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San Francisco is technically on the Pacific Ocean, but it doesn’t really have that seaside vibe. Instead, most Bay Area folks flock out to the smaller coastal communities when we want to breathe the ocean air and relax a bit. Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of the best places to spend a weekend away from the Bay Area, and it has a little something for everyone.
With a name like Carmel-by-the-Sea, it’s pretty obvious what the big draw is here. Carmel has been a weekend getaway spot from the Bay Area for a long time. Nestled on a beautiful bay near some of California’s most picturesque coastline, people have flocked here to escape the city, to create art, to relax, and rejuvenate.
Today, Carmel is quite upscale, with beautiful but expensive homes – and hotel prices to match. There’s delicious food and wine plus art galleries and boutiques to complete the picture of a fancy ‘place to be.’ Even if you’re on a budget, you can visit Carmel, stroll on the beach, go window-shopping, and do a wine tasting to get a sense of what Carmel’s all about.
On a three-day trip to Carmel, you can enjoy amazing food and sample world-class wines in between walks on the beach and hikes on the coastline. You can splurge at one of the local art galleries or one of the boutique hotels – or have a budget-friendly weekend with some smart planning choices.
I’ve been to Carmel three times, and have discovered new things to do in Carmel during each visit. In this post, I’ll share all of the places I’ve enjoyed, from touristy spots to off-beat ones and even a few beyond the community’s official boundary lines.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Rumsen and Ohlone peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in February 2019, and was updated in November 2021.
Travel Tips for Carmel
As you plan your trip to Carmel, there are a few things to keep in mind. You’ll definitely need a car to get to Carmel and to get around. You can’t really visit Carmel on a ‘backpackers budget,’ but it is possible to visit without breaking the bank. Here are some other tips to help you finalize the logistics for your Carmel trip.
How to Get to Carmel
Carmel-by-the-Sea is about 115-135 miles from the San Francisco Bay Area, depending on where you start from – and what route you take to get there.
If you’re starting in San Francisco, the quickest route to Carmel is a ~120-mile drive on Highway 101 and Highway 1 which passes through San Jose. It takes about two hours if you go this route, assuming there’s no traffic. (There’s literally always traffic near San Jose!)
Another option is to drive Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) from San Francisco to Carmel. This route is a bit longer, and it will take you 2.5 hours to make the drive. However, you’ll get to enjoy the scenic route with beautiful beaches, passing through Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, and Santa Cruz along the way. This is the route I recommend!
Weather in & Packing Tips for Carmel
Carmel-by-the-Sea has exceptionally temperate weather. Year-round, the highs range from about 60°-70°F (15°-21°C) and lows range from 45°-55°F (7°-13°C). The winter months (November through March) are rainy, and Carmel receives 2-4 inches of rain per month in the winter. Similar to other communities and coastal towns along the Pacific Coast (including San Francisco!), it can also be foggy in Carmel throughout the year.
As such, it’s important to pack layers for chilly morning or evening activities, but don’t forget your sunscreen and sunglasses. The weather can change quickly on the coast and you’ll want to be prepared for anything! My San Francisco packing list actually works great for Carmel too – you can use everything on that list in Carmel (except the SF guidebook; grab the California travel guide instead). Carmel also has an upscale athleisure aesthetic when it comes to clothes. You can’t go wrong with black yoga pants, cute flats, and a gorgeous scarf.
The Best Things to Do in Carmel-by-the-Sea
Carmel is a delightfully small town, so it’s not overrun by choices for what to do or see. Here are some of the top sights and spots in Carmel that I enjoyed on my trip and recommend for anyone visiting Carmel for the first time.
1. Stroll Along Carmel Beach
The beach along Carmel Bay stretches about two miles, from the Clinton Walker House (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) in the south to the rocky end on the bluffs below the Pebble Beach Golf Course in the north. From sunrise to after dark, Carmel Beach is one of the top attractions. Early risers walk their dogs on the beach as the first rays of light up the surfers catching easy waves; families picnic under the sun during the midday; beach fires dot the sand once the saltwater taffy sunset ends.
