Guide to the Monterey Peninsula – My Favorite Corner of the World

categories: Central Coast

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.

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 or in incorporated areas like Seaside, Carmel Highlands, Marina, Del Monte Forest, Del Rey Oaks, Sand City, and Carmel Valley.

Lover's Point

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Frequently Asked Questions


Monterey was traditionally a bustling fishing and whaling port and you can still find the touristy Fisherman’s wharf there, the commercial wharf number two and the only marina in the area (the nearest other marina would be Moss Landing which is halfway up the Monterey Bay).

Except for the mission, most of the older historic buildings in the area are in Monterey like the old Spanish Customs House and California’s First Theatre.

Monterey is also where you can find the Presidio, the Naval Post Graduate School and the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.

Monterey is the home to Cannery Row with its shops, restaurants and posh hotels. Once this area was filled with sardine canneries and now is the home to the wonderful Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Notable sites in Monterey

  • Monterey Bay Aquarium – On Cannery Row is one of the world’s best aquariums. The aquarium focuses on sea life that you can find in Monterey Bay. Monterey Bay is deeper than the grand canyon so the array of sea life here is stunning. Get tickets ahead of time and get there early, especially in summer when it gets busy. My favorite displays are the kelp forest, the otters and the jellyfish.
  • Old Fisherman’s Wharf – This is where you can take a whale-watching cruise, a deep-sea fishing trip like I did with my uncle Carl who came to Monterey annually for the fish. Or you can eat fish at one of the many seafood restaurants or take a whale-watching trip. There are shops where you can buy a Monterey sweatshirt which says to the world, “I thought California would be warmer”.
  • Cannery Row – When I grew up there were still some abandoned sardine canneries here but now you will find upscale hotels, restaurants like Bubba Gumps or old classics like the Chart House. There are t-shirt shops, art galleries, candy stores, and a couple wine tasting rooms.
  • Monterey Bay Coastal Trail – This trail goes from Pacific Grove to Cannery Row, the wharf and then all the way up to Marina along the coast.
  • Colton Hall – This is where the California state constitution was created.
  • California’s First Theatre (part of Monterey State Historic Park) – Currently closed.
  • Del Monte Shopping Center – If you want to see a movie or do some real shopping while you are in town, this is where the locals go.
  • Old Custom House (part of the Monterey State Historic Park ) – Right by the wharf you can see what kind of goods were being brought to and from Spanish/Mexican Monterey when it was busy with the trade of cowhides and tallow.
  • Custom House Plaza – Between downtown and the wharf is the plaza which is one of Monterey’s most popular spots for events. You can rent a bike or a sea kayak right by here.
  • 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 it.

Where to stay in Monterey

  • hotels in Downtown, Old Monterey – Downtown is a great place to stay if you want to park your car and enjoy the wharf or walk / bike to Cannery Row on the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail.
  • hotels in Cannery Row – If you are here for the Aquarium then you can’t beat staying at one of the nearby upscale hotels in Cannery Row.
  • hotels on Fremont Street or Munras Ave – These hotels not as scenic but more affordable. This is where we used to stay when we went to Monterey every year for our anniversary until we could afford something more upscale.
  • hotels in the Lighthouse District – This area behind Cannery Row is not quite as convenient as Cannery Row but you can still walk to the aquarium and it will save you money.

Carmel by the Sea

Carmel is an artsy town that has fought to stay quaint for many years. It is set in the pine forest above the smaller Carmel Bay with the whitest sand beach I know in California. It has shops, restaurants, and small hotels. It also has a lovely wine walk of 14 different wine tasting rooms for wineries from Monterey County.

Carmel has no street lights, only stop signs and on a busy weekend in the summer, Ocean Avenue, which is the main drag, will back up to highway 1. Learn the short cut to the town via the truck route that starts at Carpenter street.

Notable Sites in Carmel

  • Ocean Avenue – The heart of downtown in Carmel. There are lots of shops (although fewer these days), art galleries and restaurants.
  • Carmel Mission – This used to be the center for the Spanish missions in Alta California. It is still an active congregation and popular for weddings.
  • Carmel Beach – The beach with the whitest sand of any I know in California. A beautiful beach down the hill on Ocean Avenue from downtown Carmel. The water, like at any beach on Monterey Bay, is cold.
  • Carmel River Beach – When I was old enough to drive this is the beach where we would come. Again the water is cold in the ocean, but the water in the river is less so.
  • The Barnyard Shopping Center – Carmel’s other shopping area is at the mouth of Carmel Valley down highway 1 from Ocean Avenue.
  • Point Lobos State Reserve – Further down Highway 1 is one of the best of the California state parks. Point Lobos will get crowded, especially in the summer. Go early. Reservations may soon be needed to visit the park.

Where to Stay in Carmel

  • hotels in CarmelCarmel tends to have smaller hotels than you will find on Cannery Row or near the wharf in Monterey. Parking in Carmel is always a headache so if you plan to spend much of your time in Carmel, you may enjoy your visit more if you stay here.


Pacific Grove

Pacific Grove was founded as a religious retreat center and you can still find the Asilomar retreat center there. Pacific Grove has preserved a number of historic cabins and Victorian buildings and has more B&Bs and Inns than large hotels. Back when Monterey’s Cannery Row was in full production it was said that the 3 cities were: Carmel by the Sea, Monterey by the smell, and Pacific Grove by God.

