Santa Cruz, California is a seaside escape for surfers, bohemians, and fungoers looking to catch waves and rollercoasters.
Santa Cruz, aptly nicknamed “Surf City,” is one of the many cute coastal towns found along California’s Highway One but it’s become somewhat of a personal favorite due to its close proximity to San Jose. On a traffic-free day, I can easily get to Santa Cruz in 25 minutes. But you’ll find that city dwellers all have the same “easy” weekend plans and that short 25-min drive can double, if not triple, so try to leave before rush hour in the mid-morning. It’s a 1.5 hour drive from San Francisco on Highway One or a 1 hour drive from Monterrey. The trip from San Jose (Silicon Valley’s capital city) cuts through the Santa Cruz Mountains on the winding CA-17 route through patches of fog and redwood forests. Your arrival to Santa Cruz is marked by a sighting of Pacific Ocean in the far distance. If you get easily car sick, especially in stop-and-go traffic, I highly suggest bringing some nausea medicine. Here are my top five suggestions on how to make the most out of your visit to Santa Cruz. Just bring some good walking shoes and some layers as it can be unexpectedly windy and chilly.
1. Catch local surfers riding the waves
Santa Cruz’s history is closely tied to surf culture in the USA. It was here in the summer of 1885 that three Hawaiian princes who were attending classes at the University of Santa Cruz introduced surfing to mainland USA, riding ‘o’lo boards fashioned from local redwood timber. Then in 1950, Jack O’Neill invented the wetsuit, designed to keep surfers comfortable in the water year round. Today, you’ll see the high-stoke surf culture in full display at
Steamer’s Lane, where expert surfers wait patiently for the perfectly timed offshore break. If you’re looking to learn, walk up to the nearby
Cowell’s Beach to join other amateur surfers.
Pleasure Point on the east end of Santa Cruz is also a lookout point for another famed surf spot, called The Hook.
Where? Steamer’s Lane, Cowell’s Beach, or Pleasure Point
Hours of Operation: Open from 12 – 5pm Thursday to Monday
Tip: If you’re interested in learning more of the history of surf in the area, be sure to check out the The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum located at Lighthouse Point.
2. Ride the Big Dipper at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
I was first introduced to The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk through Jordan Peele’s 2019 horror film Us. In fact, the iconic beachside amusement park has been the setting of many Hollywood films, which is no surprise given its popular appeal to North Californian crowds since 1907. Considered the oldest amusement park in California and one of the last boardwalk amusement parks in the USA, visitors can ride the wooden Giant Dipper rollercoaster or play some arcade games at Neptune’s Kingdom.
Where? 400 Beach St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Hours of Operation: Rides open on the weekends 12-7 pm, arcade open every day at 12 pm. Check hours here.
Cost: Purchase a pay-as-you-go MyBoardwalk Card for individuals rides, attractions, and arcade games or ride unlimited for $50.
3. Order up some delicious food in Downtown Santa Cruz
I’m obsessed with the liveliness of Downtown Santa Cruz. The quaint street has every type of retailer from bohemian wellness cafes to California-cool boutiques selling locally-made apparel and goods. Shouting out Pacific Wave, a surf and skate shop stocking City Fog, a Californian subculture apparel li owned by a good friend and my husband who’s a business partner. For foodies, you have choices that run the gamut with Afghani, Ethiopian, Italian, and even Hawaiian eateries. One of the best places to eat is Abbot Square Market, an intimate food hall that shares doubles as the public plaza of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH). Abbot Square is also the hiding spot of Roxa Cafe, the first hammock cafe in the USA serving up fresh açaí and healing tonics in a mystical environment. For vegan dishes, check out Cafe Gratitude and don’t miss out on their hearty bowls.
Santa Cruz also has its fair share of coffee roasters but none as popular with the collegiates at 11th Hour Coffee for its spacious seating teeming with succulents and a massive menu of caffeinated and non-caffeinated beverages. Other well-loved cafes include Midtown Surf Shop and Coffee Bar and the newly-opened Flower Bar, a florist-cum-cafe.
View this post on Instagram
4. Enjoy a seaside breeze walking on West Cliff Drive
Bike or promenade down the 3-mile scenic West Cliff Drive. This heavily-trafficked cliffside route begins at the retro Santa Cruz Dream Inn, and takes you into a residential area that looks out onto the Pacific Ocean. Depending on what time of year you come, you’ll be treated to a colorful display of coastal bluff wildflowers in April or a pelican feeding frenzy in mid-August. Local pedestrians bring their dogs and strollers, while UC Santa Cruz students sport their Santa Cruz Skateboard shirts proudly. This is a wheelchair accessible trail. Parking is hard to come by so drive slowly and keep your eyes peeled for open spaces. Along the way, you’ll see:
- Cowell Beach – A beach for beginner surfers.
