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12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Carmel

Written by Lisa Alexander and Lura Seavey
Sep 9, 2019

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a charming and romantic seaside destination renowned for its scenic sandy beach, historic Spanish mission, and enchanting village ambience. In a setting that feels 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 restaurants. Local businesses cater to clientele seeking a pampering vacation experience, and you will also find that this is one of the most pet-friendly towns around.

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-and-breakfast or historic inn. Carmel is also a great starting point to explore the attractions of nearby Monterey, just four miles away, or to take a drive along the stunning Big Sur coastline. Find the best things to do with our list of the top attractions in Carmel.

See also: Where to Stay in Carmel: Best Areas & Hotels

1. Carmel Beach and Ocean Avenue

Carmel Beach

Carmel Beach | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

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.

Visitors should be aware that this is not a beach for swimming, as dangerous rip currents and rogue waves are common, and there is no lifeguard on duty. Despite this, however, or perhaps as a result, it is an excellent place for nature walks, sunbathing, and playing volleyball or frisbee. The stunning scenery more than makes up for the fact that swimming is usually off-limits

Running parallel to the beach and Scenic Road, the gravel Scenic Bluff Path gives tourists the chance to admire the ocean panoramas from above. Multiple stairways lead between the beach and path, allowing visitors to easily move from one to the other. Couples looking for the perfect place for a romantic sunset will not be disappointed.

2. Carmel Mission

Carmel Mission

Carmel Mission | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

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. 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 also 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, California

Official site: https://carmelmission.org

3. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

China Beach at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

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, California

4. 17-Mile Drive

17-Mile Drive

Stretching from Carmel-by-the-Sea to Lover's Point Park, this coastal scenic drive wraps around the outer edge of a small outcropping that separates Monterey Bay and Carmel Bay. The 17-Mile Drive is best known for the Lone Cypress, a Monterey cypress tree overlooking Pebble Beach from atop a granite hill. The tree, which is over 200 years old, is one of the most photographed trees in North America.

The 17-Mile Drive runs through private property, owned and maintained by the Pebble Beach Resorts, and motorists must pay a fee to enjoy the view; bicyclists can explore at no charge, but unfortunately motorcycles are not allowed on the route. While sightseeing, tourists can stop at any of the resort's attractions, including world-class golf courses and restaurants, in addition to the many scenic vistas along the way.

Tourists staying in San Francisco can take a day trip to 17-Mile Drive, which includes a two-hour stop in Monterey, as well as a visit to Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Official site: www.pebblebeach.com/17-mile-drive

5. Shopping on and around Ocean Avenue

Shopping & Dining

Shopping & Dining | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

The fun of visiting Carmel is discovering the unique specialty boutiques, both on the wide main drag of Ocean Avenue and hidden on the quaint streets, courtyards, and passageways. Strolling through town is like a treasure hunt that leads to one-of-a-kind shops that can only be found here, including artisan shops, jewelers, antique stores, and more.

Among the dozens and dozens of specialty shops, one of the most unique is Cottage of Sweets, a picturesque place that exclusively sells imported English candies. The variety of shops is staggering, from Fjorn Scandinavian, which is dedicated to fine Nordic wares, to Burns Cowboy Shop, a family business all about the wild west. Others include Music Boxes of Carmel, Mad Dogs & Englishmen Bike Shop, hat shops, Bittner pen and paper shop, and a guitar store with a precious collection of vintage instruments.

Downtown Carmel also has lovely historic hotels and charming bed-and- breakfast inns, as well as dozens of excellent restaurants and local markets. International cuisine includes Italian, French, Japanese, Greek, Mediterranean, Mexican, and even Irish comfort food. You will also find a large number of restaurants specializing in California Fusion, with many chefs dedicated to a sustainable farm-to-table menu. There are also several excellent cafés and coffee houses, as well as many places to find live music.

6. Explore Fairy-Tale Cottages and Hidden Passageways

Fairy-tale cottage in Carmel

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 inexpensive plots of land 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, perhaps inspired by English country cottages in Stratford-upon-Avon or the colorful flower-bedecked houses in Alsace villages.

Twenty-one of Comstock's original thirty fairy-tale cottages survive. The Tuck Box cottage is now an English tea room, which 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 visitor center to pick up a map of the cottages for taking a self-guided tour.

The free-spirited nature of Carmel-by-the-Sea inspires aimless wandering, and tourists can happily spend hours wandering and photographing the numerous 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.

7. Tor House and Hawk Tower

Tor House and Hawk Tower

The Tor House and Hawk Tower were built by Californian poet Robinson Jeffers, constructed of granite sourced from the shores of Carmel Bay and positioned on a point directly overlooking the sea. The original home was completed in 1919, and the following year Jeffers built fairytale-inspired Hawk Tower, intended to be a creative space for his wife and a magical play space for his sons.

Docent-led tours are available Fridays and Saturdays, and tourists can learn about the history of the home's construction, the Jeffers family, and the poet's literary career. The tour includes visiting the rustic Tor House, climbing the tower, and a tour of the grounds' authentically maintained English cottage garden. Unfortunately, tourists are not allowed to take photographs of this stunning property or the buildings.

