The Monterey Peninsula, a scenic stretch of coastline and pine forests, is surrounded by Monterey Bay to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and Carmel Bay to the south. Waves crash with a fierce splendor on these rocky shores, and colonies of sea lions sunbathe on the flat tops of boulders.
In Monterey, you and your kids will enjoy natural reserves, scenic drives, shoreside trails, cycling, and beaches that deliver classic California coastal landscapes. You can also visit a world-class aquarium, golf in Pebble Beach, browse art galleries in Carmel-by-the-Sea, and shop for take-home treasures in Monterey and the surrounding towns.
Here are 15 of the best things to do in Monterey with kids.
Explore Underwater Wonders at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Visit the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium and meet sea creatures that few have ever viewed at Into the Deep: Exploring Our Undiscovered Ocean, the aquarium’s newest exhibit.
Through videos and live exhibits, you discover fascinating fish that live hundreds of feet below the water’s surface and through the darkest depths to the sea floor.
Admire a red bloody-belly comb jelly, the color of which makes it look black to predators. Marvel at a translucent sea angel, a snail that flaps its wings to swim, as well as an elephant fish that uses a trunk-like snout to scour the mud for hidden prey, and other amazing critters.
At other exhibits, peer into a kelp forest through a 28-foot high window to spot orange garibaldi fish, giant green anemones, and red coralline algae. Through the Open Sea’s 90-foot window, watch sharks, sea turtles, and yellowfin tuna swim by.
Be sure to show up at penguin feeding time at the Splash Zone, the family gallery, to see the black-and-white birds swim fast and dive for their food.
Admire Sea Lions and Harbor Seals at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
At Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, you savor the unspoiled California landscape of windswept shores, native plants, and sea creatures. Experiencing Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is one of the best things to do with kids in Monterey.
On some paths, you see crashing waves, rocky shores, sea lions barking on boulders, and harbor seals basking in the sun at the edge of the rocks, or warming up on the beach. Binoculars come in handy to enable kids to get close-ups of these noisy marine mammals.
Other trails lead through aromatic stands of California sagebrush and apricot-colored monkey flowers or under canopies of Monterey pines and cypress trees.
Along Cypress Grove Trail, known for its stand of cypress trees, you might catch sight of migrating gray whales between December and May.
Golf at The Hay, Pebble Beach
Love golf but don’t have time for 18-holes? Then, swing through the family-friendly nine-hole short course, The Hay. Tiger Woods redesigned this iconic course in 2021, making it fun, fast, and appealing to junior golfers. The 20,000 square-foot putting green affords plenty of space to warm up.
Because the holes range from 47 to 100 yards, you can get round in less than a couple of hours and still enjoy the Pebble Beach scenery and breezes, not to mention the bragging rights of playing at one of California’s most unique places.
After your game, consider lunch at Hay’s Place, a Mexican-inspired restaurant with views of The Hay.
Take a Scenic Road Trip Along 17-Mile Drive
An enchanting excursion around the Monterey Peninsula and through the Del Monte Forest, 17-Mile Drive began as a diversion for guests at the posh Hotel Del Monte.
In the 1880s, horse-drawn carriages carried visiting swells on day trips. Stops were made along the way for picnics on pebbled beaches and to enjoy the forest’s beauty.
At Shepherd’s Knoll, enjoy sweeping views of Monterey Bay and the mountains. Spanish Bay, named for the early explorers, is a great place for a beachside picnic.
The violent surf at Restless Sea, another stop, has consumed many ships and sailors. At Bird Rock, take in the barking seals and sea lions as well as scores of birds.
Cypress Point Lookout offers some of the drive’s best views of the Pacific coast. Perhaps the most familiar landmark on 17-Mile Drive is the Lone Cypress. This tree, seemingly clinging to bare rock, has become an unofficial symbol of the area.
Walk and Bike the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail
Walking or biking the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail is one of the best things to do in Monterey with kids because it gets everyone outdoors, exercising, and enjoying the coastal Californian scenery.
The 18-mile trail (you don’t have to do all of it), follows the former route of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
The path hugs the Bay, from Pacific Grove to Castroville. Among the many points to pick up the path is Fisherman’s Wharf. Pedal beyond Del Monte Avenue’s bustle and you soon reach Monterey State Beach. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is also on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail.
In the Cannery Row neighborhood, Adventures By The Sea rents traditional and electric bikes. So does Mad Dogs & Englishmen, an outfitter that also offers vintage-style E-bikes with sidecars and three-wheeled bikes with a cargo box.
Head for the Beach
The Monterey State Beach, which runs from Fisherman’s Wharf north to Seaside, shares sand with the Monterey Bay Waterfront Park, also called Windows on the Bay Beach.
The Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, great for walking and cycling, connects the beaches. That’s probably too many names, but you and your kids have some two miles of beach to enjoy.
Build sandcastles, beach comb, savor the breezes and watch the surfers, but don’t swim because the water is cold and often has dangerous currents and waves.
Dine & Shop at Cannery Row
Exploring Cannery Row is one of best things to do in Monterey with kids. Grade schoolers and teens appreciate the waterfront views, the shopping, the dining, and the area’s history, especially if they’ve read John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row.
Originally called Ocean View Avenue, officials renamed the street Cannery Row in 1958 to honor the author.
