20 Best Things To Do In Carmel-By-The-Sea: Travel Guide

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a gorgeous little town that everyone should visit at some point. This guide covers all of the best things to do.
April 10, 2024
One of the things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea

Tucked away in the picturesque California coastline, Carmel-by-the-Sea is the perfect place for travelers seeking a change of pace. Here you’ll find pristine beaches, world-class dining, and charming streets to explore.

This list of the best things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea will inspire you to see this city for yourself and make sure you get the most out of your trip.

1. Shop Or Eat On Ocean Avenue

Stores and restaurants on Ocean Avenue

If you’re looking for the heart and soul of Carmel-by-the-Sea, you’ll find it strolling down Ocean Avenue. This stretch is the city’s hub for dining and shopping, and is a great starting point for exploring what Carmel has to offer.

Ocean Ave is a dream for food lovers. You have plenty of options whether you’re looking for a casual bite, a weekend brunch, or a sophisticated wine tasting. We found ourselves chowing down here quite often after some time on the trails.

And if you’re looking to do a little shopping, Ocean Ave has a mix of quirky shops, chic boutiques, and family-owned businesses. It’s a great place to look for unique gifts, a local artisan’s creations, or some new clothes.

The overall atmosphere here is amazing, and we love the stone-paved alleyways and curlicue-roofs. It doesn’t matter what you’re looking for, it’s just a nice place to stroll around.

2. Stop By A Few Of The Many Art Galleries

An art gallery in Carmel-by-the-Sea

There are a number of art galleries in Carmel’s downtown area that provide a great opportunity to familiarize yourself with the culture of the town. You’ll find works from world-renowned artists to Californian legends.

The town’s artistic heritage dates back to the early 20th century, and these days there are nearly 100 art galleries within a square mile! Many galleries also host art sales and auctions, so there are plenty of chances to view and even buy something you like!

Some of the most popular galleries to see are:

  • American Art Gallery
  • Dawson Cole Fine Art
  • Galerie Rue Toulouse
  • Westbrook Modern
  • Zimmerman Gallery & Studio

There are so many galleries in Carmel that it really doesn’t matter what kind of art you’re into. Someone will have works that you like.

3. Visit Carmel River State Beach

Carmel River State Beach

Carmel River State Beach is a less crowded but equally stunning alternative to some of the other beaches in the area. This serene, crescent-shaped sandy beach extends for a mile, so it’s great if you’re looking for a place to relax. Named after the Carmel River that flows into the ocean here, the beach is known for its strong and dangerous rip tides, so it’s recommended to avoid swimming.

Instead, take a walk or have a picnic while soaking up the views of the ocean and Monterey coastline. There’s limited parking available in a small lot, so it’s a good idea to arrive a little early. If you’re into scuba diving, don’t miss Monastery Beach (also known as San Jose Creek Beach), which is part of the park.

If you’re interested in doing some birdwatching, the nearby Carmel River Bird Sanctuary is perfect for this. It’s home to over 350 bird species, including pelicans, Western gulls, ducks, and Brandt’s cormorants.

Carmel River State Beach also has some historical significance as well. It was an important site for the Rumsen tribe, and there’s a cross marking Spanish explorers’ presence.

4. Take A Whale-Watching Tour

A whale near Carmel-by-the-Sea

Another great thing to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea is to take a whale-watching tour due to the incredible amount of marine life in the area. These tours offer a great opportunity to see humpback, blue, killer, and sperm whales in their natural habitat. The tours have very high success rates as well, so you’re almost guaranteed to spot some while you’re out on the water.

Author Note: Whales aren’t the only creatures you’ll see on these tours. You’ll also get the chance to see dolphins, sea lions, and sea turtles.

The variety of whale species you can see changes with the seasons. From May to November, you’re likely to encounter humpback whales. Meanwhile, from July to October, gray whales tend to make their appearance.

5. Sign Up For a Historic Walking Tour

A fun thing to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea

If you’d like to learn more about the history and character of Carmel-by-the-Sea, signing up for a historic walking tour is a great option. It’s an immersive learning experience that offers you insights into the details and stories behind the town’s distinctive buildings and points of interest.

The whimsical, fairytale cottages, and artist galleries of Carmel set it apart from other towns, and a walking tour is a great way to understand how the town’s architecture and cultural landscape differ so significantly. It will also help you get oriented, so you can circle back later or skip things you’re not interested in seeing.

