The Monterey Bay Aquarium, an unparalleled facility with soaring, glass-walled tanks that make you feel as if you’re truly under the sea, defines the standard for modern marine exhibits. The only way to get closer to swirling sea life is to tug on a wetsuit and dive in. It’s also one of the best makeovers on the planet: in the early 1900s, the main building was a bustling canning facility for sardines, all chronicled in fascinating historical displays near the entrance. (Excellent behind-the-scenes tours shed more light on the aquarium’s history, as well as its remarkable inner workings.)
Intriguing history or not, this is one big wow of a place. Mesmerizing tanks and exhibits showcase more than 35,000 animals and plants representing over 550 species—a large number of them California natives. Watch a giant Pacific octopus unfurl its tentacles, stand in the center of a swirling school of sardines, have hammerhead sharks swim inches away from your face, and see how trainers administer daily health checks to the aquarium’s cutest inhabitants, southern sea otters. The furry mammals get the spotlight on a special experience led by experts; learn how these endangered animals are cared for at the aquarium, and about the aquarium’s ongoing research to protect otters in the wild.
The aquarium’s vibrant undersea world is as close to a real-life Finding Dory as little kids can get. You’ll want to park it for a while in the Splash Zone & Penguins area. Here, they’ll spy Nemo’s cousins in the tropical fish tank, watch African penguins feeding, and explore hands-on educational exhibits. It’s the Splash Zone’s Coral Reef Kingdom, though, that really sets this aquarium apart. The soft safe zone (even the floor is padded!) gives little kids—under 34 inches tall—exclusive access to a waterbed for making waves, interactive exhibits at eye level, a block area, and a touch pool. There are also special family sleepovers, and a chance for kids to become underwater explorers by donning specially designed gear and swimming in the protected Great Tide Pool fronting the aquarium. Behind-the-scenes tours offer the opportunity to learn more about sharks or jellies, and grownups can book customized experiences for two, where you can create your own romantic rendezvous—perhaps champagne and dinner?—with an underwater glow.
Insider tip: Get tickets online in advance to skip long lines.