Carmel-by-the-Sea marches to its own beat. Located on California‘s Monterey Bay Peninsula, Carmel has attracted artists and creative types since the early 1900s. And it was these early residents who were the first to build the area’s unique fairytale cottages and open its bohemian shops.
It’s not hard to see evidence of the city’s free-thinking roots. Current residents still fight hard to preserve Carmel’s historic charm and architecture. You won’t find any fast-food restaurants, street addresses, parking meters, or street lights in this California city!
Explore the city’s cobblestone streets, and you’ll find 100 art galleries showcasing local art, dozens of restaurants serving up locally sourced fare, and a range of tasting rooms where you can sip and swirl Carmel Valley wines. Then there are the boutique shops along Ocean Avenue and the sandy shores of Carmel Beach.
If you’ve run out of things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea, head north to check out the world-famous 17-Mile Drive before spending the day in Monterey, or go south to marvel at the Pacific Ocean views from Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and Big Sur. No matter what your interests or when you visit, you’re going to love Carmel-by-the-Sea.
With so many cool things to see, do, and eat, you might not know where to begin. So we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in Carmel for you. Stick to these fun and unique Carmel-by-the-Sea bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring this magical art-filled hamlet!
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15 Fun and Unique Things to Do in Carmel-by-the-Sea
1. Step Back in Time at the Carmel Mission
It’s no secret that the Carmel Mission is one of the top Carmel-by-the-Sea attractions. Also known as the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo, this beautiful Spanish mission was built in 1797 and is now a National Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Founded in 1770 by Father Junipero Serra of Spain, this is the second of California’s famous missions. The Carmel Mission has been meticulously and authentically renovated throughout the years and is the only Spanish mission in California with its original bell tower and bell.
Step inside, and you’ll immediately be impressed by the beautiful basilica, intricate decorations, and Spanish Colonial liturgical art. After that, you can explore the grounds to find four museum galleries, a chapel, gardens, and a fountain.
The Carmel Mission is still an active church and is free to enter during opening hours. If you want to take one of the interesting docent-led tours, check the website for times.
2. Take a Hike in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Located on the Pacific Ocean, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Plus, it’s located less than 10 minutes from the heart of Carmel, so it’s easy to reach if you feel like getting outside. Explore the Natural Reserve, and you’ll come across stunning ocean-side bluffs, beautiful tide pools, flower-studded fields, and a range of scenic oceanfront trails.
Bird Island Trail is arguably the best and most popular trail in Point Lobos. This 0.8-mile loop trail will lead you to attractions like picture-perfect China Cove, Gibson Beach, and Pelican Point. Plus, you can do some serious birdwatching at the Bird Island overlook.
For something a bit more challenging, the North Shore Trail is a moderate 2-mile out-and-back trail that will take you to Point Lobos’ famous Old Veteran Cypress tree, Bluefish Cove, Bog Dome Cove, Whaler’s Cove, and groves of wildflowers (depending on the season).
If you’ve got the time, be sure to check out the marine mammals. As the name implies, Sea Lion Point Trail is the perfect pick if you want to marvel at the sea lions basking in the sun. Alternately, Cypress Grove Trail will lead you to Headland Cove, where you can spot sea otters frolicking in the water!
3. Take in Spectacular Ocean Views on 17-Mile Drive
Taking a drive on the iconic 17-Mile Drive should be at the top of any Carmel-by-the-Sea bucket list. This is one of the most beautiful drives in California, so try not to be the person doing the driving!
This 16.78-mile stretch of pavement is actually on private land, so you’ll have to pay $11.25 per vehicle to enter. You can start the journey in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Be sure to allot a significant amount of time to completing the route because there’s a lot to see on this scenic drive!
Along the way, you’ll glimpse stunning ocean views, lavish mansions, ancient cypress trees, and world-famous golf courses, including Pebble Beach Golf Links. Be sure to stop off at as many viewpoints as possible to take in the ocean views and spot sea lions, flocks of birds, and maybe even whales and dolphins.
