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12 Fun & Best Things to Do in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

12 Fun & Best Things to Do in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Carmel-by-the-Sea, known to most only as Carmel, is a blissful destination for a break from the hustle and bustle of big-city life. Situated on California’s central coast in Monterey County, this quaint, Hamlet-like village is a breath of fresh air, full of activities to entertain both young and old.

Indeed, Carmel is the perfect combination of breathtaking scenery and rich cultural heritage. Spanish-style architecture, fairytale cottages, sprawling parks, and glistening beaches are just a few of the attractions on offer. And given that it’s a mere one square mile, you’ll be amazed at all there is to see – much of which you can explore on foot.

That said, it’s hard to know where to start. There’s the renowned Carmel Beach for sunbathers, Ocean Avenue for avid shoppers, and the Sunset Cultural Center for those wishing to experience the best music and plays in town. There’s also a world-class golf course, Pebble Beach Golf Links, and the landmark Carmel Mission, to name but a few. 

In other words, you won’t be disappointed if you’re planning a visit. Carmel is ideal for day-trippers journeying from San Francisco or families seeking a lengthier seaside retreat.

To make outlining your itinerary just a little bit easier, we’ve compiled a list of the 12 best things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

Mile Drive Tours and Tickets
1. Monterey, Carmel and 17-Mile Drive - Full Day Tour from San Francisco Top Recommendation

Travel down one of the most picturesque roads in California on this full-day tour from San Francisco. Sit back and relax as you cruise down the coast-hugging Highway 1, passing by the luxurious mansions in Pebble Beach on the iconic 17-Mile Drive. You’ll have some free time to explore the quaint town of Monterey, where you can stroll down Steinbeck’s Cannery Row or visit the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Carmel Small Group Walking Food Cultural Tour
2. Carmel Small Group Walking Food & Cultural Tour

On this small group walking tour, you'll explore the culinary delights of this charming town, learning about its rich history and food culture as you sample local dishes, chocolate, and wine. Your knowledgeable foodie guide will take you to some of Carmel's best eateries, where you'll enjoy locavore and ethnic cuisine as well as delicious chocolate.

Carmel Mission Tours
3. Carmel-by-the-Sea 2.5 Hour Electric Bike Tour

Explore the picturesque town of Carmel-by-the-Sea on a 2.5 hour electric bike tour! From fairy-tale cottages and millionaire mansions, to stunning coastal views, there's something for everyone in this charming seaside town.

TLDR

In a hurry? Here’s a quick overview of the very best Carmel-by-the-Sea has to offer.

  • Most significant landmarkCarmel Mission
  • Best park – Point Lobos State Park
  • Best free activity – Carmel Beach
  • Best activity for kidsFairytale Cottages
  • Best activity for adults – Downtown Carmel
  • Best food – Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant
  • Best nightlife – The Sunset Center
  • Best all-around accommodationThe Normandy Inn

Best & Fun Things to Do in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

1. Beaches of Carmel-by-the-Sea

Beaches of Carmel-by-the-Sea

Address: Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA

Heading up our list is one of the best free things to do in Carmel, California – a tour of the town’s beautiful beaches with breathtaking Pacific Ocean views. Among the choices are Carmel Beach, Carmel River State Beach, and, further south, Monastery Beach. Carmel River State Beach is home to the Carmel River Bird Sanctuary.

Sandy shores, rocky bluffs, and the vivid waves of the Pacific Ocean make Carmel’s beaches feel like part of another world. Best of all, they’re relatively spacious and secluded, so you won’t be scrambling for a spot to lay down your towel.

However, it must be noted that swimming in Carmel is not advised, as the sea is prone to rip currents and can be very unpredictable. Start your visit to Carmel Bay to make the most of the trails surrounding this area. Intermittent stairways make it easy to access pathways, like the Scenic Bluff, which runs for 3.5 miles from Point Lobos to Pebble Beach.

At the trail’s end, you’ll find the Carmel River State Beach. This beautiful mile-long stretch forms part of a state park and is therefore protected and unspoiled, making it an excellent choice for nature lovers.

