Quaint and charming Carmel-by-the-Sea is a sought after Central California coast vacation destination. Whether you are a couple looking for that romantic weekend escape, a solo traveler that loves coastal beauty, or a family seeking fun activities, you will find reasons to love Carmel!
Carmel-by-the-Sea is famous for its historic Spanish mission, its crescent-shaped white sand beach, and its storybook cottages that look like they have stepped straight out of a fairy tale. Its cobblestone streets are lined with boutique shops, tasting rooms, and art galleries.
With superbly scenic natural areas, a village that oozes European charm, great food and drink, and enough activities to keep any type of traveler engaged, Carmel is a must-visit California coastal getaway and one of the most romantic places in California you can visit.
Considering a visit to Carmel? Read on for all the best things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea, plus our suggestions for places to stay and eat.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Things to Do in Carmel-by-the-Sea
Things to Do Near Carmel-by-the-Sea
Getting to Carmel
Where to Stay in Carmel
Where to Eat in Carmel
When to Visit Carmel
Things to Do in Carmel-by-the-Sea
Visit the Carmel Mission
The official name of the Carmel Mission is Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo. Established in 1771, the Carmel Mission was the second of the missions built in California by the Spanish missionaries led by Father Junípero Serra, who is buried here.
An active church, but also a museum, the beautiful Carmel Mission is a National Historic Landmark. It has been painstakingly restored, and is the only Spanish mission in California that has its original bell tower and bell.
Exploring the Carmel Mission, with its lovely chapel, museum, fountain, and gardens, is one of the top things to do in Carmel. The museum and basilica contain impressive artifacts, and the plantings on the grounds are gorgeous.
There is an admission fee, and parking is available but limited, so arrive early in the day. Visit the Carmel Mission website for current hours and fees.
Walk Carmel State Beach
Carmel-by-the-Sea is home to not one but two beautiful sandy beaches. Carmel State Beach, located at the bottom of Ocean Avenue, is long and sandy, and fringed with cypresses. It’s a great place to experience a west coast sunset!
Walking along the beach is a popular activity, and the beach does get busy, especially on weekends. Wading or playing near the water line are allowed, but know that there are no lifeguards at the beach. You can also surf. Bring a wetsuit because the water can be cold much of the year.
There is limited parking right by the beach, but unless you arrive really early, you may want to find a parking spot near the village and walk down.
Dogs under voice control of their owners are allowed on the beach off leash. If you visit in the mornings, or on the weekends, you’ll see lots of dogs romping on the beach.
enjoy Carmel River State Beach
Right around the corner from Carmel Beach is Carmel River State Beach. The crescent shaped beach is quieter than Carmel Beach, but just as beautiful. The Carmel River flows into the ocean here.
Swimming is not recommended at Carmel River State Beach, on account of dangerous rip tides. Walk on the beach, go kayaking, or fly a kite. Dogs are allowed, but must be leashed, because the lagoon here is a habitat for birds.
Walk or drive Scenic Road
An oceanfront one way road that runs parallel to Carmel Beach and beyond, Scenic Road makes for a wonderful drive. On one side is the ocean, and on the other side are beautiful Carmel homes. The road is very popular, so drive it very early or late in the day.
There is also a bluff path that runs along the beach, parallel to the road. It is perfect for a walk, with stunning views of the waves and the beach below. Cypresses line the road, and in the spring, flowers add an extra touch of brightness. Dogs are allowed on the trail, but must be leashed.
There are benches to sit and take in the view, and sets of stairs at intervals to get down to the beach or back up to the road.
Admire Frank Lloyd Wright’s Walker House at Carmel Point
At Carmel Point, you will find the Walker House, designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The sleek low cabin home sits atop the bluff, the only ocean home designed by Wright.
Mrs. Clinton Walker House, also called the Della Walker house, has walls made from Carmel stone, a sea blue roof, and Cherokee Red painted window frames. A cypress hedge affords privacy, but you can see it from the beach or from the street.
On one day a year, the Walker family opens the house to the public for the Carmel Annual House & Garden Tour.
