Nestled between sandy coastside beaches and dense redwood forests, the surfer-forward, student-friendly vibe of Santa Cruz can feel a world apart from many of the more bustling, urban Bay Area communities. But it’s only about 30 miles from downtown San José – which makes it an easy destination for the perfect summer day trip.
Of course, planning the perfect summer day trip is a subjective art. Maybe you’re artsy, outdoorsy or a foodie. Perhaps you’re a traditionalist, dedicated to experiencing tried-and-true local institutions for yourself, or maybe you’re just trying to keep the kids entertained as school looms. Perhaps something that does not involve roller coasters and funnel cake?
Consider this a choose-your-own, mix-and-match Santa Cruz adventure with 21 fantastic options.
If you’re artsy…
Santa Cruz offers all sorts of visual and performing arts temptations, from the Bard to indie concerts, fiber arts and literary events.
Want to see Shakespeare in the park? Catch a Santa Cruz Shakespeare performance. You can catch productions of “King Lear,” “The Taming of the Shrew” and “The Book of Will” at DeLaveaga Park through Aug. 27. For an extra-posh experience, check out the venue’s revamped concessions menu, which includes a charcuterie box ($30) or cheese board ($26) alongside local craft beer and wine offerings.
Want to get your dance on? Head to The Catalyst, which offers an eclectic selection of indie acts and dance parties. There’s an ABBA-inspired disco night Aug. 11 and Gen Z-friendly Grimace Shake Rave on Aug. 19, plus weekly karaoke sessions from 9 pm to 1 am on Fridays and Saturdays.
Want to connect with fiber arts? Sign up for a class at Wallflower Santa Cruza downtown boutique that offers workshops on embroidery, sewing, crocheting and weaving.
Are your preferences more literary? Plan to hit up this downtown trifecta of bookish joy: Spend the afternoon browsing the extensive offerings at Bookshop Santa Cruzthen head next door to Comicopolis, where you’ll find nerd-approved graphic novels, games and puzzles. Round out your bookfest by walking around the corner to Bad Animala hip bookstore/wine bar/restaurant, currently hosting a restaurant residency by Hanloh Thai. There, you’re free to browse the erudite selection of musty bookshelves beneath a disco ball before taking your seat for dinner or bellying up to the bar for a glass of wine.
Details: Find more information on Santa Cruz Shakespeare, which performs at The Grove at DeLaveaga Park at www.santacruzshakespeare.org. The Catalyst is at 1101 Pacific Ave.; https://catalystclub.com. Sign up for craft workshops at various venues at https://wallflowersantacruz.com. And find all the bookish details on Bookshop Santa Cruz at 1520 Pacific Ave., www.bookshopsantacruz.com; Comicopolis at 829 Front St., https://comicopolis.myshopify.com/; and Bad Animal at 1011 Cedar St., www.badanimalbooks.com.
If you’re outdoorsy
One of Santa Cruz’s signature activities is surfing, for obvious reasons. For learners, Cowell Beach and the Capitola Jetty are known for their beginner-friendly waves. You can also book lessons from a number of surf instruction programs, including Santa Cruz Surf School and Capitola Surf and Paddle.
While most folks head for the beach, you’ll find more privacy and calmer, warmer waters for swimming and family-friendly water play along the San Lorenzo River. Take a half-mile stroll down to the river from the Rincon parking lot at Henry Cowell State Park, just off Highway 9. Walk down the hill until the trail forks at the bottom, turn left and walk until you see a good swimming spot. The water is fairly shallow and surprisingly warm compared to the Pacific, plus you’ll be surrounded by redwoods.
Eager for a more extensive hike? Many local trail networks are still recovering from the CZU wildfire that ravaged the Santa Cruz Mountains in 2020 and this past winter’s storms, but you might consider the 5.3-mile Enchanted Loop Trail at Wilder Ranch State Park or the 4.3-mile Redwood Grove Loop Trail and Cowell Highlights Loop at Henry Cowell State Park.
Looking to play even more among the Santa Cruz Mountain redwoods? Mount Hermon Adventures offers a ropes course and ziplining 80 feet above the forest floor.
And, for folks who love nature but don’t want to break a sweat, try the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Gardens. With a suggested entrance fee of $10, the gardens offer the chance to see plants from all over the world, including extensive offerings from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Details: Find surf lesson details at https://surfschoolsantacruz.com and https://capitolasurfandpaddle.com. For Mount Hermon Adventures, go to https://mounthermonadventures.com/. The Arboretum and Botanic Gardens are open daily on the UC Santa Cruz campus, about ½ a mile up High Street from the university’s main entrance; https://arboretum.ucsc.edu/
If you’re a foodie
Eating with a group? Head for Abbott Squarea downtown food hall at 725 Front St., where the culinary offerings include Companion Bakeshop, the Front & Cooper cocktail bar, Pizzeria La Bufala, Belly Goat Burger, Flashbird Chicken and more.
