Exploring the Enchanting Monterey Peninsula: A First-Time Visitor’s Guide

categories: Central Coast

Pacific Grove

Nestled along the beautiful California coastline, the Monterey Peninsula is a true gem of the Golden State. With its stunning landscapes, rich history, and an abundance of activities to enjoy. Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, a history buff, or simply seeking relaxation, this guide will help you make the most of your visit to this captivating region.

I grew up in Monterey County in California and the Monterey Peninsula has been my happy place for many years. Let me introduce you to the area.

Also, listen to the Amateur Traveler podcast episode Travel to the Monterey Peninsula – Amateur Traveler Episode 731

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Cities on the Monterey Peninsula

There are 3 main cities on the Monterey Peninsula for tourists: Carmel by the Sea, Monterey, and Pacific Grove with a few other nearby towns like Seaside, Carmel Highlands, Marina, Del Monte Forest, Del Rey Oaks, Sand City, and Carmel Valley.

Premier Attractions

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a world-class institution that allows you to get up close and personal with marine life from the Monterey Bay. Explore the incredible exhibits showcasing jellyfish, sea otters, and sharks, among others. It’s both educational and awe-inspiring.

Lone Cypress

17-Mile Drive

Starting your journey along the Monterey Peninsula, the iconic 17-mile Drive is a popular attraction. This scenic route boasts wonderful coastal vistas, a forest of Monterey Cypress trees, world-renowned golf courses like Pebble Beach, and the famed Lone Cypress tree. Be sure to stop at designated viewpoints to get the most out of your $11.25 entry fee.

Pacific Grove
Budget alternative:

If you don’t care about seeing Pebble Beach and you feel you can live without seeing the Lone Cypress Tree, then enjoy the coastline from Cannery Row, past Lover’s Point to Asilomar State Beach for a pretty drive. Get out of your car and look for sea otters or explore the tide pools in this area. This was always my mom’s favorite part of the California coast when the ice plant was in bloom from late April to early May.

Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman’s Wharf

Fisherman’s Wharf where you enjoy fresh seafood at one of the many restaurants, or sample clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl – a local favorite.
You can also book a whale-watching boat ride or a deep-sea fishing trip right from the Wharf.
If you thought California would be warmer, then here is where you can buy a decent Monterey branded jacket for a good price. I have one.
Fans of history should visit the Old Custom House while they are at the wharf.

Cannery Row

Cannery Row

Cannery Row is a historic waterfront street with a lively atmosphere. Once home to sardine-packing factories, it’s now a bustling hub of shops, restaurants, and entertainment. Visit the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium or simply shop or eat your way through the area.

Highway 1

Highway 1 to Big Sur

Venture further south on Highway 1 and discover the world-renowned Big Sur coastline. The drive is a scenic masterpiece, with dramatic cliffs, dense forests, and hidden beaches. Bixby Creek Bridge and McWay Falls are just a few of the best sights you’ll encounter along the way. Drive all the way to Andrew Molera Beach or Pfizer Big Sur State Park.


Ocean Avenue

Carmel’s Ocean Avenue is a charming downtown street filled with boutiques, galleries, and restaurants. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a leisurely stroll and do some shopping. Stop by for a delicious meal or some retail therapy before continuing your adventure.
Also, check out our dozen wine-tasting rooms in Carmel from local wineries in the Salinas Valley and the Carmel Valley. We are members of the wine club at De Tierra.

Outdoor Attractions

Point Lobos

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Point Lobos is a true gem of the Monterey Peninsula, offering diverse landscapes, including rugged cliffs, hidden coves, and colorful tide pools. The reserve is a haven for hikers, photographers, and wildlife enthusiasts.
This is not just one of my favorite parks on the Monterey Peninsula but one of my favorites of California’s really great state parks. But… people know that so in the summer if you don’t come early you won’t be able to enter and will have to park on the highway and walk in.

Asilomar State Beach

For a peaceful escape, head to Asilomar State Beach, known for its stunning coastline and unique tide pools. It’s a haven for nature lovers and photographers, offering picturesque sunsets and abundant birdwatching opportunities.