Bordering on the Carmel River, the beach is also home to a lagoon, popular among kayakers and scuba divers. Birdwatchers will have a field day soaking in the various species of migratory birds that call Carmel home. And if you’re thinking of skipping the walk, this gorgeous stretch of soft white sand is easily accessible from the south side of Carmel, at the end of Carmelo Street, opening into the mouth of the Carmel Valley.

While everything in Carmel is easy to find, you can opt to invest in a Carmel-by-the-Sea Self-Guided Audio Tour for only $5.99 to get you started on your way. This narrated self-paced navigation app will let you know the exact routes to reach your destination.  

2. Downtown Carmel and Ocean Avenue

Address: Ocean Avenue between Monte Verde and Casanova St, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923

Don’t be fooled by its small size. There are near-endless things to do in Carmel, California, once you start exploring its renowned downtown shopping area and its prolific main street, Ocean Avenue. The heart of Carmel is a celebration of the community’s love of the arts.

Downtown Carmel boasts dozens of unique shopping experiences. Bespoke boutiques, a vintage sweet shop, and whimsical restaurants and coffee shops can keep you busy for hours. There are also lots of accommodation options, including the unforgettable Normandy Inn.

The Carmel Art Association has an excellent art gallery with many rotating exhibitions, while the city plays host to the Carmel Art Festival. While perusing Ocean Avenue and the surrounding area is free, we can’t guarantee you won’t be whipping out your wallet to invest in some truly unique goods.

In winding alleyways and hidden courtyards, you’ll find a Scandinavian furniture shop called FJØRN, a stationer called Bittner, and the endlessly fascinating Carmel Music Box Company. Not done? There’s also the Mad Dogs and Englishmen Bike Shop and the must-visit Cottage of Sweets, which looks like it’s straight out of a fairytale. Fashion lovers will have a field day in Carmel Plaza, the biggest store in town.

Once you’ve shopped ’til you’ve dropped, you can grab a bite of California Fusion at one of the town’s several farm-to-table sustainable cafés and restaurants. We recommend Pangaea Grill or Seventh & Dolores. For nighttime adventures, grab a beer at Barmel.

Throughout the year, Downtown Carmel is also host to various markets and fetes, popular among kids and adults alike. You may even be treated to live music. Feeling lost? You can purchase a Self-Guided Audio Tour of Downtown Carmel for only $7.99.

See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Fallbrook, California

3. Carmel Mission Basilica Museum

Carmel Mission Basilica Museum

Address: 3080 Rio Rd, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923

Founded in 1770, Carmel Mission is one of the absolute must-see Carmel, California tourist attractions for visitors to the area. It was established by Father Junipero Serra of Spain as a Roman Catholic Church and remains active as a parish to this day.

The Carmel Mission’s centerpiece is its impressive basilica, completed in 1797, 27 years after its doors first opened. Unlike many Spanish mission churches at the time, the Carmel Mission Basilica is highly decorative inside, making it a feast for the eyes of fans of great architecture. It is also listed as a National Historic Landmark.

Visitors will be treated to a lush garden courtyard filled with sweeping palms and vibrant flower gardens. This is offset by the Mission’s Moor-style bell tower and the impossibly high ceilings of the sanctuary, which houses altar reredos over 30 feet tall.

In the Carmel Mission Basilica Museum, you’ll find a vast collection of Spanish Colloquial art and artifacts. You can even explore the historic building where Father Junipero himself lived while establishing his church.

The Carmel Mission is open from Wednesday to Sunday, provided there are no weddings or special events scheduled. Tickets for adults cost $10, children aged 7 to 17 pay $5, and entry is free for kids under 6.

The best way to get around is with the self-guided tour map you’ll receive with general admission. The Mission is a great outing for the whole family, especially those interested in history and culture. As a side note, Mass is held on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, so be sure to check the Mission’s schedule ahead of your visit.

4. Fairytale Cottages of Carmel-by-the-Sea

Fairytale Cottages of Carmel-by-the-Sea

Address: 5th and 6th Ave, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923

One of the best things to do in Carmel, California, with kids is an exploration of the town’s famous fairytale cottages. The cottages came into being in 1924 after town resident Hugh Comstock built a studio for his wife to pursue her doll-making hobby.

