Sweet Places to Visit in Santa Cruz, California

Places to eat, stay and play in Santa Cruz, CA

There is something so special about visiting the ocean!  Although I live in California, we are about 3 hours from the ocean, so we don’t get to visit quite as often as I would like.  Recently, we packed up the family and headed to Santa Cruz!  I’ve visited the Santa Cruz area about half a dozen times in my life, and it’s always such a treat!

The Santa Cruz area has so much to offer… redwood forests, unique shopping, a wide array of dining options, the historic (and fun!) Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and my personal favorite… lots of beautiful beaches!  Santa Cruz sits along the California coast, about 2 hours south of San Francisco, the climate is cool and mild and even in the winter it’s likely you can enjoy sitting on the beach, albeit in jeans and a sweatshirt… not necessarily a bikini (which is fine with me, since I don’t own one!).

Of course whenever I travel I always seek out the “sweet” shops in town!  As I was planning our visit, I contacted the Santa Cruz Visitors Council, and with their help, created a list of sweet places to visit in Santa Cruz.

Pull up a seat and join my family and I for a little (virtual) trip around Santa Cruz…

Capitola Venetian Hotel, Capitola, CA

We chose the Capitola Venetian Hotel as our home away from home.  Capitola is one of the beautiful little beach towns in the Santa Cruz area.  The Capitola Venetian was a perfect fit for our family!  The location was SO amazing… we could see and hear the beach (oh how I love that sound!) and the sand was just steps away!  It was such a luxury to be able to take the girls to the beach, and then easily come back to our room to rest, or shower, or head out to our next activity.

Capitola Venetian Hotel, Capitola, CA

Our room was clean, tastefully decorated and the perfect amount of space for our family.  The room we stayed in was basically a small 2 bedroom apartment.  My husband and I had a bedroom with a queen bed, there was a tiny (but cute!) little bedroom with a twin bed that my oldest daughter loved staying in, and then there was a second queen sized bed in the living room area.  Off the living area was a small, but complete kitchen with a full sized fridge, dishes in the cupboards, and a everything we needed for our stay.

My favorite feature of the hotel room was the view…

View of Capitola Beach from Capitola Venetian Hotel, Capitola, CA

This was the view from the living room window (and balcony).  There was one row of rental houses between us and the beach, but since the hotel is set on a hill, we had a great view over the neighboring building.  It was just the perfect mix of privacy and proximity to the beach!

The Penny Ice Creamery, Santa Cruz, CA
After we got settled in at the hotel, we head out for a treat… ice cream!

We headed to The Penny Ice Creamery to enjoy some delicious, made from scratch ice cream!  It was hard to chose from their tempting selection of unique flavors!  The menu changes seasonally to highlight local, fresh ingredients.  Flavors range from an utterly perfect Tahitian Vanilla Bean, to more exotic flavors like Cardamom Pistachio and 5 Spice Mascarpone Prune.  After a few samples (all delicious!) I chose dark chocolate and then made the really smart decision to have it topped with their homemade marshmallow cream!  The marshmallow cream is torched just a bit, for the perfect toasted flavor!  Matched with a freshly made waffle cone, this was truly one of the best ice cream cones I’ve ever had!

Toasted S'mores Ice Cream - The Penny Creamery, Santa Cruz, CA

Later that evening we headed out to dinner at the Shadowbrook Restaurant.  The Shadowbrook is a gorgeous and unique restaurant located on the banks of Soquel Creek.  The only way to reach the restaurant is via their own quaint little cable car (pictured below), or by way of a meandering set of stairs nestled among an incredibly lush and beautiful landscape.

Shadowbrook Restaurant, Capitola, CA

Shadowbrook Restaurant, Capitola, CA

We had a reservation, and I assume that would be necessary most evenings, as even with a reservation there was a bit of a wait.  The restaurant is quite large, and there are several different dinning areas, each with their own character.  It’s really a one-of-a-kind location!

Shadowbrook Restaurant, Capitola, CA

I’ve been trying to think of how I could possibly describe to you the meal we had… but I’ll just jump right to the end and tell you it was easily one of the top 5 meals I’ve ever had IN MY LIFE!  My husband fully agreed (I think he said top 3).

