I visited Santa Cruz throughout childhood and my college days. As a kid, it was for the delighted screams and vintage charm of the boardwalk and the sand between my toes. As a student, it was for house parties where funk bands played, girls with dreads swung hula hoops around their waists, boys talked to me about saving the environment, and everyone passed around that green herb that kept Santa Cruz so chill.
But I am not a local. Only a keen visitor that luckily, has a good friend that has lived in Santa Cruz for over ten years. Molly, a writer and content strategist, has a contaigous love for Santa Cruz and her articles on the area always inspire me to plan another visit. My boyfriend had never spent much time in Santa Cruz, so we planned a two-night trip and tested out Molly’s suggestions. I’m still on cloud nine with all the lovely things we did and so I share them here with you.
Where to start your morning:
Verve Coffee Roasters is the cool kid on the block. Chrome light fixtures, paneled wood, and geometric designs on the coffee bags give this coffee shop a distinct San Francisco vibe (funny enough, they have a shop on Market Street). It’s in a great location, right in downtown Santa Cruz, and is full of locals drinking their nitro cold brews and snacking on some jalapeno cheddar scones. We enjoyed sitting at the tables outside and taking in the downtown life.
For breakfast, Aldo’s Harbor Restaurant was our choice, even though The Buttery is some of the best food in town. Aldo’s may not blow your mind with its food, but it’s satisfying and best of all, it sits right on the harbor. It was our last morning in Santa Cruz and it was lovely to sit in the sunshine and look out at all the boats and people walking their dogs to Seabright Beach. I happily finished all of my huevos rancheros and we followed suit, taking pictures of the lighthouse and laughing when the surf came up too fast and soaked us. Aldo’s location just can’t be beat.
Where to enjoy your day:
Obviously, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is worth a visit, as it’s the oldest amusement park in California and has that old-timey appeal mixed with modern rides. Rides aren’t cheap (we each spent $25 on around five rides/arcade games), but we didn’t regret our purchase. Santa Cruz is much more than its boardwalk though, so don’t make the mistake of only spending your time there!
Photo via Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk Facebook
A short walk to the right of the boardwalk takes you to the wharf and a small cafe called The Picnic Basket. Food costs about the same as it would on the boardwalk, but the hearty sandwiches and locally-made ice cream are far more bang for your buck. They also serve beer and other treats to eat on the terrace or take out to the beach. We enjoyed our sandwiches and mini ice cream cones, then walked over to Pacific Ave. Cycles, the closest bike rentals we could find.
Molly had suggested biking down West Cliff Drive to Natural Bridges State Park Beach (about a 3 mile ride) so we rented some cruisers for $8 an hour. It only took us about an hour and a half to ride along the coast, stop by the Surfing Museum, watch some surfers catching waves, and take in the views at our destination beach. It was gorgeous and gave us much-needed coastal time. The only downside is that you’re not allowed to take the company’s bikes on the beach so we couldn’t go relax by the waves like we wanted. I suppose to combat this you could bring your own bike locks, as we were not given any and didn’t want the bikes to get stolen.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is a twenty minute drive out of Santa Cruz and makes a good half-day trip. Towering redwood trees are humbling, no matter how many times you’ve seen them and the volunteer guides and pamphlets gave us some new information on how redwoods grow and create life around them. The Redwood Grove trail is a short loop through the redwoods and is accessible for all ages. We went off on one of the many side trails and it took us down to the San Lorenzo River. After all the dust, it was refreshing and a nice break to wade through the water.
Where to get your evening libations:
Hula’s Island Grill and Tiki Room sounded fairly touristy to me, but Molly assured me that it was a great local spot and my boyfriend was thirsting for some tiki drinks with a side of seafood. The eatery has a fun atmosphere, with surfing magazines framed on the wall, and dangerously delicious cocktails like hurricanes, zombies, and double-shot Mai Tais on the menu. The food also impressed and we ate every bit of our coconut shrimp rolls, coconut milk ceviche, and pineapple pork.
Lucky for our inebriated selves, 515 Kitchen and Cocktails is just a block down and is known as the classiest place to get a drink or take a date to. The rooftop seating with heaters was perfect for a chilled Santa Cruz evening and the drink menu had concoctions we’d never heard of. Siren Song, a mixture of gin, citrus, bitters, and ginger beer was just sweet enough and my boyfriend’s New York Sour somehow made whiskey and cabernet franc work together. Be warned though: these drinks are not weak.
Photo via 515 Kitchen & Cocktails Facebook
On our last evening, we met up with Molly and her husband at Lillian’s Italian Kitchen for some white tablecloths and pasta dishes. Over some local wine, they told us about their Santa Cruz college days (some of which I’d taken part in) and told us that if we wanted to continue the night, we should go to Brady’s Yacht Club, where it’s said a man does push-ups on the bar nightly, or to the The Crepe Place, a popular place to eat crepes and dance to funk music. We walked by the latter and there was a huge line of young college kids. Us old folks decided to call it a night and went back to Hotel Solares, for some decadent rest.
Santa Cruz had worn us out, but we enjoyed making new memories and reminiscing on the old.