Let’s face it, when a town gets put on the map for tourism, it tends to change things. It’s the catch 22 of being a traveler – you want to visit amazing places, but you want everyone else to stay home! That’s why we were amazed that the tiny town of Carmel by the Sea has been able to maintain it’s small town charm, despite being a requisite on every California road trip itinerary.
It may be the secret courtyards and passageways, or the Comstock cottages akin to Hansel and Gretel that give Carmel by the Sea it’s unmissable fairy tale quality; whatever it is, one thing’s for sure, you’ll never find another place quite like it. And despite its tiny size (one square mile!), there’s so much to see, do and eat in Carmel. If you’re like most visitors and you only have a couple of days in the area before jetting north to San Francisco or south to Santa Barbara and beyond, you’ll want to make the most of your trip. Here are our suggestions for where to stay, eat and what to do in Carmel by the Sea.
Where to Stay in Carmel by the Sea
Tourism is the main industry in Carmel by the Sea, so there’s no shortage of inns and hotels. We hopped on Orbitz to check out which hotel in Carmel would be best for our mid-week stay We always search for hotels using Orbitz because we get 5% back in “Orbucks” using the Orbitz Rewards Program! 1 Orbuck = $1, which you can then use for discounts on over 350,000 hotels! And the more you book, the more you unlock rewards like complimentary breakfasts and free TSA pre-check!
When searching for hotels in Carmel by the Sea, we knew we wanted to stay at local independent inn, and wanted something cozy and unique. Scrolling through Orbitz we found the perfect spot, Hofsas House! Only a few inns are still family run in Carmel, and Hofsas House is one of them! This adorable inn is Bavarian themed, which is perfect for the European flavor in Carmel.
The women who own and run the inn now are a mother and daughter team, and the inn was opened by the grandmother. The architecture and decor of the building feels like you stumbled out of California into a cute little German town; you half expect someone to walk out of the lobby in lederhosen! They even have a mural of Bavarian dancers on an outside wall that was painted in 1957.
The 38 rooms are all different, with unique little amenities. We stayed in the Deluxe King. We loved opening our windows in the morning to an ocean view, and curling up in front of the fireplace at night. Yep, we had a wood burning fireplace in our room! It was perfect to keep us warm on the chilly October evenings. Carmel by the Sea really doesn’t have much in the way of nightlife, so you’ll probably find yourself back in your room after dinner. Curling up in front of the fire with a glass of wine and old Doris Day movie (a former resident of Carmel!) is the perfect way to end the day.
Our room also had a kitchenette with microwave, coffee maker, sink and fridge. Having somewhere to heat up leftovers means you can order an extra dish or two at one of Carmel’s incredible restaurants!
Besides it’s unique rooms, Hofsas House has one of the only heated pools in all of Carmel by the Sea! This is such a treat because the town can get chilly from the sea breeze. When you’re done with the pool you can duck into the adjacent dry sauna and relax. It was awesome to basically have a day spa inside our hotel!
One of the best parts of Hofsas House is the continental breakfast they serve every morning, complementary to all guests. Head into the lobby in the morning to grab a mug of coffee and a fresh baked Danish. Take a seat in front of the fire and Carrie, or one of the other staff, will sit down with you and help plan your Carmel itinerary. They have the best insider knowledge about unique places to visit, quirky activities and delicious spots to eat.
Where to Eat in Carmel by the Sea
Whatever your taste or budget, Carmel has got you covered for restaurants. You won’t find any big name restaurants or fast food like McDonald’s. Instead there are scores of restaurants, some large and elegant, others some tiny and casual, tucked away in the hidden alleyways that Carmel is famous for. There are a few that you definitely don’t want to miss.
Vino Napoli / Little Napoli – When we first arrived in Carmel in the afternoon, we were stuck in that awkward time between lunch and dinner when some places shut down. Luckily for us, Vino Napoli was not only serving food, but it was happy hour! Little Napoli is authentic Italian restaurant and it’s sister bar/restaurant, Vino Napoli, is right next door. Both are super cute. If you’re looking for a dinner spot, we recommend eating at Little Napoli (in front of the fire on a chilly night and on the patio in the summer!), but for our short snack (and our inability to turn down a happy hour deal!) we decided on Vino Napoli.
Vino Napoli has a great selection of wine, and their food is incredible! We had a pesto pizza and their world famous garlic bread. Do yourself a favor and do not miss this garlic bread. They serve it with a delicious marinara sauce. You will not be disappointed!
