There are so many wonderful things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea, it’s impossible to get bored! The fairy-tale town of Carmel is located right on the gorgeous, beloved Central California Coast. This picturesque, art-filled town boasts white sand beaches, stunning architecture, and culinary experiences to delight any foodie.
Carmel’s proximity to some of the most famous places in California, like San Francisco and Big Sur, makes it one of the best parts to visit in California. With world-famous golf, art festivals, celebrity residents, access to great hiking trails, and even better beaches, I guarantee that you’ll fall in love with Carmel-by-the-sea after just one trip.
Few places in the world can measure up to the beauty of Carmel-by-the-Sea. With pristine white-sand beaches, temperate weather year-round, European architecture, and stunning coastal views, Carmel is a sight to behold. While this tiny town is only one square mile long, there are still a plethora of things to do in Carmel by the Sea, one of the most incredible places to visit in California.
As quirky as it is pretty, this upscale beach town is fondly known as an artists city, boasting almost 100 art galleries and bursting with culture, and gastronomic delights galore. A favorite hideaway for celebrities, and home to some of the best nature in the world, Carmel attracts tourists from all over.
Whether you’re looking for a beach getaway, an adventure in nature, a foodie’s trip, or a couples weekend, a trip to Carmel-by-the-sea will not disappoint.
So make sure you will include a stop in Carmel in your California Road trip.
I’ve visited Carmel four times now and every time I return, I’m reminded of how beautiful and peaceful it is. In this guide, I’ll cover the top things to do in Carmel by the Sea, including local secrets, as well as the best places to eat, and where to stay.
When it’s the Best Time to Visit Carmel
I would argue that there isn’t exactly a bad time to visit Carmel. With temperate weather year round, Carmel is always ideal for tourists. However, if prime heat and sunshine is what you seek, then the summer months of July – September would be the best time to visit Carmel by the Sea.
There are however some months that hold special festivals in Carmel, attracting additional tourists. You might be interested in visiting the Carmel Art Festival in May, the Carmel Bach Festival during the second half of July, or the Carmel International Film Festival in October. Most notably, however, is the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, a top vintage car show held every August.
Fun Facts about Carmel by the Sea
- Carmel doesn’t have any street addresses! Way back when the residents wanted to ensure that everyone got to know their neighbor. Their solution? Forcing everyone to go to the post office to get their mail, and therefore, not have any addresses in town. To this day there are still no street addresses and you’ll notice that many residents name their homes.
- There are no street lights in Carmel! The first time I visited Carmel, we left our hotel to get dinner only to be plunged into darkness. Walking around Carmel at night is equal parts scary and beautiful. The city has no street lights so that residents can enjoy the moon and the stars every night.
- Carmel doesn’t have any chain restaurants! That’s right, no Starbucks, Mcdonalds, or Olive Garden here. Instead, you’ll find numerous one-of-a-kind, local restaurants to enjoy.
- Carmel wasn’t officially founded until the 1900s and its first residents were notable artists! The original residents consisted of a prominent artist’s colony, with famous figures like Jack London and Mary Austin. Today, Carmel continues to attract numerous artists. The sheer plethora of galleries within this small town reflects the importance that art holds for its residents.
21 Awesome Things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea California
Stroll Down Ocean Ave.
If you want to be in the heart of things, look no further than Ocean Ave. This is where you’ll find locals dining al fresco at all hours, dogs running around, vintage cars driving past, local boutiques and restaurants a plenty. Everything is along Ocean Ave.
Spending an hour or two walking down Ocean Ave., all the way to the beach and right back up, is one of the first things you should do upon arriving. By the time you’re done exploring this street, you’ll practically be a local!
Experience 17 Mile Drive
Hands down the most memorable experience I had in Carmel was thanks to 17 Mile Drive. This scenic drive is actually private, owned by Pebble Beach resort, so you will have to pay $10.75 USD per vehicle.
This is reimbursable however if you spend over $35 USD at any of the Pebble Beach restaurants, which is pretty easy to spend there.
17 Mile Drive is home to the most famous and beautiful things to do in Carmel by the Sea, so you’ll want to take your time driving through this gorgeous area.
