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12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Carmel

Written by Lisa Alexander and Lura Seavey
Updated Oct 21, 2021

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Visiting Carmel-by-the-Sea feels like stepping into a fairy-tale wonderland. Far removed from the real world and reminiscent of a fantasy European hamlet, this enchanting coastal village features tree-shaded streets lined with handsome Spanish-style buildings, elegant Victorian homes, and little storybook cottages. Adding to the charm, hidden passageways and quiet courtyards await those who take the time to explore at leisure. Plan a fabulous sightseeing excursion, weekend getaway, or seaside vacation.

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 artisan shops; one-of-a-kind, locally owned stores; world-class art galleries; and inviting restaurants.

After browsing the boutiques, relaxing at the gorgeous Carmel Beach, or taking scenic walks, the peaceful town of Carmel-by-the-Sea provides a welcome place to stay. Visitors can choose from upscale bed-and-breakfasts, historic inns, and luxury hotels. The quaint accommodations tend to have a cozy style, ideal for chilly evenings when the summertime fog rolls in.

Those spending several days in Carmel can also explore the attractions of nearby Monterey, just four miles away, or take a drive along Highway One through Big Sur to admire the dramatic ocean views. For travelers based in San Francisco, Carmel is one of the top day trips from the city.

Discover the best places to visit in this delightful resort town on California's Central Coast with our list of the top attractions and things to do 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 the nearby beaches in Santa Cruz.

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, the 3.5-mile Scenic Bluff Path gives tourists the chance to admire views of Carmel Bay and the coastline from Point Lobos to Pebble Beach. Multiple stairways lead between the beach and path. The trail winds up at Carmel River State Beach, although many people only walk a short portion of the path to take advantage of the ocean overlooks or watch the sunset.

2. Carmel Mission

Carmel Mission
Carmel Mission | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

The San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo Mission is one of the most interesting and beautiful Spanish mission sites in California. Founded in 1770 by Father Junipero Serra of Spain, the Carmel Mission is still an active parish church.

The centerpiece of the Carmel Mission is the basilica that was completed in 1797 and is listed as a National Historic Landmark. Renovations approximate the original building. Unlike most Spanish mission churches, which are unadorned, the Carmel Mission Basilica has a highly decorative interior.

Visitors marvel over the lovely exterior with its garden courtyard and Moorish-style domed bell tower. Equally impressive are the sanctuary's tunnel-vaulted ceiling and 30-foot-tall gilded reredos behind the altar. Displayed throughout the basilica are many fine pieces of Spanish Colonial liturgical art.

The Carmel Mission Basilica Museum includes several different collections that feature treasured artifacts and present the monument's history. In one of the mission's historic buildings, visitors can see where Father Junipero Serra lived.

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.

The Carmel Mission Basilica and Carmel Mission Basilica Museum are open to the public for visits Wednesday through Sunday. Mass is celebrated at the basilica on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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
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 glorious 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 Grove 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
17-Mile Drive

Stretching from Arrowhead Point in Carmel-by-the-Sea to the Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach, this scenic coastal drive wraps around the outer edge of a small outcropping that separates Monterey Bay and Carmel Bay.

For many visitors, a jaunt along the 17-Mile Drive is one of their favorite things to do in Carmel. Tourists marvel over the spectacular landscapes and dazzling ocean vistas at every turn of the curving oceanfront route. Along the way are scenic overlooks, wildlife viewing points, secluded beaches, and picnic areas overlooking the picturesque scenery.

The 17-Mile Drive is famous for The Lone Cypress, a Monterey cypress tree that stands majestically atop a granite hill. The tree, which is over 200 years old, is one of the most photographed trees in North America.

A short drive from The Lone Cypress viewing point is the country's premier public golf course, Pebble Beach Golf Links. This prestigious course has hosted six U.S. Open Championships and has been selected to host the 2023 U.S. Women's Open, as well as the 2027 U.S. Open. Right next to the course, The Lodge at Pebble Beach offers luxurious accommodations befitting the location.