If you have time during a trip to Carmel, try to visit the beach in the morning, midday, evening, and night. You’ll see it has a different vibe at each part of the day, which is why people love it so much.
2. Visit Carmel Mission
Like so many seaside towns along the California Coast, Carmel is home to a Mission. Carmel Mission – formally San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission – was established as a Roman Catholic Mission in 1797. Today, you can view a small museum with exhibits, take a short walk on the manicured grounds, and enter the Basilica. On Sundays, Mass is offered if you want to experience that.
If you visit the Carmel Mission and are intrigued to visit the others, here’s how to be a California missions road trip.
3. Go Hiking at Carmel River State Beach
If you love the idea of exploring Pacific beaches and getting a bit active on your weekend getaway, you can’t miss spending a few hours at Carmel River Beach. Not to be confused with Carmel Beach, this stretch of picturesque white sands is south of town (and Carmel Beach) where the Carmel River flows down from the Coastal Range to meet the sea.
There’s one main hiking trail, the Carmel Meadows Trail, which is flat, easy, and offers ocean views throughout. While other sources say it’s about 0.5-0.75 miles long, there are actually more nature trails to explore. In total, you can easily cover 1.5+ miles by taking different forks in the trail and strolling through the meadow and along the beach. Take this as your invitation to explore!
4. Explore Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
If you love the outdoors, Point Lobos State Park is a must-do. But be warned: it’s insanely popular especially on nice weather weekends. You’ll need to rise early to get parking within the park – or risk having to park along the highway and hike in.
There are miles of trails within Point Lobos, or you can drive the loop and park near each attraction you want to see. Some of my favorite spots are the Whaler’s Museum near Whaler’s Cove (Mr. V and I watched dolphins and otters playing in the swells), China Cove (baby seal pups!) and Bird Island Trail, and Devil’s Cauldron near Sea Lion Rocks. If you can’t tell, there’s a ton of marine life to keep your eyes peeled, and ruggedly beautiful coastline to admire.
It costs $10 per car to visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, and no animals are allowed.
5. Enjoy Wine Tasting
Assuming you aren’t a teetotaler, I don’t think a trip to Carmel really “counts” if you don’t do at least one wine tasting while you’re there. Heck, you can do several, as most of the numerous wine tasting rooms are within a few blocks of each other!
I did two wine tastings on my trip to Carmel, and they had completely different vibes. Let me start with the one I didn’t love: Scheid Vineyards. While Scheid Vineyards is one of the more well-known and popular wineries from the Monterrey Valley, their tasting room was jam-packed with people and it felt totally impersonal to try their wines. The place was standing room only and you had to jockey at the bar to get your next tasting.
On the other hand, my tasting at Blair Wines was one of the best wine tastings I’ve done in my life. Mr. V and I were among the only people in the tasting room, the wines were delicious, and we had the chance to meet the winemaker, Jeffrey. He shared stories about his family, the origin of his winery, and each wine. It felt like an intimate chef’s table dinner, but for wine. We came away with actual knowledge about what we were drinking, and appreciation for the craft. Seriously, go visit Jeffrey.
6. Window Shop the Art Galleries
Carmel is known for two things: its art galleries and its wine tasting rooms. Both nationally-renowned and local artists have long flocked to this creative community to produce their work and sell it – today, you can see the fruits of their labor throughout the galleries that display them.
Even if you’re not in the market to invest in art, it’s fun to do some window shopping as you stroll through downtown Carmel – using ‘downtown’ loosely as it’s mainly a few streets including Ocean Avenue and cross-streets. Mr. V and I definitely got sucked into a few galleries where the art was so compelling we just had to take a closer look.
