Carmel-by-the-sea is a California town that looks like it was pulled right out of a fairytale story. Nestled by the sea, as the name suggests, Carmel is packed with whimsy and old-world charm. (For starters, house numbers aren’t permitted! That’s right – instead of saying “154 San Carlos Street” your destination may be “The pink house on San Carlos Street.”) Carmel is romantic and beautiful, making it a great destination for any type of visitor, but especially an easy couple’s escape from the city.These are my top things to do in Carmel (The PERFECT weekend guide!) Keep on reading for all the best of Carmel.
I’ve been to Carmel By The Sea, or just “Carmel”, a handful of times over the years with both girlfriends, family and as a romantic weekend trip with Robin. If you’re looking for things to do in Monterey, Carmel is a nice day trip from the city as it’s basically next door. Otherwise, plan a whole weekend in this whimsical village. There’s wine tasting, beaches, golfing at Pebble Beach, the famous 17-mile drive, Point Lobos State Reserve, Monterey Bay Aquarium nearby, shopping and really unique history at the Carmel Mission (just to get the list started!)
*a star means we did this thing, ate here, stayed here. It basically means we put our personal stamp of approval on this Carmel attraction!
Keep scrolling for my Carmel travel guide, or use the table of contents to click around!
HOTELS IN CARMEL CA
As you can imagine, there is pretty much every type of hotel in Carmel. Luxury boutique hotels in downtown Carmel to small family run inns (like the Carmel Inn) to nationwide motels on the edge of the town. With so many to pick from, these are the Carmel hotels I recommend.
If you’re looking for rustic- meets- luxury in Carmel, this is the spot. We’ve only had dinner at the Misson Ranch, but explore the property while waiting for our table and it’s STUNNING! This is the famous Carmel ranch that Clint Eastwood owns. It’s on the edge of town and is surrounded by trees, green fields and has a bit of a beach view. Sheep will be grazing in the pasture and the old houses pack so much charm. At the very least, if you don’t’ stay here, you should dine here!
If you’re on a stricter budget, try the Briarwood Inn, with rooms usually around $120 a night. This cozy little B&B is simple but guests online love how pretty the property is and say it’s a great value. It’s still in walking distance to city center and has that cute element for the ‘gram but won’t hurt your wallet as much.
As the name suggests, Hotel Carmel is one of the most popular Carmel hotel. It has a beautiful courtyard with lounge chairs and a fireplace. Each evening there is a complimentary wine happy hour (I love when hotels do this!) and Brophy’s Tavern, a local hot spot, is on site. Rooms are colorful and bright.
We love booking Airbnb’s for really unique lodging, bigger groups or when we plan on staying longer than a few days. (Kitchens are handy!) This Airbnb would be great for a group! That view is amazing.
Book now (use THIS link for $40 off!)
THINGS TO DO IN CARMEL CA
There are so many things to do in Carmel by the sea! Even if you are just popping down for a day trip, there isn’t a shortage of California-style activities and Carmel attractions.
Catch A Sunset At Carmel Beach
The sunsets in Carmel are EPIC! I’ve been up and down the West Coast (and even have a view of the ocean from my own apartment) and I firmly believe some of the best sunsets in the country are found in Carmel. The entire town seems to gather in the evenings to watch them. Parking will be hard to find by the beach, so walk is you can. Bring a sweater, blanket and some wine for the most epic sunset of your life. Don’t forget to take a photo!
What to do in Carmel downtown? Wine tasting is one of my favorites! They have a handful of tasting rooms featuring regional wines all around downtown. Put on a pair for comfy flats and start tasting! Many hotels will provide guests with free or two-for-one tasting vouchers, so make sure to ask the front desk before heading out for the day. Otherwise, I recommend Scheid Vineyards and Blair Wines.
If you’re looking for things to do in Carmel Valley, visit some of the vineyards over there for a proper day of tasting among the vines. I recommend Joullian Vineyards.
The Mission is my favorite thing to visit in Carmel. On Sundays you can enter for free, otherwise, it’s $10 a person. Set aside at least an hour to explore this beautiful mission. The main basilica nods to churches you find in Spain. The open courtyard and gardens are stunning and they do a great job at weaving in informational signs so you can learn the history of the Mission and the Carmel area.
This will take a couple hours but is one of my favorite things to do in Carmel when I travel to Monterey County. The 17 Mile Drive takes you from Monterey and ends at Carmel, taking you through groves, beaches and Pebble Beach. Start in Monterey at the Pacific Grove entrance (it’s $10 per car, cash only.) You’ll wind past trees and beautiful old houses before popping out at around Seal Rock beach. If it’s sunny out, this is going to be the most beautiful drive of your life. Green on the left side, a rugged coastline with bright blue waters on the right. Make as many stops as you want on beaches or lookout points. Make sure to pull over for the Lone Cypress Tree, which is the logo of Pebble (it’s a 250+-year-old cypress tree on a lone rock!) There are no gas stations or restaurants, so fill up and grab snacks and water before you start. There are a few public bathrooms, though!
Pro tip: Grab things for a picnic and have lunch on a beach!
Downtown Carmel is a haven for art galleries and boutiques. If you’re itching to shop, you’ll find really unique and high-end pieces here.