If you’ve got the time, you can soak up the sun from the incredible Spanish Bay Beach, take in the rugged beauty at The Restless Sea and Point Joe, watch wildlife at Bird Rock and Seal Rock, and photograph the iconic Lone Cypress in Pebble Beach.
4. Check Out the Whimsical Fairytale Cottages
One of the best Carmel-by-the-Sea activities is to take a self-guided tour of the city’s famous fairytale cottages. In 1924, Carmel resident Hugh Comstock had the brilliant idea of building a fairytale cottage to house his wife’s successful Otsy-Totsy doll-making business.
But the obsession didn’t stop there. Comstock went on to build 30 fairytale homes during his life, influencing the charming architecture of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Fast-forward to today, and you can still see 21 of Comstock’s signature “storybook” creations, all inspired by British children’s book illustrator Arthur Rackham.
You’ll want to start your sightseeing tour at the Carmel Visitor Center on Ocean Avenue, where you can pick up a handy map of the locations of Carmel-by-the-Sea’s famous fairytale cottages. Start off at the original 1924 Hansel cottage and the famous 1925 Gretel cottage, which is located right next door.
While most of the cottages are private residences, some have been repurposed as businesses, including The Tuck Box and The Forge in the Forest Restaurant. If you’re looking for unique things to do in Carmel, enjoy a meal at one of these places!
5. Take a Day Trip to Monterey
If you’ve got extra time, it’s well worth taking a day trip to nearby Monterey. Located a quick 10 minutes from Carmel-by-the-Sea, this dynamic coastal city offers something for everyone.
You’ll definitely want to spend some time exploring all the shops, restaurants, and galleries in the historic Cannery Row area. This is also where you’ll find Monterey’s top attractions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
If you prefer to get out in nature, you can enjoy a picnic lunch with ocean views at Lovers Point Park, have a beach day at Del Monte Beach, or hike along the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. Or, if you’re looking for more chilled-out activities, spend some time sipping local wines at the oceanfront bistro Taste of Monterey or sample the best clam chowder in town at Schooners Coastal Kitchen.
6. Shop Till You Drop on Ocean Avenue
Measuring just one square mile, downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea is blissfully small yet brimming with independent boutique shops, charming eateries, and upscale wine tasting rooms. Ocean Avenue is Carmel’s main drag, and you’ll find endless places to shop on and around this bustling street.
If you’re looking to burn a hole in your pocket, you can shop for unique finds at Wittpenns Antiques, peruse vintage-style bath products at The Soiled Doves Bath House, or pick up a new piece of jewelry at Cayen Collection. For food products and unique souvenirs, you’ll love sampling and shopping at the adorable Cottage of Sweets, It’s All About the Chocolate, The Cheese Shop, and Carmel Honey Company.
From whimsical pipe shops to year-round Christmas-themed boutiques, even window-shoppers will be endlessly entertained exploring all the shops around Ocean Avenue. It’s well worth wandering down one of Carmel’s quaint side streets, too. You never know what you’re going to find!
7. Have a Sun-Soaked Beach Day
If you want to take a break from all the sightseeing, lazing away a day at a sandy beach is one of the best Carmel-by-the-Sea activities. Luckily, you don’t have to go far to find a beautiful stretch of sand. Located at the base of Ocean Avenue, Carmel Beach is a 1-mile, crescent-shaped beach that offers endless activities no matter when you’re visiting.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is an extremely dog-friendly city, so it’s no surprise that the city allows dogs to be off-leash here. This is the ideal spot to watch your pups roam free or lay down a towel and take in the Pacific Ocean views. If beautiful sunsets are your thing, you’re going to love seeing the show from Carmel Beach.
Carmel Beach is also a great surf spot that’s perfect for novices and experts alike. Surfers can also catch waves in the crystal clear waters off of nearby Point Lobos and Pebble Beach.
