A visit to Monterey with kids offers its own special magic. Most come for the famous aquarium, but there is plenty to keep families exploring beyond those mesmerizing jellyfish. Stay awhile and meet local whales and otters, take a family bike ride along the coast, or head inland to explore local farms in this “Salad Bowl of the World.”
Monterey is a place where new discoveries and family memories are made. Enjoy family fun while immersing yourself in California culture and some of nature’s most spectacular wonders.
If you’re considering a trip to Monterey with kids, read on for the best family-friendly activities plus some great places to stay and eat. You’ll also find a sample four-day itinerary to help you picture how all these experiences can blend into one amazing family adventure!
Things keep changing fast! Make sure to double-check schedule changes and closures before your trip.
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The Best Things to Do in Monterey with Kids
If your family loves studying the natural world while learning about California history and indulging in a little coastal luxury this is the place for you! You’ll make fascinating discoveries together while getting a glimpse of natural beauty that will take your breath away.
The city of Monterey is located on the Monterey Peninsula, which also includes Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pacific Grove, and Pebble Beach. Most of the places and activities mentioned below are located on the Peninsula, though a few are a quick drive north or inland. You can see a preview on the post map here.
The City of Monterey vs the Monterey Peninsula vs. Monterey County
The city of Monterey is located on the Monterey Peninsula. The peninsula also includes the small towns of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pacific Grove, and Pebble Beach. In searches for Monterey, you may also encounter places located throughout Monterey County, which is quite large and goes well past the areas usually affiliated with the city itself.
Monterey County’s northernmost city is also the largest, Salinas. From there, the county stretches south through Big Sur to Ragged Point. It also expands east just past 101, encompassing King City.
The peninsula is the focus here, though I snuck in a few options to the north and further inland.
Top 20 Family Experiences in Monterey
1. Explore the Monterey Bay Aquarium
A trip to Monterey with kids isn’t complete without a stop at the Monterey Bay Aquarium! One of the best aquariums in the country, it is both a fun family outing and an inspiring introduction to ocean conservation. Its unique oceanfront location is awe-inspiring and timeless hands-on galleries make learning fun.
If you’ve seen Finding Dory, many of the aquarium features will seem familiar. You might recognize the landmark kelp forest exhibit, which opened in 1984 and remains impressive to behold today. At 28 feet tall, the exhibit is one of the tallest in the world. It also reflects a focus on local Monterey habitats. Take your time ogling sardines, leopard sharks, wolf-eels, and more from the perspective of a diver.
Near the kelp exhibit, you’ll find more popular places to explore. Touch pools and the immersive wave crash exhibit are on the first floor, and the Coral Reef Kingdom, Penguins, and a Splash Zone for the youngest visitors are on the second.
Though admission prices are steep, you can easily spend the whole day having fun at this one-of-a-kind aquarium.
2. Go on a Whale Watching Tour
If you’re feeling inspired to get closer to marine life after your aquarium visit, consider a whale-watching tour.
We chose Discovery Whale Watch for our first tour, mostly because of the shorter hours offered over the winter months. We saw killer whales and witnessed migrating gray whales with their calves. Though seeing both was a thrill, it was also a reminder that observing animals in the wild can be both exciting and tragic.
In the summer and fall, tours search for humpback and blue whales. In the winter, tours follow the great migration of gray whales. This article has a helpful list of whale-watching tours in Monterey.
3. Explore the Bay by Kayak
Another way to get up close to Monterey Bay with kids is by Kayak. Children four and up can experience Adventures by the Sea’s Cannery Row Kayak Tour which explores the kelp forest just off Cannery Row. You’ll see a raft of otters, harbor seals, and sea lions on this two-hour public tour.
If you’re looking for a calm and easy kayak adventure and don’t mind a little drive, the Elkhorn Slough is just 30 min north of Monterey. Winding seven miles inland from the Bay, the Elkhorn Slough has the largest tract of tidal salt marsh in California outside of San Francisco. This provides a rich and diverse habitat for resident and migratory birds, marine mammals, and fish. We took our boys on their first kayak tour here with Monterey Bay Kayaks when they were 3 and 5, and our only complaint was that it ended too soon!
