Sandwiched between soaring redwood mountains and the pristine curve of Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz is the ideal coastal California destination. With year-round average temperatures of 70°F and a history of laid-back hippie culture, there’s a lot to love about the iconic seaside city. Spend the day enjoying everything Santa Cruz has to offer and discover why Santa Cruz has been the Bay Area’s beachside getaway for over 100 years.
Plan your trip to Santa Cruz
1. What’s the best time to visit Santa Cruz?
2. A few facts about Santa Cruz
3. One day in Santa Cruz itinerary
3.1. Fuel up!
3.2. Hit the beach
3.3. Surf’s Up
3.4. Grab a bite on the Wharf
3.5. Check out the redwoods
3.6. Take a break with some bocce
3.7. Everything is waiting for you – Downtown
3.8. Time to unwind
4. Where to stay in Santa Cruz, California
5. Day trips from Santa Cruz
6. Extra tips for visiting Santa Cruz
Part of Santa Cruz’s allure is its mild Mediterranean climate, which means there’s really no bad time of year to visit. However, the city’s typically warm late-Summers find September and October ideal months to visit.
You’ll miss the worst of the Summer crowds and still catch the beautiful beach weather. Just make sure to pack a jacket (yes, even in the summer) to put on until the morning fog burns off!
Santa Cruz was founded by Spanish missionaries on the land of the Awaswa people, centered around Mission Santa Cruz (Holy Cross) for which the town was named (and which you can still visit!). Since then, Santa Cruz has played host to thriving lumber, agricultural, and tourism industries, many of which continue to thrive today.
Supported by the University of California at Santa Cruz, the city has historically had a reputation for promoting counter-cultural ideology. You’ll see this on full display in Santa Cruz’s chill vibe, relaxed attitude, and “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” bumper stickers.
Though there’s lots to see in Santa Cruz, you can still pack the best of what the city has to offer into a single day. This guide will take you on a day that not only hits the highlights, but also give you the inside scoop on the hidden gems the locals love.
Head over to Santa Cruz’s beautiful West Side to grab some of the best craft coffee in the industry from Cat & Cloud. Their airy Swift St. location boasts funky art and an espresso-forward coffee menu that’s sure to put some pep in your step for the day ahead. If you’re eager to get going, you can choose off of the limited breakfast menu from their on-site kitchen. However, if you want to start your day off right, continue down the street to Café Ivéta where you can sit and enjoy a full breakfast in the cool morning air on their cozy patio.
While one could enjoy lounging in the sand on any of Santa Cruz’s many beaches, nearby Natural Bridges State Beach offers a variety of seashore activities that can’t be found elsewhere.
Walk along the water and spy some of the photogenic natural arches for which the beach is named, or head out onto the rocks to see some of the uniquely diverse sea life that calls Monterey Bay home in the tidepools.
Head into the adjoining eucalyptus groves to learn all about the monarch butterflies that nest there by the thousands each year in early Autumn. Be sure to look up to see if you can catch a glimpse of their distinctive orange and black wings!
When you’ve had your fill of sand and surf, head out down West Cliff Drive. Whether on foot, bike, or by car, this gently winding road along the tops of the Santa Cruz cliffs is sure to stun. Catch unobstructed views across Monterey Bay. There are ample places to stop along the way to take pictures and feel the breeze on your face from the protected multi-use path along the road.
Be sure to stop at Lighthouse Point, about halfway down West Cliff. Pop inside the lighthouse itself to visit the tiny Santa Cruz Surfing Museum or watch the surfers taking advantage of the big waves at Steamer Lane, one of Santa Cruz’s most popular surfing spots.
Catch a glimpse of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk across the water, and don’t forget to take your picture with the iconic Surfers Memorial!
Continue down West Cliff Drive to find yourself at the Santa Cruz Wharf. Keep your ears open as you stroll down the massive wooden pier to hear the calls of the California Sea Lions that make their home under your feet.
As you watch fisherman catch their lines off the side of the wharf, get some of the freshest seafood in the city for lunch at Stagnaro Bros. Their calamari and fish ‘n’ chips are to die for! Stop in at neighboring Marini’s Munchies to pick up salt water taffy and any souvenirs you want to take home. Pro tip: if you ask, they’ll let you try any taffy flavor for free before you buy.
A quick 15 minute drive will find you at the Golf Club Drive entrance to Pogonip. This sprawling city park is a hidden treasure loved by locals, so you’re not likely to run into any crowds here. Take a gentle to moderate hike past the club house featured in the cult classic movie Lost Boys and gaze up at the soaring branches of the redwood trees unique to the California coast. Keep your eyes open along the trail for bright yellow banana slugs – UCSC’s beloved mascot!
