Trying to plan the perfect day trip to Santa Cruz from San Francisco or anywhere else in the Bay Area? I’ve got you covered! This Santa Cruz itinerary will show you the best way to spend a day in Santa Cruz.
I’ll be your local guide to Santa Cruz and share the hidden gems you absolutely must see on your Santa Cruz adventure, no matter what time of year you’re visiting!
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How to Get to Santa Cruz from San Francisco
Santa Cruz is about 75 miles from the San Francisco area, making for a drive that’ll take you anywhere from an hour and fifteen minutes to two hours, depending on what route you take.
The two main ways to get to Santa Cruz from the Bay Area are by taking Highway 17 across the Santa Cruz mountains, or by taking the coastal route down Highway 1.
Both ways of getting to Santa Cruz are beautiful in their own right, but I strongly recommend taking Highway 1 there when you’re going on a Santa Cruz day trip.
Not only is Highway 1 the “long” way to get to Santa Cruz, but it’ll also allow you to see some of the most beautiful, uninterrupted coastal cliffside views.
I suggest you take Highway 17 when you’re returning home, as it tends to be the quicker route.
Note: If you’re not familiar with the area, Highway 17 is a pretty winding road that cuts through the mountains. You gain and lose significant elevation pretty quickly.
Because this is the main way locals travel between Santa Cruz and San Jose, we tend to drive faster than the tourists. Take those the turns carefully, this is not a highway to be speeding on!
Highway 1 Stops on the Way to Santa Cruz
There’s a ton of beaches and pulls outs along Highway 1 on your way to Santa Cruz (which makes for a perfect roadtrip or Santa Cruz weekend trip on their own.)
While all of them are beautiful in their own right, I recommend your first stop on the way down be at Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
Related reading: check out this California packing list (and free printable!) to learn what to pack for a California trip to Santa Cruz.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse
There will be a sign alerting you to the pullout for the lighthouse, as well as parking at the lighthouse itself. You can get out of the car and take some beautiful photos of the ocean waves crashing against the cliffs behind the lighthouse.
Little known fact: there’s a hostel in the same grounds as the lighthouse!
Año Nuevo State Park
About 10 minutes south of Pigeon Point Lighthouse, you’ll find Año Nuevo State Park. Visiting Año Nuevo can be a whole half a day in and of itself, but it’s a good place to stop to see elephant seals if you have the time.
- The park opens at 8:30am and has a $10/car admission fee.
- It’s about a 3-4 mile walk to see the elephant seals, but there’s other shorter hikes you can do with beach access as well.
- To see the elephant seals from December through March, you need to book a guided walk in advance.
- From April through November, you need a visitor permit (obtained inside the park) to do a self guided walk to the seals.
Local tip: one of my favorite places in the world, the Pie Ranch, is located almost directly across the highway from Año Nuevo.
The Pie Ranch sells homemade pies, desserts, vegetables, eggs, and souvenirs – all organic and local. Trust me when I say it’s AMAZING. It’s usually open around 10am and it is 100% worth stopping here.
About 15 minutes down the road from Año Nuevo, you’ll find the small town of Davenport, California. If you haven’t stopped so far during your drive, Davenport is a good place to get out and stretch your legs.
You’ll see a pretty big parking lot directly across the street from the main buildings on Highway 1 that make up Davenport. You can park there and go down to the beach, or check out the old abandoned Davenport Pier.
Shark Fin Cove Beach
Just a minute or two down from Davenport you’ll find the iconic Shark Fin Cove Beach. Even though it’s gained a lot of popularity in recent years, it’s still one of many beautiful (and super cool) spots in Santa Cruz that always makes my heart sing.
To get to the beach itself, you’ll park in the dirt pullout off Highway 1, and walk down a steep little path to the beach. It’s not a super well worn path, so wear appropriate shoes.
My favorite way of seeing Shark Fin Cove Beach, however, is not to go down to the beach directly, but to see it from the cliffs above.
