From the sunny sands of Cowell Beach to the roar of the boardwalk roller coasters, the perfectly picturesque California town of Santa Cruz—just two hours from San Francisco—is the real-life version of a Beach Boys song. If you’re short on time, here’s a perfect way to spend 24 hours exploring this beachfront city.
Wake up at The Dream Inn
This affordable mid-century modern throwback hotel is a surfer’s paradise. All 165 guest rooms look out to the ocean (hello, incredible sunset views). Step inside to enter a retro-surf golden age, with old surfboards hung on the wall, brightly colored furnishings, and a jukebox full of favourites like the Deltones and Otis Redding.
Grab a beachside breakfast at Jack O’Neill Lounge
Fuel up for the day like the late local surfing legend Jack O’Neill. His namesake restaurant and bar celebrate his achievements, including the popularization of the surfing wetsuit. Head here early in the morning and watch surfers ride in on morning waves outside at Cowell Beach while you choose from a range of breakfast options, including Jack’s favorite—huevos rancheros (crispy tortilla topped with a fried egg, salsa, beans, cheese, avocado, and cream).
Hit the waves at Cowell Beach (or Pleasure Point)
The beauty of eating at the Jack O’Neill Lounge is that as soon as you’ve digested those huevos rancheros, you can walk straight out front, grab a rental board, and paddle out.
Cowell Beach is great for beginners because the waves are gentle and the conditions are consistent and good for learning. Head to Cowell Beach Surf Shop, where you might meet Richard Schmidt, a local legend who has been teaching people to surf here for nearly 30 years. If you’re chasing some bigger swell, jump in the car and drive 15 minutes east to Pleasure Point, where early morning shredders jump out from the rocks and small inlets to get their fix.
Eat lunch at Snap Taco
Head back into town to Snap Taco on Pacific Avenue, where you’ll find some of Santa Cruz’s tastiest Mexican food. In its neon-lit, kaleidoscopic space you can devour the extensive menu of signature tacos, like Tiki pork with pineapple salsa, Baja-style fish and chilli, or the comforting fried chicken and bacon. Or dig into something a little healthier with the Mexi-Cali bowls full of fresh ceviche or grilled chicken. Feeling a bit parched? There are plenty of cocktail options and craft beers on tap.
Scream yourself silly at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Continue down Pacific Avenue to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, one of California’s most iconic attractions, which has starred many a time on the silver screen. Key to its popularity is the historic wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster, one of the oldest in the USA, which opened in 1924 and has been running ever since. Further along the boardwalk you’ll find rides and attractions that are more heart-pounding, or subdued, depending on how you like your amusement park experience. Each one has an amazing view out over the beach.
Try an organic scoop at The Penny Ice Creamery
Finish your day with a house-made organic scoop from a selection that changes daily based on the availability of seasonal fruits. Options have included whiskey custard, rose petal, fresh mint chip, green tea, and strawberry pink peppercorn—each made especially delicious when paired with a freshly-pressed waffle cone.