I grew up in Salinas California, about half an hour from the Monterey Peninsula. Getting to Monterey, Carmel and Pacific Grove was a treat for me as a kid… and it is even cooler now. If you are visiting the area with kids, here are some of the best things to do.
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Monterey Bay Aquarium
In case you are the only person who has not heard, since it opened in October of 1984 the Monterey Bay Aquarium has consistently been rated as one of the best things in the area for travelers of all age groups, but seeing the aquarium through the eyes of a child will only improve the experience.
If you are visiting with kids then here are some of my favorite exhibits:
When you first get to the aquarium check out the schedule for specific activities that will happen during your visit. This will includes some films but one thing to keep an eye out for is a scheduled Sea Otter feeding presentation. These are popular so you will want to get there early. Plan accordingly. Even if you don’t make it to a special presentation these fuzzy creatures are cute like a favorite stuffed animal come to life. Kids will love them.
The jellyfish exhibit is in a darkened room with the jellyfish illuminated. They are mesmerizing and so very very strange. Jellyfish will be particularly popular with little kids but also with kids which appreciate the attraction of things that are at the same time both beautiful and maybe a little gross.
Touch Pools / Splash Zone
You know how hard it can be to visit a museum with small kids and try and keep them from touching things… well the aquarium designers knew that also so they made a place where kids can come into contact with the cool, the squishing and the slimy in the Touch Zone. It is like visiting a tide pool without leaving the building. Also visit the Splash Zone on the second floor for another kid focused educational experience.
The 28 foot tall kelp forest tank may not sounds that interesting at first glance, but you will change your tune when a hammerhead shark swims by or a sea turtle or a school of anchovies.
Throw in some penguins, an octopus, watch a movie or two and you can easily spend half a day or a whole day at the aquarium. Tickets to the aquarium can be expensive so look for deals from your local hotel. Many hotels in the area have an aquarium package.
- Adult $49.95
- Youth $39.95 (ages 13–17)
- Child $34.95 (ages 5-12)
Hours: 10 a.m.–5 p.m. open to all guests
Dennis the Menace Park
When I was a kid the number one thing I wanted to do when I was in Monterey was visit Dennis the Menace Park. Hank Ketcham, the creator of the Dennis the Menace comic, was a resident of nearby Carmel and he helped create the park. Sadly you can’t climb on the big black steam train engine in the park as I used to do, but that still leaves suspension bridges, play structures, tunnels, slides, a hedge maze, and a drinking fountain where you put your head in a lion’s mouth.
The park is located inside the El Estero (“the estuary”), just off Del Monte Avenue between Camino El Estero and Camino Aguajito. Oddly enough, it shares a peninsula with the St Johns Cemetery which offers far fewer rides and amusements.
In the El Estero by Dennis the Menace park you can rent a paddleboat to explore this tiny lake. This is not the exciting time that you would have sea kayaking in the Bay, but it is safer, calmer and a good family outing. The paddleboats will hold 2-5 people with two doing the actual work of peddling. In addition to the regular paddleboats you can also rent a swan or a duck boat.
I am not sure why these are “paddleboats” instead of peddleboats as we always called them, but that’s what the vendor calls them.
Explore Tide Pools
After you have explored the tide touch pools of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, why not go and make your own adventure with the free tide pools on the coast. My favorite place for a tide pool encounter is at Pacific Grove Marine Gardens Park in Pacific Grove. Drive to Lovers Point Park and then continue on Ocean View Blvd to the west. If you get to the Point Pinos Lighthouse then you have gone too far. Time your visit for low tide.
Before your trip you can order a book that will help you identify what you are seeing in the tide pools or pick one up at the shop in the Aquarium.
While you are in the area, those old enough to remember singer John Denver might stop at the John Denver memorial. The author of such songs as “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “Take Me Home Country Roads” died in a small plane accident in Monterey Bay.
Bring a picnic lunch and spend a beach day around the corner at Sunset Beach or Asilomar State Beach when you want to play in the sand. There are public restrooms at Crespi Pond, by the golf course, and at Lovers Point.
Rent a Surrey or a Bike
I love the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail which runs along the coast in Monterey, Pacific Grove and extends all the way up to Castroville for a total length of 18 miles. The best part of the trail runs from fisherman’s wharf up past Cannery Row and the Aquarium to Lovers Point. You can walk this or rent a bike or a surrey. A surrey is a great option if you have little kids with you or maybe grandma who isn’t interested in walking that far.
For older kids, you can bring your own bikes or rent them by the day or by the hour near Old Fishermans Wharf or Lovers Point.
The Aquarium is not the only place where you can see wildlife reliably on the Monterey Bay Peninsula. You can do a whale watching trip (below) or you can see sea lions, seals and sea otters all in the bay. All of these marine mammals were hunted until they were endangered but now can be found in abundance in the area.