You’ll see a big field next to the entrance to the beach, on the right. Follow the path (it loops around), for some breathtaking ocean views. This is one of my favorite places in the Santa Cruz area, and is where I’d go whenever I had a bad day. The salty sea spray always made even my worst days better.
Don’t forget to bring a good lightweight camera to capture your adventures!
Right after you leave Shark Fin Cove, you’ll see a sign for a winery and Bonny Doon Rd to your left. Take Bonny Doon Rd for about 7 minutes until you reach Beauregard Winery.
Spend an hour or two wine tasting, and grab a seat anywhere outside to see the vineyards. Listen closely and you’ll hear a babbling brook. This is one of those perfect things to do in Santa Cruz in the winter.
Wilder Ranch is one of the best places to visit in Santa Cruz. Located about 10 minutes down the Highway from Shark Fin Cove, it’s a spot that’s super popular with the locals (and not one of those insane Santa Cruz tourist attractions yet).
Stop to do a short hike (if you can find parking – did I mention how popular this spot is with the locals?) The views from Wilder Ranch are some of the best in Santa Cruz.
Wilder Ranch also serves as the landmark to tell you that you’ve made it to Santa Cruz!
Where to Get Breakfast in Santa Cruz
Whether you’ve stopped along the drive to Santa Cruz, once you’re in town start heading to a breakfast joint!
Breakfast and brunch are a BIG DEAL in Santa Cruz, so you can’t go wrong with most places. I’m sharing some of our favorite places to eat in Santa Cruz. These are the local spots that you’d find us at on any given weekend!
If you’re in the mood for an acai bowl, or a big hearty brazilian breakfast, Cafe Brasil is the place for you! Located on Mission Rd (which is what Highway 1 turns into when you hit town), Cafe Brazil ALWAYS has a line.
What to get: try the feijoada, it’s a complete, filling, radiitonal Brazilian meal that won’t disappoint!
The food here is incredible, and is absolutely worth waiting for.
Tips from a local: the Cafe Brasil parking lot is TINY. Honestly, it’s not even worth trying to find parking in it. Instead, park on one of the residential streets off Mission and walk to the restaurant. Please be respectful of locals, and don’t block any driveways.
Walnut Ave Cafe
My favorite breakfast place in Santa Cruz is hands down Walnut Avenue Cafe. Located in downtown Santa Cruz, Walnut usually has a pretty long line as well.
The earlier you can get there, the better. Parking in downtown Santa Cruz is pretty easy, with metered street parking and parking structures nearby.
My favorite thing to get: try the huevos rancheros, or the shrimp tostadas (if it’s after 11am). And don’t forget to ask for plenty of salsa on the side!
Put your name down on the waiting list, and go check out the super hip Stripe shop across the street for a few minutes.
Santa Cruz Diner
If you’re a Guy Fieri fan, you might be familiar with the Santa Cruz diner (it was featured on an episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives for those who don’t know).
It’s a super retro diner, with plenty of booths and countertop seating. The food options here are plenty, the portions are big, and pretty delicious. Do keep in mind that it’s a pretty popular spot, but snagging a table isn’t usually too difficult.
What to get: I don’t know why, but their pho is one of my favorite things on the menu! Give it a try, especially on a foggier Santa Cruz morning. And don’t forget to treat yo’ self to a yummy milkshake!
Things To Do in Santa Cruz After Breakfast
After breakfast, head over to the water to burn off your meal by walking or biking up iconic West Cliff Drive (just West Cliff to the locals). West Cliff is a long stretch of coast with beautiful views of Santa Cruz and the Monterey Bay.
On a clear sunny day, you can see all the way across the bay to Monterey. It’s the perfect place to smell the salty ocean air, and one of the best free things to do in Santa Cruz!
West Cliff is where we’ll usually head to after breakfast in order to take in the beautiful Santa Cruz scenery.
If it’s your first time in Santa Cruz, I strongly recommend you rent a bike or walk at least part of the way. There’s so many little hidden spots along West Cliff, it’s easier to explore them if you’re on foot or on bike.
