Summary: I’m sharing everything you need to know about visiting Carmel by the Sea in California including the best things to do in Downtown Carmel by the Sea, where to stay, which restaurants to eat at, and more!
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Carmel, California, otherwise known as Carmel by the Sea is a very quaint, charming town on the California coast. As you’ll see from the photos throughout this post, it has a European feel to it which was initially what peaked my interest in visiting. From the Swiss-style cottages to the Santorini-like sunsets and incredible Greek, Italian, French and other foods available, Carmel is a haven for anyone looking for a US city with a European feel.
Aside from being very aesthetically pleasing, Carmel is one of those small towns where it seems like everyone that lives there knows each other and it’s fun to be part of, even if only for a week or so. It’s also a very dog-friendly city, so if your furry friend is good around people, bring them along with you! Most stores allow them inside and even have water bowls or treats available for them.
When to Visit Carmel by the Sea
I traveled to Carmel in October, and from what I could hear locals saying throughout town, this is one of the best times to go to Carmel by the Sea. The weather was perfect most days. It was chilly in the early mornings and evenings, but then it warmed up into the 70s during the day. Personally, this is my ideal weather. When I can wear a sweater to walk and get coffee in the morning and then feel the sun during the day, I’m a happy girl!
Being on the coast, Carmel is a very temperate city in general, so you could visit in the dead of summer and still not have very hot days. The summer is also a good time to avoid rain which tends to happen more frequently in winter months. May through October seems to be the sweet spot with very little rain and the most pleasant days.
How to Get to Carmel by the Sea
One of the more charming aspects of visiting Carmel by the Sea is that it’s somewhat hard to get to. There aren’t any major airports nearby, so it may take a couple different modes of transportation to make your way here.
Living in Washington, we took the Amtrak Coast Starlight train from Seattle, WA to Salinas, CA (the train goes all the way to Los Angeles). From Salinas, we rented a car and drove to Carmel. To get back to Washington, we drove to the Oakland Airport and flew back. This was about a two hour drive.
If you’re flying in, the closest airport is in Monterey, but you’ll likely need a connection to get there if you’re traveling far. You can also fly into San Jose, Oakland, or San Francisco airports which have a lot more direct flights going in and out.
If you just plan on staying in Carmel, you don’t necessarily need a car as it’s a very walkable city, but I recommend renting a car so you can drive to Big Sur and/or Monterey while you’re in the area. They are both a short distance away and are worth making a day out of seeing them.
In my opinion, the most ideal way to get here would be to fly into San Jose or San Francisco, rent a car, and drive down to Carmel, but there are certainly other options if you want to get creative with trains like we did!
Where to Stay in Carmel
There are several nice hotels in Carmel, but I did a lot of research and I can highly recommend the hotel that we stayed at: Pine Inn. This was a very well-decorated hotel right in the middle of downtown Carmel by the Sea. Since I was working remotely, I wanted an accommodation that was close enough to shops, restaurants, and coffee shops to walk to during the day. Unless you want to leave Carmel, you can walk to pretty much everything in the downtown area.
Our room was very spacious with two queen beds and a separate living room with a desk that I could work at. I really enjoy when the bedroom is separate in these scenarios, so I can work early if I need to while my travel buddy is still sleeping!
The hotel staff were very helpful when it came to deciding on restaurants to eat at. We got a lot of great recommendations when we checked in. When we arrived, I also received a text from an automated service that was meant to answer any questions we had about the room, hotel, or Carmel. I was able to request a later checkout time and get it approved just by texting. I thought that was very convenient.
Best Things to do When Visiting Carmel by the Sea
Walk around Downtown Carmel
This entire town is adorable and you’ll have so much fun exploring every inch of it. You’ll see inspiration from all over the world. I could spend hours just walking the streets. Don’t forget to look for cute little alleyways that lead to shops or restaurants along the way.
Watch the Sunset at Carmel Sunset Beach
Our routine every night while visiting Carmel by the Sea included walking down to Carmel Sunset Beach, watching the sunset, and then walking back downtown to make a 7pm or 7:30pm dinner reservation. As you can imagine, this beach is one of the best places in Carmel to watch the sunset – it’s very aptly named!
As long as the skies are clear, you’ll have a gorgeous view of the setting sun over the water. This is also a dog beach, so bring your pups, or just come to watch them having the time of their lives running in the sand.
Ocean Avenue is the main road in downtown Carmel by the Sea lined with a lot of great shops and restaurants. If you follow this street toward the water, you’ll eventually make it to the beach. Fair warning: it is a steep uphill climb on the way back.
