California Vacation Escape: Carmel by the Sea

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The little village of Carmel is one of the most charming places in California.   Carmel is just a little over a one hour ride by car from San Jose or San Francisco. You can take the Coast Starlight train from San Jose, CA to Carmel or a Bus for as little as $30.00.  Once you’re in Carmel, you don’t need a car to get around and there are plenty of great things to do just by walking through town.   Here are a few of my favorite places and things to do  in Carmel.

village of Carmel.

A Map of the Village of Carmel.

Carmel offers world class shopping, dining, museums, wine tastings and some great spas.    Here are some of my Carmel favorites:

Hofsas House Boutique Hotel in Carmel

The Hofsas House Boutique Hotel in Carmel offers a pool and sauna.


  •  The Hofsas HouseMy favorite affordable hotel in Carmel is the Hofsas House. It’s family owned and run with a great pool and even a sauna.  Carrie Theis is the Inn keeper here. Because it is family run, the hotel offers hands-on, personal service and attention to guests that is rare and hard to find today. There are charming Bavarian murals in the front of the hotel that offer old-world charm. Breakfast is pastries, juice and coffee, which is included in the price.  The hotel has a heated pool, free parking, and some suites with balconies and kitchens.
  • The Cypress Inn:  This is Doris Day’s 1920’s style hotel.  It offers comfortable rooms, Terry’s bar/restaurant and is very pet friendly.  Your pet can stay with you in your room and even hang out in the common areas with you.
  • Hyatt Carmel Highlands:  120 Highlands Drive. If you don’t mind driving into town, and you want to spend a bit for your room, then check out the Hyatt Carmel. It’s  Five Star all the way with great  food, wine, views and rooms.  The hotel offers great service and incredible rooms with views of Big Sur. Rooms feature wood burning fireplaces. Some rooms have jacuzzis and kitchenettes. The Inn is close to Carmel and about 15 min from Big Sur. The food and wine at the Pacific’s Edge  lounge & restaurants are superlative.
Carmel downtown

The charming storefronts and KUSH Spa in Carmel, California.

Restaurants:  Carmel is full of great places to eat.  And each restaurant has personality.   Here’s a few I recommend.

  • Casanova Restaurant. (5th Avenue & Mission Street)  This little restaurant make you feel like you escaped to the old country.  They have delicious homemade pastas and great food. We simply adore Casanova. It’s a small intimate restaurant with most of the dining area in a garden outside. The pastas are delicious and home made. Everything is fresh cooked, nothing processed or microwaved. Their breadsticks and breads with fresh olive oil and the black olive spread are addictive.
  • The Hog’s Breath Inn: Everyone knows this place as Clint Eastwood’s place/pub, but beyond the celebrity draw, they have some terrific food and drinks. The Dirty Harry hamburger is one of the best things I have ever had, it’s full of fat, but that’s what makes it so good. I also like the Dirty Harry Cosmo which is made with raspberry juice instead of cranberry.
  • Flaherty’s Seafood Grill & Oyster House Restaurant: This is the place to go for a great seafood. They have incredible fresh halibut, calamari  and of course fresh oysters.  The spicy oyster stew is delicious and one of the restaurant’s best dishes.
  • Dametra Cafe:  This popular Ocean Avenue restaurant features singing waiters and delicious Greek/mediterranean food.  This is one of the more affordable place for dinner in Carmel with prices under $35.00 for many dinners.
  • Mission Ranch: There’s a wonderful Sunday brunch at Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch .  It’s only a 20-minute stroll across Carmel.  Better yet, return on a weekend night for drinks and live piano playing.
  • Mundaka offers  delicious small plates and tapas. Try the authentic and delicious Paella for the best value.  It’s one of the only places in Carmel serving food late at night.
  • Il Fornaio : This Italian restaurant is a chain, but it’s always fresh with reliable fare.  One of the best deals in Carmel is the $6.00 happy hour at Il Fornaio in the Pine Inn.   There’s a great selection of house wines, specialty cocktails, pizza and appetizers (including Calamari) all for just $6.00.  Happy Hour is from 4 pm to 6pm and my advice is get there early because it fills up fast.

Spa:  For the spa lovers, relax at Kush Day Spa, one of the highest regarded spas in Carmel, for one afternoon.  If you are willing to drive  a short way to Monterey, check out the Lumina Day Spa at the Casa Munras Hotel & Spa.   I bought an amazing package from TravelZoo for a massage and a facial at Lumina Day Spa for $139.00.  This is a great deal, as one treatment would usually cost $139.00.  The spa is small, but restful and beautifully decorated. The treatments were 5 star.  I had an incredible facial from Liz and a relaxing Massage from Venice.  Ask for these two when you visit!

