Looking for a natural adventure in the heart of California? The best things to do in Carmel, CA, will be a sweet and secret treat and let you explore the finest of the Golden State’s nature.
Whether visiting scenic destinations like Carmel Beach or Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Carmel shows you breathtaking vistas and wildlife that you’ll never forget. Other top tourist attractions in Carmel include art galleries, museums, wineries, and vineyards. Spend time between adventure and photography hikes and explore all that the Central Coast city has to offer.
Not sure where to start planning your vacation? Discover what to do with this complete guide to the best places to visit in Carmel, California!
Best places to visit in Carmel, CA
There’s no better place to start a visit to Carmel, California, than at Carmel Beach. From the town, walk west on Ocean Avenue until you hit the soft sand, luxurious for strolling and sunbathing along the Pacific Ocean.
Bring a volleyball, picnic lunch, or just some beach towels. Dogs are also allowed the freedom to run off their leash. The Pacific Ocean sea breeze is refreshing for playing volleyball, taking a stroll, or going jogging, and the Monterey cypresses and rocky bluffs are awe-inspiring for all. Surfers should also bring along their boards
Up along the rocky bluffs is the 3.5-mile Scenic Bluff Path, where you can walk or jog sand-free and enjoy the amazing views and sunsets of Carmel Bay.
There are no lifeguards on Carmel Beach, and there are known rip tides and rogue waves. Plan your visit accordingly.
Before leaving, slip down to the southern end of the sand beach to check out the Mrs. Clinton Walker House. Also known as Cabin on the Rocks, the home was designed in 1948 by famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
As the Mrs. Clinton Walker House is privately owned and only open to visitors one day a year, you most likely won’t be able to check out the interior. Still, it’s well worth walking the short distance to see one of the most interesting mid-century homes along the California Central Coast.
Carmel River State Beach
On the south side of Carmel Point is Carmel River State Beach. The stretch of sand gets its name from the Carmel River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean here and is usually quieter than nearby Carmel Beach.
Carmel River State Beach is popular with local bird watchers as there’s a lagoon serving as a natural habitat. It’s also popular for kayaking. Dogs are even allowed here as long as they’re on a leash.
Just south of Carmel River State Beach lies Monastery Beach. One of the most popular beaches in Carmel, it’s named for the Carmelite Monastery Mission just across the road. The coarse, sandy beach isn’t safe for swimming but is famous for being a high-level certification scuba diving beach.
Looking for a scenic tour of Carmel-by-the-Sea? You’re in luck. One of the best things to do in Carmel, CA, is to take a ride along 17-Mile Drive.
The scenic road begins at the Highway 1 gate, just north of town, and winds along through the Del Monte Forest of Monterey Cypress trees. The 17-Mile Drive also passes through Pebble Beach Golf Course and Spanish Bay before ending in the lovely town of Pacific Grove.
While riding along the route, photographers can’t miss the chance to take a snapshot of an American classic: the Lone Cypress. Sitting on a bluff high above Carmel Bay, the Lone Cypress is one of the most photographed trees in North America.
Don’t worry about having to drive back right away. After your journey, spend the rest of the day in Monterey at the aquarium or on a self-guided walking tour along Cannery Row. For a quicker and cheaper return, Highway 1 runs right by Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Carmel Mission Basilica Museum
In need of some self-reflection, calm, and peaceful tranquility? Come and spend some time at the Carmel Mission Basilica Museum. The mission was founded in 1770 as the second Spanish mission in Northern California by Father Junipero Serra at its original site in Monterey. He moved it to the mouth of the river shortly after in 1771. Thanks to its historical importance to the Central Coast of California, the Carmel Mission became a National Historic Landmark in 1960.
Today, the Carmel Mission Basilica is an active Roman Catholic church, museum, and school. You can take home religious items from the museum store to commemorate your visit. There are also tours of the Basilica with its original period paintings.
You can also reserve the courtyard and Basilica for weddings.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Enjoy seeing animals in their natural habitat? Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a sanctuary for all things living and one of the coolest places to go in Carmel.
Take a walk along the Sea Lion Point Trail to hear and see the sea lions. The Cypress Grove Trail will lead you to Headland Cove, where the sea otters show off their swimming skills.
