Located by the idyllic Pacific ocean, it’s one of the most romantic getaways on the coast of California. There are many things to do in Carmel, California ranging from wine tastings to hiking along the ocean. Carmel or Carmel-by-the-Sea as the downtown in its full name is called, is the perfect year-round destination. It never seems to get absolutely cold and when it does chill up, there are plenty of escapes inside. You’ll find some very cozy restaurants and lodges for when you want a break from the outdoors.
Set between Monterey and Big Sur, Carmel is one of the best home bases to explore this part of California. There is a lot going on in the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea so you can easily spend a day exploring there. Some of the best gems lie just outside of the city — like Carmel Valley, state parks, and a drive to Big Sur. After visiting multiple times for work this past year from San Francisco, I wanted to compile what has been my favorite things to do in Carmel.
The town of Carmel is a fairytale, you’ll find yourself “oohing and ahhing” over just how charming it is. The little downtown has a lot of hidden alleys and courtyards too, so don’t be afraid to wander off and explore.
Ready to see the best things to do in Carmel? Jot down this list for your next adventure there.
Best Things to Do in Carmel, California
Carmel, California FAQ
What airport do you fly into for Carmel, California?
The closest airport to Carmel is Monterey Regional Airport and it has limited flights. The next closest major airport would be San Jose and then San Francisco. You will need a car to explore the area of Carmel.
Is there a difference between Carmel and Carmel-by-the-Sea?
No there is no difference, they are the same place. The full name is Carmel-by-the-Sea. The shorthand name is Carmel.
Is Carmel good for a weekend trip?
Yes, absolutely! You can spend an entire weekend here. Checkout the first-timer’s guide to Carmel, California to help plan your trip.
Are there good restaurants in Carmel?
This may be one of my favorite parts of visiting Carmel — the food! There are several wonderful local restaurants here. I’d recommend making reservations ahead of time. This list of 20 best restaurants in Carmel is a good place to start for inspiration!
Hike in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
One of my favorite places to explore is this state park on the ocean. Filled with wildlife, you can follow the paths in and around the coastline here. My personal favorite trail in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is the Bird Island Trail that is the only in-out trail in the park. It takes you out to see where a lot of the pelicans nest in the rocks and you’ll even spot harbor seals in a hidden cove.
Other popular trails here the Sand Hill Trail, Sea Lion Point Trail, and Cypress Grove Trail. Everywhere has incredible views, so you really cannot go wrong with any of them. I’d recommend sturdy shoes as there is uneven ground throughout. One other tip is to bring binoculars as you might spot some whales passing by!
It is good to note that it a paid entrance to get into Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. As you approach the entrance, you will see a lot of cars parked along the road. Alternatively, you could do this and walk down to the coastal trails. In the park itself, there are bathrooms and picnic tables for use.
Spend a day on Carmel Beach
The main beach in Carmel is at the end of Ocean Avenue and it spreads along the ocean up until you can see Pacific Grove. The beach is perfect for a walk and when the weather is nice, you can take a dip.
At the south end of the beach, you’ll find often surfers catching the waves at the end of the day. It’s a popular spot for locals. One other way to experience the beach is the coastal trail that follows on the south end. There is a great pathway that winds above the beach and has scenic viewpoints and benches to enjoy.
The weather in Carmel is often mild enough that you can definitely enjoy walking on the beach during the winter. I’d recommend bringing a light jacket for the wind in case it does pick up.
Tour the art galleries in Carmel-by-the-Sea
In the heart of Carmel-by-the-Sea, there are many art galleries to explore. On every street you’ll find at least two or three, so be sure to work your way down Ocean Avenue. It’s a perfect way to spend some time on a weekend getaway.
Carmel was well known in the eighties as an artist’s enclave, so it has inspired many artists over the years. One of the most well-known is the Classic Art Gallery who has European heritage and fine art pieces. They have two locations in Carmel in downtown.
Another gallery I want to point out is Jones & Terwilliger Gallery. They have a really cozy space that brings in emerging artists as well as iconic artists. Their focus on sculptures and paintings is a joy to see in person. I’d recommend popping in here if you can. They also have exhibits each year, so there is always something new to see.
