things-to-do-in-monterey-california

25 Best Cheap & Free Things To Do In Monterey

Free things to do in Monterey

There are so many cheap and free things to do in Monterey that can help you stick to your travel budget as you visit this lovely California beach town this year. Monterey is known for its beautiful coastline, being the home of famous novelists John Steinbeck, and for the incredible seafood from the bay.

As we all know, California can be quite expensive. You can make sure your trip to Monterey stays on budget while still having an amazing time by checking out the free and cheap things to do here. Like the rest of the things to do in Monterey, this list of awesome cheap and free activities is diverse so you are sure to find something for everyone you are traveling with.

Whether you are looking for a history-focused trip, an itinerary full of natural beauty, and if you are more concerned with being in the hustle and bustle of the city, you can still enjoy the area without breaking the bank.

Let’s get started!

25 of the Best Free Things To Do In Monterey This Year

Old Fisherman’s Wharf

Among the best free things to do in Monterey CA is to visit the Old Fishermans Wharf. The wharf acted as an active fish market until the 1960s and today serves as not only a historical site but also a place to shop, eat, and sightsee.

You can find shops on the wharf that sell souvenirs, clothes, jewelry, and more. There are also restaurants and sweet shops where you eat or browse overlooking the pretty blue water of the Monterey Bay.

Plus, if you are visiting close to a holiday, you can enjoy the decorations on the wharf. Always outfitted with a festive dress, the wharf is a fun place to be around holidays year-round.

If wildlife watching is on your itinerary for your trip, you can usually see some sea lions and harbor seals splashing around the wharf. You can also hear and see them off in the distance as well. Keep your eye out for the buoys in the bay, sea lions love to lay down on them and rest in the sun.

Look For Seals At Harbor Seal at Hopkins Marine Life Refuge

Wildlife viewing is among the top free things to do in Monterey. A great place to see seals is at the Hopkins Marine Life Refuge. The lookout is just two minutes from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and offers exciting views of harbor seals lounging on the warm white sand.

The blue water, rocky coast, and white sand are stunning on their own, add in the plump harbor seals, and you have yourself a must-see view! Since this lookout point is so close to the aquarium, it’s a nice pre or post-aquarium attraction.

There are picnic tables and benches located at the parking area near the lookout and there are also places where you can walk down towards the rocks that jut out into the crashing blue waves.

Dennis The Menace Playground

Will you be visiting Monterey with kids? The Dennis The Menace Playground is one of the best free things to do in Monterey with kids. This park is huge and has countless activities for children.

Whether it is overcast or sunny, this playground is perfect for families looking for free stuff to do in Monterey CA.

Remarkably, this playground has been around since 1950 when it was built with the help of the creator of the Dennis The Menace comic strip, Hank Ketcham. He was a resident of Carmel just down the road from Monterey and of course, a lover of childish antics.

Large slides, bridges, spinning platforms and climbing bars, tunnels, and more are all there at the Dennis The Menace Playground. Kids’ eyes light up when they see this park!

Get a Cheap Ice Cream at Revival Ice Cream

Looking for a way to get some yummy ice cream in Monterey without having to pay outrageous tourist prices? At Revival Ice Cream on Alvarado Street (one of the best walking streets in Monterey) you can get a small cup of ice cream for just $3.50!

They have delicious house-made flavors that are designed with local influences in mind. If you want to spend extra, you can get a waffle bowl and add toppings to your ice cream for a mind-blowing dessert! A favorite seems to be getting ice cream topped with roasted marshmallows and chocolate pieces in a waffle bowl.

Jacks Peak County Park

When people talk about Monterey attractions, you rarely hear someone suggesting Jack’s Peak, which is such a shame! Of all the stuff to do in Monterey, Jacks’s Peak is definitely the most underrated and it offers the best hiking in Monterey.

This county park is 525 acres of wooded mountain area that offers hiking trails and picnic areas for visitors. Photography, wildlife viewing, catching a glimpse of the bay, and enjoying a picnic are all great ways to enjoy the park.

This is one of the best free things to do in Monterey as you can spend time exploring the nature of Monterey County, save money by having a picnic instead of eating out, and you will get to see a view of the Monterey Bay that few visitors ever get to see.

