If you’ve been following along on social media, you’ll have noticed that I made the trip from San Francisco to Carmel quite frequently last year. Jessica of Bon Traveler and I launched our first Gather + Getaway retreat there a few weeks ago (thank you so much for all your support!)
Both of us write about travel for a living, so as we planned our first retreat we considered spots around the globe for its location. We’re also two Northern California ladies living in San Francisco, though — and we realized that the beauty within a few hours drive from SF warranted staying closer to home.
Hopping in the car from SF, Carmel is just a two-hour drive from the city — and when you get there, you get a whole new vibe.
Dark green cypress trees frame deep blues and turquoises of the clear sea. Waves crash powerfully along the rugged California coastline. Colorful tiles line stairwells end at art galleries, garden passageways, and wine tasting rooms. Homes and shops feel a bit like they’ve been plucked out of a European fairytale.
Although I tend not to overuse the word ‘charming’ to describe a place, it’s the exact word that best suits Carmel-by-the-Sea.
I grew up visiting the coast from Monterey to Carmel often as a child. Still, we would need to thoroughly research the area and intimately get to know Carmel to host a group there in the way we wanted.
So now, I present…my heavily-researched and double-triple-checked guide to Carmel, California — an easy day or (ideally) weekend trip from San Francisco. It’s one of my top picks for a getaway from the city.
Weekend Getaway: San Francisco to Carmel
Getting from SF to Monterey/Carmel
Without traffic, it takes just over two hours to drive from San Francisco to Monterey and Carmel. For every recent trip, however, we left San Francisco just before 6 am to beat all the traffic. Because you drive through the city and down past San Jose, there can be several slowdowns. I’d recommend driving in off-peak hours if you can — even if you’re just driving from the SFO airport.
If you have the time, Santa Cruz and Pacific Grove or Pebble Beach (near Monterey) are a few other stops to consider. Going from San Francisco to Carmel via Highway 1 is another slightly slower, but more scenic option that winds around the coastline.
And then when you arrive? Here’s what you need to know:
Things to Do in Carmel
Stroll the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea
Walking along Ocean Avenue will take you past most of the town’s highlights. Be sure to duck into alleyways and passages that often lead to patios and gardens. (The Thomas Kinkade Gallery side door leads to one of the best!) Check out the Tuck Box and Cottage of Sweets to see some of the most fairytale-esque spots.
Walk the trails of Point Lobos State Park
I especially love the walk to China Cove, where you will more than likely see not only beautiful landscapes but also dozens of cute, chubby seals chilling on the beach below. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife — it’s not uncommon to see sea otters, seals, native birds, even whales (December to May.)
Spend a leisurely morning or an afternoon at Carmel Beach
Carmel Beach at the edge of town (and no more than a few blocks from everything) is one of the most beautiful beaches in California to me. Its soft, white sands and deep blue waters, often accompanied by impressive waves, make this a favorite spot for many. Walk or bike on the bluffs above, checking out the oceanfront cottages as you go, and be sure to sit and relax on the sand if weather allows.
Visit the Carmel Mission
The California Missions are some of the most beautiful and important parts of our state’s history. (Ask anyone who grew up here which one they did a report on in grade school!) Mission Carmel is one of the most beautiful, and most traditionally restored, of the 21 missions across the state.
Take the scenic drive down Highway 1, or the 17 Mile Drive
As adorable as the town of Carmel is, there is nothing better to me than a relaxed drive down the coastline just outside of it. Drive for just thirty minutes south and you can see some of the incredible scenery of California’s central coast. The 17 Mile Drive, while stunning, requires you to pay to enter ($9.50.) It’s worth doing at least once, but to me, there’s nothing more freeing or appealing than just taking off down the winding coastline.
Where to Eat in Carmel
These are my favorite places to grab a bite in Carmel-by-the-Sea (after several visits.)
- Cultura Carmel: dinner + cocktails
- La Bicyclette: lunch or dinner
- Brophy’s Tavern: lunch or dinner + drinks
- Village Corner: lunch
- The Stationaery: coffee, brunch, or lunch
Read more about the Best Restaurants in Carmel << in this post!
