Ultimate Guide To Visiting Carmel-By-The-Sea
So what’s the big deal about visiting Carmel-By-The-Sea? We asked our friend Carrie from California to share her local experiences.
Carmel-By-The-Sea is a quaint California town known for its stunning beach, charming streets, excellent shopping, and fabulous food.
Visiting Carmel-By-The-Sea any time of the year will make you want to return again and again. It’s the perfect getaway spot for a romantic weekend or a family adventure.
Carmel-By-The-Sea is a one-square-mile village on the wind-swept coast of the Pacific Ocean in Northern California. Originally an artists’ community, Carmel-By-The-Sea is known for its Cypress trees, soft white sand, and magnificent views. Carmel is the quintessential California beach town.
Here’s your ultimate guide to visiting Carmel-By-The-Sea with its historic Spanish Mission, world-class golf course, luxurious hotels, restaurants, art galleries, and lots of cozy spots to relax and chill out.
Is Carmel By The Sea Worth Visiting?
Carmel-By-The-Sea is absolutely worth visiting because it offers something for everyone and is only 130 miles south of San Francisco (about a 2-hour drive). So, it’s easy to add Carmel to any Northern California road trip.
You can enjoy a day on the beach, hike, shop, and then spend a low-key evening with drinks and apps by the fire or dine in style at a 5-star restaurant.
Carmel is also just minutes away from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the shops on Cannery Row, so there’s plenty to do that the whole family will enjoy.
The views and architecture in Carmel make for a unique atmosphere that you won’t find elsewhere. The incorporated town has worked hard to maintain its storybook charm and artsy feel.
13 Things To Do When Visiting Carmel-By-The-Sea
If you’re looking for things to do while visiting Carmel-By-The-Sea. We’ve got you covered with fun activities for every mood, day or night.
1. Carmel Beach
Carmel Beach is the crown jewel of all Northern California beaches. It has pristine white sand, spectacular views, and water that stays at about 50 degrees all year long.
Along the beach are the beautiful Carmel mansions, the famous Pebble Beach Golf Course, and epic views. It’s not only great for long walks, sunbathing, and swimming, but it’s a dog-friendly beach too! And did I mention the softest sand anywhere?
It’s pretty easy to find parking right at the beach or along Ocean Ave., heading down toward the beach. Restroom facilities are available by the beach parking area for changing and washing off the sand at the end of your visit.
2. Ocean Avenue
Ocean Avenue is the main street of Carmel-By-The-Sea and has all the charm of a storybook town. This street is known for its high-end boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants.
Don’t be thrown by the prices because you can find plenty of great spots for affordable indoor and outdoor dining and artisan shops with bespoke crafts. And, of course, there are all kinds of souvenir shops to satisfy your vacation shopping desires!
Stop for wine and clam chowder or pizza and brew along the way, and finish off with delicious desserts at one of the awesome bakeries on Ocean Ave.
3. Fairytale Cottages
One of the truly unique things about Carmel is the historic Fairytale Cottages. Designed in the 1920s by architect Hugh Comstock for his bride Mayotta Brown.
Mayotta made and sold “Otsy Totsy Dolls,” so Hugh built her two doll houses known as the Fairytale Cottages, one named Hansel and one named Gretel. You’ll find the original Comstock Fairytale cottages on Torres Street a few blocks off Ocean Ave.
As the cottages became popular, Hugh was hired to build more of the Tudor-style homes. To this day, 21 of the homes are still standing.
You can see them all with the free Fairytale Cottage self-guided tour map available at the Visitor Center. It’s really fun to walk through the neighborhoods on a treasure hunt to find the cottages.
4. 17 Mile Drive
Don’t miss the world-famous 17 Mile Drive that takes you along the coast through Pebble Beach. Since 1892, this drive has been said to be the most scenic road in California. Along the way are 17 identified places to stop and soak in the views.
The drive was originally created to entice wealthy buyers to build homes in the community, and it worked! Now those homes are peppered along the route.
TRAVEL TIP: Leave Carmel Beach from San Antonio Rd. to enter the drive at the Carmel Gate. The cost is $10.75 per car, and it’s open 24 hours.
Walking and bikes are free, but if you’re biking, know that there are some stretches without designated bike lanes.
Go during the day for wildflowers, bird watching, and tide pools, or go in the evening and enjoy the California sunset. Be sure to look for the Lone Cypress Tree for a great photo op.