4. Boat Around the Bay
Don’t make the mistake of only viewing the Bay from the shoreline. Whichever you choose, there’s no shortage of ways to get a closer look! Here are some popular options in addition to those mentioned above.
Glass Bottom Boat
The Little Mermaid Glass Bottom Boat tour is a great option if you are looking for a quick adventure. On this 30-35 minute tour, you can glimpse the area’s famous otters, seals, and more.
Join Captain and Naturalist Kate Spencer on a Fast Raft Ocean Safari. This 33-foot RIB, or Rigid-hull Inflatable Boat, offers an intimate ocean experience. The vessel is nimble enough to reach areas that larger boats can’t and fast enough to get to wildlife quickly.
Sailing is a magical and eco-friendly way to experience Monterey up close! Book a tour with Sail Monterey, which departs from Old Fisherman’s Wharf. With no more than 25 people on board, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to learn about sailing and this unique ecosystem. You may even get a chance at the wheel!
5. Explore the Best Monterey Beaches
During a visit to Monterey with kids, you’ll probably be thinking about adding in some beach time. Wondering which are the best beaches for kids? The following are some favorites.
Note: Monterey Bay beaches tend to have more gentle waves than their neighbors to the north and south. However, as with all northern California beaches, be on the lookout for signs that let you know when swimming isn’t safe.
Lovers Point Park
Located in beautiful Pacific Grove, you’ll find green grass for running, BBQs for grilling, rocks for climbing, two small sandy beaches, clean bathrooms, and good coffee shops nearby. Located in a protected cove, this is one of the safer places for kids to splash in the ocean.
Part of the California State Park System, Asilomar State Beach is located within the Conference Grounds of the same name (an affordable lodging option too). This is a gorgeous no-frills beach. Come here to sunbathe, wade in the water, play in the sand, explore the tidepools, and do a little birdwatching. Food and restrooms are located away from the beach at Asilomar’s Hearst Social Hall.
Monterey State Beach
Monterey’s largest beach can be accessed from Monterey Bay Waterfront Park and the Monterey Bay Recreation Trail. You’ll find plenty of space on the sand, volleyball courts, picnic tables, and BBQ pits as amenities. Monterey State Beach offers opportunities for tide-pooling as well as family-friendly wading thanks to the beach’s gently sloping sand shelf.
I’ll be honest, John said I couldn’t hit “publish” until I added this one. I was going to leave it out, but he thought that was crazy talk. So here’s the deal. Carmel Beach is gorgeous. It may be the most beautiful beach in the area, with magical sunsets enhanced by bagpipers and happy people playing with their dogs. But, while Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of my favorite places to get away with John or my friends, I don’t see it as being as much fun for (or with) kids. Families need to be aware that playing near the surf or wading can be dangerous due to rip currents and sleeper waves, and there is no lifeguard on duty. Conditions can change quickly, so it’s important to stay on alert. But if you’re looking for a beautiful place to relax and play on the sand, this is a good choice.
6. Take a Family Bike Ride on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail
The Monterey County Coastal Recreation Trail hugs the coast of Monterey Bay for 18 miles, from Castroville in the north to Pacific Grove in the south. Stretch your legs while taking in some of the gorgeous scenery or simply avoid the hassle of parking near the Aquarium!
Rent bikes for the whole family, or even a surrey, at Adventures by the Sea. It’s a perfect way to take your time and explore some of the best sights on the Monterey peninsula with kids.
7. Play in El Estero Park and the Dennis the Menace Playground
This park is a must when visiting Monterey with kids! Located across the street from the ocean and centered around Lake El Estero and its swan boats, the biggest draw for many families is the huge Dennis the Menace Playground. The park was established with support from Hank Ketcham, creator of the Dennis the Menace comic strip, hence the name.
