Whimsical cottages meet stunning coastline in this artist colony-turned-luxury retreat
Places to Eat & Drink
If there were only the beach, that would be enough. It’s a lovely beach, a crescent of pale sand that gives way to turquoise Pacific, backed by Monterey cypress, their foliage flattened into wide fans by the coastal wind. But Carmel Beach isn’t the only star of the petite Monterey County city. Rather, it’s an ensemble cast of charms that make Carmel-by-the-Sea such an enchanting destination—one worthy of regular distinctions like Travel + Leisure’s “11 Best Small Towns in America.”
Art and History in Carmel
Officially incorporated in 1916, Carmel (as it’s often referred to in shorthand) has long exerted a magnetic pull on artists and authors. Some of its earliest residents included writers Mary Austin, Sinclair Lewis, and Jack London, who fled post-earthquake San Francisco for the enclave’s bohemian appeal. Poet Robinson Jeffers, arriving with his wife in 1914, called the town “our inevitable place,” and built his stone Tor House, now open on weekends for tours, overlooking the ocean. That rich history of creativity has left its mark: Today Carmel is home to nearly 100 galleries that showcase works ranging from 19th-century Impressionism to contemporary pieces by artists not only from the Golden State, but from all over the world. For a particularly notable collection of Early California paintings dating from 1870 to 1950, stop by Karges Fine Art. Carmel Fine Art Gallery, located across the street, also offers a fine selection of Californian works from that era.
Carmel’s Eclectic Homes (and a Unique Address System)
The tradition of naming homes—perhaps a vestige of its literary past—endures in Carmel, where garden cottages that look plucked from the Brothers Grimm sit next to Mediterranean estates and modern ranches. Builder Hugh Comstock created the fairy-tale aesthetic in the 1920s, and 21 of his originals remain, including the Tuck Box, a quaint café that specializes in afternoon tea. (Another quirk here is that the city does not use street addresses. The locations of businesses and homes are identified as being on “San Carlos St. at 9th Ave.” or on “Carmelo St., three houses south of Ocean Ave.”)
Those in search of heartier fare could not find themselves in a better place— Carmel-by-the-Sea has around 60 restaurants in one square mile, making it one of the most restaurant-rich small cities in the nation, and it’s also home to more Michelin-recognized restaurants than any other city in Monterey County (Chez Noir and Aubergine have both been awarded a coveted star). A few other standouts include Cultura Comida y Bebida, where Oaxacan dishes like smoked pork mole and chapulines (toasted grasshoppers seasoned with lime and salt) are best paired with one of 39 mezcals, and La Bicyclette, where the vibe is pure French bistro. Early June is a particularly good time to experience it all, as it brings the weeklong Carmel-by-the-Sea Culinary Week, which offers tasting events, curated menus, and special offers at more than 30 participating restaurants.
More Things to Do in Carmel
Along with restaurants, art galleries, and places to sip, Carmel Village is stocked with charming boutiques and even boasts a historic mission and a state-of-the-art performing arts center. Browse fancy pens at Bittner, a shop dedicated to the art of writing, or shop for a unique candle at Wicks & Wax. Take a self-guided tour of the historic Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, more commonly known as Carmel Mission, which dates back to 1770. If you’re jonesing for a show, the Sunset Cultural Center—built in 1926 as a public school—has had its beautiful Modern Gothic exterior and dramatic interior repurposed as a performance hall with exceptional acoustics. Drop by to see a performance, which could be anything from stand-up comedy to a rock band, a play, dance, or a rousing concert by the Monterey Symphony (check their calendar).
Outdoor Fun in and Around Carmel
But it’s the raw environment that best defines this stretch of California, and that means venturing out. Navigate 17-Mile Drive by car or bike, stopping to contemplate the Lone Cypress that’s clung to a patch of rock for centuries. Play a round at Pebble Beach, the No. 1 public golf course in the country, book a surf lesson, or make for Point Lobos State Reserve, where scuba divers and kayakers share the water with harbor seals and sea otters. When the day is almost done, hit the sand to admire the sunset over the Pacific with your canine companion, and ponder why it is you don’t live here.