How to Plan the Perfect Escape to Carmel-by-the-Sea, California's Enchanting Small Town on the Monterey Peninsula

It's a true storybook escape.

Lone Cypress near Carmel-by-the-Sea

Anders Widlund/Getty Images

An essential stop on any California road trip and a place that could just as easily — and enjoyably — be done as a separate getaway, Carmel-by-the-Sea is an utterly enchanting small town on the Golden State's Monterey Peninsula. And by small, we mean tiny. It’s a pocket-sized village covering a single square mile. But within the minuscule footprint sits heaps of history, cinematic beauty, and fairy-tale charm. 

This exclusive seaside enclave has lured authors, actors, and artists since the turn of the 20th century. Writers Jack London and George Sterling were among the early residents. Lots of other literary talents, including Mary Austin and Sinclair Lewis, have lived in Carmel-by-the-Sea over the years. Photographer Ansel Adams built his own little dream house in the 1960s. Doris Day and Joan Fontaine both happily called it home for decades. And one of the most famous residents, Clint Eastwood, put down roots in 1972 and become mayor by a landslide in 1986. The enduring creative spirit lives on, but there’s a more manicured, established quality these days. 

Villa Mara Carmel exterior
Villa Mara.

Stephanie Russo

Villa Mara Carmel lounge interior with fireplace
Villa Mara.

Stephanie Russo

Villa Mara Carmel guest bedroom
Villa Mara.

Stephanie Russo

Villa Mara Carmel interior guest bed
Villa Mara.

Stephanie Russo

Villa Mara Carmel doorway and key accessories
Villa Mara.

Stephanie Russo

Another thing that lingers from the past? A sort of quaint, stuck-in-time appeal that eschews the modern edicts of street addresses, home-mail service, and parking meters to block the citification of things.

Carmel-by-the-Sea has at least to some degree — and sure with many residents still dragging their heels — embraced its status as a tourism darling. Today, the downtown area is home to wonderful galleries, storybook cottages that would tempt Hansel and Gretel, high-end shops, restaurants, and, of course, the historic Carmel Mission. It’s also marvelously dog-friendly, so feel free to bring your pup. Outside of the main drag are beautiful beaches, coastal trails, and scenic drives. 

San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission

Pgiam/Getty Images

Best Time to Visit Carmel-by-the-Sea

Because Carmel-by-the-Sea enjoys a moderate climate, you’re promised wonderful weather all year round. That said, the fall — which locals often refer to as the “secret season” — is one of the best times to visit because of the warm, sunny days and crisp evenings that invite you to cozy up with a glass of local wine by an outdoor fireplace. Monterey Car Week, which takes place in August, is one of the most exciting automobile events in the country. Classic car enthusiasts and collectors come from all over to show off and admire priceless vehicles, collect memorabilia, peep new models, and attend lavish parties. 

Best Things to Do in Carmel-by-the-Sea 

Point Lobos State Park

Lauren Breedlove/Travel + Leisure

Because of its small stature and walkability, you can cover much of Carmel-by-the-Sea in a day or two, though that wouldn’t leave much time for wandering the side streets and discovering the hidden gems that await around virtually every corner. Bopping to the many galleries is a beloved pastime. The Carmel Art Association, Bennett Sculpture Carmel, and Galerie Plein Aire are treasure troves of original works by local California artists.

True to fashion for this mass market-resistant community, the shopping scene in Carmel-by-the-Sea supports independent boutiques. The historic Carmel Mission — a must-see for first-time visitors — as well as the Carmel Heritage Society and Carmel Public Library Foundation host cultural events throughout the year. If you’re interested in sampling local wine, there are some nice tasting rooms in town. Carmel Beach is a renowned spot for surfing, photography, and simply soaking in the splendid scenery. The bluff path runs 3.5 miles from the ocean to Carmel River State Beach. Head south to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve to glimpse a diversity of marine creatures. And you can’t go to the Monterey Peninsula and not do the 17-Mile Drive, a scenic road through Pebble Beach that winds past iconic landmarks like the Lone Cypress and Bird Rock. 

Where to Stay in Carmel-by-the-Sea

Exterior view of La Playa Carmel

Courtesy of La Playa Carmel

For such a small town, Carmel-by-the-Sea has a wealth of lovely places to spend the night. Befitting this adorable destination, the accommodations mainly fall into the category of quaint inn.

Located just steps from Carmel Beach, The 1929-built L'Auberge Carmel, a Relais & Châteaux property, is fashioned after a luxurious European country hotel. It’s elegant yet easygoing and not overly fussy. La Playa Carmel exudes a sense of serenity with its peaceful back gardens. The rooms and suites with views of the ocean are particularly pleasant. A halcyon hybrid of a bed-and-breakfast and boutique hotel, Coachman's Inn supplies 30 spacious rooms that ooze homespun charm. The Hideaway is a reimagined 24-key bolthole with Craftsman architecture and contemporary, coastal-chic decor. Guests also rave about the wine and cheese happy hour. Tickle Pink Inn lures a steady stream of couples who return for the romantic ambience as well as rooms with wood-burning fireplaces and outdoor hot tubs. Meanwhile, the stylish, adults-only Villa Mara feels like a spot where you'd celebrate an anniversary or just go away for the weekend to ignite sparks. Keen to experience the more pastoral side of Carmel-by-the-Sea? Check out the Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant. It’s great for an overnight stay and just as lovely for an afternoon drink or dinner. 

Where to Eat and Drink in Carmel-by-the-Sea

Food dish at La Bicyclette, Carmel-by-the-Sea

Alex Warschauer

With direct access to Monterey Bay and a climate that allows for year-round farming, Carmel-by-the-Sea benefits from the endless seasonal bounty. Not surprisingly, many of the most beloved restaurants highlight local seafood, produce, and meat. Warm and relaxed with flavorful Oaxacan-inspired fare — from fan-favorite pork cheek mole to more adventurous eats such as chapulines (grasshoppers) — and hard-to-find mezcals, Cultura Comida y Bebida is not to be missed. Homemade specialties like moussaka and lamb gyros steal the show at Dametra Cafe, a lively Mediterranean eatery right in the heart of town. The Michelin-rated longtime neighborhood haunt, La Bicyclette puts a Cali spin on European bistro deliciousness. Steak au poivre and wood-fired pizzas are among the many menu standouts. For a casual lunch or dinner filled with palette-pleasing plates from around the world, you can’t beat Treehouse Cafe. And Aubergine, the perfect choice to celebrate a special occasion or just up the ante on date night, provides guests with a superb tasting menu, refined presentation, and impressive wine list. Located at L'Auberge Carmel, the acclaimed restaurant often draws comparison to other Michelin-starred establishments

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