Monterey Pensinsula: History for the taking

Road Journals Blog—After two days of low gray skies, the morning dawned perfectly clear. Sunlight glittered on Monterey Bay. Outdoor tables sprang up at cafes and restaurants. Kayakers took to the water. Bicylists spun along the pedestrian path that cuts through town.

When I’d set aside part of the day to explore the Monterey State Historic Park, I didn't have the weather in mind. I was hardly enthusiastic about spending part of this glorious day in a museum.

Monterey State Historic Park | Lisa Andres/Flickr

As it turned out, I didn’t have to. Visiting the park means taking a lovely stroll through the historic part of old Monterey, past more than a dozen buildings that played a central role in the state’s history.

There are many highlights along the way. The walk takes you past California’s first theater, which in 1846 originally served as a lodging house and tavern for sailors. In 1850, U.S. Army officers began staging plays there to earn a little extra money.

Another highlight is the Robert Louis Stevenson house, where the novelist stayed in 1879 while he courted  Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, who eventually became his wife. The house, built in the 1830s, has hosted many different businesses, including the French Hotel.

One of my favorite stops was Colton Hall, where California’s first constitution was signed in 1849. Three dozen brass plaques set into the sidewalk leading up to the building tell the story of the state’s history, including some little-known quirky tales. In 1848, for instance, despite the fact that Monterey was already a bustling town, the city was almost abandoned when gold was discovered in them thar hills.

Something else that surprised me: that original constitution was written in both Spanish and English—a testament to how long the state has shared two languages. Along the walk you’ll discover that Monterey boasts many firsts, including the state’s first public library, post office, and newspaper.

The walking tour ends at the 1794 Royal Presidio Chapel, with its graceful bell tower. It is the only building that remains from the original Spanish Royal Presidio. The chapel is open most days.

Unfortunately, many other historic buildings aren’t, a sad consequence of the state’s budget mess. Buildings that were once open for tours have been shuttered. Guided tours, once offered for free, have been similarly canceled.

Several of the historic structures, including Colton Hall, are still in use as government offices or shops, so you can peek inside. Even those that are now closed to the public are worth seeing from the outside.

On weekends and holidays, the Customs House, near Old Pier, is open and you can pick up a printed map of the park. Otherwise, your best bet is to print one up on the state park’s website, which also includes all the information you need to conduct your own guided tour.

Peter Jaret wrote about Monterey, Carmel, and Pebble Beach in February 2011.

This blog post was first published in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.