Seeing how beautifully her cottage sat against the landscape, Comstock committed to establishing a collection of quaint homes for all the townspeople to enjoy. Consequently, he invested in low-cost plots of land and filled them with his whimsical designs, featuring pitched roofs covered in thatch, paned windows, and timber detailing.

Today, there are 21 of the 30 original cottages left. Some are private residences, and others have been converted into little shops or cafés.

Comstock’s wife’s original cottage is known as Hansel and is, of course, located right next to Gretel House. The Las Tiendas Building, one of the older cottages, features intricate grillwork and is a true testament to the cottage’s signature designs.

For those looking to embark on a little retail therapy, you’ll find fine bone ceramics in the Rose Tea Collection shop. And when you’re done exploring, you can order your favorite beverage at the Carmel Coffee House and enjoy it in their charming courtyard. Art galleries, cafés, and boutiques pop up all over in hidden passageways and are surrounded by gorgeous garden squares

While the Fairytale Cottages are reasonably easy to navigate, a self-guided audio tour for $7.99 will keep you informed of the cottages’ history while you walk. This cluster of enchanting houses is a must-see for photographers and will make you feel like you’ve been transported to a completely different era.

See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Santa Ana, California

5. Mrs. Clinton Walker House

Address: 26336 Scenic Rd, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923

The Clinton Walker House, affectionately referred to as the Cabin on the Rocks by locals, was designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. For architectural enthusiasts, it’s a must-visit spot in Carmel. It is also the only Wright design that overlooks the ocean.

Built in 1951, Wright was tasked by Mrs. Walker with building a home as light as the sea but as sturdy as the rocks it stands on. In this regard, Wright certainly delivered, creating an aesthetic that is reminiscent of a ship resting against rocks, fitting in seamlessly with the surrounding natural landscape. From the patio and windowed interiors, the house has a striking view of both Carmel Bay and Pebble Beach.

That said, it remains a private residence (still belonging to the Walkers), opening to the public only once per year for an annual charity event in September. Even so, it’s worth a visit simply to enjoy its presence by the shore. An excellent opportunity for budding photographers, you won’t regret taking a stroll past this iconic Carmel landmark, which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977.

6. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Address: 62 CA-1, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923

Wondering what to do in Carmel, California? Why not spend a day exploring Point Lobos State Park? It is, in short, an absolute celebration of indigenous flora and diverse marine wildlife.

Stretching along Carmel’s one-of-a-kind coastline, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is home to various hiking trails, including the Bird Island Trail, that the whole family can enjoy, as they are neither challenging nor lengthy.

Undulating waves and rocky bluffs set the scene. And all around, you’ll be treated to thickets of Monterey pines and cypress trees aflutter with numerous bird species. For spring hikers, California poppies and wild lilacs bloom, adding pops of color to the scenic hiking trails surrounding the area.

Among these is the Cypress Grove Trail, where lucky passers-by might come across otters frolicking in the kelp of Headland Cove or hunting for mussels to eat. Otters are also often spotted in the Pit, just off the Granite Point Trail.

If you’re looking to see slightly larger sea creatures, sea lions abound along the Sea Lion Point Trail, basking on the rocks and communicating with each other using their signature barks. This trail has a stepped staircase leading down toward the coves for a better vantage point.  

Adding to the beauty of this park is a collection of tide pools, and pristine beaches popular among scuba divers exploring the aquatic wonders this quiet bit of ocean has on display. When visiting Point Lobos State Park, remember to pack your camera and prepare to be inspired.

See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Oceanside, California

7. Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant

Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant
Image source: TripAdvisor

Address: 26270 Dolores St, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923

The Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant is undoubtedly one of the best places to visit in Carmel, California, and is owned by none other than legendary actor Clint Eastwood. A long-time resident and lover of Carmel, Eastwood has spent most of his life involved with the town, even serving a term as its mayor in 1986.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that he carefully restored a 16th Century dairy farm to what is known as the Carmel Mission Ranch today. In the process, he oversaw the construction of a luxury hotel featuring a fine-dining restaurant, tennis courts, and even a fitness center.