Address: 26304 Ocean View Ave., Carmel, California
Official site: www.torhouse.org

8. Day Trip to Monterey Aquarium and Cannery Row

Aquarium and Cannery Row in Monterey

Carmel is only about 10 minutes away from Monterey by direct route on CA-1 or an hour's drive via the scenic 17-Mile Drive, a 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 a John Steinbeck novel, and is extremely popular with tourists for its charming boutiques and seafood restaurants.

Another top attraction is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, an excellent family attraction that is home to a wide variety of ocean life and educational exhibits. Sitting at the edge of Monterey Bay, the aquarium's observation decks are an excellent place to watch for whales, otters, and other wildlife. Inside, visitors can learn about the underwater life of the bay and visit with the various resident species, including adorable penguins, playful southern sea otters, puffins, sea turtles, and a plethora of other aquatic life.

Carmel and Monterey are a popular day trip excursion from San Francisco, and this 14-hour Monterey and Carmel Explorer coach tour is a great way to enjoy the stunning views along the Pacific Coast Highway and 17-Mile Drive. Stops on this small-group tour include Pebble Beach Golf Club, Cannery Row in Monterey, and shopping in Carmel-by-the-Sea. You can also add an optional visit to Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Address: 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, California

Official site: www.montereybayaquarium.org

9. Garland Ranch Regional Park

Garland Ranch Regional Park

Garland Ranch Regional Park | danielle pea / photo modified

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, while the peaceful Garzas Creek traverses the park. 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.

Garrapata State Park is another popular nature area in Carmel, a coastal park which includes two miles of beach and coastal hiking trails that lead to a scenic overlook. Visitors will find plenty of things to do here, from watching the sea lions and harbor seals to snorkeling, windsurfing, and swimming. The park also offers guided nature tours and family activity programs.

Address: 700 West Carmel Valley Road, Carmel, California

10. Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant

Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant

Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant | Sylvain Leprovost / photo modified

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, California

Official site: www.missionranchcarmel.com

11. Pebble Beach Golf Links

Pebble Beach Golf Links

Pebble Beach Golf Links

Surrounded by a forest of Monterey pine and cypress trees, this legendary 18-hole golf course sits in 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, and at the 18th green is The Lodge at Pebble Beach, a historic hotel with luxurious rooms and sensational views. Since 1919, many renowned golfers and celebrities have played here, including Bing Crosby, Teddy Roosevelt, Sir Winston Churchill, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods.

Five United States Open Championships have been hosted here, and it is considered to be one of the top courses in the country. The most eagerly awaited event of the year at the Pebble Beach Golf Links is the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, which takes place during 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. Tourists wanting to explore 17-Mile Drive should be aware that the route is closed to the public during the event, and only residents and attendees of the Concours d'Elegance are allowed access.

Address: 1700 17 Mile Dr, Pebble Beach, California

Official site: www.pebblebeach.com/golf/pebble-beach-golf-links

12. 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, 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, held at the Pebble Beach Golf Links.

Where to Stay in Carmel for Sightseeing

  • Luxury Hotels: For the ultimate romantic getaway, couples can stay at the Tickle Pink Inn in one of their huge suites, each equipped with a fireplace and private balcony that overlooks the cove and Point Lobos Marine Reserve. Guests will enjoy endless goodies, like fresh homemade pastry at breakfast, complimentary cookies in the afternoon, chocolates, and sparkling cider, but most of all, the stunning Pacific sunsets. An excellent four-star option for golf lovers is the Quail Lodge & Golf Club, complete with its own golf course, putting green, and driving range, as well as a bocce ball court, fitness center, and heated pool. Décor is classic, with crisp, clean lines, and the property has a wide range of facilities, making it an excellent choice for a wedding venue. Carmel Valley Ranch is an ideal place for both couples and families, offering many things to do on its expansive property. Amenities include an 18-hole golf course, spa, tennis court, family and adults-only swimming pools, and fire pits for s'mores. A shuttle service transports guests throughout the complex, and the resort offers a variety of activities for kids, adults, and families, including complimentary fitness classes, guided nature walks, and even a bee-keeping experience.

  • Mid-Range Hotels: The pet-friendly Tradewinds Carmel is a boutique hotel, which has a unique Asian décor inside and out, including a charming garden courtyard with a stone waterfall. Breakfast is complimentary, and rooms are equipped with fireplaces, spa tubs, and other luxurious amenities. Just steps from Ocean Avenue, the Cypress Inn is an excellent boutique hotel co-owned by Doris Day, known for its reputation as the most dog-friendly hotel in California (and perhaps the country). It features a charming Mediterranean décor, and the complimentary breakfast is famous for its fresh-baked popovers, served at the on-site restaurant,

  • Budget Hotels: A more affordable option in this upscale area is Comfort Inn Carmel by the Sea, a small but quaint hotel located within walking distance of the beach, restaurants, and Ocean Avenue shopping. Helpful staff, a free breakfast, and in-room fridge and microwave add to the value. Another budget-friendly option is the Carmel River Inn, set on beautiful grounds close to Carmel River State Beach and the Carmel Mission, just a short drive from downtown. Guests have the option of traditional rooms at the inn or cottages set on the 10-acre property; amenities include an outdoor pool and pet-friendly accommodations.

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