Santa Cruz is many things – a hippie college town, a laid back surf city, a growing hub for tech, a great location for foodies, and it offers just about every outdoor opportunity. Different neighborhoods of Santa Cruz have distinct vibes, and nearby cities and towns offer different feelings as well. Everyone knows the big Santa Cruz landmarks, like the Santa Cruz Wharf or the brightly colored houses of Capitola, but I’m giving you some recommendations that you won’t find everywhere.
Food & Drink:
While I’m in Santa Cruz, I have two must stops: Verve Coffee Roasters and The Penny Ice Creamery. Both are Instagram dream locations – Verve Coffee Roasters 41st Street location has a succulent wall, along with incredible coffee and their other locations are worth visits as well. At The Penny Ice Creamery, the toasted marshmallow topping tastes just as good as it looks.
Even in the last couple of years, Santa Cruz’s beer scene has exploded. I used to be unimpressed with the town’s beer selection, but now I have a couple of favorites. I haven’t written reviews yet, but I really like Humble Sea Brewing Company in Santa Cruz proper and Corralitos Brewing Co. a little south in Watsonville. Sante Adarius has a Santa Cruz and Capitola location.
For actual meals, I’m going to recommend two different Hawaiian restaurants – Hula’s Island Grill & Tiki Bar and Pono’s Hawaiian Grill. Hula’s is more kitschy – think velvet Elvis paintings and mai tais served in pineapples. The Big Sur Veggie Burger is one of the best veggie burgers I’ve ever had and the Caesar Salad is similarly amazing. Pono’s is a little more traditional, with a good beer selection plus full bar, outdoor seating, and live music pretty often. Go traditional here and get a plate lunch.
Another place I love to eat is burger. – the period is part of the name. It has a couple of locations – both Aptos and Santa Cruz and an absolutely bonkers menu. You can get a burger with a grilled cheese sandwich for the bun (the Snooki), a burger made with mac and cheese (Johnny Marzetti), or including a donut AND bacon (Luther). I like a more simple burger, the Johnny Cash which still has fries, bacon, and blue cheese. Even if you just get a few of their sides, it’s worth a visit.
My favorite thing to do in Santa Cruz is mountain biking at Wilder Ranch State Park, but there are other great trails right in the city like Emma McCrary and the ones in DeLaveaga Park. My second favorite thing to do is to walk along the multi-use path along West Cliff Drive and look for otters. Bring your binoculars, because I’ve seen whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions in addition to dozens of otters. West Cliff Drive ends at Natural Bridges State Beach, which is gorgeous and FREE, but usually packed.
Obviously, Santa Cruz is a major surfing destination, but surfing isn’t my sport, so I don’t have any recommendations that you couldn’t find using google. Climbing at nearby Castle Rock State Park is supposed to be great, but it’s still on my to-do list. There’s hiking in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, and at Pogonip Open Space, if you want a more local flavor.
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Another slightly off the beaten path activity is visiting the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden. The totally bizarre plants of the Australian Garden are my favorite, but you can definitely spend an afternoon wandering around the whole thing. We were even lucky enough to see one of the extremely rare white hummingbirds when we were there last. If you’re in Santa Cruz between late fall through early winter, go see the monarchs. They like to hang out in the eucalyptus grove in Natural Bridges State Park, and guided tours are available from mid-October through mid- January at 11 am and 2 pm at the state park.
I’m just scratching the surface of all of the awesome things to do in Santa Cruz. It’s one of my favorite California cities, and I can’t wait to get back. What are your favorite things to do in Santa Cruz? What did I miss?