11 Top Tourist Attractions in Carmel & Easy Day Trips
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a romantic seaside destination, renowned for its spectacular sandy beach. This charming coastal resort captivates visitors with its enchanting village ambience. In a setting that's delightfully far removed from the real world, tree-shaded streets are lined with lovely Victorian buildings and little storybook cottages. Hidden passageways and quiet courtyards add to the magical Old World ambience. The fact that Carmel does not use numbered street addresses (GPS cannot pinpoint a specific location) encourages wandering. While tourists stroll around town, they'll stumble upon quaint artisan boutiques, cutesy one-of-a-kind shops, world-class art galleries, and inviting fine-dining restaurants. Local businesses cater to clientele seeking a pampering vacation experience. After spending the day at the beach or taking scenic walks along the coastline, the peaceful town of Carmel-by-the-Sea is a welcome place to spend a quiet night in a luxurious bed & breakfast or historic inn. Carmel is also a great starting point to explore nearby Monterey, just four miles away, or to take a drive along the stunning Big Sur coastline.
See also: Where to Stay in Carmel
1 Carmel Beach
Curving around a cove of Carmel Bay, this magnificent stretch of soft white sand is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The beach has a secluded feel that is rare in a popular resort town. With its pristine shoreline, rocky bluffs along the coastline, and crashing Pacific waves, Carmel Beach is an inspiring nature site. The iconic cypress trees add interest to the scenery, which has its own distinctive look that is much different from nearby Santa Cruz beaches. Take a walk along the Scenic Bluff Path pathway (parallel to Scenic Road above Carmel Beach) to admire the ocean panoramas. Eight stairways from the pathway provide access to the white-sand beach below. For an awe-inspiring scenic drive, begin at Ocean Avenue and take Scenic Road along the coastline. The route goes past the Frank Lloyd Wright House at Carmel Point and Carmel River State Beach until eventually reaching the Carmel Mission.
Carmel Beach is a place for nature walks, sunbathing, and playing volleyball or frisbee. However getting in the water is not usually recommended. Please note that there is no lifeguard at Carmel Beach; swimming and wading are only advised when conditions are known to be safe. Dangerous rip currents and rogue waves are common. The stunning scenery more than makes up for the fact that swimming is usually off-limits. Also, the beach is very clean and has well-maintained restroom facilities. Dog owners will appreciate that pooches are allowed to roam the beach without leashes.
2 Carmel Mission
The San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission is one of the most interesting and beautiful Spanish mission sites in California. Founded in 1771 by Father Junipero Serra of Spain, the Carmel Mission is still an active parish church with a thriving community of the faithful. The centerpiece of the Carmel Mission is the basilica, a National Historic Landmark that has been renovated to approximate the original building. Unlike most Spanish mission churches, which are unadorned, the Carmel basilica has a highly decorative interior. Visitors are impressed by the vaulted ceiling with catenary arches and the 30-foot tall gilded reredos behind the altar. Displayed throughout the basilica are many fine pieces of Spanish Colonial liturgical art. The mission has several different museums that feature treasured artifacts and present the monument's history. In the Convento Museum, visitors can see the cell that was used by Father Junipero Serra. Interesting architectural features of the Carmel Mission include the Moorish-style Star Window and Bell Tower. In keeping with the mission's purpose of serenity, the garden in the Munrás Courtyard is planted with lush flowers and leafy palm trees. Sometimes red-throated Anna's hummingbirds can be seen fluttering about the grounds.
Address: 3080 Rio Road, Carmel-by-the-Sea
3 Point Lobos
Dramatic coastal scenery and an incredible diversity of wildlife makes Point Lobos an amazing place to discover. Visitors are awed by the breathtaking ocean scenery, with the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean striking rocky bluffs and outcrops. Scenic hiking trails lead through forests of Monterey pines and cypress trees as well as marine terraces, tide pools, and fields of coastal scrub blooming with vibrant wildflowers. In springtime, an abundance of wild lilacs and California poppies blanket the fields.
A highlight for many is seeing Point Lobos' marine mammals. The Sea Lion Point Trail leads hikers down to a staircase that offers a good vantage point of coves, where the barking sea lions rest on offshore rocks. For a look at the cutest animals in Point Lobos, head to the Cypress Trail where playful sea otters munch on mussels or swim around the kelp in the Headland Cove. Sometimes otters can also be spotted in the tranquil waters of "the Pit" on the Granite Point Trail. Many artists and photographers have been inspired by Point Lobos' beauty, while scuba divers appreciate this site for the colorful underwater seascape and diverse sea life.
