The Best of Monterey for Families

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Located two hours south of San Francisco and just north of the infamous Big Sur Mountains of the Central Coast, is beautiful Monterey, California. With farms to the north and the mountains to the south, it’s like a world of its own. The Monterey Peninsula is a great place to hike, bike, sight see, explore world class beaches, and dine at incredible restaurants. With a seemingly endless array of things to see and do, Monterey makes for a terrific family vacation destination. Here are the top 10 things to do in Monterey for families.

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Top 10 Things for Families to do in Monterey, CA

Monterey beaches for families

Photo by: Bigstock/wolterk

10. Wiggle your toes in a sandy beach

Although the craggy cliffs and stunning cypress trees line a significant portion of Monterey’s coastline, there are still plenty of sandy beaches that offer families the chance to dip their toes into the cool, clear waters of the Pacific Ocean while visiting Monterey. Lovers Point Beach boasts a small but incredibly kid-friendly beach that includes sandy shores, gentle waves thanks to the break column, and easy access to clean restrooms. The grassy park above the beach is fabulous for family pictures, flying kites, or sampling a bite to eat at the coffee shop and onsite restaurant.

Good-to-Know: Other great sandy beaches in Monterey include Monterey State Beach, Del Monte Municipal Beach near downtown and numerous hotels, Asilomar State Beach, and Carmel Beach

Carmel Mission

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9. Explore quaint Carmel-by-the-Sea

Families rave about Carmel, the quaint seaside town just 4 miles from downtown Monterey. Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California Missions, is buried in the working Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio, and if you haven’t toured a California mission, this is the one to see; it is named a favorite by many travelers. If your kids get antsy you can bribe them with a visit to a Hansel and Gretel style Cottage of Sweets for a pick-me-up (no bloodthirsty hag onsite ready to boil your children, of course!). Outdoor enthusiasts won’t want to miss Carmel’s Garland Ranch Regional Park offering 50 miles of trails past the Carmel River, a waterfall, and Native dwellings.

Hungry while in Carmel? 400 Degrees is a family-favorite pizza joint

The sights along 17 mile drive

Photo by: Bigstock/BjoernAlberts

8. Traverse rocky beaches, bluffs & tide pools

The rocky coastline of Monterey affords numerous opportunities to enjoy expansive overlooks on jutting bluffs as well as fantastic rocky tide pools for exploring sea life and ocean critters with kids. From downtown Monterey, take a drive north on Ocean Boulevard for scenic views around the lighthouse to Asilomar State Beach (a great spot for tidepooling), or hit the world-famous 17-Mile Drive for its sought after beauty and breathtaking scenery. Another must-visit for tide pool exploration is Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and Point Lobos Reserve.

Tip: Our family had a blast exploring Monterey’s scenic wonders in a SeaCar Tour that allowed us easy hop-on, hop-off opportunities, the wind in our hair, and out-of-the-ordinary wonder that kept the kids interested in sightseeing the coast.

Cannery Row, historic Monterey

Photo by Bigstock/Sheri Armstrong

7. Learn about Monterey’s history

A visit to Monterey wouldn’t be complete without a look at the region’s unique and storied history. This once capital is one of California’s oldest cities, with Spanish settlement beginning in the early 1600s and the state’s oldest standing public building, the Custom House, built in 1814. From its 1848 addition to the United States through the canning era made famous by local resident John Steinbeck, Monterey has quite a few stories to tell. Families can follow the steps of time throughout Monterey’s history by visiting the Monterey State Historic Park downtown. A series of connected historic buildings come alive with life during special events throughout the year.

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Don’t miss other must-see historic sites in Monterey including Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf, Point Pinos Lighthouse, and the National Steinbeck Center in nearby Salinas. 

Monterey's fisherman's wharf, a great launching spot for whale watching excursions

Photo by: Bigstock/hastingimages

6. Scan the horizon for breaching whales

The California coast is a goldmine for whale watching excursions, and Monterey’s central location between southern tropical species and northern cold-water species of marine life mean that an excursion from Monterey is chock full of marine life opportunities. Whale watching, deep-sea fishing, and boating excursions abound from Monterey’s harbor, including Princess Whale Watching, Monterey Bay Whale Watching, Chris Whale Watching Tours, and Randy’s Fishing Trips & Whale Watching.

Good-to-Know: Read our tips & tricks on Whale Watching with Kids to make the best of your experience. 

Dennis the Menace park in Monterey

Photo by: FlickrCreativeCommons/David Goehring

5. Play like a kid

El Estero Park, the largest in the county, features 45 acres of lakes, trails, playgrounds, and picnic grounds, as well as the adored-by-families Dennis the Menace Playground with its play structures, suspension bridge, climbing wall, hedge maze, slides, tunnels, and steam engine. People visit this park from all over the world for its over-the-top fun, so be sure to add a park picnicking afternoon to your Monterey itinerary.

Tip: For indoors fun & adventure visit the family-approved Monterey County Youth Museum (MY Museum) downtown. 

The Best of Monterey for Families 2

Photo by: Bigstock/kjmagnuson

4. Take a wildlife tour 

Just northeast of Monterey lies Elkhorn slough, a tidal slough and estuary protected by the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve and Elkhorn Slough Foundation. The unique combination of fresh and salt water provides for one of the most diverse slices of flora and fauna; wildlife tours here are an absolute must. For one of the most intimate and unique wildlife tours you’ll find, visit Elkhorn slough, just northeast of Monterey. Explore the adventure your family can have as you Discover Moss Landing with Kids.  

