The whimsical, celebrity-frequented town of Carmel-by-the-Sea on California’s central coast (off epic U.S. Highway 1) might have a big reputation, but it covers just over one square mile and claims fewer than 4,000 residents. The former artists’ colony maintains its creative legacy and a quirky spirit—you won't find addresses, streetlights or parking meters in its fairy tale-like village center. Larger-than-life natural vistas and abundant wildlife surround the town, which is a 120 mile-trip south from San Francisco.
Where to Eat and Drink in Carmel
One of Carmel’s best-known restaurants, the family-owned Casanova, looks like a quaint chateau and has served rustic French and Italian fare in its many small dining rooms and inner courtyard since 1977. One of its tables is said to have been Vincent Van Gogh’s preferred place to enjoy his meals at the Auberge Ravoux. The hand-dug wine cellar holds 35,000 bottles, and dishes like squid with avocado, radish, pine nut and cilantro with light spinach; gnocchi with Parmesan; and veal osso buco with polenta carrot and kale highlight ingredients from nearby farms and fisheries.
Carmel Belle is a modern, casual spot with excellent French-inspired sandwiches (like ham, fontina and pear with honey mustard on country toast), salads (like free-range chicken, avocado, tomato, Hobb’s bacon and blue cheese with mixed greens and lemon vinaigrette) soup (like heirloom tomato) and sides (like baked goat cheese with roasted tomato-caper-olive sauce and baguette).
If you’re set on an al fresco lunch, look no further than Forge in the Forest’s dog-friendly patio (canines even get their own menu), outfitted with heat lamps and fire pits. Stay up for a nightcap at Sade’s, a real dive bar and Carmel’s oldest, and smallest, watering hole.
Things to Do in Carmel: Art and Culture
Carmel is teeming with boutiques (both luxurious and eccentric), restaurants, cafes and art galleries. If the latter spark your interest, consider a guided walk with Carmel Art Tours that explores local painting, sculpture and photography—past and present—and the stories behind them. The outing might entail a visit to an artist at work in her studio. Walk to the south end of town to visit the basilica, gardens and museum of the Carmel Mission, founded in 1771 and beautifully restored.
Things to Do in Carmel: Explore Outdoors
Just a few blocks from the town center is cypress-flanked Carmel Beach. This often-foggy stretch of white sand is an excellent spot for bird watching, strolling and sunset viewing. Venture out into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary with a kayak tour launching from Stillwater Cove in nearby Pebble Beach. Adventures by the Sea leads trips that explore the bay’s ecology, history and marine life.
Don’t leave that area without taking the 17-Mile Drive, a famously scenic route that hugs one of the romantic stretches of Pacific coastline and passes legendary golf courses and real estate. Yet another nearby destination for majestic natural vistas and wildlife encounters is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Come here for a day hike and picnic and keep an eye out for sea lions, harbor seals, elephant seals, sea otters, orcas, gray whales and fascinating birds in and around the turquoise waters and rocky coast.
Where to Stay in Carmel
Spend the night in Carmel village at The Hideaway, a chic and decidedly modern inn where you can spend your evening in the courtyard lounging on sofas by the fire pits. The boutique property welcomes kids and pets and treats its guests to a European-style breakfast spread each morning and a wine and cheese reception each evening. Carmel Beach is a short walk away.
Another excellent lodging option that's located just outside the village is Vendage Carmel, a quaint inn with gardens and reasonably priced rooms, each of which is lovingly decorated with a different wine theme.