With oceanfront hiking trails, redwood studded state parks, and 29 miles of sandy beaches, it’s no wonder why nature lovers flock to this quintessential California beach town all year long.
In the winter, visitors descend upon this hippie hamlet to surf giant waves at Steamer Lane and spot migrating gray whales frolicking in the ocean. And in the summer months, visitors head here to hike in nearby Wilder Ranch State Park, soak up the sun at Main Beach, and ride roller coasters at the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. With so many incredible outdoor activities, it’s well worth spending at least a few days exploring everything this unique city has to offer!
Even if outdoor activities aren’t your thing, you’ll find plenty of fun things to do in this buzzing college town. The main drag, Pacific Avenue, is lined with vintage shops, artsy boutiques, and all sorts of hip cafes.
When it comes to food and drink, you’ll be spoiled for choice. From vegan-friendly farm-to-table eateries to trendy wine tasting rooms, downtown Santa Cruz boasts a wide range of options. Plus, with all sorts of swanky bars, casual pubs, live music venues, and pop-up events, Pacific Avenue is the place to be when night falls.
With so many outdoor activities, excellent restaurants, and unique attractions in Santa Cruz, it can be difficult to decide where to even begin. While you could easily spend a week or more in this hip California town, 3 days in Santa Cruz is enough time to hit the highlights. If you’re planning a weekend in Santa Cruz, read on for our ultimate itinerary – it will make planning your trip a breeze!
Don’t forget to check out our web story: 3 Days in Santa Cruz
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How to Spend a Weekend in Santa Cruz, California
Getting Around Santa Cruz
The closest airport to Santa Cruz is the San Jose International Airport, which is a 1-hour drive away on the twisting Highway 17. You can easily rent a car at the airport, or if you prefer not to drive, you can book a spot on the Santa Cruz Airport Flyer shuttle, which will take you to downtown Santa Cruz for a fee of $40 (one way). You can also take a taxi, which will cost roughly $110.
If you don’t want to rent a car, don’t worry because downtown Santa Cruz is easily walkable. If you plan on spending most of your time exploring Pacific Avenue, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and Main and Cowell beaches, it’s possible to walk from the heart of Pacific Avenue to the beach in less than 20 minutes. Plus, most hotels offer complimentary beach cruisers, which means getting around downtown Santa Cruz is a cinch!
To reach the rest of the city, you can use the local buses to get around town and access different parts of the UCSC campus. Bus rides cost $2, or you can purchase a day pass if you think you’ll be riding the bus frequently. And, of course, you can also use Uber to get around town.
But if you want to be able to access the area’s more far-flung attractions and state parks, it’s best to have your own car. Luckily, you can always rent a car from one of the many car rental agencies in Santa Cruz in case you decide to take a day trip during your 3-day Santa Cruz vacation.
Day One: Explore Pacific Avenue
No weekend trip to Santa Cruz is complete without spending some time exploring all of the shops, eateries, and entertainment venues on Pacific Avenue. Pacific Avenue is located right in the heart of town and is the beating heart of Santa Cruz. Plus, most of the best hotels in Santa Cruz are just a short drive, bike ride, or stroll away.
Start your day off as the locals do by brunching at local favorite Zachary’s. Set right on Pacific Avenue, the casual cafe has been a favorite brunch spot since it opened its doors in 1985. And on the weekends, it has the line to prove it!
We promise it’s worth the wait. From overstuffed breakfast sandwiches to make-your-own omelets, Zachary’s serves up some excellent (and huge) brunch dishes. But the restaurant is most famous for its signature scramble Mike’s Mess.
Expect addictive home fries piled high with bacon, eggs, cheese, sour cream, and so much more. This is Santa Cruz, so vegetarians and vegans can opt for The Tofu Mess!
After you’ve had your fill, walk it off with a stroll down the tree-lined Pacific Avenue. From big-brand stores to locally owned boutiques to hip vintage shops, Pacific Avenue is a shopper’s paradise! Plus, you’ll pass plenty of talented buskers and musicians along the way, which will keep you entertained as you window shop.
