Looking for the best things to do in Carmel, California?
In the 3 + decades I’ve lived in the Bay Area, I’ve been to Carmel-By-The-Sea more times than I can remember and am happy to share the 8 best things to do in Carmel, California.
Carmel-By-The-Sea is a beautiful town with a relaxed and comfortable vibe making it perfect for a quick getaway or a longer trip. It’s like Brigadoon because it feels a bit magical when you visit!
The 11 best things to do in Carmel, California are great for a girlfriends’ trip, a couples romantic getaway, or a family vacation.
Here are my recs for the 11 best things to do in Carmel, California.
#1 Hang Out on Carmel Beach
Of the 11 best things to do in Carmel, California, the absolute best thing to do in Carmel is to visit the Carmel Beach.
It has the most beautiful white sand, pristine and incredible views, and water that is a perfect color and temperature of about 50 degrees all year long.
The cypress trees, mansions, and Pebble Beach Golf Course line the beach to add to the stunning experience.
For me, taking a nap on that beach is among my most favorite things to do!
The Carmel Beach is popular for surfing, walking, running, swimming, sunbathing, and even dog walking.
Carmel Beach is one of the most dog friendly beaches in all of California. Dogs can be off leash if they are within voice command of their humans. There are even doggy bags and trash bins at each staircase leading to the beach to encourage you to clean up after your little pal.
There’s no lifeguard service at this beach, so be safe. You can find parking right at the bottom of Ocean Ave by the beach, but anywhere you park in town is close to the beach. Bathroom facilities are at the bottom of Ocean Ave.
#2 Shop & Dine On Ocean Avenue
One of the 11 best things to do in Carmel, California is wander and shop! Carmel is known for its shops and dining all up and down Ocean Ave.
While a lot of the stores sell luxury items and some of the restaurants offer expensive prix fix, eight course meals, there are plenty of affordable and family friendly places to eat.
Enjoy outdoor and indoor spots for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners are all over town.
Who doesn’t love an outdoor firepit with Bloody Mary’s, chowder, and fish and chips?
Don’t be intimidated by the touristy art galleries and expensive clothing and jewelry. I’ve found many a great item on sale in Carmel. Be sure to check out the side streets for fun boutique shopping, cute cafes, and deserts!
#3 Take a FREE Tour of the Fairytale Cottages
A personal favorite on the best things to do in Carmel list is a self guided architecture tour. One of the best kept secrets of Carmel are its Fairytale Cottages.
An architect named Hugh Comstock met his bride, Mayotta Brown, in 1924 and built them two cottages named Hansel and Gretel.
The fairytale style was inspired by the Otsy-Totsy dolls Brown was making and selling. Their doll business continued to grow and more and more people hired Comstock to build fairytale cottages around town.
21 of those homes are still standing and spawned a Tudor style that is peppered throughout Carmel along with the Spanish-Mediterranean architecture seen in the area.
You can find the original Comstock Fairytale cottages on Torres Street a few blocks off Ocean Ave. Ask for a map of all the cottages at the Visitor Center.
It’s a fun and FREE way to roam the neighborhoods and see more of the town.
#4 Cruise on the Iconic 17 Mile Drive
The scenic 17 Mile Drive through Pebble Beach is one of the most spectacular roads in California because of its views along the Pacific Ocean.
There are 17 identified spots along the road where you can pull over and park. You may want to stop at each, or drive straight through. Either way, you will be blown away by the views any time of year.
Don’t miss the Lone Cypress Tree lookout.
Leave Carmel from San Antonio Road to enter the drive at its southernmost spot – the Carmel Gate.
The cost is $10.75 per car. There are 4 other gates along the way, all open 24 hours.
Feel free to park, picnic, take photos, and turn around and come back on the side of the road closest to the ocean.
Take your time and look for birds, tide pools, wildflowers, and even migrating whales!
#5 Visit The Historic Carmel Mission Bascilica
Carmel is rich with history, so if you are looking for an understanding of the early days of the church in California, you’ll want to visit the National Historic Landmark, Mission Carmel.
Also known as the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo, the mission houses the shrine of Saint Junipero Serra.
There are 21 missions built by the Spanish monarchy all located along Highway 101, known as the El Camino Real.
The Carmel Mission Bascilica is one of the best known. It’s the only mission that still has its original bell and bell tower.
Still an active Roman Catholic church, you can visit for services and tour the mission and shop in the store for $10 for adults and $5 for children.
#6 Don’t Miss The Point Lobos
State Natural Reserve
Talk about the 11 best things to do in Carmel, California! The Point Lobos State Park is considered a crown jewel of the park system.
It has everything you could ever want in a nature area – ocean views, trails, vegetation, sea lions, sea otters, and migrating whales.
The underwater world here is very popular among scuba divers and snorkeling enthusiasts.
Easy access, it’s just 10 minutes south of Carmel on Highway 1, Point Lobos offers parking, bathroom facilities, helpful rangers, and guide maps.
The charge is $10 per car and the hours are 8AM – 5PM. Once you visit, it will become your favorite place.
Be sure to get to the China Cove path. The color of the water is unlike anything you’ve seen before.
No dogs are allowed, and no drones, of course, on public lands.
