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For more than a century, the charming small town of Carmel-by-the-Sea has attracted artists, writers, and celebrities seeking a small town hideaway on the crowded California coast. Today, the Monterey Bay town, often called simply, "Carmel," attracts visitors eager to explore the quirky shops, art galleries, wine tasting rooms, restaurants, and beautiful white sand beaches. The downtown is compact and walkable so it's a welcome small-town retreat.
Carmel is an 80-minute drive from San Jose, so it is an easy day trip or weekend getaway from Silicon Valley. The town makes a relaxing base for visiting some of the best attractions on the Monterey Bay. It's also a great stop on any Highway 1 road trip.
Follow along to check out some of the top things to see and things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.
One of the main draws of the community is the city's stunning downtown beach. Carmel Beach sits at the foot of the town's main street, Ocean Avenue. Carmel Beach is a wide, white sand beach flanked by windswept Monterey cypress trees and steep, sandy cliffs. At the north end of the beach, look up to the top of the cliffs to see golfers playing at the legendary Pebble Beach Golf Links.
At all hours of the day, you can find locals walking along the beach and dogs and kids playing in the surf. The beach is an especially popular place at sunset--bring a bottle of wine and to pair with the show (alcohol is allowed on the beach). During the week (Monday through Thursday) the city allows beach bonfires south of 10th Avenue.
For the view from above, check out Scenic Bluff Path, a long gravel walkway that runs along Scenic Road just above Carmel Beach. To get down to the beach, use one of eight beach staircases along the road.
Parking is free in the beach lot, as well and there is street parking available on Camino Real and Scenic Road. There is a public bathroom at the base of Ocean Avenue.
Carmel River State Beach
Another lovely local beach worth visiting Carmel River State Beach. This stunning white sandy cove runs for one mile across the base of the Carmel River. The park includes a protected wetland lagoon for local waterfowl so it's a great place for bird spotting and nature lovers. Dogs are allowed, but because of the bird refuge they must be kept on-leash.
Wander the Streets of Downtown Carmel
The founders of Carmel-by-the-Sea were inspired by popular destinations in Europe and designed the community to look like a small European Village. The eclectic downtown is full of hidden alleys and picturesque garden courtyards surrounded by art galleries, wine tasting rooms, shops, and restaurants. There are no house numbers in Carmel, a small town custom maintained so that locals will run into each other each day when they pick up their mail at the downtown post office. Addresses are given as intersections, so be prepared to call or ask for directions. Carmel's lovely alleys and hidden walkways make it fun to get lost.
Visit the Carmel Mission Basilica
The Carmel Mission Basilica (Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo) has an important place in California history. It was the second of all the Upper California missions, founded in 1770. It was Father Junipero Serra's favorites and it's the one where he lived his final days. The historic courtyard and mission grounds are lovely places to visit year-round.
The Mission has four museums on-site that give a look into the history of the region and the California mission network. The Henry Downie Museum gallery shares the history of the Carmel Mission's restoration work. The Munras Family Heritage Museum shares the history of a prominent local family over the years and alongside the history of the mission and the Monterey region. The Jo Mora Chapel Gallery hosts a series of rotating art exhibits as well as the artist's spectacular Serra Memorial Cenotaph. The Convento Museum takes you through Father Junipero Serra's living quarters, where he died in 1784.
Hours & Admission: Open 9:30 am until 7:00 pm every day. Admissions: $6.50 for adults, $4.00 for Seniors, $2.00 for Children ages 7 and up. Admission is free for children ages 6 and under. Self-guided and docent-led tours are available.
Carmel Mission Basilica, 3080 Rio Road, Carmel, California - Website
Wine Tasting in Downtown Carmel
Carmel is a great place to go wine tasting. Downtown Carmel has more than 20 local winery tasting rooms all within a short one-mile walk across the village. These downtown tasting rooms let you easily sample the best local Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Cruz County wines all in one place.
