The real Surf City, USA. A notable stop on the famous Highway 1 that has morphed into a bustling haven of college students, surf bums, and local hippies. Its been the nesting grounds of several Silicon Valley start-ups, the surfing powerhouse O’Neill, and recognizable Santa Cruz Skateboards. The city is a locally-made oasis for artists and small business owners and is celebrated as one of the best surf spots in the world.
As my birthplace and former home, Santa Cruz has become my favorite and most cherished city, a place I truly love. After moving away during my childhood, it became a regular detour on any drives from I-5. In recent years, I spent a large chunk of my life exploring and enjoying this city to its fullest. I would regularly find myself out and about. My routine activities? Park on west cliff to paint, sit on the beach and read, surf at Cowells, Indicators and Steamers Lane, go to Verve Coffee and write, and find new favorite places to eat, drink, and see. Positioned between the Pacific and Santa Cruz Mountains, Santa Cruz is the perfect place to visit, and come back again. Its easy to fall in love with the towering redwoods, coastal waters, and surf town lifestyle- I hope you love it as much as I do.
The Best Things to do in Santa Cruz
A great surf spot, and beautiful long walk. West Cliff stretches from the Beach Boardwalk to Natural Bridges State Park and is home to Steamers Lane surf spot and the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, the lighthouse located near the viewing platform. There are also a few accessible beaches (and one great dog beach) and makes a great walk, run or bike ride.
Santa Cruz Mission
Founded in 1791, and converted into a museum and chapel. A huge part of the history of Santa Cruz, and a great way to learn about its history.
A cute town with lots of local art influence! Its great to stroll, window-shop and soak in the sun on the beach. Depending on the time of year- you might get to hear one of their free concerts on the beach.
Natural Bridges State Park
Sit on the sand, dip in the water, or stroll along the Monarch Walk. A small park but great place to relax, explore, and smell the eucalyptus.
Davenport/Old Bridge Swing
Ye-old Instagram spot. You have to climb down steep cliff with rope attachments, so be prepared. Additionally, the swing is easiest to get onto when the tide is low, so I recommend checking the calendar before heading out.
Shark Fin Cove
Another famous social media spot, but also a very beautiful spot with a small, lovely, beach. Can best be experienced at sunset!
Check out one of the many local events!
Santa Cruz has a plethora of events going on during the calendar year, and make sure to check out their city website before visiting, just in case there’s something fun happening!
My past favorites…
Santa Cruz Open Studio Art Walk- First three weekends in October, this monumental art walk showcases nearly 300+ artists and their work from areas all over Santa Cruz County. I love this event, and have gotten the chance to speak to numerous artists about their work, and even see some of their wonderful creative spaces.
Farmers Markets- Locations vary depending on the time of year, but some are year-round! A great way to support the community and shop local.
Downtown Makers Market- A marketplace for local artists and creators to sell their work! Its a great way to shop for gifts or get inspired. A monthly event held on a weekend day.
Capitola by the Sea Summer Concerts- A summertime favorite and a great location for a relaxing beach day! Normally held on weekdays throughout the summer.
Boardwalk Friday Night Concerts on the Beach– Very popular, and a ton of fun! Past bands have been known to come back year after year.
First Fridays! The coolest place to be on the first Friday of the month. Shops are open late, vendors hit the streets, and music is in the air.
Santa Cruz Greek Festival- A free event held in September with food, drinks and dancing!
Patagonia Film Screenings (and free weekly yoga) – The Patagonia Outlet, located in Santa Cruz, holds regular events- some of which are film screenings! Tickets are normally required for events.
Concerts at The Catalyst music venue- A local favorite venue with a TON of different performers and genres.
Holidays at The Beach Boardwalk- Fireworks for the 4th, Ice Skating on the Beach in December, and much more!
Surfing Santa– Enough said.