My husband, daughters and I each ordered something different so we could share a bit, and really get a full sense of all they had to offer.  We enjoyed an appetizer of Salmon Cakes, then moved to entrées of Filet Mignon, Blackened Lamb and Roasted Chicken.  It was very clear that each dish we were served had been made with the utmost care!  Despite being truly satisfied by our main meal… we just had to try some dessert!  We shared crème brule, chocolate lava cake and a trio of homemade ice cream… oh we were so full and happy!

Sadly, I do not have any photos of the our meal to share, as the restaurant was quite dark and I knew there was no way I could do justice to the gorgeous dishes we were served!  I came back to the restaurant the day following our meal to take photos of the inside and outside of the Shadowbrook (pictured above and below).

If you are ever in the Santa Cruz or Capitola area, I cannot recommend the Shadowbrook Restaurant enough!  I still find myself dreaming of our amazing meal!

Shadowbrook Restaurant, Capitola, CA

Miraculously, the next morning I was ready to eat again and I headed out to Gayle’s Bakery.

I had an appointment (oh so early) to meet with the manager before the bakery was open for the day.  I’ll have to say, it’s pretty rare for me to see 5:45 in the morning…. but this appointment was totally worth it!

Gayle's Bakery, Capitola, CA

I’ve had the pleasure of eating at Gayle’s Bakery a few times in the past, so I already knew it was a really special place.  But after touring the bakery and learning more about this business, I love it even more!

Gayle’s is really a dream to visit for any baker, and sweets-lover like me!  Every item in the bakery (and deli) is made fully from scratch, using high quality ingredients.  Gayle’s Bakery makes an amazing (and delicious!) array of breads, pastries, cakes, pies, cookies and tarts.

Gayle's Bakery, Capitola, CA

In addition to the huge selection of (gorgeous!) baked goods, Gayle’s also has a full deli that serves everything from beautiful salads, to gourmet sandwiches and roasted meats.  You could easily eat at Gayle’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner… and what an amazing day that would be!

Gayle's Bakery, Capitola, CA


Gayle's Bakery, Capitola, CA

I might suggest stopping by Gayle’s in the morning and starting your day with coffee and a few of their amazing pastries, then you could chose some salads or sandwiches to go and enjoy a perfect picnic on the beach later in the day.

If you are not able to stop by Gayle’s Bakery in person, you can enjoy many of their famous recipes by making them at home thanks to their cookbook, The Village Baker’s Wife.  I have this cookbook in my personal collection and have read it cover to cover.  It’s filled with amazingly detailed recipes, and each recipe also has a story as to how it came to be a favorite in the bakery, or the history of that recipe at Gayle’s.

Later that day, I headed down to Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz.  Pacific Avenue is a great little “main street” filled with all kinds of shopping and dining options.

My first stop was Nut Kreations.  Nut Kreations is a snack lovers dream!  They have a huge variety of nuts and snacks… from raw nuts, to candied nuts, dried fruit, flavored corn nuts, and chocolate dipped treats of all kinds!  They will happily give you a sample of anything you desire, and everything can be bought by the pound (or 1/4 or 1/2 pound) so you can mix and match your favorites.

Nut Kreations, Santa Cruz, CA

Nut Kreations is a great little shop to visit in person, but you can also visit their website and order their treats for yourself or as gifts, any time of year!

Nut Kreations, Santa Cruz, CA

My next stop was just up the street, at Chefworks.  This is a shop I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a few times before and always make a point to visit when I’m in the area.  Chefworks is a beautiful store filled with every tool, gadget and supply you’d ever need for a well-stocked kitchen!  From gorgeous pottery and dishes from around the world, to high quality table linens, to a beautiful selection of bakeware, cookie cutters, sprinkles, cookbooks… the list goes on!  I always find a few things that “need” to come home with me!

My family knows when I stop in Chefworks…. they may as well continue on down the block without me, because I’m going to be in the store a while!  =)



Chefworks Kitchen Store, Santa Cruz, CA


Chefworks Kitchen Store, Santa Cruz, CA

While still exploring Pacific Avenue, I stopped in Pacific Cookie Company.  If you love a good, classic cookie, this is the shop for you!  From Snickerdoodle, to Mint Chocolate, this “sweet” shop has a nice selection of cookies (including some delicious gluten-free varieties!).  Be sure to grab a little carton of milk while you’re there!

