Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, is a walkable village that's perfect for a weekend getaway. This charming seaside destination features historic buildings along tree-lined streets, and you’ll discover hidden passageways that add an element of mystery to this already magical place. You can walk to the nearby scenic beach, shop at the boutiques and galleries, and dine at an array of innovative restaurants.
I was invited to visit Carmel on a press trip. My sister Lynn and I spent a weekend there enjoying the beach, shopping, and sampling local cheese, wine, and chocolates.
Here’s how to have a wonderful weekend getaway in this relaxing place.
When To Go
Carmel boasts plenty of sunshine and moderate temperatures all year long, so any season is a great time to visit. Late fall and early winter bring some rain; to avoid the summer crowds, visit during the spring for sunny skies and cooler temperatures or during the fall for warmer weather. The high season runs from April through October.
What To Do
Explore The Charming Courtyards And Secret Passageways
Before you do anything else, simply spend some time wandering the village to discover its secret passageways and courtyards. These courtyards originated in the 1920s when architect Hugh Comstock built his fairy-tale houses and shops. Peppered throughout the downtown area are 41 passageways and courtyards, each one different, and many are lined with unique shops, galleries, and restaurants just waiting to be discovered. Part of the fun is wandering aimlessly in the hope of discovering one of the tranquil garden courtyards or hidden passageways.
Be sure, however, to watch your step. The sidewalks are uneven -- often with tree roots poking through, purposely left so as to retain the city's status as an urban forest.
Visit Carmel’s Tasting Rooms
Nearly two dozen tasting rooms, wine bars, and bottle shops are located in Carmel. Stroll the European-style village as you sample some of the region’s premier wines. You’ll get to know the winemakers and hear about their wines.
On the way to dinner one night, my sister and I stopped by Blair Vineyards for a wine tasting. Jeffrey Blair entertained us with stories about the family vineyard and its trademark pinot noir.
A bottle of Scheid Vineyards chardonnay awaited us when we arrived at our room at the Hofsas House. The chardonnay -- with notes of pineapple, pear, green apple, and citrus -- was refreshing while still retaining its depth.
This is Monterey Wine Country, so you can expect an abundance of tasting rooms at which to sample area vintages.
Walk To Carmel Beach
We were told to walk down Ocean Avenue eight blocks to find the beach. It sounded easy enough. As we walked down eight blocks of an incredibly steep hill, we realized we’d have to make our way back up!
Still, the view of Carmel Beach at the foot of Ocean Avenue was worth the effort. It’s one of the most iconic spots along California’s Central Coast. Many visitors were walking dogs or playing Frisbee, since it is not a swimming beach. It is, however, an ideal spot to sit on the white sand and watch the waves, admire the cypress trees, and listen to the sound of the ocean crashing against the rocky bluffs.
Marvel At The Carmel Mission
Founded in 1771 by Saint Junipero Serra, the Carmel Mission is one of the most authentically restored Roman Catholic mission churches in California. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark. From 1797 to 1833, it was the headquarters of the Alta California missions. Starting in 1931, Harry Downie began restoration work that continued for 50 years.
The mission is still an active parish. Its centerpiece is the basilica, with its striking interior featuring an immense gilded reredos and vaulted ceilings with catenary arches. You’ll see the Cross of Caravaca, the personal reliquary cross of Saint Junipero Serra, one of the most important artifacts of California's colonial past.
Shop Till You Drop
While you’re exploring the secret passageways, you’ll find an abundance of boutique shops and specialty food stores. Some of these shops are one of a kind and can only be found in Carmel. Indulge your shopping whims at jewelry stores, art galleries, antique stores, and artisan shops as well as clothing and souvenir shops. Shop along the streets of Carmel, and then visit the Carmel Plaza, an indoor-outdoor shopping center.
Pro Tip: There are no street addresses in Carmel-by-the-Sea. This adds to the village’s charm, but it makes giving directions a little difficult. Most places are listed by street intersections. Look for the entrance to Carmel Plaza at the intersection of Mission Street and 7th Avenue.