Address: 62 CA-1, Carmel-by-the-Sea
4 Fairy-Tale Cottages
The special charm of Carmel is found in the town's fantasy architecture created by Hugh Comstock in the 1920s and 1930s. Comstock came up with the idea of fairy-tale cottages when he decided to create a studio for his wife Mayotta's doll-making hobby. The Hansel cottage (next door is the Gretel cottage) was Comstock's first cottage, which Mayotta used to make her "Otsy-Totsy" rag dolls. Comstock later bought plots of land for an extremely cheap price and used it to build an assortment of whimsical cottages that are today worth millions. His signature storybook style features steeply pitched thatched roofs, paned windows, and half-timbered details, that could have been inspired by English country cottages in Stratford-upon-Avon or the colorful flower-bedecked houses in Alsace villages. Twenty-one of Comstock's thirty fairy-tale cottages survive. The Tuck Box cottage is now an English tea room that is also popular for breakfast and lunch. The Rose Tea Collection cottage is a shop that sells fine china and teas. Tourists can stop by the visitors center to pick up a map of the cottages for taking a self-guided tour.
5 Hidden Passageways and Courtyards
Carmel-by-the-Sea inspires aimless wandering, especially in the atmospheric hidden passageways and tranquil garden courtyards. These nooks and crannies offer surprising discoveries of little boutiques, art galleries, cafés, and other businesses. Las Tiendas Building, built in 1929, features a decorative stairway with grillwork. Inside the Las Tiendas passageway is the Carmel Coffee House with pleasant outdoor seating in the courtyard.
6 Art Galleries
Carmel is a paradise for art lovers. The town has more than 50 art galleries with high-quality collections of fine art. For a list of the galleries, ask for the Carmel Gallery Guide at the visitors center. A few local guides offer Art Tours, walking tours that take visitors to select Carmel art galleries. The Carmel Art Association Gallery was founded in 1927 and is dedicated to presenting the work of local artists from the Monterey Peninsula.
7 Shopping & Dining
The fun of visiting Carmel is discovering the unique specialty boutiques on the quaint streets and hidden in the courtyards and passageways. Strolling through the town is like a treasure hunt that leads to one-of-a-kind shops that can only be found here. Many surprises await tourists who take the time to poke around, such as the Music Boxes of Carmel, the Cottage of Sweets that exclusively sells imported English candies, Robert Talbott locally designed men's clothing, and a guitar shop that boasts a precious collection of vintage instruments. Downtown Carmel also has lovely historic hotels and charming bed & breakfast inns.
8 Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant
In an idyllic countryside setting near the sea, the Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant stands on the property of a dairy farm that operated in the 1850s. This acclaimed hotel is owned by Clint Eastwood, the longtime Carmel resident and one-time Carmel mayor. Eastwood preserved the landmark estate and turned it into a luxury hotel with tennis courts and a fitness club. The old farmhouse and hayloft were converted into luxury accommodations; newer ranch-style houses provide additional guest rooms. The Mission Ranch's gourmet restaurant offers gorgeous views of the Santa Lucia Mountains and Pacific Ocean. Every night of the week, diners also enjoy live piano music and the Sunday brunch features live jazz.
Address: 26270 Dolores Street, Carmel
9 Garland Ranch Regional Park
This expansive parkland offers several hiking trails with a diversity of landscapes, from
cottonwood trees and sycamores in the floodplain to the peaks of the Santa Lucia Mountains. The trails meander through canyons filled with maple trees, redwood forests, and shady oak woodlands. Garzas Creek traverses the park, providing a sense of serenity. While taking nature walks, hikers will have a chance to spot a variety of birds and wildlife. The park is also a great place for jogging, horseback riding, and photographic safaris. Guided interpretive hikes are offered by the ranger and volunteer staff.
Address: 700 West Carmel Valley Road
10 Festivals & Events
As would be expected of an upscale resort town, Carmel has interesting cultural events and festivals throughout the year. The Carmel Art Festival is an outdoor event that takes place in May. In downtown Carmel, more than 100 paintings are displayed for public viewing and are entered into a silent auction. The art festival also features an art sale and a competition. In October, the Carmel International Film Festival celebrates independent filmmakers. This glitzy festival presents hundreds of the best independent films in five categories (animation, documentary, narrative, short, and student) and includes parties for filmmakers and guests. Those who appreciate Baroque classical music will want to attend the Carmel Bach Festival that is held the second two weeks in July. The Bach Festival includes more than 30 concerts, both ticketed concerts as well as free musical performances and lectures. One of the most exciting events of the year is the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in August that is held at the Pebble Beach Golf Links.
