Santa Cruz may have a reputation as a hippy town tucked away on California’s central coast, but it is so much more. Home to world-famous surf, the University of California Santa Cruz and miles of stunning redwood forests, Santa Cruz has something for adventurers from all walks of life.
Tourists are drawn to the city by the promise of good food and thrills at the famous beach boardwalk, while outdoor enthusiasts flock there in search of pumping waves and outdoor adventures. The list of potential activities is endless and like a magnet, Santa Cruz will draw you back time and time again.
Here’s how to make the most of 48 hours in this beachside oasis.
Located between San Francisco and Monterey, Santa Cruz can be tricky to get to but will be well worth your efforts. If you’re flying, you’ll touch down in San Jose where you’ll have the option of renting a car or taking a shuttle, train or bus to downtown Santa Cruz. There’s a decent bus system in town but having your own set of wheels will definitely make for a smoother trip. If you’re arriving via ground transportation, the scenic Pacific Coast Highway will deposit you in the heart of town.
Where To Stay
Santa Cruz has no short supply of options when it comes to accommodations. Hotels, hostels, camping and Airbnb’s are all readily at your finger tips — there’s something for travelers of all budgets. If you’re feeling fancy, spring for a room at the Dream Inn located on scenic West Cliff Drive. This classy hotel offers retro-chic rooms ($250-$300 average per night) and stunning views of the bay.
If the Dream Inn is a little north of your budget, browse home away options on Airbnb or VRBO. This eclectic town has it all, from beach bungalows to cottages and yurts in the forest. If you’re searching for a more natural experience, book a campsite at Henry Cowell State Park and sleep beneath the redwoods.
6:30-8 a.m.: Surf Steamer Lane. Located off the point on West Cliff Drive, the Lane is home to four reef breaks: Indicators, Middle Peak, The Slot and The Point. This iconic spot is best suited for intermediate to advanced surfers but a half-mile east is Cowells, a mellow wave perfect for beginners and longboarders.
8:30-9:30 a.m.: After a fun morning on the water, head to Café Brasil for a healthy breakfast. All of the dishes are inspired by traditional Brazilian recipes, with a touch of California flare. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, but the acai bowls are always a hit.
9:30-11 a.m.: A trip to Santa Cruz wouldn’t be complete without a visit to downtown. Take some time to explore the thrift shops, record stores, coffee shops and everything else this bohemian town has to offer. Expert tip: There’s plenty of metered parking on the street but there’s a free parking structure located next to Trader Joe’s.
11-11:30 a.m.: Finish your tour of downtown at Zoccoli’s. Pick up a couple of subs and snacks to go, and head to Henry Cowell for an afternoon hike and picnic.
12-3:30 p.m.: Hike to Big Rock Hole. Located on the San Lorenzo River in Henry Cowell State Park, Big Rock Hole is a swimming hole complete with a rope swing and you guessed it, a large rock. It can be a little tricky to find but it will be well worth your efforts. Drive roughly 3 miles down Highway 9 and park in the dirt pullout on the right. Cross the train tacks and follow the Rincon Road trail that veers right—be sure to ask fellow hikers to point you in the right direction.
4-5 p.m.: After a busy day, take some time to rest/clean up at your lodging.
5:30-7 p.m.: Dinner is Pono Hawaiian Grill. Pono’s is a traditional Hawaiian eatery with both tasty food and killer atmosphere. Choose from 20 different types of poke, all made to order. If you’re lucky, you may even be treated to live music while you dine.
7-7:30 p.m.: Head next door to Penny’s Ice Creamery for dessert. The shop offers seasonal flavors, made daily from locally farmed and organic ingredients.
8-9:30 p.m.: End your day with rides and games at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. In operation since 1907, the Boardwalk is home to two National Historic Landmarks as well as a number of modern rides and arcade games. While there are plenty of rides to choose from, the Giant Dipper is always a favorite.
7-9 a.m.: Head to the east side for a surf at Pleasure Point. The main access point is the stairs at 36th Avenue but waves break all the way from 30th Ave. to the Hook (41st Ave.). The Point is a melting pot of skills and ability levels – from first-time surfers all the way to expert short boarders. Fun fact: wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill’s green house is perched on the cliffs at 37th Ave.
9-10 a.m.: Head up the stairs at the 32nd Ave. and rinse off in the outdoor shower. Grab breakfast burritos from The Point Market across the street and enjoy while you watch the surf.
10-11 a.m.: When in Santa Cruz, Verve is the place to get your caffeine fix. Their collection of coffee and pastries is to die for but something unique to the shop is their “Bowl of Soul.” It’s a huge bowl of tea steamed in soymilk and sweetened with honey – the perfect way to warm up after a chilly surf.
11:30-1 p.m.: Head just outside town to a spot in the redwoods where the laws of gravity and physics are defied. Discovered in 1939, the Mystery Spot is a circular area, 150 feet in diameter that has been dazzling visitors for centuries. Be sure to reserve a spot for a tour ahead of time, spots fill up fast!
1:30-2:30 p.m.: Head to Mission St. BBQ for a late lunch and brews. Mission St. BBQ has 27 beers on tap and offers the best barbeque in town, making it the perfect lunch joint. Just be sure and pace yourself!
3-5 pm.: Head to UCSC to check out the campus and explore the Porter Caves. The caves are located near the west entrance, just behind Porter College. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, continue down the streambed to search for the many other caves that dot the redwood landscape.
5-5:30 p.m.: Head downtown to pick up a pizza from Pizza My Heart. Family owned and operated since 1981, pizza is made fresh and is available by the slice or whole pie.
6-8 p.m.: End your busy weekend with a quiet beach picnic and sunset at Natural Bridges to unwind before heading out. Named after a rock structure that forms a bridge in the water, Natural Bridges offers good surf, tide pools and migrating monarch butterflies, making it the perfect place to end a jam-packed trip.
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