On your journey to discover the secret gardens and passageways, stop by Pilgrim’s Way Books and The Secret Garden. You’ll find a range of books at the independent bookstore, and then discover the hidden oasis of The Secret Garden, which features statues, plants, fountains, and locally made gifts.
Spot Wildlife At Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
At Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, you can take in breathtaking ocean views and spot an incredible variety of wildlife. Hike through the Monterey pines and cypress trees, discover wildflowers, photograph the Pacific Ocean coastal views, and bring along a picnic. You might even feel inspired to paint the spectacular scenery! Free guided walks are offered daily.
Point Lobos is also a great spot for water lovers. Certified divers can explore its underwater world, one of the richest marine habitats in California, by scuba diving or snorkeling.
Pamper Yourself With A Spa Treatment
During our seven-day visit to California, my sister’s fitness tracker showed that we walked 43 miles! So after climbing the hill from the beach, we decided to indulge in a massage for our sore muscles.
At Peace Tree Massage & Wellness, we both enjoyed Ayurvedic massage treatments with warm herbal oils to soothe the body, mind, and spirit.
As you would expect from a luxury destination like Carmel, there are numerous spa options; there are even pet spas, such as the Signature Paw Spa.
Where To Eat
Carmel offers a tasty variety of culinary options: fine dining, numerous ethnic restaurants, and quirky-yet-delicious places to pick up a picnic lunch or sample cheeses, chocolates, or coffee. Many of the restaurants feature California fusion cuisine prepared by chefs dedicated to offering sustainable farm-to-table dining.
These were some of our favorite spots.
Katy’s Place is a Carmel institution, boasting the largest breakfast menu on the West Coast. It’s known for its eggs Benedict; it offers nearly 20 unique versions of this breakfast favorite! All include three local eggs poached to order and placed atop an English muffin with rich Hollandaise sauce.
The truffle Benedict comes with Canadian bacon, truffle Hollandaise sauce, and truffle buttered muffins. You can satisfy your seafood craving with the Dungeness Benedict, consisting of Dungeness crab meat nestled on a bed of fresh spinach, or Miss Audrey’s Lobster Benedict. There’s even an Irish Benedict served with homemade corned beef hash!
Hog’s Breath Inn
The legendary Hog’s Breath Inn, once owned by Clint Eastwood, is a great place for lunch or dinner. The menu is designed with your health in mind, offering all-natural and hormone-free USDA Prime beef, free-range organic chicken, sustainable seafood, and local produce. The California artichokes are divine, so I recommend a bowl of the Castroville Artichoke Soup.
Specialty Food Shops
My sister and I wanted to take lunch to go for our shuttle ride back to San Francisco, and we happened upon 5th Avenue Deli. There were many salads, wraps, and sandwiches to choose from, but we wound up buying two of the boxed lunches, perfect for eating on the go.
For more on where to eat in Carmel-by-the-Sea, see this page.
Where To Stay
You won’t find a lot of chain hotels in Carmel. Instead, you’ll find intimate inns and hotels where the innkeepers mingle with their guests.
Hofsas House Hotel
Our stay at the Hofsas House Hotel was wonderful. Cheese, crackers, and a bottle of wine were waiting for us when we checked into our room, a two-bedroom suite complete with a balcony and small kitchen with a microwave and refrigerator.
The hotel offers European-style luxury and is charming; no two rooms are decorated the same way. This family-owned business has a swimming pool and is a short walk from many shops and restaurants. A continental breakfast is available in the lobby each morning.
La Playa Carmel
If you love the water, consider a stay at La Playa Carmel. The 75-room, newly restored historic hotel has rooms featuring ocean views and garden patios. Constructed in 1905 by artist Christian Jorgensen for his wife, Angela, the stone mansion was home to the first pool in Carmel. The hotel offers both historic charm and modern amenities.
Pro Tip: You might have heard that in Carmel, shoes with heels more than 2 inches tall are forbidden. While you might have dismissed this as an urban legend, it’s actually true! Since the city carefully maintains its status as an urban forest, the sidewalk areas are rough and are often broken up by tree branches and roots. The rule is in place to prevent injury.