We recently discovered the Muse Spa in Carmel and highly recommend this boutique spa. My sister and I went for a girl’s spa night and reserved the 80 min couples treatment. We both had amazing treatments! This little spa is hidden away in an alley-way near the Pine Inn and Il Fornia restaurant. You’ll find Muse Spa at the intersection of Dolores and 5th at the South West corner towards the back by an art gallery   The spa is small, but well appointed. Christina and the other therapist gave us deep massage that released muscle spasms and eased the pain of my  computer neck. The follow-on facial was gentle and cleansing. After the massage, I had the best night’s sleep I’ve had in months. I will definitely be back for another massage treatment.  Five star all the way.

Coffee:  There’s coffee tasting at the various local coffee houses in Carmel,  Carmel Coffee House and Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Co, who roast their coffee right in the area.

Art:  For photography lovers, Gallery Sur has amazing prints from the area or go to Weston Gallery, one of the oldest photographic galleries. Drop by the Carmel Art Association ( for details on local artists and the best galleries to explore according to your taste.

Mountainsong Galleries on Ocean Avenue in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California is the place to find more of today’s OPA and AIS Master Artists than anywhere in the World.  The gallery owners Jonathan and Lucinda Mountainsong have created a friendly, fun upbeat setting filled with contemporary Master Artists, whimsical and dramatic bronze sculptures, stunning glass art and custom wood furniture.  Mountainsong represents some of the greatest artists of our time from coast-to-coast. The gallery has announced the First in the World OPA Masters Only Show in July.  For the very first time in OPA’s 23 year history, artists will gather as one to celebrate the culmination of many years of hard work.

Wine Tasting: Carmel offers a number of great wineries nearby on Carmel Valley Road and tasting rooms within the village.  Here are a few places to put on your list.

 Carmel Wine Walk-by-the-Sea – stroll to 12 different wine tasting rooms and taste a flight of Monterey County grown grapes.  Purchase a Wine Walk Passport at the Hofsas House for $50 and it includes nine tastings.  Because of the cool air, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are some of the best.

10 Best Things to Do in Carmel (WITHOUT A CAR!)

1.       Walk on the beach and finish your night with wine and food over a beach fire.  Fires are allowed on Carmel Beach south of 10th Avenue (Beach fire rules)

2.       Bus ride (Route 22) down PCH to Big Sur and back, stop at Point Lobos, Rocky Point, Andrew Molera State Park, the town of Big Sure, and Nepenthe.  Ask our concierge or manager for hike recommendations. Check for road conditions and route service to Big Sur!

3.       Bus ride (“Grapevine Express” Route 24) to Carmel Valley and back, stop at Bernadus, Mid-Valley, and Carmel Valley Village.   Finish the day with free wine tastings at various partnering tasting rooms in the town of Carmel, courtesy of the Hofsas House.

4.       Take a 20-minute stroll down to the Carmel Mission and tour the Carmel Mission Museum.

5.       Go on a Carmel Walks  tour to learn about the history of Carmel and some of  it’s unique City ordinances.

6.       Combine food, wine, chocolate and history of Carmel by taking the Carmel Food Tour.

7.       Go to the Carmel Cheese Shop  to sample cheeses from around the world.  It is hard to select just one and then purchase a matching wine to take to the beach to watch the sunset.

8.       Learn about the famous poet, Robinson Jeffers, by taking the Tor House Tour.

9.       Happy Hour Tour:  Hofsas House recommends an assortment of happy hours (e.g., Vesuvio Restaurant,  right in town for discounted drinks and appetizers, and then finish off the night with a special entre.

10.   Arrange a surf lesson for half of the day at Carmel Beach,   A professional surfer will take you out and ensure a safe and enjoyable time learning to surf Carmel’s amazing waves!

If you travel to Carmel , leave me a comment and let me know what you think.  It’s one of my favorite vacation hide outs! 🙂


Since 2008, Mary Hall has been the author of The Recessionista Blog, which is read by thousands of regular readers in over 160 countries. An internationally recognized expert on the art of the living the good life for less, she has been a commentator on local, national, and international radio and TV shows. Her advice has been featured in over 2,000 media outlets, including The New York Times, Reuters, Life & Style magazine, ABC News, NBC News and now The Huffington Post, among many others.