Best Food & Drinks in Santa Cruz
Best Coffee: Verve Coffee Roasters
On a fly-by trip to Santa Cruz, there was once where I came to this shop 3 times IN ONE DAY. That’s how much I love it. I crave it, I rave about it, and I cant get enough of it. The company is so popular, that when I was trained as a barista at a job years ago, the instructor was teaching about Verve coffee styles, it even has stores that have expanded to Los Angeles and Tokyo.
Great alternative: Cat & Cloud Coffee
Best Bakery: Gayle’s Bakery & Roscceria
If I didn’t put this here, my mom would kill me. Gayle’s is a fantastic bakery, but more so a nostalgic stop anytime I am in Capitola. The smell and sounds of being inside bring me back to when I was younger and it feels like your favorite home bakery.
Great alternative: Companion Bakeshop
Best Breakfast: Harbor Cafe
Fun fact, I have an ongoing list in the notes section of my phone, that has every breakfast spot I have been to in recent years, what I ordered (9/10 times its an Eggs Benedict), and my in-depth thoughts about the place. Both highly ranking on the food, atmosphere, and satisfaction.
Great alternatives: Walnut Avenue Cafe, Cafe Brasil
Best Sandwich Spot: Zoccoli’s Delicatessen
A great visit downtown with tons of options to choose from. Hits just the right spot when your in the mood for a good lunch.
Great alternatives: Seabright Deli
Best Taco’s: El Palomar
Every local answers this question differently, and its highly debatable! The reason I love El Palomar is because it’s a sit down restaurant, bar with food, and taco bar all in one (but still separate). You can take family here for a nice dinner, or grab a quick bite with friends. The margarita pitchers, bomb ceviche and great chips and salsa make it a must-go from me.
Great alternatives: Taqueria Santa Cruz II
Best Drinks/Bar: Beer Thirty
A very close call between Beer Thirty and Humble Sea, and honestly worth a trip to both! Beer Thirty ranks a bit higher for its variety of drinks, outdoor (dog friendly) seating, a food truck counter, and corn-hole games! A great place for a group to spend the evening.
Great alternatives: Humble Sea, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing
Best Restaurant: HOME (Soquel)
When I say this is the best food I have ever had in Santa Cruz, I mean it. The farm-to-table style of Home is so fresh and unique that it is no surprise that reservations are often needed at this spot near downtown Soquel.
Great alternatives: Margaritaville, West End Tap & Kitchen
Best Pizza: Mentone & Bantam
Both of these pizza joints are a toss up in my book for best pizza. I love Bantam for the apetizers and homemade bread, and Mentone’s Frozen Aperol Spritz puts me in the best kind of summer mood. Both worth the wait!
Other Local Favorites: Charlie Hong Kong, Betty’s Noodle House, Penny’s Ice Cream, Woodstock’s Pizza, Pizza My Heart, Café Gratitude, Betty’s Burgers, and Marianne’s Ice Cream, just to name a few.
Honorable Mention: 99 Bottles.
A local dive-bar favorite of Santa Cruz locals and all who come here, and unfortunately permanently closed as of March of 2020. It’s heartbreaking to see it leave the community and I will remember a lot of great memories from here. As will my Dad, who back in his young Santa Cruz days, visited the bar regularly and drank his way onto their 99 Bottles Wall-of-Fame.
*all favorites are based on my own experiences and preferences
Places to Stay near Santa Cruz
New Brighton State Beach
Camp for $35/night right next to the beach and fall asleep to the ocean breeze.
Sea & Sand Inn
200+/night. Located right on the water with views of Cowells Beach and the Beach Boardwalk.
250+/night. Located in the heart of Capitola, feet away from the sand. Famous for its colorful exterior.
Henry Cowell/Big Basin State Parks
Camp for $35/night in the towering redwoods. Tons of options for hiking nearby
The Pinecone Treehouse
($450/night via Airbnb) A unique and unforgettable stay in a treehouse shaped like…a pinecone! Currently, its on my Santa Cruz “yet-to-do” list.
don’t forget to pack…
So… Whats The Perfect Day?
Its hard to say, but I have a few ideas!
1 Day in Santa Cruz
Morning: Head downtown for breakfast at Walnut Avenue Café (the eggs benedict is great) and stroll around the different surf shops and shop at local stores.