11 Forest Theater
This historic theater is one of the oldest outdoor theaters west of the Mississippi. The theater presents music concerts, movies, and theater performances in a magical open-air setting.
Where to Stay in Carmel for Sightseeing
We recommend these charming hotels in Carmel near the beach, shops, and restaurants:
- La Playa Carmel: 4-star luxury resort, ocean or garden views, serene room decor, heated pool, free buffet breakfast and shuttle.
- Cypress Inn: mid-range boutique hotel, charming decor, dog-friendly, complimentary breakfast, garden courtyard.
- Carmel River Inn: affordable rates, beautiful grounds, rooms and cottages, short drive from downtown, outdoor pool.
- Comfort Inn Carmel by the Sea: budget-friendly hotel, great location, helpful staff, free breakfast.
Big Sur is a spectacular stretch of mountainous coastline just 20 miles south of Carmel, accessible by the winding scenic route of Highway 1. Because of its proximity, Carmel is an ideal gateway to begin a weekend getaway or several-day vacation in Big Sur. It's also possible to take a day trip from Carmel to explore the northern section of Big Sur. A refreshingly unspoiled wilderness, Big Sur extends for around 85 miles along the dramatic Santa Lucia Mountains that drop off into the Pacific Ocean. The area has several state parks with sensational scenery including forests, waterfalls, sandy beaches, rugged ocean bluffs, and steep cliffs that overlook the deep blue seas.
Pebble Beach Golf Links
Surrounded by a forest of Monterey pine and cypress trees, this legendary 18-hole golf course boasts a glorious ocean setting on rocky bluffs overlooking the crashing surf. The famous 18th hole is known as one of the world's best finishing golf holes. Since 1919, many renowned golfers and famous people have played here including Bing Crosby, Teddy Roosevelt, Sir Winston Churchill, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. Five United States Open Championships have been hosted at this course that is rated the "#1 public golf course in the United States." At the 18th green is the Lodge at Pebble Beach, a historic hotel with luxurious rooms and sensational views.
The most eagerly awaited event of the year at the Pebble Beach Golf Links is the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance that takes place during a weekend in mid-August. This glamorous car show offers a chance to see about 200 of the world's finest collector cars and motorcycles, such as Ferraris, British Prewar Sports Cars, and Shelby GT350 Mustangs. The cars are parked on the lawn of the fairway at the 18th hole and are entered into a competition that concludes with an awards presentation. This exclusive event actually slows down traffic because the 17-Mile Drive portion of the Highway 1 coastal route is closed to the public; only residents and attendees of the Concours d'Elegance are allowed access through the gates of the 17-Mile Drive.
Salinas: John Steinbeck's Childhood Home
About 22 kilometers from Carmel, the sunny town of Salinas was an important center of agricultural industry in the mid-1800s. Salinas is still known as "The Salad Bowl of the World" because it grows so much lettuce and other produce including artichokes, broccoli, and strawberries. Unfortunately, the town has only retained a few historic buildings and today is a place of urban sprawl, strip malls, and fast-food restaurants. The main reasons for tourists to visit are the California Rodeo Salinas in July and the National Steinbeck Center that is dedicated to famous American author and native son John Steinbeck, who lived here until the age of 19 when he left to attend Stanford University. Literary types will enjoy learning more about the man who wrote Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and East of Eden among other great works. The Steinbeck Center hosts the Steinbeck Festival as a three-day event on a biennial basis. Tourists can also visit the Steinbeck House, a Queen Anne Victorian that was John Steinbeck's childhood home.
Aquarium and Cannery Row in Monterey
Carmel lies four kilometers away from Monterey by a direct route or 17 kilometers away on the scenic 17-Mile Drive. This picturesque coastal route goes past Pebble Beach Golf Course and the Lodge at Pebble Beach. Monterey is famous for Cannery Row, the waterfront district that was the setting for John Steinbeck's novel. Another top attraction is the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
- Read More:
- 9 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Monterey
Another beautiful seaside resort, Pacific Grove is a Victorian-era town at the edge of Monterey Bay, near the 17-Mile Drive gate. Many of the grand Victorian homes have been converted to bed & breakfasts. In fact, Pacific Grove has the largest collection of bed & breakfast inns of any town between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The historic Victorian shopping area has a great selection of shops, bakeries, and award-winning restaurants. Other attractions are the Shoreline Recreation Trail for coastal nature walks and the Pacific Grove Museum to learn about the Monarch butterflies that make their way here every year between November and February.