Named by the Spanish merchant and explorer Sebastian Vizcaíno in 1602, Monterey went from a Spanish military and administrative center to, in the mid-nineteenth century, a sleepy Mexican town. After the US took over, in 1846, it later became the site of the negotiating and writing of the state constitution, and soon became the first capital of California, before being superseded by Sacramento.
The compact center still features some of the best vernacular buildings of California's Spanish and Mexican past, most sitting within a few blocks of the waterfront. A loosely organized Path of History connects the numerous sites of Monterey State Historic Park, though most can't be entered unless you're part of a 45-minute guided walking tour (Mon, Tues, Wed & Fri 10.30am; free; Tel:831/649-7118).
The best place to get a feel for life in old Monterey is the Larkin House, Pacific and Jefferson streets (45min tour; Tues, Wed, Sat & Sun 2pm; free), home of Thomas Larkin, the first and only American consul to Mexican California, who developed the now-common Monterey style of architecture. The house, the first two-story adobe in California, is filled with antiques and memorabilia, and is surrounded by gorgeous gardens. Larkin also helped organize the would-be state's constitutional convention, which took place just around the corner at Colton Hall (daily 10am–4pm; free; Web: www.monterey.org/museum ).
Tacky Fisherman's Wharf is a tourist trap loaded with disused wharves and canneries, some of them converted into boutiques and diners. At the foot of the wharf, the Custom House (Sat– Thurs 10am–4pm, Fri 10.30am–4pm; free) is the oldest governmental building on the West Coast, with portions variously built by Spain, Mexico, and the US, and now displaying ancient crates of seized coffee and liquor.
Heading north from the wharf, a bike path runs two miles to Pacific Grove along Cannery Row – named after John Steinbeck's literary portrait of the rough-and-ready workers of its seafood plants. Since abandoned, the canneries reopened in the 1970s as malls and restaurants, and now teem with tourists instead of fish (more info at Web: www.canneryrow.com ).
While no longer the county seat nor even its largest city (both honors rest with blue-collar Salinas), Monterey remains the area's best-known and most popular destination. A city of only 32,000, it attracts easily 100 times as many tourists each year. What do they come for? They come for the history, the culture, the food, and the shopping.
Monterey's carefully restored downtown is, in fact, the historical cradle of California. From 1775, when it became the capital of the Spanish colony of Alta California, through Mexican rule and the brief period of independent California, the whole state was governed from Monterey. Landmarks from each of these periods are preserved in the adobe Colonial-style houses that line the streets of the district. Monterey State Historic Park , though it has seen fit to join the Wi-Fi revolution, is still probably the best place to catch a glimpse of the olden days. Historic buildings and pleasant gardens are the name of the game here, and the site plays host to historical reenactments and festivals such as the Monterey Living History Festival every Independence Day, and Christmas in the Adobes . If you're in Downtown Monterey in February, and you're in a festival-going frame of mind, take in A Day of Romance in Old Monterey , a decidedly romantic celebration of the town's history. If you're in the mood to survey something other than California history, downtown is also the place to immerse yourself in pub life. The Crown & Anchor , Britannia Arms and the Mucky Duck will keep you in suds night.
Within walking distance from downtown is Fisherman's Wharf , an often-visited leftover from Monterey's days as a Spanish colonial capital, cargo facility, whaling station and port. Now it's home to some commendable seafood restaurants like Cafe Fina and Rappa's and more than a few lovely gift shops. Try Carousel Candies for some homemade sweet treats, or The Wharf's General Store for just about everything else. Marine tours of Monterey Bay, including whale-watching trips, leave from the wharf frequently. Chris' Fishing Trips and MB Whale Watching are two popular choices.
