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Where the Plazas Are in the City of Monterey–and How to Preserve Their Charm

Visitors sometimes think that Cannery Row is downtown Monterey, but that’s not so. Below you’ll learn about plazas in each of these distinctive areas of the City of Monterey.

PAL after the plaza - 071

The family above and the woman below are on the Alvarado Mall.
Is that the same as Alvarado Street?
No.  Learn about Alvarado Mall below.
Chic signalingFirst, an overview about local ordinances and biking polite. Questions or comments? Feel free to contact me
  • With all plazas, showing courtesy to pedestrians, and to property owners, is vital to the City of Monterey being an ever more bike- and pedestrian-friendly town. Please hop off and walk your bike, or bike slowly, when and where appropriate.
  • To learn more about bike laws and etiquette, including sidewalk riding in the City of Monterey and elsewhere, see “Riding skills, safety, and CA bike laws.” Also helpful is a 90-second audio and related text,  “Bicycling on sidewalks: misconceptions and advisories” (even though its primary focus is our county seat and largest city, Salinas).
  • It is legal to bike (slowly, please) through the City of Monterey’s Alvarado Mall (the brick passageway connecting the Custom House Plaza to Portola Plaza, north of Del Monte Avenue). Yes, confirmed by the City, 11/25/14.
  • It is legal to bike on Wharf II/Commercial Wharf and on the Coast Guard pier.
  • It it is illegal to bike on sidewalks on Alvarado Street, as indicated by the sign at the intersection of Alvarado and Polk. (That is one of the few places where it’s illegal to bike on sidewalks in the City of Monterey. Another is Calle Principal, as posted at Calle Principal and Jefferson. Click here for related ordinance.)

Okay, on with Where Are the Plazas!

Visitors–and even Monterey County residents–sometimes ask questions such as, “Where is Custom House Plaza?” or “Where’s that Griffin Plaza where Velo Club is meeting?” or “What’s the Friendly Plaza?
Or, some wonder: “The sign says bikes have to go to Calle Principal, but I want to get to Alvarado Street. How do I do that?” For that question, refer to route options under “Portola Plaza” below. This post not only provides that answer but many more tips for people biking to a dozen City of Monterey landmarks.

Shown first below are the downtown Monterey plazas:

  1. Custom House Plaza
  2. Alvarado Mall (brickway connecting Custom House Plaza and Portola Plaza)
  3. Portola Plaza
  4. Bonifacio Plaza
  5. Simoneau Plaza
  6. Griffin Plaza
  7. Friendly Plaza
  8. Larkin House Plaza
  9. Spanish Plaza

Also shown are the Cannery Row, Monterey plazas:

(These are also open to the public.)

  1. Dolphins Plaza–the Upper Plaza at Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa
  2. Steinbeck Plaza
  3. The Plaza at Bubba Gump

View of the Custom House Plaza from Peter B’s Brewpub.

Downtown Monterey Plazas:

1. Custom House Plaza

The Custom House Plaza is the largest plaza in the City of Monterey.  It is located across from Old Fisherman’s Wharf/ Wharf I.  Many wharf visitors notice the historic Custom House although some overlook the plaza, and what’s beyond it.

The Custom House Plaza is the fabulous gateway from the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail to downtown Monterey!

The Custom House Plaza is a celebrated historic spot.  The Custom House is commonly referred to as the oldest public building in California.  Indeed, the Custom House is the oldest government building in California.  It is California State Historic Landmark #1!

(For tips on biking to other history spots, click here.)

This family is now biking away from the Custom House Plaza.  The Custom House is on the right.

At this time, Custom House Plaza is officially open to pedestrians only. However, the City is considering changing their ordinance to officially allow biking.

Unofficially, considerate people who bike are already accepted in this spacious plaza.  Bike at an appropriate slow to moderate rate of speed.  Yield to pedestrians, and show persons walking there the extra courtesy that ensures their comfort and safety.

Stenciled messages indicate “no skateboards or bicycles jumping on the walls.”  This is not an appropriate location for practicing tricks!  “No…bicycles jumping on the walls” may not be quite what city officials meant; it does seem to be how the community honors that message.