Go wine tasting in Carmel Valley
Who knew this part of California had such great wine? It’s some of the best wines in Central California. There are tasting rooms in Carmel Valley Village or you can head out to one of the wineries in the valley itself. Carmel Valley’s village is unique in that you can walk from one tasting room to the next. I really like Joyce Winery and I. Brand Winery. You can book these wine tasting rooms in advance as well.
One of my favorite experiences in Carmel Valley is at Folktale Winery for a stunning setting, great food, and incredible wine. I would highly recommend booking a table in advance and try to combine both a wine tasting and lunch. Their outdoor patio is incredibly large and well-suited for year-round dining.
This past year, I spent three days exploring just the valley itself and shared a full guide on Carmel Valley here. It is only fifteen minutes from Carmel downtown, so you can easily pop out for the day or afternoon.
Shop the local boutiques in Carmel-by-the-Sea
There are plenty of boutiques in downtown Carmel, so if you’re on the hunt to do some shopping, this is where to go. You can easily stroll the “grid” and stumble upon them as you go.
Bittner is one shop you may not want to miss. It’s unique in that this 25+-year-old shop has kept the spirit of luxury writing alive. The owner carries pens from around the world and brings in a beautiful selection of writing paper. The shop is worth a pop in alone to see such beautiful instruments.
Since Carmel has been awarded one of the best shopping destinations in the U.S. by USA Today, there are really a lot of choices. This list from Carmel is worth a scroll to bookmark your favorites.
A lot of the hotels are also in this area, so if you’re wanting to be within walking distance, be sure to book in the center of town.
Bring a picnic to Carmel River State Beach
I love Carmel River State Beach as it’s tucked further around the corner. I call it my hidden gem as a lot of people don’t even know this one exists. It tends to be quieter than the other beaches since you need to drive to get here.
If I were to pick my first-choice beach for a picnic lunch and afternoon hang, I would come here for the day. It’s small but incredibly beautiful. When the sun is out, the watercolor will pop with blues and greens.
Drive the scenic 17 Mile Drive
If you’re not playing golf at Pebble, you can still pay to access the iconic 17-mile drive. It’s a stunning drive along the ocean that starts in Monterey and works its way down the coast. The price to enter is $10.50 per vehicle. They will also give you a helpful brochure that points out historic areas as well as viewpoints.
It is home to the famous Pebble Beach golf course but also to a lot more than that. You will want to spend time here exploring. You could also make a reservation at The Inn at Spanish Bary for lunch as well.
Visit the Carmel Mission.
Part of California’s heritage, the Carmel Mission is one of many you can visit. This one has been restored and you can tour inside to see it. (Guided tours are available).
It was first built in 1797 and it has been beautifully restored as one of the best Roman Catholic mission churches in the state. People often spend around an hour or so here, so give yourself plenty of time to stroll around. They have a small gift shop as well with souvenirs.
It is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, $5 for children, and free for children under 6.
Go see the Bixby Bridge.
If you’re not wanting to go all the way down to Big Sur but do want to see part of the epic cliffs, drive to Bixby Bridge. It’s worth it and truly wonderful for views down the coast.
I would recommend coming at sunset to catch the golden rays over the ocean. Arrive early as it can get crowded. Please use marked pull-outs to park your car as to not block the highway.
Spend a day in Big Sur.
There is so much to do in Big Sur from Mcway Falls to hiking in the start parks, you could spend a full day or two here exploring. It makes for a stunning day trip from Carmel.
I went just recently and spent two nights in Big Sur. You could also opt to do this as part of a larger road trip itinerary. This extended travel guide to Big Sur has everything you need to plan your trip. You won’t want to miss the favorite local bakery, a lunch spot with ocean views, and incredible hiking trails.
Head to Monterey’s Cannery Row
Just one city up is Monterey and the Cannery Row is an iconic part of the city right on Monterey Bay. You can find confectionery shops, the aquarium, and breweries popping up here.
It’s a great spot to pass through for an hour or two. Stroll the piers, grab lunch at one of the many seafood restaurants, and enjoy!
Where to Stay in Carmel
There are many choices for hotels in Carmel that range from uber-luxe to budget. My number one tip is to try to stay on the grid so that you can be within walking distance of everything. Not having to park your car multiple times is super helpful as well. My list of best hotels in Carmel, California is a good place to start for research.
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