The Best Things to Do in Carmel – Carmel by the Sea is a playground for the rich and famous. Clint Eastwood was the mayor of this beautiful seaside town and it is home to one of the most exclusive communities in the United States attracting celebrities and artists to the community for decades. This charming village is only one square mile but it packs a huge punch. With fairy tale cottages, art galleries, and gorgeous ocean views, Carmel truly does feel like a storybook.
When taking a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Carmel California should be at the top of your list. There are so many things to do in Carmel by the Sea from exploring the town center to taking day trips to explore the Pacific Ocean coast, you’ll want to spend some time in this little slice of California heaven. And we’re here to give you ideas to make the most of your Carmel vacation.
About Carmel by the Sea, California
Note: Some activities and attractions may be affected by COVID-19. Check for closures and restrictions before planning your vacation. Check the Carmel Visitors website for restrictions, updates, and closures.
Before we start exploring Carmel by the Sea, let’s learn a little about this beautiful seaside town that attracts so many people. With its small village atmosphere and stunning scenery, it has attracted artists for decades. It first caught the eye of Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo when he spied its white-sand beaches.
The Spaniards sailed past it for a century before Father Junipero Serra founded the second California mission in 1771 which still stands today. At the turn of the 20th century artists were drawn to the shores of Carmel to create an artists oasis and after the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, it really took hold as people made Carmel by the Sea their permanent residence.
Old traditions still hold on a century later as to this day there are no street addresses outside of the downtown core of Carmel. No chain restaurants have set up shop in Carmel by the Sea opting for more boutique and fine dining restaurants wine tasting rooms and family-owned businesses.
And just for fun, did you know it is illegal to wear high heels in Carmel? While it is not enforced, if you want to wear heels, you will need to get a permit to do so. (Free of charge at the town hall) This law was set up in the 1960s to ensure the forest and natural setting of Carmel stayed intact without anyone suing for tripping over the roots and trees are strewn throughout town.
While Carmel touts Doris Day, Jack London, and Clint Eastwood as its famous residents, celebrities still own property in Pebble Beach with this exclusive community having real estate reach up to 15 million dollars.
Where to Stay in Carmel, California
There are plenty of hotels to choose from in Carmel by the Sea. We stayed at the The Hideaway which had gorgeous rooms and was located just a half a mile from the beach. It was centrally located downtown Carmel so we could walk to restaurants at night making it a great base. Rooms starting at over $200 USD per night, but it is worth it. TripAdvisor / Booking.com
Another charming hotel in Carmel is Cypress Inn – This legendary hotel was owned by actress Doris Day and is billed the most pet friendly hotel in the country. This luxury boutique hotel is located in the heart of downtown. Check prices on TripAdvisor / Booking.com
The Lodge at Pebble Beach – Pebble Beach is a community just minutes away from Carmel by the Sea. Stay at this exclusive resort with ocean front and ocean view rooms in complete luxury. This historic hotel dates back to 1919 and is close to several places to see including Seal Rock Creek Beach and the Lone Cypress. Check availability on TripAdvisor
Vacation Rentals in Carmel
A great way to save money in Carmel is to stay in a vacation rental and share the price with other couples or families. This ocean front property sleeps 8 and is located at the beach. It is a 30 minute walk into the village or a 5 minute drive.
For two people a stay in this quiet cottage is a good affordable option. It is a little out from each attractions, but it is in the center of it all at less than 4 miles from Cannery Row, 1.2 miles from Carmel Beach and 1.8 miles from 17 Mile Drive and the Delmonte Forest.
For something more central, check out this cozy one bedroom just a short walk to both the beach and close to downtown.
Best Things to do in Carmel by the Sea
Carmel by the Sea makes for a great weekend getaway or as a home base to explore Monterey, Big Sur and the Pacific Coast Highway. We’ve rounded up the best things to do in Carmel by the Sea to help you start planning your California Road Trip or weekend getaway to this magical town.
Learn to Surf
One of the best things we did in Carmel was to take a surfing lesson. When in California, how can you not give it a go? Carmel Surf lessons offers courses, rentals or just a fun day with an instructor to help you get on the board. Become a true Californian and learn to surf on the sandy beach with easy waves. Your instructor will give you hands on help to ride the waves and stand up on the board. We’ve tried surfing a few times around the world, and this was a great place for beginners.
