February 13, 2019

Guide to Carmel-by-the-Sea With Kids

Carmel-by-the-Sea (or Carmel) is a picturesque seaside coastal town in California, known for its charming architecture that looks like the setting for Hansel and Gretel. You can find countless suggestions for romantic restaurants and inns for a couple’s getaway, sure. But what about families? Are there things to do in Carmel with kids?

It turns out, there’s plenty to do in Carmel with kids, especially if yours is an outdoorsy family. Here’s what we did and how you can plan your own getaway!

Guide to planning a great vacation to Carmel-by-the-Sea with your family. Tips on where to eat in Carmel | Where to hike near Carmel | What kid-friendly attractions are in Carmel | Where to stay in Carmel with kids  #California #Carmel #familytravel

Disclosure: Our stay was hosted by Hofsas House Hotel. Some of our expenses were comped and some were not. This post may contain affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, if you make a purchase from an affiliate link, I receive a referral payment.

Note: Everyone refers to Carmel-by-the-Sea as Carmel, so I’ll be using it interchangeably in this post.

Where is Carmel-by-the-Sea?

Carmel-by-the-Sea is along the coast of California found just off the famous Highway 1, making it a perfect pit stop for road trippers. If you’re flying into the area, there is an airport in nearby Monterey.

I found more affordable flight options into San Francisco and San Jose. Ultimately, we flew into San Jose and drove the scenic route south.

Car on the coast of California at a beach in Carmel-by-the-Sea
Here we are at Carmel Beach in the fab 2019 Mitsubishi Outlander we had for the weekend.

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a walkable small city, so I recommend finding a hotel or B&B near the city center. Since we had the kids, we wanted one with a pool (that was heated). We were hosted by Hofsas House Hotel, a charming Bavarian-inspired inn.

Hotel in Carmel - Hofsas House Hotel in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Hofsas House Hotel is a family-friendly, family-owned hotel in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

It has suites that are ideal for families. Ours even had a private balcony. Each room has Dutch doors, which entertained my kids for a good 10 minutes once they discovered they could open just the top portion of our door.

Find hotel suggestions at the end of this post!

Carmel With Kids

Carmel is a shopper’s paradise, but I quickly found that beyond the cute toy store and candy shops, my kids had very little interest in browsing.

Carmel with kids - Candy store called Cottage of Sweets in Carmel, California
My kids peeking inside the Cottage of Sweets, a cute little candy store in Carmel-by-the-Sea. We passed by it on one of our early morning walks when the store hadn’t opened yet.

So, if you imagine your kids are similar, I have two outdoorsy recommendations for you. You’d better check out Carmel Beach. Think white, fine sand and plenty of space to run.

Carmel Beach is a dog-friendly beach, so if you have furbabies with you, they can run off the leash.

We visited in the winter, so it was way too cold to actually play in the water. But, that didn’t stop us from going at sunset a few nights while we were there. We just had to bundle up.

And I was kidding. My kids tried to get in the water many times.

Carmel in the winter - You can still visit the beach, though the water is cold
There’s my daughter, dancing in the ocean foam at Carmel Beach in the middle of winter.

My other recommendation is to go to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. For just the $10 entry fee, it was one of the highlights of our trip. It’s worth a visit.

First, we hiked the easy Cypress Grove Trail. It took us to absolutely gorgeous views.

Things to do with kids in Carmel - Hike at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
On the hike to see the Old Veteran, a cypress tree that practically hangs off a cliff at Point Lobos.

We found Old Veteran, the tree hanging on a cliff.We also spied seals in the distance.

After the hike, we visited with park volunteers, who helpfully had suggestions on where else in the park we should go.

Tide pools at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Carmel, California USA
My kids loved the tide pools at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Carmel.

The tide pools at Point Lobos were amazing, if a little nerve-wracking as a parent. You can get right up to the edge of the surf. The kids were an absolute heaven – climbing, jumping and exploring the nooks and crannies.

More things to do with kids in Carmel (and nearby)

If you’re a history-loving family, or perhaps just devout Catholic, you may want to plan a stop to tour the Carmel Mission Basilica and the museums connected to it.