My boys have spent hours here, climbing all over the play structures and into tunnels, crisscrossing the suspension bridge, racing through the hedge maze and playing pretend on the giant adventure ship. This playground is truly a place where kids can let their imaginations run wild.
8. Shop and Stroll along Cannery Row
Cannery Row became the official name of this stretch of Ocean Avenue in honor of John Steinbeck’s novel set in Monterey’s mid-century cannery culture. Today, it’s the tourist hub of Monterey. The historic cannery buildings house shops, galleries, restaurants, and family attractions that lead to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Keep the kids energized while browsing with fun stops at the Monterey Mirror Maze and the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.
9. Dive into California’s History at the State Historic Park
Before it became the city we know today, Monterey played an important role in the history of California. In 1770 Spanish colonizers built a presidio and mission in which the native Rumsien people, who had enjoyed the natural wonders of the region for thousands of years, were enslaved. Those that survived colonization were later exiled to southern California, where about 2,000 of their descendants live today. That original mission was moved to Carmel a year after it opened. Early European settlers remained at the Royal Presidio, where the San Carlos Cathedral now stands. Monterey was named the capital of California by the Spanish in 1775.
In 1822, when Mexico won its independence from Spain, Mexico opened California to international trade. Monterey became its first port. The Custom House expanded in 1827 to accommodate expanding commercialism and is now the oldest public building in California today. Now a part of the State Park System, you can visit the Custom House within the Monterey Historic District.
U.S. troops planted the American flag in Monterey, claiming it for the United States, in 1846 during the Mexican-American war. Three years later, delegates met at Monterey’s Colton Hall to draft California’s first Constitution. It was sent to Congress in January 1950, and California was voted into the Union later that year.
10. Visit the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History and Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
While the best place to learn about the ocean is, you guessed it, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History provides a window into the region’s land-loving flora and fauna.
This local gem also provides information for visitors who seek to witness the magical monarch migration. After a few quiet winters, the Monarchs returned during the winter of 2021-22, with a count of about 14,000 butterflies! Monarchs can be viewed from November through February at the small Monarch Sanctuary. It’s located about a mile down the road from the Museum.
11. Experience Unforgettable 17-Mile Drive
Though it may seem a little crazy to pay $11.25 for a drive along the coast, 17-Mile Drive is no ordinary outing. Take your time experiencing the stops along the way. Gape at crashing waves, play on sandy beaches and wander through mythical trees. Crocker Grove has the largest and oldest Monterey Cypress trees in the world, and you won’t want to miss a photo op at the iconic Lone Cypress.
Your entrance fee is reimbursed with a purchase of $35 or more at Pebble Beach Resorts restaurants. This includes the Inn at Spanish Bay where you can sit by the fire pits and take in a daily bagpipe serenade at sunset.
12. Hop on a Horse
Whenever we travel, I like to shake things up with a bit of an adventure. Once you’ve checked off obvious ways to see the bay, consider exploring the coast or the Del Monte Forest by horseback. At the Pebble Beach Equestrian Center, you can even introduce the youngest riders to horseback riding with an onsite pony ride!
13. Scoot around Town in a Sea Car
See Monterey through a unique lens by scooting through the city on a Sea Car Tour. These tiny yellow cars have pre-programmed one, two, or three hours tours so you can relax and enjoy the scenery. Group tours are available and the new roadster can seat 4 with a bumper seat.
14. Speed around the WeatherTech Laguna Raceway
Ten miles inland, WeatherTech Laguna Raceway offers plenty of options for family fun when you need a break from the ocean. Take in events like the Superbike Speedfest, unique races with historic cars, Indycar races, and more.
In the evenings, Twilight Rides allow cyclists of all ages and skill levels to experience the 11-turn 2.238-mile track. This includes the legendary Corkscrew that drops 59 feet in 450 feet of track. A different local bike club hosts each month, and some offer competitions, barbeque meals, costume contests, and more.
