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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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
Like all City and State public lands, there are rules the public is asked to follow to keep everyone safe. The beaches in Santa Cruz are no different. However, each beach has different rules which makes things a bit confusing. Before choosing the beach you plan to spend your morning at, I highly recommend checking out the City Beaches website by clicking here and the Santa Cruz California State beaches website by clicking here. This way you can find which beaches allow dogs, which ones have fire pits, and which have volleyball courts.
None of the beaches allow fireworks, even on the 4th of July (even though people illegally disregard this). None of the beaches allow glass containers to help keep our kids safe. None of the beaches allow nudity. And none of the beaches allow smoking or alcohol. Please stay safe while visiting beaches in Santa Cruz.
Enjoy the Beach from a Different Angle
My family loves the beach. Itsy Bitsy would play in the sand and run away from the waves all day if we let her. Me, on the other hand, a couple of hours in the sun with the salty air blowing on me and I feel like a roast pig. As the temperature goes up and my tummy starts a grumbling, I like to pack up the beach stuff and head to the Santa Cruz Wharf for some lunch.
We usually park in the lot across the street from the beach and Boardwalk, so packing up the beach gear is no hassle. Similarly, if you are staying at a hotel within walking distance from Beach Street, this is a great opportunity for everyone to take a quick shower and wash off all the sand. But sandy or not, Santa Cruz is a beach town through and through. Most restaurants are not going to mind you coming in with flip flops and bathing suits, even wet sandy towels are common.
The Santa Cruz Wharf is located just north of the Boardwalk where Beach Street and West Cliff Drive meet at a roundabout. Walking onto the Wharf is free, but parking will cost you. There is also some EV charging available on the Wharf. Walking from the beach or Boardwalk is easy and takes only a few minutes. No need to repark your car.
As you walk out along the Wharf, you will be treated to a variety of sights and sounds. Look back over your shoulder toward the Boardwalk to see this often videoed and photographed view of the historic location. On the other side of the Wharf, you can watch the waves come in and surfers hang-ten as they try to avoid a wipeout. Further along the Wharf you will start to hear the harbor seals and sea lions calling to each other from under the paved road you are walking on. Below you, these animals are playing and resting on the piers of the Wharf.
On the Wharf, you will find a collection of shops and restaurants that, while they cater to tourists, have become local favorites. Like Stagnaro Bros., a restaurant and fish wholesaler with a presence on the Wharf since 1937. Or Noland's Surf Shop (formerly Flotsam), which has been selling surf and skate apparel since 1961. The Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf is an interesting blend of modern functionality and historic preservation. Walking its wooden boards, you can see how Santa Cruz has gone from a fishing village to a surfing mecca, to a prime tourist location, and is now one of the hottest real estate markets.
Whether a local seeking a great meal with an unbeatable view or a tourist enjoying a day out on the bay, Santa Cruz’s Wharf is the place to be if you really want to feel Santa Cruz. Of course, Itsy Bitsy loves it because the views are SPECTACULAR! You just can’t beat them. Every restaurant, every bench, every rail has something to see. From marine life, to surfers, to boats, to the Boardwalk, it's just fun being out of the Wharf, and lunch is the perfect time of day.
Choose from a walk-up window or a sit-down restaurant and enjoy the view of Monterey Bay from the Santa Cruz Wharf. Dinning outside you can relax with the sea breeze, but watch out for sea gulls, they can be a little aggressive sometimes stealing food or pooping on visitors. Inside you can cool off with some air conditioning if it’s a hot day, and many restaurants serve specialty cocktails that make the views feel almost tropical. Whatever you decide, you can’t go wrong; your lunch on the Wharf will make for an excellent afternoon respite.
Test Your Luck
Did you know that there is a casino in Santa Cruz, and it is located on Beach Street? Adjacent to the Boardwalk is Neptune’s Kingdom and the Casino Arcade, which year after year, have been rated in the top 10 best arcades in the country. Offering a mix of modern and classic arcade games, here you will find one of the largest arrays of electronic gaming entertainment found anywhere.