Bibliophiles will definitely want to peruse the excellent selection of new and used books at Bookshop Santa Cruz, while vinyl enthusiasts can easily spend hours flipping through the endless records at Streetlight Records, and surfers can check out all of the unique surf products at the seriously cool locally owned lifestyle store, Berdels. Once you’re ready to rest your feet, get a caffeine fix at Verve Coffee Roasters or sip wine and snack on light bites at Birichino Winery Tasting Room for a boozy break.
It’s possible to spend the entire day shopping, wining, and dining on Pacific Avenue. As evening approaches, you’ll probably want to head back to your hotel for a bit. After you freshen up, go back to Santa Cruz’s bustling downtown, where you’ll be spoiled for choice for things to do at night.
If you happen to be in town for the first Friday of the month, you’ll love participating in the First Friday event. A bunch of the Victorian houses, galleries, shops, and cultural venues around Pacific Avenue transform into pop-up galleries and display works by Santa Cruz County artists. Expect lots of wine and cheese, live musical performances, and plenty of art!
Even if you aren’t in town for First Friday, you’ll find plenty to keep you entertained. First, grab dinner at one of downtown’s many excellent and globally-inspired restaurants.
If you’re looking for something casual, Betty’s Eat In is another local favorite, which serves up seriously good burgers, hot dogs, and booze-infused milkshakes. For something more refined and romantic, make a reservation at Gabriella for a taste of expertly prepared locally sourced dishes.
If you’re not too exhausted after a long day exploring everything downtown Santa Cruz has to offer, keep the night going strong at one of the many popular bars. 515 Kitchen & Cocktails is easily the coolest cocktail bar in town and the bartenders here mix up creative, award-winning cocktails in an eclectic lounge.
Although, if you prefer to keep things more mellow, head down Pacific Avenue to the historic Del Mar Theatre. This picture-perfect art deco-style theater opened its doors in 1936 as a vaudeville theater. It’s now a popular spot to watch independent, foreign language, and big-budget Hollywood films.
If you’re out late, the Del Mar is known for its midnight movie screenings. Before taking your seat, visit the concession stand and pick up a vegan brownie from the local Black China Bakery, a bitter caramel-flavored ice cream treat from local institution Penny Ice Creamery, or a tub of organic popcorn. It doesn’t get more Santa Cruz than this!
Day Two: Hit the Trails
With its easy access to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and Wilder Ranch State Park, it’s no wonder why Santa Cruz is a mecca for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. It would be a shame to take a 3-day trip to Santa Cruz without going on at least one epic hike!
If you only have time for one outdoor outing during your weekend in Santa Cruz, we highly recommend visiting Wilder Ranch State Park and taking a scenic hike on its 35 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. The nice thing about hiking at Wilder Ranch is that there are trails to suit all levels. Plus, you’ll have the chance to walk along the rugged sea cliffs and hike deep into a redwood forest!
Located 4 miles from downtown Santa Cruz, Wilder Ranch State Parks is set on 7,000 acres of land, which stretches across some of Santa Cruz County’s most stunning coastline. One of the coolest things about Wilder Ranch State Park is that it was once a functioning dairy farm.
Explore the park and you’ll stumble across a beautiful 1897 Victorian home, old ranch buildings, barns, and blacksmiths shops, and lots of friendly farm animals. On certain days, the docents even dress up in period clothing and offer living history demonstrations!
Before heading out, fuel up for the day with a hearty breakfast at The Walnut Avenue Cafe, which boasts an excellent menu of all your breakfast favorites. Think syrup-drenched 9-grain pancakes, vegetarian eggs Florentine, and chorizo and cheese scrambles. After breakfast, walk a few blocks down Pacific Avenue and pick up some sandwiches for later in the day at Zoccoli’s Italian Delicatessen.
Wilder Ranch is an easy 10-minute drive from Pacific Avenue. Once you reach the park, park your car in the large parking area near the trailhead for a $10 fee. Most visitors to Wilder Ranch want to check out the area’s beautiful coastal bluffs, which is why the easy 2.5-mile Ohlone Bluff Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the area.
If you really want to work up a sweat, opt for the more challenging Wilder Ridge Loop, which offers scenic views of the Pacific and, depending on the time of year, the chance to spot dolphins or whales frolicking in the ocean! If you want to go big, the 8-mile Enchanted Loop takes you into a beautiful redwood forest.