To save on tasting fees, pick up a Carmel Wine Walk Passport ($65). This discount ticket set lets you sample tasting flights at any 9 of the 14 participating different Carmel tasting rooms. You can even split the tasting flights with a friend, use them on different days or even save them for your next trip (they expire 6 months after purchase).
You can buy the Carmel Wine Walk Passport at the Carmel Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center (on San Carlos between 5th & 6th) or on their website.
Do a Local Food Tour
Book a Carmel Food Tour to try the highlights and hidden gems of Carmel's food and restaurant scene. This three-hour guided food walk weaves through the hidden alleys of downtown Carmel and stops at several of the best Carmel restaurants, shops and wine tasting rooms. At each stop, you get to try one of the restaurants specialties and get local insight from an expert guide. Tickets start at $69, and you can buy them on the Carmel Food Tours website.
Bring Your Dog
Don't leave home without your dog! Carmel will roll out the red carpet for your pets--the town is often rated the most dog-friendly town in America. Dogs (and pets of all kinds) are invited in most downtown hotels, shops, and even some restaurants. Well-behaved dogs are allowed to run off-leash at the downtown Carmel Beach and Mission Trails park.
Be sure to visit the Cypress Inn for indoor dining with your dog and a nightly dog-friendly "Yappy Hour" at the lounge from 4:30PM until 6PM for drink specials and live music.
Local pet boutique Diggidy Dog is filled to the brim with high-quality pet supplies, treats, clothing, toys, and more.
Where to Stay
There are few chain hotels in Carmel so if you choose to spend the night, you're certain to have a unique experience.
One quirky personal favorite Carmel hotel is the Hofsas House Hotel. The bright pink vintage-decor hotel was inspired by the founder's travels in Bavaria and fits into the town's European aesthetic. The family-run hotel has 38 unique rooms and suites, many with balconies looking off toward the Monterey Bay. The hotel offers a continental breakfast that you are encouraged to take back to your room. The hotel is extremely dog-friendly and provides a doggie welcome package including a dog bed, treats, and a folding travel bowl.
A modern beach-inspired favorite, just at the base of Ocean Avenue, is the Lamplighter Inn. This boutique hotel has just 11 rooms, suites, and cottages. This Lamplighter offers a nightly wine tasting happy hour, outdoor fire pits, and the closest walk to Carmel Beach. The hotel is dog-friendly and provides a doggie welcome package including dog bed, treats, and toys.
Side Trip: Carmel Valley
For a more traditional wine country experience without the crowds of other California wine regions, head about 12 miles east of Carmel into the rolling hills of the Carmel Valley.
The center of this rural community is the Carmel Valley Village, a small development with more than a dozen wine tasting rooms, shops, and restaurants. One favorite on my recent visit was Holman Ranch (19 East Carmel Valley Road), for their excellent estate-grown pinot noir and homemade olive oil.
On the way in or out, stop at the Earthbound Farms Farm Stand (7250 Carmel Valley Rd) for fresh local produce and healthy organic eats.
Side Trip: 17 Mile Drive
Just north of Carmel Beach is the entrance to 17-Mile Drive, a scenic road that passes through Pacific Grove and the exclusive Pebble Beach community on the Monterey Bay. The drive hugs the coast passing stunning and empty, white sand beaches, turquoise coves, and Monterey Cypress trees, including the famous Lone Cypress. The road is a private toll road ($8.75) owned and maintained by the Pebble Beach Resort.
Check out this guide for more things to see and do on the 17-Mile Drive.
Side Trip: Big Sur
Carmel makes a great jumping off point for a drive through one of California's greatest treasures, the remote communities and rugged coast of Big Sur. This drive along California's winding coastal Highway 1 is often considered one of the most beautiful drives in the world. You can either stay on Highway 1, stopping at the road's many scenic vista points, or get off to explore the region's stunning state and regional parks.