Whether you’re called by the beautiful beaches, the charm of a seaside amusement park, the towering trees that border the city, or just the specific flavor of weird that can only be found in this hippie/college/surfing town, Santa Cruz is a great spot to find yourself for a visit. And while I would advise you to spend as much time here as you can get away with, the reality is that sometimes you only have time for a weekend trip. With that in mind, I’ve curated a list of the best activities to hit in 48 hours to give you a taste of Santa Cruz.
Spend a bit of time in Santa Cruz, and you’ll likely find locals willing to debate on the superiority of their preferred downtown breakfast haunt – Zachary’s or The Walnut Ave Cafe. However, my advice would be to skip both of these spots entirely and head to the Westside where you’ll find Cafe Brasil, a charming and brightly-colored spot serving up authentic Brazillian breakfasts, juices, and plenty of soft baguettes. Prices are reasonable and portions are hearty, which will prepare you for the next stop on your agenda.
After filling up on hearty egg dishes and Brazillian coffee, grab a banana shake for the road and head to Henry Cowell Redwoods. If you’ve never seen redwoods before, you’re in for a treat, as these trees truly are not able to be fully described or captured with words and images alone. Silently standing in a redwood grove is a profoundly human experience that everyone should have at least once. If you’re a redwood connoisseur, this park still has something for you, including well-maintained trails, a swimming hole, and probably the coolest tree I’ve ever seen, the aptly named Candelabra. Another excellent thing about this park is the hard-packed Redwood Loop that is great for wheelchair users or strollers. Beyond the transcendental trees, you’ll get to observe other cool flora and fauna, including banana slugs, salamanders, mushrooms, ferns, and wildflowers. Day parking at California State Parks is $10 per car, but if you’re on a budget it’s okay to park just outside the park and walk in. Looking for another option to explore this area? Check out Roaring Camp, which runs open-top steam trains through the forest all the way down to the beach.
After traipsing in the forest, you’ll likely need to replenish some calories. Head back into town and grab a slice at Pizza My Heart, a local favorite. Plus, if you’re hoping to leave with a souvenir or two, the $7 slice and a shirt deal is hard to beat. The location in Santa Cruz has some indoor seating, but I recommend getting a slice to go and walking down Pacific Avenue, the main thoroughfare in downtown Santa Cruz. The people watching here is unparalleled; depending on the day of the week you may see a man with a pet rat riding on his shoulders, hippies dancing on top of a van, violinists & rappers busking, and all manner of wheeled vehicles weaving throughout the street. Once you’re finished with your slice, check out some of the funky shops or grab a coffee, bubble tea, or kava as an afternoon pick-me-up.
Once you’ve explored Pacific, head the other direction towards the actual Pacific and check out The Wharf. Be warned that most of the businesses and restaurants here are tourists traps, but there is a good supply of kitschy souvenirs if that’s your thing. The real gem of the wharf is at the very end of it, where you can catch a great view of sea lions. Time it right and hit late afternoon and you’ll find the lot of them laying on the warm beams beneath the pier, and eventually hopping off to hunt for dinner. It may sound silly, but I’ve spent hours here watching the dynamics between the pack and it’s super fascinating.
When you’re finished being an amateur zoologist, you’re in easy striking distance of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the most charming California seaside amusement park that you could imagine. One thing that I love about the Boardwalk is that there’s no admission fee – it’s totally free to enter and just walk around. So if you’re not a ride enthusiast, this can be a cheap stop on your day. If you are, there are multiple options, including buying an all-day ride wristband (typically cheaper at Costco) or just paying for each ride individually. Depending on the day of the week you find yourself here, there are sometimes specials as well. And don’t sleep on the indoor stuff, either – the arcade, mini-golf, pool hall, and laser activities are all pretty fun too. Grab a snack here as the quality to price ratio of the food is actually pretty high for an amusement park, but don’t fill up too much because you’ll want to have plenty of room for your last stop of the night.
Talk a quick walk back into downtown and find yourself at Alderwood, a newer spot that has already cemented itself as a Santa Cruz stand-by. Arrive at 9:30 for the late night happy hour, which boasts a variety of fresh oysters for $1.25 along with discounted cocktails and appetizers. Quality-wise, this is easily the best restaurant in Santa Cruz, so if you have the budget, splurge and get a steak or a seafood entree. Or if you’re more into veggies, the complex and varied sides here can be made into a meal of their own. Regardless of your dining preferences, it’s hard to leave this place unhappy, especially after a few rounds of one of my favorite cocktails, The Aviation. If you’re a large party or if there’s particularly nice weather, consider making a reservation in advance, as the dining room and bar are often still pretty full even this late at night.