A mile down the coast from the Wharf is Cannery Row , a world-class tourist destination all its own. The bulk of its shops, restaurants and bars are housed inside historic former sardine-packing factories, so this serves as a dramatic reminder of the hard life depicted in John Steinbeck's epic novel about the neighborhood. The area is crammed with gift shops like The Garlic Shoppe and other attractions such as Steinbeck's own Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum , many of which give tourists quite a bit of historical and cultural bang for their buck. Many of the district's restaurants rank among the best in the Monterey Bay Area. Grab an award-winning steak at the Whaling Station , or scarf some Italian-accented seafood at Massaro & Santos . Cannery Row's biggest attraction, and the primary reason for its resurgence as a tourist destination, is the aquarium. Arguably the finest aquarium in the world, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is as good as it is not only because of its imaginative presentation and great funding, but also because it focuses its attentions on what is just outside, in the deep waters of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. You will see otters at play, a towering kelp forest, trance-inducing jellyfish, the world's largest aquarium window—and you can even pet a velvety Bat Ray.
West of Monterey along Ocean View Boulevard lies the cozy seaside community of Pacific Grove. Three hundred and fifty-five days out of the year, Pacific Grove is as quiet a town as one could hope to find, with tree-lined streets fronting small quaint houses. The mix of Spanish adobe construction with Victorian accents is irresistible. But in November, a peaceful madness descends: Pacific Grove truly becomes the "City of the Butterflies" as hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies stop off on their annual migration. Many of Pacific Grove's historic Victorian mansions have found new life as renowned bed and breakfasts like the Martine or the Centrella , and others as noteworthy restaurants such as Fandango . This is also the site of the Julia Morgan-designed Asilomar Conference Grounds , situated amongst the Asilomar State Park dunes at the foot of the Pacific Ocean and its dramatically crashing surf.
San Francisco may dominate California's culinary spotlight, but local Monterey area food partisans are quick to point out that the fires of the California Cuisine revolution were stoked on the shores of the Central Coast. Certainly, Monterey is blessed with a year-round cornucopia of fresh local ingredients, Pacific Rim flavors carried in by the ocean breeze, and a host of creative chefs who know what to do with both.
In downtown Monterey, with its Spanish Colonial coziness, one of the most traditional spots you will find is Stokes Restaurant & Bar . An archetypal Monterey adobe home, Stokes was built in 1833 and has been functioning as a restaurant under various managements since 1890. Popular with locals and visitors alike, Stokes' California-Mediterranean creations are bold and adroitly executed. Not far away, on Calle Principal, sleek Montrio does well enough with its eclectic menu to win awards and earn rave reviews. Montrio is a good bet for the vegetarian and for the wine lover, too, with a list featuring 'alternative' and rare wines as well as the esoteric Back Room List, if you know what you are doing. Nearby Jugem is a sushi spot sophisticated enough to please the most jaded sashimi snob. El Palomar serves exquisite Mexican seafood and a whole menu of tequilas in a comfortable and spacious ambience. For an antidote to all this new world fare, duck into the Crown and Anchor English pub, not far away on Franklin Street.
On Fisherman's Wharf , Cafe Fina fulfills the most serious pizza cravings with imaginative creations from their wood-burning oven, as well as mesquite-grilled seafood, chicken, and beef. The atmosphere is friendly and the view can't be beat, providing you don't mind looking at water. Abalonetti Seafood Trattoria treads much of the same culinary territory, but it is particularly famous for the variety of calamari preparations it offers. If the lines are prohibitively long, try Domenico's or Rappa's , two more Fisherman's Wharf seafood-dining favorites that have delighted diverse clientele for years.
Among the former sardine-packing plants of Cannery Row and within sight of the Monterey Bay Aquarium are some of Monterey's most popular restaurants. The Whaling Station has for years been one of Monterey's most popular destinations with its winning steak-and-seafood menu. A few doors down on Wave Street, The Sardine Factory , another nod to Monterey's aqua-cultural heritage, features filling seafood dishes like Lobster and Prawns on Crescent Pasta in brandy-lobster sauce, all served in astoundingly large portions. The signature dish is an abalone bisque; the only sardine on the menu is in the house salad. For a drink on Cannery Row, stop into Sly McFly's , also a good bet for an inexpensive lunch, or A Taste of Monterey , which lets you sample many of the wines that have made Monterey County so revered among oenophiles. Also renowned for its wine selection is Shnarley's Pizzeria , a great place for a raucous group dinner or a soul-warming late-night slice.