Try the Chocolate at Cottage of Sweets
Cottage of Sweets is another specialty shop that I thought deserved it’s own section on this list. Usually, after our dinner was over, we’d walk past this chocolate haven and buy some dessert to take back to the hotel. There are so many different kinds of homemade chocolates, fudges, and sweets to choose from.
If you end up staying at Pine Inn, Cottage of Sweets is right across the street!
Drive Along Pacific Coast Highway
While you don’t need a car to see most of downtown Carmel, I’d still recommend renting one to drive to nearby towns. Monterey is a popular day trip from Carmel. We visited this town and rented bikes to explore along the coast.
I’d also recommend driving down Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway. If you start driving from Carmel to Big Sur, you’ll pass some incredible views of rocky beaches and huge boulders sticking out of the water with waves crashing all around. There are plenty of spots to pull over and snap some photos or just watch the waves roll in.
Have Breakfast in a Storybook Cottage (Tuckbox)
I loved all the different restaurants in Carmel. Most of them were so unique, including a storybook cottage I stumbled across when exploring one morning. It’s a restaurant called Tuckbox and they’re open for breakfast and lunch.
The waitress said it used to be a doll store and was then converted into a very cute restaurant. I wouldn’t say it’s the best breakfast I’ve ever had, but it was good. Honestly, the atmosphere was so unique that it made it a fun experience regardless of how the food tasted.
People Watch at a Cafe
One of my favorite activities to do in Europe is also possible while visiting Carmel by the Sea! Cafe culture was definitely thriving in Carmel, especially in the morning hours. Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Co. was my favorite cafe to sit and read at before I started work. I would often see locals come in and grab coffee while running into someone they know here. This coffee shop was right across Ocean Ave from Pine Inn.
Carmel Coffee House also had great lattes and a very pretty patio to sit outside while having breakfast. Others seemed to love this place, too. It was always busy, but you could still find a seat.
Drive Along 17-Mile Drive
As obvious as it may sound, 17-Mile Drive is a 17-mile route that takes you on a tour surrounding Carmel. You’ll come to a toll booth where you’ll have to pay $11.75 per vehicle to drive this route. It can be reimbursed with a $35+ purchase at participating restaurants in this area, but all of these restaurants looked incredibly expensive, so we opted to just pay the fee and drive around.
My favorite part of this drive was near one of the golf courses where there were a ton of large rocks in the water and waves were crashing into them like I’ve never seen before! It was beautiful.
While you’re driving from Carmel to the start of 17-Mile drive, you’ll also pass a lot of the fairy tale houses that reside here. I’d recommend taking a slow drive through the neighborhoods to see these. They are incredible. The most popular are the Hansel and Gretel Houses between 5th and 6th Avenues.
Visit Point Lobos
Point Lobos is a very large natural reserve area just outside of Carmel by the Sea. It’s the perfect way to get out of downtown and into nature for a day. The reserve is on a peninsula and there are many different trails and areas to explore including Sea Lion Point, Point Lobos, and a few beaches.
Where to Eat in Carmel
Of course, I didn’t have the pleasure of eating at every restaurant while visiting Carmel by the Sea, but I did eat a few fantastic places. Fair warning: Carmel is quite pricey, including the restaurants. Also, I highly recommend making reservations for any of the nicer ones listed below as some of them were very full around dinner time.
My favorite by far was Dametra Cafe. It had Greek and Mediterranean food and came highly recommended by our hotel front desk. The food was incredible and they even had live music from time to time.
For Italian food in Carmel by the Sea, we opted for Cantinetta Luca which was great. They cure their own meats here, so I recommend starting the meal with the various cuts they have in house. The Pine Inn also had an in-house restaurant called Il Fornaio which we didn’t get to try, but it looked amazing.
Carmel is situated right by the water, so their seafood is about as fresh as it can get! If you like seafood, especially oysters, try Flaherty’s Seafood Grill and Oyster Bar. This restaurant also came recommended by our hotel and it didn’t disappoint!
Sticking with the seafood theme, we had the best sushi at Sushi Heaven. It seemed like such a hole-in-the-wall place that we would have walked right past, and there weren’t many people inside, but once again, the Pine Inn front desk recommendations didn’t fail us. It was delicious! If you go, please get the Tom and Jerry rice balls. I’m still thinking about them to this day.
When Are You Visiting Carmel by the Sea?
I hope this post either inspired you to consider visiting Carmel by the Sea or helped you plan your trip to Carmel! It is truly such a fun, picturesque town I could come back to again and again. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Instagram.