- Surfers Memorial – A bronze statue “dedicated to all surfers – past, present, and future,” erected in memory of Bill Lidderdale, Jr., one of the original members of the Santa Cruz Surf Club.
- Steamer’s Lane – A favorite surf spot for seasoned surfers.
- Lighthouse Point – A small field perfect for frisbee tosses and the site of afternoon music pop-ups.
- Monterey Cypress and Pine Trees – Follow the dirt paths snaking through this coastal garden.
- The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum – Learn about the history of the three Hawaiian princes and check out early versions of longboards and wetsuits.
- Its Beach – A beach for dog lovers, permitting off-leash frolicking and a great spot for sunset watching.
- Natural Bridges State Beach – Named after the elementally-shaped stone arch in the middle of the sea, this park is also the temporary home for thousands of migrating monarchs that you can see at Monarch Grove from mid-October to late January, although the populations have been in decline.
For $10 an hour, grab a bike rental at Cruiser King located at 316 Pacific Ave Santa Cruz, CA 95060.
5. Snap some photos of the Venetian Hotel at Capitola Beach
Right up the street from Santa Cruz is the neighboring Capitola, the oldest seaside resort on the West Coast. Its main beach, Capitola Beach>, is a quaint little stretch of sand and calm seas, but is also the site of The Venetian Hotel, oceanfront vacation rentals in rainbow hues. Each property can accommodate 2 to 8 people. Mere steps away from rentals are a handful of restaurants, wineries, and souvenir shops. Book your stay at the Venetian Hotel here.
Where? 1500 Wharf Rd, Capitola, CA 95010
Note: Be respectful of the vacationers as this picture spot is also a working property rental.
- Venture to the west side of Santa Cruz for CAT & CLOUD COFFEE (719 Swift St Suite 56) a brightly-lit coffee shop with strong roasts and a full kitchen. It’s managed by cheerful baristas looking to inspire connection through memorable coffee experiences.
- Spend a morning or afternoon taking in the sweeping redwood vistas at CASTLE ROCK STATE PARK (15451 CA-35, Los Gatos, CA 95033). For outdoor bouldering and rock climbing fans, there are a number of slabs to scale and clamber around. The Goat Rock lookout also hides a secret graffitied cave accessed by scooting down the right side of the cliff and finding your foothold in a gap that doubles as the entrance.
- Another favorite outdoor area is the HENRY COWELL REDWOODS (101 N Big Trees Park Rd, Felton, CA 95018), home to a 40-acre ancient redwood grove and the famous Fremont Tree that can fit full families. The trails are mostly flat, perfect for those looking to forest bathe without getting winded.
- Fancy some downtime with your partner or a relaxing solo dip? The TEA HOUSE SPA (112 Elm St)has private, Japanese-style rooms with a personal jacuzzi and cedar-lined saunas and serves up your choice of tea. Sip a cup of tea while looking out at 70-year-old bamboo grove from your private window.
- Choose from 75 flavors of hand-crafted ice cream daily at MARRIANNE’S ICE CREAM (1020 Ocean Street), an ice cream parlor that’s been around since 1947.
- The LAND OF MEDICINE RETREAT CENTER (5800 Prescott Rd, Soquel, CA 95073) right outside of Santa Cruz in Soquel features peaceful trails such as the “Enchanted Forest” loop with a series of prayer wheels and Buddhist terraces along the loop. Recite some meditations along the “Eight Verses Pilgrimage Trail.”
- Arguably the most popular Santa Cruz attraction for families, THE MYSTERY SPOT (465 Mystery Spot Rd) is the site of a gravitational anomaly that has visitors witnessing the defiance of basic laws of physics. $8 per adult, children under three are free, and $5 for vehicle parking.
- Ranked one of the most beautiful and eco-friendly campuses in the world by Forbes Magazine, THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SANTA CRUZ (1156 High St, Santa Cruz, CA 95064) deserves a campus tour. The sprawling campus is hidden deep in the redwoods and is one of the top schools in geosciences.
Here’s a map of all the things to do in Santa Cruz, Califrornia