Pacific Cookie Company, Santa Cruz, CA

I chose a Ginger Spice, Snickerdoodle and Mint Chocolate (“Mint Condition”) and shared them with my family.  They were fresh and delicious!

Pacific Cookie Company, Santa Cruz, CA

After exploring Pacific Avenue, my family and I headed to the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk!  We have taken the girls to the boardwalk just once before, and they were very excited to visit again!  The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is right along the sand of the Pacific ocean, and is a year round amusement park.  There is no cost to walk along the boardwalk, and you can buy individual ride tickets, or all day wristbands.  Although the boardwalk is open year, check the website for hours and attractions.

A visit to the boardwalk would not be complete without a stop at Marini’s Candies.  Marini’s candy shop has been a part of the beach boardwalk since 1915!  This family run business is famous for their delicious salt water taffy, caramel popcorn and homemade fudge!  All of their treats are made in their open-air shop, facing the Pacific ocean.  Throughout the day, visitors to the boardwalk can stop by and watch the salt-water taffy being made.  It’s memorizing to watch the taffy being pulled!  Here’s a little peek of the gorgeous taffy via my Instagram page.

Marini's Candies, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk


Marini's Candies, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk


Marini's Candies, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

I hope you’ve enjoyed our little tour of Santa Cruz!  My family and I had such a great visit and we look forward to visiting again soon!

If you plan to visit the Santa Cruz area, be sure to visit SantaCruzCA.org.  You’ll find everything you need to know to plan an amazing trip!

Here’s a quick review of the stops we made on this trip…

Capitola Venetian Hotel – 1500 Wharf Road, Capitola, CA.

The Penny Ice Creamery – 820 41st. Av., Santa Cruz, CA (see website for additional locations).

Shadowbrook Restaurant – 1750 Wharf Road, Capitola, CA

Gayle’s Bakery & Roticceria – 504 Bay Avenue, Capitola, CA

Nut Kreations – 104 Lincoln Street, Santa Cruz, CA

Chefworks – 1527 Pacific Av., Santa Cruz, CA

Pacific Cookie Company – 1203 Pacific Av., Santa Cruz, CA

Marini’s at the Beach – Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, 400 Beach Street, Santa Cruz, CA

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz, CA

Do you love Santa Cruz too?  Are there any stops we should be sure to add to our next visit?

Do you have a favorite bakery, ice cream shop, or kitchen store in your area?  I’d love to hear about it, and I’ll add it to my travel “wish list”  =)


  1. Pingback: Just Cooking News / Sweet Places to Visit in Santa Cruz, California

  2. Great review of a wonderful place! I lived in Santa Cruz and Aptos many years ago and loved it. Just a heads up – those locations on Warf Road . . . should be Wharf Road :).

    • Thanks Anne, so glad you enjoyed the post! It’s such a beautiful area, isn’t it? Thanks for the little correction too, all fixed now! =)

  3. Yay for Santa cruz! Those are still my favorite cookies and I’ll have to try out that ice cream shop. That’s a new place to me! Looks yummy! Love you!

  4. Thanks for the little virtual tour of Santa Cruz. I’ve visited Santa Cruz almost four years ago for my cousin’s wedding, but we didn’t have time to explore the area much. I really enjoyed looking at all the delicious treats!

  5. Aww thanks for sharing. We took a road trip three years ago and loved Gayles and had breakfast and lunch there – which we ate on the beach, I love Santa Cruz so much!

  6. Such a great post! Makes me want to be there. Such cute girlies too!

  7. Oh, my! I think I need to plan a trip soon! What a great tour guide you’d be! You made every place sound too delish! ! !

  8. We live in Capitola and love it. Those are all our favorite places. My daughter was just at Gayles this morning. Love all your treats too. Use your Butter Cream Cheese Frosting on all our cupcakes. Huge hit. Thanks for so many great treats.

    • Hi Gretta, So glad you enjoyed the post! Oh, how amazing it would be to live close to Gayle’s! =) Thanks for your lovely comment!

