You might find yourself in Monterey because you set out to watch whales along the coast. While you’re in town, you decide to see what’s new at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But don’t leave after that. There’s so much story to this town, a tale started long before California became a state in 1850.
First, of course, were the Ohlone people, called Costanoan or “coast people” by the Spanish, all but obliterated by the wave of foreign humanity that eventually crashed ashore here. The one remembered line of a traditional Ohlone song, “dancing at the brink of the world,” surely describes life in that ancient place as perfectly as it still does to this day.
No place introduces and illustrates this California invasion—which came even before the American Revolution, over yonder on the Right Coast—better than Monterey, which became California’s first capital. This small city’s story also includes the state’s first government building, first federal court, first newspaper, and first theater, though other places claim that last honor.
Some quick historical context: Cabrillo spotted Monterey Bay in 1542. Sixty years later, Vizcaino sailed into the bay and named it for the viceroy of Mexico, the count of Monte-Rey. A century later came Portola and Father Crespi, who, later joined by Father Junipero Serra, founded both Monterey’s presidio and the mission at Carmel, though the original mission was established in Monterey. This town even has pirate history. The French revolutionary and Argentine sailor Hippolyte Bouchard burned and ransacked Monterey in 1818. So no wonder the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, when he lived here, was inspired to use Point Lobos just south of town (now a state park), as Spyglass Hill in his novel Treasure Island.
You can literally walk this part of California history thanks to Monterey State Historic Park in the heart of Old Town Monterey. The city organized the yellow-tiled Path of History (not to be confused with any yellow-brick road), including the park’s key features. Preserving fine historic adobes, most of which were surrounded at one time by enclosed gardens and walls draped with bougainvillea vines, is the point here. Definitely worth seeing—you’ll need to sign up for a guided tour to look inside—is the Cooper Molera Adobe, with two acres of grounds; Larkin House, a classic example of Monterey Colonial architecture; as well as Stevenson House and Casa Soberanes.
Until recently the place to get oriented was the Monterey History & Maritime Museum on Custom House Plaza, which is now the Dali17 Museum, a collection of 500-some works by the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, who lived and worked in the area during the 1940s. At last report there was still a massive anchor from a whaling ship outside, a reminder of local whaling history—a bloody business that sailed forth from Monterey when it was California’s primary port city. Whale oil, after all, was how people lit their homes before electricity. We made good use of whales otherwise: Have you ever seen a sidewalk made from whalebone? They were once all the rage, and you can see one here in Monterey.
And don’t forget Colton Hall, a city museum, where California’s constitutional convention took place during September and October of 1849; the state constitution was drafted upstairs. Or the Presidio of Monterey, one of the nation's oldest military posts, the original complex founded by Portola in 1770, and the Royal Presidio Chapel, the area’s original mission, now a parish church, its interior walls painted with Native American and folk art.
There’s more to see and do in Monterey, and also nearby. A bit south is Big Sur, a ruggedly beautiful sweep of coastline to rival any in the world. Just inland from the Monterey Peninsula is the agriculturally rich Salinas Valley, boyhood stomping grounds of John Steinbeck. Stop by the National Steinbeck Center to learn his story. South of Salinas and east of Soledad is volcanic Pinnacles National Park, a rock climber’s paradise best visited any time but summer. Not far north, right on the San Andreas Fault, is Mission San Juan Bautista, where Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak conquered his fear of heights in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.
Up the Road will eventually take you to all these places, of course, as we continue dancing at the brink of the world.