It should take you about three hours on average, depending on if you stop for lunch. At the entrance, you’ll get a map with the 17 notable stops mapped out. Definitely stop at the famous Lone Cypress, Ghost Tree, and Bird Rock!
Spend the Day at the Iconic Beaches in Pebble Beach
Pebble Beach is home to some of the most beautiful and exclusive beaches in Carmel. Visiting the beaches here is worth a day alone. The sand is so pristine it was even used once to help restore beaches in Waikiki, Hawaii.
Pebble Beach actually includes six different beaches. Moss Beach is my personal favorite. You can spend sunrise to sunset bouncing between the different beaches here.
An ideal day might start off by photographing surfers at Moss while the morning light is great before heading to the Inn at Spanish Bay for breakfast and a walk down to the adjoining Spanish Bay Beach. After that, you can head to Stillwater Cove for paddleboarding lessons, before laying out on the beach to dry.
Then try to glimpse some wildlife at Fanshell Beach and Bird Rock before having a picnic, or grabbing some take out, to catch a magnificent sunset at Seal Rock Creek Beach.
Indulge in Wine Tasting Downtown
Wine tasting in Carmel-by-the-Sea is an absolute must. There are numerous wine tasting rooms throughout the city, especially downtown. Experiencing different wines of the region was one of the highlights of my time in Carmel!
While I don’t think you can go wrong in selecting a tasting room, some of my favorites are Blair Wines and Hahn Family Wines found in Carmel Plaza, as well as Galante Vineyards and Silvestri Vineyards.
Catch a Beautiful Sunset
When I think of Carmel, I think of natural beauty, which certainly includes phenomenal sunsets. There are so many places to watch the sunset in Carmel, but the most important thing is that you make sure to see one!
Some of the best places to post up for the sunset are none other than Mission Ranch (Clint Eastwood’s Resort), Carmel Point or Cypress Point lookout, in Pebble Beach.
Bike Along Scenic Road
The Scenic Road doesn’t exactly need an explanation, but I’ll give you one anyway. This road rides along the bluffs, passing some of the best viewpoints in Carmel, hence the name.
While you can walk or drive down it, I’d highly recommend renting an e-bike from the beloved Mad Dogs & Englishmen Bike Shop and cruising your way down the road. There’s no better way to explore!
Sunbathe at Carmel Beach
Carmel Beach is the spot to be. Filled with gorgeous, bright white sand beaches, this is where you’ll find most residents of Carmel at any time of day. People will be picnicking, sunbathing, surfing, and running. You’ll also see plenty of dogs, since they can roam here freely off leash.
Carmel Beach is only a quick walk from the center of town, which makes it the perfect place to spend the afternoon in between activities. Plus, the cliffside viewpoints are unbeatable.
Enjoy the Local Theater
As an artsy town, Carmel certainly boasts great entertainment. You should absolutely carve out some time to see a show during your trip. Check out the stunning Sunset Center, which hosts a variety of performances including plays and concerts. Another great option is the Golden Bough Playhouse for more local performances.
Visit the World Class Art Galleries
Speaking of art, this one square mile town is home to almost 100 different galleries! Clearly, admiring art is something the locals love to do, which means you should join them when visiting.
While you certainly have a lot of options, Carmel Art Association’s gallery is a must see.
Spend a Day at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
I’ve spent a significant amount of time in nature, especially throughout California, but few places blow me away like Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. I drove past this reserve for years before finally stopping and I still think back on that first experience with wonder.
Only a few minutes from Carmel, Point Lobos is a must see. Allocate at least half a day there, if not more, and don’t forget your sunblock or sneakers. Point Lobos boasts hiking trails aplenty, view points, beaches and wildlife. Whether you’re a photographer, a hiker, or none of the above – Point Lobos is worth the trip.
Soak Up the Famous Architecture
The architecture in Carmel-by-the-sea is certainly one of a kind. You’ll find unique fairy tale cottages, East Coast style craftsmen, Spanish style villas, among numerous other marvels to admire as you walk through town. You’ll also find secret passageways which makes exploring and shopping through downtown more of an adventure than usual.
There are some architecture wonders here that are more famous than others, however. Most notably is the Clinton Walker House designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the Tor House, the medieval former home of poet Robinson Jeffers.
Picnic at the Parks
Carmel boasts over 60 parks, courtyards and plaza’s within its city center. That’s a lot for such a small town!
