If you’re looking for the romantically gritty, working-class fishing village of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, you won’t find it here. ↓
Even though Monterey was the sardine capital of the Western Hemisphere during World War II, overfishing (among other theories) forced most of the canneries to close in the early ’50s.
Resigned to trawling for tourist dollars instead, the city converted its low-slung sardine factories along Cannery Row into a rather tacky array of boutiques, knickknack stores, yogurt shops, and the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium (a must-visit).
As you distance yourself from The Row, however, you’ll soon see that Monterey also has its share of plusses that help even the score: dazzling seacoast vistas, stately Victorians, historic architecture, and a number of quality lodgings and restaurants.
More important, Monterey is only minutes away from Pacific Grove, Carmel, Pebble Beach, and Big Sur, which makes it a great place to set up base while exploring the innumerable attractions lining the Monterey coast.
So much to see and do
Monterey’s top draw is the amazing Monterey Bay Aquarium, the largest and most popular aquarium in the nation. Formerly a boarded-up old cannery until David and Lucile Packard (of Hewlett-Packard electronics) got things rolling with a $55 million donation, the 221,000-square-foot building features over a hundred galleries—including one of the world’s largest indoor, glass-walled aquarium tanks—with more than 350,000 specimens of animals, plants, and birds found in Monterey Bay.
One of the aquarium’s main exhibits is a three-story, 335,000-gallon tank with clear acrylic walls that offers a stunning view of leopard sharks, sardines, anchovies, and other sea creatures swimming through a towering kelp forest visitors. Even more impressive, however, is “The Outer Bay,” million-gallon, record-breaking exhibit that showcases aquatic life living in the outer reaches of Monterey Bay. Schools of sharks, barracuda, yellowfin tuna, sea turtles, giant ocean sunfish, and and bonito can be seen through the largest window on earth: an acrylic panel 15 feet high, 13 inches thick, and 54 feet long that weighs 78,000 pounds.
Three other popular exhibits are the Outer Bay’s jellyfish exhibit, the bat-ray petting pool (not to worry, their stingers have been removed) and the two-story sea-otter tank, particularly when the sea otters get to scarf down a mixture of clams, rock cod, and shrimp at 10:30, 1:30, and 3:30 every day.
Predictably, things get a little crowded on summer weekends, enough so that reservations are recommended in summer and on holidays. Open daily 10am–6pm (opens at 9:30am on summer and holidays); 886 Cannery Row, Monterey; call (831)648-4888 for general information, (800)756-3737 for tickets.
To get the flavor of Monterey’s heritage, follow the 2-mile Path of History, a walking tour of the town’s most important historic sites and well-preserved old buildings—remember, this city was thriving under Spanish and Mexican flags when San Francisco was still a crude village. Free tour maps are available at various locations, including the Custom House, California’s oldest public building (at the foot of Alvarado Street, near Fisherman’s Wharf) and Colton Hall, where the California state constitution was written and signed in 1849 (on Pacific Street between Madison and Jefferson Streets. call Monterey State Historic Park at (831)649-7118 for more information.
Nautical history buffs should visit the Maritime Museum of Monterey, which houses ship models, whaling relics, and the 2-story-high, 10,000-pound Fresnel lens, used for nearly 80 years at the Point Sur lighthouse to warn mariners away from the treacherous Big Sur coast (5 Custom House Plaza, in Stanton Center near Fisherman’s Wharf; 831/373-2469).
The landmark Fisherman’s Wharf, the center of Monterey’s cargo and whaling industry until the early 1900s, is awash today in mediocre (or worse) restaurants and equally tasteless souvenir shops. Serious shoppers will be better off strolling Alvarado Street, a pleasantly low-key, attractive downtown area with a much-less-touristy mix of art galleries, bookstores, and restaurants.
The best time to pick up a souvenir, however, during the hugely popular Old Monterey Farmer’s Market and Marketplace, held Tuesdays afternoons year-round from 4 to 8pm (4 to 7pm in the winter) on Alvarado Street between Pearl and Del Monte Streets. It’s a real hoot, with more than 100 vendors, musicians, and entertainers offering good grub and free entertainment.