Stroll Along Carmel Beach
If surfing isn’t your thing, no worries, Carmel Beach is a great place to hang out and enjoy the sun and sand. For a downtown beach, this is a large horseshoe beach with rocky outcrops and beautiful views. This is where we took our surfing lesson, but there were plenty of people simply taking a stroll with their dogs along this 1-mile dog-friendly crescent shaped beach.
Carmel River State Beach
Another beach located just south of Carmel by the Sea is Carmel River State Beach. If you are a bird watcher, this is a good beach to head to. Located at the Carmel River Lagoon and Wetlands Natural Preserve hikers may spy Great Blue Herons, and brown pelicans among other gulls and terns flying over the lagoon. If you walk upstream you may hear see other birds like the Downy Woodpecker.
Point Lobos State Reserve
Heading a little farther south is a popular stop outside of Carmel at Point Lobos State Reserve. This beautiful state park is one of the top attractions near Carmel by the Sea. There are several hiking trails to takes in the gorgeous cliff views. Don’t miss hiking on Bird Island Trail to take in views of the picturesque China Cove. Point Lobos (Punta de los Lobos Marinos) was named for all the sea lions that hang out on the rocks by Spanish explorers. Translated to Point of the Sea Wolves, you’ll have a good chance of spying some harbor seals. Continue on to Gibson Beach for some more beautiful views.
Whaling Station Museum
Point Lobos has a long history and was at one time was a whaling station and there was a coal mine in the area. Luckily, it was set aside as a protected area for the Monterey cypresses, but there is a museum in an old Whalers Cabin that is now a cultural history museum to learn all about the area’s history.
One of the coolest places we visited in Carmel by the Sea was the Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant. Thanks to the efforts of Clint Eastwood, this historic property was preserved. This old dairy farm dates back to the 1850s. It might be out of reach to stay at, but you can dine at the Mission Ranch restaurant for dinner or head to it for Sunday brunch. And a hot tip is that the terrace of the Mission Ranch restaurant is another great spot to watch sunset.
When you are out at Mission Ranch, stop by the Carmel Mission . This historic Spanish mission is one of the more popular attractions in Carmel by the Sea. The Basilica of San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission (Carmel Mission) was founded in 1770 and considered the most authentically restored Franciscan mission. You can visit the Carmel Mission museum to learn all about one of the most important historic sites in California.
17 Mile Drive through Pebble Beach
One of the top things to do in Carmel by the Sea and Monterey is to drive the famous 17 Mile Drive. This stretch of road spans a gorgeous coast from Pacific Grove to Carmel and goes through the exclusive community of Pebble Beach. There are plenty of sights to see including world class golf courses, plenty of beaches and scenic views. Our favourite stop was definitely the Ghost Tree and don’t forget the famous Lone Cypress. There are restaurants and hotels along the way. We took an e-biking tour which was an excellent way to explore it. Book your tour with One Mile To Travel.
Window Shopping on Ocean Avenue
Ocean Avenue is the main street of Carmel by the Sea and is a great place to do some shopping or sip a coffee as you people watch. The street leads from downtown to the beach and there are plenty of things to see along the way. You’ll pass historic hotels and cottages and hideaways. Grab a coffee at the Carmel Valley Roasting company and enjoy the sunshine as you explore photo and art galleries featuring local art and artist, charming courtyards and hidden paths.
Pick up this Audio Guide of Carmel to tour the Hugh Comstock Fairy Tale cottages of Carmel by the Sea. This easy to follow map offers highlights and history of the cottages.
Sunset at Carmel Waterfront Scenic Road Walkway
Scenic Road is a two mile one way stretch of road on the waterfront of Carmel. It has beautiful views of the ocean and you can drive it, but to walk it is even better. As you drive along Scenic Road, you’ll notice a walkway that leads from the bluffs of Carmel Beach. Take the stairs up here and relax on one of the park benches to enjoy the sunset view. If you are driving there is parking on Scenic Road and Ocean Avenue.
Day Trip to Big Sur
If you are looking for an epic day trip and scenic drive, take a cruise out to Big Sur along California Highway 1 hugging the Pacific coast. It is just a 38 mile stretch of road but it is one of the best ocean view drives in the world. You’ll cross famous landmarks and photo ops like the Bixby Creek Bridge, the sea stacks of Garrapta State Park and Point Lobos. Make sure to rent a car (if you aren’t self driving) to enjoy the beautiful ocean views. There are plenty of pull offs so take your time and give yourself a day.
