Carmel-by-the-Sea—sigh, even its name is painfully cute, as if the charming, European-style town had been plucked right out of a fairytale.
Just two hours south of San Francisco (without traffic), the seaside village is a magnet for tourists who eat up its storybook vibes and come to shop its high-end art galleries and boutiques, sample wines in its tasting rooms, dine at its relaxed Cal-Mediterranean restaurants and, of course, take in the natural beauty of its windswept shore.
And while this town may forever feel like a throwback—there are no street numbers or mailboxes and very few street lights come nightfall—new spots are constantly popping up to make it always worth a return. Next time you visit, here are our picks for the freshest itinerary.
Where to Stay in Carmel-by-the-Sea
The cozy lobby at Hotel Carmel.
(Courtesy of @thehotelcarmel)
Carmel Mission Inn
Following a remodel by Oakland’s Arcsine, the Carmel Mission Inn is in tip-top modern coastal shape. From the inviting guest rooms to the pool deck, the hotel balances natural details like wood paneling with vibrant color and geometric pattern. Its updated gastropub, Shearwater Tavern, embraces a sort of mid-century-men’s-club look with upholstered faux-leather chairs, exposed brick, a mosaic floor, and cozy fireplace. // Starting at $279/night. 3665 Rio Rd., carmelmissioninn.com
Formerly the Dolphin Inn, the cottage-style Hotel Carmel, located in the heart of the village, has a trendy, seaside aesthetic. The elegant boutique stay is comprised of 27 rooms with fireplaces and private balconies; some rooms open onto the courtyard where there's a fire pit and hot tub. Fresh baked croissants, champagne, and coffee are complimentary in the lobby each morning, as are wine hours in the evening with selections from across Northern California. You can also grab a bite and a brew at the adjacent pub, Brophy's Tavern. // Starting at $309/night; 4th St. & San Carlos St., thehotelcarmel.com
The Getaway is a fully modern boutique retreat with 32 beach-chic rooms equipped with fireplaces and beautifully designed bathrooms. Hang around the hotel's fire pit or chill out in the bright and airy lobby where free breakfast is served daily and happy hour brings bites and bubbles. The location is choice: right on Ocean Avenue downtown. Bonus points for dog-friendliness. // Starting at $230/night; Ocean Ave. and Junipero St, thegetawaycarmel.com
If you're looking to soak up some of the European-inspired feels that make Carmel so unique among California's coastal towns, check into L'Auberge Carmel, a Relais & Chateaux hotel that dates back to 1929 but has all the modern creature comforts. The guest rooms here were inspired by the travels of hotel's original owner Allen Knight, who was known for his adventures around the world. At turndown, indulge in a freshly baked cookie before tucking into your luxurious four-poster canopied bed surrounded by antiques from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Feeling fancy? Enjoy a tasting menu ($245/person) at the hotel's restaurant, Aubergine. // Starting at $449/night;Monte Verde St & 7th Ave, laubergecarmel.com
The Best Restaurants in Carmel-by-the-Sea
Loaded potato pancakes at The Stationaery
(Courtesy of @thestationaery)
Make reservations for the dining room or outdoor patio up to 30 days in advance: Brand-new Chez Noir is the hottest table in Carmel. Husband-wife duo Monique and chef Jonny Black are making it their mission to highlight ingredients sourced locally on the Monterey peninsula with seafood as the unsurprising star. Start with oysters (either chilled or gratin), crudo, or a shellfish platter and take the menu's advice: "Be fancy, add caviar to anything!" Some lovely salads and vegetable dishes highlight the freshness of the season, and we can't say no to spaghetti alla chitarra; Monterey abalone with cauliflower pain perdu, bone marrow, and watercress; and the whole grilled Mt. Lassen trout. Not feeling fish? Order the 60-day aged "vaca vieja" beef to share. // Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday; 5th Ave between Dolores and San Carlos St, cheznoircarmel.com
Local ingredients meet Old World simplicity at this daylong restaurant with a menu rotating weekly. The wood-oven pizzas are an obvious choice at any time of day—special varieties might include mixed mushrooms with thyme and truffle oil or roasted squash and speck—but there are also classic Mediterranean-style salads, oysters in harissa butter sauce, and plats du jour including a couple of pastas, a fish a la plancha, and steak with frites. Weekends bring a lovely breakfast. // Open daily; Dolores St &, 7th Ave, labicycletterestaurant.com