For something a bit more removed from the hustle and bustle of Carmel Beach, Carmel River State Beach is located 1.5 miles from downtown Carmel. This is also a popular spot to do some birdwatching. If you keep an eye out, you may glimpse marbled godwits, tiny sanderlings, brown pelicans, and black oystercatchers!
8. Take the Carmel-by-the-Sea Wine Walk
Oenophiles will be pleased to know that Carmel-by-the-Sea and Carmel Valley are brimming with award-winning local wineries and wine tasting rooms. You’ll find dozens of tasting rooms in the city’s one-square-mile downtown, which means going wine tasting could not be more convenient!
Whether you’re in town with family or friends, embarking on the Carmel-by-the-Sea Wine Walk is easily one of the most fun things to do in Carmel. All you have to do is download the free mobile guide, and you’ll receive a text with a handy guide that will lead you to all of Carmel’s participating wineries. Plus, when you check into each winery, you’ll get exclusive offers!
There are over 10 participating tasting rooms. But if you don’t have time to hit them all up during your trip, don’t miss out on the famous Pinot Noirs at Blair Wines and Dawn’s Dream Winery. You’ll also love sipping on fine Italian wines at Vino Napoli, complimentary pours of Syrah at De Tierra Vineyards, and glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon at Galante Family Winery.
Plus, all participating tasting rooms will give you freebies – from buy-one, get-one tastings to complimentary tapas plates.
9. Live the High Life in Pebble Beach
Located a quick 7-minute drive from Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pebble Beach has long been a playground for the rich and famous. With its glorious oceanfront setting and upscale amenities, this is the place to go if you want to feel like a true VIP.
Pebble Beach Golf Links is one of the best public courses in the US and is famous for its dramatic seaside setting. The 18-hole golf course has been the site of six US Open Championships, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and a whole slew of other prestigious sporting events. Time your visit right, and you may have the chance to see the likes of Tiger Woods teeing off from the iconic 18th Hole!
If golf isn’t really your thing, you can spend the day in Pebble Beach getting pampered at The Spa at Pebble Beach, taking scenic horseback rides at The Pebble Beach Equestrian Center, or taking in the ocean views from an oceanfront walking trail. No matter how you spend your time in beautiful Pebble Beach, sipping a sunset cocktail at the Inn at Spanish Bay is the perfect way to end the day.
10. Spot Orcas & Humpback Whales
Depending on the time of year, the waters off of Carmel are teeming with whales and other incredible sea creatures. The best way to get up close and personal with the area’s marine life is to go on a whale watching tour. Most tours depart from Monterey, which is just a 10-minute drive away.
Monterey Bay Whale Watch offers a 3- to 4-hour tour where you’ll have the chance to spot blue, gray, humpback, fin, minke, and orca whales. Plus, you might even see multiple species of dolphins, porpoises, and birds.
For the best chance to spot gray whales, dolphins, and orcas it’s best to visit from January to March. Visit from April through December, and you’ll have a better chance of seeing humpback whales, blue whales, and orcas.
You don’t have to go on a whale watching tour to glimpse these majestic sea creatures frolicking in the Pacific. Orcas pass by Pinnacle Point in Point Lobos State Reserve year-round. And if you’re visiting from December to April, there’s a good chance you’ll see gray whales migrating past the point.
11. Eat Your Way Through Carmel’s Best Restaurants
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a city for foodies, and you’d be remiss not to spend your time sampling as many of the city’s best restaurants as possible. From Michelin-starred eateries to hip cafes, there’s something to suit all tastes here.
For upscale American comfort food with pasture views, it’s impossible to go wrong with the Clint Eastwood-owned Mission Ranch Restaurant. This is the only place in town where you can gaze out at flocks of sheep while dining on a buttermilk fried Jidori chicken sandwich or a ranch Cobb salad.
Then there are the local wines and charcuterie and cheese boards at Folktale Winery, the West Coast Oysters and porterhouse steaks at Seventh & Dolores (aka 7D), and the multi-course gourmet meals at Michelin-starred Aubergine.
