Long known by outsiders for reliable surf, warm sand and the iconic Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz has blossomed thanks to the wine industry that thrives in the surrounding mountains.
Westside Fun: Swift Street Courtyard
In 2003, Santa Cruz helped pioneer the food hall craze with the debut of the Swift Street Courtyard, a former Brussels sprouts packing plant with an eclectic array of eating and drinking options. Home to Kelly’s French Bakery, El Salchichero Handcrafted Charcuterie, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing and West End Tap & Kitchen, plus knitting, yoga, clothing retailers and six wine tasting options, it’s an easy place to spend an entire afternoon.
Nearby is Humble Sea Brewing Company, which offers 15 beers on tap, from hoppy West Coasters to Belgian-style saisons. Rexford Winery is where former UC-Santa Cruz astrophysics professor Joe Miller makes wine with his jazz guitar-playing son, Sam. For a sip of the harder stuff, brewer-turned-distiller Sean Venus handcrafts gin, whiskey and agave-based liquors at Venus Spirits.
Work off such indulgences with a walk of the bluffs along West Cliff Drive, which ends at the appropriately named Natural Bridges State Beach. You can also receive hands-on education about Monterey Bay sea life at Seymour Marine Discovery Center, just a five-minute drive away.
Downtown Energy: Pacific Avenue
A hippie hangout for generations, Pacific Avenue is home to legendary concert venues like The Catalyst (founded 1969) and Kuumbwa Jazz Center (1975). You’ll also find comic book purveyors Atlantis Fantasyworld and Comicopolis, and progressive bookstores like Bookshop Santa Cruz and The Literary Guillotine.
But increasingly, Pacific Avenue has become an area on the cutting edge of the food and drink scene. Pour Taproom features 70 consistently changing beers, ciders and wines from the Central Coast to Europe, all on self-serve taps that can be accessed with a prepaid card. Soif Restaurant & Wine Bar offers seasonal eats alongside the city’s most brilliantly curated wine list, featuring Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Noir grown at nearby vineyards, along with bottlings like Zwiegelt rosé from Austria and Chilean Pais.
Feel free to leave dining decisions to the experts on the Santa Cruz Food Tour, a two-mile, 3.5-hour walk that explores downtown’s architecture and history with six tasting stops. Public tours are offered Fridays and Sundays at 2:25 p.m. from April to October, with private tours also available.
Mountain Highs: Summit Road
Most of Santa Cruz’s wineries are high up in the mountains. The Summit Wine Trail straddles the peaks, found between the cool Pacific Ocean and the warmer Santa Clara Valley to the east.
Leave the coastal breeze for an afternoon of hanging in the hills above Saratoga with the iconoclasts at Ridge Vineyards, which offers tastings on weekends only. For grape history buffs, make reservations to take a tour (but no tasting) of Mount Eden Vineyards, founded in 1945.
Relax the afternoon away at the Chaminade Resort & Spa. In addition to its award-winning spa, Chaminade offers three miles of hiking trails through the redwoods as well as restaurants that offer epic views of the sunset. Those who seek more rustic yet utterly memorable accommodations should consider Lago Lomita’s treehouse and yurt. Both offer views from Monterey to Santa Cruz.
Village Vibes: Capitola to Corralitos
Few places scream “quaint” like Capitola Village, where bars, restaurants, tasting rooms and shops surround the walkable waterfront. First, catch a surf lesson on the mellow waves of the jetty with Capitola Beach Co., who also rent stand-up paddleboards.
The patio of Paradise Beach Grille gets packed quickly, thanks to Scott Cater’s tropical-influenced California cuisine. Locals also often opt for the down-home Mexican-American cooking at El Toro Bravo.
Closer to the freeway, Capitola is also home to Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, one of the West Coast’s most boundary-pushing breweries. Here, farmhouse funk takes center stage with tiny-batch brews. Head further toward the mountains to the village of Soquel to try hometown hero Brad Briske’s veggie-forward restaurant, Home.
Five minutes down the coast is the village of Aptos, where Peresphone Restaurant wows with Mediterranean mastery. Smaller bites plus wines and beers on tap can be found at Cantine Winepub, whose owners pledge allegiance to the sustainability of kegged beverages.
To see the grapevines for yourself, head to the Corralitos Wine Trail, where some of the Central Coast’s best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is being grown.
But Don’t Forget the Boardwalk!
There’s a reason that Santa Cruz is known worldwide for its boardwalk. The place is a blast for all ages, especially with new roller coasters and other rides installed over the past decade. But for a bit of history, try the Giant Dipper, the country’s fifth-oldest roller coaster, built in 1924.
Also on the tourist trail is the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, housed in an old lighthouse above the ripping barrels of Steamer’s Lane, and the Mystery Spot, a bizarre attraction in the redwoods just behind the city, where gravity and earthly physics are defied before your eyes.
If nothing else, these last three classic destinations serve as quirky breaks from the innovative epicurean experiences will easily occupy the majority of your time in modern Santa Cruz.