The charming town of Carmel in Northern California makes the perfect destination for a staycation in the USA. Located in Monterey County, the town is an idyllic West Coast paradise, with beautiful beaches, the cutest 1920s cottages I have ever seen, and a relaxed and dare I say it genteel kind of a vibe. It’s altogether abso-bloomin-lutely lovely. I visited as part of our Big Sur road trip; here’s how best to explore on a weekend in Carmel by the Sea.
A brief history of Carmel by the Sea
Although the Spanish set about colonising the California area in 1770, Carmel didn’t officially become a town until 1902. Some of its very first residents were artists fleeing San Francisco after an earthquake in 1906; they camped out in the pine forests nearby and built houses on land in Carmel purchased for a mere ten dollars a pop.
And from the very beginning the residents clearly understood the right way to function as a community. Creativity and the preservation of the natural environment has always come first and foremost here, and Carmel by the Sea quickly became a haven for artistic people in particular. An outdoor forest theatre was at the centre of local life and the local paper (The Carmel Pine Cone), often featured its productions as front page news. In fact in the early days creativity was so highly-esteemed that it was common for store owners to offer credit to those writers and artists in the community that were (in classic starving-writer style) struggling to afford things.
Find the whole road trip here: Bucketlist California – the Big Sur road trip
The founding fathers of Carmel by the Sea were also dead set against letting the town succumb to big city developers over time. So to aid the cause, firstly they made it illegal to cut down or ‘injure’ any tree, bush or light bit of foliage in any public space. And secondly- to preserve that old-time village feel I suppose– outside of Downtown Carmel the streets have no names and the houses have no numbers. If the locals want to receive any post, they have to head on down to the local post office to obtain it.
All sounds a bit idyllic really, doesn’t it?
Over the years poets, writers, artists and actors all flocked to live or stay in Carmel, and in the 1980s Clint Eastwood himself even served two years as mayor. Good on ya, Clint. (Word on the grapevine is that he can still be found playing piano from time to time in the Piano Bar of Mission Ranch)
Where to stay in Carmel by the Sea
During our weekend in Carmel by the Sea, we were lucky enough to be able to stay in a cottage right on the oceanfront. It was kind of like paradise if I’m honest, and the whole thing was purely accidental.
But Carmel is famous for several things- one of them being its many extremely cute historic inns and B&Bs. In keeping with the ethos of the founders of Carmel, there is no ‘citification’ occurring here, no way Jose! Most of the Carmel inns are family-run, locally-owned businesses. Popular boutique inns in Carmel by the Sea include the Green Lantern Inn, the Normandy Inn and The Vagabonds House.
For more of a luxury stay in Carmel, take a look at L’Auberge Carmel. This hotel looks a little less like a European chalet, and a little more like a French chateaux, with all the luxury facilities you’d expect. It’s also directly on the beach, so you can literally just rise and shine on down to the sea as soon as you feel like!
And at the other end of the scale, if you’re on a budget in Carmel by the Sea- this is sort of a swanky location. There are absolutely no hostels in Carmel- the closest is in the nearby town of Monterey.
Wander through Downtown Carmel
It goes without saying that when spending a weekend in Carmel by the Sea (or even just an afternoon), you’ll be heading for a wander along Ocean Avenue and the surrounding streets. And guys- this really is one of the quaintest little towns I’ve visited in the US.
Tiny pastel coloured houses and shops, some with thatched roofs and higgledy piggledy chimneys, are a-plenty. As well as boutique shopping, there are tonnes of art galleries in Carmel to take a glance around, and coffee shops to stop off in.
Another small (but very different) USA town: Staying in the Hawaiian town of Kapa’a
A word of warning when in Downtown Carmel: there are a fair few cobblestones and lumpy sidewalks (caused by tree roots underneath) to navigate, which for the accident-prone among us could be a bit of a problem. Back in the 1960s the city attorney realised any injuries could leave Carmel with a lawsuit on its hands; so they passed a law banning heels more than 2 inches high.
What a laugh!
If you fancy a unique Carmel souvenir, head to City Hall where you can obtain a permit allowing you to wear your heels, no qualms. (Although it really isn’t necessary- this is one of those antiquated laws which is never actually enforced. Be free, stiletto-wearers. Live your high heeled dreams)
Hang out at Carmel Beach
Carmel Beach is CLASSIC CALIFORNIA, and one of the prettiest beaches in the USA. A long white arc of sand curves around the bay, framed with jagged cliffs and cypress trees. In the early mornings (and sometimes rolling on throughout the day) a sea mist shrouds the beach in billowing clouds.
This is a great location for seafront strolling, paddling in the turquoise shallows, and appreciating the almost untouched natural beauty of the Pacific Coast. Aside from its beauty, two of the best things about Carmel Beach is that dogs are welcome here- and so are FIRES! So the soft white sand is the ideal spot to build a fire and settle down for sunset.
Can you swim at Carmel Beach?
Although swimming is allowed at Carmel Beach, bear in mind that there are no lifeguard stations here and the current can turn quickly. (Also in all honesty the water can be rather on the chilly side, year round.) BUT- Carmel is a great surfing location, and surfers can often be spotted skimming the swell.
Where to eat in Carmel
There is no shortage of incredible restaurants in Downtown Carmel. We ate lunch at Little Napoli, a cozy family-run Italian bistro on the corner of Dolores Street and 7th Street. The restaurant was lively-and-lovely and the food was delicious. If you ever visit, make sure you try the grilled artichoke because it is SCRUMPTIOUS.