Motor vehicle drivers have many nearby vehicle parking options and can also promptly access the area on foot or, if doing the bike-and-ride, by bike.  For those who are unable to walk or bike, perhaps in time a bicycle-powered taxicab service could be offered.  See neighboring county’s Santa Cruz Pedicab for inspiration.

The spacious Custom House Plaza often serves as the site of special events–including festivals, arts and crafts fairs…

…and even wintertime ice skating.

In winter, HER Helmet Thursdays spots Peter B’s Brewpub, Cafe Fina, and Domenico’s on the Wharf have sponsored Ice Skating by the Bay on the Custom House Plaza.

Below, a visiting cyclist from Santa Cruz is on the Custom House Plaza, with the waterfront behind him.  The Museum of Monterey is pictured at right.

2. Downtown Monterey Plazas


Alvarado Mall

The Alvarado Mall is the brick passageway, north of Del Monte Avenue, that runs between Custom House Plaza and Portola Plaza. Alvarado Mall is an important passageway between downtown and the waterfront for people who walk or bike.

It is usually appropriate to bike slowly through this shared passageway; and occasionally, when there are many pedestrians, it may be best to get off and walk your bike a while.  An extra dose of thoughtfulness for the safety and ease of pedestrians goes a long way in building a more bike-friendly city.

About a decade ago, there were “No Bike” signs on the Alvarado Mall. As another step in making it easier for people to bike in the City of Monterey, the signs were removed by the City.  The related ordinance is still on the books Section 20.-48.4 (click here) but is to be updated in conjunction with the Monterey on the Move Plan.  Just fyi, the “No Skate or Skateboard” signs remain due to the noise factor of skates and skateboards on the brick pavers.

Along the Alvarado Mall, you’ll see Adventures by the Sea bicycle rentals, and HER Helmet Thursdays spots Spa on the Plaza, and (the side entrance to) Portola Hotel.

Below, Dan Vitanza beside his 25-year business, Pino’s Cafe, which closed at the end of 2015. Dan loves to bike too!

Below, Adventures by the Sea’s Alvarado Mall location.

Downtown Monterey Plazas:

3. Portola Plaza

The Portola Plaza is the small plaza with a fountain that is located at the bottom of Alvarado Street.  This plaza is at the entrance to the Monterey Conference Center and the Portola Hotel.

To reach the Portola Plaza coming from the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail (bike/multi-use path):
  • Leave the path at the back of Museum of  Monterey or at the top of Old Fisherman’s Wharf/ Wharf I.
  • Cut across the Custom House Plaza and go through Alvarado Mall.
  • When you come out of Alvarado Mall, you have arrived at Portola Plaza.  There you are, the front entrance to the Portola Hotel…
At the Portola Hotel, you’ll find some avid cyclists among their valets. And concierge Anne Roberts knows exactly where to look for biking info–she’s bookmarked Bicycling Monterey! The hotel is part of the HER Helmet Thursdays project too.
When people on bicycles exit Portola Plaza, since Alvarado Street is one-way, bicycles are directed at the Portola Plaza/Del Monte Avenue intersection to bike to Calle Principal.
Here are three typical routes that cyclists use to reach Alvarado Street (or other places) from Calle Principal:  Pearl Street, Polk Street, and Bonifacio Plaza.
Route Option #1 to reach Alvarado from Calle Principal:  Pearl Street. 
  • Bike up Calle Principal Street to Pearl.  (Jefferson will be to your right, Pearl to your left.)
  • Pearl Street is a one-way. So, by that red “wrong way” sign (see photo below), either hop off and walk your bike, or ride on the sidewalk courteously, to travel the very short distance to Alvarado Street via the Pearl sidewalk.
  • You’ll come out at a five-way intersection, with Cooper Molera historic adobe across the intersection on Munras, to your right; and Ordway Pharmacy to your left, with its front facing Alvarado and its side facing Pearl.
  • Make a left to be on Alvarado Street.  With children, it is safest to hop off your bikes and walk bikes through the crosswalk here.
Notice that red “wrong way” sign up ahead on the left? That’s Pearl.
The intersection further up ahead is Polk Street.
Route option #2 to reach Alvarado from Calle Principal:  Polk Street.  
  • Bike up Calle Principal all the way, and you’ll reach the intersection by 500 Hartnell /Restaurant 1833, a historic adobe.
  • Turn left onto Hartnell.
  • Immediately make another left, onto one-way Polk Street.
  • Bike Polk Street past the Cooper Molera barn (on your right), until you reach the five-way intersection.
  • Carefully bike across that intersection.  With children, it is safest to hop off your bikes and walk bikes through the crosswalks here.