Intimate The Stationaery is a perennial daytime crowd-pleaser. Tucked into one of Carmel-By-The-Sea’s many hidden courtyards, the restaurant’s locally sourced menu goes big on brunch every day of the week. The Stationaery’s lobster roll and saffron-tomato shakshuka pale in comparison only to their seasonal potato pancake, which as of this writing is heaped with Korean short-ribs and kimchi. // San Carlos St. & 5th Ave, thestationaery.com
Besties and business partners Faisal Nimri and Bashar Sneeh recently transformed their popular Mediterranean restaurant into a seaside fish house complete with maritime accents like glowing jellyfish light fixtures. Catch approaches its pizzas, pastas, and mains with Mediterranean flavor and local coastal freshness. Their decadent truffled lobster risotto, which is served with prawns and scallops in a wine reduction, toothsome smoked salmon salad flatbread with garlic sauce, arugula and two types of cheese, and Monterey Bay lemon butter sand dabs are made all the better by the gift of caviar and champagne that welcomes diners to their tables. // Ocean Ave. at Lincoln St., catchcarmel.com
Slated to open this month, highly anticipated Foray will bring together ingredients foraged from around the West Coast. Helmed by husband and wife team Michael Chang and Caroline Singer, the restaurant’s brand of “approachable fine dining” will feature ingredients both recognizable and uncommon, including truffles hunted by their pup, Falco. Expect dishes like Oregon-truffle risotto, spiny California lobster, and Idaho caviar and housemade blinis. // San Carlos St. & 5th Ave., instagram.com/forayrestaurant
Lively modern Mexican restaurant, mezcalería, and agave bar Cultura will make you feel welcome with Oaxacan-inspired design and outdoor fire pits. Since its tempting to taste from the extensive list of cocktails and mezcals, soak it up with street tacos, chapulines with chili and lime, and rich entrees such as smoked pork cheeks in housemade mole. // Dolores St. & 5th St., culturacarmel.com
There are plenty of Italian joints in Carmel, but there's something special about Enzo—not least of which is its heritage. The restaurant takes inspiration from owner Enzo Pagano's native Calabria. Expect an appetizer of burrata with fresh truffle; homemade sandwiches (try the Italian sausage with bell peppers and mozzarella); and a decadent crab ravioli. // San Carlos St., between Ocean Ave. & 7th St., enzocarmel.com
This impossibly sweet cottage with a vintage bike parked out front has long been home to our favorite lunch in the quaint seaside enclave. Sadly, Casanova's jaunty dining rooms and vine-strung patio are no longer open for midday meals, but you can still enjoy their Italian and French specialities—including spinach gnocchi gratin, escargots, braised beef cannelloni, and whole roasted Dover sole—at dinner. For an extra special occasion, request Van Gogh's table—the chef's table is said to have once been the domain of the artist's meals at the Auberge Ravoux near Paris. The wine list is stellar. // Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5th Ave., casanovacarmel.com
If you're looking for a grab-and-go lunch on your way to a hike or the beach, this neighborhood grocer has an extensive deli with sandwiches, fresh meats, cheeses, snacks, and more. Don't forget to pick up a bottle of wine and a pastry on your way out. // 6th St. & Junipero St., www.facebook.com/brunosmarket
The Best Bars in Carmel-by-the-Sea
The award-winning tasting room at the 100% estate-grown winery, Caraccioli Cellars
(Courtesy of @caracciolicellars)
Carmel-By-The-Sea Wine Walk
For a village that's just one mile squared, Carmel has an awful lot of tasting rooms (read: close to two dozen). So the geniuses behind the curtain came up with the Wine Walk, a free, self-guided tasting journey to some of the best in town. Get the free mobile guide delivered to your phone for exclusive offers like complimentary reserve tastings and discounts on flights and bottles. One precious winery, Bar Napoli (Dolores St. & 7th Ave.), will even deliver a gratis cheese and salumi tapas plate to your table while you sip from their profile of Italian wines.