Afternoon: Rent some e-bikes on West Cliff and ride from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to Natural Bridges State Park. Make sure to stop at the West Cliff Lighthouse to check out the famous Steamers Lane Surf Spot before heading to Natural Bridges. Depending on the time of year, the Monarch Butterflies may be back for their annual migration and love to hang out in the Monarch Walk area of the park. Once you are ready to leave the beach, head to Companion Bakeshop. This is a great stop for lunch/snack items and coffee and is great for a picnic.
Night: Feelin’ Fancy? There are several boat tours that take of from Santa Cruz around the area and into Monterey. Check out a sunset, dinner, or drinks boat tour from Chardonnay Sailing Charters or Sea Spirit Ocean Safari. If boats are not your cup of tea or they are already booked during your visit, there are also a number of wineries in the Santa Cruz mountains that are great for a visit and taste of locally made wines.
Another option is visiting local brewery Humble Sea (Westside), or taprooms Pour (Downtown) and Beer Thirty (East side near Soquel, and dog-friendly!). All have great atmospheres and options. If you’re able to, head out for sunset on the water! Pleasure Point and Shark Fin Cove are both great options to spend an evening by the ocean.
Weekend in Santa Cruz
Friday: If you are heading into Santa Cruz on a Friday and have a strong desire to visit the Beach Boardwalk, Fridays are the day to do this. There will likely be a lot of people (and parking will be a bit difficult), but possibly less than on the weekend days! The best part about Fridays at the Boardwalk? In the summer they host free Friday Night Bands on the Beach! Make sure to check out their band schedule here before your visit. After the concert, I highly recommend the arcade for game-lovers, and strolling down the Wharf for restaurants, quick bites, and a view of the seals that love Santa Cruz.
Saturday: Start off your Saturday with some great treats from The Bagelry and Verve Coffee Roasters in Downtown Santa Cruz, and head towards the mountains to spend a day in the Redwoods! Big Basin State Park has a number of hikes for any skill-set or age. It will take about an hour to get there from Santa Cruz, so get some lunch to go on the way. (If you have little ones, the Roaring Camp Railroad Tours are also a great way to spend half the day, and allow you to explore the park in an exciting way.)
Once you’ve explored the beautiful forest to your hearts content, head down the Bonny Doon side of the mountain to Highway 1. Davenport, Shark Fin Cove, and Wilder Ranch State Park all have excellent views of the ocean and great little beaches to visit. A little further up the coast and you’ll eventually hit Ana Nuevo State Park, a beautiful spot where you can see lots of elephant seals. Heading back into Santa Cruz, stop at West End Tap & Kitchen on the west side for dinner before heading in for the night.
Sunday: Its surfing day, well- water day at least. If visiting Santa Cruz, you must know that it is a world-famous surf spot among the surfing community. What better way to experience that, then trying it out yourself. If you’re a bit nervous, don’t worry! There are lots of surf schools in the area that are fully equipped to show beginners the whitewash.
Start off the day exploring Capitola, one of my favorite little sections of Santa Cruz. If stopping here, you are required to visit Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria. They have great breakfast options, brew verve coffee, and have great options for lunch to-go. From here, there are a few options for heading into the water. Capitola Beach and Cowell’s Beach are the best surf spots for beginners and have options for renting boards. Club Ed Surf School is regularly posted at Cowell’s in the summer and offer rentals and classes. Another great way to explore the water, or if the swell is flat this day, is by kayak or stand up paddle board. Between Kayak Connection, SUP Shack Santa Cruz, and Venture Quest, there are a ton of options for rentals or tours around the area. Once you finish, you have likely worked up an appetite. Choose one of the local restaurants or food spots and head to West Cliff or Pleasure Point for an evening stroll before heading home.
Are you a Santa Cruz lover and see something I missed? Comment down below and share your favorite Santa Cruz spots!
If you’re new to town or you’re planning the first trip- share your experience and favorite moments! I’d love to hear your thoughts on my favorite place.