Planning a trip to Monterey?
If it's your first trip to this area, I bet that the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium is at the top of your list. My son wants to be a marine biologist when he grows up, so it was a must-see for my family when we visited Monterey last summer.
Here's what you can expect at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, plus tips for making the most of your day.
Plan Around Feedings and Programs
It's fun to see otter, penguin and other exhibits anytime, but it's especially fun to see them at feeding time when the animals are sure to be active. Trainers will also share information about the animals during feedings.
The feeding and program schedule is easy to find on the official Monterey Bay Aquarium website. It's also available when you arrive. Feedings last about 15 minutes.
Programs are held in the auditorium. We decided to skip these, but they can be a good opportunity to rest your legs and learn more about some exciting marine animals.
Arrive early if you want a good view of the feedings. The otter and penguin exhibits are smallest. The Open Sea viewing area is quite large.
We arrived at the aquarium just in time for the first otter feeding. My son wiggled through to crouch in front with the camera and I stood in back, behind about four rows of people.
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There were fewer exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium than I expected, but nearly every exhibit is big and showy. All the exhibits could qualify as a “best exhibit.” These were my favorites.
Sea Otters – These fun and furry creatures are native to Monterey Bay, and so fun to watch! The Otter exhibit isn't large, but it's on two levels so you can see otters under and out of the water. Outside the feedings, we didn't have much trouble with crowds at this popular exhibit.
Open Sea – This large exhibit takes up one end of the second floor. This exhibit has an enormous tank filled with sharks, sea turtles, sun fish, sting ray and more. It was tough to beat the otters, but this was my favorite part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Jellies, puffins and other cool exhibits can be seen in this area as well.
Kelp Forest – This 28-foot tall aquarium is another exhibit with lots of visual impact. Look for leopard sharks, octopus and other fascinating creatures in this area.
Splash Zone – You could spend a lot of time here if you have young children. This exhibit has play areas and colorful, interactive exhibits. Even without young children, you'll want to walk through to see the penguins, anemone, clownfish and more.
Rocky Shore – Love a touch pond? There are lots of hands-on opportunities with sea stars, hermit crabs and more here. Don't miss the Wave Crash where you can witness the power of 600 gallons water crashing against the window every 30 seconds. It's a fun photo op.
I recommend the Monterey Bay Aquarium for all ages. It's one of the biggest and best aquariums in the world. My kids are ages 12 and 15, and our entire family was wowed by the large and unusual marine exhibits.
There are some exhibits that are better with kids, namely the Splash Zone on the second floor. Families with young children could spend a lot of time in the play areas here. My kids have grown out of most play zones, so a quick walk through was enough for them.
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Eat Lunch Early (or Late)
We were ready to eat by 11 AM when crowds in the cafeteria-style cafe were light. I claimed a table with a good view of Monterey Bay while my husband and kids got their food. Lines grew and bayside tables filled up in that 10-15 minutes. I went for my food next and picked my entree based on the shortest wait. By noon, lines for the grill were quite long and good tables were hard to get.
Eating in the cafe added to our experience at Monterey Bay Aquarium. The view is lovely and we spotted wild otters and sea lions in the bay during our meal. My family has diverse tastes and everyone found something they liked, including burgers, pizza, vegetarian, sustainable seafood and salads.
We spent $65 for four adult meals in the cafe. Kids meals are available. There is also a full-service restaurant and a coffee bar on site.
Officially, visitors cannot bring their own food into the aquarium, with the exception of school groups. Picnic areas near the Monterey Bay Aquarium can be found at Lover's Point, Berwick Park and San Carlos Beach. You can leave the aquarium and return on the same day.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is located at the bottom of Monterey's famous Cannery Row. It's a fun street, but parking on the narrow streets of historic Monterey can be difficult.
We took the advice of my contact at See Monterey and parked in downtown Monterey – about 1.5 miles from the aquarium. The city has a free trolley that will take you between Downtown and Cannery row, stopping at popular destinations like Monterey Bay Aquarium.
There are three public parking lots behind Cannery Row, and more parking downtown. Rates vary. At the time of our visit, the Downtown East parking structure was the least expensive option at $7 per day.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is large, and built for crowds. However, it's more fun when crowds are light. Here is our experience, and what I'd do differently next time.
Our usual strategy for avoiding crowds is to arrive at opening time. We visited on a weekday in June. It was a little early for summer vacation crowds, but we shared the aquarium with several large school groups.
We parked downtown and took the free trolley to the aquarium. This is a good plan, except… the aquarium opened 30 minutes before trolley service began. So, we missed being the first ones through the door. Next time, we would check the schedules for both and park nearer the aquarium, if needed.
Consider visiting Monterey Bay Aquarium in the afternoon. It's not an all-day activity for most visitors, and I'm guessing that a lot of people do it early in the day because it's their main activity in Monterey. The website advises that crowds are lightest between 2-6 PM.
We might have had less energy and enthusiasm by afternoon, but we would have mostly missed the school groups. Our parking and trolley situation would have worked better too.
Ways to Save
The non-profit Monterey Bay Aquarium does not offer many discounts or coupons. When you pay full price, you do more to support conservation of the oceans for generations to come.
Children (ages 3-12), Students (ages 13-17) and Seniors (65+) save $10-20 off the current adult price of $50. Infants and toddlers (age 0-2) get in free. College students get the student price with valid ID.
There are also discounts available to
- Guests of partner hotels
- Groups of 12+
- Military members and their families
- AAA Members
- Local residents
- Employees and members of partner organizations
- Free to Learn program participants
Get details about these discounts at https://www.montereybayaquarium.org/visit/admission-tickets/special-offers.
Be sure to plan ahead if you're eligible for a discount. You will typically buy tickets through the partner organization, not at the Monterey Bay Aquarium ticket office.
My entire family loved the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and it was my 12-year-old son's favorite part of the trip. He spent most of his souvenir money on a hoodie from the gift shop and wears it often.
I hope that our experience helps your family make the most of your day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Disclosure: My family received complimentary admission to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for the purpose of review. All opinions are my own.
Good to Know
Where: 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, California
When: Open every day except Christmas Day, December 25. Hours are typically 10 AM to 5 PM, but vary by season. See the hours for the date of your visit at https://www.montereybayaquarium.org/visit
How Much: $50 per adult, $40 per student (13-17) and $30 per child (3-12). Kids ages 0-2 get in free. See current prices at https://www.montereybayaquarium.org/visit/admission-tickets
How Long: 2-3 hours
Amenities: restrooms, gift shops, restaurant, cafe