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Getaway Guide: Downtown Santa Cruz
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Getaway Guide: Downtown Santa Cruz

Grab your travel buddy and don’t forget your surfboard—you’re in for one awesome adventure at Downtown Santa Cruz.

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5 min read

October 15, 2021

The best way to delve into the spirit and culture of Santa Cruz is to head straight to its amazing downtown. Known for its pleasant climate, beautiful coastal scenery, and world-class surf and entertainment, Downtown Santa Cruz is an ideal California destination for a quick weekend retreat. 

Whether you’re looking to make a quick visit to the area or planning to spend your entire Santa Cruz getaway there, this guide will make sure you don’t miss out on the best bits. Grab your travel buddy and don’t forget your surfboard—you’re in for one awesome adventure at Downtown Santa Cruz.

What to See in Downtown Santa Cruz

Mission Santa Cruz served as a site for ecclesiastical conversion of natives, first the Amah Mutsun people, the original inhabitants of the region.

Mission Santa Cruz

No matter your religion, a visit to the historic Mission is a must when in Downtown Santa Cruz. Founded in 1791, this beautiful NorCal mission has had quite a tumultuous past, even suffering an earthquake that completely destroyed its front wall. While the entire 32-building complex hasn’t survived, the remaining structures of the mission are still pretty cool to explore and admire.

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Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

Located at the McPherson Center, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History is an awesome spot to explore. Offering rotating exhibitions, visual and performing art, education and outreach programs, this cool Downtown Santa Cruz museum will give you your art and culture fix.

With collections dating back to early years of surfing on mainland United States, the museum houses a historical account of surfing in Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

Overlooking the internationally renowned surfing hotspot Steamer Lane, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is your one-stop destination to learn all there is about the town’s surf history and culture. Take a self-guided tour, learn about the state’s greatest, and you’ll definitely have a newfound appreciation for Surf City’s relevance in the surfing world.

Where to Eat in Downtown Santa Cruz

Abbott Square Market is a culinary and entertainment venue boasting countless unique restaurants. Photo courtesy of Abbot Square Market.

Abbott Square Market

Wondering where to get the best coffee in Downtown Santa Cruz? Head to the coolest culinary and entertainment venue in the heart of downtown: Abbott Square Market. You’ll find coffee, baked goods, pizza, sushi, vegetarian eats, and more delicious treats within the premises of this cool Santa Cruz spot. Oh, and it’s adjacent to the Museum of Art and History, so you can totally kill two birds with one stone.

Hula’s Island Grill is a throwback to the popular tiki restaurants of the 50s and 60s. Photo courtesy of Hula's Island Grill.

Hula’s Island Grill

Hula’s Island Grill is one of the most popular Downtown Santa Cruz restaurants, offering a range of Hawaiian eats with an American spin set in a tropical, tiki-inspired outpost. Celebrate Hawaiian culture, enjoy friendly service, surround yourself with vintage surf and art, and go on a culinary adventure like no other at this local favorite.

Zachary’s Restaurant

Another popular dining spot, Zachary’s Restaurant is a diner-style restaurant serving American cuisine in a casual family-friendly atmosphere. Operating since 1985, this Downtown Santa Cruz favorite offers homemade classics and perhaps the best breakfast you’ll ever have—the brunch specials are especially yum.

Downtown Santa Cruz Shops to Check out

Pacific Wave Surf Shop is a family-owned business located in the heart of Downtown Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Pacific Wave.

Pacific Wave

How are you going to hit up the best Santa Cruz surf spots without the proper gear? Be on your surfing A-game and make a stop at Pacific Wave first. A family-owned business that opened in 1993, this Downtown Santa Cruz shop carries all the necessities for skaters, surfers, and snowboarders, as well as a wide variety of beach and streetwear you’ll love. Gotta surf in style!

Wallflower Boutique

You have to drop by the Wallflower Boutique if you go out for a bit of Downtown Santa Cruz shopping. With a focus on showcasing the work of independent local designers and artists, this unique little shop offers a wide range of beautiful items from clothing and accessories to art and jewelry, which make for the best souvenirs to take home.

Bookshop Santa Cruz is a general independent bookstore operating in California since 1966. Photo courtesy of Bookshop Santa Cruz.

Bookshop Santa Cruz

Bookshop is a mega-popular Santa Cruz downtown library operating since 1966. Offering new and used books, cards, calendars, toys, apparel, and gifts including specialty items, this Downtown Santa Cruz shop is well worth the hype. Plus, there are live (virtual and in-person) readings here from world-famous authors almost every week, so make sure to check the calendar before you go.

What to Do in Downtown Santa Cruz

You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy a surfboard and that’s pretty close. Let the waves carry you where the light cannot.

Join The Surfers In Riding The Waves

Santa Cruz is hailed to be one of California’s most coveted surf cities—you simply cannot leave without getting in the water with your board and catching a swell of your own. There are plenty of surfing hotspots located near Downtown Santa Cruz. Check out Cowell Beach if you’re a novice surfer, and the famous Steamer Lane if you’re a true professional. Even if you’re not planning on surfing yourself, visiting these beautiful beaches and watching the pros do what they do best is still a great experience.

Check out Everything the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Has to Offer

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Wharf are practically adjacent to the downtown area. As two of the city’s most well-known attractions, you can’t miss out on these places. Once you’re done with your Downtown Santa Cruz shopping, walk less than 30 minutes to the boardwalk, check out the rides, try carnival treats, hit the arcade, and spend your evening having a great, nostalgic time.

With a length of 2,745 feet, the Santa Cruz Wharf is the longest pier on the West Coast of the United States.

Walk Along the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf

Right next to the historic beach boardwalk is the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, a seaside shopping, dining, and recreation spot you have to check out when in Downtown Santa Cruz. Here, you’ll find everything from handmade gifts, beach apparel, and outdoor fresh fish markets to fine dining, whale watching, and fishing and kayaking trips—make sure you set aside enough time to check it all out.

Watch the Sun Go Down at Natural Bridges State Beach

There’s one more stop to make on your way home before wrapping up your Downtown Santa Cruz adventure. Natural Bridges State Beach is one of California’s most photographed places and a spot you should absolutely visit if you haven’t yet. See the most beautiful coastal sunset of your life, keep an eye out on migrating whales, enjoy bird watching, and tidepooling to bid Santa Cruz adieu in a spot that’ll make you want to come again.

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