While many people visit Santa Cruz for it’s traditional beach boardwalk, my favorite places in this small coastal city tend to be as far away from the crowds and rides as you can get. The vibe is a little bit hippy, a little bit college town (The University of California, Santa Cruz) makes up a large part of the population and a bit funky. It’s an easy day escape from our home in the Bay Area and a fun place to stop if you’re visiting the California coast.
As we live close, we’ve visited just about every month of the year.
Classic coastal city and can vary widely. One day could be 55, foggy and cool, while the next could be 90, sunny and hot.
The coastal vibe, the multiple ocean/beach access points and it’s close proximity to the Bay Area.
The easiest way to get there is via Highway 17 which is a narrow two lane road, overcrowded with cars, and very frequently the site of accidents. What should be a quick drive over the hill can often turn into a multiple hour trek.
Seacliff State Beach: Just south of Santa Cruz in another beachside community, Aptos, Seacliff State Beach is one of our favorite spots to hang out on the sand and let Jack run around. There are bathrooms but no real other amenities except for a snack bar that always seems to be shuttered but if you plan ahead and bring a picnic lunch, it’s a great spot to eat.
Año Nuevo State Park: If you take the Highway 1 route to or from Santa Cruz, there are several state beaches between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. This is one of our favorites. It requires a short hike down to the beach which seems to keep the crowds smaller. It’s also supposedly a great place to see elephant seals although we’ve never been lucky enough to time one of our visits when they’re there.
Lighthouse Field State Beach: An open green space on the cliffs overlooking Monterey Bay (Monterey and Carmel are to the south) with a lighthouse, as the name suggests. This area is also sometimes called Point Santa Cruz, and is a great spot to watch surfers and paddleboarders. We’ve also spotted whales in the water from here.
Natural Bridges State Beach: Another popular beach in Santa Cruz, on the north end of the city.
As this is always a day trip for us, I don’t have any recommendations but will hopefully add some in the future.
Walk from Lighthouse Field State Beach to Natural Bridges State Beach: Connected by a footpath (with the ocean on one side and West Cliff Drive on the other) this is a great place to get some exercise with a gorgeous view. It’s frequently filled with locals getting in their morning run or bike ride. While it’s a pretty spot, the path is narrow for the number of people that use it and I recommend putting your little one in a stroller or using a backpack with a leash due to it’s proximity to both the ocean and a busy road.
Verve Coffee Roasters: Verve Coffee is one of my favorite independent coffee spots in California and they’re native to Santa Cruz, with four cafes in the area as well as three in Los Angeles and one in Tokyo (should you happen to be across the Pacific. Their cafes have a lovely, organic feel to them, with lots of reclaimed wood and greenery. Their coffee and espresso drinks are excellent and their baked goods come from Manresa Bread, a yummy local bakery with shops in nearby Los Gatos and Los Altos).
Zoccoli’s Deli: If you’re in downtown Santa Cruz (Front Street is the main thoroughfare), and looking for a casual, easy lunch, stop by Zoccoli’s, a classic Italian deli with the typical menu of sandwiches plus the ability to customize your own, in addition to salads and pastas.
Woodstocks: I’m probably biased on this pick because I spent four years going to another branch of this college town pizza chain. It’s an extremely chill spot and has always been a favorite. The pizza is good and the salads are surprisingly loaded with fresh veggies (unusual for a pizza place). There is always an interesting selection of rotating microbrews on tap and if you want to catch whatever athletic event is happening that day, there are tons of televisions. The big reason to go though, is wildebread, a garlic and herb bread (make sure to get it with cheese) that’s dipped in ranch or red sauce. I could live on this stuff. Enough said.
Pizza My Heart: Because of my bias towards Woodstocks, I’ve never actually been to the local branches in Santa Cruz but this local pizza spot has other stops in the Bay Area that we’ve ordered from. Fresh with a more gourmet vibe, you can customize your own or order one of their award-winning combinations (my favorite is the Watsonville Apple which comes with green apple slices, pepperoni, sausage, green onions, bacon, gorgonzola, and garlic).
Shadowbrook: If you’re minus the kids and looking for a very fun experience for dinner, make reservations at Shadowbrook in Capitola. Set in the trees and along a river, you can opt to take stairs down to the restaurant or ride in a small gondola. We dined there on our anniversary several years ago and it’s a lovely, romantic setting.
The Penny Ice Creamery: A gourmet ice cream shop (with three locations) specializing in small batches of ice cream made with local and organic ingredients, you're more likely to find a unique flavor like black tea peach rather than a plain chocolate. They typically have about eight flavors and while different than your classic scoop shop, make tasty ice cream and are fun to pick up a scoop from for something different.
Cameron Marks: Occupying two spaces within a shopping/restaurant plaza on the west side of Santa Cruz, this beautifully edited shop is one of my favorites. While I don’t often get into San Francisco to browse some of the wonderfully curated boutiques, it’s easy for me to pop into Cameron Marks when in Santa Cruz and has the same vibe. They specialize in unique brands like Rachel Comey, Ulla Johnson, and Ace & Jig. One of my favorite t-shirts from The Great was purchased here (and is quite possibly the softest thing ever). They mix in a fun selection of shoes, accessories and home goods like Clare V. clutches, Apolis market bags and bkr water bottles. Bonus: There’s a branch of Verve Coffee just a few blocks away.
Stripe: A women's clothing and lifestyle boutique located in downtown Santa Cruz, they also have a men’s store just down the block. They offer an eclectic mix of clothing, accessories, a few things for children, and some furniture. In addition, they offer interior design services.
Plan a pretty drive either going or returning (or both) and take Highway 1 down from Half Moon Bay to avoid the crowds on Highway 17. You’ll get amazing ocean views and pass multiple state beach options to stop and hang out.
Avoid going in the summer when crowds are at their peak.
Park and traverse the area on foot, avoiding having to repark in crowded areas that have limited parking.
Remember this is a college town so if you’re planning to spend the night and hotels look abnormally pricey, check out UCSC’s academic calendar and make sure something such as graduation or parents weekend isn’t going on.
Pogonip Park: Just adjacent to UC Santa Cruz, this sizable park looks like a great place to let Jack run around for a few hours. They boast 8 miles of hiking trails.
Gayle’s Bakery and Rosticceria: Voted best bakery in Santa Cruz (although they’re actually in Capitola), I need no other reason to try them.
Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing: Near Cameron Marks, we’ve passed by a few times and are always intrigued by their lively outdoor patio and crowds of people enjoying their organic beers.
Kelly’s French Bakery: Also near Cameron Marks, we’ve actually started to try this location at least three times but have always been put off by the long line and the idea of waiting in it with an active and fussy toddler. One of these days we’re going to have to bite the bullet and check it out.