Carmel Beach

Carmel Beach, often dubbed one of the most beautiful beaches in California, is a serene spot to soak up the sun or enjoy a romantic sunset. The pristine white sand and azure waters make it a must-visit destination. Like every beach in Central California, the water is always cold. Its sand is whiter than any other beach I know in California but bring a sweatshirt.

Carmel River State Beach

Carmel River State Beach is a hidden gem for birdwatchers and those seeking tranquility. It’s a great place for a leisurely walk along the riverbank or a picnic with picturesque views.

This is the only beach on the peninsula where we would get in the water when I was a kid without a wetsuit, but not in the ocean, in the river.

Beach on Monterey

Fort Ord Dunes State Park

A natural playground for hikers, bikers, and beachgoers, Fort Ord Dunes State Park is a haven of undeveloped coastline. Explore the miles of trails or simply relax on the sandy shores. This is part of the best beaches in the aura for a long walk as it is an uninterrupted beach from Marina State Beach to Wharf Number 2 by Old Fisherman’s Wharf.

Fort Ord National Monument

If you’re interested in history and outdoor exploration, don’t miss the Fort Ord National Monument. The park offers hiking, mountain biking, and a glimpse into the military history of the area. In these hills, in the summer it can be much warmer than on the coast so bring sunscreen, a hat, and water.

Jack’s Peak

For panoramic views of the Monterey Peninsula and beyond, Jack’s Peak is the ideal destination. This state park features hiking trails and an assortment of native plants, making it a fantastic place for nature enthusiasts.

Lovers Point Park

As the name suggests, Lovers Point Park is a romantic spot with a picturesque beach and a park perfect for picnics. It’s a great place to watch surfers and kids play in the water (brrrr). You are also very likely to run into someone getting married on the weekend or at least taking wedding pictures.

Monarch Grove Sanctuary

In the fall and winter peaking in November – January, the Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Pacific Grove becomes a wonderland for butterfly lovers. Thousands of Monarch butterflies migrate here to escape the cold, creating a magical spectacle. While the butterflies come every year, each year it is 5 generations later than the ones who were here the previous year. Come before 11 am to or before the fog burns off to see the most butterflies,

Fun Activities

Sea Kayaking

Sea Kayaking Adventure in Monterey Bay

For an unforgettable aquatic adventure, embark on a sea kayaking tour in Monterey Bay. Paddle through the top of kelp forests, observe marine life, and experience the beauty of the bay up close.

Whale Watching Tour from Fisherman’s Wharf

Embark on a thrilling whale-watching tour from Fisherman’s Wharf. Witness majestic whales, dolphins, and other marine creatures in their natural habitat.

Monterey Bay Sailing and Sunset Cruise

To add a touch of romance to your trip, consider a sunset cruise in Monterey Bay. Whether you’re looking for a serene sail or a lively party, there are options to suit every preference.

Rent Bikes or a Surrey

It might sound corny to rent a surrey to enjoy the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, but I challenge you to see one family that did that doesn’t seem to be enjoying the experience. Or rent an eBike and explore further.

Historic Sites

For a deep dive into the history of the Monterey Peninsula read my History of the Monterey Peninsula and Where to Find It article. But for history lovers here is where you can find some of the historic sites in the area.

Monterey State Historic Park

Monterey State Historic Park encompasses several historic buildings and museums, providing a comprehensive view of the area’s past. It’s a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the region’s history.

Old Custom House

Old Custom House

Step back in time at the Old Custom House, where you can explore exhibits on Monterey’s history, including its role in trade and commerce during the Mexican era.

California's First Theatre

California’s First Theatre

Visit California’s First Theatre, a historic gem in Monterey. It’s a fascinating peek into the past, offering insights into early Californian entertainment. The First Theatre reopens in 2023 and you can again boo the villain and cheer the hero.

