We love spending time on the Monterey Peninsula with our kids. We regularly make the drive 2 1/2 hours south from San Francisco. Here are our top picks for a weekend in Monterey and its neighboring towns.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

The highlight of every family vacation we take here is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Located right on famous Cannery Row (which is worth a stroll, though it can be quite touristy) it houses amazing sea life that our entire family loves.  Our daughter’s favorite exhibition is undoubtedly the glowing jelly fish, with the tiny baby seahorses a close second.  Don’t miss the wave crash window, which can entertain toddlers and preschoolers for hours.

Since the aquarium is on most tourists’ must-do list, lines can be very long, particularly on the weekends.  Try your best to go at an off-peak time or even on a weekday. I also recommend packing a change of clothes for any little kids. There are plenty of opportunities for them to get soaked in the touch pools and water play areas.

Dennis the Menace Park

Not far from Monterey’s downtown is the Dennis the Menace Park, designed by the comic strip’s creator. You can easily spend several hours on a nice day with your kids here. The park is bigger than almost any city park I’ve ever seen. The best thing is that there  multiple play structures aimed at different age groups, so both younger and older kids will find plenty to do.

Carmel Beach

With its expensive restaurants, boutiques and hotels, Carmel-by-the-Sea is more often frequented by honeymooners or retired couples than families. But we’ve found things to do with kids. After some window-shopping, we hit the beautiful and expansive beach just a few blocks from town.

We always bring a sweater or jacket to the beach, even in summer. Carmel can get its warm days, but the Northern California coast is better known for its fog and cool sea breezes.

Big Sur

Just south of Carmel is Big Sur, the expansive coastal preserve that includes several state parks along California’s famous Highway 1.  Big Sur is worthy of a few days all its own, but it can also be an easy day trip from Monterey or Carmel.

Our kids love the secret beaches and easy hikes all over Big Sur.  Don’t miss McWay Falls, a breathtaking waterfall into the ocean at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. It’s accessible with just a few minutes of easy hiking.

Older kids who can walk longer distances will love tours at the Point Sur Lighthouse, particularly during winter months when we’ve spotted migrating whales. Be prepared to put younger kids in a carrier; no strollers allowed!

A girl making friends wih a head of garlic with shades and a mohawk at the garlic festival

Note: that Highway 1 is a curving coastal road. If you have a child who tends to get car sick, this might not be the trip for you. If you time it right though and your little ones nap in the car, you can relax and enjoy the scenery for miles.

Gilroy Gardens

Gilroy, 40 miles north of Monterey, is known for its summer garlic festival. At any time of year children up to about age 8 will love Gilroy Gardens, an amusement park with a unique agriculture theme (Six Flags this is not!). The park is a bit lacking in thrill rides, but that’s what makes it enchanting and less stressful.  Lines are rarely that long, especially if you get there when the park opens. My kids, who are still small, are always intrigued by the circus trees, cultivated using elaborate grafting techniques that have transformed them into works of art.

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