Though PG is so cozy and quiet, it has no shortage of destination restaurants, with mouth-watering menus and dynamite ocean views. Across the street from the historic Asilomar Conference Grounds is the Fishwife , a slightly upscale seafood shack serving fresh-caught delights with a dash of Latin spice. Passionfish will help you cut through both the fog and any residual Victorian torpor with its seafood cuisine served up with a contemporary panache. Locals seem to think so, at least; lines to get into the cheery, pepper-accented restaurant can be long. Fandango (located in an old house) will also dispel a gray mood with its sunny yet sophisticated Mediterranean menu, reflecting the Basque, Spanish, and Algerian backgrounds of its owner-chefs. Joe Rombi's , for its part, offers a sophisticated, contemporary take on Italian (note its many vegetarian options and generally light and sleek cuisine). Not in the mood for light and sleek? Opt for Vito's , a classic neighborhood Italian eatery, serving pastas, pizzas and veal entrees, all loaded with cheese, sauce and zest. Cuisine at Fifi's is similarly loaded, this time with the cheeses and sauces of France. When your arteries need a rest, count on the friendly staff at Tillie Gort's Cafe to serve you up some fresh and healthy vegetarian specialties, though meat eaters have plenty to choose from as well.
The Monterey Bay area is filled with attractions for visitors to explore, from the picturesque Monterey State Historic Park to the quaint Cannery Row .
Monterey Museum of Art Downtown is home to the Monterey Museum of Art , the Monterey State Historic Park and the Pat Hathaway Historical Photos exhibit. A fine meal can be had nearby at Montrio Bistro or Indian Summer .
Old Fisherman's Wharf At the Old Fisherman's Wharf , visit the Colton Hall Museum and the 18th Century San Carlos Cathedral . Don't miss the chance to go whale watching . The Rappa's Seafood Restaurant has some of the best dining in the area.
Cannery Row A trip to Cannery Row is well worth it. Located just a mile from Fisherman's Wharf , here you'll find the Monterey Bay Aquarium , Steinbeck's Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum and the famed Baywood Cellars Tasting Room . Stop into the Sardine Factory and enjoy their fresh seafood creations.
Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History Pacific Grove is home to the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History , the Pacific Grove Art Center and the Point Pinos Lighthouse . Dine at Vito's or the Fishwife at Asilomar Beach .
17-Mile Drive Enjoy breakfast at Tillie Gort's Cafe in Pacific Grove, then take the scenic 17-Mile Drive down to Carmel. Here you can visit Château Julien Wine , the New Masters Gallery and the Exotic Fine Art gallery. Have a hearty meal at Tutto Mondo Trattoria .
Touring Monterey is easy when you make arrangements with a professional company. Go whale watching, take a fishing trip or soak up the sun on the deck of a sailboat.
Bus Tours Monterey Bay Scenic Tours ( +1 831 372 6278/ http://www.mbstours.com/ ) Del Monte Express Tours ( +1 831 647 1234 ) Diana's Charters and Tours ( +1 831 394 6541/ http://www.dianascharters.com/ )
Fishing Tours Chris' Fishing Trips & Whale Watching ( +1 831 375 5951/ http://www.chrissfishing.com ) Randy's Fishing Trips ( +1 831 372 7440/ http://www.randysfishingtrips.com/ )
Whale Watching Tours Chris' Fishing Trips & Whale Watching ( +1 831 375 5951/ http://www.chrissfishing.com ) Monterey Bay Whale Watching Cruises ( +1 800 979 3370/ http://www.baywatchcruises.com/ )
Boat Tours Sea Life Tours ( +1 831 372 2203/ http://www.montereybaywatch.com ) Carrera Sailing ( +1 831 375 0648/ http://www.sailmontereybay.com/ ) Princess Tours ( +1 831 372 3501/ http://www.princess.com/ )