For casual meals, Pescadero serves up excellent Northern Baja fare, and Village Corner slings out some seriously good burgers. Sports fans will want to nosh on pub grub while watching the big game at Brophy’s Tavern, or if you’re looking for a diner-style breakfast, look no further than Katy’s Place.
The Stationaery is one of the coolest restaurants in town and is popular for its creative, locally sourced dishes. Think decadent Maine lobster rolls, chorizo and crema chilaquiles, and smoked trout potato pancakes.
12. Check Out Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Cabin on the Rocks’
Architecture buffs will definitely want to check out Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mrs. Clinton Walker House. Dubbed the “Cabin on the Rocks,” you’ll find the home perched on a rocky bluff overlooking the ocean in Carmel Point.
The home was designed in 1948 for Mrs. Clinton Della Walker of Pebble Beach, who asked the famous architect to build a home “as durable as the rocks and as transparent as the waves.” The ship-shaped home was completed in 1951 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
Its unique shape and use of local and natural materials makes Cabin on the Rocks a prime example of Wright’s signature organic architectural style, which blends homes with their natural surroundings. While this is a privately-owned property, it’s possible to tour the home on one day each June during Carmel’s annual House & Garden Tour.
13. Go Art Gallery Hopping
Carmel has been a mecca for artists since the early 1900s. Due to its deeply-rooted artistic spirit, you’ll find over 100 galleries scattered around this one-square-mile town!
Even if you don’t consider yourself to be an art aficionado or collector, you’ll love perusing the village’s galleries. You can start by popping into the prestigious Classic Art Gallery and checking out their collectible paintings and sculptures by renowned European and American artists.
For more fine art, you’ll find contemporary and modern sculptures, drawings, prints, and more at Dawson Cole Fine Art Gallery. Expect works from the likes of Henri Matisse, Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso, Chuck Close, and Wayne Thiebaud, to name a few.
Gallery Sur features photography from Carmel, Big Sur, and Monterey, as well as a range of Zimbabwean sculptures. Or, for a glimpse of works from some of Northern California’s best artists, Nancy Dodds Gallery is your best bet!
14. Explore Carmel’s Hidden Passageways & Courtyards
Getting lost in Carmel is easily one of the coolest things to do. Meander down one of the village’s cobblestone passageways, and you never know what you’re going to stumble across!
Photographers will definitely want to grab their camera and head straight for Der Ling Lane, the most photographed alleyway in Carmel. Set right off of Ocean Avenue and Lincoln, this is also where you’ll find the Galante Vineyards tasting room.
The bamboo-lined Secret Garden Passageway is located between Dolores Street and San Carlos Street. Not only is it picture-perfect, but it will take you to the Pilgrim’s Way hidden bookshop and The Secret Garden gift shop.
For a bit of romance, Court of the Fountains boasts a beautiful blue fountain, ivy-clad brick walls, and a gourmet chocolate shop. This is also the location of Anton & Michel Restaurant, which is the perfect spot for a special meal.
There are tons of hidden gems in Carmel-by-the-Sea, so it’s well worth just wandering around and seeing what you can find.
15. Get Artsy at the Carmel Art Festival
Carmel-by-the-Sea hosts a bunch of fun festivals each year, but the Carmel Arts Festival is easily the best of the bunch! The three-day event usually takes place in May at Devendorf Park, which is right in the heart of town. Not only is this the perfect family-friendly event but it’s totally free!
You’ll have the chance to check out works from 60 juried local artists. Throughout the 72-hour festival, there are also silent auctions, a Kids Make Art day, Sculpture-In-The-Park, and tons of live music. Plus, this is Carmel, so expect all sorts of excellent locally sourced goodies to fill up on.
Explore the town, and you’ll find that a bunch of art galleries also participate in the festivities. Pop into these galleries, and you’ll meet local artists while sipping Carmel Valley wine and snacking on cheese!
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea. What’s your favorite thing to do in Carmel?
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