These walking tours will take you past historic spots like the First Murphy House, a testament to Carmel’s architectural evolution, and the Harrison Memorial Library, a symbol of the town’s commitment to the arts. You’ll also see places like the Pine Inn, Cottage of Sweets, and the Court of the Golden Bough.

You’ll also learn about the impactful contributions of key figures like James Franklin Devendorf, Frank H. Powers, and Michael J. Murphy. These individuals shaped Carmel’s townscape, from planting pine trees along Ocean Avenue to developing residential and commercial buildings.

6. See A Performance At The Sunset Center

The Sunset Center

Another fun thing to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea is attend a live performance at the Sunset Center. Known for its rich lineup of events, you’ll find everything from concerts and comedy shows to dance performances and theater productions. And by attending, you’ll get to enjoy some great performances while also supporting the local arts scene!

Managed by the Sunset Cultural Center, this venue holds historical significance. Originally built as a grade school in the 1920s, the auditorium was added in the 1930s and has since been graced by a wide range of world-class performers.

And the purpose of the Sunset Center doesn’t stop at entertainment. They’re committed to education and community outreach, providing no-cost arts programs both on-campus and in school classrooms.

When you plan your visit, check their calendar to see if there’s anything going on that you’d like to see. There’s a lot to choose from, so it’s usually not hard to find time to visit that coincides with a performance you’re interested in.

7. Walk Carmel Meadows Trail

Enjoying the natural beauty of this town isn’t complete without a walk along the Carmel Meadows Trail. This short loop trail will take you on a scenic journey adjacent to the beach, and it offers stunning views over Monterey and beyond.

The trail starts at the southern edge of Carmel River State Beach and has several beach access points. When you explore the beach keep an eye out for sea life in tide pools!

Dogs are welcome but must be kept leashed to protect the habitat (there’s also a risk that they could come in contact with poison oak). Parking near the trailhead is limited, but you can park at Monastery Beach and walk back to the trailhead if needed.

This trail is open year-round, so you’ll always be able to see something unique in each season. Whether you’re into wildflowers, turquoise-hued waves, or the chance to spot sea life, you’ll be able to find them on the Carmel Meadows Trail.

8. Cruise 17-Mile Drive

The Lone Cypress Tree off 17-mile drive

For a truly memorable experience in Carmel-by-the-Sea, you can’t miss hitting the road on 17-Mile Drive, renowned for its coastal vistas and wilderness. This romantic stretch links Pacific Grove with Pebble Beach, and it’s adorned with wind-sculpted cypress trees, rocky coastline, and luxurious homes.

One of the best stops on this journey is the Lone Cypress Tree, one of the most photographed trees worldwide. It offers a perfect seaside view that’s sure to leave you awestruck. And don’t forget to check out Fanshell Overlook (where you can spot harbor seals from April to June) and The Restless Sea at Point Joe.

There is an admission fee to drive on this road (here’s a link where you can check the latest pricing), but it’s free if you’re biking or walking. And if you dine at Pebble Beach Resorts’ restaurants, the fee is reimbursed with a $35 purchase. You’ll also receive a map with points of interest when you start the drive, so you don’t need to worry about missing anything while you soak in the scenery.

9. Spend Some Time At Carmel Beach

Sunny day at Carmel Beach

Heading down to Carmel Beach is a must-do when you visit Carmel-by-the-Sea. We’ve visited a lot of beaches in California, and this is definitely one of the most beautiful.

Located at the end of Ocean Avenue, you can easily reach Carmel Beach in a short walk or drive. Once there, the space opens up and you’ll be able to relax on the sand. You’ll notice cypress trees lining the beach, accompanied by charming homes. It tends to not be very crowded as well (especially if you’re there early or on a weekday).

Carmel Beach is also the perfect spot to watch the sunset. The beach offers the perfect vantage point, so stick around and wait for the sun to fall and end your day with some beauty!

10. Take Your Picture At The Carmel Shell Mural

While it isn’t anything grand, the Carmel Shell Mural is an iconic symbol in the city that’s worth walking by. Crafted by local artist Marie-Clare Treseder Gorham in 2020, this mural has become a beloved feature of the town, intended to serve as an emblem of recovery and rebirth.

A product of collaboration between Visit Carmel and the Carmel Public Library, the mural underscores the town’s dedication to public art. It’s an artistic testament to the community’s resilience and creativity, and the city encourages you to become part of the story.