The best two spots to see sea lions are at Old Fishermans Wharf and at the Coast Guard Pier.
The best spot to see harbor seals pictured above is at a beach by Hopkins Marine Station near the Aquarium and just off the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. You have to peek through a fence so it is useful to bring a small pair of binoculars with you.
Also along the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail between the aquarium and Lovers Point is the best place to spot a sea otter or two. It is good to have those binoculars because more than once you will be trying to decide if that is sea weed or a sea otter. Watch how the otters will float on their back and crack mussels and other shellfish against a rock on their chest.
Whales migrate past Monterey Bay in the spring and in the fall going between Alaska and Mexico. There are multiple half-day Whale Watching Cruises that leave from Old Fishermans Wharf. All of the tours are great. The only thing I might recommend is that some of the double hull boats like Monterey Bay Whale Watch might have a bit less motion if you are prone to motion sickness.
The only caution that I would give is that it can be a very calm day in the bay but you might find a lot more swells as you get out of the bay. So if you or your children are prone to motion sickness take some non-drowsy motion sickness medicine like Bonine before your trip. Also stay in the fresh breeze in the front of the boat and keep looking at the horizon. You will want to be keeping a sharp eye out for whales anyway.
Fly a Kite
When I was a kid we would fly model rockets off the beach in Sand City or Marina but they would occasionally go up 6 feet and then get blown sideways in the strong winds off the bay. These beaches north or Monterey are a much better places for kite flying than they are for model rocketry.
The more daring will actually attach themselves to that kite and you can often see people hang gliding or in recent years paragliding over these beaches.
Access this very long stretch of beach north of Monterey at Sand City Beach, Fort Ord Dunes State Park, or Marina State Beach. The best place to see paragliders is at San City Beach.
Best Places to Hike with Kids
Two of my favorite places to hike with kids in the area also involve a road trip on the winding Highway One south of Carmel. Drive along the beautiful California coast to Andrew Molera State Park and hike out to the beach for a great mostly flat hike that ends in a beautiful beach.
Or instead, visit the redwoods at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. My favorite hike there is the 2 mile round trip Pfeiffer Waterfall Trail. This trail has some altitude gain, but if I can do it your kids should be able to do it. It is not that Pfeiffer Falls is the most spectacular waterfall in California by any means, but the hike has some nice views and some great redwoods.
If the idea of a winding road trip does not sound like fun with your kids, then Point Lobos has some great hikes but it gets crowded so you will want to go early in the day on weekends in the summer. Point Lobos offers hikes along a rugged coastline through the Monterey pine and cypress trees. This park makes my list of the 10 prettiest state parks in California.
Places to Eat with Kids
Monterey has many fancy restaurants and of course lots of seafood places but places like the Sardine Factory with chilled forks are not necessarily what I would call “kid friendly”.
One of my favorite places for burgers in the area is American Burger in Pacific Grove. I admit part of the fondness is that we ate Christmas dinner there one year when so many restaurants were closed. I am not sure if they still have games and puzzles like they used to have. COVID may have nixed that.
738 Lighthouse Ave, Monterey
LouLou’s Griddle in the Middle
One of the best breakfast spots on the Monterey Peninsula is LouLou’s Griddle in the Middle which is located on Wharf 2, the commercial wharf, to the right of Old Fishermans Wharf. If your kids love pancakes or french toast, this can be a great treat and it is close to the Monterey Hotels like the Marriott.
Another great spot for breakfast and lunch is First Awakenings which is not far from the aquarium. This was my parent’s favorite lunch place for many years but everyone we have taken there has loved it.
300 David Ave, Monterey
Old Fishermans Wharf
You can find a number of places to eat on Old Fishermans Wharf. It is no surprise that you can find some good seafood on the wharf. Although if your kids eat seafood the place most often recommended to me by locals for seafood is the FishWife in Pacific Grove. But Fishermans Wharf also has very kids oriented things like saltwater taffy, fudge, ice cream and caramel corn.
1996 1/2 Sunset Dr, Pacific Grove
Revival Ice Cream
Speaking of Ice Cream, my favorite ice cream place in Monterey is Revival Ice Cream in downtown. All the ice cream is made on the premises. They have around a dozen flavors every day. Of course one of those is boring old vanilla but one might be Bees Knees which is infused with honeycomb, S’more, or Brown Butter Peach. Yum.
Del Monte Center
If you are looking for cheaper meal options, there are a few places at Del Monte Center that are worth a mention. You can get pizza at California Pizza Kitchen or at my favorite Central California pizza chain Pizza My Heart. Islands Grill is also a very popular place with kids for their burgers, etc. Save money with half priced appetizers like nachos and sliders at Happy Hour.
I first visited the Monterey Peninsula when I was 3. I loved it then. I loved it when I visited as a school kid. I loved it as a teenager, and I love it today.