6 Things to do in Carmel By the Sea: Californian Amtrak Adventures (+Photos)

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a charming seaside town along the central coastline of California, famous for its quaint Spanish colonial architecture, golden beaches, and incredible dining options. It has long been held as one of the more private and exclusive towns for America’s wealthy and elite to settle in, and it’s not hard to see why.

Having spent a few months living in San Francisco, I was eager to explore Carmel-by-the-Sea and the Northern Californian coastline. What better way to do so than on Amtrak?

Carmel River State Beach

I’ve always been drawn to the romance of traveling by train. The ever-changing scenery out the windows, a perfectly warm interior no matter the weather outside, grabbing a coffee from the food cart, and the anticipation of arriving at a new destination.

It might be because I come from a country with minimal opportunity for train travel. But if I’m given the option to drive or take the train, you’ll catch me waiting by the tracks every time.

All Aboard: Emeryville to Salinas

Emeryville to Salinas

The journey began at a small bus station in the heart of San Francisco. Unfortunately, Amtrak doesn’t run directly through the city. Given the geographical layout of the Bay Area, it makes sense why the train tracks would bypass this water dense area.

Luckily, Amtrak offers a thruway service that connects the city center to the Emeryville Train Station (which is just across the Bay Bridge near Oakland, California) with a 35 to 40-minute bus journey.

To get to Carmel, you’ll want to catch the Coast Starlight train which travels between Seattle and Los Angeles. Other than winding through the rolling countryside, vineyards, and the rugged coastline of California, one of the coolest things about this journey was meeting other passengers who had started their journey up in Seattle and were in it for the full 35-hour journey.

The bus departs at 7 a.m. from San Francisco, drops you at the train station in Emeryville for an hour-long transfer, and then travels for 3 hours and 27 minutes from Emeryville to Salinas. At Salinas, you’ll need to catch another Amtrak-operated thruway bus that connects you to Carmel-by-the-Sea. All in all, the journey takes just under six hours and costs $42 for a coach seat.

Amtrak Train

Pro Tip: During the journey, make the time to sit in the viewing car. This carriage has dining seating, swiveling chairs, and high glass windows that extend into the ceiling. It’s the best place to check out the views, especially at sunrise and sunset.

A Short Background on Carmel by the Sea

Background on Carmel by the Sea

Carmel’s history dates back to the Spanish Colonial Era in 1603 when a Spanish explorer anchored in the bay and called the area Carmelo.

Since then, the town has housed one of the West Coasts’ most important historical missions, seen Clint Eastwood as Mayor, Doris Day make the town into a dog-friendly haven, and restaurants serving almost every international cruising imaginable pop up along its shores.

There are few hotels here, with the bulk of accommodation comprising homey beds and breakfasts. To name a few, Cypress Inn, Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant (which I will detail in this article), as well as Carmel Country Inn, Carmel Garden Inn, Le Petit Pali at 8th Avenue, and Carmel Fireplace Inn are some of the most sought-after accommodations.

Retail Therapy in Carmel

The iconic Tuck Box shop
The iconic Tuck Box shop

When we arrived in the town, I was eager to explore the unique shops and boutiques I had heard so much about. While Carmel has a small mall at the top of the main road (known as Carmel Plaza), most of the shops here are boutiques that showcase bespoke art, grand interiors, and hand-made clothing.

Carmel Shops

I took a heavy interest in the interior design shops, which sold some of the most beautiful fabrics, interesting furniture, and made-to-tailor homeware pieces I’ve ever laid eyes on.

You can spend hours meandering through the cobblestone streets discovering these one-of-a-kind (and very expensive) treasures. The best place to start would be at the top of Ocean Avenue, where the street intersects with Juniper Street. Head west towards the ocean, exploring all the small alleys and streets around San Carlos Street, 7th Avenue, and 6th Avenue.