Next to the mural, you’ll find an inspiration map detailing the historical and artistic points around Carmel that influenced the artwork. This will give you some additional ideas for things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea while you’re visiting.

11. Drive To Big Sur

Bridge on the way to Big Sur

If you’re searching for an unforgettable adventure near Carmel-by-the-Sea, hopping in your car and driving to Big Sur should be at the top of your list. Roughly a 45 minute drive away, Big Sur is a great day trip destination, or even a spot for an overnight stay if you have the time.

On your way you’ll meander through Pacific Grove and cross the iconic Bixby Bridge, soaking in stunning views of the coastline along the way. The route provides a lovely introduction to the unique landscape that awaits you in Big Sur.

Once you’re there, prepare to be awed by the landscape. The region is renowned for its rugged coastline, towering redwoods, and the misty, ethereal ambiance of its waters. Make sure to hike in spots like Andrew Molera State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. And don’t miss McWay Falls, an 80-foot waterfall that spectacularly cascades directly into the ocean.

12. Do A Little Surfing

Surfing which is a fun thing to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea

A lot of people don’t know this, but Carmel-by-the-Sea has a number of diverse surfing opportunities for people of all skill levels.

If you’re new to the sport, don’t worry! You can start with a private or group surfing lesson. You’ll learn the basics of positioning and paddling, so you can hopefully find yourself riding a way in no time!

The best time to surf is during the fall and winter months when the swells are just right. Carmel Beach offers optimal surfing conditions from October to July. The best spots to catch a wave are at 4th, 8th, and 11th Streets.

If you’re looking for spots that are a little less crowded, try Moss Landing or Ghost Tree. For the more experienced surfers, the areas from Lovers Point to Big Sur are a thrill, while Del Monte Beach’s shallow waters are perfect for beginners.

Author Note: The mild climate in Monterey allows for year-round surfing. However, the Bay’s waters can be quite cold, so a wetsuit is recommended for extended water time.

13. Explore The City By Bike

Exploring Carmel by bike offers a unique perspective on its picturesque scenery and quaint cottages. You’ll be able to cover more ground to ensure that you don’t miss any points of interest.

Carmel’s terrain is notably hilly, so keep that in mind before you head out. If you want a more manageable and scenic ride, you can stick to routes that follow the ocean.

Popular cycling routes include downtown Carmel and along the coastline via Scenic Drive. Along these routes you’ll see popular attractions like Tor House, Butterfly House, the Carmel Mission, and Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch. Not to mention the breathtaking views of Carmel River State Beach and the surrounding natural beauty.

There are plenty of options for solo bike rentals and full guided bike tours. The guided tours are led by well-informed guides who can tell you more about the history of the town as you go.

14. Stuff Yourself On A Food Tour

A place to go on a food tour in Carmel-by-the-Sea

If you’re a food lover, going on a food tour in Carmel-by-the-Sea is something you need to do. This city takes its food and wine culture seriously! Your knowledgeable foodie guide will lead you on a journey filled with delicious tastes and insights into the town’s history and culture.

Depending on what tour you do, you’ll probably visit five to seven local eateries where you’ll sample a range of dishes. With small tour sizes, you get a personalized experience, plenty of chances to ask questions, and an intimate engagement with your guide.

If you’ve never done one before, the price you pay for the tour includes all food and wine tastings. This is nice because it keeps everything simple and easy to track if you’re on a budget.

15. Enjoy A Wine Tasting

A wine cellar in Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a wine lover’s paradise, boasting around 20 wine tasting rooms in the immediate downtown area. This dense concentration allows you to enjoy various tastings, types of wine, and atmospheres.

Whether you prefer modern and bright or traditional settings with dark wood and leather, there’s a tasting room for you. And the best part? They’re all within walking distance of most of the other great things to do in Carmel!

In our experience, staff at the wineries were always friendly and ready to share their knowledge (sometimes even providing opportunities to meet the winemakers). Those little things make a big difference.

Author Note: Many people recommend visiting Bernardus Winery because of their excellent reputation.

16. Hike Around Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Just a stone’s throw south of Carmel along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a paradise for hikers, nature enthusiasts, and photographers. This reserve is renowned for its breathtaking landscapes, diverse wildlife, and rich plant communities. You could spend an entire day admiring the rocky shorelines, sandy beaches, and dense forests, all while spotting sea otters, harbor seals, and sea lions.

