As a Bay Area kid, I grew up going on frequent trips to Santa Cruz, from Boardwalk outings with my parents to annual trips with my high school’s marching band to compete in the Santa Cruz Band Review. The city became imbued with wonder and nostalgia for me as a result, so it was fitting that I decided to attend UC Santa Cruz. Today, I’m ecstatic to be rediscovering this utopia of my youth, now as a college student.
Whether you’re a fellow Banana Slug looking to fill a free weekend or a tourist stopping by on a road trip, Santa Cruz has endless charms to offer. In this 36-hour weekend itinerary, you’ll find plenty of nature, a variety of standout small businesses and eateries, and an unbeatable view of Monterey Bay where the ocean and the redwoods meet.
3:30 p.m. Explore the heart of Downtown
It’s possible to spend the entire 36 hours exclusively within the streets of Santa Cruz’s Downtown, finding places like a trendy boutique with a hefty stock of Jellycat plushies to a combination flower shop and cafe. Your Downtown explorations may also lead you to the leafy oasis of monstera and pothos in Leaf and Vine, the one-of-a-kind Chinese antiques at Shen’s Gallery, or the racks of vintage Levi’s and 1920s ball gowns at Moon Zooom (yes, with three “o”s). Downtown may start to seem basic if you’ve been here awhile, but I find myself discovering something new every time I visit.
6 p.m. Have dinner in the square
Nestled in the courtyard of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History on the corner of Front and Cooper Street, Abbott Square Market is an outdoor plaza and food hall featuring an array of local vendors and al fresco seating beneath strings of red paper lanterns. Soak up the bustling atmosphere and enjoy some live music while taking your pick of mouthwatering culinary offerings like multicolored platters of fresh nigiri from Daisuki Octagon Sushi, short rib barbacoa tacos soaked in tomatillo salsa from ¡Vámonos! Comida Mexicana, or West African vegan fusion obè ègúsí — pumpkin seed stew — from Veg on the Edge.
7:30 p.m. Frolic at the Boardwalk
Cap off your first day with a visit to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, an iconic landmark of Santa Cruz. First stop by the adjacent wharf to say hello to the sea lions, and stay to see the bright lights of the Boardwalk after the sun sets over Monterey Bay. Scream your lungs out on the Giant Dipper, or get a bird’s eye view of the city on the gondolas. The Boardwalk itself is free to enter, so if you’re not into rides, you can still enjoy the arcade games and laser tag, or gorge yourself on concession snacks like chips on a stick, Dole Whip, and salt water taffy. Hours vary based on the season, so be sure to double-check on their website here.
9 a.m. Stop at a taqueria
Santa Cruz, which has long been home to a thriving Mexican population, boasts a large number of authentic taquerias. There’s Taqueria Vallarta on Mission Street, De La Hacienda Taqueria on Laurel and Washington, and Taqueria Los Pericos on Water Street, a personal favorite of mine. Santa Cruzans seem to agree with me, as the place seems to be perpetually packed — service is fast and the food never disappoints. Go early to avoid the lines, grab a Super Burrito or some huevos rancheros, and enjoy the free chips and salsa while you’re at it.
10 a.m. Immerse yourself in nature
The picturesque 640-acre expanse of Pogonip Meadow, which doubles as a popular destination for UCSC nighttime ragers, also boasts 8 miles of scenic trails among the redwoods. Take the Rincon or Spring Box Trails, as I did this past weekend with my nature-loving roommate in tow, to spot secluded landmarks like a spring-fed koi pond in a circle of redwoods, a fascinating rock garden filled with hundreds of rickety little towers of pebbles, or a century-old, moss-covered lime kiln, a remainder of Santa Cruz’s past as a hub for lime manufacturing. Parking is limited, but you can walk in from multiple trailheads, including one on the UCSC campus.
2:30 p.m. Coffee and a good book
All that walking will probably make you sluggish, so spend a relaxing afternoon scoping out the seemingly endless cafes scattered around Westside. Even better, treat yourself to that book at the top of your reading list at Bookshop Santa Cruz (or Comicopolis, if your interests lie more in that realm) and unwind at a cafe table with a matcha latte or some cold brew. Be sure to check out local staples like Verve Coffee, Cat and Cloud, 11th Hour Coffee, Coffeetopia, or Santa Cruz Coffee Roasters. If you’re feeling peckish after your hike, try the sandwiches at Café Delmarette, or the pastries from Companion Bakeshop.
6:30 p.m. Have some Thai
Though the Asian cuisine selection in Santa Cruz pales in comparison to that of my Bay Area hometown, having a meal at Pacific Thai is a surefire way for me to satisfy a hankering for authentic Asian food. My go-tos are the pad see ew and yellow chicken curry, but the pad thai and pad kee mao are also favorites among locals. In addition to great food, Pacific Thai is also known for an impressive roster of boba drinks, including of course, Thai tea. Speaking as a Bay Area native accustomed to a huge selection of top-tier bubble tea shops, the boba drinks at Pacific Thai put the other Santa Cruz options to shame.
10 a.m. Grab some brunch
Kick off your last day at local favorite Walnut Avenue Cafe, widely lauded throughout Santa Cruz for its stellar brunch, warm service, and wide variety of espresso drinks. With its vintage poster-plastered walls and tastefully plated yet loaded platters of food, Walnut Avenue is the epitome of that “cute little brunch place” of Downtown. Go classic with a customizable omelet like I did on my last visit (I added ham, tomato, and spinach), or try one of their creative variations on eggs Benedict (blackened ahi and shrimp and tomato, among others), or the Belgian waffles with walnuts and grilled bananas, which are next on my list.
11:30 a.m. Take a seaside stroll
Just a stone’s throw from the boardwalk lies West Cliff Drive, a picturesque 2.6-mile path stretching along the ocean between Cowell Beach and Natural Bridges State Beach that CHP co-editor in chief Ryan Loyola describes as being “perfect for enjoyers of long, meditative walks or scenic bike rides.” Spot glimpses of otters, seals, and other aquatic friends as you stroll, and be sure to keep an eye out for the surfers at Steamer Lane, a quintessential Santa Cruz surf spot. For a deeper look into more than 100 years of local surfing history, don’t miss the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum at the Santa Cruz Lighthouse. (Admission is free for all.)