Besides Pebble Beach Golf Links, there are five other golf courses within the 17-Mile Drive area: Cypress Point Club, Spyglass Hill Golf Course, Poppy Hills Golf Course, Monterey Peninsula Country Club, and The Links at Spanish Bay.

For many tourists, a highlight of the 17-Mile Drive is the beautiful Spanish Bay Beach, named after the Spanish explorers who discovered it in 1769. Visitors will appreciate the pristine stretch of sandy shoreline and picnic tables that look out onto the azure waves. In this breathtaking setting, The Inn at Spanish Bay provides five-star accommodations nestled between the Pacific Ocean and groves of Monterey pine trees.

Bird-watchers and wildlife lovers appreciate the Bird Rock and Seal Rock stops. The Bird Rock viewing point affords an outlook onto a large rock in the ocean where flocks of birds cluster. Bird Rock is also home to barking sea lions (audible from a distance) and less noisy harbor seals. The Seal Rock stop includes a sheltered beach, tide pools, and a picnic area.

The 17-Mile Drive is privately owned and operated. Visitors must pay a $10.75 fee per vehicle, to enter either through the Carmel Gate at the southern entrance in Carmel-by-the-Sea or through the Pacific Grove Gate at the northern entrance in Pebble Beach. Admission to the 17-Mile Drive is complimentary for overnight guests staying at The Lodge at Pebble Beach and The Inn at Spanish Bay.

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, found on the wide main drag of Ocean Avenue, hidden on the charming streets, and tucked away in quaint 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 stores, one of the most adorable is the Cottage of Sweets, a traditional British-style candy shop. The selection includes English candies, fancy licorice candies imported from all over the world, locally crafted caramels, and fudge made at the shop.

The variety of shops is staggering, from FJØRN at the Pine Inn Hotel, which sells fine handcrafted Scandinavian furniture and Scandinavian-made home products, to the Burns shop, which sells cowboy hats, boots, and apparel. Others unique shops include the Carmel Music Box Company, the Mad Dogs & Englishmen Bike Shop, and the Bittner pen and paper shop.

Downtown Carmel also has lovely historic hotels and quaint bed-and-breakfasts, as well as dozens of excellent restaurants and local markets. The international cuisine options include 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
Fairy-tale cottage in Carmel

The special charm of Carmel is found in the town's fantasy architecture, created in the 1920s and 1930s. At the Carmel Visitor Center (on Ocean Avenue), tourists can pick up a map that indicates where the fairy-tale cottages are located. Taking a self-guided tour allows visitors to appreciate the town's hidden beauty.

Carmel resident Hugh Comstock came up with the idea for the cottages in 1924, 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. 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.

While hunting for the fairy-tale cottages, tourists will also enjoy wandering and photographing the numerous atmospheric hidden passageways and tranquil garden courtyards of Carmel. 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, an inviting little café with pleasant outdoor seating in the courtyard.

7. Tor House and Hawk Tower

Tor House and Hawk Tower
Tor House and Hawk Tower

Tor House was built by Californian poet Robinson Jeffers, constructed of local granite and positioned on a point directly overlooking the sea. Tor House was completed in 1919, and the following year Jeffers built the Hawk Tower, a medieval-looking building which was intended to be a creative space for his wife and a magical play space for his sons.

Guided tours of Tor House and its gardens are available on Saturdays. Visitors 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, taking photographs is not allowed.

Address: 26304 Ocean View Ave., Carmel, California

Official site: www.torhouse.org

8. Day Trip to Monterey Aquarium and Cannery Row

Monterey Aquarium
Monterey Aquarium

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.

The most legendary of Monterey's attractions is Cannery Row, the waterfront district that was the setting for a John Steinbeck novel. This touristy area is full of shops and seafood restaurants.

