MONTEREY, California - Once the "Sardine Capital of the World," this charming city on Monterey Bay packs in a lot for travelers to see and do.

The canneries are gone, but Cannery Row lives on, with several former sardine-processing factories along the bay repurposed as businesses, shops, restaurants and even one of the country’s best aquariums.

And fortunately, Monterey County escaped the recent rash of California wildfires.

Now a tourist magnet, Monterey is not as grungy or diverse as during its fish-packing heyday when workers of many backgrounds and ethnicities eked out livings on fishing boats or in the canneries. But homages to the old days are everywhere, especially along Cannery Row.

Visitors will find numerous hat-tips to John Steinbeck, a Nobel Prize-winning favorite son whose 1945 novella "Cannery Row" was a comic tribute to the neighborhood and to marine biologist Edward Ricketts, portrayed as "Doc" in the work and its follow-up, "Sweet Thursday."

Several statues and historic markers honor the writer and his friend Ricketts. (Ricketts died in 1948 in a traffic accident in Monterey.)

I even bumped into a couple of ragged, middle-aged guys who reminded me of "Mac and the Boys" from "Cannery Row." Backpacks stowed in the bushes, the two, visibly down on their luck but quite voluble, were playing chess on a curb.

I suspected, just for a moment, that the colorful, chatty characters were Chamber of Commerce plants, especially when they asked me to help them out with "a couple of bones." But if you’re bumming money in Monterey, a colorful, Steinbeck-ian patois certainly can’t hurt. In any case, I admired the initiative and handed over some dough.

Ricketts’ Pacific Biological Laboratory building also still stands on Cannery Row. And just down the street, one gloriously repurposed old building, the Hovden Cannery built in 1916, now forms part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a place that surely would have given "Doc" great pleasure.

Visiting the famous aquarium can easily take up a day. The institution, which is also a working field laboratory, has many fascinating displays exhibiting more than 500 species. The aquarium even has its own natural tide pool on the bay, and a bay-front wildlife viewing platform from which pelicans, sea lions, otters and whales can often be seen.

Beyond Cannery Row, along the bay toward downtown, is the oldest part of Monterey and one of the oldest parts of California.

The city was founded in 1770 and soon became the capital of the Spanish colonial province of Alta California. Today, Monterey State Historic Park preserves the oldest public building in California, the old Custom House, built by the Mexican government a few years after that country won independence from Spain in 1821.

(Monterey and the rest of California became part of the United States in 1846 as a result of the Mexican-American War.)

Other historic sites at the park include a general store built in 1845, the city’s first brick house and the Pacific House Museum, which offers exhibits on the city’s history in a former hotel and tavern built in 1847 just after the U.S. takeover.

Just steps from the old Custom House is Fisherman’s Wharf, another colorful cluster of shops, seafood restaurants and other tourist-friendly businesses located on a historic wharf that also dates to the mid-19th century and juts scenically into the bay. The busy wharf is also where visitors can hop aboard one of the popular Monterey Bay whale-watching and harbor-tour boats.

I had spotted a colony of sea lions, beached picturesquely, near Lover’s Point, a scenic stretch of rocks along the shore in Pacific Grove, just a short walk from the aquarium. But I got my best look at one of the marine mammals at Fisherman’s Wharf. The streamlined but lethargic beast was sunning himself on a rocky outcropping at the base of the pylons supporting a seafood restaurant, probably digesting his own meal of extremely fresh sardines.

I felt pretty lethargic myself after a day packed full of of exploration (and fresh fish).

Beaching myself on the king-size bed at my nearby hotel, I was happy to have more in common with a sea lion than a sardine.

Steve Stephens can be reached at sstephens@dispatch.com or on Twitter@SteveStephens.

If You Go

MONTEREY

This beautiful city on Monterey Bay, on central California's Pacific coast, was once the "Sardine Capital of the World." Today, many of the old sardine factories have been turned into shops, restaurants and other tourist-friendly businesses. One factory is part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, acclaimed as one of the best aquariums in the United States.

LEARNING MORE

To learn more about Monterey and the region, call 1-888-221-1010 or visit seemonterey.com.