From someone who grew up next to its colorful and sandy shores, these are the best things to do in Capitola, California.
Only about 70 miles south of San Francisco, Capitola is a tucked-away seaside gem in Santa Cruz County. If you think the city of Santa Cruz is a cute beach town, Capitola is a condensed version of that on steroids.
This is especially the case for Capitola Village, which is a picturesque seaside community with plenty of shopping, restaurants, and seasonal events that locals and tourists enjoy alike.
When I think of summer in Santa Cruz, Capitola is one of the first places I think of because, even in the winter, it oozes that feeling of laid-back summer days near the ocean.
I spent a lot of time in Capitola when I was growing up. I lived just up the hill from the Village during a good chunk of my adolescence and then in different spots around the greater Capitola area like Live Oak and Pleasure Point.
Maybe it’s because of how much time I’ve spent there over the years, but the eastside of Santa Cruz County is one of my favorite spots in town.
Its natural beauty and quieter feel compared to the mania of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk area and the busyness of downtown is hard to beat.
I’ve done just about everything there is to do in Capitola throughout my years of living in the area.
And because of that, I wanted to condense this post down into my top recommendations so you can get the most out of visiting one of my favorite areas in Santa Cruz.
These are my picks for the best things to do in Capitola, California – from the beach to the restaurants, and all of the unique local hideaways in between.
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What to do in Capitola Village
I’m going to focus a good chunk of this post on the Village because it’s the most popular area to visit in Capitola and one that should be explored fully.
Enjoy the Beach
You can’t go to a beach town and not enjoy the beach!
And it’s not hard to see why – it has everything you could possibly need in a beach.
It’s conveniently located next to all of the shops and restaurants. There’s plenty of space for families, friends, or solo beachgoers to lay out on blankets.
There’s a beautiful view of Monterey Bay, the Capitola Wharf, and the colorful Capitola Venetian Hotel nearby that makes you feel like you might be in Italy.
The Soquel Creek cuts through the beach for kids to play in if they want a calmer place than the ocean. There’s also a good surf spot just beyond the east end of the beach.
And during the summer, Capitola Beach has a free evening movie and concert series for a magical night full of entertainment under the stars.
Really, the only downsides to Capitola Beach are how crowded it gets in the summer and how hard it can be to find parking.
Hint: If you can’t find parking in the Village, you can park on the hill along Cliff Drive and walk down.
If you’re not a fan of crowds, another good beach to visit is New Brighton State Beach.
Although New Brighton State Beach isn’t located in the Village, it’s just a short drive away and offers a less touristy feel than Capitola City Beach.
The 95-acre beach park includes campsites, hiking trails, and scenic views of the New Brighton Bluffs and the Monterey Bay from the beach.
Grab a Scoop of Ice Cream
Nothing says summer like eating ice cream on the beach – as long as you can eat it fast enough before it melts!
Located right next to Capitola City Beach, I’ve been going to Souza Cones Ice Cream since I was a kid and I still go back there often as an adult.
This is where you can bring the whole family to find the best waffle cones in town, as well as plenty of toppings for your scoop (or two or three) of ice cream.
Just make sure to bring cash since they don’t accept credit cards.
Go Shopping in Capitola Village
In between visits to the beach and grabbing a bite to eat, one of the top Capitola attractions is simply perusing the adorable boutique shops around Capitola Village.
I mostly just window shop since the prices are higher in the Village than elsewhere in Santa Cruz, but the unique shops are fun to poke your head into.
You’ll find everything from art galleries to swimsuit shops, as well as more kitschy boutiques that offer beach-themed souvenirs.
There’s also a good variety of other things to do around the shopping area like the arcade and even a fortune teller you could visit.
Visit the Capitola Historical Museum
If you’re someone who likes to learn more about the history of the places you visit, heading over to the tiny one-room Capitola Historical Museum is a quick but fruitful stop.
At the museum, you’ll find historical photos and one rotating exhibit that talks about a specific aspect of Capitola’s history.