One of my favorite things to do during the day in Carmel, is to pick up a coffee and pastry from Carmel Bakery, or a sandwich from Bruno’s, and sit on the lovely benches of Picadilly Park to enjoy. You get to soak up your surroundings while enjoying fresh air and some sunshine.
Take a Food Tour
A foodie’s paradise, it can feel daunting to try to make a dent in the dense restaurant scene in Carmel. One great way to bite off much more than you can chew, pun intended, is to take a local guided food tour or even create your own!
The Carmel Downtown Food Tour includes 7 different stops at some of the best places to eat in Carmel and takes three hours. It’s a great introduction to the local cuisine and an easy, tasty way to maximize your time.
Hike Your Way Through Carmel
Surfing, swimming, biking – Carmel has just about everything for the active traveler. Hiking is no exception. You have numerous trails to choose from, both within and just outside of the city.
I recommend hiking through Garland Ranch, which is one of the best things to do in Carmel Valley. It offers hikes through a wide range of landscapes including the Santa Lucia Mountains. Garrapata State Park on the other hand, is close to the center and offers some awesome coastal hikes.
Shop At Carmel’s Unique Boutiques
One of my favorite things to do in Carmel by the Sea is to check out the numerous local boutiques. There are so many charming, quaint, unique or high end options to choose from.You can go from designer to kitschy all on the same street.
Carmel Plaza has the biggest concentration of stores, but you’ll find boutiques worth seeing all throughout town.
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Play Golf at the Famous Pebble Beach Links
If you love to golf, heck, even if you just mildly like to golf, you need to check out the course at the Pebble Beach Links. Pro’s like Tiger Woods have graced this golf course with their presence and you too can join the historic ranks of players like these when you play here.
Plus, I’d argue there’s few golf courses that can compare to the beauty of Pebble Beach.
Explore the Spanish History at the Carmel Mission
The Carmel Mission is one of the most notable landmarks in town and for good reason. Here, history buffs can appreciate learning about Spanish colonization while architecture fans can marvel at the historic building.
Built in 1797, the Mission includes a museum and costs $10 USD to enter.
Cruise Over to Monterey
Yes, this isn’t technically in Carmel but you can’t go all the way to Carmel without visiting its famous neighbor, Monterey. Just a half-hour away, there are so many things to do in Monterey too, home to some top-rated tourist attractions.
Eat some fresh seafood on Fisherman’s Wharf, enjoy stunning views of Monterey Bay or explore any of the top-notch museums.
Read more about all the things to do in Monterey
Check out the Hansel and Gretel Cottages
These cottages are so unique they deserve their own section. One of the stranger things to do in Carmel by the Sea is the “Hansel and Gretel Cottages” created by Hugh Comstock in the 1920s. Comstock designed them for his wife to use as a studio for her dollmaking. Eventually, he designed over thirty different “fairy-tale” cottages throughout town.
To this day, twenty-one are still standing and you can check them out when you visit. Some have even been turned into businesses, like the Tuck Box Cottage. The visitors center provides maps for tourists who want to see the various cottages today.
Surf with the Locals
Carmel is a popular surf town. Every day you’ll see surfers, kayakers, swimmers and paddle boarders out in the water. It’s a great chance to do as the locals do and take some surfing lessons!
You don’t even have to leave town since the most popular surf spot is none other than the centrally located Carmel Beach.
Birdwatch at the Carmel River Bird Sanctuary
If you’re a fan of birds or bird watching, you certainly won’t want to miss a trip to the Carmel River Bird Sanctuary.
Located within Carmel River State Beach, the bird sanctuary features a lagoon that is home to waterfowl and songbirds. It’s a beautiful place to spend a few hours at.
Best Carmel by the Sea Beaches
The beaches in Carmel are world-class, with wonderful options both in and outside of the city. Below I’ve included my favorite beaches in Carmel that you should prioritize when visiting:
- Carmel Beach
- Moss Beach
- Stillwater Cove
- Carmel River State Beach
- Monastery Beach
Where to Stay in Carmel by the Sea
There are numerous accommodation options to choose from in Carmel such as a Bed and Breakfast, an inn, hotel or luxurious resort. Here are some of the best places to stay in Carmel by the Sea for each budget:
Budget hotel in Carmel by the Sea:
This family owned, local favorite boasts genuine hospitality with modest rooms.
