Things to Do in Monterey & Carmel
In 1958, Monterey’s most famous waterfront street changed its official name from Ocean View Avenue to its long-time nickname Cannery Row in honor of the 1945 John Steinbeck novel of the same name.
Today’s Cannery Row is a far cry from that of the “tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron …” described in Steinbeck’s novel. There has not been a cannery here since 1973 and the street is now filled with shops, from boutiques to chain stores, hotels and restaurants -- and usually populated by more tourists than locals.
It is a wonderful place for strolling, admiring ocean views, snacking on salt-water taffy, gaining easy beach access and watching the many characters that gravitate here. The world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium is located at the northern end of Cannery Row, housed in what was once a sardine cannery.
Just like its San Francisco counterpart, Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf is crammed full of souvenir shops, candy stores, street performers and seafood restaurants all vying for tourist dollars.
Though it is most definitely a crowded tourist scene, Fisherman’s Wharf is more than worth a visit for the bay views, sea lion and pelican-spotting, and eating clam chowder from a sourdough bowl. Many restaurants offer free samples of chowder to passersby, so you can compare before settling on a place to eat. Several restaurants also offer more incentives such as free calamari appetizers.
The neighboring Wharf II is the heart of Monterey’s fishing industry and you can watch the trawlers unloading the day’s catch. Charter boat companies offer deep-sea fishing cruises, and other activities on offer include glass bottom boat tours and whale watching tours.
17-Mile Drive is often said to be one of the most scenic drives in the world and is an essential experience on any visit to California. Driving along the road offers some of the best views of Monterey Bay and many scenic lookouts with designated stopping points.
The drive runs along a winding road, through upscale neighborhoods from Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach and goes past forested areas, along the oceanfront and past several golf courses. Some of the best places to stop are at Cypress Point Lookout, where you can see harbor seals basking on sand and rocks; Spanish Bay where you can follow a paved coastal trail to Asilomar State Beach, and the iconic Lone Cypress, which has stood on its wave-lashed, wind-beaten rocky perch for more than 250 years.
There is a reason that Monterey Bay is considered the top aquarium in the country and draws around two million visitors a year. The nearly 200 exhibits and galleries feature 623 different species of plants and creatures: from adorable sea otters to otherworldly jellyfish, swirling sardines and crafty sharks that glide through the water. Visitors can get up-close with bat rays at the petting pool, and watch divers hand-feed sharks and fish at the kelp forest and blackfooted penguins in the Splash Zone.
What makes Monterey Bay Aquarium so special is its commitment to environmental conservation and education. The aquarium continuously pumps Monterey Bay ocean water through the tanks. During the day the water is filtered for clarity and at night the unfiltered water brings in food in the form of plankton. Waste ocean water from the aquarium is returned to the bay – making the aquarium essentially a part of the ocean.
You will travel over two hours south of Carmel to reach Hearst Castle, but you may feel like you have traveled much longer – say almost one hundred years back in time.
They don’t make places like Hearst Castle anymore; or, indeed, did they ever. This incongruous grand mansion is like nothing else you will see in California. It is the creation of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and Julia Morgan, his commissioned architect. What was originally intended to be a modest bungalow home (“a little something” in Hearst’s words) grew into a 90,000-square-foot Moorish-style castle with 165 rooms, 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways, furnished with items collected on Hearst’s travels, such as monastery ceilings, Byzantine tapestries, Spanish and Italian artworks and fireplaces from Gothic castles. In its heyday, Hearst Castle also boasted the world’s largest private zoo. The zoo is long gone, but you may still catch a glimpse of wild zebra wandering nearby.
Small by beach standards, Asilomar State Beach still packs a sandy punch. At just a mile long, it delivers scenery and all the favorites beach goers tend to love like surfing, kite flying and sandy strolls. The beach lies within the boundary of the Asilomar Marine Reserve and is a great spot to go tide pooling, but no fishing or collecting is allowed.
A popular activity for visitors is walking along the quarter-mile boardwalk at Asilomar Natural Dune Preserve. There are numerous scenic outlooks with panoramic Pacific views, so have your camera handy as you make your way to the Asilomar Conference Grounds where the boardwalk ends. Listed as a National Historic Landmark, the buildings were designed by famed architect Julia Morgan between 1913 and 1928.
Perched on the rocky coast of the Monterey Peninsula, Point Pinos Lighthouse is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast and is listed with the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
The lighthouse was first lit on Feb. 1, 1855, and is visible up to 17 miles out to sea. It has operated virtually nonstop for a span of 150-plus years. Over the years, 14 different lighthouse keepers stayed on site, but the lighthouse is now automated, eliminating the need for a live-in lighthouse keeper. The last keeper left the Point Pinos Lighthouse in 1975. The site remains an active “aid to navigation,” which means it’s still shining bright full-time and is operated by the United States Coast Guard.
Pebble Beach is perhaps most famous for the Pebble Beach Golf Links, which, with its views of Carmel Bay and the Pacific Ocean, is amongst the most beautiful in the world and has hosted many world-class golf tournaments, including five U.S. Open Championships. In total, the community has eight 18-hole golf courses. You do not have to be a golfer, however, to appreciate Pebble Beach.
As well as coastline views that feature Cypress Rock, Bird Rock and, one of California’s most enduring landmarks, the Lone Cypress, which has stood on its rocky perch for more than 250 years, Pebble Beach is home to several ocean-side hotels and elegant restaurants.
On top of the aforementioned golfing tournaments, Pebble Beach hosts several noted annual events such as spring’s Pebble Beach Food and Wine festival and the summertime Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance classic car show.
More Things to Do in Monterey & Carmel
The Carmel Mission, or San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo Mission, to give its full name, was originally not in Carmel at all. Father Junipero Serra founded the mission at the Monterey Presidio in 1770, making it the second of California’s missions. It was moved to its current Carmel location on Rio Road, where there was better soil and water, the following year.
Although the mission was destroyed in the middle of the nineteenth century, it has undergone extensive renovations. Today the mission is a U.S. Historic Landmark, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the only California mission to retain its original bell tower.
The mission is still home to a Catholic parish and, as well as holding mass several times each day, hosts regular concerts, art exhibitions and community events. Spanish Colonial liturgical art and artifacts are displayed throughout the church, which also features arched ceilings and thirty-foot altarpieces.
Everything is big in the 90-mile stretch of California coastline known as Big Sur. From the mountains that seem to dive into the Pacific Ocean, the night sky crowded with glittering stars, the epic surf, and the views that go on forever and have to be seen to be believed. Big Sur should not be missed.
The natural beauty of Big Sur is a great place to get away from it all and the size of the area means that you can often hike in total solitude. Numerous hiking trails run through the area, from a gentle coastal walk past redwoods and the 80-foot McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, to the mountainous terrain of Los Padres National Forest.
The area famously inspired such artists and writers as Ansel Adams and Jack Kerouac and is still home to a large artistic community. You will find dozens of galleries and studios throughout the area, and the Henry Miller Memorial Library hosts a varied schedule of readings, workshops, concerts and film screenings.