Planning a weekend getaway (or longer) in Carmel? Discover the 10 BEST things to do in Carmel, California! From scenic hikes, fairytale cottages, wine tastings, jaw dropping views, and more...this list makes sure you hit the top spots!
Carmel is one of the more unique places I’ve visited in the United States. The mix of charming fairytale cottages, cliffside views, redwood hikes, and foggy mornings makes for a truly memorable trip.
Those looking for a relaxing weekend getaway will love this area of California. It’s easy to get around, the people are friendly, and many of the activites involve enjoying the views and your surroundings. This is a place to forget the hustle and bustle or city life.
You can fit everything I list in the top 10 things to do in Carmel California into a two-day itinerary. Those looking to add a few hikes and golf Pebble Beach will want to stay four days.
1. Morning Walk Along Scenic ROAD
Who would have thought walking around a neighborhood ended up being one of my favorite things to do in Carmel, California. This is no ordinary neighborhood. Scenic road overlooks the ocean and has the most adorable cottages. No wonder these homes sell at $3,000 to $5,000 per square foot!
We first drove Scenic Road in the afternoon and decided it was worth a return visit for a walk first thing in the morning. Jake and I went right before sunrise and it was perfect. The only people walking around were locals and the influx of tourists driving through hadn’t started yet.
The best place to start your walk is the intersection of Ocean Ave and Scenic Road. If you get here early in the morning you can find street parking.
2. Take in the Views at Bixby Creek Bridge
Many people know Bixby Bridge from the intro video in the HBO series Big Little Lies or from one of the Macbook background option (it’s been mine for several years). Seeing Bixby Bridge exceeded expectations and easily makes the list for the best things to do in Carmel, California. The ocean is a beautiful blue in this area, simplicity of the bridge, and the sheer drop from either side is stunning.
The best viewpoint is right before you cross the bridge. We parked our car just to the left (there’s a dirt road with space for parking to the side). This would be a great place to take photos or even bring some snacks and have a memorable picnic.
This is another attraction I would try to fit in first thing in the morning. It’s a popular spot and gets more crowded as the day goes on.
3. Bagpiper at the Inn at Spanish Bay – Evening Cocktails and Firepits
Every evening, rain or shine, 365 days year, a bagpiper plays along the Pebble Beach coastline. The bagpiper begins at the first tee at The Links at Spanish Bay and finishes 45 minutes later at the firepits at The Inn at Spanish Bay. You’ll want to be at the firepits 30 minutes before the scheduled finish time. End time depends on the month and ranges between 5:15 and 6:30 pm. Visit the website or call Spanish Bay Inn to confirm when you should arrive.
4. Sip wine at Folktale Winery
If atmosphere is your thing and you want a picturesque place to relax, Folktale Winery will not disappoint. They have the most adorable wine garden.
Not only are wine flights and wines by the glass offered, but there’s also a small menu. Woodfired pizza, salads, ceviche, and a killer burger.
Reserve your spot in advance as Folktale Winery currently does not accept walk-ins.
5. 17-Mile Drive and Lunch at Pebble Beach Golf Course
One of the most popular and well-known things to do in Carmel California…17-Mile Drive. This scenic road winds along the coastline and takes you through famous golf courses (including Pebble Beach), multi-million dollar mansions, several stunning view points, and the famous Lone Cypress.
I’ve done this drive more than once and will continue to do it everytime I’m in the area. In fact, this drive is so popular you have to pay an entrance fee. It’s $10.75 per vehicle, which you can get back (see below). There are two entrance gates. The two most popular/convenient entrances are Pacific Grove (north end/closer to Monterey) and the Carmel entrance (south end/right by Carmel-by-theSea).
I recommend stopping at Pebble Beach and having lunch at The Bench. Though the food is forgettable, it’s worth it to watch the golfers and enjoy the views.
Allow 1 hour to do a drive through with a few stops. 3 hours or more if you plan to have lunch and stop at most view points. Be sure to ask for a map when you pay your entrance fee. It lists all the view points.
6. Wander Carmel-by-the-Sea
“This has to be one of the most unique places in the United States”…my thoughts as I wandered around Carmel-by-the-Sea. This little village is as charming as can be. Most homes/cottages are named (not numbered)...Bungalow on the Sea, Pinch Me, Sea Urchin, Change of Scenery…it's fun to stroll around the neighborhoods surrounding the main street just to see the homes and what names they have chosen.
Another fact about this area is there are no street lights. You’ll know who lives here by those that are carrying flashlights and those fumbling with their phone flashlight.
The core of Carmel-by-the-Sea is tiny. It takes about 10 minutes to walk the length of Ocean Avenue (the main street). You’ll find art galleries, boutiques, tasting rooms, and cute restaurants. Carmel Plaza is an open air multistory shopping area with some nice home stores and tasting rooms.
7. Find the Fairytale Cottages of Carmel-by-the-Sea
One attraction not often listed on the best things to do in Carmel, CA is finding the Fairytale Cottages. Which is a shame because that’s one of the first things I think of when reminiscing on Carmel. Go to the Carmel Visitor Center and ask for a map of the Fairytale Cottages. Wear comfortable shoes as you’ll be walking up and down some hills.
8. Carmel-by-the-Sea Wine Walk
The Carmel region is slowing making a name for itself in the wine world…which is why a few wine tastings are in order when discussing the best things to do in Carmel, CA. You have two main options. Stay in Carmel-by-the-Sea and pop into a few tasting rooms.
Or, hop in the car and drive to Carmel Valley. The tasting rooms are larger and often have nice patios and gardens. You can park your car and walk from tasting room to tasting room as they are all within striking distance of each other.
9. Hike Point Lobos State Nature Preserve
Point Lobos State Nature Preserve is one of the most popular hiking areas just minutes from Carmel-by-the-Sea. Nature lovers will want to put this at the top of their list for things to do in Carmel, California. It’s particularly nice that this area has a variety of hikes. From 20 minute walks to beautiful lookout points to 4-hour loops. I use AllTrails to figure out which hikes grab my attention.
10. Dinner at Mission Ranch
Tips + Where to Stay
Closest airport to Carmel CA
Monterey (MRY) is the closest airport to Carmel, CA. I made the mistake of booking a flight to San Jose Airport (SJC) since I snagged a deal on Southwest Airlines and wanted to use our Companion Pass. Big mistake. When I booked the flights, and even when I checked again while writing this, Google Maps said it was a little over an hour to get to Carmel. It ended up taking 2 hours. Both driving from the airport and driving to the airport. From now on, I will fly into MRY.
Do you need a rental car in Carmel, California?
100% yes. While Carmel-by-the-Sea is entirely walkable, some of the best sights, attractions, and top things to do in Carmel, CA requires a car. Skip the SUVs and cars that have a low gas mileage...gas is more expensive in California than most states.
Where to stay in Carmel, California
Carmel-by-the-Sea will be more expensive. You won't find big brands here and will most likely be in a small, boutique hotel or a bed and breakfast. Expect to pay 4 to 5-star prices for 3-star hotels.
Monterey is more affordable and has big brand names for those that are loyal to Marriott, Hyatt, etc. It's a mere 7 minutes from Carmel-by-the-Sea...so worth looking into if price is a concern.
Ultra-luxury options around Big Sur:
I hope this post of the 10 BEST things to do in Carmel, California helps plan your upcoming trip. Assuming you don't do a long hike in Point Lobos, you could fit everything into a very full 2 day Carmel itinerary or more relaxed 3 day Carmel itinerary. If you plan to do a few hikes and/or golf, I highly recommend staying four nights.