Grab a bite to eat at The Haute Enchilada after visiting Moss Landing. You won’t regret it!

The Best of Monterey for Families 3

Photo by: Bigstock/wollertz

3. Take a hike

The pleasant year-round weather in Monterey affords hikers with nearly 365 days of fabulous trail conditions. Trekaroo families rave about the numerous hiking opportunities at Point Lobos Reserve in Carmel that will have your family in awe at the natural wonder of the area. If you are staying closer to downtown Monterey, take an easy journey along the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail that connects Fisherman’s Wharf to Cannery Row. 

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The Best of Monterey for Families 4

Photo by: Bigstock/sally dixon creations

2. Visit the winter home of the monarch butterfly

The Monterey Bay Peninsula is home to a unique breed of tourists: the Monarch butterfly. Every winter, hundreds of thousands of monarchs head to the towering Eucalyptus groves that line the area to make their winter roost. Families can check out the winter sites in person and explore the hands-on exhibits at the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum (where you can also bring home a free pack of milkweed to attract monarchs to your own yard.)

Read our best tips & tricks for exploring the monarch butterflies in Monterey.

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Photo by: Bigstock/Topseller

1. Dive into the ocean at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

A favorite of Trekaroo adventurers, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is Monterey’s premiere attraction for families. This massive aquarium educates and inspires children (and parents!) to a deeper understanding of our planet’s amazing oceans. You’ll need a full day (or longer) to truly explore everything this aquarium has to offer, including hands-on activities like touch pools and themed play areas, animal encounters, feeding times (the Kelp Forest feeding is a must-see!), movies and topical presentations, and both indoor and outdoor activities. The onsite cafe offers healthy meal options, sustainable seafood, and kid-friendly favorites.


What to Eat in Monterey with Kids

There’s lots of delicious food to eat while visiting Monterey with your family. For a quintessential pick, head to Fisherman’s Wharf and grab a bowl of clam chowder; you can window shop or enjoy the view of beautiful boats and sea animals that tend to float by in the bay. The Coastal Recreation Trail connects Fisherman’s Wharf with Cannery Row, a hub for touristy eateries and activities for families. Downtown, grab a bite at Peter B’s Brewpub; kids will enjoy the unlimited popcorn refills while waiting for food. The pirate-themed menus & kid’s activities are a fantastic bonus! Gianni’s Pizza, also located downtown among fun crepe shops and coffee joints, is a great grab-and-go option for families.

Other family-favorite recommendations include Gusto Handcrafted Pasta and Pizza (just like Italy), Peppers Mexicali Grill, and Ike’s Love and Sandwiches (an irreverently-decorated but seriously delish sub shop)

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Where to Stay in Monterey with Kids

Monterey’s romantic coastline features dozens of bed and breakfasts, as well as exclusive boutiques for lovers, but if you are looking for kid-friendly lodging, look no further than Portola Hotel & Spa, a favorite among Trekaroo families. Located downtown overlooking Fisherman’s Wharf, Portola Hotel & Spa recently underwent a massive renovation that made this family-friendly hotel an even more ultimate destination. My full review of Portola Hotel & Spa outlines the hotel’s features, but let’s just say this: pirate treasure hunt, freebies at check in, pool & spa, walking distance to the sand, kid-friendly onsite dining, and massive rooms that allow families to spread out in style. Need I say more? 

Check out kid-friendly reviews of Portola Hotel and Spa, visit their website, or book a room today (best rates guaranteed!)

Day Trips from Monterey

Day trips from Monterey are so plentiful. Families can use Monterey as a hub for exploration of the region as they explore these must-visit locations, all just a drive away.

Explroing California's Pinnacles National Park with kids

Pinnacles National Park

The nation’s youngest national park, Pinnacles National Park, is located just 52 miles from Monterey’s seashore via the 101 freeway and a short stretch of highway. Thew park’s west entrance (accessible from Monterey) features two caves (Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Cave) that your kiddos won’t want to miss.

Read all of our best tips and tricks for visiting Pinnacles National Park with kids. 

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Photo by: Flickr/daveynin

Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Big Sur Park

Majestic coastal views and towering redwood trees will be yours to enjoy in the Big Sur area and at Julia Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Trekaroo families love camping and hiking here, and even if you drive down for a short day trip, you’ll be rewarded with a plethora of options from exploring Pfeiffer Falls, hiking the creeks, watching the misty coastline along Hwy 1,  searching for treasure on the beach, or grabbing ice cream.

*Note: The direct route along Hwy 1 from Monterey to Big Sur is currently closed until Fall 2017. 

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Photo by: Bigstock/kropic

Santa Cruz

Just an hour drive north around the Monterey Bay sits the funky surfside town of Santa Cruz. Chock full of local coffee shops, eclectic artisans, natural wonders (including Big Basin Redwood State Park and Natural Bridges State Beach), and the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk, families love Santa Cruz.

Explore fabulous family fun options in Santa Cruz.


Featured photo by: Shutterstock

About the author

Katie Bodell is Trekaroo’s Blog Editor, a freelance writer, a happy wife to her best friend, and a mom to three sweet California girls. She loves the Bible, learning & research, musical theater, indy music, artsy films, languages, and diverse cultural encounters. Her husband is thankful that google can now answer all of her perpetual random questions.