Visit Monterey Bay: Aquarium + Day Trip Tips
As California day trips go, the Monterey Bay area is one of my favorites (with or without a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium). When people come from out of state, this area is always on their list, and I’m happy to drive south a couple hours from the San Francisco Bay Area to spend the day on another bay.
The drive along scenic Highway One alone is a breath of fresh air with million dollar views of the Pacific Ocean and California’s iconic rocky cliffs.
When looking for things to do in Monterey, you’ll often see a bunch of fun things to do in Monterey County that are not actually in Monterey. For this post, I’m sticking mostly to things you can do in the city of Monterey, mostly in downtown Monterey and on the coast.
While we have friends in Monterey who take us to the locals joints, here’s what Troy and I do when we’re just hanging out for the day by ourselves, starting with the big kahuna for visitors, the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Monterey Bay Aquarium Deals & To Do’s
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, located on the site of a former sardine cannery on Cannery Row, is number one on most visitors’ bucket lists. You’ll find so much to see and do as this place is huge.
One of my favorite sections, especially for families, is the Penguin area, Splash Zone, and kelp forest walk-through tunnel. Kids love the touch pool, interactive activities, and water play area
Savvy tip: You can download a Free Audio Tour of the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, starting just outside the Aquarium, available on the Monterey Aquarium website.
6 Savvy Ways to Save at Monterey Bay Aquarium
The Aquarium offers several ways to save on ticket throughout the year. These tend to change without notice, so check for updates first before you head out.
1. Library “Low Income” Discount
The Monterey County and Watsonville libraries have free member passes on loan for up to six people for low income families.
2. Aquarium Coupon
Not for general admission, but Monterey Bay Aquarium sometimes offers a coupon for $2 off on their website for various things, like a Behind-the-Scenes or Feed the Fish tour. I haven’t seen as many coupons available this year as in previous years.
3. AAA Discount
California AAA members can get a small discount on Monterey Bay Aquarium tickets at their local Northern California AAA office.
4. Military Discount
The Aquarium offers military discounts for active duty and retired military at the door. If you also want discounted tickets for those going with you, trate by purchase tickets through a military base.
5. Home School Days
Home school families (up to 10 people) can get in free once per school year with this popular program. Contact the Aquarium to reserve free passes.
6. Monterey Bay Hotel Coupon Codes
Monterey Bay hotels often have special offers on aquarium tickets. They don’t advertise these and they’re not always at the same hotels. But wherever you stay, ask at the front desk when you check in to find out if they’ll give you an aquarium coupon code.
Monterey Bay Aquarium: Know Before You Go
We get our Monterey Bay Aquarium tickets here online (for just under $50) for quicker entry. These are for all-day admission and all exhibits, including all the programs that take place throughout the day.
Winter hours 10am-5pm; Summer/holidays 9:30am-6pm; Summer weekends 9:30am – 8pm.
Monterey Bay Aquarium 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940.
During the summer, you can take the free WAVE visitor trolley from downtown Monterey to avoid traffic congestion.
You’ll find parking garages and metered street parking near the Aquarium. The City of Monterey Smart Parking website offers tons of info on parking options, public transportation and RV parking.
Official Aquarium Info
Monterey Bay Day Trip Tips
Want to play tourist for a day without going to the Monterey Bay Aquarium? The aquarium is great, but that’s not all there is to do in California’s most popular central coast city. Here are some fun activities to choose from.
It’s easy to get around town on your own. You can take the free trolley around town. Or you can book small group tours in the Monterey Bay Area via this page on Viator.
Even if you aren’t headed to the Aquarium, walking around Cannery Row can be fun. The location alone makes it worth the visit, since it parallels the Monterey Bay coastline. If you get tired of sightseeing, it’s a short walk to the beach. You can also go tide pooling at McAbee Beach. Or rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard right from Cannery Row.
Cannery Row boasts more than 25 restaurants, wine and beer tasting places, fun family museums, art galleries, quirky shops, and hotel spas. You can spend tons or time there, or just browse for an hour and grab lunch.
Old Fisherman’s Wharf
We go to Old Fisherman’s Wharf mostly for ambiance rather than for serious shopping — we don’t really need to stock up on candy and gifts. We like the old general store and theater, though, just because we like old general stores and theaters, but maybe that’s just us.
Snack shops and restaurants dot the Wharf, too, like Crabby Jims, Scales on the Go deli, and Fish & Chips Cafe.
Scroll down this page for my favorite Old Fisherman’s Wharf restaurants with ocean views.
More importantly, the Wharf is the place to go to book ocean activities like fishing and whale watching.