With views of the beautiful coastline and Saint Lucia Mountains, visitors can enjoy a meal or a stroll through the ranch’s pastures. For those looking to host a destination event for the ages, the Mission Ranch caters to weddings and corporate functions, complete with staffing and on-site accommodation.

If you’re just passing through, be sure to enjoy the Mission Ranch Restaurant’s excellent cuisine and nightly live piano performances. A stay in one of the cottages starts at only $175, increasing in price depending on your room choice.

See Related: The Island of the Dolls: What to See & Do

8. Pebble Beach Golf Links

Pebble Beach Golf Links

Address: 1700 17 Mile Dr, Pebble Beach, CA 93953

The Pebble Beach Golf Links is one of the better-known Carmel, California, tourist attractions, boasting legendary players like Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and Sir Winston Churchill, among others.

Overlooking Pebble Beach, this gorgeous green has been around since 1919 and is considered the Number 1 Public Golf Course in America. It has hosted the United States Open no less than six times in recent years, which naturally draws in a crowd.

But it’s not all about golf. Every year (usually in August), Pebble Beach Links is also host to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. This vintage car show features over 200 classic automobiles, from Ferraris and pre- and post-war vehicles to Mustangs.

If you’d like to spend a bit of time perusing the 18th hole, you can check into the overlooking Pebble Beach Resort. The rooms are world-class, have five-star luxury, and every amenity is catered to. From this vantage point, you have a direct eye line of breathtaking Carmel Bay.

Rooms at the resort are, however, quite pricey. They start at $1045 for a single room with a garden view and can reach up to $7980 for a full cottage rental. Alternative accommodation is the Carmel Country Inn.

See Related: Fun & Best Things To Do In Richmond, California

9. 17-Mile Drive

17-Mile Drive

Address: 17-Mile Drive, Pebble Beach, CA 93953

If you want to experience the best that the Monterey coastline has to offer, consider embarking on the 17-Mile Drive. The route starts at Carmel’s Arrowhead Point and journeys along rolling shores and scenic outcrops all the way to Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach.

On the way, you’ll find plenty of wildlife lookouts, picnic spots, and secluded beaches to enjoy. One of the most significant landmarks on this trip is The Lone Cypress. This majestic tree is over 200 years old and stands by itself on a sharp granite rock, just like something out of a novel.

For admirers of natural beauty, you have the option to watch over Bird Rock, which is home to hundreds of birds and the occasional sea lion. You can also stop at Seal Rock, a secluded picnic spot sporting tranquil tide pools on a quiet stretch of beach.

If you’re feeling a little more active, you have a choice of a whopping five golf courses between Carmel Bay and Monterey Bay, including the aforementioned Pebble Beach Links, Cypress Point Club, Poppy Hills Golf Course, Spyglass Hill Golf Course, and The Links at Spanish Bay.

Yet, even with all of this on offer, one of the best parts of 17-Mile Drive is reaching the beach at Spanish Bay itself, named for the Spanish explorers who discovered it. It is infinitely peaceful and tranquil, delicately tucked away among groves of Monterey pine trees.

For just $10, you can purchase a self-guided audio tour to help you on your way. Or, if you’re keen on adventure, rent an e-bike for $79 and have a tour guide let you in on all the best spots to explore. 17-Mile Drive is family-friendly and is definitely considered a must-do activity in Carmel.

10. The Sunset Cultural Center

The Sunset Cultural Center
Image source: TripAdvisor

Address: San Carlos Street at Ninth Avenue, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93953

After a busy day exploring the beautiful beaches and trails around Carmel, why not treat yourself to a cultural experience at the town’s prolific Sunset Center? Previously the Sunset School, the center was converted into a performing arts venue in 1965, partly because the school could not afford to equip it correctly for disaster management, but primarily due to a growing desire from local artists for a place to work and perform. In 1998, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Inside the center, there is a sweeping auditorium as well as various workshops, galleries, and studios, meaning there is plenty to see and experience. Every year, the Sunset Center also hosts the Carmel Bach Festival, which is a bucket-list item for many music lovers the world over.