Carmel Mission

Carmel Mission

The Carmel Mission, or Mission San Carlos Borroméo del Río Carmelo, is one of the most beautifully preserved missions in California. Explore the church, museum, and lovely gardens while learning about the region’s history.

Casa Soberanes

Casa Soberanes is a historic adobe house that now serves as a museum. It’s a window into early Monterey life, featuring period furnishings and exhibits that transport you back in time.

Colton Hall

Colton Hall is a historic government building and the site of California’s first constitutional convention in 1849. Tour the hall to learn about this significant event in California’s history.

Larkin House

The Larkin House is a historic residence that once belonged to Thomas O. Larkin, a prominent figure in California’s early history. The house offers insight into 19th-century living in Monterey.

Stevenson House

The Stevenson House is a historic building where the famous author Robert Louis Stevenson spent time. Delve into his life and works while touring this charming residence.

Other Attractions

Dennis the Menace

Dennis the Menace Playground

This is where I always wanted my parents to take me when I grew up in nearby Salinas. A great place for kids with an old train and other big play equipment. There are also pedal boats in the lagoon around the park.

Monterey County Youth Museum

If you’re traveling with children, the Monterey County Youth Museum is a fun and educational stop. It offers interactive exhibits and hands-on activities for kids to enjoy.

Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History

For those interested in the natural history of the region, the Pacific Grove Museum is a treasure trove of information. Explore exhibits on local flora, fauna, and geological features.

Pacific House Museum

The Pacific House Museum is located near the Old Custom House and houses artifacts and exhibits related to the city’s history including the Holman Collection of American Indian artifacts.

Presidio of Monterey Museum

The Presidio of Monterey Museum showcases the military history of the area, with a focus on the U.S. Army’s role in Monterey.

Stanton Center

The Stanton Center is a community hub in downtown Monterey that often hosts cultural events, art exhibitions, and more. Check out their calendar to see what’s happening during your visit.

Where to Eat and Drink on the Monterey Peninsula

No visit to the Monterey Peninsula is complete without savoring its delectable cuisine. With a diverse range of dining options, you can enjoy fresh seafood, international flavors, and everything in between. Some popular dining spots include:

For a taste of the local wines and craft beers, visit one of the many wine bars and breweries in the area. Monterey County is known for its vineyards and wineries, so be sure to indulge in a wine-tasting experience.

Seven Gables Inn

Seven Gables Inn

Where to Stay on the Monterey Peninsula

The Monterey Peninsula offers a variety of accommodation options, from charming inns and bed-and-breakfasts to luxury hotels and resorts. Here are some popular choices to consider:

If you are looking for a beach hotel experience then read my article What hotels are on the Beach on the Monterey Peninsula?

Getting to the Monterey Peninsula

The Monterey Peninsula is easily accessible by car, making it a great road trip destination. If you’re arriving by air, the closest major airport is the Monterey Regional Airport, offering convenient access to the region. Additionally, the San Francisco International Airport and the San Jose International Airport are within a reasonable driving distance and usually have better fares.

Once you’ve arrived, consider renting a car to explore the area at your own pace. You can get around by bus… but not as easily.

When is the best time to visit Monterey?

My favorite month to visit the area is probably September after the kids have gone back to school. The weather is some of the best weather with little chance of rain and the crowds are less than in the summer. February is the wettest month which makes me wonder why they do the AT&T pro-am golf tournament in February every year.

Should I choose to stay in Carmel Monterey or Pacific Grove for my visit?

If you love to shop and love art galleries, stay in Carmel. If you love history, stay in Monterey. If you are looking for a romantic stay at an inn, stay in Pacific Grove.


In conclusion, the Monterey Peninsula is a true California paradise that offers a diverse range of attractions and experiences for first-time visitors. From its stunning natural beauty to its rich history and vibrant culture, this destination is a treasure waiting to be explored.

Exploring the Enchanting Monterey Peninsula: A First-Time Visitor's Guide #california #monterey #carmel #pacificgrove #beach #history #travel #vacation #trip #holiday

Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won numerous awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine. He move to California in 1964.

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