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The 20 Best Things to Do in Carmel, CA, for First Timers

Carmel Beach

Carmel, officially called Carmel-by-the-Sea, is a small coastal city on the Monterey Peninsula in California. It is a quieter location than many other cities in California, although this does not mean that there is a lack of things to see and do during your visit. You will find many activities and attractions to keep you entertained during your stay in Carmel. It is known for its scenic coastal area and for its various historic landmarks, although there are many other activities you can include in your vacation itinerary that will suit all interests. To help you plan your trip, here are the 20 best things to do in Carmel, CA, for first-timers.

Palo Corona Regional Park

20. Get Close to Nature at Palo Corona Regional Park

There are many wonderful outdoor spaces to enjoy throughout California, and one that you should explore during a visit to Carmel is the Palo Corona Regional Park. The park covers 4,300-acres of varied landscape, and it has an amazing eco-system. It is home t more than 500 species of plants, and these grow in a range of habitats, including the hardwood forest on the Palo central Peak to the Carmel River. The park is also home to a vast array of wildlife, including various rare and endangered species, such as the Smith’s blue butterfly, the California red-legged frog, and tiger salamanders. Some of the less rare species you will see in the park include bobcats, eagles, deer, black bears, California condors, Peregrine falcons, and mountain lions.

Treehouse Cafe

19. Enjoy an Evening Meal at the Treehouse Cafe

Although there are many fantastic places to eat in Carmel, the Treehouse Café offers a unique experience. Sitting in the treetop-style café brings out the child in diners, and there is a whimsical atmosphere. Although the eatery is open for both lunch and dinner, the best time to eat there is in the evenings. The property is surrounded by trees, and it is lit up at night, which gives the restaurant a magical atmosphere. It has a varied menu of international dishes, ranging from Greek to Italian food. The restaurant also serves burgers and sandwiches. Although the wine list is only small, there is a good selection of cocktails. You will find this restaurant in downtown Carmel.

Carl Cherry Center for the Arts

18. See the Exhibits at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts

There are no big art galleries in Carmel, so the best place to visit for art enthusiasts is the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts. The center was formed in 1948 by Carmel artist Jeanne D’Orge. The original aims of the center were to support experimental science and art projects and to make it possible for artists to express themselves. Now, the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts presents a diverse range of contemporary, original, cultural, and educational programs. Not only is there an art gallery, but there is also a 50-seat theater. Furthermore, the grounds house the Geraldine M. and Tom R. Houston Sculpture Garden. Therefore, there is plenty to enjoy at this venue for arts and culture lovers.

Wines at Caraccioli Cellars

17. Sample the Wines at Caraccioli Cellars

California is known for its wine production, so you should try to include a wine tasting in your choice of activities for your vacation. |the best winery in the Carmel area is the Caraccioli Cellars. It is a family-owned and operated winery that was founded in 2006. On the 124-acre Escolle Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands, the winery grows only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. The winery aims to fully control the winemaking process to ensure they produce distinctive and high-quality wines. There is a tasting room located in downtown Carmel that is open every day. There, you can enjoy a wine-tasting session to sample some of the best wines produced by the local winery.

Outdoors at Forest Theater

16. Watch a Film Outdoors at Forest Theater

An attraction with something different to offer is the Forest Theater. As the name suggests, it is an outdoor theater in the forest. It is one of only a few outdoor theaters along the West Coast. The Forest Theater shows a combination of live performances and films, and it was founded by Herbert Heron in 1920. If you want to want to watch an outdoor performance or film at the Forest Theater, then it is best to check out the performance schedule in advance.

Golden Bough Playhouse

15. See a Performance at the Golden Bough Playhouse

Those who enjoy watching theatrical performances should try to catch a performance at the Golden Bough Playhouse. The playhouse is on the site of the former Carmel Arts and Crafts Clubhouse that was burned to the ground in 1935. There are now two theaters within the structure that replaced the Carmel Arts and Crafts Clubhouse. While the Golden Bough Theater seats 300 people, the Circle Theater accommodates only 120 seats.

Sunset Cultural Center

14. Visit Sunset Cultural Center

An interesting venue to visit during your stay in Carmel is the Sunset Cultural Center, says Trip Savvy. It was once a public school, but it has since been converted into a state-of-the-art center for the performing arts. Various performances take place at the Sunset Cultural Center throughout the year, including musicals, dramatic productions, dance performances, and comedy shows. You should check out what is on at the center before embarking on your vacation in Carmel, as you may need to book tickets in advance.

Scenic Road Walkway

13. Walk the Scenic Road Walkway

An excellent way to take in the scenery is to enjoy a stroll along the Scenic Road Walkway. It has amazing views on both sides of the walkway. On one side, you can enjoy the coastal views across the ocean. On the other side, there are stunning mansions, each of which is unique. The walkway is just 1.7-miles long, so it is accessible to people of all abilities and ages.

Carmel River State Beach

12. Have Fun at Carmel River State Beach

Carmel River State Beach is a different section of the coastline to Carmel Beach, and both beaches offer something different. The surf is rough, so it is not a swimmer’s beach. However, there are plenty more activities you can enjoy. It is a popular spot amongst bird watchers, divers, and kayakers. You will find this beach where the Carmel River reaches the Pacific Ocean and forms a lagoon.