Looking for vegetarian or vegan fare? Consider Veg on the Edgewhich offers vegan fare with a West African twist at Abbott Square, or bop over to Soquel’s Pretty Good Advice, at 3070 Porter St., where the egg sandwich reigns supreme. The restaurant also serves delicious iced caramel coffee and oat milk soft-serve.
Love aesthetic coffee shops? Hit-up Flower Barwhich serves coffee, pastries — the lavender lemon muffin is excellent — and more from a flower and gift shop at 912 Cedar St. Or pay a visit to 11th Hour Coffee for a more boho-cozy coffee experience. They have two locations: at 1001 Center St. and 402 Ingalls St. The light-filled downtown location is decorated with abundant plants and offers plenty of indoor and outdoor seating — filled with students hitting the books, remote workers typing away and colleagues chatting over coffee.
Feeling like tea with a side of digital detox? Hidden Peak Teahouse hosts traditional Chinese tea ceremonies and offers hearty bowls of earthy pu-erh teas to sip at their outdoor patio, hidden in a cozy nook at 1541C Pacific Ave. It’s a no tech devices zone, which gives it a uniquely zen atmosphere.
How about metaphysical elixirs? Roxa Hammock Cafeat 110 Cooper St., offers an eclectic collection of herbal drinks and acaí in a cafe and event space festooned with hammock chairs dangling from the ceiling if you’re looking for an astrological-witchy vibe – or just really like hammocks.
Thirsty for local beer, plus a meal? Santa Cruz has a delightful collection of local breweries with food offerings. Capitola’s Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, at 103 Kennedy Drive, last year added the Detroit-style Bookie’s Pizza as its permanent food vendor. Or head to the Westside location of Humble Sea Brewing at 820 Swift St. for not just beer, but stylish beer cans and artsy merch, plus daily empanadas by Santa Cruz’s Fonda Felix.
Details: In Santa Cruz, Abbott Square, https://abbottsquaremarket.com; Flower Bar, https://flowerbarsantacruz.com; 11th Hour, https://11thhourcoffee.com; Hidden Peak Teahouse, www.hiddenpeakteahouse.com; Roxa, www.instagram.com/roxa.hammock.cafe; and Humble Sea Brewing, https://humblesea.com. More, www.prettygoodadvicesoquel.com in Soquel and https://rusticales.com in Capitola.
If you’re into the classics
You can also build a great day simply by riffing on Santa Cruz’s greatest hits, from the MysterySpot and iconic Natural Bridges State Beachh to Gayle’s Bakery and Rosticceria in nearby Capitola – so long as you’re ready to face the crowds.
You’ll soon realize why The Mystery Spot’s famous yellow bumper stickers are ubiquitous in the region — everybody gets one for completing the tour. Led by enthusiastic guides who lean hard into dad jokes and kitsch, the tour of this California Historical Landmark includes a walk-through of George Prather’s former home, set at a 17-degree slant on the steep hill, and reveals the site’s mysterious gravitational properties – or optical illusions, depending on who you ask – all highlighted in a series of fun interactive demonstrations. If you don’t emerge with any answers, at least the $10 tour offers some great photo ops and the chance for you, too, to get yourself Santa Cruz’s most popular souvenir. Tours often sell out in the summer and on holidays, so consider buying an advance ticket.
For lunch, brace yourself for the beautiful chaos that is the service counter at Gayle’s. (Or plan ahead and place your order online the day before your visit). Huge display cases house mountains of freshly-baked scones, turnovers and croissants alongside sandwiches and grab-and-go fare perfect for a beach picnic. Grab a ticket and be prepared to witness the efficiency with which this popular eatery handles the large volume of customers that pass through its doors daily – but expect to have to wait for your turn.
And finally, when in Santa Cruz, sometimes the best thing to do is the simplest. So make like the “Barbie Movie”s Ken and do just one job: beach. Head to Natural Bridges State Beach to catch a scenic mix of tide pools, natural arches and, in the fall, migrating monarch butterflies. Or, if you’ve got a four-legged friend along for the ride, head for Seabright State Beach for dog-friendly fun.
Details: Reserve tickets for The Mystery Spot, 465 Mystery Spot Road in Santa Cruz, at www.mysteryspot.com. Gayle’s is open daily at 504 Bay Ave. in Capitola; www.gaylesbakery.com. Find details on state beaches at www.parks.ca.gov.
For the kids
And, OK, if you’re in the under-18 crowd – or a kid at heart – it’s not really a perfect day in Santa Cruz without an exhilarating ride on the rickety Giant Dipper followed by funnel cake. There’s always the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, in all its roller coaster and beachy movie glory.