#7 Drive Across The Iconic Bixby Canyon Bridge
If you drive just a short distance south of Point Lobos you’ll find the Bixby Canyon Bridge. This is said to be one of the most picturesque spots along the entire California coastline. The Bixby Bridge is part of the landscape, making it a pure California beauty.
For some added fun, listen to the Big Little Lies TV series theme song as you drive across becasue this is the bridge from the opening sequence of the show!
The special design and fascinating history of the Bixby Bridge add to its fame. The bridge was built in 1932 to help residents in Big Sur have road access during winter rainy months. The coastal road would flood and cut off residents from the rest of the county.
You can park at the viewing parking lot on the northside of the bridge at the west side of Highway 1. Patiently wait for your photo op turn, its a pretty popular spot!
#8 Visit The Monterey Bay Aquarium
Just a short drive north of Point Lobos and Carmel is the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row. The aquarium is the amazing home for marine life in the Monterey Bay.
You’ll see so many species of fish, and sea otters, penguins, swimming sharks, beautiful coral, a kelp forest,and an underwater view of ocean life.
This is a museum is a perfect activity for keeping everyone happy for hours and hours.
# 9 Stroll on Cannery Row
The most popular street in Monterey is the famous Cannery Row. It’s the place where Northern California coastal history merges with charm, beautiful views, and tourism. Cannery Row is the laid-back, waterfront street along the Monterey Bay that was made famous by the author John Steinbeck in the 1940’s.
In its day, Cannery Row was the center of the canning industry, packing sardines and home to the fishermen and their families.
Today, the street is bustling with shops, hotels, restaurants and the world renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium.
#10 Fisherman’s Wharf
Just a 12 minute drive from Carmel is the famed Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf. It sits on the coast of the Monterey Bay in a beautiful setting. The wharf juts out into the marina filled with sea lions barking and boats docked.
Go to the wharf for a combination of dining, souvenir shopping and sightseeing. Be sure to arrive hungry, because there is a lot of fresh chowder and fish & chips to be had.
This is also where you can catch your boat for a whale watching tour.
#11 Old Town Monterey Custom House
As you approach the water in Monterey, you’ll see the beautiful coast and the entrance onto Fisherman’s Wharf. But I don’t want you to miss the historic Custom House.
Built in 1827, this is the oldest government building still standing in California. It was built by the Mexican authorities of the time to collect the fees from goods that began to flow into California after Mexico became independent from Spain.
This National Historic Landmark is part of an active museum open daily for visitors and tours.
Where are the best places to stay in Carmel?
I want to highlight my new favorite the La Playa Carmel. It was affordable, beautifully restored, and the property is magnificent. We didn’t book a room with an ocean view, but we could see the ocean from our windows!
The afternoon Sangria and evening cookies are a great touch by the fireplace, but the champagne brunch was incredible! Enjoy it on the patio, overlooking the beach.
The grounds offer a pool, stunning flower gardens, and you are a block from the beach.
There are a lot of great hotels in Carmel and some with ocean views.
Some other great choices are:
~ Cypress Inn – Doris Day’s famous dog friendly Inn. Take a peek here.
When is the best time to visit Carmel?
Carmel can be both sunny and foggy any time of year! So visit whenever it works for you.
August through October will be the warmest months with temps in the high 80’s and 90’s. They call this the “secret season” because it is after the crowds leave that the weather is the best!
Winter time is also very beautiful, cozy, and festive. I love spending my Xmas Eve birthday in Carmel! It may be a bit chilly and damp , but never too cold for walking the beach and dining outside.
Which are the Best Places to Eat in Carmel?
I’ve eaten at many places in Carmel and have never left hungry or cranky! You can spend a lot of money at restaurants in Carmel, but don’t have to. SO many great places…
~ Baja Cantina
~ Brophy’s Tavern
~ Il Fornaio
~ La Bicyclette
~ Mission Ranch Restaurant
~ The Catch
~ The Forge and the Forest
~ The Tree House
~ Bring layers, you may have sun, fog, and wind all in one day.
~ Wear good walking shoes and beach shoes.
~ Don’t forget a beach blanket for napping.
~ Bring a bathing suit for the ocean or hotel pool or hot tub.
~ Take your camera.
~ And bring your dog!
Some Carmel Fun Facts
- Clint Eastwood was the mayor in 1986 – 1988.
- Doris Day made Carmel the dog friendly town that it is.
- The town is one square mile.
- There actually is a “no high heel” law for heels over 2 inches, so the city won’t get sued if you trip on an uneven sidewalk!
- No chain restaurants allowed.
- My personal favorite: No door to door mail delivery, No addresses, No street lights, No parking meters, and No sidewalks off the main commercial area.
- Houses get names or are referred to as “Seventh street and Dolores with the red door,” and you go to the post office to pick up your mail!
Is Carmel Worth Visiting?
In a nutshell…
Carmel is just a two hour drive south of a foggy San Francisco, is a gorgeous beach, making it totally worth the trip!
Carmel is famous for its star visitors and residents – Clint Eastwood, Doris Day, Jack London, George Gershwin, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and Charlie Chaplin.
There’s even a Frank Lloyd Wright House on Scenic Drive overlooking the water.
But just because it has a reputation for the lifestyle of the rich and famous, don’t be intimidated. Carmel is a comfortable beach town offering plenty to do without breaking the bank.