Monterey Outdoor Activities
A fun way to explore Monterey Bay is to rent something to peddle, paddle, or roll. You can explore Fisherman’s Wharf, local museums, specialty shops, Cannery Row, coastal areas, parks and picnic areas with waterfront views from a bicycle, a Segway, or even a surrey.
You can rent a kayak or scuba gear. You’ll explore the coves along the rocky coastline. Or you can book a sail or a whale watching tour (December through May).
Savvy tip: You can browse and book in advance on this Monterey activities page.
Monterey State Parks are the place to go to hike in the rolling meadows and headlands. Check out the Monterey Veterans Memorial Park hiking trails a mile from Downtown Monterey. The park features 50 acres of magnificent Monterey Pines and beautiful bay views, BBQ picnic areas, and plenty of places to play.
The Scenic Route
Although I’m trying to keep this post strictly about things to do in the city of Monterey, most people venture out for nearby activities in Monterey County. If you only have time for one, take the Instagram-worthy 17-Mile Drive. This is a privately managed roadway, so there’s a $10 fee to drive it (but it’s free to bike or walk).
The drive goes from Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach, and will take you along the coastline, past gorgeous homes, a Cypress grove, and the Pebble Beach golf links.
Along the way you’ll see the famous Lone Cypress, the Del Monte Forest, Spanish Bay (a great beach picnic spot), and Stillwater Cove. Give yourself time to stop at some of the scenic pullouts. In spring, for example, you’re likely to see harbor seals and pups (Fanshell Overlook).
Also see: My post about things to do in nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea
Monterey Restaurants with Ocean Views
Monterey has so many amazing restaurants to choose from and I couldn’t possibly list them all here. But if you’re coming from out of the area, chances are you’d appreciate a table with an ocean view.
One of my favorites is Vizcaino Waterfront, the restaurant on the top floor of Monterey Tides, beachfront boutique hotel. Every seat has an ocean view. You can go for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Then walk it off on Monterey State Beach just outside.
Here are some other Monterey restaurants with a view to try near the popular tourist areas.
Cannery Row Restaurants with a View
Schooners Coastal Kitchen
At Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa, Monterey
400 Cannery, Row Monterey CA (831-372-2628)
The C Restaurant
At The InterContinental The Clement Monterey
750 Cannery Row, Monterey CA (831-375-4800)
The Restaurant at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA (831-648-4800)
Old Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurants with a View
Old Fisherman’s Grotto
39 Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey CA (831-375-4604)
Big Fish Grill
101 Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey CA (831-372-7562)
50 Fishermans Wharf #1, Monterey CA (831-372-3655)
Monterey Bay Hotels
Staying more than a day? Good idea. For our stay this time at The Clement (an InterContinental hotel in Monterey) in Cannery Row near the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
From budget to luxury lodging, you’ll find most of the city’s hotels located in downtown Monterey and near the wharfs. These are also the most popular places to stay with the most going on nearby. For mid-range and budget hotels, look to those on Fremont Street and Munras Avenue. If you’re looking at a map, keep in mind that the main action in downtown Monterey happens on Alvarado Street, especially at night.
For an ocean view, check out the hotels around Cannery Row, northwest of the downtown area. You’ll find some hotels with views between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Wherever you stay, you’ll find that prices are higher during the summer and holidays, and also during big annual events: Monterey Jazz Festival, Pebble Beach golf tournaments, and the bigger races at Mazda Raceway. If you can work around these you’ll find much better hotel rates.
6 Monterey Hotels to try
We often book our Monterey stay using hotels.com for their ever-changing discount offers and points. Here are some we’ve stayed at:
- InterContinental The Clement Monterey
- Monterey Tides, a Joie de Vivre hotel
- Portola Hotel & Spa at Monterey Bay
- Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa
- Monterey Marriott
- The Jabberwock Inn
Getting To Monterey from San Francisco
Of course, just getting to Monterey can be a scenic drive. We’ve driven this many times from the SF Bay Area and it’s one of my favorite stretches of the Pacific Coast.
Savvy tip: Find guided Monterey Day Trip Tours from San Francisco online here.
From the San Francisco Bay Area, drive time to Monterey Bay is about two hours, about 115 miles from downtown San Francisco.
If you’re coming from San Francisco and you don’t want to drive yourself, you’ll find several good guided tours available. The typical tour will provide a couple hours of free time in Monterey’s historic waterfront district of Cannery Row, with time to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Most of the guided day trips from San Francisco will take you along the scenic Coast Highway, through Half Moon Bay, past Pescadero and the Pigeon Point Lighthouse and Santa Cruz to Monterey and Carmel.