For a toe-tappin’ time in Monterey, visit on the third weekend in September, when top talents like Wynton Marsalis, Etta James, and Ornette Coleman strut their stuff at the Monterey Jazz Festival, one of the country’s best jazz jubilees and the oldest continuous jazz celebration in the world. Tickets and hotel rooms sell out fast, so plan early (die-hard jazz fans make reservations at least six months before show time). Call (800)307-3378 for tickets and (831)373-3366 for more information. Monterey also hosts a Blues Festival in late June, which attracts a respectable but smaller crowd; (831)649-6544.
One of the most enjoyable ways to spend a sunny day on the Monterey Coast is by paddling a sea kayak among the thousands of seals, sea lions, sea otters, and shorebirds that live within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. No kayaking experience is necessary—just follow behind the instructor for an interpretive tour of the bay. For reservations call Monterey Bay Kayaks at (800)649-5357 or (831)373-5357, or visit their website at www.montereykayaks.com. Prices start at about $45 for the tours and $25 for rentals.
Established more than a century ago as a retreat for pious Methodists, this venerable Victorian seacoast village still retains much of its decorous old-town character, though it’s loosened its collar a bit since the early days. Less tourist-oriented than Carmel and less commercial than Monterey, P.G. (as locals call it) is the place to settle down, buy a home, and raise 2.5 obedient children. There’s no graffiti, no raucous revelers, and not an unleashed dog in sight. The area exudes peace and tranquility—a city of gorgeous vistas, impressive architecture, and even reasonably priced accommodations just a jog from the sea.
The best way to start your Monterey vacation is to stroll the 4 miles of trails that meander between Lover’s Point Beach and Asilomar State Beach. Start at grassy Lover’s Point (which, by the way, was named for lovers of Jesus Christ, not the more carnal kind), located off Ocean View Boulevard next to the Old Bath House Restaurant, and work your way west past the numerous white-sand beaches, tide pools, and rocky coves to Asilomar on the west side of Point Pinos.
A second, shorter option is the mile-long Monterey Peninsula Recreation Trail, which parallels Ocean View Boulevard from Lover’s Point to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Be sure to keep an eye out for sea otters sleeping atop the kelp beds—there’s tons of them here.
At the tip of Point Pinos (Spanish for “Point of the Pines”) stands the Cape Cod–style Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast: its 50,000-candlepower beacon has shone since February 1, 1855. This National Historic Landmark is open to the public on Thursday through Sunday from 1pm to 4pm, and admission is free. On Asilomar Boulevard at Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove; (831)648-3116.
Pacific Grove bills itself as “Butterfly Town, U.S.A.” in honor of the thousands of monarchs that migrate here from late October to mid-March. Two popular places to view the butterflies are the Monarch Grove Sanctuary (at Lighthouse Avenue and Ridge Road) and George Washington Park (at Sinex Avenue and Alder Street).
To learn more about the monarchs, visit the informal and kid-friendly Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, which has a video and display on the butterfly’s life cycle, as well as exhibits of other insects, local birds, mammals, and reptiles. Admission is free. At the intersection of Forest and Central Avenues, Pacific Grove; (831)648-3116.
A perennial Best Art Gallery winner in the “Best of Monterey” survey by Coast Weekly, the nonprofit Pacific Grove Art Center has four galleries with rotating displays ranging from sculpture to photography to drawings and even children’s artwork. Poetry readings, plays, workshops, and the occasional concert are also on the menu if you time it right. Open Wed–Sat, noon-5pm, Sun 1–4pm; 568 Lighthouse Avenue at Forest Avenue; (831)375-2208.
Who would have guessed you could save money shopping in Pacific Grove? Within the American Tin Cannery factory outlet center are 40 high-quality clothing stores—Anne Klein, Bass, London Fog, Reebok, Big Dog—selling their wares for about half of what you’d normally pay. Particularly worth a look are the amazing deals at the Woolrich outlet, where most items are 50 percent off. It’s open Sunday through Thursday 10am to 6pm, Friday and Saturday 10am to 8pm, and is located at 125 Ocean View Boulevard, around the corner from the Monterey Bay Aquarium; (831)372-1442.