Photograph by Denny Soetiono, Getty Images
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Tourists crowd around a jellyfish exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Photograph by Denny Soetiono, Getty Images

Discover the Best of Monterey

Explore this central California haven with these top 10 tips.

With some of California’s most iconic outdoor experiences, Monterey has something for everyone.

Wildlife

There’s almost nothing cuter than a bunch of sea otters, and fortunately for visitors, Monterey Bay is home to a large sea otter population. If you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll spot them in the water around town, but for an unforgettable experience, visit the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve where a group of otters lives. While kayaking the peaceful waters, you’ll also get an up-close view of hundreds of harbor seals.

Natural Wonder

Just down Highway One from Monterey is Point Lobos State Reserve, once called “the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world,” and often considered the highlight of California’s state park system thanks to its epic views and abundant wildlife. Plan a half day of hiking and a picnic lunch with a view at one of the park’s perfectly positioned picnic tables. Bring binoculars for views of otters, seals, and—if you visit between December and May—migrating whales. Springtime in Point Lobos means seal pups and their moms resting in the coves—and signs reminding visitors to keep their voices down. This is the animals’ natural territory after all.

National Park

About an hour east of Monterey, the strange shapes created by volcanic flows 23 million years ago form Pinnacles National Park, one of the country’s newest national parks. Besides hiking trails for a range of abilities, the park is home to the critically endangered California condor. Once extinct in the wild, these birds were reintroduced in the coastal mountains of central California in the 1990s, and just a few hundred of them survive today.

Cultural Site

While Monterey is best known for the outdoors, it also has some of the state’s oldest historic sites. Skip the shops of Cannery Row for the Monterey Walking Path of History in the Monterey State Historic Park (conveniently located near the waterfront). You’ll pass colorful gardens and historic buildings including the Custom House, the oldest government building in California, and the site of the arrival of the first Spanish in California in 1602.

Best Day Trip

Monterey County is one of the finest wine regions in the country, and nearby Carmel Valley offers an easy day trip of wine tasting plus organic food and hiking. Combine stops at any of the wineries in the valley with a casual organic lunch at Earthbound Farm’s roadside café and an easy hike in Garland Ranch Regional Park.

Off the Beaten Path

Skip the big whale-watching tours and try a ride with Fast Raft. Captain Kate Spencer takes only a handful of visitors out on her small, quiet boat for an immersive experience with whales, seals, otters, and seabirds.

Most Iconic Attraction

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a wildly popular attraction for good reason. With exhibits focused on regional sea life, a kelp forest, and a tide pool that is sometimes home to visiting otters, the nonprofit aquarium is also a leader in ocean conservation. But a visit to Monterey must include a few hours for the iconic 17-Mile Drive along the coast from Pacific Grove to Carmel.

Historic Site

In the nearby town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, a basilica seems transplanted from Europe among nearby neighborhood homes and walking trails. The Carmel Mission, part of California’s Spanish colonial history, dates from 1771. Self-guided tours include the courtyards and gardens, Indian cemetery, basilica interior, and museum.

Local Quirk

Get a feeling for local life at one of the area’s farmers markets. The Old Monterey Farmers Market held year-round on Tuesdays is one of the region’s largest events, drawing about 10,000 people in the summer.

Neighborhood to Explore

Head to the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail for 18 miles of waterfront walking and biking paths. As you leave Monterey just past the aquarium, you’ll pass local residents’ boats, often topped with a sunbathing seal, and soon enter Pacific Grove’s blocks of waterfront homes with colorful xeriscaped lawns.