5. Mission Basilica
California is filled with early Spanish settlement history and one of the most important National Historic Landmarks in the state is in Carmel.
The Mission Carmel or Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo, was established in 1770. The shrine of Saint Junipero Serra has its original bell and bell tower at the mission.
Located on Rio Rd. in Carmel, the Mission is still an active Roman Catholic church that you can visit for services and a tour of the mission. The entrance fee is $10 for adults and $5 for children.
6. Point Lobos State Park
This is a must-see! Just a brief 10-minute drive south of Carmel on Highway 1 is the gorgeous Point Lobos State Park. This park offers unparalleled ocean views, hiking trails, and some of the best whale-watching and sea lion habitats in the state.
Point Lobos is very popular for snorkeling and scuba diving fanatics. The water at China Cove is a turquoise color you’ve never seen in nature, and the waves on the rocks are simply mesmerizing.
Point Lobos State Park has parking, bathroom facilities, helpful rangers, and guide maps. The charge is $10 per car, and the hours are 8 AM – 5 PM. No dogs are allowed, and no drones, of course, on public lands.
7. Scenic Road Bike Ride
Looking for a great bike ride? Rent bikes at one of the many bike shops in town and take the Scenic Road. It’s a 2-mile path that stretches along the coast above Carmel Beach.
Ideal for walking, running, and bike rides, this is a favorite seaside road in Carmel.
The one-way road is paved at some parts, dirt road at some, and narrow at times. If you want to loop, follow the road until Mission Preserve on Sierra Trail. Follow through the park to Mountain Ave., then on to Ocean Ave., and then back to Scenic Dr. to complete a 4.2-mile route.
You’ll see ocean views and mansions, including the Frank Lloyd Wright house, lining the water, and you can walk down to the beach to enjoy the soft sand.
8. Monterey Aquarium
Do you love fish? The Monterey Bay Aquarium at the end of Cannery Row in Monterey is the renowned home for marine life in Monterey Bay.
It’s just 10 minutes from Carmel and should be on your list of things to do in Carmel.
This magnificent, non-profit aquarium opened in 1984 and specialized in the marine life of the Monterey Bay. Sea otters, kelp forest, penguins, sharks, coral, a view into the open water, you name it, it’s there.
Not just fun for the kids, but really a great way to spend a few hours for the whole family.
9. Pebble Beach
Pebble Beach is a very affluent community along 17 Mile Drive, with designer homes lining the coast. It’s also home to one of the most famous golf courses in the world.
There are three public courses and a total of seven 18-hole courses and one 9-hole course. If you’re a golfer, then you’ll want to experience the cliffs, pine trees, and sand dunes of these gorgeous golf courses.
FUN FACT: There’s even a short course designed by Tiger Woods in 2021 that also boasts dramatic scenery.
It may cost you over $600 to play golf at Pebble Beach, but lots of people do it, so apparently, it’s really worth it!
10. Frank Lloyd Wright House
Of all the Frank Lloyd homes in the country, you will only find one that blends into an ocean view, and it’s in Carmel. The Mrs. Clinton Walker House in Carmel is a 1400-square-foot home on the Pacific Ocean.
STORY TIME: The story is that Mrs. Walker wrote to Wright and told him that he was the only architect who could build her vision. An article in the Wall Street Journal reports that Mrs. Walker asked for “a house as enduring as the rocks, but as transparent and charming as the waves, and delicate as the seashore.”
You can find the home along the Scenic Road, not far from the main beach at 26336 Scenic Road. You can’t miss it because it looks like a ship with a hexagon window overlooking the beach.
This one and only Wright oceanside home just sold in 2/2023 for 22 million dollars!
11. Art Galleries
If you’re an art lover and just like to wander through art galleries, then you’ll have plenty to enjoy in Carmel. It’s a very popular spot for everything from photography to painting and sculpture.
While a lot of the work is by northern California artists catering to tourists, you can also find plenty of interesting exhibits with contemporary, unique styles.
There are over 100 art galleries in this one-square-mile town, so it’s a popular place for artists to show their work and for exclusive art collectors and dealers to shop.
12. Cannery Row
Cannery Row is the famed street in Monterey that ends at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Named for the fish cannery that opened in 1902, Cannery Row has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area.
There are a plethora of restaurants, souvenir shops, and hotels along the waterfront, making it a great place to wander.
John Steinbeck published his famous novels inspired by Cannery Row in the 1940s which brought some new life to the area. The old tin can factories have been converted into shops and eateries with the theme of the old fishing village that it once was.
