Santa Cruz is the perfect destination. You can mix your love of the beach with your love of hiking in the redwood trees, and there’s almost always something going on in the funky downtown. Santa Cruz is a place where all unique souls can be who they are, and where there’s always something fun to do around every corner. Whether you’re into long walks on the beach in the California sun, surfing, chasing waterfalls, or just people-watching at the Boardwalk, Santa Cruz is the place for it all.
First Friday: If you’re ever in Santa Cruz on the first Friday of the month, be sure to make your way downtown to see work from local artists and to visit the many cute shops along Pacific Avenue. Many of the cute boutiques keep their doors open later, and some even serve small snacks and a signature cocktail for the night. Be sure to swing by the Pacific Wave for a free slice of Pleasure Pizza and a beer (tip your bartender!). We also enjoy Stripe Men and Women’s stores, which have all kinds of hipster trinkets and usually a delicious cocktail. The Museum of Art & History (MAH) usually has a live band playing and the upstairs art exhibits are open and free to the public. Plus, if you just wander up and down the street, you never know what you’re going to find. There’s always a parade of some sort–whether is bikers or furries. There’s sometimes a silent disco going on at the corner Pacific and Cooper. There’s always live music somewhere on Pacific Avenue. It’s never hard to find something interesting going on as you walk around downtown Santa Cruz. There’s a whole website dedicated to First Friday, and you can sign up for their email list to get reminders and see which stores and artists are participating each month. Website: https://firstfridaysantacruz.com/
Best Burrito: Taqueria Los Pericos
Just on the outskirts of downtown, you will find a hole-in-the-wall Mexican food joint that is dishing up amazing carnitas. No seriously, get the carnitas– it’s the best we’ve ever had. Soft and juicy on the inside, crispy on the outside… You’ll know you’re at the right spot because you’ll see the line extending down the street. You order at the counter and then can grab chips and salsa from the salsa bar. There are just a handful of tables, but you can usually find a place for a quick bite. The food comes out fast and hot, and tastes like a joy-gasm in your mouth. We recommend the Perico burrito (with carnitas!): meat, cheese, onions, whole beans, slices of fresh avocado, and tomatillo sauce. The one thing we always try when we go to a new Mexican place is the carnitas, and Los Pericos crunchy, crispy carnitas is still the best we’ve ever had. Come at us, bro.
Best Ice Cream: This one’s a tie between Marianne’s and Penny Ice Creamery.
Penny Ice Creamery makes their ice cream from locally farmed and organic ingredients. The flavor list is always changing with the seasons, and the ice cream is made in-house from scratch. Located in Downtown Santa Cruz, you can stroll by and see day’s flavor’s on the chalkboard outside. There’s usually 6-10 flavors, and they always let you sample as many as you’d like. Even though there will probably be a line when you visit, it moves quickly and their great customer service and amazing ice cream is worth the wait. No matter which flavor you choose, it is essential that you add the toasted marshmallow to the top. The marshmallow fluff is their signature and they torch it like a campfired creme brulee topping–highly recommended.
Marianne’s is a classic, a must have ice cream cone. With over 100 flavors made from local ingredients, there is sure to be something that everyone will enjoy. The ice cream is creamy and flavorful. Some of our favorites include their Macapuno, Cantaloupe (seasonal), or their Horchata. One of their best sellers is the 1020, which has Oreo cookies and caramel. The best local hack? Skip the line and just buy a couple pints to go. There are three locations in town, and also many stores and restaurants that carry the Marianne’s brand.
Best Cookie: The Pacific Cookie Company is the place to get your next sweet treat. Crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, these cookies are pretty unforgettable. There are 13 flavors to choose from, and we like them all. Our favorites have to be the lemon drop, the ginger spice, peanut butter chocolate chip, and dark chocolate cranberry. You can also add a scoop of Marianne’s ice cream on top of your cookie, or go wild and make an ice cream sandwich with two cookies. They also have gluten free cookies from Mariposa Bakery, one of my sister’s favorite gluten free bakeries in the Bay Area. While you can grab one during your stroll downtown, the real hack is to go to the factory out on Portero Street to grab a bag of them. When you walk in the door, they have a shelf full of cookie bins, you help yourself and put the money in the cash box on the counter. They are about a third of the price of the ones downtown, and the same great cookies. Only catch? They are closed on weekends.
Best Pizza: This one’s a tie between Pleasure Pizza and Pizza My Heart.
Pleasure Pizza is a great place to grab a slice. They usually have about 6-10 options to try, and they heat it up for you right then. They also have FREE BACON Thursday, where you can add crispy bacon to any slice. The slices are huge, making it a great deal for the cost.
