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The Perfect 1-Day Santa Cruz Beach Itinerary

There may be no more iconic beach in California than the Santa Cruz Beach and the seashore entertainment along Beach Street. As for recognizable beachy backdrops in popular movies and TV shows, there are few locations more recognizable than the Santa Cruz Beach, Boardwalk, and Wharf. But even if you aren’t looking to relive some of your favorite moments from the silver screen, you really can’t do better than Santa Cruz for an epic beach day experience.

There is no more iconic west coast, beach town than Santa Cruz, California.

Here you will find the most action-packed 12-hour, one-day, best beach day of your life itinerary for doing the Santa Cruz Beach, Boardwalk, and Wharf the Fat Mama way. That means over the top and jam-packed with fun, food, and festivities. Of course, this could also be broken into a couple of days, done as a long weekend, or even individual events over multiple visits to Santa Cruz. Really, it’s a choose your own adventure. But as a single day itinerary, it is totally EPIC!

What to Expect

Obviously, the best time to visit the beach is going to be in the summer, and that is certainly true of Santa Cruz. However, like any popular beach destination, the crowds can be rather overwhelming. So, pack your patience and be prepared to deal with the three Hs: heat, hoards, and hassle. But stick to this guide and I will get you through your epic beach day with a cool head, limited crowds, and as little frustration as possible.

Ideal Bar & Grill is a local fav that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it sits at the start of Beach Street (June 2022)

For this itinerary, we are going to be sticking to Beach Street in Santa Cruz, California. So, if you are planning a weekend getaway or a longer vacation, look for lodging within walking distance. Santa Cruz is not short on seaside hotels of all comfort levels. Whatever your housing preference, you will be able to find something to your liking.

If you are planning just a day trip, then limited parking is available. The most convenient will be right across the street from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The parking here is all day parking and costs $20 during the week and $25 on weekends. Arrive early to get a spot as this parking lot does fill up. There is also a shuttle that runs on busy days from an offsite location that is only $10. For more information about parking click here.

Rise and Shine

Plan to get an early start to your day as summers on Beach Street are fun but crowded. Between 7 a.m. - 9 a.m., you can find a variety of coffee shops, diners, and restaurants catering to locals and tourists. Don’t be too shocked by prices. A cup of coffee is going to set you back between $3-$5, depending on how you take it, and a plate of banana pancakes will run you about $17. The food will be good, the service hit or miss, but the convenience, atmosphere, and the view is what you are on Beach Street to enjoy!

The Crow's Nest is one of our favorite spots by the water and away from crowds (June 2022)

If you brought a vehicle, rented bikes, or don’t mind a bit of a stroll, Santa Cruz offers many wonderful dining options off of Beach Street. Our family particularly enjoys Aldo’s Harbor Restaurant and the Crow’s Nest down by the Santa Cruz Harbor. Itsy Bitsy likes watching the boats go by and has fun looking for seals, which are always around.

Let’s Hit the Beach

Itsy Bitsy LOVES the sun (June 2022)

Try to finish up breakfast and get down to the beach no later than 9 a.m. This is when locals will start arriving, many will already be laying out picnic blankets and staking claims with beach umbrellas. Don’t worry if the morning is a little foggy; during the summer this *usually* burns off. Mornings at the beach along California’s Central Coast are awesome because, even in the summer, the weather isn’t too hot. That will change by mid-day but for now, enjoy your mild morning playing at the beach.

Fat Mama Tip: No matter the weather, PLEASE lather up in sunscreen. I cannot tell you how many times I have forgotten to put on sunscreen due to the coastal fog bank and lived to regret it. The fog will not protect you from those UV rays. I try to reapply my sunscreen based on the strength of the sunscreen I am using. For example, if you are using SPF 30, reapply every 30 minutes. Using SPF 70, reapply every 70 minutes. Is this fool proof? No, absolutely not, but it is better than nothing.

The city of Santa Cruz offers many beaches to choose from, each one with its own charms and unique characteristics. Some are better for surfing, others have rocks for climbing, a couple feature river outlets that create more sheltered areas so younger kids can play in the water. All the beaches are free to use and available to the public year-round.

Itsy Bitsy having fun not getting wet (June 2022)

The beach in front of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Beach Street is the Santa Cruz Beach. This is the beach where most of the city events take place. For this reason, it is going to be the most crowded, but also the liveliest. So, if you are looking for a fun and exciting day at the beach, definitely set up here. If, on the other hand you are looking for a slower pace, you may want to try one of the coves along West Cliff popular with surfers or try the harder to access beaches south of the harbor.

Just remember, parking is difficult in Santa Cruz during the summer. So, if you are driving in, plan to park only once. You may have a difficult time spending your morning at Twin Lakes State Beach and then finding parking near the Boardwalk or on the Wharf in the afternoon.

Things to Know About Santa Cruz Beaches