Monterey, with a population of just under 30,000, is one of the oldest cities in California and was its first capital under Spanish and Mexican rule. The historic flavor of the town has been preserved, which is a big attraction, and you can get a taste of it from some of the photos we’ve scattered around this post.

Monterey is home to the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row and historic Fisherman’s Wharf, the latter two being immortalized in the work of author John Steinbeck—who lived in Salinas and on the Peninsula. The Presidio of Monterey, Naval Postgraduate School, and Defense Language Institute (DLI) are evidence of the city’s close ties to the military, and the latter school together with Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS), infuse a rich international and educational flavor into the city’s culture. On any given day you can hear multiple foreign languages spoken on the city streets by students from these two institutions as well as tourists.

The fishing industry is also an integral part of Monterey’s history, meaning its culture is also shaped to some extent by Italian- and Portuguese-Americans.

San Carlos Cathedral

 Historic Old Town (Downtown Monterey).

Monterey was founded in 1770 by Junipero Serra, who also founded California’s missions. Since Monterey was under both Spanish and Mexican rule in its first 70 or so years, the influences of those cultures are fully reflected in its oldest buildings.

If you were to choose a building most emblematic of Monterey’s history, San Carlos Cathedral would be an appropriate choice, as it is basically ground zero for Monterey’s birth. Reflecting the city’s rich Roman Catholic heritage, the building pre-dates the missions and is the oldest continuously operating parish and the oldest stone building in California.

Another building that is central to Monterey’s (and California’s) history is the Custom House, constructed circa 1821 by the Mexican government. It’s California’s first historic landmark and it’s oldest public building, and was the first place the American flag was raised in California (on July 7, 1846). If you’re interested in the history of the building, it has a prominent place in the setting of the short story, “Charlotte’s Light” by Ken Jones, found in this collection.

Other historic buildings you’ll find in Monterey, include California’s first theater, built in 1845, California’s first brick building, built in 1847, The Joseph Boston Store, also built in the 1840s and home to the first iron safe in Monterey—a favorite place for miners looking to store their gold—and the building, built in 1847, which became headquarters of the Old Monterey Whaling Company in 1855.

Old Monterey Whaling Company

Note: We would be remiss if we did not mention the website Historic Monterey, which has a lot of information on these buildings and many others. It was an invaluable source of facts used to help create this post. Please check it out here.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Fisherman’s Wharf was used as an active wholesale fish market into the 1960s. As commercial fishing tapped out, it became the tourist attraction it is today, lined with one seafood restaurant after another, one of the few places on the image-conscious Peninsula (Cannery Row is another) where you can find a novelty store, revel in junk food, or buy a cheap T-shirt.

The Wharf crams much commercial activity into a relatively narrow space. The effect is slightly claustrophobic and wharf buildings always seem to be partially in shadow no matter what time of day it is. This is a view of the wharf from its “mouth”. It’s not that long, either; if you squint you can see in this photo where it ends (the red roof under the clock in the background):

As you get to the end of the Wharf, things open up a bit and you can see the Bay again. If so inclined, you can take a whale watch tour:

Rappa’s restaurant, which you can see in the above photo, has a viewing platform running the full length and width of their roof, from which we took the following photo. It may be the end of Fisherman’s Wharf, but it’s the beginning of something much more vast:

Cannery Row

Less than a half mile from Fisherman’s Wharf, a short walk down the recreation trail that runs the length of the Bay, you’ll find Cannery Row. Immortalized by local son John Steinbeck in his writings, it has been transformed into a commercial destination of significantly greater scope than Fisherman’s Wharf.

Although its days as an industrial fishing juggernaut is long behind it, you don’t have to look far to see remnants of its sardine canning roots:

Unlike Fisherman’s Wharf, you can easily spend a better part of the day on Cannery Row, which in addition to restaurants and shops is home to a number of attractions, not the least of which is the Monterey Bay Aquarium (there’s an indoor miniature golf course, mirror maze, laser tag arena, and XD theater, too). These kinds of attractions make it the most popular destination on California’s Central Coast, a kind of cannery-themed amusement park. It is also home to several outstanding lodging choices, such as the Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa:

The back of the hotel gives you only the slightest inkling of what a unique location it is, dolphin fountain and all (see below left), and turn the corner, walk a block or so, and you can take in a monument to the working people of Cannery Row, with John Steinbeck perched atop it (see below right).

Cannery Row, California

Standing at the far end of the Row, moving toward the aquarium, are the original shacks of those who worked in the canneries, many of them Chinese, Filipino, and Latino. Getting up close and seeing how small they really are is somewhat of a revelation:

Once you pass the dwellings photographed above, you find yourself almost at the end of the Row (and the Monterey city limit, for that matter), wherein sits Monterey's main attraction, the Monterey Bay Aquarium:

The aquarium’s architecture indicates how the City of Monterey has made an effort to keep the look and feel of the buildings aligned with the historical period that Steinbeck wrote about in his books. That the aquarium looks like a cannery is to be expected. It is built out from one, as more clearly evidenced by the Portola Sardines placard visible in this photo:

Well, we’ve reached the end of our journey down Cannery Row. We hope you enjoyed it. From time to time we'll be making additions to this entry and adding new cities, so be sure to check back occasionally.