Can you name California's most historic city?
Virtually every important event in the state from 1770 to 1848 began or ended in Monterey, according to the first president of the history and art association that's been dedicated to preserving the city's past for more than half a century.
Nine adobes and other vintage buildings spread around the town compose Monterey State Historic Park. They're among three dozen sites included on a "Path of History" walking tour that guides visitors through Old Monterey.
You can easily spend a day or more meandering along attractive city streets to visit a host of restored structures that bring Spanish, Mexican and early American California to life. Some are museums and others play roles as restaurants, shops and a theater presenting hiss-the-villain melodramas.
Also along the route is the oldest building in Monterey, the Royal Presidio Chapel, erected by the Spanish in 1794 and still in use. You can visit the house where Robert Louis Stevenson rented a room while courting his future wife, and Colton Hall, which was the site of California's constitutional convention in 1849.
From Los Angeles
Start your trip from Los Angeles by driving north on U.S. 101 to San Luis Obispo and joining scenic California 1 along the coast. At the Monterey exit, go under the freeway onto Munras Avenue, then bear right to continue north on Abrego Street. It becomes Washington Street and leads to public parking lots at Monterey's waterfront near Fisherman's Wharf.
Just east in Old Monterey is Custom House Plaza, where you'll find the visitor center for Monterey State Historic Park. It's in Pacific House, built in 1847 for U.S. military offices and storage.
Pick up a "Path of History" brochure with guide map, then tour the two-story building that is a museum of California history and houses a collection of American Indian artifacts.
Pacific House is one of the five state park buildings you can visit with a single ticket that costs $3.50 for adults, $2 for ages 6 through 17.
All are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., but four houses that feature guided tours close one day during midweek. Tours begin on the hour except at noon or 1 p.m. when guides take a lunch break. Tour groups are limited to 12 or 20 each, and you can sign up at each house in advance for a specific tour time.
North on the plaza is its namesake, Custom House, where duties were collected from ships during the Mexican reign of Monterey. Today it's a free museum displaying cargo goods such as cloth, candles and soap, along with cigars and champagne, which were traded for cowhides.
A few steps west is an adobe called the Whaling Station, once a boardinghouse for Portuguese whalers. Look closely at the diamond-patterned sidewalk in front; it's made of whalebone.
Go around back to one of the public patios and gardens that are pleasant places to rest during your tour of the town.
Also look for round blue markers on Monterey's sidewalks that guide you along the history path, and keep an eye open for signs identifying the historic sites.
Walk west across Pacific Street to California's First Theatre, also the site of a tavern opened by Jack Swan, an English sailor who settled in Monterey 144 years ago. You can still enjoy pub food and drink there in the daytime (except Monday and Tuesday), and the curtain goes up on melodramas Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m.
A New Hostelry
Heading south on Pacific Street you'll pass a new hostelry with Spanish-style design that makes a charming and convenient headquarters for exploring Monterey's historic sites. It's the Hotel Pacific, with 104 suites from $129, including continental breakfast and afternoon wine and cheese. Phone (800) 554-5542.
Across the street are downtown Monterey's largest hotels: the Sheraton with 344 rooms from $89, (408) 649-4234; and the Doubletree with 374 rooms from $80, (408) 649-4511.
Next door to the Hotel Pacific you can visit Casa Soberanes, marked by a blue gate and peaceful garden. Built in 1830 by the commander of the Presidio, later it was home to the Soberanes family for 62 years. Closed 1 to 2 p.m. and Thursdays.
From Casa Soberanes, walk south on Pacific to Jefferson Street, then go east one block to Larkin House on Calle Principal. Also part of the state historic park, Larkin House is a two-story adobe with a balcony and veranda that represents the Monterey style of architecture. Closed noon to 1 p.m. and Tuesdays.
After leaving Larkin House, cross Calle Principal to Pearl Street. Head east on Pearl to Polk Street and the Cooper-Molera Adobe that once was Monterey's largest and finest mud-brick house. It's open for tours after a $2.5-million restoration that included new wallpaper and carpeting, and furnishings that duplicate some originals. Closed 1 to 2 p.m. and Wednesdays.