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After living in California for four years, I’ve been really lucky: not only have I had the chance to visit a ton of cool places across the Golden State, I’ve gotten to go back to several of them. One such place is Monterey; Mr. V and I made our very first trip just a few months after moving to California back in 2017. Since then, we’ve been back every year! We first visited because Mr. V wanted to (re)find a place that he remembered served great fish tacos; afterward, we ate and explored our way through this coastal town, and we spent part of 3 days in Monterey during our final Cali getaway before we moved to Ohio.
If you want to visit and are curious what to do for 3 days in Monterey, I’m here to help. I’ve curated this list of things to do in Monterey after four visits, and am confident you’ll find at least a few things on the list to enjoy – some that you probably already know because they’re super tourist (and are still worth doing) and others that you may not know about but still want to try.
Read on to learn the best things to do for 3 days in Monterey, plus how to put them together into a perfect Monterey weekend itinerary from the San Francisco Bay Area. I hope you discover that you also want to plan a repeat trip or two after you’ve explored this coastal California town.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Ohlone and Rumsen peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
How to Travel to Monterey
You might be planning a trip to Monterey for a number of reasons, but I’m going to assume it’s one of two:
- You’re passing through while driving the PCH (lucky you!).
- You’re visiting from one of California’s big cities, most likely San Francisco or somewhere else in the Bay Area.
If you’re driving the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll likely be on your way down (or up) California Highway 1. Monterey is right off CA-1, so that’s easy enough in terms of directions.
If you’re instead visiting from the Bay Area, you have a few choices. You could take Highway 1 down to Monterey, which takes about 2.5 hours. Or, you could take Highway 101 to California Highway 156, which cuts the travel time down to two hours. There are a number of other multi-highway routes you could take too, if there’s traffic on both of these, like CA Highway 17 through Santa Cruz or CA-152 west from Gilroy. In each case, it takes 2-2.5 hours to drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Monterey.
The 11 Best Things to Do in Monterey
Now that you know how to get there, let’s dive into what there is to do for 3 days in Monterey. As you’ll see, there are some incredible experiences – some you may already know and others that will help you fill out a weekend in Monterey itinerary.
Explore the Monterey Bay Aquarium
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must do for everyone visiting Monterey. It’s a gorgeous, huge, world class aquarium that houses species from aquatic ecosystems across the globe. Unsurprisingly, the otters are a big crowd pleaser so don’t miss them!
I recommend spending at least a half-day here, though if you have kids or just love aquariums, it’s definitely easy to spend a lot longer here and still have more areas to explore.
Visit Cannery Row
When trying to decide which activity is the most popular thing to do in Monterey, it’s a tough choice between Cannery Row and the previous item on my list (the Monterey Bay Aquarium). Cannery Row, as its name suggests, is a historic part of Monterey where all of the canneries used to be located when the city was more industrial.
Today it’s a row of modern buildings with tons of restaurants, souvenir shops, hotels, and other attractions. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is also at one end! It’s definitely a must-see even if the crowds aren’t your travel style.
Night photo courtesy of Dmitry Sumin via Flickr
Meander through Historic Monterey
Many of Monterey’s historic buildings still stand today, so there are pockets where you can explore it up close and personal. Along Cannery Row, you might notice the old Cannery Row Worker Shacks, which date back to the early 20th Century.
There’s also the Monterey State Historical Park, located further up along the waterfront (toward Fisherman’s Wharf, which I’ll also cover further down this list). This area has a number of well-preserved historic buildings, including California’s oldest theatre. There are little golden coins embedded in the sidewalk around this part of town to guide you through the different parts of the historic district.
Visit Monterey’s Cathedral along the Camino Real
I’ve lately been obsessed with the California Missions (I’m hoping to road-trip them all someday!) so I’d be remiss if I skipped mentioning that Monterey is located along the historic El Camino Real and has a reconstructed cathedral you can visit if you are on a pilgrimage.
The Cathedral San Carlos de Monterey is located further up from the water than most of the other sights on this list. The original building dated back to the 1770s; today there’s a more modern chapel and other religious buildings on the original site, and engraved stones in the plaza surrounding the church mark the original walls and structures.
