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Best Itinerary for One Day in Santa Cruz, California

Today I want to share my travel itinerary for one day in Santa Cruz with you. This city on California’s Central Coast is famous for surfing, but there’s a lot more to see and do here than riding the waves. I grew up visiting Santa Cruz almost every weekend, and I’m looking forward to sharing all my favorite places with you. I’ve included a map, too.

One Day in Santa Cruz

One Day in Santa Cruz

Situated at the north end of Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz is beloved for its beaches, surf spots, and laid-back lifestyle. The city is full of natural beauty and human-made highlights alike. From rock arches to restaurants and roller-coasters, there’s no shortage of fun things to do in Santa Cruz in a day.

When I was a child, my family had a boat in Santa Cruz Harbor. We went sailing here almost every Saturday. When we weren’t on the ocean, we were exploring the city. From the beaches to the boardwalk, I got to know it well.

I’ve been coming back ever since, and I’ve loved getting to know Santa Cruz in new ways as an adult. The amazing restaurants, delicious wineries, and great shopping are as exciting as the ocean views and natural scenery that make this place such a delight to visit. I’m here again now and I’m excited to tell you about all the things I love to do in the city.

Santa Cruz Houses
Santa Cruz Houses

Where to Stay in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz can be done as a day trip from San Francisco and other parts of California, but on this trip I’m spending a night here with a friend.

We’re staying in a gorgeous bed and breakfast right by Cowell Beach and Santa Cruz Wharf. The West Cliff Inn is housed in a 19th-century Victorian, and our spacious room has Pacific Ocean views, high ceilings, seaside decor, and a spa bathtub. It’s blissful.

Upon checking in, we learn that the West Cliff Inn offers a daily complimentary happy hour with wine and hors d’oeuvres. There are beach-cruiser bikes guests can borrow, too. Win-win.

Santa Cruz Hotel
West Cliff Inn

Santa Cruz Itinerary

We arrive in Santa Cruz after an hour-and-a-half drive from San Francisco, and we’re excited to explore the city. We drop our bags off at the hotel, then start our itinerary for one day in Santa Cruz by heading out to explore the coast.

West Cliff Drive

Cruising along West Cliff Drive, we take in the views of the wharf jutting into Monterey Bay. There are lots of surfers on the water, and it all feels classic California.

Soon we pass the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, which is housed in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse at Lighthouse Point. The museum chronicles the history of the sport, and fittingly, it overlooks the renowned surfing spot of Steamer Lane.

Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

At the end of West Cliff Drive, we find ourselves at Natural Bridges State Beach. A rock arch rises dramatically out of the surf, and we watch as pelicans fish all around it.

Elsewhere in the area, huge numbers of seasonal monarch butterflies and tide pools draw locals and visitors to see the Santa Cruz wildlife.

Santa Cruz Wharf

Back by the West Cliff Inn, we continue our itinerary for one day in Santa Cruz by taking a walk out onto the wharf. Built in 1914, it’s the longest wooden pier on the West Coast of the United States. It has lots of shops and restaurants to discover, too.

Santa Cruz Boat
Boat on Santa Cruz Wharf

The wharf offers great views of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It’s the oldest amusement park in California and one of the last seaside amusement parks on the Pacific Coast of the US.

Opened in 1907, it’s home to two National Historic Landmarks: the 1911 Looff Carousel and the 1924 Giant Dipper, a wooden roller-coaster. I spent a lot of time here as a child, and I loved the rides and the fact that you could walk straight out onto the beach from them.

But there’s more to see from the wharf than entertainment venues. Namely, the famous resident sea lions. Their barking alerts us to their presence, and as we look down to the water we see huge numbers of them sunbathing on wooden planks. It’s quite a sight.

Santa Cruz Sea Lions
Sea Lions

Lunch in Capitola

From the wharf our itinerary for one day in Santa Cruz continues with a trip to neighboring Capitola. A 20-minute drive away, this seaside town on the Central Coast is known for its colorful beachfront hotel (it’s one of the most unique places to stay in California) and fun shops and restaurants.

We’re here to have lunch at the famous Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria. This casual order-at-the-counter place is buzzing when we walk in. It’s known for its extensive menu, and there are so many options for savory and sweet dishes that it takes me ages to decide what I want.

Eventually I go with a vegan wrap and a slice of cheesecake. The former allows me to justify the latter, which ends up being one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Cheesecake
Lunch at Gayle’s

Historic Houses in Santa Cruz

After lunch, our day continues as we drive over to downtown Santa Cruz to see some of the historic houses the city is known for. Constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these beauties can be found on streets like Walnut Avenue.

We walk along the stretch of Walnut between Center Street and Rincon Street, taking in the Eastlake, Stick-Eastlake, Queen Ann, and Colonial Revival homes as we go. Their colorful facades and whimsical designs make them stand out against the modern homes around them.

Elsewhere in the city, we drive over to admire the houses on Ocean View Avenue. This street has more beautiful historic Santa Cruz homes. From Broadway to Windham, we take in grand mansions built by wealthy Bay Area residents from bygone eras.

Santa Cruz House
Historic House

Walton Lighthouse

After heading back to the West Cliff Inn to check into our room and enjoy a happy hour drink, we head to the mouth of Santa Cruz Harbor to watch the sunset from the Walton Lighthouse (also called Santa Cruz Breakwater Lighthouse).

Dedicated in 2002, this 40-foot tall whitewashed beacon sits at the end of the jetty on Seabright State Beach. It looks stunning with the colorful sky in the background.

I spent countless hours in the water at Seabright Beach and neighboring Twin Lakes State Beach as a child (how I braved the cold of the Pacific Ocean here is beyond me). Today I still enjoy sunbathing and looking out for otters, dolphins, sea lions, and whales when I’m on their shores.

Walton Lighthouse
Walton Lighthouse

Evening in Downtown Santa Cruz

After sunset our itinerary for one day in Santa Cruz continues as we drive downtown to have dinner at Gabriella Cafe. This famous Italian restaurant has a romantic atmosphere and good relationships with local farmers.

A starter of Brussels sprouts shows off the area’s produce, and a main of artichoke ravioli proves how well the chef uses it in Italian cooking. Add to that excellent service, and we couldn’t ask for a better meal.

When we’ve finished dinner we walk across the street to The Penny Ice Creamery. This beloved local shop makes sweet treats in-house from scratch using locally-farmed and organic ingredients. I order a waffle cone with dark chocolate sorbet and cookies-and-cream, both of which are delightfully rich and delicious.

Ice Cream
Ice Cream

Ice cream in hand, we spend the rest of the evening walking around downtown Santa Cruz. The restaurants and bars on and around Pacific Avenue are buzzing, and we can’t help peering through the windows of famous surf shops like O’Neill, Rip Curl, and Pacific Wave.

At the end of the night, we hop in the car and head back to West Cliff Inn for a good night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast in the morning. It’s a great way to end our one day in Santa Cruz, and it whets our appetites for our next trip to the Central Coast.

One Day in Santa Cruz, California

I hope you’ve enjoyed my itinerary for spending a day in Santa Cruz. This part of the Golden State is close to my heart, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy spending time here when you visit.

Santa Cruz Surfers
Santa Cruz Surfers

Santa Cruz Map

As promised, I’ve created an interactive Google map of all the places on my Santa Cruz itinerary here. I hope it helps you plan your trip to the city. Happy travels!

Seabright Beach Sunset
Seabright Beach Sunset

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One Day in Santa Cruz

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