Now that summer has officially descended upon Northern California–adios fog!–it’s time to hit up Nor Cal’s best beach town for a fun weekend getaway. Affectionately known as Surf City USA, Santa Cruz caters to travelers of all varieties. So grab your bikini and bike and head out for some sun, serious eats and surfing.
Here’s a fun itinerary for a weekend.
From the north, drivers enter town on Mission Street, a thoroughfare with some of the best food offerings for families and food lovers. Depending on what time of day you arrive in town, here are a few of my favorite food options on the west side.
For breakfast and brunch, college students line up for hours for the banana pancakes, acai bowls and moquecas at the lively Café Brazil. Kids and their parents adore the array of burgers served at the aptly named Burger. Burgers are named after 80s icons like Marky Mark, and after you order your meat or veggie slab, fries, and a milkshake at the counter, you are handed a celebrity mug shot and told to take a seat in the artsy bar. With probably a hundred beers to choose from, sports on the TVs, and a nice collection of families and hipsters, this is an easy spot for picky palates. Finally, for dinner there is no better place to enjoy seasonal pasta dishes than Ristorante Avanti. With a friendly staff, and a down to earth vibe, you feel like you are dining in a casual café in Italy, but with only the finest ingredients. Everything I have ever had here has been spectacular, but the gnocchi and ice cream sandwich win my heart every time.
Check into the beachfront retro digs at the Dream Inn. Kids and their parents adore this newly renovated hotel, especially because of the gifts the front desk offers children upon arrival, the pool, beach access, in house restaurant Aquarius, and most notably that you can walk to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
If you’d like accommodations in a quieter location, check into the luxurious Chaminade Resort and Spa, perched atop a hill overlooking the sea. The pool and hot tub are packed with kids, and the big grassy fields are ideal for pick up soccer games. Their monthly summer farm dinners, with the farmers and winemakers who’ve crafted the ingredients for your meal, is one of the city’s best treats.
Start your morning with the best coffee south of San Francisco. Take CA-1 to 41st Ave and drive west until you see Verve Coffee Roasters. Known for their careful blends and artful presentations of latte art (plus the fabulous collection of Kelly’s pastries), this is the locals’ choice for reading the newspaper or surfing the web before spending the day outdoors. They also have locations downtown and in the Seabright neighborhood.
Whether you are a novice or seasoned surfer, you’ll want to don your wetsuit and test your skills. Beginners should head to Cowell’s Beach, close to the Boardwalk, while more advanced wave riders can brave the swells between 30th Ave and 36th Ave off East Cliff. It is helpful to know that local surfers are quite territorial, so use your best surfer etiquette and throw on your toughest skin to handle the possible insults hurled your way when you try to ride a good one.
You’ll definitely need a hearty breakfast after burning all those calories, and the harbor-front Aldos serves lumberjack sized portions of griddle fare and omelets with sass on the dock as you sip strong bloody marys.
You are probably itching to get to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk by now, so take your bikes along the sea to experience the new roller coaster! For over one hundred years, this beachfront amusement park has appealed to kids of all ages. Whether you fancy riding the Giant Dipper roller coaster, getting dizzy on the century-old carousel, letting the munchkins drive cars, boats and planes, playing mini golf, Dance Dance Revolution, or just sunbathing on the sand, this collection of fun promises to enchant the entire clan. On summer Fridays, the Boardwalk hosts free concerts by big name artists.
Wander out on the pier for a big plate of oysters and a beer at Riva Grill. Quite popular with locals, who populate the bar and then leave with heaping scoops of fresh gelato, you may have to wait for a table by the window, but you won’t regret it. Just be sure to stick with the more traditional dishes, occasionally the chef gets a touch too creative with the menu and I always find these dishes inconsistent, unlike their fish and chips.
Jump back in the car for one last beach outing and follow the signs to Natural Bridges State Park. This beloved beach and nature trail shelters the annual butterfly migration that descends upon the central coast in the late fall and winter. Plus, the picturesque stretch of sand, noted for its natural rock bridge (hence the name), attracts birds, passing dolphins and families camping out for the day. I often come here to watch the sunset over the sea—you can get great photos from the roundabout just above the parking lot.
Eat dinner like the locals and chow down on burritos in downtown. For a cost effective option, line up at Taqueria Vallarta which also broadcasts soccer games. El Palomar is a touch fancier (and more expensive), with a lively crowd slurping margaritas and grubbing on snapper tacos.
On warm evenings crowds of people stroll Pacific Avenue streaming in and out of bars, movie theaters, shops and restaurants as street musicians serenade the passersby. Whether you crave surf shirts at the locally owned O’Neill surf shop, books at Bookshop Santa Cruz, or just wandering through the hemp, crystal, or apothecary stores, you are sure to locate something fun to bring home.
In the morning, head out to Seabright Beach for a bit more sun and sand before packing up the car and taking CA 17 through the redwoods back home. If you have time, pop over to Felton and hike through the California’s most majestic trees in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
For more itinerary assistance, pick up a copy of my Northern California: An Explorer’s Guidebook.
This itinerary is excerpted from my Backroads and Byways of Northern California.