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  • Molly Gone Wild

24 Hours in Santa Cruz, CA

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

Santa Cruz, CA
Visit the iconic "bridge" at Natural Bridges State Park.

I grew up in Santa Cruz, California - the land of chilled out surfer bros, mountain hippies, political protests, environmentalism, and jaw-dropping, gorgeous nature. The Santa Cruz of today is a little swankier, a little more polished, and a lot more crowded but still offers a stunning array of outdoor activities. Whether you're looking to ride through the redwoods on a mountain bike or cruise through the kelp forests in a kayak, Santa Cruz has something for every outdoor enthusiast and, whenever I visit my hometown, spending time outside is at the top of my list.

You could easily fill weeks exploring all the hidden gems of Santa Cruz County but sometimes a short, sweet 24 hours is all you need to get the feel for a place. Read on for my take on a 24-hour, choose-your-own-adventure visit to Santa Cruz.

Breakfast: Sweet or Savory?

If you're the kind of person whose eyes light up at the mention of buttery croissants and sugar-crusted scones (i.e. me), start your day at Companion Bakeshop. Not only are the pastries to die for, the coffee is excellent, and you'll be immediately charmed by the sense of community the buzzy bakeshop offers.

If you prefer your breakfast with a hearty dose of herbs, cheese, and garlic, head downtown to The Bagelry. They've been making bagels since 1977 and their menu offers an array of delicious spreads, slices, and toppings to please everyone from the most hardcore pescatarian to the most devoted vegan. Two combos that never disappoint: 1) Pesto bagel + Tomato-Herb cream cheese, and 2) Jalapeño Cheese bagel + Fandango cream cheese.

How To Spend Your Day: Surf or Turf?

For many people, a trip to Santa Cruz means a trip to the beach. If you're looking to soak up the salty air, head to West Cliff for a walk. Meander past the lighthouse, watch the surfers do their thing, and make friends from afar with the sea lions. If you're looking for some real beach time, check out Natural Bridges State Beach. The iconic arch gives the park its name, but its wetlands, tidepools, and eucalyptus groves mean there is lots of wildlife to be seen if you look carefully.

Prefer to avoid the sand? Explore the mountains of Santa Cruz and get your heart pumping with some mountain biking. I've rented mountain bikes from Another Bike Shop numerous times and their gear is always top-notch. Santa Cruz offers trails for everyone from the beginner to the expert, so ask for advice from the staff and they'll help you figure out where to start.

Lunch: Grab-and-Go Two Ways

Santa Cruz boasts a fair number of taquerias and locals will debate fiercely in defense of their favorite spot. For a simple, budget-friendly meal that you can grab on your way to the beach, try Taqueria Vallarta. With four locations across town, you're never far from a loaded tostada and a well-stocked salsa cart.

If you'd prefer to pack a picnic worthy of a leisurely 3-hour feast, stop in at one of Santa Cruz's local markets. Drop by Staff of Life (a natural foods market that's been around for more than 50 years!) or New Leaf Community Markets and load up on local produce, cheese, bread, and wine.

Dinner: Casual or Classy?

Since 1998, Charlie Hong Kong has been serving up delicious and healthy Southeast Asian street food. Their ingredients are fresh and locally-sourced, their flavors bright and invigorating, and their deep commitment to sustainability makes everything taste just a little better. If you're looking for a satisfying yet casual experience, Charlie Hong Kong is the place for you.

For something a little more upscale, try Bantam. Bantam serves up delectable wood-fired pizza alongside a menu of dishes that ebb and flow with the seasons. The atmosphere is cozy with a dash of romance, so dress up, order a cocktail, and make a night of it.

Sleep: The Dream Inn

Looking for a place to rest your head after a day full of eating and adventuring? The Dream Inn just might be your spot. This beachfront hotel offers stunning views and direct access to the beach, the wharf, and the Boardwalk. The Dream Inn is truly a classic - it's been perched on the beach since the 1960s - but it recently underwent a full renovation and was the first hotel in Santa Cruz to become a certified green business by voluntary going above and beyond to reduce pollution and conserve resources. So, lounge by the pool, watch the sunset, and daydream about your next trip to Santa Cruz.

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