Carmel by the Sea is a playground for the rich and famous. This coastal town has been attracting celebrities and artists for decades making its one of the most exclusive communities in the United States. In fact, Clint Eastwood was the mayor of this beautiful seaside town. It’s no wonder, Carmel California is a dream with charming cottages, stunning beaches, and a vibrant arts scene. This coastal gem has captivated the hearts of travelers for decades, and we have enjoyed this little slice of California heaven as well. While we may not be able to afford one of its mansions, we can visit and these are the best things to do in Carmel by the Sea to include on your Big Sur road trip.
Best Things to Do in Carmel by the Sea
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, California 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 there’s something here for everyone. So let’s take a journey to this picturesque paradise and explore all of the best things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
1. Learn to Surf at Carmel Beach
When in California, how can you not give it a go? One of the best things we did in Carmel by the Sea was to take a surfing lesson at beautiful Carmel Beach. 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.
2. Stroll Along Carmel Beach
If surfing isn’t your thing, no worries, Carmel Beach is located just steps from downtown Carmel and 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 of Pebble Beach and Point Lobos.
Carmel Beach 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.
3. Carmel River State Beach
Another beach located just south of Carmel by the Sea is Carmel River State Beach. It is known for its long, sandy expanse and picturesque views of the Carmel River Lagoon. 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 will come across the Carmel River Bird Sanctuary and may hear or see other birds like the Downy Woodpecker.
Swimming is not recommended at Carmel River State Beach due to strong currents, but visitors can enjoy the tranquil beauty of the beach and the surrounding landscapes.
4. Mission Ranch
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 the sunset.
5. Carmel Mission Basilica Museum
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. A national historic landmark, the Carmel Mission played an important role in the early history of California and is a stunning example of Spanish colonial architecture, featuring a bell tower, arched windows and doorways, and a beautiful courtyard with a fountain.
Visitors can also explore the mission’s beautiful gardens, which include a rose garden, a vegetable garden, and a cemetery where many of the mission’s early leaders are buried.
The Basilica of San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission (Carmel Mission) was founded in 1770 and is 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.
6. 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 Resort and Pacific Grove.
There are plenty of sights to see including world-class golf courses, plenty of beaches, and scenic views. Our favorite stop was definitely the Ghost Tree and don’t forget the famous Lone Cypress. Spend the entire day enjoying the views as you watch wildlife in their natural habitat at the likes of Bird Rock, Seal Rock and China Rock. Yep, there are a lot of rocks. Read more: 17 Mile Drive – Complete Scenic Drive Itinerary
There are restaurants and hotels along the way including Pebble Beach Resort. We took an e-biking tour which was an excellent way to explore it. Book your tour with Big Sur Adventures
7. Pebble Beach
The Pebble Beach community is worth visiting just to see the mansions alone. The founder of Pebble Beach Samuel F.B. Morse made sure to preserve the area and its Monterey cypress Trees creating this exclusive community. The drive goes through 5300 acres including the Del Monte Forest.Many people pay $11.25 to enter the gates car, but if you ride a bicycle or walk along the 17-mile stretch, it’s free!
8. Pebble Beach Golf Courses
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 Links is one of the most prestigious golf courses in the world. It is often rated as one of the best golf courses in the United States.
Pebble Beach Golf Links is a public course that has hosted numerous professional golf tournaments, including the U.S. Open, and has been played by some of the greatest golfers in history. The course features stunning ocean views, rolling hills, and challenging holes that require precision and skill.
Another popular Pebble Beach golf course is The Links at Spanish Bay. It was the first Scottish Style golf course in America and was designed by five-time British Open champion Tom Watson. He noted that “Spanish Bay looked so much like Scotland, you could almost hear the bagpipe piping.” Ever since it has had pipers play at sunset while the last golfers finish up on the course.
Del Monte Golf Course, the oldest golf course in continuous operation in the western United States, is a classic course with a more traditional design.
Ocean Avenue is the main street of downtown 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. Be sure to stop in at Carmel Plaza located at Ocean Avenue and Mission Street where you’ll find boutique designers, tasting rooms and gourmet shops.