13. Bixby Bridge
The Bixby Canyon Bridge is just 18 miles south of Monterey and Carmel in Big Sur and has long been one of the most picturesque spots along the Monterey Bay coastline.
However, since the recent Big Little Lies TV series, it has become a wildly popular spot for photo shoots.
The bridge has a rich history and unusual design that since 1932, has made it possible for residents in Big Sur to have access during winter months. The old coastal road was impassable due to floods and would cut people off from the rest of the county.
The bridge blends into the landscape, making it the iconic and dramatic photo op for tourists, so be patient.
PRO TIP: Go to the parking lot and viewing area at the north side of the bridge on the west side of Highway 1 and enjoy!
Where To Stay
In the one square mile of Carmel-By-The-Sea, you’ll find an infinite number of great lodging choices. As you enter the town from Highway 1 and get closer to the beach, the views will get better, and the prices will get higher.
You can easily walk everywhere in Carmel, so don’t worry about the location that much. All the neighborhoods are lovely, and you’ll always be close to shops, restaurants, and the beach.
📍Best Budget Spot – Carmel Inn & Suites at Junipero and Fifth St, is just minutes from downtown and the beach. People love the location and find it clean, quiet, and cozy.
📍Best Mid-Range Spot – Tickle Pink Inn at The Highlands is an iconic hotel overlooking the water, known for its luxury experience for great prices. It was the original spot of state senator Edward Tickle and his wife Bess, who loved pink flowers, hence the name. Lots of amenities include complimentary wines, breakfast, balconies, and a hot tub.
📍Best Luxury Spot – La Playa Carmel at Camino Royal and Eighth Ave. this is a tastefully restored property a block from the beach. They offer afternoon wine and cookies in the evening by the fireplace. The champagne brunch is off the hook, on the patio overlooking the pool and ocean. The gardens and spa amenities add to the luxury experience.
✔️The Mission Ranch and Inn – The Mission Ranch Restaurant, owned and renovated by Clint Eastwood, is one of my favorite spots to eat in Carmel. You dine overlooking the bluff with sheep grazing in the field.
You can hear the ocean waves, watch the sunset, and have a true fine dining experience for a reasonable price. It’s delicious classic American cuisine with a really comfortable atmosphere and great service.
✔️The Forge and The Forest –– We’ve been dining at The Forge and The Forest for over 30 years. It’s our go-to for sitting outside by the fireplace for Bloody Marys and a snack or a full meal inside for pizza, pasta, or burgers.
✔️The Tree House Cafe – The Tree House Cafe is a relaxed spot downtown that has outdoor patio dining upstairs with excellent Mediterranean cuisine. It’s reasonably priced and you can’t beat the atmosphere and location.
Carmel is a unicorn of a place designed to stay quaint and manage the many tourists visiting this town each year. Here’s some more info for your FAQs:
What is the best month to visit Carmel?
August and September are your best bets, with temps in the high 80s and 90s and fewer tourists than earlier in the summer. Carmel often has fog in the mornings and will brighten as the day goes on, so bring layers!
How many days do I need in Carmel-by-the-Sea?
Spend three or four nights in Carmel so you can relax in town and enjoy the beach, but also have time for side trips to Point Lobos and Monterey.
What is so special about Carmel-by-the-Sea?
One of the most special things about Carmel-By-The-Sea is that it maintains its charm by staying small and by not allowing things like door-to-door delivery service or any trucks off the main road.
There are no addresses, only post boxes, and no street lights or sidewalks off the main area either. No chain restaurants are allowed and most places are very dog friendly.
Is there a difference between Carmel and Carmel-by-the-Sea?
Carmel-By-The-Sea is most often referred to simply as Carmel.
But Monterey County, in which Carmel lives, is a wider area with equally as spectacular neighborhoods, beaches, and homes.
When people talk specifically about Carmel-By-The-Sea, they’re referring to the incorporated area of one square mile closest to the beach.
Final Thoughts: Visiting Carmel By The Sea
Obviously, a huge fan of Carmel for many years, I’m biased, but I really find that Carmel is the ideal spot for a quick getaway or a longer visit.
When you think about all the things to do in Carmel, you’ll see that there’s something for everyone’s tastes. Stay in flip-flops the whole time, or get dressed for elegant dinners and romantic sunsets.
Just a couple of hours away from San Francisco, this cute little California town awaits!