There’s a ton of things to do in Monterey, California, many of them for FREE. I spent several days there in the summer of 2013 and definitely felt like I got to see the best of what the city has to offer. There’s certainly a mix of cultures here, from the heavy Spanish influences in architecture to the canning and fishing industry.
Don’t be surprised if you see quite a few men and women in fatigues and uniforms, as well. Monterey is home to a large military base, as well as the Defense Languages Institute, or DLI, which teaches our servicemen and women the languages needed to be effective in today’s foreign wars.
Speaking of languages, if you go during peak tourist season, be prepared for a potpourri of languages. It’s not just American tourists who visit this beautiful place during the summer, but many other cultures of tourists as well. Brush up on your Arabic, Japanese and French, just to name a few.
Anyway, there’s way more than five things to do when you visit this historic place but here are my top five favorite things that I did in Monterey:
1. Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium
This stop should be mandatory for anyone visiting Monterey. I have never been anywhere whose worth exceeded the price of admission. While the admission is costly (there are deals for students, children, and seniors), you definitely get your money’s worth. This place is a Goliath of an aquarium with no end to the variety of fish and other marine life. Whether you like turtles, otters, penguins or waterfront birds, this place has them all.
Be sure to check out “The Jellies Experience” a magnificent display housing many different varieties of the amazing and mystifying jelly fish. Brilliant in their tanks, these jellyfish appear to light their own display. Take in the sight as you learn about the various species of jellyfish (there’s not just one!) and their respective habitats.
My personal favorite was the Open Sea exhibit. A floor-to-ceiling tilted glass window gives you an up-close and personal look at sea turtles, various fish, and sharks. Darkly lit, you feel as if you’re really just another creature in the depths of the ocean. Stand quietly and wait for the shark to pass you by, or wait for the sea turtles to come up and say hello to a passing sea turtle. I could have stayed at this particular exhibit all day, however, there are many more great exhibits to see before you leave.
Don’t forget to visit the octopus on your way through the aquarium. Or octopuses (that’s a correct plural form, by the way) I should say. Stand mere inches from these giant beings and learn about their habits and environments. When I was there just one of the creatures was awake and moving around. The other octopus was sound asleep, hanging darkly in the corner. Just don’t turn your camera flash on if you take pictures. You are kindly advised to not “flash” the octopus.
2. Read Cannery Row on Cannery Row
Named for the once-flourishing sardine canning factories that used to line the street, Cannery Row is now home to many shops and restaurants and highly touristy. Pick up a copy of John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row (I picked mine up at the Monterey Bay Aquarium gift shop), find yourself a spot along the beach on historic Cannery Row and read the book that was inspired by your very surroundings. You can grab a sandwich at one of the many restaurants and delis along the Row and head out to the beach to read. If you take your sandwich along, be prepared to share your meal with the seagulls, as they will no doubt guilt you into giving them some scraps, and they will bring friends…a lot of them.
Once you finish your sandwich, head over to the Ghirardelli Store for dessert and order yourself up a special hot-fudge sundae. Made with Ghirardelli chocolate, this is the ultimate hot-fudge sundae. If a hot fudge sundae isn’t what you’re looking for, you can always get a splendid ice cream cone from one of the many many flavors the shop has to offer (I chose mint chocolate chip the second time I went) or purchase several individual squares of this exquisite chocolate.
Sit on the patio outside for the best view of the beach and the ocean. However, even though you’re on the patio, those same daring seagulls that you fed on the beach like to sit on the railing, again hoping to guilt feasting tourists into donating part of the dessert.
3. Stroll Through the Cactus Garden at the Customs House
According to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, “the Custom House presided over Mexico’s primary port of entry on the Alta California coast. It was here that Commodore John Drake Sloat raised the American flag in July 1846, claiming over 600,000 square miles of territory for the United States. This territory later was included in all or portions of the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, California and New Mexico.” It’s also California’s oldest government building and listed as its #1 historical landmark.
When I visited in 2013 the Customs House was closed, but visitors can still walk through its magnificent cactus garden, and this spot is definitely worth the visit. There’s a wide variety of cacti represented here, usually in GIANT form. As a Mid-Western country girl who doesn’t have much experience with cacti, I find all forms of desert plant life incredibly intriguing.
4. Take a Walk Down Fisherman’s Wharf
My personal favorite thing to do while in Monterey was simply to walk up and down Fisherman’s Wharf (I even went back the second day of my trip). Here you can visit the shops selling everything from home goods to pearl necklaces, or dine at one of the many fine restaurants along the wharf.
The majority of these restaurants have people outside giving out free samples of their clam chowder to lure customers inside. If you’re on a budget like I was, you can almost make a meal out of the many 2 oz. samples by taking one at each stop. Each restaurant has crafted their own special chowder recipe and you’ll be hard pressed to find the best one.
Follow the sound of the sea lions’ cries to see them sunning themselves on some of the docks. During peak tourist season you’ll have to wait your turn to get the best view. If you’re lucky, you can get up close and personal with one or two if they venture up far enough on one of the other docks.
Lean over the railings to see if you can see the sea lions, seals or fish idling in the shallow water. You can even find a (semi) quiet place to sit and read, eat, or just reflect. You may even see a houseboat anchored nearby. I spent a bit of time daydreaming about life on board.
There’s no end of beautiful sights and sounds to behold on the Wharf, many of my best pictures come from that walk.
5. Get pizza from Pelican Pizza
I never went to the actual Pelican Pizza establishment, but I had it delivered to my hotel plenty of times, and let me tell you, it’s a must-eat. Pelican Pizza is not your average chain pizza place fare. Boasting a wide variety of toppings and sides and excellent service, I wouldn’t suggest getting your pizza anywhere else. You can call or order online. As always, tip well!
I really enjoyed my time in Monterey, and it holds some really precious memories for me. Allow me to say a few words, though, based on what I learned. I would suggest not going in the summer months (during peak tourism season). California is expensive to begin with, and during those months hotels are costly. Plan on going in the early spring and autumn months, when tourism is at a low and hotels have lowered their rates. If you need advice on where to stay (or where NOT to stay) and what to see and do, hit me up! I’m full of more suggestions and can recommend travel books etc.