This post is sponsored by See Monterey. All opinions are my own.
The beautiful coastal town of Monterey, California is about as good as it gets as a family travel destination. Beaches, hiking, and a world-class aquarium make for a memorable vacation for travelers with kids.
Less than a 2 hour drive from San Francisco, it is easy to visit as an overnight or weekend trip for Bay Area visitors and locals. It is also a popular stop along the scenic Highway 1 coastal drive between Southern and Northern California.
My family has been to Monterey several times, both with and without kids, and are planning another trip ourselves again soon.
Basics for Travel to Monterey with Kids
What are the essentials you need to know before visiting Monterey with kids? First of all don’t limit yourself to the city proper. The whole county, which is surprisingly large and diverse in its offerings, works well for travelers with kids.
Monterey County covers the coastal cities of Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea as well as the inland city of Salinas. It also encompasses all of the breathtaking coastal area known as Big Sur, noted for its state parks, beaches, and sea cliff views. Monterey County further includes the Carmel and Salinas Valleys, wine-making regions along the Central Coast.
For travelers flying in, the closest commercial airport is Monterey Regional Airport (MRY). MRY has service on United from SFO and on American from Dallas (DFW) and Phoenix. The next closest airport is San Jose Mineta International (SJC), which offers a lot more flight options that may be more competitively priced. SJC is a 75 miles drive (about 1 hr and 15 minute drive) from the city of Monterey to the north.
Things to Do in Monterey, California with Kids
If you are planning a visit to the area, there’s more to do and see than you can accomplish in a few days. Here are some of our favorite kid-friendly Monterey activities that our family has experienced, as well as a few experiences on our family’s list for our next Monterey trip.
1. Monterey Bay Aquarium
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is truly one of the world’s top aquariums. It is a can’t-miss for travelers of all types. It’s also extraordinarily popular, so go early for weekend visits or try to aim for a weekday if you have travel flexibility.
Kids will love the touch pools and the daily shows and feedings (especially the sea otters and penguins – adorable!). Don’t miss the window with the bay waves crashing onto a see-through glass wall or the illuminated jellyfish exhibit. The aquarium also offers a number of entertaining and educational shows about marine life in the auditorium.
Plan on nearly a full day to make the most of a visit. Or, if you are staying at a participating hotel partner, ask about their two day ticket packages that are the price of a single day visit.
2. Dennis the Menace Park
Created by the man who created the Dennis the Menace comic strips, this public park and playground is one of the best in the state. It’s enormous, and has multiple play structures of various heights so that every child can find one that provides the right challenge. Bring a picnic and some sunscreen (the only downside is that there is not much shade) and plan to spend several hours wearing your children out.
3. Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles is the newest national park in the system (designated in 2013), and is obscure enough that even most Northern Californians have not heard of it. They are missing out! That also makes it a bit of a hidden gem in a state where more well-known national parks can get super-crowded.
Pinnacles spans the border of Monterey County and neighboring San Benito County and offers a unique look at some of the geological features that make the San Andreas fault both so fascinating and so dangerous. There are a number of kid-friendly hikes in the park, but just be prepared for hot inland weather if you visit during summer months.
4. Point Sur State Historic Park Lighthouse
Just south of the Monterey peninsula on the way into Big Sur is the Point Sur Lighthouse and State Historic Park. Walking tours are offered seasonally and the overlook can offer the perfect vantage point for viewing migrating whales. Brave older kids might enjoy one of the evening ghost tours.
5. Monterey Zoo
After seeing all the sea creatures in the Monterey Aquarium, animal loving kiddos also might enjoy a stop to see a few land creatures. The Monterey Zoo in Salinas is a refuge for many retired animals who previously worked in entertainment. Kids can see tigers, lions, elephants, and more. The zoo offers guided tours (1:00 pm daily and also 3:00 pm in summer months) rather than self-paced experiences, so plan accordingly.
6. Whale Watching Tours
Migrating whales are regulars to Monterey Bay, offering a chance for children to get up close and personal with several whale species on a sea cruise. A number of tour operators are available out of Monterey and Moss Landing. Book in advance to avoid disappointment and bring lots of warm layers for the cold Pacific air!
7. Cannery Row
Cannery Row is a stretch of seaside shops and restaurants in Monterey that ends by the Aquarium (much like San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf). It can get a bit touristy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a ton of fun. You can find a lot of delicious and authentic seafood choices for a family meal. Travelers with kids will love the mini golf course, wax museum, or a Segway tour. Also hop down to the beach below to build some sand castles.
8. MY Museum
For the toddler and preschooler set, MY Museum is a must-stop, especially on cold or iffy weather days. This indoor children’s museum offers a variety of themed play spaces to learn and explore. It’s just a few blocks from the Dennis the Menace park so the two make a perfect combination for a morning or afternoon out with little ones.
9. McWay Falls & Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
McWay Falls, a dramatic waterfall landing right onto a secret beach and into the Pacific Ocean, may be one of Big Sur’s most photographed sights. Hike with your kids out on the cliffs a short distance to catch this epic view within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
(Editor’s note: Storms in 2017 damaged part of this trail and access may be limited depending on conditions and weather. Check local conditions on the park’s official webpage before you go.)
10. Hit the Beach
Last but not least, no trip to Monterey County is complete without some serious time on the beach. On glorious days when the coastal fog retreats and the sun shines through, they are magnificent.
Some of the best beaches include Moss Landing, Lovers Point, Asilomar State Beach, Pfeiffer Beach, and Del Monte Beach. Depending on which beach you choose, you can look for marine life, watch the surfers, or even – if you can brave the cold Pacific water – swim yourself. Pack up the sand toys and towels and make a very inexpensive day of beach-hopping with your little ones.