Pebble Beach Golf Links

11. Play a round of Golf at the Pebble Beach Golf Links

Golf enthusiasts visiting Carmel can keep themselves entertained by playing a round of golf at the Pebble Beach Golf Links. The 18-hole golf course is set against rocky bluffs, and it is surrounded by pine and cypress trees. It also overlooks the Pacific Ocean, so there are amazing views no matter where you are on the course. If you are more of a spectator than a golf player, there are various championships and events that take place at the links throughout the year. The is also a car show held every August.

Mission Inn

10. Dine at Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant

One of the top hotels in Carmel is the Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant. It has luxurious accommodation and facilities, including a fitness club and tennis courts. Even if you are not fortunate enough to stay in this stunning historical property, you can dine in its outstanding restaurant. Not only does the gourmet restaurant serve exquisite food, but it also has live jazz music and spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean.

Garland Ranch Regional Park

9. Stroll Around Garland Ranch Regional Park

To make the most of the Californian climate, you will probably want to spend time outdoors. A great place to make the most of the outdoors is at Garland Ranch Regional Park. It extends from the sycamore and cottonwood trees in the floodplains to the Santa Lucia Mountains. There are multiple hiking trails to explore within the park. Other activities to enjoy at this park are horseback riding, jogging, mountain biking, a d bird watching. It is also a wonderful place to enjoy a picnic.

Hidden Passageways and Fairy-Tale Cottages

8. Explore the Hidden Passageways and Fairy-Tale Cottages

An interesting and unusual feature of Carmel is the fairy-tale cottages. During the 1920s and 1930s, Hugh Comstock created whimsical fairy-tale cottages using fantasy architecture. The idea originated from Comstock making his wife a studio where she could enjoy her hobby of making dolls. He then bought a cheap piece of land to build more fairy-tale cottages, and there are now 21 surviving cottages on the plot. Visitors can take a self-guided tour, and there is a visitor center on-site.

17-Mile Drive

7. Drive the 17-Mile Drive

If you are visiting Carmel in your car, then you should drive the 17-mile Drive. It is a drive that takes you 17 miles along the coast of Carmel and beyond, and it is one of the best ways to admire the views. You will also see some of the most significant landmarks along the route.

Ocean Avenue

6. Enjoy Some Retail Therapy on Ocean Avenue

Those who want to enjoy a spot of retail therapy during their visit to Carmel should head for Ocean Drive, as this is where you will find a multitude of boutiques and specialty or artisan shops. You can buy everything from traditional sweets to music boxes and from Nordic wares to hats along this road. Ocean Avenue is also home to local markets, restaurants, and hotels.

Tor House and Hawk Tower

5. Go to Tor House and Hawk Tower

Tor House and Hawk Tower are two of the most significant landmarks in Carmel, and the house was originally built in 1919 by Californian poet Robinson Jeffers. He then built the tower as a play space for his sons. Tours of the house and tower are available on Fridays and Saturdays, and visitors can learn more about the buildings’ construction.

Monterey Aquarium

4. See the Marine Life at Monterey Aquarium

A fun day out for all the family is a visit to the Monterey Aquarium, which is home to a vast array of marine life. A visit to the aquarium is a chance to learn more about the different species, their natural habitat, and marine conservation. The aquarium sits on Monterey Bay, and there is an observation deck where visitors can watch the otters, whales, and other wildlife in their natural habitat.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

3. Explore Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

According to Vacation Idea, the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve has some of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the United States. On this stretch of coastline, there are rocky bluffs against which the Pacific Ocean’s waves crash. There are also forests of pine and cypress trees, fields of coastal scrub, tide pools, wildflowers, and marine terraces. Nature lovers will adore exploring this area.

San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission

2. Visit the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission

The most significant structure in Carmel is the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission, so this should be amongst the top things to do on your vacation itinerary. The mission was founded by Father Junipero Serra of Spain in 1771, and it is still an active church. Its basilica is the centerpiece of the Carmel Mission, and it is a designated National Historic Landmark. The basilica boasts a highly decorative interior, including stunning arches, a vaulted ceiling, and examples of Spanish Colonial liturgical art. There are several museums at the mission, all of which contain artifacts relating to the mission’s history.

Carmel Beach

1. Spend the Day at Carmel Beach

According to Planetware, the best things to do in Carmel, CA, for first-timers is to spend the day at Carmel Beach. As this is a seaside city, it makes sense that the beach is one of its most popular attractions. It is a beautiful stretch of white sand, where people enjoy walking, playing volleyball, and building sandcastles. Although it is possible to swim in the sea, there is no lifeguard on the beach, so this is something to keep in mind for safety reasons.

Liz Flynn

Written by Liz Flynn

Liz Flynn has worked as a full-time writer since 2010 after leaving a career in education. She finds almost all topics she writes about interesting, but her favorite subjects are travel and food. Liz loves the process of researching information, learning new things, and putting into words what others who share her interests might like to read. Although she spends most of her time writing, she also enjoys spending time with her husband and four children, watching films, cooking, dining out, reading, motorsports, gaming, and walking along the beach next to her house with her dog.

Read more posts by Liz Flynn

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