Santa Cruz is a touchy-feely, new-agey city famous for its leftie-liberal politics and easygoing ideology. Although dogs are rarely allowed off-leash and parking meters run seven days a week.
Santa Cruz is a city of fun, with a vibrant but chaotic downtown. On the waterfront is the famous beach boardwalk, and in the hills redwood groves embrace the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) campus. Plan at least half a day here, but to appreciate the aesthetic of jangly skirts, crystal pendants and Rastafarian dreadlocks, stay longer and plunge headlong into the rich local brew of surfers, students, punks and eccentric characters. A visit to Santa Cruz is a vacation worth doing. Keep reading and find all the information here you need to start planning your Santa Cruz vacation.
For a list of all the area beaches << Click Here >>.
Santa Cruz Weather (When to Visit)
The best time to visit Santa Cruz is from September through November when the summer tourists have returned home, leaving a bit more room on the beaches, walking paths and other attractions. Decembr, January and February see a slight dip in temperatures, which nonetheless are warm enough for the monarch butterflies who overwinter at Natural Bridges State Beach. The months between April and May are characterized by mounting temperatures and special events that meet their nexus in June, July and August.
Best Santa Cruz Area Beaches
Natural Bridges State Beach
Named for the dramatic, natural, rock bridge protruding from the sea just offshore, this beach is a favorite of nature lovers. The beach is a great place to whale watch and get a glimpse of the Monarch butterflies which migrate here in the fall and winter. As the tide recedes, isolated pools appear, which make fascinating places to investigate for any marine life left behind, especially for children.
Panther Beach is picture-perfect and secluded, and a place you may have all to yourself. The stunning rock formations that wall off the beach give the area a private feel. With its difficult access and hard to find location, Panther Beach doesn’t get the crowds associated with many other Santa Cruz beaches.
Mitchell’s Cove Beach
Known for the dramatic views from the high bluffs behind the beach, Mitchell’s Cove is a favorite of sunrise and sunset aficionados and local artists looking to capture its splendor. The trail and stairs leading down to the beach area are a bit long and steep in places, so take your time if you decide to head down.
From the beach, the view inland facing the town will take your breath away. Set on terraces, the small, angular houses painted in colorful pastels will make you swear you’re in the Mediterranean – or perhaps on a remote Pacific island.
Santa Cruz Main Beach
Santa Cruz Main Beach is also known as Boardwalk Beach since it stretches the length of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. In the summer, it’s one of the busiest beaches in Santa Cruz thanks to its lengthy list of amenities, including lifeguards, restrooms, nearby food options and amusement park rides and games. During other seasons, it’s a popular place to take scenic strolls.
Best Santa Cruz Tours & Activities by Viator
Roaring Camp Steam Train Through Santa Cruz Redwoods
Board a historic steam train for a 1-hour ride through the Santa Cruz mountains from Felton’s Roaring Camp, and go deep into redwood groves and California’s past. Chug up the narrow gage tracks under trees that soar over 270 feet (82 meters) above the forest floor. Learn the history of the forest, the railroad and the logging camp it served. Stroll through the towering trees at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, visit an old fashioned general store and sheriff’s office and take in serenity of California’s ancient forests. Learn more about the Roaring Camp Steam Train Through Santa Cruz Redwoods.
Beginner Surf Lesson in Santa Cruz
Get wet while learning to surf in Santa Cruz, a picturesque coastal California town popular with surfers. Your 3-hour lesson starts with the basics of how to paddle out, pop up, balance, and catch a wave, along with surfing etiquette and understanding the ocean. Your instructor has you practice on the beach before accompanying you into a spot with small waves that are ideal for beginners. Includes all necessary equipment and instruction. Learn more about the Beginner Surf Lesson in Santa Cruz.
Wine Trolley’s Trolley Special
Let our Historic Trolleys “Glory” and the “Mona Lisa” take you on an unforgettable journey wine tasting through Carmel Valley, California. Pinot Noirs, Chardonneys, Cabernets, Viogniers, Reds and Whites, Sweet or Dry, our guides offer an insider’s perspective to the family of well-known producers and gems that call Carmel Valley home. Learn about the Wine Trolley’s Trolley special.
Santa Cruz Harbor Standup Paddle Board Rental
This rental is the perfect way to dip your paddle in the water without the half-day commitment. You can paddle free of the large swell from the open ocean in our protected Santa Cruz Harbor. After your paddle, you’ll have earned that beer & fish tacos at El Palomar, Crows Nest or Johnny’s Harborside. Wildlife spotting, adventure, and some iconic scenery make this paddle a must do. Ideal for beginners, or bucket-listers who want to get the most out of their Santa Cruz visit! Learn more about the Santa Cruz Harbor Standup Paddle Board Rental.