Birdwatch at the Carmel River Bird Sanctuary
Carmel River State Beach includes a lagoon. The lagoon, and the river corridor just upstream, are home to the Carmel River Bird Sanctuary. If you enjoy birding, bring your binoculars and camera with zoom lens!
You will see lots of stately pelicans in the lagoon, which is like a busy airport, with birds taking off and swooping down to land every few seconds. While pelicans, Western gulls, and Brandt’s cormorants are common in the lagoon, more than 350 species have been spotted in the area.
If you are lucky, you may even see the endangered Snowy Plover on the beach here! In the fresh water upstream, you will find lots of ducks. Many land birds and raptors love the riparian corridor as well.
Did You Know?
Carmel-by-the-Sea homes and buildings do not have numbers! They are identified only by the cross streets for their location. Because there are no numbered addresses, residents and businesses go to the post office to pick up their mail.
There are no street lights in Carmel, so bring a flashlight. And heels beyond a certain height are not permitted, because tree roots have created uneven pavements that are potential hazards. You can go to City Hall and obtain a high heel waiver if you still want to walk around in your heels. Makes for a nice souvenir too!
Carmel is super dog friendly, with many restaurants allowing pooches on patios. On Carmel State Beach, dogs can run around leash-less, as long as they obey voice commands from their owners. Area parks may have dog restrictions, though, so check the specific natural areas you plan to visit.
Visit Point Lobos State Reserve
Just a few miles south of Carmel is Point Lobos State Reserve, one of California’s most scenic state parks. With spectacular ocean views, beautiful coastal flora, and lots of birds and marine life to observe, Point Lobos is a must-visit when you are in Carmel.
There are several ocean-view trails you can hike in Point Lobos, and if you have the time (about four hours or so), plan on hiking all of them!
If you have limited time, we suggest hiking at least Bird Island Trail and Cypress Grove Trail. They are each under a mile long and showcase the park’s best sights.
Note: Dogs are not allowed on Point Lobos trails.
Stroll Ocean Avenue
The cute little village of Carmel-by-the-Sea is just one square mile in area, and Ocean Avenue is the main street that runs through the village, from Highway One all the way down to the beach.
Lined with shops, cafes, and art galleries, Ocean Avenue is a must-stroll when you visit Carmel. Visit Carmel Plaza, an outdoor complex of upscale stores. Pop into Carmel Bakery for a delectable sweet treat.
Snap a photo of the charming Cottage of Sweets before you step inside for British-style candies and other chocolate and candy treats, many of them imported. The sweet little cottage was built in 1922, and originally located on Delores Street. It was moved to its present location by rolling it on logs!
The other streets in Carmel Village are just as strollworthy, so plan on spending time wandering!
Tour the Carmel fairytale cottages
Carmel’s quaint cottages are famous. A trend started by Hugh Comstock in the early 1900s, Carmel’s fairytale cottages feature high pitched roofs, stone chimneys, and timbered details that make you think you are in Alsace.
Comstock was not a trained architect or designer, but he enjoyed drawing. He designed the first whimsical cottage for his wife’s business. Mayotta Comstock’s “otsy-totsy dolls” were becoming a rage, and the cottage was to serve as her workspace.
Comstock’s cottage inspired other local residents to ask for their own fairytale cottages, and he (and other builders) built many more of them in the village. The Tuck Box, on Dolores Street, is one of Comstock’s cottages.
Use this audio app to do a self-guided tour of Carmel’s fairytale cottages! With the app, you can see close to a dozen Carmel cottages, plus learn about their history and architecture. The terrain is hilly, so be prepared for a bit of a workout.
Browse Carmel’s art galleries
Originally formed as an artist colony, Carmel became home to numerous artists, writers, and poets, and it still holds those roots dear. You will find lots of art galleries in Carmel, many of them artist-owned.
Browsing Carmel’s art galleries and meeting local artists is one of the most fun things to do in the village. Some local artists have had their work featured in famous museums such as the Smithsonian. Most artist-owners enjoy chatting with you about their work.