You’ve got a range of outdoor activities to choose from. The hiking opportunities are great, with several scenic trails such as the Cypress Grove Trail (known for its enchanting Monterey Cypress and captivating sea views). And don’t miss the Sea Lion Point Loop Trail if you want a close-up look at sea lions and seals. If you’re into birdwatching, the Bird Island Trail is a real treat, boasting superb seabird spotting opportunities.

Whaler’s Cove is another great spot that’s perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and picnicking. It’s also not uncommon to see people scuba diving here!

To make the most of your visit, arrive early to avoid the crowds.

17. Carmel Mission

The Carmel Mission

When it comes to the best things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea, your trip won’t be complete without exploring the Carmel Mission. This is a key landmark that offers a deep dive into California’s Spanish mission history, and was founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1770. It’s also a proud member of the National Register of Historic Places and a designated National Historic Landmark.

You’ll be swept away by the Carmel Mission’s architectural grandeur, from its distinctive bell tower to its tranquil courtyard. Inside, you’ll be able to see an altar adorned with intricately carved wooden figures. The mission also houses a museum, where you can discover religious art, Native American artifacts, and some historical documents.

If you really want to make the most of your time here, opt for a self-guided tour or join a docent-led exploration. These provide insights into the daily lives of the missionaries and the Native Americans associated with the mission.

18. Head Up To Monterey

Monterey California

If you’re ok with a short drive, going over to Monterey offers a number of great activities in the Carmel area. It’s a vibrant city with lots to do, and it offers breathtaking views of the beautiful coastline.

Monterey is celebrated for its diverse landscapes, from sandy beaches to rocky shorelines and cliffs. It’s a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts, with plenty of hiking, biking, and kayaking to be done. You might even spot a few whales while you’re out on the water!

In the city, we recommend exploring historic landmarks like the Monterey Old Town Historic District, where you can see preserved adobe buildings from the Spanish colonial era. For a family-friendly activity, do not miss the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, a must-visit attraction that’s considered one of the best aquariums in the world (and it lives up to the hype).

And if you’re feeling a bit hungry, take a leisurely stroll along Cannery Row, where you’ll find a variety of dining options and quaint shops. For a more touristy experience, visit Fisherman’s Wharf, known for its restaurants, candy shops, and souvenir stores.

19. Go Scuba Diving

A scuba diver underwater near Carmel-by-the-Sea

Diving in Monterey Bay is an unforgettable experience, and one of the main reasons why people from other parts of the world know about Carmel-by-the-Sea. Over 65,000 divers from all corners of the globe visit each year!

Imagine gliding through unique underwater landscapes, navigating kelp forests and deep canyons teeming with abundant wildlife. You’ll come face-to-face with sea anemones, corals, and a variety of marine mammals, including seals, sea lions, and otters. On lucky days, you might spot whales, porpoises, dolphins, sea nettles, and turtles.

The bay’s nutrient-rich waters offer visibility ranging from 10 to 30 feet, making numerous diving sites like Lover Point, San Carlos Beach, and McAbee Beach great for exploring. Even if you’ve never tried diving before, the area is home to several dive schools that offer tours and training courses for all levels.

Scuba Diving magazine has named Monterey as the best beach dive in the United States. Why not give it a shot?

20. Explore Garrapata State Park

Garrapata State Park

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a spot in Carmel-by-the-Sea that rivals the breathtaking beauty of Garrapata State Park. This park is a gem, boasting a stunning waterfront location and diverse wildlife. Depending on the season, you’ll be able to spot sea lions, seals, and even gray whales. With two miles of beachfront and impressive coastal headlands like Soberanes Point, there’s plenty of space to explore.

One of the park’s biggest attractions is its hiking trails. They’re less populated than other regional parks, so it’s great if you’re looking for privacy. The Soberanes Canyon trail in particular is excellent, leading you on an inland trek to redwoods and the Santa Lucia Mountain Range.

Another great thing about Garrapata State Park is that it’s dog-friendly. Your furry friend is welcome on the beach at Gate 19 and the trails leading to it. Just remember, some other areas of the park are off-limits to dogs.

Which Will You Do?

No matter what activities you enjoy, there are plenty of great things to do in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Whether it be shopping, eating, or being active outdoors, this city has it all.

We hope this guide encourages you to check Carmel out for yourself. If you have any stories you’d like to share about a trip you took, reach out to us on social media!

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