An excellent family attraction, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is home to adorable penguins, playful southern sea otters, puffins, sea turtles, sharks, and a wide variety of fish. Visitors also learn about the Monterey Bay and its resident species. The aquarium's observation decks afford sweeping views of the bay and ocean, ideal for whale-watching and for spotting other wildlife in the coastal waters.

For those based in San Francisco, taking an organized excursion to Monterey and Carmel is a good idea. The Monterey & Carmel Explorer full-day tour takes passengers on the scenic Pacific Coast Highway and 17-Mile Drive. The tour includes stops at Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Whale City Bakery, Pebble Beach, Cannery Row.

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 in Garland Ranch Regional Park, 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.

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.

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 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 Restaurant at Mission Ranch offers gorgeous views of the Santa Lucia Mountains and Pacific Ocean. Diners also enjoy live piano music every night of the week.

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 coastal setting on rocky bluffs overlooking the crashing surf. Since 1919, many renowned golfers and celebrities have played here, including Bing Crosby, Teddy Roosevelt, Sir Winston Churchill, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods.

Pebble Beach Golf Links is considered the country's premier public golf course, and six United States Open Championships have been hosted here.

The most eagerly awaited event of the year at the Pebble Beach Golf Links is the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance 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.

Overlooking the famous 18th hole at the Pebble Beach Golf Links is The Lodge at Pebble Beach. This five-star historic landmark hotel offers luxurious guest rooms and sensational views of Carmel Bay.

Address: 1700 17-Mile Drive, 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 a three-day event that takes place in May and is free of charge. Held at Devendorf Park in Carmel, this festival features plein air (open-air) painting, a juried painting competition, art sale, and live music. One day of the festival is devoted to children's activities, allowing kids to make their own art.

Those who appreciate Baroque classical music will want to attend the Carmel Bach Festival, usually held during the second two weeks of July. This world-class festival includes concerts, recitals, classes 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:

  • With its views of the Big Sur coastline and stunning Pacific sunsets, Carmel's Tickle Pink Inn is perfect for a romantic getaway. Guest rooms and suites feature private balconies, fine Egyptian cotton bed linens, coffee makers with fresh ground coffee, and free movie rentals. Some rooms have ocean vistas and wood-burning fireplaces. The complimentary continental breakfast includes fresh-baked pastries.
  • Ideal for golfing enthusiasts, the Quail Lodge & Golf Club has its own golf course, putting green, and Golf Academy. There's also a fitness center, outdoor swimming pool, bocce ball and tennis courts, and a restaurant that serves seasonal cuisine. The spacious contemporary-style guest rooms feature modern amenities like high-definition televisions and premium cable channels.
  • Surrounded by rolling hills and vineyards, the Carmel Valley Ranch provides outstanding amenities: 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 three-star Tradewinds Carmel is a boutique hotel with Asian-inspired design details including a courtyard/meditation garden with a Buddha and a cascading fountain. Guest rooms feature luxurious silk pillowcases, down featherbeds, fireplaces, and spa tubs. Some rooms have ocean views. The hotel offers free parking and a pet-friendly policy.
  • Just steps from Ocean Avenue, the Cypress Inn is an upscale boutique hotel known as the most dog-friendly hotel in California. This landmark historic inn has been welcoming guests since 1929. Guest rooms are decorated in a warm Mediterranean style that blends with the building's traditional Spanish architecture. Accommodations include a complimentary continental breakfast with fresh-baked popovers, pastries and fresh fruit, served at the hotel's restaurant.

Budget Hotels:

  • A more affordable option is the Comfort Inn Carmel-by-the-Sea, a cozy three-star hotel located within walking distance of the beach, restaurants, and Ocean Avenue shopping. Guest rooms have coffee makers, and microwaves are available upon request.
  • The pet-friendly Carmel River Inn is nestled in an idyllic pastoral setting surrounded by 10 acres of gardens and forest near the Carmel River, and about a 10-minute drive to the Carmel River State Beach and the Carmel Mission. Guests have the option of booking a guest room at the inn or a small independent cottage. Amenities include an outdoor swimming pool and free parking.

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