5 Things to do near Monterey and Big Sur, California

RobinTuck

While most of the crowds descend on bigger cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, a short road trip down the coast will transport you to a different world; a world of sleepy fishing villages, dramatic coastlines and lush forests. Today's trip will take us to Monterey and Big Sur, a two hour drive South from San Francisco, along California's famous 101 highway.

Monterey was once the center of America's booming sardine canning industry, but now it's a popular tourist destination for those interested in checking out California's abundant sealife (or tasting it!), or those simply looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities.

Whether you're visiting for a day trip or spending a little more time in the area, there is an abundance of things to do. Here are a few of our favourite ideas to get you started!

(Just a quick note: given all the latest COVID-19 advice, and the recommendations to not overstrain the health resources in smaller towns, it would be unfair of me to recommend taking this road trip at this time. Instead, please heed the local travel rules and restrictions, and consider bookmarking this for a time in the future when travel is once again recommended).

Grab some seafood chowder on Fisherman's wharf

If you like seafood, then the chowder in Monterey will blow your mind. Visit the Old Fishermen's Grotto for the unbelievable chowder that's served in a cheesy, garlicky bread bowl, but you can't go wrong with any of the restaurants along the pier.

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And while you're there, make sure you pick up some salt water taffy and take in the sights, sounds and smells of the sea. Take a look below the pier and you might catch a sealion basking in the sun.

It's a beautiful place to walk and explore in the sun with a full belly full of seafood!

Visit the Monterey Aquarium

For anyone that loves sealife, the Monterey Aquarium is a must see. It has dozens of stunning tanks that showcase the abundance of sea life in the California coastal waters. It was the first aquarium to exhibit a living kelp forest, and is one of the word leaders in jellyfish husbandry. Their jellyfish tanks are out of this world!

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As, for the time being, the aquarium is closed due to COVID, there are a number of live webcams you can check out Jellies, Sea Otters and more, instead!

Check out Big Sur

Big Sur is around an hour's drive South of Monterey, and is certainly close enough to be worth combining with a trip to Monterey if you have time. Big Sur is a wonderful stretch of coastline, once referred to as the "longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States". In short, that means it's an absolutely epic drive with breathtaking coastal views.

The biggest attractions in Big Sur are arguably the Bixby Creek Bridge and McWay Falls. The viewpoint for McWay Falls is a quick walk from a parking area, and can be enjoyed within just a few minutes.

If you're looking for a longer hike, Big Sur has a number of stunning coastal walks. Make sure you check out Pfeiffer Beach and Andrew Molera State Park.

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Visit the Pointe Sur Lighthouse

This is a lesser known attraction in the Big Sur area. The Pointe Sur Lighthouse is the only complete turn-of-the-century light station open to the public in California, and, in fact, it was only recently renovated enough to be opened to the public. The coastal views from here are, of course, dramatic, and it's a great area to explore on foot.

Visit Monterey's Moon Tree

This is a strange one, and it won't take more than a minute to visit, but how about visiting a tree that went to space? Monterey's Moon Tree was one of around 500 seeds that were taken to space in 1971 as part of an experiment to see what happens to seed when they're exposed to cosmic rays.

Well, as it turns out, not an awful lot happens to seeds in space, so this Redwood looks completely normal. With that being said, it's an amazing natural monument to human ingenuity and inquisitiveness, and I'm a sucker for quirky trivia, so I think it's worth a mention here!

Visit the Esalen Institute for night swimming

The final item on the list is another quirky experience that few will have heard of. The California Esalen Institute was established in the 1960's as healing and wellness retreat. They hold regular seminars on spirituality and wellness here, but the real reason it made this list is the 'night bathing'.

Normally the center is closed to the public, but from 1-3am each night, the hot pools are opened to the public. Did I mention the center is built into the sea cliffs? A moonlit pool experience by the ocean is truly memorable, and worth being added to any bucketlist.

Again, Esalen Institute is an hour south of Monterey, towards Big Sur.

Final Thoughts

While Monterey itself is a small, sleepy city, there are still plenty of amazing gems to be found in the area. It's well worth visiting for a day or two, particularly if you're in the San Francisco area and can spare a few hours. Take a trip down California's rugged and wild coast and you won't regret it.

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I’m a travel and outdoor adventure writer with a passion for exploring and discovering new things. My mission is to push more people out of their comfort zones and off their couches and inspire travel.

Tualatin, OR
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