Follow the Bird Island Trail along the coastline to get a birds-eye view of the jade-green water of China Cove. You’ll also pass through Monterey pine woods to reach the Bird Island Overlook.
Diving is permitted in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve at Whalers Cove and Bluefish Cove. It’ll expand your appreciation of all the wildlife in the reserve, as much of its treasures are hidden beneath the waters’ surface.
Pebble Beach Golf Links
Like to play golf? Then you must have heard of Pebble Beach Golf Links. Located in Pebble Beach, just a stone’s throw from Carmel, this world-famous golf course is one of the must-see Carmel attractions for sports fans.
Even if you don’t want to play a round, you can walk around Pebble Beach Golf Links or drive through on the 17-Mile Drive and enjoy the views. It’ll cost you nearly $600 to get a tee time—and that’s with the exclusive discount for those staying at the adjoining Lodge at Pebble Beach.
An alternative for golfing enthusiasts on a tighter travel budget is to play a round at The Hay, adjacent to the main golf course. The nine-hole course has been open since 1957 but was recently redesigned by golfing legend Tiger Woods. At just $65 a round for the general public and free admission to kids under 12, it’s a fantastic outing for any sport-loving family.
Whether you choose to just take in the view or take a swing on the green at one of the world’s most famous golf courses, Pebble Beach Golf Links will enthrall you with its Carmel Bay vistas.
Garland Ranch Regional Park
Still feel like you’re in the city? Take a trip to Garland Ranch Regional Park. It’s the oldest of the parks in the Monterey Peninsula Regional Parks Department system and is quite expansive.
Garland Ranch Regional Park features a good mix of easy, short trails and strenuous, day-long hikes through wildflower meadows and Redwood groves. The Carmel River runs through the park feeding its wide variety of ecological life.
Aside from the river, you can refresh yourself by dipping your feet in a pond or waterfall. Dogs are welcome and can run off-leash in specified areas. Horseback riding is also popular on the designated trails.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Love sealife? Just a town away lies the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the top tourist attractions in Monterey. If you take the 17-Mile Drive from Carmel-by-the-Sea, the scenic route will be part of the experience.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a history-making, tourist-loving hub for all things water-related in the Monterey Bay area. And that includes the sea birds! With its various touch pools, it’s also a great place for kids.
Want to spend the day in Monterey County? Before or after a visit to the aquarium, take a stroll down Cannery Row. Located in the Monterey city center, it’s one of the most interesting historical attractions near Carmel.
A true representation of the charm of historical America, Cannery Row features classic architecture and original buildings, now hiding restaurants, boutique shops, and souvenir stores. The streets are kept clean, and the sidewalks are nice and wide for all the foot traffic.
Built up an appetite? Whether it’s time for breakfast or lunch, stop at one of the many cafes, coffee shops, and restaurants in Cannery Row for a delicious seafood meal or a quick coffee. After fueling up, browse through the boutiques and souvenir shops before heading back to Carmel-by-the-Sea.
If you wish to spend the night after a long day on your feet, Cannery Row has hotels at either end, overlooking Monterey Bay.
If a trip to A Taste of Monterey is too far to venture, Carmel Plaza has you set with three wine-tasting rooms with delectable wines from local wineries right in the heart of downtown.
Carmel Plaza is riddled with one-of-a-kind specialties. Want to eat local comfort food at a unique restaurant or shop in a specialty brand store? The square is your go-to spot in Carmel for both dining and shopping.
The plaza is dog friendly, too. Feel free to bring your leashed love along to window shop and try some tasty treats. Take your time, as there are three levels of places for visitors to explore and discover!
Once you’ve explored Carmel Plaza, wander around downtown Carmel-by-the-Sea to soak up more of its fun atmosphere and charm. Enjoy delicious Mediterranean cuisine at popular restaurants like Dametra Cafe, wine tasting after dinner at the Galante Vineyards Tasting Room on Dolores Street, or organic coffee at the Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Co.
Mission Trail Park
Mission Trail Park is a beautiful escape into nature on foot. Three miles of hiking trails await in the park for hikers to explore and enjoy the natural beauty.
As you hike through Mission Trail Park, you’ll traipse through pine forests, oak forests, wetlands, and prairie lands. Trailheads start and end at the Carmel Mission Basilica. The hiking trails are mostly flat and well-maintained. Dogs are also welcome to enjoy Mission Trail Park.