  9. Saving this for when I get to go to Santa Cruz!

  10. We live in the Los Angeles but this would be a great trip for us –up the coast and then loop around to the San Joaquin Valley with a stop at the Harris Ranch Inn.

  11. I lived on Wharf Road back in the mid 80s. Five wonderful years. Capitola has not lost any of its charm. Shadowbrook, The Village, Gayles etc. all are still great and I visit every time I visit from New England where I live now. Thank goodness my family still lives in the Bay Area, thank goodness Capita and Santa Cruz are still great places to visit and thank you for the great review of my old home. Well done!

  12. Really great post. I live here in Santa Cruz and the Penny Ice Creamery, Nut Kreations, and Pacific Cookie Company are family favorites. Hubby and I try to get to Shadowbrook on date nights. The gnocchi is on point. I would also add Kelly’s French Bakery as a place to try as well as Donnelly Fine Chocolate.

    • Thanks for your comment! So glad you enjoyed the post! I’ll add the two additional places you mentioned to my master list of places I would like to visit on future trips! Thanks!

  13. I grew up in Santa Cruz but have since moved away. Oh how I miss it. You really need to stop by Marianne’s (ice cream) and try the Mexican Chocolate. All of their ice cream is made there as well. Also Pizza My Heart in Capitola. Their Popeye pizza is the best!

  14. I feel blessed to have lived in Capitola for over 45 years – a little city where others choose to vacation. Just an FYI – Marianne’s is now in Seacliff Beach, which is 5 minutes south of Capitola.

  15. After 50 plus years in that area I would recommend Outside In/Inside Out on Soquel in Apros, Deluxe grocery Rio del Mar, old concrete ship in Rio del Mar, Zelda’s on the Esplanade in Capitola, What a wonderful area. Glad you love it as much as I do.sara

  16. I live in the Santa Cruz area and would have to highly recommend Marianne’s Ice Cream. They have so many delicious ice creams. One of my favorites is 10-20, caramel ice cream with Oreos and fudge swirl (I have some in my freezer right now). Shadowbrook is one of my favorite places to eat. I have gone there just for their artichoke bisque. It’s AMAZING!!

  17. Pingback: Santa Cruz Connected: A Monthly Review Of Online Local Life - santacruzlife.com

  18. I love Santa Cruz! There really are so many fabulous places and you certainly listed some of the best. I am a huge fan of Gayle’s. I really could eat there everyday. Another great bakery, which frequently is voted best bakery in Santa Cruz (quite the honor!,) is The Buttery Bakery. They have such interesting and quality options. Incredible cakes, cheesecakes, pies, cookies, everything! Really great!

    Another fabulous bakery is Kelly’s French Bakery, really beautiful and tasty options as well. I love Gayle’s, but recommend at least checking these options out as well!

  19. Oh, yes! I was reading in a prior post about the amazing Donnelly Chocolates!

    How could I not post about them as well? Really worth checking out! Some of the finest chocolates in the world. The quality is surreal and Richard Donnelly is one of the sweetest men I have come across. I met him years ago in a Spanish class I was taking in college and he is a real doll! He works in the shop all of the time and you can meet him almost guaranteed when you go to his shop. And it is right on the way to Kelly’s French Bakery! Definitely not to be missed when you come to Santa Cruz! He is one of our local legends.

  20. Hello..
    Enjoyed your write-up on Santa Cruz local attractions. I grew up in Santa Cruz, this is my hometown. I would recommend The Buttery on the eastside.. carrot cake cupcakes are to die for! Lillian’s has the best Italian food in Santa Cruz..just down the street from The Buttery. My favorite “shop” in Santa Cruz is Bunny’s Shoes on the Pacific Garden Mall offering a wonderful selection of women’s shoes..you are sure to find something fabulous!

  21. Woo ! Yes I do love Santa Cruz and its pelicans and the west coast going to Frisco.
    Thank you so much for this nice review.
    I’m French, my husband and I lived in DC for three years,
    We just spent a night right there, travelling along the coast for holidayx before going back defntively to France, and looking after these so cute litlle girls at the peer, remind me gorgeous “souvenir” of our life over the ocean and so friendly people.

    Take care.

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