Best Wineries in Carmel Valley
When we began scouting spaces in June last year, we knew we wanted to find and highlight some of the great (and low-key!) wine they’re making in Carmel Valley.
As soon as we stepped into the magical place that is Folktale Winery, we stopped the search. Their property is truly stunning, especially if you love modern design meets French chateau meets greenhouse space!
To us, the atmosphere is so special (and reflects Carmel so much,) and the food and wine was great (try their sparkling rosé!) that short of spending the whole weekend in Carmel Valley, this one winery will more than suit your needs. There are tons of tasting rooms in town, but Folktale Winery is a short 10-15 minutes away by car and really worth visiting.
Bernadus and Georgis Winery were the other two that came highly recommended if you want to add to your wine tour of Carmel Valley during your stay.
Best Places to Stay in Carmel
What I love most about Hotel Carmel isn’t just its size (a handful of rooms,) its location (right where you can walk to everything without being in a busy section of town,) or its beautiful design, but just how much staying there feels like home to me. Everything from a lobby that feels like a living room to a self-serve breakfast of bagels with fresh homemade strawberry cream cheese to the local wines served fireside makes me feel both comfortable and like I’m giving myself a little splurge. It remains my top hotel choice for Carmel.
La Playa is the largest, more beachfront sister property of Hotel Carmel. It’s got a little bit more of a classic Carmel resort (rather than fresh and trendy) vibe, yet it’s similarly comfortable with large fireplaces, a friendly staff, and a great patio. Check out La Playa to see if it’s more your style…also highly recommended!
If you’re looking for a friendly, and budget-friendly, place to stay right in the heart of town, you can do no better than the pink Hofsas House.
The family-owned property has a historic past but retains its hospitality and warmth today. Actual warmth — via the dry sauna and heated pool on site or the in-room fireplace if you’re lucky — is a huge bonus on a chilly coastal day. You’ll be welcomed with friendly service, free breakfast (with fresh local pastries!), free parking, large room size, and many more amenities that make this a personalized and all-around lovely base in Carmel. Ask about ocean viev room availability.
There’s so much around Carmel-by-the-Sea that’s worth seeing. Here are a few spots you can add on to your Carmel vacation if you’re continuing on down the coast.
Enjoy the Monterey Bay Aquarium (my forever favorite,) Cannery Row, scuba diving, whale watching, and more.
It takes about two hours to drive from San Francisco to Monterey, whereas Monterey to Carmel takes only 10-12 minutes. Even if my visit is just to Carmel, I make a point to stop at Captain + Stoker, an excellent coffee shop in Monterey. I also love Alvarado Street Brewery. And, if you’re looking for a place to stay that’s inexpensive and right in the middle of the action, I recommend HI USA which has an excellent hostel a few blocks from Cannery Row.
The two stars of the Big Sur coastline (which honestly, is a star in itself the whole way down) are McWay Falls and Bixby Bridge — the likes of which you’ve no doubt seen all over Instagram. I’m a fan of driving to Bixby Bridge for sunset at the very least, and love stopping to take in the coastline in Garrapata State Park‘s beaches and rocky, seascape nooks.
If you have the time, a camping trip in Big Sur amongst the trees and fresh coastal air is also very worth it!
Other Good Things To Note!
- You can fly directly into Monterey Regional Airport (MRY) from many West Coast airports. It’s worth connecting there rather than driving from SFO if you can manage it. It’s about ten minutes in an Uber to Carmel from there.
- Carmel is one of the most dog-friendly cities I’ve been to! If you’re lucky enough to have a four-legged friend in tow, you’ll be surprised to learn that the majority of Carmel hotels and restaurant patios are welcoming to dogs.
- There’s a beautiful, beautiful beach just past Carmel Beach (if you continue on down the road, past where the parking ends.) It’s shaped like a crescent, is hardly ever crowded, and on a sunny day rivals any other beach I’ve seen in this world for natural beauty.
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