Just across the intersection, when the front door of Ordway Pharmacy is on your right, you are now at the top of Alvarado Street.

If instead of going to Alvarado Street, you want to go to any of the following…

Then make a right at the 500 Hartnell /Restaurant 1833 intersection.  When you get to the traffic signal (Pacific Streeet), you would then:

Downtown Monterey Plazas:

4. Bonifacio Plaza

As mentioned in the Portola Plaza section above, when people on bicycles exit Portola Plaza, since Alvarado is one-way, bicycles are directed to Calle Principal.  The three typical routes that cyclists use to reach Alvarado (or other places) from Calle Principal are (1) Pearl Street, (2) Polk Street, and (3) Bonifacio Plaza.

Route option #3 to reach Alvarado from Calle Principal:   Bonifacio Plaza. 

When biking up Calle Principal, if your destination is not high up Alvarado Street, you may want to travel through Bonifacio Plaza, as a shortcut.  This plaza is across Calle Principal from the Calle Principal parking garage (that’s parking for motor vehicles; you’ll also see bike parking racks on Calle Principal). A bicycle parking rack has also been installed on Bonifacio Plaza.

Bonifacio Plaza is officially open to pedestrians only.  It is usually best to hop off your bike and walk it through this short and narrow plaza.  If there is no pedestrian present at all, then biking through would make sense–at a slow speed, in case pedestrians pop in.

Downtown Monterey Plazas:

5. Simoneau Plaza


Monterey’s downtown transit center for the Monterey-Salinas Transit bus system is at the Simoneau  Plaza, a triangular plaza at the top of Alvarado Street, our “main street.”  See bike-and-ride tips for info about the MST buses, and taking your bike aboard.  Want to purchase a Summer Youth GoPass or other goodies from MST?  Visit the MST Bus Stop Shop at 150 Del Monte Avenue, Monterey, which is a very short bike ride away.


That sign is a little misleading. It doesn’t mean no bicycles, it means no bicycle riding on Simoneau Plaza. (Please walk your bikes.)


The transit center at Simoneau Plaza is surrounded on its three sides by landmarks including the Cooper-Molera historic adobe.  Also known as “The Cooper House,” this historic adobe and museum sits at the top of Alvarado Street, at the five-way intersection (which includes Munras and Alvarado, as the street sign pictured shows).

See the four flags on your left? That’s Simoneau Plaza.
See the “Museum Store Open” sign? That’s in front of Cooper Molera!

Simoneau Plaza is also across the street from the Uptown Monterey shopping center, which has its own handy bike racks conveniently located for people using the MST…

Simoneau Plaza is one short block from Monterey’s Main Post Office on Hartnell Street. To reach Hartnell and the PO, you may from the Uptown Monterey / Trader Joe’s parking lot via the little Carl’s Alley; exercise extra caution.  If biking with children, it is best to hop off and walk your bikes through Hartnell Gulch to reach Hartnell Street.

For pedestrians, there is a special Hartnell Gulch walkway off the Uptown Monterey parking lot. It is much safer for children to walk their bicycles here than to ride their bikes on Carl’s Alley.  Kids will likely enjoy the Hartnell Gulch walkway anyway!

Simoneau Plaza is also very near the Monterey Public Library, with Internet access.  (Refer to notes in the Bonifacio Plaza section.)

Downtown Monterey Plazas:

6. Griffin Plaza

Griffin Plaza is at the corner of Washington and Pearl streets and is home to HER Helmet Thursdays spot East Village Coffee Lounge, Workhorse Bicycles (formerly Aquarian, then Bay Bikes), a UPS store, and Melville Tavern.