Shop one-of-a-kind boutiques
Love shopping? Downtown Carmel has so many fun stores to browse! You’ll find trendy apparel boutiques, of course, as well as jewelry and gift stores, and name brands at Carmel Plaza.
Check out Thinker Toys: we browse this delightful toy store each time we visit the village, and we have picked up some nice games and puzzles here. Pilgrim’s Way Community Bookstore & Secret Garden, with its nice book collection, plants, and gifts, makes for great browsing.
Do wine tastings
The village of Carmel has more than a dozen tasting rooms. If you are staying in the village, you can taste all the wine you want without worrying about a designated driver, because the village is eminently walkable.
Carmel’s wine tasting rooms offer a wide choice of varietals, from Pinot Noir and Cabernet to Chardonnay and Zinfandel. Set in the charming streets and passageways of the village, the tasting rooms offer a great setting to relax, as well as to buy some local wines to take home!
Enjoy olive oil and vinegar tastings
One of our favorite places to visit in Carmel-by-the-Sea is Trio Carmel, where you can taste not just wine but also a wide variety of olive oils and balsamic vinegars from all over the world. Their herb and lemon or orange or chili infused olive oils are so delicious!
Another great place for olive oils and vinegars is Quail and Olive, in Carmel Valley. They carry several California olive oils, and the store makes for great browsing, with fun food products, skin care, cookbooks, and kitchen knickknacks.
Admire Carmel’s Historic Buildings
Carmel Village is home to many historic homes and buildings. You will find Spanish influences in many buildings, from iron balconies to tile decoration on steps, but you will also find other styles of architecture.
The Palomas Home Furnishings building used to be a dairy! The original lamp still hangs over the door. The Las Tiendas Building, built in 1929, features a balcony with a wood grille and the original stairway and tile.
In the El Paseo Courtyard, you can see lots of tile from Spain. The First Murphy House is home to the Carmel Heritage Society and is tied to one of Carmel’s most influential builders in the early 1900s. The Church of the Wayfarer is one of the more recent historic buildings: the original was demolished and the current church built in 1940.
Explore Carmel’s secret passageways
One of the most charming features of Carmel-by-the-Sea are its numerous “secret” passageways. They starting coming up in the 1920s, and today you can find more then three dozen of them in the village. Many of the passageways are lined with stores, galleries, tasting rooms, and restaurants.
Hunting for the little courtyards and narrow passages all over the village is a fun adventure. With plants, pots and baskets of flowers, lights,and sometimes even a little fountain, they are made for strolling.
View native plants at Piccadilly Park
If you love little green oases in urban centers, check out Piccadilly Park, on Dolores. The little courtyard park features mature shade trees and drought-resistant plants that grow well in the area.
The park is maintained by volunteers from the local garden club. With a little fountain, and benches to sit and enjoy the greenery, Piccadilly Park makes for a great place to relax for a bit as you explore Carmel Village.
Snap photos of the murals in Carmel
The Carmel Shell is a new mural designed to celebrate its history and artistic heritage. You will find it on the side wall of the Paloma Furnishings building, at the corner of Mission and Sixth.
Showcasing the colors of local historic buildings, the mural includes an “Artist Inspiration Map” of local historic points of interest and is the perfect place to take a photo for Instagram!
Another fun mural at Lincoln and Seventh in Carmel features Charlie Chaplin and a pink heart. The mural is attributed to Mr. Brainwash, a protege of Banksy, the British street artist and activist.
Enjoy sunset at Mission Ranch
Carmel Beach is a great place from which to enjoy sunset, without a doubt. But if you find it crowded, another fabulous place for sunset is the terrace of the restaurant at Mission Ranch, located right by the Carmel Mission.
Mission Ranch (which also offers lodging), offers views over the grassy pasture, where you can see sheep grazing during the day, and the ocean in the distance.
Enjoy a romantic glass of wine on the terrace and watch the sun go down over the water, and follow it up with a great dinner. Heaters on the terrace make it comfortable even on cool Carmel evenings.
Tour Tor House
If you enjoy architecture and local history, do a guided tour of Tor House and Hawk Tower! Famous American poet Robinson Jeffers built the home for his family over several years, using local stone.