And the best thing about Vino Napoli and Little Napoli is that they’re both part of Orbitz Rewards Dining! You know we love a deal, and this is too good to pass up. If you’re not part of the Orbitz Rewards Dining program yet, it’s super easy to set up! You just have to register your credit or debit card (it’s free!), dine out at one of over 10,000 participating restaurants/bars and you’ll get 5% back in Orbucks to redeem on hotels!
If you love to travel you’d be crazy not to take advantage of this deal. Is there anything better than earning cash back toward your next trip, while eating delicious garlic bread? I don’t think so!
Flaherty’s Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar – Another Carmel institution that was recommended to us was Flaherty’s Seafood. Ken, Flaherty’s owner, is passionate about seafood, so the restaurant buys their fish fresh daily. The lobster bisque is a must have; it’s so creamy and delicious! We had the crab cakes and crusted halibut with vegetables and gravy. Everything was super tasty and the service was incredibly friendly.
Flaherty’s also has a great wine list with lots of local drops (I loved my Scheid Sauvignon Blanc) Then we finished off with the Olallieberry Pie (a la mode, of course!) It’s a perfect first dinner in Carmel if you want a casual environment with gourmet food.
And, of course, Flaherty’s is also on the Orbitz Rewards Dining list! I mean, if you can have your Olallieberry Pie and get 5% rewards back too, why would you go anywhere else?!
What to Do in Carmel by the Sea
For such a small town, there is actually tons to do in Carmel by the Sea. Here are some of our favorite activities to do in Carmel:
Yes, Carmel is a walking town, but that hill coming back up from the beach can be a struggle at the end of a long day. Renting an electric bike is the perfect way to make sure you can cover enough ground to see everything. We stopped by Mad Dogs and Englishmen to grab a couple of super cute vintage looking cruisers.
Then we set off for the beach and rode along the Scenic Highway. The road hugs the coast and because it’s one way with a 15 mile speed limit, it’s super safe to share with cars. The views are stunning and there’s plenty of places to pull over for photos.
If you have more time, you can take the bikes all the way to Point Lobos, Pebble Beach or do the 17 mile Highway.
Although Carmel by the Sea may not be as famous for wine tasting as nearby Napa or Sonoma, it’s definitely worth doing in the area. The wine from Monterey and Carmel is just as delicious as its more famous neighbors, but the tasting rooms are more intimate and cozy. We popped into the Blair Estate Tasting Room in the Carmel Plaza for a taste. The woman who helped us was super knowledgeable and friendly. It felt like tasting wine with an old friend. Pro tip: The Cheese Shop is right across the way from Blair. We also enjoyed our tasting at Scheid winery just up the street. They’ve converted me into a Pinot Noir drinker!
Whatever you choose to do in Carmel by the Sea, you won’t be disappointed. This scenic little town is beautiful at every time of day, at any time of year and from any angle. You could spend the day doing nothing but wandering around tiny streets and strolling along the coast, and still have the perfect trip.
California Road Trip Planner
Here are some other stops and hotels you may want to consider adding to your California road trip itinerary.
Santa Barbara – If you loved Carmel by the Sea, but want a little more action, head down south to Santa Barbara. It has a similar old school charm to Carmel, but it’s much larger and has way more nightlight.
We recommend a stay at Franciscan Inn & Suites. This gorgeous Spanish mission-style hotel is perfect for a Santa Barbara getaway (another must-do on your California road trip itinerary!). Just a four minute walk from Santa Barbara Harbor, Franciscan Inn & Suites has a pool, free breakfast and big cozy beds!
San Francisco – If you’re heading north from Carmel by the Sea, San Francisco is only a 2 hour drive away. The City by the Bay has plenty of famous sites to check out, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf. But make sure not to miss out on the city’s lesser known hidden gems like the Japanese Tea Gardens, Dolores Park and the Sutro Baths. Hotels are notoriously expensive in SF, but there are some great deals on Orbitz. Hotel Union Square has consistently good discounts and an amazing location just steps from Union Square.
Calistoga – After San Francisco head north by an hour and a half into wine country. Napa may be closer to SF, but we recommend visiting Calistoga instead. This cute little town has more of a local feel, but the quality of wine tasting and restaurants is as good as any big city. We always recommend staying at Brannan Cottage Inn, the historic inn where we got engaged.