Griffin Plaza is very near Simoneau Plaza.  This means that if you’re doing the bike-and-ride on an MST bus, Griffin is another great option for relaxing while waiting for the next bus.

Bike parking is conveniently located at racks in front of Bay Bikes.

It’s not uncommon for people who bike to roll on in when the plaza isn’t full of people. Still, the official rule (note City of Monterey sign) is to walk your bike on Griffin Plaza. Be a good ambassador for the bike community: hop off and walk it.

(Photo courtesy of Leo Kodl.)

Downtown Monterey Plazas:

7. Friendly Plaza

Friendly Plaza is on the grounds of Monterey’s Colton Hall, where the City Hall and the Colton Hall Museum are also located.

Friendly Plaza and the Colton Hall lawn are a beautiful, peaceful change of pace from downtown activity.

From the street, Friendly Plaza can look deceptively small.  Head on up and see…

Take time to stop and smell the roses here.

Friendly Plaza is down the street from the Monterey Police Station; even farther downstreet is the Monterey High School.

The lot that holds Colton Hall and Friendly Plaza is kitty-corner from the City of Monterey Public Library.

Keep it friendly! If there are others present, it is appropriate to walk your bike on this plaza.

Friendly Plaza is across Pacific Street from the Monterey Museum of Art (at left, in photo below).

Downtown Monterey Plazas:

8. Larkin House Plaza

Have you ventured beyond the gates of the Larkin House property, accessed via Calle Principal and Pacific Streets? As these constables of the peace know, this is a beautiful, peaceful place to rest downtown. Lock up your bike and enjoy this area on foot.

Keeping an eye at Larkin - 008

Downtown Monterey Plazas:
9. Spanish Plaza

Spanish Plaza is located at the corner of Tyler and Del Monte, kitty-corner from the Monterey-Salinas Transit Bus Stop Shop.   Skip Spanish Plaza for now, as this little plaza isn’t currently a pleasant stop; it’s caught between heavily trafficked streets and is in a state of disrepair. Offer your ideas for renewal to the City of Monterey Planning Department.

Cannery Row, Monterey Plazas

(all are open to the public)

1. Dolphins Plaza–the Upper Plaza at the

Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa

Commonly referred to as Dolphins Plaza, the Upper Plaza at the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa is a good landmark for people who bike and walk. It is between Fisherman’s Wharf/Wharf #1 and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  (It is nearer the wharf end.)

See the woman below with the wild purple headpiece? She’s standing on the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail (bike/multi-use path). Directly below her is the Monterey Plaza Hotel; the open space with the vista is Dolphins Plaza!

This handy stop for people who bike and walk is an ocean-front plaza that the public is welcome to enjoy. As the table signs alongside the hotel’s glass-front coffee shop, Tidal Coffee, say, no purchase is necessary to sit at the plaza tables.  Enjoy the view! The iron divider pictured above (used when the hotel must section off a section of this plaza for private parties) also does double-duty as a handy bike rack. If you decide to linger a while, perhaps to enjoy lunch, dinner, or beverages downstairs at the hotel’s Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar, you may want to make use of the hotel’s bike valet parking.

Some tourists asked me on the bike path recently whether Schooners was “touristy,” meaning, do the locals really go there and find this is a place of genuine value.  Yes!  Schooners is one of those uncommon waterfront places with outdoor dining in Monterey County–and the food is delicious.  Better yet, Schooners, Tidal Coffee, and Vista Blue Spa are all participants in HER Helmet Thursdays!

Cannery Row, Monterey Plazas:

2. Steinbeck Plaza

Steinbeck Plaza is along the waterfront on the street named Cannery Row, and you’ll see a bust of John Steinbeck at this plaza’s entrance.

Steinbeck Plaza is the scene of frequent weekend and holiday live music, plus special events activities, such as the annual Cannery Row Block Party.

Below: There is an MST trolley stop alongside Steinbeck Plaza. As noted in bike-and-ride tips, as of September 2016, most MST trolleys do not have bike racks. However, when a trolley is not too full, just as with any MST small or large bus, a bicycle can usually be taken aboard, at the driver’s discretion. Whether you take a bicycle inside an MST trolley or inside any other MST bus, always: keep a firm hold on your bicycle, and keep it out of the aisle.