Local tip: wear good walking sneakers! This pair is super cute and well reviewed.
Parking along West Cliff isn’t too bad in the mornings, but during the summer those spots can quickly disappear. Ditch your car in one of the early pulls outs along Westcliff, right around here if you can snag a spot.
The whole walk is about two (2) miles long one way, and you’ll find something new each way.
Where to Stop Along The Way
- Surfers memorial: you can’t miss it, and is a good reminder of Santa Cruz’s strong surfing roots.
- Surfing museum: yep, surfing is one of the top things to do in Santa Cruz. The surf museum is a super cute red brick building, but the real gem is seeing the surfers navigate the waves that are crashing into the cliffs below!
- Dog beach: whether or not you’re bringing your dog on your Santa Cruz vacation, the dog beach is one of the best beaches in Santa Cruz. It’s located right next to the surf museum, look for the stairs.
After West Cliff, head on over to the Santa Cruz wharf to check out the sea lions. Pop into the cute little shops along the wharf, take in the views and snap some photos, or grab a drink at Olita’s.
Where to get Lunch in Santa Cruz
After spending some time at West Cliff and the Wharf, it’s time to grab some lunch! From the wharf, walk on down to Ideal Bar and Grill.
Ideal is one of the few places in town with some good outdoor seating. Enjoy the views of the Santa Cruz beach from Ideal, and make sure you try their clam chowder while you’re there!
Other places to grab lunch:
- Zoccoli’s: located downtown, Zoccoli’s has really good deli sandwiches and snacks.
- Yan Flower: super cheap local chinese place. Popular with the students due to the low prices and big portions.
Things to Do After Lunch
There’s plenty of things to do in Santa Cruz after lunch, but few things beat the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk (and the beach immediately behind it!) for some good old fashioned summer fun!
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
No trip to Santa Cruz is complete without a trip to the famous Santa Cruz boardwalk! There’s definitely a reason the Boardwalk pops up on all of those “What to Do in Santa Cruz, CA” lists.
To get there from Ideal, walk past the volleyball nets and through the arcade to access the boardwalk area.
Ride the SkyGlider for a faster way to get across, and don’t forget to get a myBoardwalk card to pay for the rides.
What to do: I’m not a huge fan of rollercoasters but the Giant Dipper (the red wooden one) is pretty iconic. I’ve ridden it with my friends before, and it was a pretty exhilarating ride with beautiful beach views.
For something easier on your heart rate, ride the sea swings. You’ll get incredible views of the beach from them.
Get a snack: get a funnel cake or a churro – they’re super fluffy and delicious!
Boardwalk Events Worth Going To:
If you’re going to Santa Cruz in February, make sure you check out the clam chowder cook-off. It’s a super popular clam chowder competition that takes place at the boardwalk every February and is absolutely worth going to.
Visiting Santa Cruz in the summer? Plan an overnight trip and go see a movie at the beach, or check out one of the beach concerts.
During the winter months: rides are limited at the boardwalk. Check out Neptune’s Kingdom instead for mini golf, or air hockey. Spend some time at the arcade, or go bowling at Santa Cruz bowl.
You can easily spend a whole day at the Santa Cruz boardwalk, and you should absolutely feel free to do so! If you need a break from the craziness that can be the boardwalk during summer months, enjoy the sea breeze at the beach directly behind the rides.
Explore Downtown Santa Cruz
If you need a break from the boardwalk, head to downtown Santa Cruz and get your exploring on! There’s plenty of shops worth exploring in downtown Santa Cruz, but these are my favorites:
- Bookshop Santa Cruz: this is a classic, independent bookstore and a local favorite.
- Homeless Garden Project: find some small gifts and souvenirs here while supporting a local nonprofit.
- Paper Vision: Super cute paper and gift store. It’s a pretty small place, but it’s packed full of surprises!
- The MAH (Santa Cruz Museum of Art): this is a small art museum, with beautiful, bright architecture. Check out the permanent exhibit of native Santa Cruz history.
