Monterey: The Highlight of a California Roadtrip

Don't miss Monterey, CA on your next USA roadtrip. Here's everything to see, eat, hear, and do.

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Scenic Drive Monterey California. Image Source: Danielle Reckless

Driving down the iconic Pacific Coast Highway is a bucket-list item for many travellers to the USA. It’s got that Californian sunshine, epic ocean views, and awesome clifftop stops along the way.

The most popular route is between San Francisco and LA. Many people plan to do it in one day – and miss out on some of the best that The Golden State has to offer: the beautiful coastal towns en route.  My pick of the bunch?  Monterey.

Here’s why.

A World Class Aquarium

It’s no wonder this impressive aquarium is the number one attraction in Monterey. Located right on the ocean’s edge at Monterey Bay, it features some brilliant exhibitions, like the Giant Pacific Octopus, jellyfish, kelp forests, sea otters, and penguins.

I really appreciated the aquarium’s strong focus on sustainability and marine conservation. Monterey’s once thriving sardine industry collapsed in the 1950s due to overfishing and climatic changes, and now the aquarium invests a lot into education and research.

Sea lions!

Ever been rocked to sleep by the sound of grunting sea lions? You’ll have the chance in Monterey (why don’t they have that as their tourist slogan?). While not exactly a peaceful lullaby, I thought it was brilliant and a pretty damn unique experience.

You don’t have to go far to see these adorably flubby creatures for yourself. They hang out along the rocks at the Coast Guard Pier and Fisherman’s Wharf. Grab a coffee, and take an early morning stroll to meet hundreds of your new best friends.

Stroll Along Cannery Row

Once the centre of Monterey’s sardine-canning business, Cannery Row is now a popular strip of shops, restaurants, and bars in converted factories. Sure it’s got gift shops and is kinda touristy, but if you’re visiting – you are a tourist!

Sweet tooths head to Sweetock Chocolates (there are samples!) or grab a scoop of organic ice cream at Kai Lee Creamery.

My favourite? The Wine Crawl! Monterey Country is one of California’s largest wine producing regions, and if you’re short on time, a number of the best vineyards have tasting rooms on Cannery Row, all within easy walking distance.

Fresh Local Seafood

Where there’s sea, there’s usually good seafood. Monterey is home to some amazing seafood restaurants that serve fresh local catch, both casual and expensive. Try café-style Sea Harvest, waterfront Fish Hopper, upmarket Montrio which is set in an historic firehouse, or even Cindy’s Waterfront restaurant at the Aquarium.

Great Food, Coffee, and Cocktails!

Grab a brekkie or lunch at Wild Plum Café or make a morning visit to The Wharf Marketplace for fresh bagels and croissants. Here you’ll find 100 percent locally grown or made goodies including real Monterey Jack cheese, chocolate, olive oil, wine, and seasonal produce. Monterey has a huge offering of fresh produce, with farmers markets hosted close by every day of the week!

For a well-crafted cup of Joe, seek out Café Lumiere in Old Monterey, Caffe Trieste, Bright Coffee, or East Village Coffee Lounge, which even hosts regular open mic nights.

Those not thrilled by seafood will have their pick of restaurants like Spanish tapas at Esteban, A Taste of Monterey Wine Market & Bistro, or cheap eats at Turtle Bay Tacqueria.  It’s worth noting that most seafood restaurants also have plenty of menu options for landlubbers.

For nightcaps or happy hours check out Sly McFly’s for cheap beer, tequila, and live music. Sample some local beers at Alverado Street Brewery, Cannery Row Brewing Company or craft beer destination Post No Bills.  If martinis are more your style, head to Lallapalooza and The C Bar.

Scenic 17-Mile Drive

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Scenic Drive Monterey California. Image Source: Danielle Reckless

The Monterey Bay area has unparalleled natural beauty, from the breathtaking rugged coastlines to the beautiful forests. It’s showcased in the 17 Mile Drive, which runs through Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach. There are turnouts along the way at the most historical and picturesque sites like The Ghost Tree, Bird Rock, and Lone Cypress.

Set aside at least an hour or two. A drive around this baby will set you back a $10 fee (well worth it).

Share the Water With Otters, Seals, and Sea Lions

Monterey’s year round temperate climate and waterfront location makes it ideal for water sports of all kinds. Take a sailboat tour of the bay, or if you prefer to steer your own ship I recommend hiring a kayak or SUP for a few hours. With any luck you’ll meet some local otters, seals, and sea lions out there!

The animals and area are heavily protected by conservation laws so hopefully the sea life will be abundant for years to come.

World Class Golf

Monterey is a great golf destination for those so inclined.  It’s home to world class golf greens, (some pricey, some public) such as Pebble Beach Golf Links, The Links at Spanish Bay, and Bayonet Black Horse.

Sleepy Seaside Vibes

Monterey is only a short drive from San Francisco, but world’s away in its energy. You won’t find any hipster suburbs, high rise apartments, or megamalls here. Monterey is charming, quaint and picturesque. An old fishing village and it doesn’t pretend to be something else.

Say goodbye to city prices too, as hotels in the area are pretty affordable. Those wanting to throw their cash around can find some brilliant luxury accommodations too, such as Old Monterey Inn or The Inn at Spanish Bay.

For picture-perfect scenery, fresh and delicious food, and small town charm, Monterey is certainly worth a night or two stop on your California Coast road trip.