Whether you end up in a grove of towering redwoods or perched on a windy bluff, you’re sure to find a picture-perfect place to enjoy your picnic lunch before seeking out Wilder Ranch State Park’s hidden beaches, local wildlife, and scenic overlooks.
After an action-packed day, you’ll want to head back to your hotel to get ready for a casual dinner at the Abbott Square Market. Located in a former jail on Front Street (just one block from Pacific Avenue), Abbott Square opened its doors in 2017 and quickly became a must on any Santa Cruz itinerary. This hip indoor-outdoor food court is the perfect place to indulge yourself after a day of hiking.
From the West African-inspired vegan fare at Veg on the Edge to the massive vegetarian and meaty burgers at Belly Goat Burger to the authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas at Pizzeria La Bufala, there’s something for everyone in your crew. Be sure to top off your meal with a well-deserved cocktail from Front & Cooper. After dinner and drinks, chances are you’ll be ready to crash out in your hotel room, but if you’ve still got some energy, chances are you can catch some live music at Abbott Square or the nearby nightclub, The Catalyst.
Day Three: Head to the Beach
No matter what time of year you’re visiting, it’s well worth spending one of your 3 days in Santa Cruz exploring the area’s beachside attractions and getting to know its unique surf culture. Start your final day off by grabbing breakfast as the surfers do in the charming Pleasure Point neighborhood.
It’s no secret that breakfast burritos are a favorite among Santa Cruz’s surfers, and The Point Market just happens to roll up the best in town. From tofu and veggie stuffed vegan options to massive meat, egg, and potato-filled burritos, you’ll love all of the creative combinations.
But if you want to order like a true local, the “Its” is the restaurant’s most popular breakfast burrito and is bursting with eggs, potatoes, cheese, avocado, sausage, bacon, and ham. It’s the perfect meal for pre and post-surf sessions!
Dine on the patio or, better yet, take it to go and make your way to the nearby Hook County Park and enjoy your breakfast while marveling at the seriously talented surfers as they take on the huge waves at The Hook.
Now that you’re inspired, it’s time to head to Cowell Beach, which just happens to be one of the best places in the area to learn how to surf! If this is your first time surfing, you can rent boards and wet suits at Cowell’s Surf Shop and just paddle out. Or, if you feel more comfortable going out with a pro, book a surfing lesson with Surf School Santa Cruz.
Expert surfers can paddle out further and take on the massive – and we mean massive – waves at the world-famous break, Steamer Lane. Waves here can reach up to 18 feet, and locals can be territorial, so make sure you know what you’re doing!
If surfing’s not your thing, there’s plenty to keep you busy at Santa Cruz’s most popular beach. If the weather is nice, spend the afternoon soaking up the sun from your beach towel or splashing around in the ocean. Or, if you’re looking for something more active, some of Santa Cruz’s most popular attractions happen to be clustered around Cowell Beach and Main Beach, so no matter what time of year you’re visiting, there are plenty of cool things to do.
Located in between Cowell Beach and Main Beach, you’ll find the historic Santa Cruz Wharf. The pier was built in 1914 and stands proud as the longest wood wharf on the West Coast. This is an ultra-popular spot for fishing, dining at seafood restaurants, and shopping for souvenirs at the kitschy shops.
Take a leisurely stroll down the pier, and you’ll undoubtedly spot sea lions basking in the sun and frolicking in the ocean below the pier! Once you’ve worked up an appetite, stop off at Stagnaro Bros. for a bowl of their award-winning New England clam chowder.
After you’re done cruising around the pier, continue your journey along the paved 3-mile pedestrian pathway along West Cliff Drive. Stretching from the Santa Cruz Wharf to Natural Bridges State Beach and Park, strolling or biking along this scenic pathway is a must on any 3-day Santa Cruz itinerary.
After just a few minutes you’ll stumble across Lighthouse Point. Located high on a bluff, this is a prime spot to watch the surfers take on the waves of Steamer Lane. After that, pay a visit to the quaint Santa Cruz Surfing Museum and learn all about Santa Cruz’s local surfing legends and the history of surfing on the mainland. Don’t forget to snap a selfie next to the bronze surfing statue when you’re done!