- Stripe: super hip, expensive-ish clothes and gift store. Everything from Stripe is amazing, but I particularly love their soft linen baby clothes and stuffed animals.
- Sockshop: this is THE place in Santa Cruz to get some fun socks. They make for thoughtful, cheap souvenirs!
- Streetlight Records: browse new and used records at Streetlight. Prices are reasonable, and they have a huge variety. You can easily spend hours at this record store.
- Artisans: check out some local, vibrant art at Artisans. This is on my list of places to pop into everytime I’m downtown, and daydream of buying all the beautiful art pieces once day.
- Botanic & Lux: This is tucked away in between the shops downtown, but is worth the trouble of finding. They make amazing bath salts and other organic beauty products.
- Berdels: You can probably find that infamous Santa Cruz hoodie at Berdels. The clothes here are the epitome of California cool, and you’ll find plenty of trendy, but approachable locals shopping here.
Ice Cream Shops Worth Visiting
I’m totally a fan of eating my dessert before dinner, and Santa Cruz has some great ice cream options.
My favorite ice cream shop downtown. They have classic and creative flavors. It’s made using all locally sourced ingredients, and is an overall amazing little ice cream shop. Lines can form, but it’s usually not as crowded as the Penny.
Penny Ice Creamery
The Penny, as locals know it, is on many a list of things to do in Santa Cruz. The ice cream here is GOOD, but they tend to have less classic ice cream flavors than other shops. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something new.
Ok, so Marianne’s isn’t downtown, but it’s pretty close AND it’s one of the best places for ice cream in Santa Cruz. I’ve spent many a night heading to Marianne’s for my favorite ice cream (2 junior scoops of strawberry sorbet and german chocolate on a waffle cone, in case you’re wondering!) It’s absolutely worth it.
End of the Day / Dinner in Santa Cruz
Since you’re already downtown, if you’re sticking around for dinner I recommend you grab a bite at El Palomar, a classic Santa Cruz Mexican restaurant downtown.
El Palomar is divided into 3 parts: the main restaurant, restaurant bar and ‘patio’ seating, and a hole in the wall looking taqueria.
To save some money, I recommend you find a table at the hole in the wall part. Tacos, burritos and drinks are all cheaper on this side of El Palomar, and the food is just as amazing.
Leaving Santa Cruz for San Francisco
You should know that during the summer months, traffic out of Santa Cruz at the end of the day can be pretty ridiculous. If you’re able to, leave earlier or later than prime rush hour out of the city (between 4pm-8pm)
Otherwise, traffic on Highway 17 moves pretty slowly between Scott’s Valley and San Jose. It usually adds about 30 minutes to the drive back.
What to Wear in Santa Cruz
As always when visiting the the central coast, make sure you dress in layers. Here’s a cute go to outfit to dress like a local:
Ready to Plan a Trip to Santa Cruz, California?
There are just so many fun things to do in Santa Cruz, CA, a day is never enough to see it all. If you’re able to spend more than a day in Santa Cruz, you absolutely should! Keep reading below for some of my recommendations on other activities to do in Santa Cruz if you have more time.
Best Things To Do in Santa Cruz If You Have More Than a Day
- Walk along Seymour Discovery Center;
- Go for a hike at UCSC;
- Check out the UCSC Arboretum;
- Do as the locals and have a bonfire at Seabright Beach;
- During the summer months, go see a play outdoors with Santa Cruz Shakespeare at the park;
- Go for a hike along the redwoods at Big Basin;
- Go kayaking with Sea Otters in Moss Landing;
- Have a fancy dinner at Shadowbrook;
- Go explore Capitola, for a smaller, more luxe Santa Cruz experience ;
- Take a surfing lesson.
I hope by now you know what to see in Santa Cruz during your next visit. Whether you’re looking for things to do in Santa Cruz in November, or visiting during the peak summer season, there’s just so many things to do in this sleepy beach town that you’ll want to keep coming back over and over again.