A few things to remember before your visit to Jacks Peak. The closing hours change depending on what time of year it is so be sure to check the hours of operation before visiting.

Second, you should keep in mind that this is mountain lion territory. It isn’t uncommon to see wildlife like mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, deer, and more in Monterey County. It’s important that you are aware of your surroundings while hiking and know how to respond if you encounter wildlife on the trails.

This information isn’t to scare you. After many visits to Jacks Peak Park, we have seen wildlife, but have never encountered it up close and personal, so you definitely shouldn’t let this deter you from visiting this beautiful park.

While there are some steep trails in the park, you will encounter people of all ages hiking in the park. Families with small children are frequently seen hiking the trails, so if you are traveling with little ones you can rest assured that the whole family can enjoy time spent at Jacks Peak!

Drive The Pacific Coast Highway

You won’t find many who will argue with you about how amazing the Pacific Coast Highway is. From the world-famous McWay Falls, one of the only waterfalls in the world that drop into the ocean and beautiful hiking trails to delicious bakeries and iconic views, driving the PCH is something you won’t soon forget.

Monterey is a popular stop on any Pacific Coast Highway road trip; you can easily hop onto the highway if you are staying in the city and start the beautiful drive north or south on the highway.

Taking the highway south will take you toward Big Sur and more of the most prominent and popular parts of this stunning drive. Depending on how much time you want to spend on the road, you can see sites like the Bixby Creek Bridge, visit the Big Sur Bakery, and see the Elephant Seal viewpoint

A Pacific Coast Highway road trip is one of the best free things to do in Monterey no matter what time of year you visit and no matter what type of weather you have while you are there. In the sunshine or in the fog, the PCH does not disappoint.

Driving on this idyllic highway with the picturesque views is one of the top things to do in California. The winding road and crashing waves draw millions of road trippers every year.

The original goal of the highway was to connect Canada with Mexico. It was the small-scale endeavor at local levels that when combined created the beautiful highway that it is today.

In 1931 the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge was built and it now serves as a major recognizable symbol for the Golden State. As one of the major points on the highway, be sure to check it out if you get the chance!

If you are looking for places to hike along the trail, try out the Soberanes Canyon hike. Just shy of three miles, this hike is rated hard in difficulty and includes primitive wooden bridges, stairs to climb, and incredible views of wildflowers, redwoods, and of course, the bay.

If you make it down to Big Sur, you can stop by the Big Sur Bakery and art gallery. Here you can stretch your legs, grab something to eat, and shop artwork from local artists.

At the bakery, you will find everything from salads, burgers, and pizzas to pastries, coffee, and wine. The delicious food and drinks are the perfect entertainers for a relaxing sit on the patio in the sunshine.

There are bathrooms near the bakery as well as beautiful grounds to explore in the area. Hanging greenery, cacti and succulents, along with other beautiful flora and fauna make this an even more appealing stop along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Walk Along Cannery Row

Hands down the best of the free activities in Monterey is walking Cannery Row. This is probably the most recognizable location in the city. This stretch of road in Monterey was home to fish canneries in the early days of California.

There was a big canning boom and expansion due to demand brought on by the war from 1916-1918 and many more canneries and businesses erupted during this time. John Steinbeck wrote a book titled Cannery Row which was published in 1945. And over time, the row continued to gain popularity.

Today, Cannery Row is mostly restaurants and shops. There are several gift shops here where you can find a souvenir at a reasonable price. You could also grab a milkshake or ice cream to enjoy while you walk around.

Walking along here gives you a look back in history while seeing the effects of modernity on this historical road in California. Also, a great spot for taking travel pictures, walking on Cannery Row is among the top free things to do in Monterey.

Check Out The Views For The Monument In Steinbeck Plaza

While you are exploring Cannery Row in Monterey, you will have many opportunities to stop into one of the many shops for drinks, ice cream, sandwiches, or sweet treats to take away. But, don’t forget to check out the nearby monument in Steinbeck Plaza to grab a seat to enjoy a treat from one of the local shops or just enjoy the sunshine.

There are benches and seating around the monument where you can get views of the bay, perfect for a midday snack or quick lunch.

The monument involves a water feature and bronze statues of some of the most notable figures in Monterey’s history. Standing at fifteen feet high and seventeen feet wide, the monument is quite large. You will see the depiction of Chinese fishermen, cannery workers, a famous marine biologist, and Flora Woods, a Monterey woman known for her generosity.