After you finish lunch and maybe a little shopping on the Wharf, head back down Beach Street toward the Boardwalk. Neptune’s Kingdom and the Casino Arcade, managed by the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, are the large buildings across from the parking lot I keep talking about. By now, the sun is high in the sky and the temperature is reaching near sweltering. Our family likes to beat the heat with some fun games.
Unlike a traditional arcade that requires you to feed quarters or dollars into every machine, the Boardwalk’s arcades all work from a card system. Find a kiosk and purchase a gaming card. The nice thing is this card can be used for ALL the games and rides at the Boardwalk. It doesn’t matter if you are in an arcade, playing ring-toss, or riding the Giant Dipper … any money on this card can be used for any attraction at the Boardwalk. Also, if you win tickets at the arcade games, they get stored on the card as points. So, no need to walk around with arm loads of tickets as your kid tries to save up for the 10,000 point teddy bear.
In addition to arcade games, Neptune’s Kingdom and Casino Arcade also offer an 18-hole mini golf course, laser tag, air hockey, skee-ball, and more. Itsy Bitsy loves the classic games and claw machines, anything with the chance at winning a prize. The arcade is also one of the ways we bribe her to come in from the sun for a bit. It can get hot in Santa Cruz and knowing when to take a break from the heat can really save you from having a disaster at the beach.
We’ll be Having Some Fun at the Boardwalk
As evening approaches and the beach goers head home, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk lights up and comes alive. Though open from 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. during the week and 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. on the weekends, I think the evening is the BEST time to experience the Boardwalk. After all, it’s only as the sun goes down that you can really appreciate the beautiful lights and the classic look that makes this place so special.
Take the time to reload your Boardwalk card or purchase a ride wristband, then stroll along the nearly mile-long Boardwalk amusement park. There is nothing else like this seaside experience on the west coast. Check out the historic carousel and Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster; both are on the National Historic Registry. Enjoy the cool coastal air and win a prize at one of the dozens of classic fair style games. When dinner time rolls around, seek no further than one of the more than 20 eateries on the Boardwalk.
Fat Mama Tip: If you have kids who like to ride the rides, don’t bother trying to reload your Boardwalk card, just buy each of them a wristband. Every time you ride a ride, the Boardwalk card must be swiped. It is easier for kids and teens to manage a wristband then it is for them to manage the card. This way, you can keep track of the card and only pull it out for games.
Throughout the summer, the beach and Boardwalk also play host to a variety of movie nights, concerts, and special events. When planning your epic beach day, it is always a good idea to check out the events calendar here so that you can plan accordingly. These events are a ton of fun and are usually free to enjoy.
Looking for More?
If you are not absolutely exhausted by the end of your epic beach day and are looking for one last thing to do in the moonlight, then I recommend a stroll down West Cliff Drive. Simply drop off any prizes you won at the Boardwalk in your car or at your hotel, then walk toward, then past, the Wharf and up the hill. Keep the ocean and Dream Inn on your left and you will be good.
West Cliff offers a scenic, uninterrupted, multi-mile paved walking path between the Wharf and Natural Bridges State Park. Here you can stroll along the cliffs and bluffs taking in the ocean, sunset, or moon and stars. But be cautious, Santa Cruz does have a high homeless population, and while most are not dangerous anyone out walking away from people after dark should be aware of their surroundings.
Itsy Bitsy really likes coming to West Cliff to check out the Surfing Museum and Lighthouse as well as to do the occasional star gazing. This is one of our favorite vantage points for watching lunar eclipses. Walking West Cliff also makes a great alternative to the beach if you prefer a morning walk to a morning roll in the sand.
Well, there you have it, ducky friends. An EPIC day at the beach that will not be soon forgotten. Follow this single day itinerary and your family will be talking about this incredible beach adventure for years to come. This is a sure fire way to turn a trip to Santa Cruz into an experience of a lifetime!