7. Discover The Secret Garden
I discovered the Secret Garden on our second day in Carmel when I was looking for more funky and offbeat things to do in Carmel – and realized there are loads of ‘secret passageways’ between buildings throughout the core of Carmel. The Secret Garden takes advantage of one of these passageways to set up a mystical, ultra-relaxed shop in the courtyard between a bunch of buildings. It’s a lovely little spot of serenity you can walk through for a few minutes of calm – not that Carmel is that stressful, to begin with!
8. Roll Along 17 Mile Drive
Technically, 17 Mile Drive is not in Carmel, but it’s one of the top things to do in Carmel (well, the surrounding area) so I had to include it! 17 Mile Drive is, as the name suggests, a 17-mile scenic drive you can make through the community of Pebble Beach. It’s actually a private drive so you’ll need to pay to access the road. Along the drive, look for gorgeous cypress groves, sweeping coastal dunes and bluffs, and sea stacks and rocks where you can spot marine life like sea lions, seals, and otters.
You can easily spend a half-day working your way up 17-Mile Drive toward Monterrey, stopping to see the sights, have a picnic, and stretch your legs. It doesn’t seem like a long distance, but this winding two-lane road has a microcosm of Pacific coastline to explore.
9. See the Lone Cypress
One of the main sights along 17 Mile Drive is The Lone Cypress. It’s arguably the most famous ‘sight’ along this part of the Pacific Coast Highway, though I didn’t see it on my first road trip. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a lone cypress perched out on a rock overlooking the Pacific ocean. There’s a parking area and viewing platform, and people swarm here to watch the sunset from this iconic spot.
10. Visit Neighboring Monterey or Pacific Grove
If you have time during your weekend trip, you might want to explore beyond Carmel to some of the neighboring communities. After all, the Monterey Peninsula is one of the most picturesque parts of the California coast, and each of the small communities has something special to offer.
You already know about Carmel from the rest of this post, but might also want to visit Pacific Grove and/or Monterey.
Monterey is most famous for its huge bay, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and historic buildings along the now touristy Cannery Row. There’s a lot to do off the tourist track too, like visiting Fisherman’s Wharf, exploring the Monterey Cathedral – part of California’s Mission system – and whale watching in the Monterey Bay, where sea otters, humpback whales, and more are common sights.
Pacific Grove is a smaller community that most people overlook, but has a ton of history and stunning ocean views. My favorite spot in town is the small Museum of Natural History; it’s full of fascinating artifacts and stories about this specific part of California.
11. Shoot Under Par at Pebble Beach Golf Links
I am not a golfer, but I’d be remiss to mention that some of the best golfing in the world can be found right outside Carmel. Located along 17 Mile Drive, Pebble Beach Golf Links draws world-class golfers for annual tournaments and offers stunning views while you swing. If golfing at Pebble Beach is on your must-do, be sure to reserve a tee time –and if you don’t get a time to tee, you can stock up on Pebble Beach swag at a shop along Cannery Row in Monterey to make it look like you did.
3 Days in Carmel
Based on my suggestions for what to do in Carmel above, here’s how I recommend putting it all together for a three-day trip. If you’re trying to squeeze all of this into a normal two-day weekend, you might not be able to get it all to fit exactly like this. Instead, try and plan it for a three-day weekend so you’re not rushed or skipping anything you want to do.
Day 1: Explore the Beach & Coastline
Carmel feels pretty magical in its own right, but it’s the location on Carmel Bay and the Pacific Coast that really seal the deal. Start your first day in Carmel walking down Ocean Avenue to the beach. You can grab a coffee before you go, or bring a picnic (5th Avenue Deli & Catering Co does lunch boxes and takeaway) for once you finish your walk.
In the afternoon, spend the day driving along 17 Mile Drive. Stop at your leisure to explore the points of interest along the way, including the Lone Cypress, Cypress Point Lookout, and Seal Rock. You may even spot gray whales on their migration during certain months.
Around sunset is a great time to head back to the beach to enjoy watching the water set beyond the Pacific horizon line. That sunset view is one of my favorite reasons to live on the West Coast!