Explore the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History
Okay so this one technically isn’t in Monterey, but you might be surprised to learn that the Monterey-Pacific Grove border is super close to some of the main sights in Monterey – so you’ll likely end up in Pacific Grove even if you don’t plan on it.
But you should plan on it, because a visit to the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History is a great option if you want even more context on the history and nature of this gorgeous area. Be sure to explore both the indoor exhibits and the outdoor garden in the back.
Stroll Along Old Fisherman’s Wharf
Toward the other end of the Monterey Bay waterfront (at least the part of it within Monterey city limits), there’s another maritime sight to see: Fisherman’s Wharf. This small pier and neighboring marina is still very active – it’s where a lot of whale watching tours and other water-focused activities are based. Along the Wharf you’ll see plenty of touristy souvenir shops and restaurants; at the end, are most of the boat piers if you’re taking a tour, which brings me to…
Go Whale Watching
If you’re visiting Monterey, a whale watching tour on Monterey Bay is another one of those must-dos! Mr. V and I actually didn’t do this until my fourth trip (his fifth) to Monterey just this year; we were sitting having dinner at one of the waterfront restaurants and noticed the boats going by and decided to do a spontaneous splurge.
Whale watching tours actually aren’t expensive and there are a number of companies that offer them. We went with Princess (because that’s the boat we saw go by); it turns out they use a boat for their tour that actually used to sail in Kenai Fjords in Alaska! Our whale watching tour was $80 per person (for the open-air top deck; worth the extra $20 per person!) and we saw orcas and gray whales during the three-hour cruise.
Kayak on the Monterey Bay
If you’d rather take it slow on the Bay, another option is to arrange a kayak tour of Monterey Bay. These typically also set out from the marina near Fisherman’s Wharf. There are a number of kayak tour providers in Monterey but the main two to consider are Monterey Bay Kayaks and Adventures by the Sea. If you love kayaking and want a fun, active way to pass a few hours, this is a great contender to get you out on the water too!
Take a Glass Bottom Boat Tour
For yet another on-water option, you could book a short 30-minute glass bottom boat tour of Monterey Bay. These tours are shorter and don’t go as far out into the bay, but it’s the glass bottom that’s the selling point. You’ll pass over kelp beds in the bay and get a sense for how dynamic and diverse the ecosystem is below the waves. I can’t figure out exactly which company offers these tours, but I remember that the sign said they cost $25 per person.
Visit Neighboring Carmel-by-the-Sea
I know it’s weird to recommend leaving Monterey on a list of the best things to do in Monterey, but it’s irresistible to visit Carmel-by-the-Sea when you’re already planning a trip to Monterey (or vice versa, which is what we did several times we visited Carmel). It’s a 15-minute drive between Monterey and Carmel along CA-1/US 101 (the Pacific Coast Highway). As such, it’s easy to spend a half-day (or whole day, if you have 3 days in Monterey) in the other town when you’re visiting one.
I have a whole guide of things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea; to get you inspired, some of my favorites are wine tasting, strolling on the beach, exploring the Carmel mission, and window-shopping the galleries and boutiques that make up the town core.
Roll Down 17 Mile Drive
Whether or not you decide to visit Carmel, you might want to take a drive down 17 Mile Drive, the scenic route that connects the two (instead of CA-1/US 101). While it doesn’t sound long, this private drive is incredibly scenic, and there are plenty of spots to stop and admire the coastline. This is also where you can see the famous Lone Cypress, what I consider to be one of the most picturesque and best stops along the PCH. You’ll also pass Pebble Beach golf course, if that’s something you find fascinating.
It costs $10.75 for access to drive on 17 Mile Drive (as I said, it’s a private drive) and takes around an hour without stops.
3 Days in Monterey: A Perfect Weekend Itinerary
Set on visiting Monterey, now that you know all the things to do there? The only thing left is to put it all together into an itinerary. While you can certainly visit Monterey in one day, you won’t be able to do everything I’ve recommended, so choose 3-4 activities in that case (if I can recommend some, I’d do the Aquarium, Cannery Row, Historic Monterey, and a sunset whale watching tour).