15. Take a Hike in Jack’s Peak Park
If your stay allows time to view this gorgeous area from above, consider a hike at Jack’s Peak Park. The Skyline Nature Trail winds through forested areas until you reach the summit of Jack’s Peak. Its ridgetop views offer a unique look at the scenery below. This is the highest point on the Monterey Peninsula with views of the bay, Carmel, and the Salinas Valley.
16. Wonder at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Located south of the Peninsula is the park considered to be the “crown jewel of the California State Park system.” This is one of my favorite spots to explore with the boys, and I always leave thinking of new areas to explore on our next trip.
You’ll find spectacular trails, cultural sites, and amazing opportunities to see wildlife. You can tide-pool, bird watch, and glimpse harbor seals, sea lions, whales, otters, and more. From the magical Cypress Tree Trail to breathtaking China Cove, you won’t regret taking the 15-minute drive from Monterey to this amazing park.
Check out our guide for our favorite Point Lobos hikes as well as other tips for planning your visit.
17. Take a Walk in Steinbeck’s Shoes at the National Steinbeck Center
For a literary perspective on the Monterey area, you can stop for a visit at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. The multi-sensory Museum takes visitors on a journey through the author’s life and work. See big-screen clips from movie versions of his novels and exhibit features like the Model T Ford included in “Cannery Row” and “East of Eden.” A visitor favorite is the camper Steinbeck took on his road trip through 34 states.
Find creative inspiration – and lunch – at the Steinbeck House, the author’s boyhood home a few blocks away.
18. Sample the Salad Bowl of the World
The more we venture through California, the more interested I am in learning about California farming. In a state that produces as much as California does, this industry has a huge impact on our residents and the environment.
The Salinas Valley neighbors the Monterey peninsula and is often called the Salad Bowl of the World! If you’re interested in making stronger connections with the food you eat, join an Agriculture Education tour with Ag Venture Tours. You’ll spend a few hours touring the region and can even embark on a walking tour of Pezzini Farms, home to one of our favorite farm stands.
Even if you don’t end up on a full tour, stop and taste the fresh produce and other fun finds from stands just north of Monterey.
19. Check Out Local Festivals and Events
Like many California beach towns, the Monterey peninsula has festivals and events that you might want to plan a trip around.
The Great Sandcastle Contest on Carmel Beach
For decades, the City of Carmel-by-the-Sea and the Monterey Bay chapter of the American Institute of Architects have hosted the Great Sandcastle Contest. One day each fall, sandcastles completely transform Carmel Beach. Join in the fun, or check out the imaginative architecture! Events are usually held in September or October once the June gloom has left town.
Since 1959, the Peninsula has celebrated California’s official state vegetable. Almost all of America’s fresh artichoke supply is grown in California, and two-thirds of that is grown in nearby Castroville. You may have heard of this one as Norma Jean Mortenson, later known as Marilyn Monroe, was the city’s first Artichoke Queen in 1948.
Who doesn’t love a county fair? The Monterey County Fair is a reminder of the small town natures of many of the peninsula towns. With family-friendly entertainment, carnival rides and games, and a nod to the region’s aquaculture and agriculture, a stop at the fair is a great addition to a visit in late summer or early fall.
20. Take a Day Trip to Explore the Surrounding Area
If Monterey is your home base for a while, check out these options for easy day trips from the peninsula.
Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is one of California’s best-kept secrets. With a great mix of breathtaking views, easy hikes, and fascinating wildlife, it makes for a perfect day trip from Monterey with kids. Check out our tips for making the most of a day at Pinnacles.
The sublime beauty of the Monterey peninsula continues down the coast through Big Sur. Though best known for romantic getaways and wellness retreats, it’s also a wonderful place for families to unwind and connect in nature. We share our favorite Big Sur adventures here.
On the northern side of Monterey Bay, you’ll find this amazing coastal city that’s well worth a visit. Families love this environmentally-conscious surf town with its wide sandy beaches. It also happens to be home to the iconic Giant Dipper roller coaster. Check out our favorite Santa Cruz stops here.