Rest up after your hike at Santa Cruz’s oldest operating restaurant, Urbani Cellar. Currently getting a much needed refresh, this old school Italian venue is the perfect place to put your feet up and relax with a glass of wine or beer in the afternoon sunshine. While the food and drink are delightful, locals know that the real attraction of this restaurant are its bocce courts in the back room (which is why you’ll often hear them refer to this spot by its old name, Bocci’s Cellar). Grab a drink and have some fun playing a lowkey round of bocce to recover from your hike.
As afternoon becomes evening, head to the Pacific Garden Mall, the heart of downtown Santa Cruz. Stroll down Pacific Avenue and enjoy some window shopping at the countless charming boutiques that make Santa Cruz their home. Snag a pick-me-up at Verve Coffee Roasters, another gem of Santa Cruz’s craft coffee scene, or – if coffee’s not your scene – some artisanal drinking chocolate from local favorite Chocolate.
Duck into Bookshop Santa Cruz to browse the stacks (and use their public bathrooms if needed). If you’re more into comics than books, head over to Atlantis Fantasyworld, your one-stop-shop for all things geek. If you’re lucky, you might run into owner Joe Ferrara, the real-life inspiration for The Simpsons Comic Book Guy! For one-of-a-kind souvenirs from local artists check out what’s on display at Artisans Gallery.
Ready for dinner? Head over to Hula’s Island Grill to enjoy a lively evening of surf, turf, and tiki drinks. Rest assured that everything on the menu is not only tasty, but also sustainable in compliance with Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program! After dinner, have some incredible local ice cream from Penny Ice Creamery for dessert or head over The Red Room to get a nightcap while mingling with the locals.
After this whirlwind day, you deserve to relax. Catch a movie at the Del Mar Theater, Santa Cruz’s beautifully restored picture palace. Or, if you really want to treat yourself, book an appointment at Well Within Spa. Based around a serene Japanese garden, you can soak your cares away in one of their indoor or outdoor private hot tubs. Call ahead to book, especially if you’re looking to add in a massage to round out the experience.
Dream Inn Santa Cruz
175 West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
For the full Santa Cruz experience, no where beats the Dream Inn. Steps from the beach, this local landmark has stunning ocean views, a heated outdoor pool and a special happy hour just for guests. Stay in style, you won’t regret it!
West Cliff Inn
174 W Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
If you’re looking for luxury, the West Cliff Inn is the spot for you. Located across the street from the Dream Inn, you get all the convenience of a big hotel with all of the sophistication of a B&B. Enjoy ocean views, jet spa tubs, and locally sourced artisan touches in this fully renovated Victorian.
Santa Cruz Hostel
321 Main St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Want to stay steps from the beach without breaking the bank? Check out Santa Cruz Hostel. Situated in 5 renovated Victorian beach cottages, singles, families, and groups are all welcome. With free wifi and beautiful shared gardens, you won’t regret booking here.
If you have more than one day to spend by the Santa Cruz seashore, consider taking a daytrip to one of these nearby attractions!
Head down the coast about an hour to Steinbeck country and visit Monterey. Famous for its Cannery Row and world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium, spend the day discovering what makes Monterey a stop to remember.
Santa Cruz Mountains
Explore the soaring redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains! Stop by the world-famous Mystery Spot to mess with your mind, or learn about the importance of the railway to the logging industry at Roaring Camp. Sip on some local wines at Bargetto Winery and soak up the sun.
Bring a jacket: no matter how beautiful the weather looks, always bring a jacket. The coastal marine layer means that temperatures can fluctuate throughout the day leaving you chilly!
Carry Cash: the thriving counter-culture in Santa Cruz means you’ll meet countless street musicians and artists who make life more colorful. Be sure to carry cash to tip them for their hard work!
Wear Sunscreen: a foggy morning in Santa Cruz can quickly turn into a perfect sunny afternoon. Don’t find yourself unprepared to soak up the sun!
Have Fun: you won’t be able to see everything Santa Cruz has to offer in a single day, so relax! Embrace the local hippie attitude while you’re visiting and know that, even if things don’t go as planned, you’re still visiting a beautiful place that’s happy to have you there.
Make sure you have everything you need
What to pack for your next trip?
Make your next trip as simple and as enjoyable as possible by packing smart. It’s amazing how much stress top travel items can save you, so choose carefully.
Things like lightweight travel backpacks, for example, are ideal for short trips and allow you to move around with ease, and a passport holder will make sure you keep your documents safe at all times.
Check our travel checklist guide for 2021 to make sure you haven’t missed anything, and travel to your next destination in style and with maximum comfort.
Natalie Delsemme is a freelance writer, graduate student, and seasoned traveler. Based in Chicago, you can find her at nataliewritten.wordpress.com or as @nataliewritten on Twitter. If you like her work, don’t hesitate to get in touch!