If instead you want to plan a weekend trip to Monterey, here’s how to do it.
Day 1: Arrive from SF, Visit Cannery Row & Waterfront Dinner
I’ll assume you’re driving to Monterey from San Francisco (or at least the Bay Area) since that’s what most people do. As I mentioned earlier, it takes about 2-2.5 hours to make the drive from the Bay Area to Monterey, though that can vary if you choose to take CA-1 (the PCH) instead of one of the other highways. Traffic is also really common if you’re making a weekend trip, so be prepared for that.
Once you arrive, I recommend getting oriented by heading to Cannery Row. Yes, it’s super touristy, but it’s also the heart of where everything is happening. It can be tricky to find parking right near the Row; if you don’t have luck, you can park near Fisherman’s Wharf and stroll along the waterfront trail to Cannery Row instead.
Along the way, keep your eyes peeled for somewhere you’d like to have dinner. There are a number of options and most along the water have great views. On our most recent trip, Mr. V and enjoyed dinner at El Torito with a fabulous view of the Bay. You may even want to go in and make a reservation for later depending on the time. (Just like with traffic on the way in, it’s pretty common to have to wait for a table on a weekend night.)
Day 2: Whale Watching, Explore Historic Monterey, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium
This is your full day in Monterey, so get started early and make the most of it. Book a morning whale watching tour in advance; aim for one that’s three hours or so, to give yourself the best chance of seeing something while you’re out there.
Afterward, grab lunch; there are a number of restaurants along Fisherman’s Wharf after you disembark your cruise, or you can head up to Dust Bowl Brewing Co. for something a bit less touristy. Next, take a stroll in Monterey State Historic Park. Depending on the day, some of the buildings may be open and you can learn more about them.
Finally, spend the rest of the afternoon at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Give yourself at least three hours, but don’t be surprised if you want to stay longer. After that, it’s time for dinner – maybe a second spot along Cannery Row caught your eye, or you could head out to Beach House in Pacific Grove for a different view.
Day 3: Drive 17 Mile Drive to Carmel & Return to SF
On your final day, you could either stay in Monterey and do a few of the other activities I recommended, or head down to Carmel. If you choose the latter, plan ahead and make the journey on 17 Mile Drive. Don’t rush it – there are plenty of pull-outs and stops worth making.
In Carmel, I recommend parking somewhere near downtown and exploring the area. My favorite winery is located in Carmel Plaza; it’s Blair Estates and they make one of my favorite rosés. You can also have lunch at one of the many restaurants in the same area.
Then stroll around window shopping or head down to the beach if the wind isn’t too strong. (When the wind is strong, getting sand-blown can be pretty intense!) Carmel is known for its secret alleyways and fantastic (window) shopping, so the best plan is to just explore.
Lastly, enjoy dinner before driving back to San Francisco or elsewhere in the Bay Area. For dinner, I recommend Cultura Comida y Bebida or Brophy’s Tavern. We’ve had great meals at both of those places during our visits.
(If you decide to extend your trip in Carmel, be sure to check out my guide, and I always recommend the adorable pink half-timbered style Hofsas House Hotel for a place to stay.)
Where to Stay in Monterey
If you’re sold on spending 3 days in Monterey or at least a weekend there, you might wonder where to stay. Here are a few options you might like:
- The Spindrift Inn is located right on Cannery Row and has a classic design with waterfront views. From $199/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- Portola Hotel & Spa is located further from Cannery Row, close to Fisherman’s Wharf instead. It’s a great luxe option. From $199/night; book on Booking.com.
- 1110 Hotel is an adults-only property further from the main attractions, but with an incredible rooftop area and view. From $108/night; book on Hotels.com or directly on their website.
There are plenty of other options too, of course, but hopefully this inspires you to finally make your Monterey trip happen!
Have any other questions about spending 3 days in Monterey? Let me know in the comments!