It’ll take you about an hour, or less, and it’s one of the state’s most important historical sites.

Carmel history - Visit Carmel Mission Basilica in Carmel-by-the-Sea California
The courtyard at Carmel Mission Basilica is beautifully designed. Not pictured, just off to the right, is a fountain.

Carmel Mission Basilica has beautiful architecture from the 18th century and is a peaceful place to visit. It was founded by Saint Junipero Serra, and is the location of where he’s buried.

But to be honest, the kids weren’t very interested in it (not even my history-loving son). I would’ve skipped it and saved the admission fee if I had known better.

Monterey and Pacific Grove are two nearby towns you’ll want to check out if you are staying longer than a night or two. The biggie to see is the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Things to do with kids near Carmel - Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium
The view from the second floor of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The kids definitely enjoyed the experience, especially the touch tanks and sea otter feedings. There are quite a few hands-on opportunities as well as a play area (with a separate space for toddlers).

Things kids love at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California - Touch tanks
There were all sorts of things in the touch tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

If you’re on a budget, this is one of the bigger expenses you’ll encounter on the trip. For the four of us, it would’ve been $160 if I hadn’t been given complimentary passes.

Plan on spending a good part of a day there. I was told to expect to be there for about four hours, which is a good rule of thumb. We left for lunch and then returned for another hour or so.

The aquarium is near Cannery Row, a super touristy street filled with souvenir shops and pricey restaurants. However, it’s worth noting that those pricey restaurants have outstanding views.

Cannery Row has a few activities for families, beyond looking for wildlife in the ocean. There’s putt putt and a mirror maze, for one thing.

Tourist sites near Carmel - Old Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, California
Even on a dreary and drizzling winter day, there were plenty of tourists strolling along Old Fisherman’s Wharf.

Not too far away is Old Fisherman’s Wharf. Again, it’s touristy, but I liked it. The kids loved the candy stores, naturally. The wharf is where most whale watching tours depart.

The wharf is where we stopped to sample some of that free clam chowder everyone tells you about (my kids hated it). We also had lunch there. I talk about the restaurant, Abalonetti Bar and Grill, in the next section.

We also found a guy with birds on the wharf. My daughter has an obsession with birds, so she spent quite a bit of time holding each one of them.

Birds at Old Fisherman's Wharf, a popular tourist spot in Monterey, California
Making friends with the birds at Old Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, Calif.

There’s a bike trail all along the coast in Monterey that would be a great route for families. It was rainy and cold during our visit, so we didn’t get to experience it.

We had a brief patch of sunshine one day, so while we were in Monterey, we went to Dennis The Menace Playground. While it was funded by the cartoonist behind the character, there isn’t much that hints at Dennis the Menace besides some sculptures.

Regardless, it’s a great playground.

Outdoor places for kids to play near Carmel - The Dennis the Menace Playground in Monterey is worth the drive
The Dennis the Menace Playground in Monterey had a ton of play structures, including a small climbing wall, which you can’t see in this picture, unfortunately.

The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History is a nice museum to visit when the weather isn’t cooperating.

Be sure to do the scavenger hunts – they’re a great way to explore all the exhibits, and the kids who complete one get a surprise at the end. My youngest did all three, she enjoyed it so much.

Museums near Carmel - Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History
My daughter was determined to finish every scavenger hunt at the Pacific Coast Museum of Natural History. She completed three. You only need to complete one to collect a small prize.

The museum has a small outdoor space with native plants to attract pollinators and migrating butterflies. Plus, there’s a large whale statue to climb in front.

A lot of people told me about 17-Mile Drive. It’s the scenic route that takes you past Pebble Beach, by the lone Cypress and scenic overlooks. On a fairly rainy day, we paid our entrance fee and drove the route. We stopped at a few stops, including Spanish Bay Beach.

The kids loved the beach. I was freezing cold. Maybe in better weather, I’d appreciate the drive more.

Carmel restaurants with kids

I was pleasantly surprised how many restaurants had kid’s menus in Carmel. When I was researching the trip, I didn’t find many, so I was skeptical that it would actually be a good family-friendly destination.