Note: Alderwood only runs the late-night happy hour on Friday and Saturday, so if you find yourself here on different days of the week rearrange your schedule and go for the afternoon happy hour starting at 4pm, which offers the same deals. Trust me. It’s worth it.
Whether you’re camping, RVing along the coast, or living it up in a fancy hotel, go get some sleep, kids, because tomorrow is Beach Day.
Start your day bright and early and head to Steamer Lane Supply for a breakfast quesadilla and coffee. Enjoy it in the picnic seating around the cafe, or better yet, take it across the street and watch the morning surfers gearing up. Once you’re done, take a right turn to continue down West Cliff Drive – or consider renting a bike (JumpBike is easy and ubiquitous). The multi-use path offers beautiful views of the ocean and leads to one of my favorite beaches, Natural Bridges. Now, if you envision a beach as a place to lay around and dip your toes in the ocean, this will serve that purpose, but where it really shines is in the tide pools located in the rocky formations to the right of the sand. If you can, time your visit for low tide to get the best views of anenomes, crabs, chitons, sea stars, and mussels. Be warned that the majority of the tidepools lay beyond a small gap in the rock formation that requires some careful maneuvering to cross, and should not be attempted at all at high tide. Additionally, if you have mobility challenges, even the first burst of tide pools may be difficult to navigate.
Once you’ve had your fill of crabs pinching at your sandals, head back into town and make a stop at Hula’s for a late lunch. Line your visit up right and you’ll be here for happy hour (starts at 2pm most days). Enjoy potent tiki drinks and a large menu of pupus (Hawaiian appetizers like pork buns or calamari), all for $6 each. It’s easy to whittle away a few hours here, especially on Tuesdays when happy hour lasts all night long. But drag yourself out from the fog of too many Mai Tais before it gets too late – you’ve still got some time yet to hit another beach before the sun sets.
The next beach you choose depends on your preferences. Want to lay out and get some good photo ops? Main Beach is a pretty good pick. Want to hunt seaglass and see some wilder waves? Head to Panther Beach in Davenport. Bringing Fido, or hoping to pet him? Lighthouse Field allows dogs off-leash. Want to have your beach with a side of cute-but-bougie coastal village? Head to Capitola. There are really unlimited choices here, but they do all have one thing in common: the water is going to be pretty cold. This isn’t to say people don’t swim – I’ve done it many times – but if you’re envisioning warm tropical waters, Santa Cruz isn’t going to be it for you. Still, if it’s warm enough outside, and you close your eyes, the Pacific can feel almost temperate. At the very least, it’s good fun for a few minutes. And if you’re into more serious ocean contact, there are plenty of companies around town that rent surfboards or stand-up paddleboards, with the accompanying wetsuits.
Your last meal in Santa Cruz is an important one, so it’s only fitting to send you to one of the most Santa Cruz places I can think of, India Joze. Both names are somewhat of a misnomer, as the food Joe cooks may radiate outward from India but really encompasses bits and pieces from all of Eurasia. This restaurant has existed in some iteration off and on since the 70s, which has given them plenty of time to perfect the inventive takes on classic recipes like Viet Fish and Chips or Mushroom Vindaloo. Don’t sleep on the drinks, either, as the Thai Tea is the best I’ve ever had. One thing you won’t find at India Joze is traditional customer service, which can be both a good and bad thing, but at this point is just part of the experience. While sometimes this can result in Joe himself coming out of the kitchen to give you samples while you wait in line to order, it can also be overhearing the counter employee get frustrated with the kitchen while you’re hawkishly watching for a table to open up. At the end of the day, it’s all part of the experience, and this is the place to get the true flavor of Santa Cruz.
I spent a year in Santa Cruz and it still wasn’t long enough to explore all the nooks and crannies of things to do. While 48 hours is a short time to enjoy this place, I hope these ideas can serve as a springboard to a weekend you won’t soon forget.
What’s your favorite thing to do in Santa Cruz?