MST Trolley on Cannery Row stop by Steinbeck Plaza

It is appropriate to walk your bike on Steinbeck Plaza.
There are conveniently located bike racks directly on the plaza….

Close-up parking for cyclists at live music concerts on Steinbeck Plaza

as well as more bike racks along the bike/multi-use path just above Steinbeck Plaza.

There is another plaza near the Steinbeck Plaza, and it is commonly referred to as:

Cannery Row, Monterey Plazas:

3. The Plaza at Bubba Gump

Like the Steinbeck Plaza, this plaza often has special events activities, such as the live animal shows at the 2012 Cannery Row Block Party.

It is located alongside HER Helmet Thursdays spot Intercontinental The Clement Monterey.

* * * * *

For more help with directions….

See the “Bicycle Maps and Other Tools for Finding Your Way” section of Tips for Bicycling Monterey County.

*  *  *  *  *

Daniel Grün of Germany loves the fun of making discoveries while traveling.  He found that beyond the waterfront, there was a large plaza–Custom House Plaza–leading to a downtown also worth exploring.

Custom House Plaza: 

Perhaps change coming?

Update, 10/24/13. At its 10/22 meeting, the Monterey City Council expressed its desire not to have the Alvarado Mall and Custom House Plaza opened to motor vehicle traffic. In a conversation with a planning commissioner on 10/20, Bicycling Monterey confirmed that the direction now is that only very slow trolleys would be allowed to travel this area in the future–and a costly redesign of the area would first be necessary, putting such activity well into the future.

Update, 8/31/13. See “Do you enjoy the Open Space of Monterey’s Custom House Plaza and Alvarado Mall, or would you rather drive through?

Update, 8/17/13. Reminder: To keep up with Downtown Specific Planning meetings, click here. Next related meetings are 8/21 and 8/27/13. Ask to be on the City’s mailing list to receive helpful links not easily uncovered via the City’s website. The City of Monterey’s draft Downtown Specific Plan was made available to the public on 6/20/12.

Update, 3/27/13. For a visual, see  video posted on YouTube by the consultants, Fehr & Peers, titled “Alvarado Street Improvements, City of Monterey.”

Update, 4/11/13.  A Monterey planner, certainly appreciated for having the best of intentions for the City of Monterey, was nonetheless quoted as follows by the Monterey County Weekly. See Sara Rubin’s 4/11/13 story in the Weekly (and the comments below it).

Rubin’s story stated the planner hopes a traffic plan that opens up Custom House Plaza would boost usage, and quoted her as saying, “The big question is, why is this such a dead space?” But not everyone views that as dead space; many treasure it as open space! Click here to see some of those people.

The corresponding Citywide Transportation and Parking Study is found at on this page.

Custom House Plaza is officially open to pedestrians only.  Unofficially, it is open to courteous bicyclists as well.  Please refer to the safety and courtesy reminders in this post for Custom House Plaza, and for other plazas as well.

Motor vehicles in Custom House Plaza?

Custom House Plaza is a very special plaza, deserving of protection so that future generations may better enjoy it, too.  As mentioned above, the Custom House is the oldest government building in California.  It is California State Historic Landmark #1!

The City of Monterey has made a decision that Custom House Plaza would become open to motor vehicles.  Yes, in some manner.  See pages 121+ of the Downtown Specific Plan draft.

Why?  That was first recommended in June 2011 at the Transportation and Parking Charrette, public meetings announced on this site.

It has not yet been decided by City officials how much motor vehicle traffic would be allowed, whether it would be shuttles only or shuttles and private vehicles, whether it would be once in a while or on a regular basis, whether it would be limited hours of day, and so on.

The recommendation in June 2011 was made by transportation consultants hired by the City of Monterey.  The consultants’ expressed opinion was that it would be good to open this area to motor vehicles, so people could drive directly through Custom House Plaza to the waterfront from downtown–rather than taking one of the other routes.

The consultants also expressed that people did not know Monterey had a waterfront until they got through the tunnel (connecting travelers to Lighthouse Avenue, New Monterey or Wave and Foam Streets/the Aquarium).  Apparently they determined that too many people do not see the waterfront when driving Del Monte Avenue alongside Window on the Bay Park, or past the Wharf II entrance.