Day 2: A Day of Culture – History, Art & Wine
Start your morning with a visit to the Carmel Mission. You can explore the history of the town since Europeans arrived here in the late 18th century. Spend an hour or two here before heading back into town for lunch.
In the afternoon, choose 2-3 wine tasting rooms (Blair Wines should be one of them!) and do some art gallery window-shopping in between tastings. If you’re really into wine, pick up the Wine Tasting Passport which gets you access to tastings at any 10 of the 13 participating tasting rooms in town. You may want to start this on Day 1 if you want to try all 10!
For your last stop treat yourself to dinner to soak up all the wine; Cultura is a great option. Don’t be surprised if you want a mezcal cocktail with your meal!
Day 3: Enjoy the Great Outdoors
On your final day in Carmel, rise early to get to Point Lobos State Reserve before the crowds. It’s easy to spend the morning hiking as much as you feel fit to. If you packed good shoes and layers, you can reach some amazing vistas. Look for marine life throughout the park, as well as a lot of sea birds.
After you finish exploring Point Lobos, turn south on Highway 1. You can take a short drive down the scenic road along the coast toward Big Sur. While this technically isn’t in Carmel, this stretch of highway is among the most iconic on the whole 659-mile CA Highway 1. Then it’s time to turn your wheels back north toward San Francisco, or continue on south along the Pacific Coast Highway if you’re road tripping.
Where to Dine & Drink Locally
There are a lot of great places to eat in Carmel, but I’m sticking to the places I’ve visited in this section. Here are some of (what I consider to be) the best restaurants for your weekend trip:
- Cultura – Arguably the best place to eat in Carmel… and that says a lot in a town , but Cultura was just so good! They have authentic Mexican food and the queso fundido made at the table was a true work of art.
- 5th Avenue Deli – A perfect spot for deli sandwiches or finger foods to take on a day of adventuring. Mr. V and I stocked up on Samosas and wraps and took them with us when we went out to Point Lobos.
- Brophy’s Tavern – Located across from Hofsas House, Brophy’s has great burgers and other American food with a throwback sports bar vibe.
- Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Co – Need a pick-me-up in the morning on your way to the beach? I’ve got the perfect place – stop by Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting. Don’t be surprised if there’s a line out the door though!
- Carmel Honey Company – This isn’t a spot for a meal, but I highly recommend stopping in here for a honey tasting. Carmel Honey was started by a young teen from Carmel and he’s often working and can tell you about the various kinds of honey for sale (hint: try the meadowfoam!).
The photos above are from Cultura: the queso fundido, a coffee cocktail, and chapulines (grasshoppers!)
Where to Stay in Carmel
Carmel is home to lots of small or boutique, family, and heritage hotels. On my trip to Carmel, I was hosted at the Hofsas House Hotel, a family-run historic hotel that looks like it was transported straight from Bavaria. Honestly – when we pulled up, I wondered if we hadn’t stayed in an identical, slightly less pink hotel in Rothenburg during our trip there. The room Mr. V and I stayed in was spacious with a wood fireplace and views to the west over Carmel Bay. Rooms start from $135 per night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
There are almost too many options to choose from, but some of the other properties that piqued my interest include:
- The Normandy Inn which was so European-cute. Rooms from $219 per night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- The Cypress Inn, which was owned by Doris Day, proving Carmel’s star power. Rooms from $299 per night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- La Playa Carmel, which is a splurge but channels Carmel’s Spanish/mission roots. Rooms from $449 per night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
You know I love vacation rentals too, so I took a peek to see what caught my eye.
- This Adorable House is cozy but has everything you need for a longer stay. From $209 per night.
- If you’re traveling with a group, this three-bedroom house is a great option. From $300 per night.
- A girl’s gotta dream… this luxury penthouse is way outside my budget… but maybe someday! From $900 per night.
Have other questions about visiting Carmel? Let me know in the comments!