The Santa Cruz, CA, Lighthouse

Santa Cruz is just 30-60 minutes “over the hill” but in many ways is an entirely different world than Silicon Valley.  I spent a lot of time there while growing up in Santa Clara and Saratoga, mostly because my grandparents lived in Pasatiempo (a lovely neighborhood centered on a golf course) in Santa Cruz and later in retirement communities nearby.  Jim and I lived in Santa Cruz ourselves for three years when we were newly married.  [I taught first at Marello Prep in Santa Cruz (now closed) and later at Notre Dame High School in Salinas while living at the coast, in life before real estate.]

We have a lot of wonderful memories & experience with the Santa Cruz – Capitola – Aptos – Soquel area.  Today I wanted to share a few general tips and food tips for those who may be new to this part of California and spending some time by the coast.

Some general tips

  1. Weather: always, always have layers available as the shore is unpredictible.  It might be 100 in Willow Glen but cold and windy with the fog rolling in at the wharf.   The coastal communities have varying degrees of fog, sun and wind: microclimates are the norm.  If it’s sunny and toasty at the lighthouse, it may not be that way at Seacliff Beach. Don’t rely on webcams!
  2. Restrooms: know where the restrooms are before you visit.  The city of Santa Cruz has a list of public restrooms and a map online. It’s pretty awful if you spend a lot of time shopping on Pacific Avenue (downtown Santa Cruz), only to find no bathroom when you need one.  Your visit will be happier if you plan ahead!
  3. There’s more to do than just the beach: the coastal communities near Santa Cruz have loads going on with festivals, shows, musical productions and more.  Check out the online roster of events near the Monterey Bay.
  4. The Boardwalk has no admission fee and is a great place to people-watch and get tasty junk food, even if the rides don’t appeal to you.  In summer there are free music concerts on Friday nights (check the website for info) and on Monday & Tuesday evenings after 5pm they celelebrate 1907 nights: rides and hot dogs, cotton candy and most fountain drinks are just $1 each.   This is a bargain!
  5. The Lighthouse on West Cliff Drive has beatiful views and is a wonderful place to take photos of the area.  It’s also a fun spot for watching surfers and those throwing a frisbee or walking or riding past (people watching, generally).  The area has a paved path which makes it great for bikes, roller blades, strollers and wheelchairs too. (When we lived there, we could occassionally see an otter or two in this area also. I’m not sure if that is still true or not, but I hope so.)
  6. Traffic:  “Beach Traffic” happens in summer on weekends and holidays.  It can begin as early as 10am if there’s a very bad heat wave inland, but usually does not really kick in until 11am or later.  The return wave of cars climbing over the coastal range begins at around 4pm and can last until 7 or 8, depending on when the fog rolls in.  Beach traffic can double your time in the car, so try to avoid it!
  7. Highway 1:  Although many improvements have been made to the connection between Highway 17 southbound and Highway 1 southbound, “The Fish Hook” is still no fun and the traffic on 1 south of Santa Cruz seems to be eternally congested despite widening.  While getting to Santa Cruz from San Jose may be smooth, things will nearly always slow down as you inch south from there toward Capitola, Pajaro Dunes or Monterey.  Allow extra time.  Or, just go extra early. (The pic below was taken on Friday, July 23, 2010 at about 5pm.)


Traffic Along Highway 1 South of Hwy 17 in Santa Cruz on a Friday Afternoon


Some food-related tips

  1. Shadowbrook in Capitola is a wonderful restaurant – a great place for brunch, lunch or dinner.  It’s built into the side of a hill going down toward the Soquel Creek and you can ride the funicular down the the restaurant.  Great service.  There’s a nice patio overlooking the river – fun to watch the people in paddleboats go by and see the ducks and other birds too.  Romantic spot.  Do make reservations.  1750 Wharf Road, Capitola 95010   (800) 975-1511
  2. Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria in Capitola can’t be beat!  Pasteries and desserts are fabulous, but so are the roasted meats and savory food items.  Eat there or take home; there is also outdoor dining available (with heat lamps and clear plexiglass walls to break the wind). Not fancy, but delicious!  504 Bay Ave Capitola, California USA 95010 831.462.1200
  3. Mackenzie’s Chocolates in Santa Cruz.  Truly delicious chocolates in all kinds of shapes, including cell phones, airplanes, a lighthouse, banana slugs (the mascot of UC Santa Cruz) etc. They offer milk, dark and sugar free chocolates too.  Plan to go early and put the chocolate in a cooler for the trip over the mountains if need be!   They don’t have the same closing time all seven days of the week, and several times we have arrived there only to find the store closed (M-F closes at 5:30, Saturday at 4pm and Sunday at 5pm). 1492 Soquel Avenue   Santa Cruz, CA 95062   831-425-1492
  4. The Wharf is full of great restaurants and super views, but my favorite is The Miramar Fish Grotto.  The service is good, food is great and prices are reasonable for the area.  45 Municipal Wharf Santa Cruz, CA 95060-5460  (831) 423-4441

Whether you are visiting the Santa Cruz area for a few weeks or a few hours, there are many things to do in addition to the most obvious attractions at the beaches.  I hope my tips will be helpful and you’ll love your time along the coast.





  • Mary Pope-Handy

    Silicon Valley Realtor, selling homes in Los Gatos, Saratoga, San Jose, Silicon Valley, and nearby since 1993. Prolific blogger with a network of sites.

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