If it is possible to distill all of California’s exuberance into a single perfect scene, a sunny Saturday in Monterey is it. At the heart of the city, behind storied Cannery Row, serious cyclists zip down the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail on $1,000 bikes, while out-of-breath parents chug along in canvas-topped rent-a-surreys, wishing their kids could provide a little more pedal power. At nearby San Carlos Beach Park, picnickers gaze out at the glistening bay, where speckled harbor seals bob in the waves, a wet-suited human tries to master stand-up paddleboarding, and farther out, a tour boat searches for gray whales, which it will likely find.
This is a big year for Monterey. Two hundred fifty summers ago, explorer Gaspar de Portolá arrived here, planted the Spanish flag in the sand, and founded the bayside settlement. It would become Alta California’s most important city, a thriving port and provincial capital. Then the Gold Rush led fortune seekers elsewhere. In the many decades since, Monterey has risen and fallen and risen again, drawing American adventurers, Japanese fishermen, Sicilian cannery workers, and international tourists.
Monterey reveres the past but isn’t stuck there. The city preserves its historic buildings and also fosters innovation as a world-class center for marine science. Downtown, timeless gardens intermingle with trendy brewpubs. On the waterfront, restaurants and retailers cleverly reclaim former fish-processing facilities. All in all, Monterey is so quintessentially Californian that it has served as a backdrop for innumerable Hollywood films and TV shows, including HBO’s hit series Big Little Lies.
The city’s whole scene, old-timey and modern, is best explored on foot. Two easy walks will help you get the most out of a weekend visit: The first route traverses downtown, highlighting Monterey’s rich collection of surviving adobes and its revived main thoroughfare, Alvarado Street; the second runs along the waterfront, leading you to must-see attractions such as Cannery Row, the aquarium, and the wharf. Treat yourself to scenic rest stops and tasty quick bites along the way.