier.

Photo: Courtesy of @mhaasalvadordali

Dalí 19 Museum

5 Custom House Plaza, Monterey

Salvador Dalí threw legendary parties during his extended time in Monterey while fleeing Nazi-held Europe and logging more than seven years here. That inspired a celebration of his art in the former Monterey Maritime Museum, in the center of Old Monterey’s historic walking trail network, and a short hop from Old Fisherman’s Wharf. More than 560 Dalí works — including lithographs, etchings, photographs, sculptures and tapestries the museum rotates through seasonally — make it the largest private collection of original Dali art in the country, and helped earn it a nod from USA Today as a “must-see exhibit.”

Photo: Courtesy of Blaise/Visit California

Hearst Castle

750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon

Make a reservation, you won’t regret it. A century ago, if your name was William Randolph Hearst, you inherited thousands of acres and money was no object, “America’s Castle” was the vision you could make into a mountaintop reality. A private architect, Julia Morgan, is credited with the project. Hearst called it “the ranch,” more obvious when you see wild zebras that still roam in the distance. Set on 127 acres of landscaped grounds, La Casa Grande has 115 rooms containing 25,000 artifacts, including colonnades gracing the outdoor Neptune Pool and sculptures surrounding the mosaic indoor Roman Pool. Tip: Don’t miss the IMAX presentation with actual footage from the castle’s construction between 1919 and 1946.

Photo: Courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium

886 Cannery Row, Monterey

Millions of visitors make this the anchor of their pilgrimage to Monterey, for a million reasons. Those include — but aren’t limited to — monkey-faced eels, penguins, jellies, sea otters, octopi, leopard sharks, hammerhead sharks and seven-gill sharks. They inhabit exhibits and habitats like “Beaches and Dunes,” “The Great Kelp Forest,” “Open Waters,” “Deep Sea” and rotating special exhibits including the current “Into the Deep” and the special-exihibit-turned-permanent “Tentacles.” The mission of the nonprofit MBA is “to inspire conservation of the ocean.” Mission accomplished, and then some.

Photo: Courtesy of Monterey Museum of Art

Monterey Museum of Art (2 locations!)

559 Pacific St., Monterey
720 Via Mirada, Monterey

The buildings themselves — both the downtown Pacific Street mothership and Monterey Peninsula College-adjacent La Mirada location — present cool angular spaces to absorb inspiration. With both venues the focus is California art, “past, present, and future,” accomplished via rotating gallery displays, traveling exhibitions and permanent collections.

Photo: Courtesy of Merritt Thomas via Unsplash

Old Fisherman’s Wharf

1 Old Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey

Set against a soundtrack of throaty sea lions and the aromas from a phalanx of clam chowder vendors, the picturesque wharf works on a few levels. It works culinarily, with a rich range of seafood-driven restaurants, including destination-worthy Old FIsherman’s Grotto and Abalonetti’s. It works oceanically, with award-winning whale-watching tours leaving multiple times daily. It works sweetly, with a bunch of over-the-top candy retailers. And it works kitsch-ly, by way of shops where dozens of keepsakes beg for a place in your home.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Pfeiffer Big Sur Road, Big Sur

True fact: Big Sur enjoys a wealth of national parks worth visiting, but if you have to pick one, PSP is an easy call. Among its wonders are the recently reopened Pfeiffer Falls Trail and popular locals hangout The Gorge. Great for a day trip from Monterey or an overnight in the majestic redwoods; plan ahead for camping as it’s deservedly a popular spot.

Looking for more things to do in the area?

Visit our Central Coast page for travel inspiration and local tips!

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