The Art Galleries of Carmel by the Sea

A courtyard of a local gallery

Within the same area, you’ll find just as many art galleries as boutique shops. I wasn’t too taken with the art on display during my trip to Carmel-by-the-Sea, but that’s not to say there isn’t a huge variety of art and sculpture worth checking out throughout the town. There is plenty to see from both established and emerging artists.

Carmel Shops

If you are unsure where to begin your search for the perfect painting, the Carmel Art Association, Carmel Fine Art Gallery, and Galler-by-the-Sea Carmel are great places to start.

Lunch at Terry’s Lounge at the Cypress Inn

After a morning on our feet, we headed to Terry’s Lounge at the iconic and historic Cypress Inn for a slow and casual lunch. The Inn looks like it’s straight out of an old Hollywood movie – which is appropriate since it’s been a serious stomping ground for America’s rich and famous since the 1920s.

Residential homes around the town

Terry’s is set in a cozy Spanish Colonial courtyard surrounded by fountains, lush plants, and twinkling lights, great for a relaxed atmosphere in the center of Carmel. The restaurant offers a locally sourced menu with a Mediterranean flair. We ordered a classic Caesar salad and a fish taco plate to share, paired with a pot of tea, for a reasonable $55.

A Blissful Beach Walk

Beach Walk

There are few better ways to walk off a lunch than with a stroll on the beach, right? Well, with the beautiful Pacific Ocean lapping against soft sand just a ten-minute stroll from The Cypress Inn, this is exactly what I did.

With the afternoon sun warming my skin and the cool sand beneath my toes, the beach is always a good idea. I used this walk to get from one side of the town to the other on the way to my next destination, Mission Ranch. The beach walk from north to south along Carmel Beach took about 25 minutes and was the perfect way to digest lunch and prepare for the next attraction.

Sipping at Sunset: Drinks at Mission Ranch

Mission Ranch
Mission Ranch

From the southern part of Carmel Beach, Mission Ranch is a short ten-minute walk through the gorgeous residential neighborhood of Carmel Point. You can also walk or catch the bus or Uber from the town center. Walking from town will take around 20 minutes on a relatively flat and straight road, and an Uber might take 5 minutes and cost you $15.

So, what is the Mission Ranch? Now a hotel and restaurant, this spectacular property overlooks Point Lobos and Carmel Beach on 22 acres of ranchland. While it has a long history dating back to the 1800s, it is now famously known for being restored and owned by Clint Eastwood, another Hollywood star who lived in, and even ran, the town.

The Inn is famous for its old-American flair and piano bar, and just like the Cypress Inn, it isn’t unheard of to bump into someone from your favorite movies here.

On arrival at Mission Ranch, I was escorted to a table on a deck overlooking the wide-open ranch. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, so seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. I ordered a Mission red sangria and some potato skins to snack on, totaling $30, including a tip.

Mission Ranch Restaurant is typically open from 7 am until 10:30 am for weekday breakfasts, early dinner, and cocktails from 3 pm to 5 pm daily and for dinner between 5 pm and 9 pm. They are also open for Sunday brunch between 10 am and 1:30 pm.

Dinner at La Bicyclette Restaurant

Carmel Diner

After refreshing at our accommodation, Normandy Bed and Breakfast, it was time for dinner. We had reserved a table at La Bicyclette Restaurant, a French spot famous for its authentic food and exceptional atmosphere. I loved how the restaurant was decorated, with hanging dish towels and quirky interiors that transported you onto the streets of France.

We ordered Parisian gnocchi to start, a sizeable wood-fired mushroom pizza to share, and two delicious desserts to end on a sweet note. This meal was pricey but well worth it for the high quality of ingredients and wholesome ambiance.

The Normandy Bed and Breakfast

We spent two nights in the town, which meant I really got to experience a few of the best restaurants. Porta Bella was another one of our favorite dinner restaurants.

Pro Tip: Carmel’s restaurants fill up fast for dinner reservations, especially during spring and summer time. Make sure to book your spot in advance to avoid missing out!

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