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Originally published January 2019. Updated January 2024.

Somewhere amidst my third visit, I smiled. I knew this place was special and certainly pulled at my heart but this time it was different. When I set out to write this guide to Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, it didn’t take long to figure out why.

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Words like charm, scenic, and serene capture Carmel, California for me. It’s a retreat, somewhere to sojourn for a few days of reconnecting with yourself and with nature. I’ve spent more time here than any other destination in California outside of where I live.

Amidst a walk in Point Lobos Reserve, I stopped. Right in front of me, a sea otter turned on its back and cleaned its paws. Further on the horizon, pelicans swung in and dived into the ocean. And in the distance, whales spouted up water as if they knew it was their turn to complete the scene.

This was Carmel-by-Sea and its surrounding area — a charming, fairytale town set in nature, so untouched that maybe you’d feel worlds away from home. If you’re planning any time on the California coast, may I suggest two nights here.

I don’t think you’ll regret it, it’s all the things that make small towns of California wonderful. Pop into the downtown, walk the beaches, and experience the charm of it all. This is your ultimate weekend guide to Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Short on Time? Here Are My Top Picks for the Best Hotels in Carmel-by-the-Sea

  1. Hotel Carmelfor the best village hotel
  2. Le Petit Pali at 8th Avefor the best new hotel
  3. Villa Mara, for the best boutique hotel
  4. Carmel Valley Ranch, for the best luxury resort

For more helpful resources, don’t miss my guides to the best hotels, restaurants, and things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea!

The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

How to Get to Carmel, California

First-Timer's Guide to Carmel, California

From San Francisco or the Bay Area

To get to Carmel-by-the-Sea from San Francisco, drive south on Highway 1 for approximately 120 miles, enjoying breathtaking coastal views along the way. I would recommend leaving before or after the rush hour which takes approximately two and a half hours or so.

Flying to Carmel-by-the-Sea

The three major airports in order of proximity are Monterey County Airport, San Jose International, and San Francisco International Airport. If you plan on exploring the area, a car is needed to get around. It’s an easy area to drive, and the coastline is beautiful for a road trip. I use Discover Cars to book my rental cars in California.

Hotels in Carmel by the Sea (Where to Stay)

There are some incredible places to stay in the heart of Carmel. I have a few personal favorites, like Hotel Carmel, which I’ve stayed at a few times now, and some others bookmarked on my list.

Hotel Carmel

Hotel Carmel is, time and time again, an award-winning hotel and one of the best choices in Carmel. Its location is great, you’re footsteps to everything in town. The rooms are clean and modern and have a bohemian design to them. It’s such a win, and I love the fire pits to use at night. Book the best rates here.

Villa Mara

The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
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One of the newer hotels to open, Villa Mara is an adults-only property that is one of the closest hotels to the ocean. It’s romantic, chic, and very intimate, with only 16 rooms. It’s a hard reservation to get, but if you do, I think Villa Mara is the epitome of elevated boutique design. Book the best rates here.

Le Petit Pali — Ocean Ave and 8th Ave

The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
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Le Petit Pali Hotel group came in this last year and took over two existing hotels, giving them an entire refresh. It’s two different locations — Ocean Ave and 8th Ave, but just minutes from each other. The rooms are chic and have that “cottage-core” style to them as well. I’d also consider these as one of the better locations in the heart of downtown. Book the best rates here: Ocean Ave and 8th Ave.

La Playa Hotel

The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
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A Carmel classic, you can’t go wrong at La Playa Hotel. It’s a sister property to Hotel Carmel and is one of the largest properties in town — has an almost resort feel to it—large grassy spaces, many room categories, and quite close to the beach. Book the best rates here.

Carmel Valley Ranch

If you’re looking for the best resort-style stay with many things to do, consider staying in the valley at Carmel Valley Ranch. It’s a wonderful property with so much going on for the whole family. I’ve loved my stays here and find the pool with an infinity hot tub lovely! Book the best rates here.

Where to Eat in Carmel, California – The Best Restaurants

There are many good eats throughout downtown Carmel and even down the coast. You can take your pick of the style of cuisine. I have a full guide on the best restaurants in Carmel-by-the-Sea and even one about the best restaurants in Monterey County. One thing is for sure: you almost always need a reservation!