This is one of the free things to do in Monterey that gives you a place to relax and soak up the remarkable beauty of the Monterey Bay coastline.

Coast Guard Pier

While this is one of the most best free things to do in Monterey for families, it truly is fun for all ages! A walk on the Coast Guard Pier is ideal for those looking to see sea lions up close. Although you can see sea lions and seals in many places in Monterey, the Coast Guard Pier allows you to stand just a few feet from them.

Sea lions hang around Monterey all months of the year but are not always lounging around the Coast Guard Pier. They tend to enjoy laying on the rocks lining the pier during the warmer months or when the sun is shining.

If you are looking for all of the best things to do in Monterey for free, you cannot miss the Coast Guard Pier! The pier is right next to a lovely beach as well so you can lounge around there for a bit or sit for a picnic lunch at the picnic table above the beach while you are there.

Visit Monterey Beaches

The beaches in Monterey are out of this world! Visiting them is a must for everyone looking for free activities in Monterey CA. A few of the most popular beaches in Monterey are:

  • Monterey State Beach
  • Del Monte Beach
  • San Carlos Beach
  • MacAbee Beach

Visiting one of the best beaches in California is always a good idea. But, what really makes going to the beach one of the best free things to do in Monterey is that the Monterey Bay has created a painting-like landscape around the coast here that forms some of the prettiest and most photogenic beaches in the world.

You can lounge in the sun, take a beach walk, pass a frisbee, or simply sit and marvel at the natural beauty here. Keep in mind, there are sea lions and seals in the water. You are almost guaranteed to be sharing the water with them, maybe even the beach so stay alert.

You may also see painters painting the beaches as well. Locals and visiting artists like to come to the beaches to set up their easels and paint the coastline. You will see some of these paintings for sale in gift shops in Monterey.

Presidio of Monterey Museum

Despite the name, the Presidio of Monterey Museum isn’t actually on the military base. The city of Monterey leases some of the land from the Army and anyone is able to visit the museum. This easily makes the list of free things to do in Monterey has a wealth of information about the military and the area as well.

The museum is located in the Lower Presidio Historic Park and it has museums that take you through the stages of military development in Monterey as well as highlights the Native populations of the area.

For anyone asking around about what to do in Monterey for free, you will probably hear about the Presidio of Monterey Museum. This free attraction in Monterey will be most loved by history-focused travelers.

Get Free Admission To The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History

The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History is just a few minute drive from Monterey on the Monterey Peninsula and it offers free admission for everyone on the last Saturday of the month during the school year.

If you are visiting Monterey during this time, swing by the museum to enjoy the museum as it is one of the best free things to do on the central coast.

If you are planning on getting around the city on foot or by bike, no worries! The museum is just one mile from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. You will know you have arrived when you see the large whale sculpture out front!

The museum focuses on plants, animals, geology, and the cultural histories of the Monterey area. It has been open since 1883 (the same year that the Brooklyn Bridge opened) and it is one of the oldest natural history museums in the country.

The collections here show a deep diversity of the flora, fauna, and historical artifacts of the central coast, making it one of the best free things to do in Monterey.

Lovers Point Park

Speaking of things to do in central coast California, if you are taking a little excursion to Pacific Grove on your trip to Monterey, you should visit the beautiful Lovers Point Park which has an incredible beach and picturesque views!

Once you arrive, it will be easy to see why it’s one of the best free things to do in Monterey! Home to a top beach in the city and a beautiful rocky coastline, Lovers Point Park is among the best dog-friendly things to do in Monterey as well.

The beach has soft sand, perfect coastal and bay views, seal and sea lion watching, crystal clear waters near the beach, and deep blue water further out into the bay.

Around the beach, there is a walking and biking trail that is very popular. You can also walk out to the water’s edge on strips of land that reach out into the bay from the trail. You are almost guaranteed to see either seals or sea lions so keep an eye out while you are relaxing on the beach.

Follow The Path of History

Wonder what to do in Monterey no longer, the Path of History through the city showcases historic buildings and free museums that you can visit during your time in Monterey.

You start at the Customs House, then just follow the little yellow circle emblems in the sidewalk. They mark your path and take you to see many historical sites along the trail, 55 to be exact! The path is two miles long and goes through the Old Town Historic District.