For dinner we went to the Dametra Cafe. And this little Greek restaurant in Carmel is clearly an extremely popular place- it was packed to the rafters, pals! Instead of waiting for a table we ordered take-out and ate in the beach cottage we were staying in. On the menu at Dametra are all the classic Greek dishes like moussaka, baba ganoush, and gyros, as well as hearty American plates with a Greek twist.
La Bicyclette is another popular Carmel restaurant, serving French and Italian food. This well-established family-run business updates its menu weekly and uses only local fresh produce for ingredients.
Find the fairytale cottages of Carmel by the Sea
During the 1920s a local lady named Mayotta Comstock ran her own business making and selling rag dolls. As the business grew she realised that she needed a bit more space to house the dolls, so she asked her husband Hugh to build her a showroom.
Hugh Comstock was not an architect or even a builder, but boy oh boy did that guy rise to the challenge.
The first house was named ‘Hansel’ and looked like it had leapt straight from the pages of a fairytale book. Hugh purposely didn’t use a level, so even without the quirky elements that he’d designed into the building, it was higgledy piggledy to the extreme. The cottage was so captivating to the people of Carmel by the Sea that Comstock was commissioned to build more houses in this fairytale style, and over a period of about five years the town was transformed.
Comstock Cottages sprung up left, right and centre.
Today there are still twenty one Comstock Cottages in Carmel, most of them in rather good condition. The only Comstock Cottage in Downtown Carmel is the Tuck Box tea room on Dolores Street. You can’t miss it thanks to its striped awning and Tudor vibes. The rest of the Comstock Cottages are scattered around Carmel, with eleven of them in the Historic Hill District.
The best Carmel breakfast places
I think Carmel wins at breakfast.
During our weekend in Carmel by the Sea we ate breakfast at the Little Swiss Cafe. This is one of the cutest and quirkiest places I have ever eaten breakfast in, my friends! So I would recommend that everyone head there right ASAP.
Not only were the staff super-friendly and the breakfast absolutely delicious (I had French toast with syrup and berries), the decor in the Swiss-themed diner is astonishing. The Little Swiss Cafe is kitted out with cute little booths to sit in, hand-painted wooden shutters, cuckoo clocks and all the crockery on display, and most importantly of all- an incredible mural which wraps its way around the walls.
If you’re in the Northern California area: Sacramento is actually pretty awesome!
At first glance, the mural looks as if it’s just a beautiful representation of the seasons and some lovely fields and trees. But upon closer inspection, there is way more happening here. Hidden within the scenes are characters and moments from movies, books and paintings. I LOVE IT.
There are SO MANY other Carmel breakfast places. Katy’s Place is an institution when it comes to breakfast, serving (amongst other things), a seemingly infinite number of varieties of their famous eggs benedict. The previously mentioned Tuck Box (check out the Scottish scone), and La Bicyclette are also popular breakfast places in Carmel.
Be aware: most of Carmel’s breakfast restaurants don’t accept card. It’s cash only around these parts!
Carmel Mission Basilica
At the end of our weekend in Carmel, we drove out of the town via the Carmel Mission Basilica. This is probably one of the most important landmarks in Carmel by the Sea, and also one of the prettiest of California’s missions.
If you’re not sure what a mission is: in the late 1700s, the Spanish decided it was about time they colonised California. (Not that it was actually ‘California’ then. In fact California was actually part of Mexico before it became part of the United States, don’tcha know). They built a chain of 21 missions across Alta California- each about a day’s ride away from the next one. And the main purpose of these missions was to convert the Native Americans to Christianity.
See inside another California mission: A guide to the Mission San Juan Bautista
Officially the Carmel Mission is actually called the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. After setting up shop, the Spanish priests baptised a few of the locals, including as many prominent leaders as they could find, and then forced them into labour. The Ohlone and Esselene Indians were taught new customs and beliefs, and forbidden from practicing their own traditions, meaning that their way of life simply disappeared. They also had no immunity to the diseases that the Europeans brought with them, so over the Mission Era it became normal for the number of deaths to far outweigh the number of births.
It was a really sad situation, know what I’m saying??
All the more reason why the Carmel Mission Basilica is an important place to visit if you’ve got a weekend in Carmel by the Sea. I mean pals, what’s the point of visiting somewhere if you don’t want to know its story?
In the present day the Carmel Mission Basilica operates as a church and a museum. It’s obviously free to attend mass but if you want to have a nosey round, the cost of entry is $10 for adults or $5 for children.
Our weekend in Carmel by the Sea was absolutely glorious, and I’m so glad we made it to this beautiful fairy tale town. There’s no shortage of lovely things to do (and awesome places to eat), and I can’t wait to revisit one day when the world is back to normal.
Carmel, you are a slice of paradise.
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- We visited Carmel as part of our road trip to Big Sur. So it goes without saying that Big Sur and the Pacific Coast Highway are the perfect additions to a weekend in Carmel by the Sea.
- If you’re flying, the closest airport to Carmel is Monterey Regional Airport. The airport itself is tiny (and kind of expensive to fly into), although several major regional and internationals do fly there. For more frequent flights, the next closest airports to Carmel are San Jose or San Francisco.
- If you’re in the USA already and fancy a bit of train travel- you can reach Carmel by Amtrak’s Coast Starlight route. However. The train actually stops at Salinas, and Amtrak then provides a Thruway Bus from Salinas Amtrak Station to Carmel by the Sea. The journey takes around 40 minutes.
- When is the best time of year to visit Carmel by the Sea? It sort of depends on what you’re after, pals! The sunniest season tends to be fall, although the weather here is consistently of a mild Mediterranean climate. Not too hot and not too cold, although in winter the temperature might dip a little.