They also have a knowledgeable docent that works there who is happy to answer any questions about the history of Capitola.
The Capitola Historical Museum is completely free to visit although donations are always appreciated.
Go Wine Tasting
You’ll find Armida Winery on the left as you enter the Village right after you cross the bridge.
At their small and intimate tasting room, you can do a tasting of their flagship wines for $20 (fee waived if you buy a bottle), in between checking out some other Capitola attractions.
If you’re looking to taste test some more wine after Armida, I’d recommend walking over to the nearby Capitola Wine Bar & Merchants to try some more local wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Walk Along Soquel Creek
Right next to Armida Winery, you’ll find a short pathway that follows the scenic Soquel Creek. At the entrance of the path, you’ll find a bench and signs that talk about the local wildlife in the area.
This is actually something that I hadn’t really done myself until my last visit to Capitola and I loved how relaxing and peaceful this area was compared to being in the heart of the Village.
The only other time I had walked along this path was during the annual Capitola Begonia Festival (RIP) during my childhood and I completely forgot it existed until my last visit.
It’s a short walk and it feels like you’re walking through people’s front yards at times (which you kind of are but don’t worry this is public land).
However, it’s a beautiful way to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the Village and explore the unique and colorful houses that line Soquel Creek.
Have Dinner With a View
One of the best things to do in Capitola is to grab dinner or drinks along the Esplanade at sunset.
Most of the restaurants have great views and some even have outdoor patios that look out over the Monterey Bay and the Capitola Wharf.
I’d recommend grabbing a delicious margarita from Margaritaville to start with. They also have a solid menu of Mexican seafood if you want to grab dinner there as well.
Join in for a Seasonal Event
The many seasonal events that happen in the Village throughout the year are a testament to how much Capitola loves to throw a party.
Here are a few top ones you shouldn’t miss if you happen to be in town at the right time:
- Twilight Concert Series and Movies at the Beach (summer) – As I mentioned above, during summer weekends the Esplanade in Capitola features free evening concerts and family-friendly movies near the beach. There’s even sometimes Opera at the Beach put on by the Bay Shore Lyric Opera.
- Wharf to Wharf Race (July) – The most famous race in Santa Cruz that goes from the Santa Cruz Wharf near the Boardwalk to the Capitola Wharf. This six-mile race has been running (pun intended) since 1973 and now attracts runners from around the world. It’s limited to 16,000 runners so registration sells out fast, but if you can snag a spot it’s a very Santa Cruz thing to do. Throughout the race, you’re basically running through a party atmosphere with live music and booths set up to cheer on runners and give out water. My dad used to be one of the musicians that played at the race and I’ve volunteered at the race before. I’ve also run the race myself once (although I did not prepare at all for it and I was so sore I could barely walk the day after #youth).
- Capitola Art & Wine Festival (September) – The most popular free annual festival that happens over a weekend in September each year. The Capitola Art & Wine Festival features local wines and artisans, good food, craft projects for kids, street performers, and live music. I used to love going to this festival with my parents when I was a kid. It’s right next to the beach and the atmosphere is electric with good vibes and adults who have probably had a little too much wine but are still happy drunk about it. This is by far one of the best things to do in Capitola if you manage to be in town at the right time.
Things to do in Greater Capitola
Walk Around the Capitola Mall
Although no longer quite the grand shopping experience it was when I was growing up in the 90s, the Capitola Mall offers a throwback charm of the indoor mall era.
Inside, you’ll find a food court that still has a few restaurants hanging on and the delicious Sherri’s Cookies (my mouth is watering just thinking about them).
And there are still a decent amount of shopping options and attractions for the whole family.
If you’re traveling with kids, don’t miss the Santa Cruz Children’s Museum of Discovery, which offers over 7,000 square feet of interactive exhibits and play areas for children. These are especially focused on science and hands-on discovery learning.
Watch the Surfers at The Hook
Located in Pleasure Point, this is a nice area to spend a sunny morning or afternoon watching the surfers and maybe exploring the rocky areas around Pleasure Point Beach during low tide.
And if you’re a surfer, this is a great local spot to go surfing in town, but it’s better if you have some experience already under your belt. If you’re a beginner, I’d recommend starting with Cowell’s Beach near the Boardwalk instead.
Enjoy a Nice Dinner at Shadowbrook Restaurant
Located just up the hill from Capitola Beach, Shadowbrook Restaurant has been running since 1947 and is one of our nicest places to eat in Santa Cruz.
If you’re staying for more than just a night and you’ve already experienced dinner with a view near the beach, I’d recommend heading over to Shadowbrook Restaurant for your second night.
Since this place is on the fancier side, they require business casual to formal attire (a rarity in Santa Cruz), but the slight stuffiness is made up for with their beautiful property and fantastic wine selection.
The most fun thing about dining at the Shadowbrook?
The restaurant’s free shuttle picks diners up (within a 3-mile radius) in a retro taxicab. Once you arrive, you can take their historic cable car up to the dining room instead of taking the stairs.
Where to Eat & Drink in Capitola
I mentioned a few of these above, but here’s the full list of where I’d recommend eating and drinking in Capitola.
- Verve Coffee Roasters or Cat & Cloud Coffee – My two favorite coffee shops in the area. Both of them are in Pleasure Point and not too far from one another.
- New Bohemia Brewing Co. or Discretion Brewing – If you’re looking to try some local craft beer, these two spots are the go-to places to enjoy a pint.
- Dharma’s – A beloved vegetarian restaurant with plenty of vegan options too. In high school, I made it my goal to eat everything on the menu here. It was a very hard goal to meet because they have so many items.
- Gayle’s Bakery – A tasty bakery and deli that’s tucked away in a more local area of Capitola. Don’t miss out on their baked goods, especially the Key Lime Pie.
- Shadowbrook Restaurant – If you’re looking for a fancy place to have a nice dinner in a beautiful setting.
- Taqueria Vallarta – One of my favorite taquerias in Santa Cruz, right on 41st Avenue.
- Betty Burgers – Another Santa Cruz chain. If you’re craving burgers, Betty’s is always a good option. They also offer boozy milkshakes.
- Pizza My Heart – A Santa Cruz staple that has two locations in Capitola – one in the Village and the other near the Capitola Mall.
- Pleasure Pizza – Another great pizza place near The Hook surf spot. As you can probably guess, a lot of surfers come here for a bite to eat after riding the waves.
- Margaritaville – Margaritas, Mexican seafood, and views for days. What’s not to like?
- Paradise Beach Grille – A solid option for a restaurant near the beach with outdoor dining and good views.
- Zelda’s on the Beach – A good spot for breakfast near the beach.
- Thai Basil – My favorite Thai place in Capitola, within walking distance to Capitola Beach.
What to Pack for Capitola
Although Capitola has its fair share of sunny days, it can be colder than expected.
It’s right next to Aptos, which is probably the foggiest part of the county, so Capitola definitely has its cold spells as well.
This is what I’d recommend packing so you’re prepared for any kind of weather.
- Shorts/pants/dress (depending on the weather)
- Graphic tee/tank top
- A warm layer you can throw on if the fog rolls in
- Comfortable walking shoes or flip flops if you’re going to be spending most of your time at the beach
- Beach bag/purse
- Cash (most places accept cards now but there are still a handful that only accept cash – including the ice cream place)
Where to Stay in Capitola
Capitola isn’t the cheapest place to stay in Santa Cruz but there are a few hotels to choose from. Vacation rentals are also plentiful if that’s more your style.
- Capitola Venetian Hotel – Right in Capitola Village, these are the colorful houses near the beach that make the views in Capitola that much more postcard-worthy.
- Monarch Cove Inn – Located in a quieter part of Capitola that’s near New Brighton Beach, this place features cottages and suites in a relaxing atmosphere.
- Inn at Depot Hill – Only a 10-minute walk from Capitola City Beach, this bed and breakfast is for anyone looking for a touch of luxury in Capitola.
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