The exclusive enclave of Carmel-by-the-Sea (to give its complete name) began life in the early years of the 20th century as a small but lively bohemian colony inhabited by the literary likes of Sinclair Lewis, Mary Austin, and Upton Sinclair. However, with a few arts-and-crafts exceptions, by the 1950s Carmel had turned into the archly conservative and contrivedly quaint community it is today—a place where Marie Antoinette would no doubt feel at home, dressing down as a peasant, albeit in Chaps by Ralph Lauren.

Preserving its rural feel by banning street addresses (and home mail delivery), Carmel simultaneously loves and abhors the many thousands of tourists who descend on it every weekend to window-shop its many designer boutiques and galleries, which fill the few blocks off Ocean Avenue, the main drag through town. Though most of Carmel’s many art galleries seem directed at interior decorators, a few are worth searching out, including the Photography West Gallery on the southeast corner of Dolores Street and Ocean Avenue, and the Weston Gallery on 6th Avenue near Dolores Street, featuring the works of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and other Carmel-based photographers.

Though it’s easy to be put off by the surface glitz, Carmel does have a lot going for it. The water is too cold and treacherous for swimming, but broad Carmel Beach City Park at the foot of Ocean Avenue gleams white against a truly azure cove. To the south, aptly named Scenic Road winds along the rocky coast, past poet Robinson Jeffers’s dramatic Tor House (831/624-1813, tours Fri.-Sat. 10am-3pm, $12). Jeffers, who lived at the house between 1919 and 1962, built much of what you see here out of boulders he hauled up by hand from the beach.

At the south end of the Carmel peninsula, another broad beach, Carmel River State Beach, spreads at the mouth of the Carmel River; this usually unpopulated spot is also a favorite spot for scuba divers exploring the deep undersea canyon.

Above the beach, just west of Hwy-1 a mile south of central Carmel, Carmel Mission (daily, $9.50 donation), also known as San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, was the most important of all the California missions, serving as home, headquarters, and final resting place of Junípero Serra, the Franciscan priest who established Carmel and many of the 20 other California missions, and who is entombed under the chapel floor. The gardens—where on weekends wedding parties alight from limos to take family photos—are beautiful, as is the facade with its photogenic bell tower. This is the mission to visit if you visit only one.

Carmel Practicalities

Dozens of good and usually expensive restaurants thrive in Carmel. One place to see, even if you don’t eat there, is the tiny mock-Tudor The Tuck Box (831/624-6365, daily 7am-2:30pm), on Dolores Street near 7th Avenue. Dollhouse-cute, it serves up bacon-and-eggs breakfasts and dainty plates of shepherd’s pie and meatloaf for lunch. If you’d rather join locals than mingle with your fellow tourists, head to Katy’s Place (831/624-0199, daily 7am-2pm) on Mission Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, serving delicious waffles and some of the world’s best eggs Benedict.

Carmel hotel rates average well over $250, and there isn’t any real budget option (apart from nearby Monterey). However, if you want to splurge on a bit of luxury, Carmel is a good place to do it. Besides the golf course resorts of nearby Pebble Beach, Carmel also has the commodious 1920s-era mission-style Cypress Inn (831/624-3871 or 800/443-7443, $279 and up) at Lincoln and 7th Avenue, partly owned by dog-loving Doris Day and featuring posters of her movies in the small bar off the lobby. A relaxing spot away from downtown is the historic Clint Eastwood-owned Mission Ranch (26270 Dolores St., 831/624-6436 or 800/538-8221, $125 and up), within walking distance of the beach and mission and offering full resort facilities and a good restaurant.

Map of Pacific Coast through Monterey and Carmel.
Map of Pacific Coast through Monterey and Carmel.
Travel map of Carmel
Carmel
Map of Pacific Coast through California's Central Coast.
Map of Pacific Coast through California’s Central Coast.