For the foodies, there is an incredibly small group food and culture walking tour you can book for just $129. On this tour, you’ll be led by a knowledgeable guide on a journey through the best cuisine and wine in Carmel.

See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Ramona, California

11. Tor House and Hawk Tower

Tor House and Hawk Tower

Address: 26304 Ocean View Avenue, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93953

Tor House is a true testament to Carmel’s striking and unusual architecture. It was built in 1919 by the poet Robinson Jeffers, who wanted a home positioned in a spot with a direct view overlooking the sea.

After completing his house, he added Hawk Tower to his property as a space where his wife could practice the creative arts and his children could play and roam freely. On Saturdays, you can book a guided tour of Tor House and Hawk Tower and learn more about Jeffers’ interesting life, his home’s construction, and his literary career.

Unfortunately, photography is not permitted, but the tour does include a climb up the tower and a stroll through the property’s immaculate English-style garden. Children and adults alike will love the whimsical nature of this home and the stories that come with it.

See Related: Best Travel Insurance for Children

12. Garland Ranch Regional Park

Garland Ranch Regional Park

Address: 700 W Carmel Valley Rd, Carmel Valley, CA 93924

The Garland Ranch Regional Park is a public area located in Carmel Valley, which borders Carmel-by-the-Sea (a short 13-mile drive). It is known for its diverse ecosystems, which include dozens of native species like deer, mountain lions, squirrels, and voles. At varying points, it is forest, woodland, or floodplain.

Boasting over 50 miles of trails, Garland Ranch is a favorite recreational spot for jogging, hiking, and horseback riding. Most of the paths are open to equestrians, giving you plenty of options for exploration.

Indeed, the highlight of Garland Ranch has to be its magnificent waterfall of the 800ft “inspiration point” that overlooks the valley. The park is open daily between 6 am and 6 pm and is managed by the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District. A visitor center is located within the park to help you find your way.

See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Cambria, California

Getting Around Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Is Carmel worth visiting? The answer is a resounding yes! And given its small size, it’s blissfully easy to get around. For travelers from out of town, Carmel-by-the-Sea is located 15 minutes from the Monterey Airport by car, 2½ hours from San Francisco, and 6 hours from Los Angeles.

Whether you’re traveling alone or with family, everything is accessible. There are a variety of taxi services, like Uber and Lyft, to choose from, as well as bus routes that run from 6 am until 8 pm daily. Monterey Airport also has car rental agencies on site.

On that note, parking in Downtown Carmel is free for the first two hours. From there, you can explore on foot, or if you’re feeling adventurous, rent an e-bike. There is also a guided audio tour for almost everything, which allows you to navigate Carmel-by-the-Sea at your desired pace.

FAQ

What is the best thing to do with kids in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California?

Carmel Beach is an excellent spot for kids, provided they are supervised by family members. Parts of the ocean current are strong and unpredictable, particularly on public beaches. However, along the various Carmel trails, there are tide pools and more tranquil spots suitable for swimming and diving. In addition, Carmel’s Fairytale Cottages are sure to spark their imaginations, making them well worth a visit.

What are some fun things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California?

There are so many things to do that it’s hard to single one out. Carmel is known for its whimsical architecture and stunning coastline. Visitors are most attracted to its pristine beaches and rich cultural history. While everything is within walking distance, there are trails and trips all around Carmel, stretching between Monterey Bay and Spanish Bay. There’s also great shopping and cuisine scene on Ocean Avenue.

What are some fun things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, when it’s raining?

Carmel has a bustling downtown area that is home to a variety of quirky boutique stores, galleries, and cafes, perfect for visiting in the rain. The main street is called Ocean Avenue, which runs through the heart of the business district. If you’re not up for shopping, you can visit various art galleries and museums in the Sunset Cultural Center – one of the must-see Carmel attractions.

What are the best tourist attractions in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California?

In Carmel, there’s something for everyone. Nature trails and the beautiful Carmel Beach are an excellent fit for outdoorsy types. There is also a thriving art and cuisine scene for those looking to experience new things. We recommend (among others) visiting Ocean Avenue, Point Lobos State Reserve, and the stunning Mission Ranch Restaurant for the best food the town has to offer.

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