Monterey is a destination unto itself and we’ve written about all the things you can do in Monterey here. But to give you a quick overview, Monterey is just a few minutes drive from Carmel and if you want to just pop over for day trips it’s easy to do. You will definitely want to spend some time exploring the seaside of Monterey Bay. Stop in at the Monterey Aquarium to view marine life that reside in the kelp forest, explore the restaurants, art gallerie and shops along Cannery Row and explore 17 Mile Drive from Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach. We actually rode ebikes all the way from Pacific Grove to Carmel by the Sea. Check it out here.
Carmel by the Sea attracts many avid golfers and no trip to Carmel would be complete without at least seeing one of its world class golf courses. The Pebble Beach golf course is often rated as one of the best golf courses in the United States and the Links at Spanish Bay has beautiful ocean views where a bagpiper plays each evening to ring in the sunset. The Pebble Beach community is worth visiting just to see the mansions alone.
Carmel by the Sea has always been a haven for artists. Writer Jack London was one of the founders of the artist’s colony here in 1906 and Ansel Adams live in Carmel in 1961. There are more than 100 art galleries around Carmel you can spend a day perusing as you explore the town. With rich patrons residing in Carmel, you will be sure to find some one of a kind art. Gallery by the sea showcases local artists depicting scenes from Carmel, Pebble Beach, Big Sur. Dawson Cole Fine Art has sculptures and prints and Dennis Rae Fin Art has authorized reproductions of Dr. Seuss.
If you are a wine lover, one of the best things to do in Carmel is to take a wine tour. You don’t even have to leave the village! Carmel has a dozen tasting rooms for wine tastings. Because we stayed in the village, we could enjoy the fine Californian wines from the Carmel Valley wine region that we picked up to take with us for evenings during our road trip through central California. Take a stroll through the village in search of one of many secret passageways in Carmel to find your favourite Pinot Noir or California Zinfandel. My favourite white is a California Chardonnay and they have that too!
Some wine tasting rooms to check out are:
- Albatross Ridge Tasting Room on Dolores Street
- Wrath Wines on Ocean Avenue
- Blair Estate Tasting Room on Mission Street at the Carmel Plaza
Another fine product produced in the Carmel Valley is olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar so be sure to pick some up as you are browsing the shops in the village.
Take a Tour of Tor House
One of the more unique things to do in Carmel by the sea is to take a tour of the home of California poet Robinson Jeffers. In 1914, Jeffer’s began building Tor House and Hawk Tower after falling in love with the Carmel-Big Sur coast. His family resided there and it was here that he wrote many of his works. He then built Hawk Tower – a stone tower that he built himself as a retreat for his wife. You can tour Tor House which is open to preserve the legacy of Robinson Jeffers
Where to Eat in Carmel, California
One of the best restaurants in Carmel is La Belana Cucina Toscana. It takes you straight to the heart of Tuscany with a traditional setting, fresh local olive oil, local fine wines and chees . Sit outside on the heated patio and enjoy a fresh farm to table menu drizzled in olive oil and truffles.
Pescadero is one of the best restaurants in Carmel for Mexican cuisine with a Baja inspired menu.
If you are looking for pub food with a hipster vibe, Brophy’s Tavern is one of the most popular restaurants in Carmel.
For coffee lovers, another place to grab a specialty coffee is cafe Carmel. But don’t worry, there are plenty of coffee shops in Carmel by the Sea to get your caffeine fix. For a full list of restaurants visit the Carmel official website.
How to Get to Carmel by the Sea, California
The village of Carmel by the Sea is located is just 2 hours from the San Francisco Bay area on the Central California Coast. It makes for a great weekend getaway. We suggest renting a car and you can compare car rental prices at RentalCars.com
Carmel by the Sea is just 10 minutes from Monterey and it is easy to explore Carmel village by either making a base there, Pebble Beach or Carmel by the Sea.
Carmel is 5 hours from Los Angeles and many people take Highway 1 up the Pacific Coastal Route. But check for closures as there was a mudslide last year that took out some of the road.
When to visit Carmel, Ca
Being located in Central California, there is really no bad time to visit Carmel by the Sea but summer is obviously the best time for beach weather as the temperatures are the warmest. But it is crowded.
We were in Carmel during late Spring and loved the weather. It was pleasant during the day with cool evenings.
Fall still has warm weather and is less crowded than summer.
You’ll be able to spot whales year round in the ocean waters of Carmel California.
- Humpback whales migrate through March – November
- Grey whales migrate from December-May
- Blue whales from May to October
And these are the best things to do in Carmel, California with a few fun facts and locations near Carmel.
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Our trip to Carmel was courtesy of California Tourism, but all opinions are our own.