After your hike, make your way to the Lester Rowntree Native Plant Garden just off Hatton Road. Located just to the side of the gardens is the Flanders Mansion. The home has been owned by the city since 1972 and is a great example of a Tudor Revival English Cottage.
Carmel Art Association Gallery
The Carmel Art Association Gallery is both the oldest and newest art gallery in Carmel. It’s the oldest established gallery, dating back to 1927. While it’s a piece of local history, it’s also at the forefront of current affairs. The Art Association Gallery exhibits and sells art from more than 100 local and living artists based on the Monterey Peninsula.
In addition to the sculptures, paintings, and photographs on display, the gallery also hosts film series, lectures, and concerts to support local artists of all genres. The Carmel Art Association Gallery certainly deserves the annual awards it receives for its contributions to the local community.
If you want to experience the luxury of exceptional wine and countryside, throw it all in in one stop with a day trip to the Bernardus Winery. Located in the Carmel Valley, Bernardus Winery prides itself on making sensory elucidating wines. The winery’s three estate vineyards grow a stunning variety of tipples, including chardonnay and pinot noir wines.
Also on the site is the Bernardus Lodge & Spa. Book yourself in to be pampered and wined at a luxury, European-style property.
Promoted as a place to come, relax, and enjoy the finer things in life, you’ll find all things lavish in your suites. Expect fireplaces, large soaking tubs, plush bedding, and elaborate amenities.
Garrapata State Park
Just south of Carmel along the route to Big Sur, Garrapata State Park is well worth the short trip for its extraordinary diversity of activities and landscapes.
Beach lovers will be enthralled by Garrapata State Beach, a two-mile stretch of sandy beach on the southern end of the waterfront. Enjoy the dramatic ocean views and the sounds of the ocean waves, but respect the power. Rogue waves are common here and can be dangerous.
Hike up the stairs from the beach to walk among the bluffs above. The Garrapata Coastal Bluff Trail is a beautiful, short trail that features many wildflowers.
If you’re sightseeing between February and April, the Calla Lily Valley will be in full bloom. It’s a sight to behold! Photographers: Be sure to bring your camera and snap a picture for your Instagram feed to capture the moment forever.
Mission Ranch Hotel & Restaurant
For those who remember the “good ol’ days,” you may want to book your stay at the Mission Ranch Hotel & Restaurant. Why? Because Clint Eastwood purchased this former dairy farm to prevent it from being converted into high-rise condominiums.
After acquiring it, he had it restored into the Mission Ranch Hotel & Restaurant. There are even sheep that still graze on the 22-acre ranch. Come stay and dine in a real piece of old Hollywood history on the California coast.
For the die-hard fans of Clint Eastwood, you can also see the house where he filmed Play Misty. If you stay in Carmel long enough, you might even see him at his favorite table next to the large rock fireplace in the Mission Ranch Restaurant.
Palo Corona Regional Park
The Palo Corona Regional Park is a wild habitat for many endangered animals. Covering more than 4,500 acres of countryside, the park hosts various ecosystems.
You’ll find mixed hardwood forests, expansive and diverse grasslands, and even fisheries in the perennial creeks. Palo Corona Regional Park is truly wild. On its scenic trails, be prepared to encounter wildlife like deer, bobcats, black bears, and even mountain lions.
For a bird’s-eye view of the beautiful scenery, hike up the Inspiration Point Trail. Take a breather on the picnic bench provided at the top before continuing on the more relaxing Animas Pond Trail.
Dogs are allowed but must be kept on a leash. Park rules also state that there’s no off-trail hiking and no souvenir “shopping.” Take only memories and leave only footprints.
Outdoor Forest Theater
Tourists who love the performing arts can’t miss out on catching a performance at the historic Outdoor Forest Theater. Operating since 1910, the 540-seat outdoor amphitheater is famed not only for its fun performances but also for its lovely surroundings. The theater, run by the adjacent Pacific Repertory Theatre, sits in the shadows of soaring pines and the beautiful Santa Lucia Mountains.
Check out the Outdoor Forest Theater’s official events calendar here to see what’s on during your visit. If you’re a literature fan, be sure to mark the annual Carmel Shakespeare Festival on your calendar. One of the area’s most popular festivals, it takes place every October.