Brophy’s Tavern

First-Timer's Guide to Carmel, California

When it comes to a lively scene and great food, Brophy’s Tavern is one of Carmel’s iconic restaurants. The food is well done, like their fish & chips and Cobb Salad. It’s one of the more casual spots to eat in town, and almost always you can walk in and get a seat.

Cultura Comida y Bebida

For elevated cuisine with Oaxacan flare, Cultura serves everything from a Mezcal tasting to lovely house-made salsas. One dish to not pass on is their grilled squash and Oaxacan Farm cheese in a tortilla — the best modern version of a quesadilla.

Chez Noir

20 Best Restaurants in Carmel, California

When it comes to the best restaurant right now in Carmel-by-the-Sea, it’s Chez Noir. It is an elevated European bistro that meets local California cuisine. The interior space is chic, the food is incredible, and you’ll want to reserve far in advance for a seat here.

La Bicyclette

Timeless and classic, La Bicyclette is French Cuisine and well-executed pizzas in one space. It’s one of the Carmel restaurants I never miss. It’s a total classic and a great choice for a night out.


Stationaery opened a few years ago, and I love this bright and minimalist space that serves craft coffee and cozy brunch dishes for breakfast and lunch. I will eat anything on this menu and I find that it’s well worth the wait for an elevated meal.

Cantinetta Luca

Don’t skip this restaurant, Cantinetta Luca is my “secret” spot that many overlook. It’s great for wood-fired pizzas done well. It’s a total gem in Carmel, I’ve been coming here for almost 15 years.

Things to Do in Carmel, California

Hike in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

If you’re looking to get outside, head to the scenic Point Lobos State Natural Reserve for a beautiful walk along the coast. You’ll be able to spot wildlife here like seals, sea otters, and even whales. The parking can be limited, so keep this in mind — the earlier start, the better. My guide to visiting Point Lobos has all my favorite trails and more.

Explore Endless Art Galleries and Shop Local in Carmel Downtown

In Carmel-by-the-Sea town, there are so many galleries to explore. Off Ocean Ave, you can work your way, popping in and out of boutiques. I find that just going for a stroll is the best thing to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea. While you are out exploring, I would take some time to pop into local boutiques like Bee, Bark, and Moss for some locally created goods.

Take a Scenic Drive Down 17 Mile Drive

Considered one of the most beautiful drives, you can come here and drive through viewpoints like Pebble Beach. 17 Mile Drive is an icon of California’s coast. If you haven’t done it yet, I think it’s worth doing at least once. Some of the best stops include the Cypress Point Lookout, Crocker Cypress Grove, and Ford Meadow.

Visit Carmel River State Beach or Carmel Beach

Tucked away from the main beach, I love to come to Carmel River Beach for a quieter beach to explore. It’s also an awesome spot for photos if you’re looking for a sunset place. Carmel Beach is also lovely as well for a good stroll.

Wine Tasting at Folktale Winery

In the heart of Carmel Valley, Folktale Winery is a beautiful destination for wine tasting. I would recommend coming for their lunch as well and booking a tour to visit the grounds. There is a lot to do in the Carmel Valley, so do consider spending an afternoon here.

Check out the Carmel Mission

To get an idea of California’s history, the picturesque Carmel Mission is well worth a visit. The Carmel Mission, also known as Mission San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo, is a historic Spanish mission located just outside of Carmel-by-the-Sea’s downtown. Founded in 1770 by Father Junípero Serra, it is renowned for its picturesque architecture and serene gardens.

Drive Down to Bixby Bridge and Explore Big Sur

If you’re up for a road trip, make your way south through Pacific Grove, down to Bixby Bridge for an iconic view. From there, you can continue to explore all that Big Sur has to offer. From local restaurants to black sand beaches and epic hiking trails, Big Sur is a wonderful day trip from Carmel.

Spend an afternoon in Monterey

Another nearby city is Monterey which is bubbly and perfect for the family. There are so many things to do in Monterey, from the famous aquarium to scenic walks on the coast. While in Monterey, peruse this list of the best restaurants in Monterey County as well — I think you’ll love places like Alejandro’s and Old Fisherman’s Grotto.

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  1. I call Carmel the fairy-tale town because of its dreamy houses. It is my favorite town in California and I was lucky enough to visit several times while I was living in the Bay Area. You post has brought back so many memories!

  2. Larry bragg Reply

    Love Carmel is the tux box tea room still in operation you didn’t mention it and it was always a great stop while there

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