10 Must-See Destinations in Santa Cruz, California

Plan a picture-perfect weekend on the central California coast with our guide to local joints, spectacular seaside stops and back-to-nature retreats.

August 28, 2019

Photo By: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Photo By: Lauren Oster

Photo By: Kayak Connection

Photo By: Lauren Oster

Photo By: Lauren Oster

Photo By: Costanoa

Photo By: Bonny Doon Vineyard

Photo By: Venus Spirits

Photo By: Lupulo Craft Beer House

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Admission to the picture-perfect Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park is free, and movie buffs flock there to get a firsthand look at shooting locations for films like The Lost Boys (1987) and Us (2019). Locals, in turn, love it for budget-friendly options like season passes: $81.95 buys a year’s worth of unlimited access to rides, access to members-only events and a "bonus book" with discounts on food, games and parking. (A single all-day rides pass is $39.95, and you can buy individual ride tickets as well.) Don’t miss the park’s National Historic Landmarks, the iconic 1911 Looff Carousel and The Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, which will probably look familiar (it’s been in countless commercials, TV shows and movies).

Santa Cruz Wharf

Just north (and the perfect distance away for a great landscape photo) of the boardwalk, the massive Santa Cruz Wharf has served as the "Gateway to the Monterey Bay" for more than a century. Topside attractions include a fresh fish market, fine dining (with seaside views, natch), shops selling everything from beach gear to handmade crafts and more — but many would argue that the real action goes on underfoot and in the ocean, as the wharf curves out half a mile into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (the largest in the U.S., and the second-largest in the world). Keep your eyes peeled for sea life of all kinds, but be sure to pay close attention to the wharf itself, where you’ll get an extremely close look at the sea lions who love to get comfortable beside and beneath its massive supports.

Kayak Connection

To get an even more intimate look at the bay, make reservations with Kayak Connection, an outfitter that offers guided sea kayaking and stand-up paddling excursions from Santa Cruz Harbor. Sunrise, sunset and occasional moonlight tours are all available, as well as wildlife-focused outings where you may see dolphins, sea otters, sea lions and even humpback whales(!). If you fancy a solo trip — or need to brush up on your seafaring skills — gear rentals and classes are available, too.

Año Nuevo State Park

Each winter, up to 10,000 northern elephant seals return to Año Nuevo State Park — one of the largest mainland breeding colonies in the world, half an hour’s drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Cruz — to breed, give birth and molt (yep, seals molt!). Between December 15 and March 31, volunteer docents give guided walks ($7 per person, plus a $3.99 reservation fee) from the park’s Marine Education Center to the elephant seal viewing area, which is only accessible on guided tours or with a permit; over the course of about two and a half hours, you’ll hike over 3-4 miles of dunes and wetlands and learn why the seals (who can weigh in at more than 5,000 pounds in adulthood) are so special.

Pigeon Point Light Station

Hot tip: The visitor center at the 115-foot, 147-year-old Pigeon Point Light Station (27 miles north of Santa Cruz) is an excellent place to purchase and start filling a Lighthouse Passport, a book designed to raise funds for lighthouse preservation by encouraging users to collect custom-designed stamps from lighthouses, museums and lightships around the country. Each time you fill a book, you receive an official collectible patch in recognition of your achievement. Hotter tip: For a truly bucket-list experience, book a stay at Hostelling International’s Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel and a private session in the hostel’s guests-only lighthouse-adjacent cliffside hot tub. We’ll repeat that for emphasis: lighthouse-adjacent cliffside hot tub.

Costanoa Lodge

Missed the boat on a hot tub reservation at Pigeon Point? Fret not: Another soak in a spectacular setting awaits in the Jacuzzi at Costanoa Lodge, a family-owned "eco-adventure" resort nestled in the rolling hills above the beach. Costanoa offers a dazzling spectrum of guest experiences ranging from spa services, to educational wildlife programming and locally-sourced cuisine (at Cascade, its restaurant and bar, and Pine Tent, its seasonal casual-dining space). Costanoa also has a range of lodging options, from a traditional lodge to KOA campground berths to cabins and tent bungalows. If you relax so completely that you don’t feel like venturing back to town, there’s an on-site general store with everything from local food and wine to board games and luxury products.

Bonny Doon Vineyard Tasting Room

Head 10 miles north to Davenport for an intimate wine tasting courtesy of Bonny Doon Vineyard, a locally-beloved producer that was once the 28th-largest winery in the country — until founder Randall Grahm decided he’d rather downsize and focus on unique, soulful wines (and step up his efforts to promote biodynamic winemaking practices). Today, the gregarious, unpretentious Bonny Doon team welcomes visitors to its quirky tasting space for pours that are casually out of this world. Look closely at the label on its flagship Le Cigare Volant, an homage to Châteauneuf-du-Pape; yes, that is in fact a flying saucer above a vineyard.

Venus Spirits

If pressed (no pun intended), one could sum up the local-distillery vibe in Santa Cruz with "playing cornhole in a sea-breezy parking lot while drinking a craft cocktail with award-winning gin made next door." That’s the tasting-room atmosphere at Venus Spirits, where Sean Venus and his crew produce organic small-batch gin, whiskey, aquavit and blue agave spirits. These distillations pack a punch, so visitors can order up one six-pour tasting or one mixed drink per visit, and that’s it — but don't worry. They’ll happily send you home with up to 3 bottles of their magnificent concoctions.

Akira Santa Cruz

This casually hip midtown joint could get away with no-frills, catch-of-the-day sushi standards, given the world-class local ingredients they’ve got on hand. But that’s not Akira’s game. They’ll sell you the straightforward stuff, to be sure, but they delight in eye-popping creations like the Sunrise (above, hamachi nigiri with flying-fish roe and a quail egg), and the Mushaboom (a veggie roll with shiitake, tempura green beans, fried garlic, and spicy macadamia topped with avocado, lemon, chili-lime salt, honey, ryu sauce and toasted coconut). Wash those Wonka-esque rolls down with a selection from Akira’s saké collection or its rotating local craft beer list.

Lúpulo Craft Beer House

Speaking of local craft beers, no thirsty traveler’s trip to Santa Cruz would be complete without a stop at Lúpulo ("hops" in Spanish), a charismatic eatery, bar, gallery and shop that brings tapas, curated quaffs and the community together in a multicultural mashup. Lúpulo’s a lovely place to be any day of the week, but it’s worth keeping an eye on their event calendar for gems like record-shop takeovers, lóteria (a Mexican bingo-like card game) sessions and books-and-brews nights.

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