Following along this path is one of the best free things to do in Monterey as it is a free walking tour that includes beautiful gardens and free attractions perfect for budget travelers in the city.

Plus, if you are visiting in October, the Monterey History Festival is going on in the historic district. At the festival, there are fun events like free Mexican cooking lessons, crafts, and performers. Some of the buildings along the path that are not always open will be opened for the festival.

Some of the top attractions on the Monterey Path of History include:

  • Cotton Hall Museum & The Old Monterey Jail
  • Pacific House Museum
  • Custom House Plaza
  • Larkin House
  • The first brick house
  • The first theatre

If you want to take a guided walking tour of the area, you can book a tour for only ten bucks and everyone under 18 is free!

San Carlos Cathedral

For all of the history lovers looking for free activities in Monterey, the San Carlos Cathedral should be on your radar.

This stunning cathedral in Monterey is a great place to walk around for free, take pictures, and take a step back in time. San Carlos Cathedral is the oldest operating parish in The Golden State. It is also the oldest stone building in the state.

In 2006, the church began a restoration project which led to an archaeological dig that turned up many artifacts that are now displayed in the heritage center next to the church.

The present sandstone church was built in the early 1790s and as such, history-focused travelers and perhaps photo-focused travelers as well, will not want to miss this gorgeous building in America’s First City as it is one of the best free things to do in Monterey.

Monterey Wine Tasting

Wine tastings in Monterey can get expensive, but there is a place in town where you can sit for a tasting for just ten bucks. For anyone looking for cool things to do in Monterey, consider a wine tasting!

You can find a cheap wine tasting at the Bargetto Winery’s Monterey Tasting Room on Cannery Row. Here, you can get a flight of five wines for just ten dollars. You can enjoy their award-winning wines in their cozy tasting room near other popular spots on Cannery Row.

Budget travelers will rejoice over this awesome deal and quickly add it to their list of cheap things to do in Monterey!

Monterey Bay Coastal Trail

The Monterey Coastal Trail is among the best free things to do in Monterey Bay area. It runs from Marina in the north, down through Cannery Row, and to the end of the north side of the Monterey Peninsula.

Along the trail, you will find beautiful water views and you will likely catch a glimpse of some of the marine life that calls the bay home as well. Walking this tail is one of the top free things to do in Monterey if you want to see the beauty that the area offers while enjoying the salty bay air.

Attend One Of The Festivals In Monterey

The festivals and events held here are among the best cheap and free things to do in Monterey. You can find free festivals, markets, and events all year long. The events held at the fairgrounds are usually a bit costly, especially if you are paying admission for a whole family. However, there are tons of free events as well.

You can go to the See Monterey website or an events calendar for Monterey County. Fun festivals like Monterey Heritage Festival, Good Old Days Festival, and Whalefest are all great community events that are free to enjoy.

Of course, you can spend money around every corner buying souvenirs and festival foods, but it’s free to walk around, browse booths, and listen to the live music.

17 Mile Drive

This famous drive offers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. There are 17 marked stops along the drive and you can see gorgeous white sandy beaches, golf courses, and a point of interest on the peninsula, The Lone Cypress.

If you bike 17 Mile Drive it is totally free, but if you are visiting in a car there is a $11.25 entrance fee. Nature lovers, road trippers, and explorers get ready for this incredible drive that is full of dramatic coastline and untouched beauty.

There are places along the drive where you can walk down to the water or on one of the beaches that are along the drive. 17 Mile Drive actually goes through Pebble Beach and is one of the top scenic road trips in California, placing it firmly on the list of the best cheap and free things to do in Monterey County.

Walk The Loop Trail Around El Estero Park

Walking around El Estero Park is among the top free things to do in Monterey with kids. There is a trail around the lake in the park that is 1.2 miles long. It is actually called a Paracourse. It was designed with exercise and strength training in mind.

There are two exercise station clusters and each of those stations has six stations within them. Things like monkey bars, pull-up bars, sit-up platforms, and more are along this waterside trail. If you are looking for things to do in Monterey this weekend, consider getting your fitness on this fun trail in El Estero Park!