Pacific Grove is a great place to go if what you are looking for is a quiet weekend of walking along the shore. You are still close to Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Pacific Grove has one of the gates to the exclusive Scenic 17-Mile Drive (the other is on highway 68 / highway 1). This is a paid driving route past mansions, the Restless Sea at Point Joe, Fanshell Beach, the Lone Cypress and iconic golf courses like Pebble Beach.

Notable sites in Pacific Grove

  • Lover’s Point – Lover’s Point is a great little park with rugged rocks and a small beach. This is one of the only surfing spots in this part of Monterey Bay with the better known surfing up in Santa Cruz. You can rent a bike or sea kayak here.
  • Lighthouse Ave – Pacific Grove’s downtown is small, quiet and a bit quaint. There are some nice little restaurants, a bookstore, and a small theatre.
  • Asilomar State Beach – A great area for tidepools, climbing on the rocks and watching the waves crash against the shore.
  • Asilomar Conference Center – You can more to Asilomar on an organized retreat or make your own. It does corporate events and weddings as well.
  • 17 Mile Drive – One of the best-known things to do on the Monterey Peninsula is driving this 17-mile long toll road along the wooded coast between Pacific Grove and Carmel. This is the only way to see this part of the peninsula.
  • Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary – Every year the monarch butterflies return to these same trees in Pacific Grove. The city holds a charming parade to celebrate their return with small children dressed up like butterflies.
  • Monterey Bay Coastal Trail – This trail goes from Pacific Grove to Cannery Row, the wharf and then all the way up to Marina along the coast.
  • Hopkins Marine Station – While the research station is only open for special events, the beach on the Pacific Grove side is the best place in the area to see harbor seals.

Where to stay in Pacific Grove

  • One of the best ways to experience Pacific Grove is by staying in one of its charming inns in an old Victorian. There are expensive ones like the Seven Gables and Green Gables along the coast and less expensive ones inland.

Monterey Peninsula in Music

Monterey Jazz Festival

The Monterey Jazz Festival has been an annual event since 1958. The 2020 Monterey Jazz Festival will be held September 25-27.

Monterey Peninsula in Sports

AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am

The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am is one of the busiest weeks all year for the Monterey Peninsula. This tournament happens in early February at Monterey Peninsula Country Club Shore Course, Spyglass Hill Golf Course, and the world-famous Pebble Beach Golf Links.

WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca

Even if you are not a race fan, it can be good to know of big events at the Laguna Seca track if you plan to drive down to the Monterey Peninsula because traffic can be busier on race days. Laguna Seca is located halfway between Monterey and Salinas.

Great Seal of California

History of the Monterey Peninsula

Native Americans – The Ohlone

The native people in Central California were the Ohlone who lived by hunting, gathering, and fishing in this abundant land. This area was one of the most densely populated areas north of Mexico.

The Spanish and Mexicans

Monterey was named by the Spanish sailor and explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno when he explored the coast of Alta California in 1602, but permanent settlement and colonization did not happen until 1770 with the arrival of a party from Lower California lead by Gaspar de Portolá and Father Junípero Serra. A member of their party wrote this about the area:

Thousands of sea lions were about, so close to one another that they looked like a pavement. Two young whales lay together not more than a hundred yards off shore. The waters were as calm as those of a lake.

The original colony was only 50 people. The Carmel Mission (Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo) was first built in 1797 and from 1797 until 1833 it was the headquarters for all the Alta California missions.

Monterey had only grown to around 100 homes by 1835 when it was visited by the American author of “Two Years Before the Mast”. This sailor, scholar, writer Richard Henry Dana Jr. wrote:

The shores are extremely well wooded, (the pine abounding upon them,) and as it was now the rainy season, everything was as green as nature could make it,—the grass, the leaves, and all; the birds were singing in the woods, and great numbers of wild-fowl were flying over our heads. Here we could lie safe from the south-easters. We came to anchor within two cable lengths of the shore, and the town lay directly before us, making a very pretty appearance; its houses being plastered, which gives a much better effect than those of Santa Barbara, which are of a mud-color. The red tiles, too, on the roofs, contrasted well with the white plastered sides and with the extreme greenness of the lawn upon which the houses—about an hundred in number—were dotted about, here and there, irregularly. There are in this place, and in every other town which I saw in California, no streets, or fences, (except here and there a small patch was fenced in for a garden,) so that the houses are placed at random upon the green, which, as they are of one story and of the cottage form, gives them a pretty effect when seen from a little distance.

United States

During the Mexican American warren 1946, Commodore John Sloan raised the U.S. flag over the presidio (fort) of Monterey claiming California for the United States. The Mexican garrison had already gone south to Los Angeles so the only shots fired were a 21 gun salute. There is a marker at the presidio that shows where the U.S. flag was raised.

Monterey’s Colton Hall was where the delegates from all over California met in 1950 to decide on the state’s constitution. Those delegates chose San Jose as the first capital of the state.

History lovers should also read: Monterey – The History from Fisherman’s Wharf to Lover’s Point

Monterey Peninsula In Literature

John Steinbeck

References to the area did not end with the publication of “Two Years Before the Mast”. Monterey County claims one of the few American writers to ever have won both the Nobel Prize in Literature (1962) and the Pulitzer Prize (1940 “Grapes of Wrath”), John Steinbeck. Steinbeck grew up in nearby Salinas where you can learn more about him at the Steinbeck Center. His best connection to the Monterey Peninsula was his book “Cannery Row” on the map.

Robert Luis Stevenson

Robert Luis Stevenson lived in a 2 story adobe in Monterey for a few months and you can tour this house. I was told when visiting as a school kid, that this is where he thought up Treasure Island but that link seems tenuous

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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