It's a not-so-well-kept secret that for 10 minutes each day all well drinks, house wine, and beer are just 10 cents at Bud's. When "Dime Time" takes place though, is up to the bartender, so have those coins locked and loaded. Even if you miss the slim window, this bar at La Playa Carmel, freshly restored with Bohemian literati vibes, is a nice stop for a refined drink. // Camino Real & 8th Ave., budscarmel.com
Starlight proves the town isn't just tasting rooms and restaurants—here you can relax in lounge seating around fire pits beneath string lights while taking in a birds-eye view of the town. Enjoy a curated selection of craft cocktails and local California beers, paired with bites by chef Rich Pèpe, including his famous burgers and wood-oven pizzas. Happy hour (4 to 6pm daily) is usually packed. // 6th Ave. & Junipero St., chefpepe.com
One of our favorites is Caraccioli Cellars, which serves its wine in a contemporary space in the heart of town. Cozy up to the bar to try their pinot noir, chardonnay, and sparkling varieties, all 100 percent estate grown on their vineyards in the Santa Lucia highlands. Family run and now in its fourth generation, Caraccioli's wines have fruit-centric notes that echo their light-handed approach to winemaking. // Dolores St. & Ocean Ave., caracciolicellars.com
We love the chic styling at Albatross Ridge's tasting room, where you can have a glass at the marble bar and be warmed by the roaring fireplace. Sample both current and special release vintages—the winery is best known for its pinot noir and chardonnay. // Dolores St. & Ocean Ave., albatrossridge.com
Fun Things to Do in Carmel-by-the-Sea
(Courtesy of @hael/@visitcarmel)
Bike the Town
What better way to explore the coastal beauty than by bike? Thanks to Mad Dogs & Englishmen, you can do so—and in style. This bike rental shop has a highly curated selection of both standard and e-bikes—the largest collection in Monterey County—from brands such as Specialized and Vintage. Take a ride down the scenic drive in Carmel, along the 17-mile drive through Pebble Beach, or around Point Lobos to take in the views. Don't forget to rent a sidecar so your pup can come along for the fun. // Ocean Ave. & Mission St., maddogscarmel.com
Hike Point Lobos
One of the most beautiful state parks in California, Point Lobos is a dreamscape of breathtaking coastal bluffs, ocean views, and wildlife. The park contains many hikes, but we recommend the lesser-known Whaler's Knoll trail: It's not as difficult as the popular Canyon Trail, but still a workout that promises incredible views and potential seal sightings. You can get to Whaler's Knoll directly from the road, or by first taking the North Shore Trail, which will show you even more of what Point Lobos has to offer. // parks.ca.gov/pointlobos
With nearly 100 galleries packed into a square mile, Carmel has endless options of souvenir art that appeals to the watercolor- and art-glass-loving tourist. But there are a few stops for art lovers with more modern tastes. Photography West Gallery is a must-visit for collectors of photography, showcasing the (mostly black-and-white) works of artists like Brett Weston and Christopher Burkett (Dolores St. & Ocean Ave). // Find contemporary fare ranging from modern sculpture to drawings to prints at Dawson Cole Fine Art (Lincoln St. & 6th Ave). // Winfield Gallery brings together two of Carmel's favorite sports—ogling art and sipping wine. Lepe Cellars, maker of Monterey County pinots, cab francs and petit verdots, recently opened their first tasting room at the entrance of the long-time purveyor of bold, often playful, contemporary art (Dolores St & Ocean Ave).
Hit the Beach
When in town, you must make the trip down to Carmel Beach, at the foot of Ocean Avenue, to take in the sunset at the end of a busy day. You can also hop in the car and head to the equally beautiful but often less hectic Carmel River State Beach (26478 Carmelo St.), a mile-long stretch where Carmel River meets the Pacific Ocean. The soft white sand, quaint homes lining the beach, bird sanctuary, and views out to Point Lobos make this a perfect place to spend an afternoon.
Where to Shop in Carmel
Carmel Honey Company
(Courtesy of @carmelhoneycompany)
After doing a school project about bees in fifth grade, Jake Reisdorf started a honey business. Now a local celebrity, the youngster's first brick-and-mortar location of his Carmel Honey Company (Ocean Ave. & Mission St, Suite 118) is still going strong in Carmel Plaza. Stop by to shop various honey offerings (orange blossom, sage, wildflower, and more) in a jars, sticks, or raw honeycomb form. // The Cheese Shop (Carmel Plaza, lower level) stocks a seemingly endless selection of local and international cheeses. Sample to your heart's content, and take some with you for a picnic, along with crackers, nuts, dried fruits, jams, and more. // At Social Hour,you'll find glassware, garnishes, and drinks guides—all you'll ever need to up your cocktail game at home (6th Ave & Dolores). // The charming, postage stamp-sized Pilgrim's Way Community Bookstore backs up onto a secret garden where a yurt stands stocked with gifts for home and yard (Dolores St. & 5th St).
Where there is no shortage of stores to browse in Carmel, it can be hard to find an on-trend boutique. But if you find yourself in need of something to wear—perhaps thanks to a sudden shift in the weather—a pair of shops from owner Sweet Pea Ivester promises you'll find a great piece (if at a cost). Look to Girl Boy Girl aka GBG (Mission St. & 7th St.) and Paloosh(Ocean Ave. & Dolores St.) for contemporary brands and an extensive selection of jewelry. // Whether you need a wide-brimmed sun hat, a romantic cloche, or a cozy beanie, you can pick yourself up a fresh new lid at The Carmel Hat Company. // Dress it up or dress it down at Ms. Fabulous, which stocks trendy blouses, denim, and accessories at surprisingly reasonable prices (San Carlos St. & 7th Ave.) // If big name brand stores is what you crave—think Tiffany & Co. and Bottega Veneta—you'll find them at Carmel Plaza(Ocean Ave. at Mission St.), a three-level outdoor shopping mall centered around a courtyard garden with fire pits. The plaza also hosts a variety of events, from doggy costume contests to free yoga and barre classes in Davendorf Park.