The beautiful coastal town of Monterey, California and the surrounding Monterey County 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 multiple times, both with and without kids. In fact, it’s almost always on our travel radar for another trip when we have a free weekend. If you are considering a family trip to the Monterey area as well, here are the essentials you need to know, including the top things do with kids in Monterey.
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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 Valley and Salinas Valley, 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 mile drive (about an hour and 15 minutes when traffic cooperates) from the city of Monterey to the north.
If you fly in to town, you’ll almost assuredly want a rental car to explore the area. While ridesharing is plentiful in the downtown Monterey area, you need to get out of that area to do the region justice.
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. In 2022, advance reservations are still required so be sure to purchase your tickets online as walkups cannot be accommodated!
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 ones of 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. The overlook can offer the perfect vantage point for viewing migrating whales.
The only way to tour is lighthouse is on one of the walking tours that are offered seasonally a few days a week for a small fee. Tours are first come, first served so arrive early to guarantee a spot. Brave older kids might enjoy one of the evening moonlight tours as well.
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.
While the zoo only used to be open for guided tours, it has expanded and is now open daily for self-paced experiences.
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, including the top-rated Discovery Whale Watch that operates 3-4 hour boat tours from Old Fisherman’s Wharf. Book online well 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: Big Sur’s fragile ecosystem has suffered a lot of damage in recent years both from storms and fire. Some trails in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park remain closed in 2022 and additional closures can happen at any time. Always check local conditions daily 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.
Where to Stay in Monterey with Kids
If you are visiting the Monterey, California area, it’s important to first be prepared for the cost. For a city of its size, Monterey commands some pretty steep hotel prices, especially if you want to stay close to the center of action near the Monterey Aquarium and Cannery Row.
For more budget accommodations, hotels in nearby Salinas (inland) or Marina (north of Monterey on the coast) usually offer the most value. Just be aware that traffic in the area during popular tourist times like weekends, summer, and school breaks can be a factor in getting from place to place.
Not all hotels in the area are family-friendly, so look carefully at room details before you book. Several older properties may not have many rooms that accommodate 4 (much less larger families) or may have two double beds that may be too tight for some families to share.
There are increasingly a number of hotels in Monterey affiliated with the major chains if you prefer to earn or redeem loyalty points). But there are an unusually high number of independent hotel choices that are worth a look.
Here are several hotels that are likely to have the best overall combination of amenities, location, and price for families:
6 Best Family-Friendly Monterey Hotels
- Intercontinental The Clement Monterey: Pricier historic but fully updated accommodations in an absolutely prime location next door to the Aquarium. The only downside? Rooms that sleep 4 only have two double beds.
- Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa: Also pricey, and with nearly as prime of a location as the Clement (just a bit farther down Cannery Row away from the Aquarium). Has room types with two queen beds. Amazing over water views from pool deck. A great choice for families who want a more luxury hotel experience.
- Hyatt Regency Monterey and Spa on Del Monte Golf Course: A few minutes from downtown. Offers number of room types including options with two queen beds as well as suites. Family-friendly amenities like a large pool and tennis courts.
- Embassy Suites by Hilton Monterey Bay Seaside: Often available for under $300 a night and located a little north of all the action still within the city of Monterey. Suite accommodations work well for families, some of which sleep up to 8. Free breakfast is always a plus!
- SpringHill Suites The Dunes On Monterey Bay: Another moderately priced hotel located a bit farther north in Marina. Often available for around $200/night. Rooms are all mini-suites, many of which have two queen beds plus a sofa bed, accommodating families of 5. Indoor pool and free hot breakfast.
- Best Western Salinas Monterey Hotel: The nicest of the budget family-friendly accommodations in the surrounding area (often around $150/night). Hotel has a cute exterior, a pool, free breakfast, rooms with two queen beds, and a location in a safe well-traveled area with nearby restaurants and close freeway access.
Disclosure: When originally published in 2017, this post was sponsored by See Monterey. I have substantially updated it independently since that time. All opinions are my own.