Centrally located, this B&B gives you a charming, local experience while staying in Carmel.
If you’re able to splurge, staying at Clint Eastwood’s charming yet luxurious Mission Ranch Hotel is an experience not to be missed.
Book an apartment in Carmel by the sea
Did you know that you can book an amazing home in Carmel by the sea and live like a local? There are many incredible houses or apartments that you can choose from. Whether you like a modern style or you’d rather live in one of the traditional Hansel-and-Gretel-like cottage houses, you will find it in this special selection of Carmel-by-the-sea Airbnb places.
Top Restaurants in Carmel by the sea
Best breakfast in Carmel by the sea
Carmel Belle: Home to some of the best breakfast in Carmel by the Sea, and located in one of the trendiest plazas in town, you have to dine at this local favorite.
Carmel Valley Coffee Roasters: A great place to get delicious, fair trade, locally roasted coffee.
Carmel Bakery: If it’s pastries and down home coffee that you seek, look no further! This bakery whips up the freshest, tastiest baked goods in town since 1899.
Katy’s Place: Generous portions, old school feel and comfort eats like Swedish pancakes, make this iconic spot a fan favorite.
Best Seafood restaurants in Carmel by the Sea
Flaherty’s Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar: Home to some of the freshest seafood offerings, Flaherty’s is one of the best restaurants in Carmel by the Sea.
A.W. Shucks Oyster Bar: If oysters are what you seek, this sleek and tiny restaurant is the perfect choice for you.
Lunch & Dinner in Carmel
Bruno’s Market and Deli: It ain’t fancy but this supermarket deli knows what it’s doing. A local staple, Bruno’s is the spot to pick up sandwiches to go – perfect for eating at the park or cliffside.
Corkscrew Cafe: A trip to Carmel wouldn’t be complete without dining here. Make sure to try one of the wood-fired pizzas or the fresh fish.
Grasings: This upscale restaurant boasts local, seasonal California cuisine and exceptional flavors.
Vesuvio: A delicious Italian restaurant that offers a beautiful rooftop lounge. It’s a great place to watch the sunset, enjoy the fire pits and the extensive cocktail menu.
Cottage of Sweets: This local gem only sells candy imported from England making it a unique and tasty treasure.
Carmel by the Sea FAQ
Is there a difference between Carmel and Carmel by the Sea?
Nope! They are one and the same. Think of Carmel as a nickname as saying Carmel by the Sea all the time would be a bit of a mouthful.
Is it illegal to wear high heels in Carmel CA?
Oddly enough, it sort of is. In Carmel, wearing heels over two inches is technically banned, but you can easily get a permit to wear higher heels. Why does this ban exist in the first place? Purely to protect the city from liability issues due to the uneven pavement throughout the city.
Is Carmel by the Sea expensive?
Carmel is an upper-class town and the cost of living is on the higher end. Compared to other coastal California cities, however, the cost of living is typical.
How safe is Carmel by the sea?
Carmel is generally safe for the average tourist and resident. Most crimes that do occur are property crime/theft related or drug related. The safest part of the city is the southeast area while the north side is considered the least safe by locals.
What celebrities live in Carmel-by-the-Sea?
Celebrities have flocked to this paradise hideaway for decades. One of the most notable residents is Clint Eastwood, who was also the mayor in the mid 80’s.
Currently, several celebrities reside in Carmel-by-the Sea, including former tv announcer John Madden, actress Betty White, singer Paul Anka, and singer Joan Baez.
How long to spend in Carmel by the Sea?
It’s entirely up to you how long you should stay in Carmel-by-the-Sea. A weekend will suffice for great sightseeing but Carmel offers plenty of activities and is a great place to relax if you choose to stay longer.
About the author: Alicia Briggs
A full-time traveler since 2018, Alicia is a writer and blogger, specializing in travel, social issues, and sustainability. She’s lived in over 70 cities and 25 countries, with expertise in California, Oregon, Mexico, Vietnam, and South Africa. Alicia is a self-described extroverted introvert, trying to balance her love of a great happy hour with her love of an isolated mountain top. You can follow her journey on her slow travel blog, Learning the Local Way