While much of the rest of the California coast can be foggy, Santa Cruz, perched between the ocean and the mountains, exists in a vortex of beautiful golden light and is sunny when nearby towns are socked in with drippy fog. It’s close to farmland, and all that fresh produce makes for some delicious meals.
You’re going to need a decent breakfast to make the most of your 24 hours in Santa Cruz. There are some great venues that will power you up as you start your day. Zachary’s Restaurant, The Harbor Cafe, and Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe all serve American-style breakfasts. For something a little more international, Cafe Brazil has acai bowls and other South American breakfasts. For a pastry, head to The Buttery or Kelly’s French Bakery.
A few years ago there was a major dispute over “ownership” of the claim to be “Surf City” when Huntington Beach in Southern California trademarked the moniker “Surf City,” despite the fact that the first mainland surfing took place in Santa Cruz. Since you are in, ahem, what most consider the “real” Surf City you might want to get in the water for a lesson. Surf School Santa Cruz offers its lessons at Pleasure Point, a popular spot to the south. Santa Cruz Surf Academy’s lessons are more central, offered at different locations depending on conditions.
Or you can simply head out for a stroll on West Cliff Drive. About a mile from the Boardwalk you’ll come to the tiny Surfing Museum on West Cliff Drive, near the Steamer’s Lane break. Even if you think you’re not that interested, watching the rhythm of surfers catch waves is a relaxing. You’ll find yourself standing for hours at the edge of the cliff watching the swell. West Cliff Drive ends at Natural Bridges State Park, with a beach and, from February to March, swarms of monarch butterflies.
Another option for beach cruisin’ is to rent a bike. Pacific Avenue Cycles and Epicenter Cycling are both located downtown; West Cliff is an easy ride and you can continue on toward Wilder Ranch and up the coast. Or head south and hug the coast that way; it’s a little more confusing but equally satisfying.
Whatever you do, make sure to get in a visit to the Boardwalk to ride the Giant Dipper, a vintage wooden roller coaster. It’s a great view out over the ocean for a few seconds when you’re at the top of the ride.
If you’re down by the boardwalk, head for the Picnic Basket or Las Palmas Taco Bar. Good places for Mexican food are Cafe Campesino, Taqueria Los Pericos, or Taqueria La Cabana. Or pick something up for a picnic at one of the local grocery stores, Staff of Life or one of the New Leaf Community Markets.
There’s a lot of great hiking around Santa Cruz. For a redwood fix, head to Henry Cowell State Park or the Forest of Nisene Marks, both close to Santa Cruz with a variety of hikes to suit your mood and energy level. A bit of a drive north is Big Basin State Park, with some spectacular trees. Wilder Ranch is more open, with great views of the Ocean.
Another way to explore Santa Cruz’s mountains is by mountain bike. Soquel Demonstration Forest and Wilder Ranch are favorite local spots.
Malabar on Front Street is atmospheric with enormous candles and interesting Asian fusion food. Yes, “Asian fusion” is generally deserving of suspicion but Malabar gives a new meaning to the term. Sushi is particularly good in Santa Cruz — head to Pink Godzilla, Akira, or Mobo. There are a lot of vegetarians in Santa Cruz, and veg sushi here is especially creative and delicious.
In the mood for a movie? The Nickelodeon Theater has several small screens and shows a good selection of foreign and documentary films.
Santa Cruz has a centrally located hostel set in five 1870’s cottages with a few private rooms and a friendly vibe. There is camping at most of the state parks, many of which are pretty central and good choices to be close to activities. Otherwise, it’s looking for a cheap hotel. Wherever you are, fall asleep to the sound of waves and far off sea lions… Wake up the next morning, treat yourself to another breakfast at someplace you missed yesterday and enjoy the sound of the ocean.
10 tip for 24 hours in Santa Cruz
1. Check out Good Times to see what’s going on. Santa Cruz is super culturally vibrant for its size and there’s always something interesting to do.
2. Whether it’s just a toe-dip or a full-on surf session, make sure to get out into the water.
3. Seek out local produce at one of the farmers’ markets, local restaurants or pop-ups — there are lots of small farms surrounding Santa Cruz a high-quality produce. Don’t miss the strawberries!
4. Notice the “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” bumper stickers” and don’t insult oddness you may come across.
6. Allow yourself time to meander through some redwoods. Perhaps even be moved enough to hug one.
7. Ride the Giant Dipper — even if you think you don’t like roller coasters it’s not (too) scary and you’ll get a view of the ocean like no other as your car hurtles down the tracks.
8. Although Santa Cruz is warm in summer during the day, don’t forget a sweater or jacket just in case and definitely for evenings.
9. Do as the locals do and appreciate the scenery and ocean air on a run, hike, or ride.
10. Relax and soak up the special energy that is Santa Cruz.