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 San Francisco to spend the day on another bay.
If you’re coming from the SF Bay Area, this could also make an easy weekend getaway or weekday escape. 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.( If you like small-town downtowns, you’ll also love Carmel-by-the-Sea.)
Here’s my roundup of the things most people want to do when they visit the area, starting with the big kahuna, the aquarium. Although I try to drag them outside and away from the fishes in the aquarium, people always insist on going, and they’re never disappointed.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, located on the site of a former sardine cannery on Cannery Row, is number one on most visitors’ bucket lists. But that’s not all there is to do in California’s most popular central coast city. (Check out the tour options below the Aquarium deals list below.)
You’ll find so much to see and do as this place is huge. But 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.
Monterey Bay Aquarium Discount Tickets
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.
- TICKETS: 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.
- FREEBIE: 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- AAA Discount: California AAA members can get a small discount on Monterey Bay Aquarium tickets at their local Northern California AAA office.
- 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.
- Monterey Bay Hotel Coupon Codes — Monterey Bay hotels often have special offers on aquarium tickets — ask at the front desk when you check in.
Monterey Tours & Activities
Want to play tourist for a couple of days? Here are some fun activities you can book in advance.
- The Scenic Route — A drive around the area just relax and enjoy the stunning coastal views along HYW One — like the 17-Mile Drive (you can also book a Day Trip from San Francisco online here). Most of the day trips available take you by coach along the Coast Highway, through Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz to Monterey. I’ve driven this many times and it’s my favorite stretch of the Pacific Coast. If you opt for the guided tour, you’ll have a couple hours of free time in Monterey’s historic waterfront district of Cannery Row.
- Monterey Bay Kayak/Paddleboard/Bike/Surrey — Rent something for an easy fun way to explore Monterey, from the coves to other areas with a guided tour or on your own. You can explore Fisherman’s Wharf, local museums, specialty shops, Cannery Row, coastal areas, parks and picnic areas with waterfront views. I found the best source for booking activities on this Monterey / Carmel activities page, including:
- The Bicycle Tour
- Stand-up Paddleboard Lesson/Tour
- Carmel Valley Wine Tasting Tour
- California State Parks Pass
- Tons more …
- California State Parks Monterey District — A great place to hike rolling meadows and headlands. You’ll see local wildlife, such as harbor seals, sea lions, seabirds and sea otters. Watch the migrating gray whales from December through May. The offshore area forms one of the richest underwater habitats in the world, popular with divers.
Monterey Bay Hotel Deals
Staying over? Compare hotel deals in Monterey, including the following that come recommended.
- Portola Hotel & Spa at Monterey Bay
- InterContinental The Clement Monterey
- Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa
- Monterey Tides, a Joie de Vivre hotel
- Monterey Marriott
- The Jabberwock Inn
- HI Monterey Hostel (best value)
- Compare and save: Go Here to find and book a Monterey hotel and also read user reviews from Hotels.com, Expedia, and TripAdvisor all in one place.
Monterey Bay Aquarium Know Before You Go
- Tickets: We get our tickets to Monterey Bay Aquarium online in advance to save time.
- Hours: Winter hours 10am-5pm; Summer/holidays 9:30am-6pm; Summer weekends 9:30am – 8pm.
- Location: Monterey Bay Aquarium 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940.
- Getting There: During the summer, you can take the free WAVE visitor trolley from downtown Monterey to avoid traffic congestion.
- Parking: 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. You can also save by parking your car further out and taking the FREE WAVE visitor trolley to the aquarium.
- Small Group Tours: See recommended guided tours of Monterey and Carmel.
- Trivia: The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Kelp Forest stands at 28 feet and is known as one of the tallest aquarium exhibits in the world.
- Official Aquarium Info: See www.montereybayaquarium.org