Tor House was completed in 1919, and in it Jeffers and his wife Una raised their twin sons. It was in Tor House that wrote most of his famous works. Hawk Tower was built as a retreat for his wife. Jeffers built it entirely on his own, and it took him four years.
The home has a spectacular location on a tor, after which it was named. Enjoy the beautiful grounds and the water views!
Things to do near Carmel-by-the-Sea
Do the 17-Mile Drive Through Pebble Beach
For beautiful ocean vistas and views of gawkworthy mansions and golf courses, drive the scenic 17-Mile Drive through Pebble Beach. While there is a vehicle fee, you can have it reimbursed if you eat in one of the restaurants along the drive. Check your ticket receipt for details.
The Lone Cypress is one of the most impressive points of interest along the drive, but you will also enjoy Bird Rock, which has hundreds of Brandt’s cormorants sitting on it in season, and the beach at Spanish Bay.
For a fun alternative way to enjoy this route, consider an e-bike tour! This highly rated 3-hour e-bike tour allows for tandem biking with young kids, and is a great way to enjoy the views and learn more about the sights along the route.
Hike Garland Ranch Regional Park
To experience the inland natural environment in the region, plan a hike in Garland Ranch Regional Park in Carmel Valley! The park features diverse landscapes from the banks of the Carmel River up into the heights of the Santa Lucia mountains.
You’ll pass through oak, chaparral, and maple on your way to the top, where you get spectacular panoramic views. Lots of wildflowers bloom in the park in spring, which is a great time to visit. Keep your eyes peeled for birds, insects, and wildlife. Bring your binoculars and zoom lens!
You can also go horseback riding in the park, or ride a mountain bike at Cooper Ranch. Garland Ranch is popular with both residents and visitors, so expect to share the trails with other people.
Note: Dogs are allowed off-leash provided they are under their owners’ voice control.
hike Palo Corona Regional Park
Another much-visited local park with spectacular ocean views is Palo Corona Regional Park. With several hundred species of plants and numerous wildlife species, Palo Corona is a must for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.
The most popular trail in Palo Corona Regional Park is the hike to Inspiration Point. Classed as moderate to strenuous, the out-and-back trail is about 1.3 miles in length and sports about 850 feet of elevation gain. You get fabulous views of the Carmel coast from the viewpoint.
Note: Dogs are not allowed inside the park.
Tour vineyards in nearby Carmel Valley
Want to experience tastings in area vineyards? There are a number of vineyards in Carmel Valley you can visit, just a few minutes’ drive from Carmel-by-the-Sea. Carmel Valley Road makes for a pleasant countryside drive even if you don’t do wine.
Folktale Winery, housed in a French Chateau, is one of the most popular area vineyards. You’ll be served at an outdoor table, so you can enjoy the garden while you sip. Bernardus Winery is another popular stop on Carmel Valley Road. It is Carmel Valley’s first tasting room!
Go Whale Watching in Monterey
Monterey is one of the best places in the US to go whale watching. Book a whale watching tour and be prepared to be amazed by the stunning scenery and all the marine life and birds you see! Also don’t miss the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Walk the coastal recreation trail, stroll Cannery Row, and dine on fresh seafood at one of the many quality eateries in Monterey. Nearby Pacific Grove offers a spectacular oceanfront, some of the best tidepools in the country, and historic homes and colorful murals to admire.
Getting to Carmel, CA
Carmel-by-the-Sea is located on the Central California coast, about a 2-hour drive south from San Francisco (by the freeway) and about a 5-hour drive north from Los Angeles (by the freeway).
Carmel is one of the most popular weekend trip destinations from San Francisco and the SF Bay Area, and a great stop if you are doing the Pacific Coast Highway road trip along the coast.
If you plan to fly, San Jose is the nearest international airport, and is about a 90-minute drive from Carmel. There is also a regional airport in Monterey, with service from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, as well as a few other major US cities, so you can also look at airfares to Monterey when planning your trip.