There’s always something happening in Carmel. From food festivals to performing arts to street events, there may be something fun going on during your visit. Check here for a list of activities and things to do in Carmel this weekend!
Day Trip To Big Sur
Big Sur is one of the most beautiful places in California. Big Sur is a stunning drive. If you loved 17 Mile Drive, this one is even better. Big Sur is about an hour from Carmel, making it a great half day or full day trip. Visit Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and McWay Falls. At the very least, drive down to the Bixby Bridge. I recommend parking on the left side area and walking down the path so you can get a great photo of the bridge!
Read my Camping in Big Sur guide here for more things to do in Big Sur!
Pebble Beach has an equestrian center offers horseback riding guided trips! Take a trail ride on trails or out alongside the ocean. Great for all ages!
Day Trip To Monterey
Monterey is about 20–30 minutes drive from Carmel, depending on traffic. Here you’ll find the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is fun for all ages. (I recommend going on a weekday vs a weekend to avoid the crowds and to buy tickets ahead of time!) The aquarium is right on Cannery Row, so after your visit walk down this famous street, stop in museums, tasting rooms and stores. Make sure to grab some clam chowder!
Lounge On The Beach
Of course, on top of catching sunsets, on warm days, Carmel by the sea beach is a local’s favorite for beach days! Last time we had a beach day here, my husband and I ended up walking along the portion of the beach that borders the Pebble Beach golf course. We found over 15 lost golf balls! If you want to walk the other direction, you’ll hit Carmel River State Beach.
During some seasons, the whales are migrating! Most whale watching tours leave from Monterey. You can find a list of the best whale watching tours in Monterey/Carmel here.
Carmel is full of luxury hotels, which means you can find some amazing spas here! I personally haven’t been to a spa in Carmel, but the Refuge is on my bucket list as that outdoor pool area looks AMAZING! Grab the girls or bae for a relaxing day at the spa.
BEST CARMEL RESTAURANTS
This is my favorite restaurant in Carmel. They don’t take reservations and on weekends, it’s a popular spot and getting a table may be hard. Because of that, I recommend arriving right as they open and putting your name in. Ask for a table on the patio (this is a must!!) You may still have to wait, but use this time to explore the hotel property. Once seated you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view of the pasture and cute little sheep milling about. The food here is fantastic – honestly anything on the menu is great.
Carmel by the Sea has some wonderful seafood, of course! I love the Paella at Mundaka. Ask for a table in the courtyard (the cute string lights!!) and split a paella between you and your dinner date.
Next door is this little neighborhood bar. It’s one of the only places open late on weekends and they have dancing! (No late night food, though.) After dinner at Mundaka, pop over for a night cab and music.
If you’re doing a day trip to Monterey, I recommend dining at The Beach House. I loved their patio seating which offered a stunning sunset and bay view. Once it got dark, the city of Monterey glittered in the distance. I recommend the San Dabs here. Make sure to set reservations!
If it’s a hot summer day, Revival has the best ice cream in town!
IMPORTANT QUIRKS ABOUT CARMEL TO KNOW
Carmel By She Sea, CA is a unique town is so many ways and fairytale style houses aren’t the only one. There’s a special culture here. Here’s some important quirks and things to know before your visit that will ensure you have the best time possible!
Old Money vs New Money: Most of the town locals are retired and come from “old money.” There is also a slowly growing number of younger couples with kids that are “new money” from Silicon Valley or San Francisco. It’s a posh town and somethings can be really expensive because of the average wealth.
Things Shutdown Early: Because of the type of locals (retired folks and families with young children) Carmel doesn’t have a very big nightlife. In fact, many restaurants and bars close after 9-10pm. I found this out the hard way after driving down from San Francisco after work and assuming I’d be able to find a place to grab a bite to eat at 9:30pm after arriving and checking. To our dismay, only ONE bar was open on that Friday night and the nearest restaurant was all the way in Monterey. Thankfully our hotel room had left a big cheese platter for dinner, so we gobbled that up. But, don’t plan on partying until 1am here and make sure to eat dinner early!
Wedding Paradise: Carmel is absolutely beautiful, so it’s a hot spot for weddings. On the weekends, you may have dinner plans or site seeing plans foiled by a wedding or wedding party. It’s not a big issue, but something to keep in mind!
No House Numbers: As mentioned earlier, it’s against city policy to put numbers on buildings or houses. Rely on Google Maps to get you to your hotel and read signs! If someone tells you your hotel or brunch spot is “3 houses down from XYZ street”, you’ll have to count the houses.
WHAT TO PACK FOR CARMEL
Carmel is hotter in the summer and cooler in the winter, but it is seaside and doesn’t get extremes either way. In general, it’s an upscale village, so dress to impress! As always, check the weather before arriving.
Outfits I like to wear to Carmel
There are so many fun things to do in Carmel and Big Sur and the Monterey area. I love visiting Carmel and making it a home base to explore the area and all its natural beauty. Its fun to visit with the girls and also makes a romantic visit with my husband. In general, it’s where luxury and nature merge and gives you a taste of what it’s like to live a posh life.
I hope this helps you figure out what to do in Carmel by the Sea! If you have anything fun to add to the list, leave a comment below! If you have any questions, leave a comment or DM me on Instagram @thewhimsysoul and I’ll do my best to help you out!
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