If you’re up for it, it’s well worth walking the entire 3-mile pathway, which dead-ends at the most beautiful beach in Santa Cruz. Famous for its photogenic rocky sea arch, this is a popular spot for picnic lunches, scenic sunsets, and fun photo ops.
Make your way back to Main Beach and end your day by spending an hour or two at the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It’s the perfect way to end a quintessential weekend in Santa Cruz!
You’ll find all sorts of fun rides, carnival games, and pop-up attractions around the Beach Boardwalk. If you only have time for one thing, you’ll definitely want to take at least one ride on the historic Giant Dipper roller coaster.
If the rides are closed, you can still explore the boardwalk, play arcade and carnival games, and go bowling and mini-golfing. Plus, there are all sorts of fun food stands serving up everything from deep-fried Twinkies to battered Castroville artichokes. After you freshen up at your hotel, head back to Pacific Avenue for one final evening in Santa Cruz!
More places to Eat & Drink in Santa Cruz
Set in an adorable green and yellow cottage, Cafe Brasil has been an institution in Santa Cruz for over 30 years. This ultra-popular brunch spot is open for breakfast and lunch. Expect a creative menu of traditional Brazilian dishes with a California and Santa Cruz twist. Think Beef a Cavalo (two eggs over easy and a slab of steak set on top of a cheesy baguette) for breakfast and Feijoada Completa (traditional Brazilian black bean stew and sausage) for lunch.
For a fun, family-friendly atmosphere, West End Tap & Kitchen is the perfect place to gather. The menu boasts creative, locally sourced pub grub dishes, which are paired perfectly with craft beers and local wines. From Seared “Mushroom” Scallops for vegetarians to Chipotle Rubbed Pork Ribs for carnivores to Chicken Strips for kids, there’s something for everyone. And don’t forget to order up a scoop of homemade seasonal sorbet for dessert!
Tucked away on the Westside of town, Venues Spirits opened up this cool craft distillery back in 2016. The owner, Sean Venues, has since received all sorts of awards for his organic, small-batch spirits, including single-malt whiskeys and signature gins. Head to the trendy tasting room, where you can sample flights of curated spirits and handcrafted cocktails. If you’re feeling peckish, the restaurant serves up excellent shared plates and hearty mains.
What to do if you have more than 3 days in Santa Cruz
Visiting “The Mystery Spot” is a must on any Santa Cruz itinerary. Yes, it’s super touristy, but it’s well worth visiting this bizarre attraction at least once. The gravity-defying Mystery Spot was discovered in 1939 and has amazed visitors ever since. Nestled deep in a redwood forest, explore the 150-foot-wide area, and everything will appear to be tilted, crooked, and distorted – you can even see balls roll uphill!
Located in nearby Felton, Roaring Camp Railroad is a great activity if you have more than 3 days in Santa Cruz. The 75-minute Redwood Forest Steam Train trip takes you from picture-perfect Felton through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and the San Lorenzo River Gorge as the conductors narrate historical facts about Roaring Camp Railroad and the surrounding areas.
If you’re a wine enthusiast, then you’ll love spending a day sampling regional wines! The Santa Cruz Mountains are home to over 70 wineries and tasting rooms, including some excellent tasting rooms in the heart of downtown Santa Cruz and wineries set amid towering redwoods. Be sure to try as many pinot noirs as possible since these award-winning wines are what the region is famous for!
The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden is nestled on 135 beautiful acres overlooking Monterey Bay and is home to 300 Mediterranean plant families. Explore the grounds, and you’ll spot beautiful Mediterranean plants from Australia, California, New Zealand, and South Africa, as well as an Australian Rock Garden, a Eucalyptus Grove, a Butterfly Garden, and a series of Hummingbird Hotspots.
If you’ve got the time, it’s well worth making the 15-minute drive to the picture-perfect town of Capitola. You can spend an entire day lounging on the beach, strolling along the oceanfront promenade, or sipping coffee in a café. Plus, there are plenty of oceanfront restaurants lining the beach if you want to enjoy a sunset dinner.
We hope you enjoy your weekend trip to Santa Cruz, California! Should we add something else to our 3-day Santa Cruz Itinerary? Let us know in the comments.
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