Looking to rent a car for your Carmel trip? Discover Cars offers you the ability to compare availability and prices across many major car-hire companies. Pick the car that best meets your needs!
Book your car with Discover Cars now!
Where to stay in Carmel, CA
Hotels in Carmel, CA
Tradewinds Carmel is a boutique hotel located in the heart of the action in Carmel Village. The garden has lovely water features and a fire pit. Serene rooms with Asian-inspired decor and lovely bathrooms make for a great stay.
Book a stay here!
In Carmel Valley, Bernardus Lodge & Spa is a gorgeous property for a relaxed weekend with plenty of pampering. The property has lovely grounds, pool, and gardens and a view of vineyards across the street. Rooms are open to the outdoors.
Book a stay here!
AirBnBs in CarMel, CA
For the ultimate stay in Carmel-by-the-Sea, consider this charming fairytale cottage with gorgeous gardens that will make you feel like you are in Europe! Featuring a butcher block kitchen, luxury bedding, and exquisite art, the cottage is just a short walk from the village. With 2 bedrooms and 1 bath, the cottage can accommodate 5 guests. Treat yourself to the perfect stay in Carmel!
This serene studio by Carmel River State Beach makes for the perfect getaway for a couple or solo visitor to Carmel. The beautifully decorated space features a king bed, small kitchen, and laundry, and the studio is walking distance to Ocean Avenue.
This charming guest suite in Carmel Valley is about a 20-minute drive from the village. Featuring spectacular views, the property is close to Carmel Valley Village for shops and restaurants. Perfect for 2 guests!
Located in the town of Seaside, about a 15-minute drive from Carmel, this well-furnished studio sleeps 2-4 guests, and is perfect for a couple or a small family. With lots of light, a front garden, and ocean views, and a Murphy bed and a pullout couch for sleeping, this studio is a great choice when you visit Carmel.
Where to eat in Carmel, CA
Carmel-by-the-Sea has so many fabulous places to eat that it is difficult to narrow down two or three choices. But here are some of our favorite places.
Little Napoli is a popular Italian bistro on Dolores Street that features outside seating. The menu has many Italian classics, and everything we’ve had here has been delicious. The truffled mushroom pizza is one of our favorite things to eat here, as is the gnocchi starter.
Anton & Michel also has outdoor seating in a beautiful courtyard. This is another restaurant where everything we’ve tried from the California cuisine inspired menu has been top-notch. Try the grilled lamb sliders, or the vegetarian sandwich with portobello mushrooms and halloumi cheese.
For desserts, head to Patisserie Boissiere. Their lunch and dinner menu is very good, but their desserts are decadently delicious. We love their chocolate pot au creme: really chocolatey and not cloyingly sweet. If you aren’t a chocolate lover, you will still be spoiled for choice here.
When to visit Carmel, CA
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a year-round destination, but spring and fall are fabulous times to visit, with less chances of the coastal fog obstructing water views.
In the spring, area parks showcase riotous wildflower blooms, especially if the preceding winter was wet. Daytime temperatures are pleasant (but bring layers), and it’s to fun to dine outside in the evenings by a fire pit or a heater.
In the fall, you’ll likely have warm temperatures and clear days, perfect for the beach. Summer crowds have departed, so wandering the village is a more serene experience.
Winter is also a great time to visit Carmel. In fact, if you are planning a visit to California in December, consider putting charming Carmel on your itinerary. The village dresses up for the holidays, and restaurants offer seasonal menus. Pick dry spells in the winter to enjoy pleasant temperatures and wonderful sunsets.
You’ll find Carmel draped in fog most mornings in the summer. It generally burns off by early afternoon. Temperatures are ususally pleasantly warm and you will find lots of people enjoying the beach.
plan your Carmel-by-the-Sea getaway now!
Looking to explore more of Central California? Check out some of our other articles on fun Central California coastal towns and cities!
- The Best Things to Do in San Luis Obispo, California
- What to Do in Pacific Grove, California
- How to Spend the Perfect Weekend in Santa Barbara
- The Best Things to Do in Solvang, CA
- The Most Awesome Things to Do in Cambria
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