Starting around the turn of the 20th century, businessmen built canneries along Ocean View Avenue. One of the first plants canned salmon, although soon sardine canneries proliferated, fueled by the Bay’s abundance of the small fish. Both World Wars increased the demand for canned fish.
At some point, the small California town claimed the title of “Sardine Capital of the World.” But success led to overfishing that decimated sardine populations.
Canneries began to shut down in the late 1940s, and a 1967 fire destroyed more facilities. The last Cannery Row plant closed in 1973. In 1968, a restaurant aptly named The Sardine Factory debuted in an abandoned cannery, and more restaurants, eateries, and shops followed.
Treat your kids to the glazed, drizzled, and deliciously topped sweets at Rock N’ Roll Donut Bar. For lunch, try Fish Hopper, which has beautiful Bay views and serves tasty seafood and steaks. Lalla Oceanside Grill plates seafood, pastas, as well as quinoa and chicken salads.
After lunch, pick through Mackerel Jack’s Trading Company for hats, T-shirts, shell picture frames, and all manner of souvenirs. For good buys on golf shirts, hats, and other items, browse the Pebble Beach Outlet Shop.
Stroll Fisherman’s Wharf
Since its construction in the 1840s, Fisherman’s Wharf has seen a lot of history. Initially, schooners bringing goods from around Cape Horn would unload their cargo at the pier.
A decade later, whaling ships replaced trading vessels. After that era, ships bellied up to the wharf to be loaded with cans of sardines, a once major Monterey industry.
Visiting here is one of the best things to do in Monterey for every type of traveler. Come for the souvenir, jewelry, and gift shops as well as for the restaurants and to board the whale-watching, sailing, fishing, and bay cruises that depart from the wharf.
Among good bets for lunch are the Old Fisherman’s Grotto, or Café Fina.
Visit the Monterey Museum of Art
Scenes of California’s beaches, fishermen, ironwood trees, ranches, and other landscapes and locals come alive through the interpretation of the artists showcased at the Monterey Museum of Art.
The museum concentrates on Californian art from 1875 to the present, with a particular strength in photography and post-1945 art.
Not all the works represent California. The Impressionist oils of E. Charlton Fortune include scenes of St. Tropez, and the photographs capture a range of settings and situations.
Take Outdoor Mural Walk in Sand City
Get a different kind of art fix in off-the-beaten-path Sand City, a few miles from Monterey. The downtown comes alive with more than a score of murals painted on building facades and concrete road dividers.
Stroll past a giant honeybee, cartoon-like figures high-fiving in space, painted bee boxes, a portrait of Jimi Hendrix circa the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and a Samurai warrior with energized bolts of color. Along the route, pause for pastries at Sweet Elena’s Bakery & Café.
Afterward, consider beachcombing on Sand City’s beach, a former landfill that has been cleared of debris and replenished with sand. Locals say the beach is an excellent place to find sea glass, but don’t swim here because of the dangerous currents and waves.
Paddle at McAbee Beach
One of the best beaches in Monterey, McAbee Beach is the closest place to Cannery Row where you can feel the sand under your feet. It’s a small patch of beach even at low tide, and smaller still when the waves roll in.
However, kids—and adults—needing a break from shopping and dining can dip their toes in the water, run on the sand, and watch kayakers launch. It’s also one of the best places to go snorkeling in California.
Let Off Steam at El Estero Park Complex
The best-known element of the 45-acre El Estero Park Complex is the Dennis the Menace Playground. The energetic cartoon character would feel right at home twisting down slides, running across a rope bridge, climbing rock walls, and hoofing it through tunnels.
Dennis the Menace’s creator Hank Ketchum, a Monterey resident, helped design the park, which is suitable for kids up to around age 12.
At El Estero’s Monterey Skate Park near the playground, watch grade-schoolers and teens practice tricks on rails, platforms, and half-bowls. Work off energy as a family by completing the 18 exercise stations on the path encircling the lake.
Root for Racers at WeatherTech Raceway
Take kids and teens who love motorcycles, race cars, and roaring engines to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
Depending on the event, you might catch superbikes roaring around the track, Mustangs and Camaros challenging Audis and Mercedes, or even historic sports cars revving their engines for a run.
Itching to get behind the wheel? No problem. Do laps with your kids on the facility’s Go-Kart track. Children of eight and older can drive their own vehicle.
Carmel-by-the-Sea, also known as Carmel, is a one-square-mile town recognized for its art galleries, upmarket shops, scenic beach, and fairytale cottages.
The cottages, distinctive dwellings with wavy, simulated thatch roofs, curving lines, half-timbers, and irregular chimneys look like life-sized storybook dwellings from an enchanted forest.
Hugh Comstock built the first dwelling in 1924 to house the rag and felt dolls his wife Mayotta Browne created and sold. Charmed by the homes, locals wanted their own. Of the 21 remaining, 11 cluster around Ocean Avenue and Torres Street.
If your teens think the whimsical houses are too cutesy, don’t worry. More than 100 galleries dot Carmel. Peruse photography exhibits at the Center for Photographic Art and see examples of local artists’ work at the Carmel Art Association.
Don’t leave without strolling Carmel Beach, a scenic swath of white sand edged by cypress trees.
Hungry? For pastries, try Carmel Bakery, founded in 1899, and for donuts, go to Dutch Door Donuts. For lunch, consider the Alvarado Street Brewery & Bistro in Carmel Plaza for fish & chips, burgers, and pizza.
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