Charming or frustrating?

Bicycling Monterey has much respect for our City leaders, and for the professional expertise of the consultants the City hired.  Nevertheless, if you view videos from those meetings, you’ll hear one of those consultants repeatedly expressing these opinions:  (1)  He was so frustrated by Monterey’s streets that on every visit, he swore he’d never come back here again.  (2) He loves Monterey and has come here every year for 30 years!

Do you like Alvarado Mall and Custom House Plaza free of vehicle traffic?  See pages 121+ of the draft.  Notice that while many ideas sound good, the rationale for some of these can be used to support the idea of vehicle traffic.  For instance, page 123 states, “The existing plaza is uninviting and discourages pedestrians from entering or strolling through from either side.”  Is that your  experience? 

Review the information for yourself, then speak up!

Bicycling Monterey’s opinion–and that of a planning commissioner

You’ll also hear in those June 2011 videos Planning Commissioner Luis Osorio express what I was also thinking at the charrette–and still think:   In essence, such a change to the Custom House Plaza area would be going backwards in creating a better downtown.

As stated above, the consultants made a recommendation to the City Council, and the Council decided on some kind of traffic.

Since Custom House Plaza is owned by the State of California, it was premature to even recommend not only vehicles but any redesign of the plaza.  Having traffic through the Custom House Plaza would be detrimental to the historic value of the plaza and the buildings around it.

As of June 9, 2012, there has not yet been an Environmental Impact Report.  When an EIR is done, some unpleasant aspects would likely be realized.  Before then,  it’s not really possible to know what will happen.

The Custom House Plaza was a staple of the redevelopment effort in the 1970s.  There are certainly other ways to improve it.  One idea that has been suggested is to take down the wall that keeps many waterfront visitors from realizing what lies beyond that wall.  Other ideas are below.

Helping Wharf I and other Monterey waterfront visitors find downtown

The historic Custom House Plaza, the beautiful gateway to downtown Monterey, may indeed be missed by some waterfront visitors.  It makes sense that one concern of the City is that those visitors may miss downtown Monterey.

According to the consultants at the June 2011 charrette, visitors often mistakenly think “downtown” is the Cannery Row neighborhood (home of the Monterey Bay Aquarium).  Better signage on the freeway (Cal Trans domain) and/or coming into town, directing visitors to downtown, can help.  Some signage improvements in town have indeed since been made by the City of Monterey.

Besides roadway signs, or opening the plaza to motor vehicles, how else to draw visitors through Custom House Plaza to downtown?

Without opening Custom House Plaza to motor vehicles, how else could Custom House Plaza be enhanced to invite pedestrians and bicyclists to enter downtown via this charming route?

One idea:  A welcoming small path of a few tasteful carts guiding people from the coastal path into the Custom House Plaza.  Such carts could bear visitor information; bright, fresh flowers; and enticing fresh locally grown produce snacks.  These could beckon visitors to check out these carts, and the cart attendants could then help people learn that there is still much more to be experienced across the Custom House Plaza in downtown Monterey!

Speak up! How to express your opinion

Do you like walking, or biking at an appropriate speed, through the Alvarado Mall and Custom House Plaza?  Do you prefer that these two areas not be opened up to motor vehicles? Voice that preference to the City Planning Commission, City Council, and City Traffic Engineer.

For those who are unable to walk or bike, instead of opening this area to cars, perhaps a bicycle-powered taxi service could be offered.  See Santa Cruz Pedicab for inspiration.

Please feel free to phone me (831-375-6278) about this issue.

When and where appropriate…

Be a good ambassador for the bicycling community.  Be mindful of the comfort and safety of pedestrians and property owners.  On the plazas or elsewhere, as appropriate, please bike slowly or hop off and walk your bike.

(Photo of the above “PLEASE WALK BICYCLES” sign was taken at the Santa Cruz Public Library.)

Previously published May 2012, with 2012 and some 2013 updates.

This post was published on 17 August 2013. One or more changes last made to this post on 13 March 2020.

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