The Carmel Visitor Center is located on Ocean Avenue, so pop in to see what is on or pick up a map of the area. Or you can pick up this Audio Guide of Carmel to tour the Hugh Comstock Fairy Tale cottages of Carmel by the Sea. This self guided tour easy-to-follow map offers highlights and the history of the cottages.
10. Carmel Art Galleries
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, and Big Sur. Dawson Cole Fine Art Gallery has sculptures and prints and Dennis Rae Fine Art Gallery has authorized reproductions of Dr. Seuss.
If you happen to be in Carmel in May, The Carmel Art Festival is a juried art festival that features works by more 120 artists working in a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, and photography.
11. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Heading a little farther south is a popular stop outside of Carmel at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. This beautiful state park is one of the top attractions near Carmel by the Sea known for its natural beauty.
There are several hiking trails to take in the gorgeous cliff views. Don’t miss hiking on Bird Island Trail to take in views of the picturesque China Cove. This is the most popular trail that will take you out to Pelican Point, China Cove, and Gibson Beach.
Point Lobos State Reserve (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 on some harbor seals.
Hiking at Point Lobos
The park is known for its scenic hiking trails. Here are some of the best hikes at Point Lobos State Park. Cypress Grove Trail is an easy 0.8-mile trail that takes you through a grove of cypress trees and along the rocky coastline, with views of Carmel Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
The Bird Island Trail is a moderate 0.7-mile trail that takes you to a small rocky outrcope that’s home to a variety of seabirds, including pelicans, cormorants, and gulls. The Whalers Cove Trail is another easy 0.5-mile trail takes you to Whalers Cove, a sheltered cove that was once used by whalers. Today, it’s a popular spot for scuba diving and snorkeling.
If you are looking for a little more out of your hike, the South Shore Trail is a moderate 1.8-mile trail that takes you along the south shore of the park, with views of China Cove and Gibson Beach.
12. 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. Or you can stay over in Big Sur, here is a guide to The Best Campgrounds in Big Sur
13. Garrapata State Park
Located just 15 minutes from Carmel, Garrapata State Park is a beautiful stop offering and incredible scene of rock formations off the coast of the Pacific Ocean. One of the main attractions is its beautiful coastline, which features rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, and secluded coves.
Visitors can hike along the Bluff Trail, which offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and the Big Sur coastline, or explore one of the park’s many beaches, such as Garrapata Beach or Soberanes Beach.
There are numerous trails to explore the park’s scenic canyons and forests. One popular trail is the Soberanes Canyon Trail, which takes hikers through a beautiful redwood forest and along a creek, with views of waterfalls and lush vegetation.
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 Carmel. Stop in at the Monterey Aquarium to view marine life that resides in the kelp forest, explore the restaurants, art galleries, and shops along Cannery Row, and explore 17 Mile Drive from Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach. We actually rode e-bikes all the way from Pacific Grove to Carmel by the Sea. Check it out here.
15. Kayak the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Most people will say to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium in nearby Monterey and this is one of the best aquariums in the world for conservation, but we say head out onto the bay to see the marine life for itself.
Seeing the coast from the water is one of the more unique experiences. But getting up close and personal with marine life such as the endangered sea otters, sea lions, and bird life of is what makes it so special.
The cute sea otters were once almost extinct, but thanks to the Monterey Bay Aquarium efforts, they helped to make sure these little guys thrives. Now they there are groups of them floating atop kelp forests relaxing in the bay.
16. Whaler’s Cabin Museum
Point Lobos has a long history and was at one time it 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.
Located on the site of a former whaling station that operated from 1911 to 1926, the museum offers a glimpse into the area’s whaling past and its impact on local communities.
The museum features a collection of artifacts and exhibits that showcase the whaling industry, including harpoons, scrimshaw, and a restored blubber pot. Visitors can also learn about the history of the whaling station and the process of rendering whale oil.
17. 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 walking 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.
Best Places for Sunset in Carmel, Ca
Carmel has some of the most beautiful sunsets if you want to relax and take in the views over the ocean, here are a few suggestions for sunset in Carmel.