I go into more details on the restaurants in this Carmel restaurants post.

One thing I’ve got to get out of the way, as a Midwesterner: Whatever your budget is for dining, double it in Carmel.

Breakfast was my favorite meal in Carmel. From Scratch (of “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives” fame), was great, with a friendly staff and kid’s menu. There was a slight wait the morning we went.

Instagrammable Carmel - The Tuck Box was a great restaurant for breakfast and welcoming to family (though no kid's menu).
Appearing to be a structure straight out of Hansel and Gretel, Tuck Box is actually a restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Tuck Box was the most charming of all places we went to. While it didn’t have a kid’s menu, it did have pancakes, which was fine for my kids.

We went early on Sunday morning, so there was no wait. Be sure to bring cash, as they do not accept credit cards.

We didn’t get any breakfast at this next stop, but the coffee was great, so I’m recommending it. Carmel Belle is tucked away in a shopping center, and strikes me as a local version of Panera, but better.

Restaurants with a view near Carmel - Lalla Lounge in Monterey, California
Be sure to get a table along the window at Lalla Lounge located in Cannery Row in Monterey, Calif.

Other restaurants to consider:

  • Baja Grill: The décor is a lot of fun here. It’s all race cars, motorcycles and related movie memorabilia here. The food was forgettable, but at least the staff was friendly to the kids.
  • Lalla Lounge: This restaurant on Cannery Row in Monterey had the best view of the trip. The kid’s menu had a nice variety, and I enjoyed my salad. 
  • Abalonetti Bar and Grill: This Old Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant came recommended to us by the guy pouring the wine at a wine tasting room. (BTW, I heard it pronounced like “Apple and Eddie”) We all had fish and chips (or shrimp and chips) for lunch. It was fine. Don’t forget: As you walk the wharf, you can sample several chowders for free. It’s almost a meal itself.
  • Fifth Avenue Deli: We stopped here to get some picnic food one day. Unfortunately, the weather was definitely not picnic weather. 
  • La Bicicleta: This Carmel bistro came highly recommended to us. It’s super charming, and what I’d picture as an ideal date spot. There’s no kid’s menu, but there are pizzas on the menu, so you’re not totally out of luck if you bring kids with you. Still, this one I wouldn’t necessarily say is the best choice. 
  • Lugano’s Swiss Bistro: Fondue makes for a fun night out with the kids, don’t you think? This place is decked out like a Swiss chalet, and the menu is features German food in addition to the fondue. Ask for a kid’s menu, if you’re not going to want to pay adult prices for the kids. I had the schnitzel – it was superb.
  • Sur Restaurant: Not to put down Sur, because the burger was great, but this was our second choice after our first choice had an hour and a half wait and the rest of Carmel was out of power. It’s in the same shopping center as From Scratch and Lugano’s. There is a kid’s menu there, at least. 

California wine with kids?

If you’re curious about wineries and wine tasting rooms (because there are several in town, and the wineries are nearby), I’m sorry to say we didn’t go to many. I had two Carmel wineries in mind that I’d read were welcoming to families. I included them on my Carmel Bucket List.

Carrie, the owner at Hofsas House, said most wine tasting rooms are kid-friendly as they’re not technically bars. We stopped at one called Dawn’s Dream in Carmel.

Dawn’s Dream has couches in a corner with a stack of coloring books, so we felt fine letting the kids entertain themselves why we tried the Chardonnay and Pinor Noir.

Plan the best trip to Carmel-by-the-Sea with your family! Carmel restaurants, things to do in Carmel with kids, and kid-friendly places to visit near Carmel. #California #Carmel #familytravel #USA

Plan your Carmel trip!

Want to plan a Carmel-by-the-Sea getaway? Start with this Carmel Bucket List, and then read through these posts for more ideas:

Hofsas House Hotel: A Family-Friendly Hotel in Carmel

Dining with kids in Carmel

Taking kids on the 17-Mile Drive 

Rainy day activities in Carmel

Things To Do At Point Lobos State Park With Kids

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