Get Free Admission To The Monterey Museum of Art

The Monterey Museum of Art usually requires you to purchase a ticket for entry, but there are certain occasions when you can get free admission to the museum. As this is such a great museum, getting free admission is incredible and makes this one of the best free things to do in Monterey.

Of all Monterey Bay activities, this may be the best for art lovers. With beautiful art displays that showcase the past, present, and future of the diversity of California, you will be enchanted by the world displayed in the museum.

You can find free two-hour parking on the street nearby or find a spot in one of the parking facilities in the downtown area.

This museum has more to offer visitors than carefully cultivated visual arts. If you bike to the museum you can get a 50% discount if you show them your helmet at the desk. Military families get free admission with the Blue Star Museum program along with free admission for children, students, and members any time of the year, making this a budget-friendly option for many types of travelers.

However, others can get in for free during one of these times:

  • Family Fun Day events (check online calendar)
  • First Friday (free after-hours access on the first Friday of the month-check online calendar to see which months will have the free first Friday)

Asilomar State Beach & Costal Trail

You can make the short ten-minute drive from Cannery Row to Asilomar State Beach to see the wild and turbulent coast of the Monterey Peninsula. This is by far among the top free things to do on the Monterey peninsula.

When it comes to Monterey Bay things to do, Asilomar State Beach should be on your radar! The beautiful rocky coast and dune habitat along the Monterey Peninsula are parts of the appeal for many travelers visiting the area.

And Asilomar State Beach is a great place to see these natural features up close. There are many different beaches broken up by rocky outcroppings and land offshoots for you to explore.

The natural beauty of this central CA coastline is really unmatched, making a visit to the Asilomar State Beach and Coast Trail one of the best free things to do in Monterey.

Even referred to as the Refuge By The Sea, Asilomar is a celebrated area on the Monterey Bay that is known for its dune ecosystem as well as its architectural significance.

Asilomar State Park was used as a young woman’s leadership camp in the early 1900s where many of its buildings were built by architect Julia Morgan.

You can find parking all along Sunset Drive which runs alongside the beach. There’s also a lovely walking trail called the Asilomar Coastal Trail that you to follow as you explore the area and take in the sights along the beach.

Keep your eye out for the quaint little gazebo along the pathway. It is a great place to sit and rest while you enjoy the remarkable blue water and marine life playing below. The trail is a mixture of sand, wooden steps, and wooden boardwalks. You will see people of all ages and abilities along the trail.

Monterey Moon Tree

The Monterey Moon Tree has to be one of the most unique free things to do in Monterey. While the tree may not look special, it has a crazy cool story behind it. A bunch of tree seeds were taken to space on an Apollo 14 mission and the same types of seeds were kept on Earth so the seeds could be compared to each other.

The seeds were later planted back here on Earth and produced more than 400 seedlings that were planted here and called Moon Trees. One of them can be seen in Friendly Plaza in Monterey. The Monterey Moon Tree is planted at the southern end of the plaza.

Monterey’s Tasty Olive Bar

This has got to be the coolest of all the free things to do in Monterey. On Cannery Row, there’s a shop called the Tasty Olive Bar.

You can go in and try the vinaigrettes and olive oils that they have for sale there for free. When you go inside, just ask for some bread and they will give you a cup of bread for taste testing the oils.

With intriguing flavors like chipotle olive oil, Baklouti Agrumato, olive wood smoked olive oil, and harissa olive oil, you will have a blast trying the unique and tried and true flavors alike.

If you are looking for a cheap memento to take home with you, consider buying a small bottle of your favorite oil or vinaigrette at the olive bar.

Jameson’s Classic Motorcycle Museum

Free museums are always an awesome find when looking for free things to do in Monterey. Jameson’s Classic Motorcycle Museum is just a mile from The Monterey Bay Aquarium so walking there is definitely possible if you are exploring the peninsula on foot.

This is a small museum in nearby Pacific Grove, but it is jam-packed with old motorcycles that enthusiasts will love. There are bikes from the early 1900s, early Harley Davidsons, Vespas, and bikes from different countries. This is one of the best things to do in Pacific Grove.

Adding some cheap and free things to do in Monterey to your Monterey itinerary will help you stay on budget while also checking out some of the most exciting things to do in this gorgeous little beach town.

Which of these sites and activities will you be adding to your Monterey bucket list?

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