Carmel Beach is within walking distance from Ocean Avenue and the long sandy beach makes for the perfect easy spot to watch the sunset.
Point Lobos State Reserve is also a great spot to watch the sunset from one of the park’s many trails. Carmel River State Beach is the perfect place to set out a picnic and watch the sunset from its wide open expanse of sand and crashing waves.
Take a drive down the scenic 17-Mile Drive which offers stunning views of the coastline and several designated spots to pull over and enjoy the sunset. Our favorite is at the Ghost Tree or Lone Cypress.
Tor House and Hawk Tower is another option located on a rocky outcropping above Carmel Beach.
18. Wine Tours
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 favorite Pinot Noir or California Zinfandel. My favorite 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.
19. Take a Tour of Tor House
One of the more unique things to do in Carmel is to take a tour of the home of California poet Robinson Jeffers. In 1914, Jeffers 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.
The house is named after the rocky outcroppings on the nearby coastline, which are known as “torrs.” The surrounding gardens were also designed by Jeffers and feature a variety of native plants and trees, as well as sculptures and other art pieces created by Jeffers himself.
Today, Tor House is open to the public for guided tours and is considered an important cultural and historical landmark in the Carmel-by-the-Sea community.
20. Garland Ranch Regional Park
If you are looking for more outdoor things to do in Carmel by the sea, Garland Ranch Regional Park is a popular outdoor recreational area located in Carmel Valley. the park is dog friendly, so you will see many locos out for a walk with their furry friend.
With 4, 000 acres of trails, Garland Ranch Regional Park is perfect for hiking. It is also home to an abundance of wildlife, including deer, coyotes, bobcats, and mountain lions. Birders will love keeping an eye out for hawks, eagles, and owls.
One of the more unique things you can do here is to book a guided horseback tour of the park. Horseback riding is allowed on most of the trails. If you want to do some mountain biking in the Carmel Valley, it is allowed on the Cooper Ranch Loop trail.
About Carmel by The Sea, California
With its small village atmosphere and stunning scenery, Carmel California 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 artist’s oasis and after the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, it really took hold as people made Carmel by the Sea their permanent residence.
Carmel California – Fun Facts
Old traditions still hold on a century later and 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.
You also won’t see any parking meters or street lights in Carmel.
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.
Frank Lloyd Wright even built a cabin in Carmel CA. in 1949. The cabin is located on a secluded wooded property in the Carmel Highlands at Carmel Point, just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
It was built as a vacation home for a local resident and is considered an excellent example of Wright’s Usonian style. The cabin is privately owned and is not open to the public but it just goes to show how influential this part of California has been for artists over the years.
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 from the resorts at Pebble Beach to downtown Carmel hotels, there is no shortage of lodging.
We stayed at The Hideaway which had gorgeous rooms and was located just half a mile from the beach and a 3 minute walk from Ocean Avenue. It was centrally located in downtown Carmel so we could walk to restaurants at night making it a great base. Rooms start 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.
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 on California’s central coast in Monterey County. It is approximately 120 miles (2 hours) south of the San Francisco Bay area and 350 miles (5 hours) north of Los Angeles. We suggest renting a car and you can compare car rental prices at RentalCars.com.
You can drive to Carmel-by-the-Sea from San Francisco or Los Angeles on the scenic California Highway 1. From San Francisco, take the 101 South to Monterey and then head south on Highway 1. From Los Angeles, take the 101 North to Salinas and then head west on Highway 68.
The nearest airports to Carmel-by-the-Sea are Monterey Regional Airport, located just 10 miles away, and San Jose International Airport, located about 75 miles away. From there, you can rent a car or take a shuttle service to Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Several bus companies operate services to Carmel-by-the-Sea, including Greyhound and Monterey-Salinas Transit. These buses stop at the Carmel-by-the-Sea bus station, located in the heart of town.
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.
When to visit Carmel, California
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.
Whale Watching in Monterey County
You’ll be able to spot whales year-round in the ocean waters of Carmel California.
Humpback whales migrate from 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 by the Sea. Have we made you want to visit Carmel?
Tor House photo courtesy of McGhiever, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons