Trying to list every single cool thing to do, place to visit, or sight to see in downtown Santa Cruz would be nearly impossible.
But that’s no reason not to try.
What follows is a list of the highlights, featuring some of the best events, restaurants, shops, and more. While this list is by no means exhaustive, these places and things are a great starting point for any trip downtown. From there, just let your feet be your guide, and discover your own downtown Santa Cruz favorites.
Stripe and Stripe Men, both on Walnut Avenue with a falafel shop squeezed in between them, caters to both the young trend-setters and stylish professionals of Santa Cruz. Upscale brands, whimsical knick knacks, and artful displays make it a go-to on any day spent shopping downtown.
This vintage shop is filled to the brim with costume fodder and serious retro styles alike, and is the perfect place to find something unexpected yet fabulous.
A high-end consignment store, Crossroads is anything but the tacky bargain bin often evoked by the phrase “second-hand.” The store’s buyers are super picky, making for a sparing yet tasteful collection of designer deals.
Bookshop Santa Cruz
Need a book? Bookshop Santa Cruz probably has that book, especially if it’s by a local author, and they might even have it on sale. This bookstore is truly an institution, and the helpful staff and wide selection will likely help keep it that way for a long time.
Logo’s is a great place to sell or buy books and records, and though their inventory isn’t as vast as Bookshop or Streetlight, a lot of rare finds appear on their shelves.
Streetlight’s stacks and stacks of vinyl is only rivaled by their rows and rows of CDs. A must-visit for any music lover of nearly any genre.
Culinarily-inclined, beware: don’t visit Chefworks if you aren’t planning to go home with a purchase. The store’s wide array of functional and artful kitchen supplies make it difficult not to buy something.
Palace Art and Office Supply
Palace is a solid store for award-winning painters and novice artists alike, and has anything you could need for kids’ craft projects and office supplies.
Pacific Trading Co.
This feminine boutique has clothes for the office or the weekend, and is frequented by women of all ages.
The Sock Shop is serious about, well, socks. Silly, plain, thick, thin, long, short, you name it — socks is their business, and they’re good at their business. Its sister store, Legs, is the place to go for tights, stockings, leggings, and lingerie.
New Leaf Market
Organic, fresh, local — you can hear this mantra being hummed up and down Pacific Avenue, and New Leaf Market may be its place of origin. This is supermarket takes it up a notch with plenty of healthy and alternative options. There’s also a deli and hot food section open around the clock.
What’s better than the classic outing of dinner and a movie? Downtown Santa Cruz has four movie theaters, two of which are locally owned and operated. The Del Mar offers an authentic old-timey feel, while the Nickelodeon is an art house cinema. Together, they get a variety of different movie options for people of all kinds to enjoy.
The Regal on Pacific Avenue features nine theaters, and can be counted on to have the latest box office blockbusters and crowd-pleasers. The Riverfront Regal is a twin (meaning it has two theaters), and has a small, independent feel despite its chain status.
Betty’s Eat Inn
Maybe you want a burger. Maybe you want a steak dinner. Or maybe you just want one of their wildly popular alcoholic milkshakes. No matter what, you’re well off at Betty’s Eat Inn, which takes the classic, juicy, scrumptious burgers made popular by their other locations, and adds a full menu, including many sandwiches, salads, and yes, drinks.
99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall
This charming pub has the best beer selection in downtown Santa Cruz, and also boasts a family-friendly menu and atmosphere. Great for grabbing a pint with a buddy, or dinner with your family.
Vegan, healthy, and it tastes good too. That’s all you need to know about this restaurant, which has quickly become a Santa Cruz favorite.
This Mexican restaurant is actually three restaurants — a traditional restaurant, a cantina, and a taco bar. Between the fresh seafood and the margaritas, you couldn’t go wrong with any of them.
A local favorite, Little Shanghai is a family-run and family-friendly Chinese restaurant that serves classic dishes, but also puts in an effort to make give its menu some variety. Try the Kung Pao chicken or tofu.
This low-key, no-BS hamburger joint doesn’t give you fifty different options for your burger, but it doesn’t need to. The juicy patty, tantalizing sauce, and crunchy, thick-cut pickles make for a crowd pleaser. The friendly employees, who tend to remember names of frequent customers, make the place feel like home.
Get the green curry. Or maybe the drunkard noodles. Then again, the pad thai is really good too…
Pono Hawaiian Grille
Pono is one of the only places in Santa Cruz to find poke, a classic Hawaiian seafood dish, as well as many other Island favorites. The atmosphere is nice but laid-back, the portions are generous, and the music is live and authentic.
If your family is craving Italian food, come to Kianti’s for dinner and a show. Diners can customize their orders of pizza and pasta, there’s a lovely outdoor dining area on Pacific, and twice a night every weekend, the servers do a choreographed dance. It’s a fun experience for people of all ages.
If you want really, really good Mexican food in downtown Santa Cruz, you have to sit outside. Cafe Campesino’s is not a restaurant so much as it is a kiosk on Pacific Ave, but don’t pre-judge based on that, because this place is as far from the greasy street food stereotype as possible. “Campesino” means “farmer” in Spanish, and using fresh, organic ingredients, the cafe’s three employees create dishes worthy of the title. Be sure to try the Frida Kahlo tortilla soup, or the chipotle-loaded Tinga Plate.
If your kids are picky eaters, don’t tell them Saturn is a vegetarian diner. Just take them, and if the spaceship decor and customized tables don’t win them over, the tasty burgers, fries, and shakes will. Chances are they won’t notice the difference — and you probably won’t either.
There are a lot of sushi restaurants to choose from in downtown Santa Cruz, but Shogun remains many people’s first choice. From the miso soup to the deep-fried green tea ice cream, and all the fresh seafood in between, Shogun produces a wonderful meal every time.
Walnut Avenue Cafe
Located just past the gorgeous Victorians on Walnut Ave, this eponymous cafe is only open for breakfast and lunch — and that holy union of the two, brunch. The boysenberry pancakes are simply scrumptious, as are the huevos rancheros. Be warned, this place can become a zoo on weekends, but manage to score an outdoor table on a nice day, and you’ve got it made.
Another great family spot, Woodtstock’s has combinations you couldn’t get anywhere else, like the Surf City, with pesto, shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, and feta cheese. It also has salad, sandwiches, wings, and heavenly dessert pizzas. Good for delivery or dine-in.
Owned and run by the same family since 1948, Zoccoli’s Deli serves as both a charming Italian market and the provider of the best sandwiches in the county. With plenty of vegetarian and vegan options, there’s something for everyone. If you can’t find a sandwich you like at Zoccoli’s, you probably don’t like sandwiches.
Another popular brunch spot, Zachary’s is known for Mike’s Mess, which is basically a combination of everything but the kitchen sink, breakfast food-wise. Other high notes include the corned beef hash and the oatmeal molasses bread they bake themselves. They also have solid burgers and veggie burgers.
A romantic little hole in the wall, Cafe Gabriella offers an intimate atmosphere and top-notch gourmet food, like the homemade pasta or the seared local halibut.
You Scream, We Scream
Downtown Santa Cruz features so many excellent ice cream options that a separate section seemed necessary.
The Penny Ice Creamery makes all their ice cream with local and unusual flavors, like mascarpone kumquat and fresh fennel, but it also has good old-fashioned chocolate, and Vice President Joe Biden even gave them a shout-out one time.
Mission Hill, located on Pacific, also has plenty of fresh options, and the affogato (espresso poured over a scoop of ice cream) cannot be missed.
Finally, Marianne’s on Ocean Street offers more flavors than the other two combined, and has been a Santa Cruz institution for years. Take a number when you get there, and prepare to wait a while to order — but it’s worth it.
The Caffeine Fix
Downtown Santa Cruz also has an abundance of cafes.
Try Verve for a hip atmosphere and coffee that has won national awards; Cafe Delmarette for mind-blowing sausage and cheese scones; Caffe Pergolesi’s for gorgeous outdoor seating; and Santa Cruz Coffee Roasters for cold, caffeinated treats.
515 Kitchen and Cocktails
The 515 is the hottest place in Santa Cruz for cocktails. Come here for both innovative infusions and forgotten cocktails from eras past. The cucumber mojitos is a favorite, but if you’re an old school drink enthusiast, try the Jack Rose. 515 tens to get crowded and noisy on the weekend, but come during the week for a more relaxed vibe.
Hula’s Island Grill and Tiki Room
Come here for Island classics like the Blue Hawaiian, or creative cocktails like a blood orange martini. Or go all-out and order one of their finger bowl drinks to share, like the Volcano Bowl, which features too many ingredients to list here.
The Poet and the Patriot
This quintessential Irish Pub only serves beer, making it the ideal relaxed hangout for locals. Order a frothy Guinness or a local selection from Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, play some darts, listen to a live band perform, or attend weekly Sunday Trivia Night, the best trivia in town.
The restaurant and bar inside the recently-opened Hotel Paradox on Ocean Street is a little out of the way from most downtown nightlife, but it’s worth the journey across the bridge to enjoy some cocktails pool-side. Happy hour features five-dollar snacks, beer, and wine.
This quiet little wine bar is a great place to pick up a bottle for a dinner party, or to taste wine alongside its small plates menu. The staff is knowledgeable and helpful, and the selection is wide enough to please most oenophiles.
Wednesday Farmers Markets
In a parking lot between Cedar St. and Pacific Ave every Wednesday afternoon, you can find fresh produce and meats, local artisan products, and a diverse selection of mouth-watering world cuisine for sample at the farmers’ market. Some crowd favorites include local farms such as Dirty Girl and Happy Boy, a fresh oyster bar, and a Penny Ice Creamery stand.
The annual Greek Food Festival, on Church Street, is more than the average mom-and-pop Mousaka shop. Every May for over thirty years, the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church has been serving up scores of different Greek dishes on its lawn, along with music and dancing. It’s a fun early-summer cultural activity for the whole family.
From the Museum of Art and History (MAH) to Victorian houses that function as makeshift galleries, downtown Santa Cruz pulses every Friday night with art, live music, and wine. Some other popular spots are Cruzio, Felix Kupla Art Gallery, and Stripe Boutique.
Every June, the LGBTQ community and their allies meet for a parade filled with music, dancing, local celebrity appearances, and color to celebrate their diversity.
One person’s trash becomes another’s treasure every second Sunday on Lincoln Street, when the Antique Faire goes on from sun-up to sun-down. Individual vendors sell everything from old campaign buttons and magazines to vintage clothing and furniture.
Santa Cruz Film Festival
To date, the Santa Cruz Film Festival has shown over 1,200 films — and about 200 of those were made locally. Screened at local downtown theatres like the Nickelodeon and Del Mar, these films are a great window into the culture in Santa Cruz and beyond.
January is chocolate time in Santa Cruz, when the UC Santa Cruz women’s club throws its annual Chocolate Festival. Chocolate of all forms and flavors is available for sample, and the proceeds go toward scholarships.
So what egregious oversights did we make? Any local favorites or new emerging places that you think should have been included? Let us know in the comments!