Where to Stay in Monterey with Kids
This is where we stayed during our Monterey trip for Bug’s 2nd birthday. We liked that the hotel was welcoming to kids but still a nice getaway for grown-ups too. Families enjoy the outdoor pool, kid-friendly eats, and a library with materials for all ages. The pirate program with its welcome gifts for kids has been temporarily suspended, but hopefully, it will return soon. Monterey vendors like Adventures by Sea and Sea Cars also have shops set up here, making it a convenient home base.
The magic of Asilomar is the location just steps away from a gorgeous beach. It also enjoys grounds filled with nature trails and historic architecture. The rooms are rustic and no-frills, but if you plan to spend most of your time outdoors, this is a great budget-friendly option for families in lovely Pacific Grove.
If you’re looking for an interesting spot to camp near Monterey, check out Laguna Seca. A racetrack by day, Laguna Seca offers camping minutes from downtown Monterey, Carmel, and Salinas. Time your visit to one of their monthly twilight bike rides for days and nights of family fun.
Sanctuary Vacation Rentals offers some great options for character-filled and comfortable homes that are the perfect landing pad after a long day of sightseeing. One of my favorites is Villa by the Sea in Pacific Grove, about a 10-minute walk to the aquarium.
Where to Eat with Kids in Monterey
Old Fisherman’s Wharf Clam Chowder
If you’re looking for the quintessential Monterey bite to eat for families, grab some clam chowder in a bread bowl on Old Fisherman’s Wharf. This is especially tasty on one of those chilly summer days. Old Fisherman’s Grotto is a longtime favorite of many visitors. It’s best suited to families with older children as there is no space for high chairs or strollers.
Housed in an old train depot with a large laid-back patio, the Monterey Tap Depot is just off the Monterey Recreation Trail and steps from Fisherman’s Wharf. The outdoor patio has fire pits, heaters, picnic tables, corn hole games, and easy access to the Wedo’s Tacos food truck. This is a great spot to stop after a bike ride along the trail.
This local Pacific Grove comfort food favorite offers something for everyone, with gourmet hot dogs (and veggie dogs), mac n’ cheese, tater tots, balsamic Brussels sprouts, and delicious local Marianne’s Ice Cream. Enjoy your food on their lovely laid-back patio.
Itinerary: Four Days in Monterey with Kids
The following is a sample itinerary for a four-day extended weekend in Monterey with kids that features many of the suggestions above. Of course, you should do as much or as little as you’d like. There’s something for every family and every pace around here.
Day 1: Get Settled and Unwind
After settling in, there’s a good chance you’ll feel the lure of the region’s star attraction: Monterey Bay. Head to a beach to take it all in, or get out onto the water with one of Sail Monterey’s relaxing Catamaran sails.
End your day at the Grotto on Old Fisherman’s wharf with a trademark bowl of Clam Chowder.
Day 2: The Big Stuff
It’s time for the star attraction! I like to get to places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium early to avoid the worst of the crowds. Take your time and explore one of the best aquariums in the United States.
If you have time and energy after the aquarium, explore Cannery Row. Then, rent bikes or a surrey at Adventures by Sea and enjoy the lovely 1.7-mile bike ride to Lover’s Point Park in Pacific Grove for some late afternoon beach fun.
Day 3: Explore the Region
Consider exploring further afield today. Drive north to Santa Cruz for a day at the Beach Boardwalk, learn about the Salad Bowl of the World on an Ag Venture Tour in the Salinas Valley, or take a Family Forest Horseback Ride and spend some time exploring the wonders along the 17-mile drive. There is no shortage of sites and experiences to keep everyone in the family engaged!
Day 4: Last Call for Fun
Before you hit the road, make time for the kids to burn off energy at El Estero Park. Take a spin in the swan boats, and let them run around and around Dennis the Menace Playground. If your kids are like mine, they’ll sleep all the way home.