Pizza My Heart is a must-visit for any first-timers to Santa Cruz. For about $7, you can get a slice of pizza and a souvenir t-shirt. We like the Slice of the Day topping choices, and always try to swing by on a Saturday for their salty and sweet Figgy Piggy pizza: figs, bacon, feta cheese, and fresh sage.
Best Donuts: Dunlap’s Donuts is the place to go. On the weekends, they have their “special” donuts, which include all kinds of toppings piled high on their raised donuts. Sometimes they have filled donuts, but they mostly just have some creative creations–like the cookie butter donut with a whole cookie on top, the S’mores donut with toasted marshmallow, Hershey’s chocolate squares and graham crackers crumbles on top, and the donut cut in half and filled with fresh, sweet strawberries. Be sure to go early to catch all the local men sitting around to get their donut and coffee fix in the morning. (I love old people!)
Best Coffee: This one’s a tie between Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company and The Abbey.
Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company is right downtown. It’s a great place to grab whole coffee beans to take home and brew. They have a wide selection of beans from all over the world. The vibe of the place is nice and chill, and it’s always full of people (even though there is a Starbucks that is literally right across the street).
The Abbey is a great hangout spot where you can sip coffee and hang with the locals. The place is always full of students working away on their various devices. They have local art on display and often have live bands. Our go-to drink here is the “Honey Badger”, which is a honey and cinnamon latte–or ask for it as a chai (even better!). We love to go here to use the free wifi and catch up on blogging or plan our next adventure.
Best Hot Chocolate: Chocolate Restaurant is a fun place to go for a date night. They have 10 kinds of hot chocolate to choose from, ranging from white chocolate to dark chocolate. They also add fun ingredients like cinnamon, cardamom, chipotle chili, or honey–depending on how you like your chocolate. The restaurant is surrounded by large plants and flowers, making it a nice secluded and romantic spot to grab a drink. When you walk by, the lingering aroma will be calling you in to grab a cup.
Best Breakfast Burrito: The Point Market on East Cliff Drive is clearly a local joint serving up tons of to-go burritos for the nearby surfers. This tiny market is cash only, but they have a full menu of breakfast, lunch and dinner options. There is a cute outdoor patio and also nearby picnic tables overlooking the ocean and the surfers down below. There are about 15 choices of breakfast burritos. The “Barrel” is a classic one, with bacon, eggs, cheese, potatoes and avocado– add a bit of hot sauce and you’ve got yourself a delicious meal. They also have omelettes, burgers, savory burritos for lunch, and tacos. It’s definitely a quick and easy meal, and worth stopping by if you’re wandering around East Cliff to see the surfers or the beautiful coastal cliffs.
Best Vegan Food / Cheap Street Eats: Charlie Hong Kong is a place where you can feel like you’re in Southeast Asia, without having to take the 18 hour flight. Their vegan-based menu is organic, sustainable, and locally sourced. You can get a huge bowl of noodles or rice for $7, and it’s enough to share. They do offer a few dishes with chicken and pork, but most bowls are packed full of veggies. You can substitute brown rice for only .75 cents, making this place a great spot for a healthy lunch or dinner. This place has been a staple in Santa Cruz for the past 20+ years, and it’s open every day from 11am-11pm. Charlie Hong Kong makes you feel as if you are in Asia, sitting out on the tiny patio with the community seating. It’s a great value, and a much healthier alternative to grabbing a quick bite of fast food.
Best Place for a Beer:This one’s a tie between Sante Adairius Santa Cruz Portal, Pour Taproom, and Santa Cruz Aleworks.
Sante Adairius Santa Cruz Portal is a great brewery with a fun tasting room and delicious beers. The brewery has a laid back vibe, with wooden tables and board games everywhere. They have food to snack on while you sample their many beers. They crush sours!
Pour Taproom is a fun place to spend the evening. Upon entering, you get a wristband that lets you control which beers you’d like to try. Then you take your beer glass over to the wall of beer choices and swipe away. You can choose between a taster, a flight, and a full pour of beer. There are 70 different taps to choose from. Once you’ve had your fill for the evening, you take your bracelet back to the front and pay for what you’ve had. It’s a fun way to be in charge of your own beer tasting, and to get to try many different beers and ciders.
Santa Cruz Aleworks is a great place to go after a hike. They offer flights, so you can try all their different beers and get a taste of the local flavor. It’s a hole-in-the-wall, and often full of mountain bikers. They have four great beers on tap, and they are known for their sandwiches. Happy hour is from 3-6 Monday through Friday, and they offer $4 beers during that time.