Beach Train from Roaring Camp through Redwoods to Santa Cruz
Pack in views of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the California redwoods, and the Monterey Bay during this beach train from Santa Cruz’s Roaring Camp Railroads. Along with a scenic train ride through the Santa Cruz Mountains, you’ll get a 1-hour stop in the middle of your route to relax or explore the area at your own pace. This fun experience is perfect for families, and children under two ride free as an added bonus. Learn more about the Beach Train from Roaring Camp.
Best Santa Cruz Restaurants
Crow’s Nest Restaurant $11 – 30
Spectacular ocean and harbor views. Friendly and casual atmosphere. Fresh seafood, aged beef, shellfish, pasta and an abundant salad bar. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Live music and dancing. Adjacent to beach market. A favorite since 1969. Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Brunch, outdoor dining, children’s menu, beer/wine, full bar, sports TV, ocean view, banquet facilities, free wifi. Open daily 7:30am – 11pm, including most holidays. Reservations welcome. Telephone: 831-476-4560 Web: Crow’s Nest Restaurant.
Laili Restaurant $11 – 30
Rich Mediterranean flavors with a unique Afghan twist in the heart of Downtown Santa Cruz. Lunch, Dinner, outdoor dining, children’s menu, beer/wine. Lunch: 11:30am – 2:30pm, Dinner 5pm – close, closed Mondays, including most holidays. reservations welcome. Telephone: 831-423-4545 Web: Laili Restaurant.
Hula’s Island Grill & Tiki Room $11 – 30
1960’s Vegas meets 1950’s Waikiki. Fun & friendly service, and a tiki bar that will knock your flip flops off! Lunch, Dinner, outdoor dining, children’s menu, beer/wine, full bar, sports TV, banquet facilities, free wifi. Sun 11:30-10:00, Mon., 4:30-10:00, Tue-Thurs 11:30-10:00, Fri- 11:30-11:00, Sat. 11:30-11:00, including some holidays. Reservations welcome. Telephone: 831-426-4852 Web: Hula’s Island Grill & Tiki Room.
Zachary’s Restaurant $11 – 30
Home of the famous “Mike’s Mess” and our special homemade oatmeal- molasses bread, “from scratch” sourdough pancakes and much more!
Breakfast, Lunch, Brunch, children’s menu, beer/wine. Open Tues.-Sun. 7 am – 2:30 pm, Closed Mondays , including most holidays. Telephone: 831-427-0646 Web: Zachary’s Restaurant.
Linwood’s Bar & Grill at Chaminade $31 – 60
Featuring contemporary California cuisine capturing the rich flavors of the Central Coast. Menu features local products. We also offer a “Pooch Patio Menu” available 7 days a week! Breakfast, lunch, dinner, outdoor dining, children’s menu, beer/wine, full bar, sports TV, ocean view, banquet facilities, free wifi. Open daily, 11am – 11pm, including some holidays. reservations recommended. Telephone: 831-475-5600 Web: Linwood’s Bar & Grill at Chaminade.
Best Santa Cruz Nightlife
99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall Restaurant & Pub
Family friendly pub voted Best Beer Selection & Best Sports Bar 2014. 1/2 lb. burgers, fresh pasta and salads, fish & chips, vegetarian, kids menu, pet friendly patio, full menu till midnight Friday & Saturday. Lunch, Dinner, outdoor dining, children’s menu, beer/wine, sports TV, free wifi. Mon-Thurs: 11:30 am – 1:30 am, Fri-Sat: 11:30 am – 2 am*, Sunday: 11:30 am – 12 am**, including holidays. Telephone: 831-459-9999 Web: 999 Bottles of Beer on the Wall Restaurant & Pub.
Santa Cruz’s longest running brew pub- 27 years. Award-winning hand crafted beer, plus a full bar. Large, pet friendly, heated patio dining between yacht harbor and boardwalk. Lunch, dinner, outdoor dining, children’s menu, beer/wine, full bar, sports TV, free wifi. Open daily 11:30 am – 11:30 pm, including most holidays. reservations not accepted. Telephone: 831-426-2739 Web: Seabright Brewery.
Venus Spirits makes small batch whiskey, gin, aquavit and agave spirits using the highest quality organic ingredients. Visit them for a tasting or cocktail this weekend! Telephone: 831-427-9673 Web: Venus Spirits.
Lupulo Craft Beer House
Lupulo is a downtown gathering spot that provides a constant rotation of hard-to-get beers and a menu that focuses on Latin American and Mediterranean Tapas, pressed sandwiches, salads, and weekend brunch. Telephone: 831-454-8306 Web: Lupulo Craft Beer House.
Old-world beer hall meets new-world wonders. With their unique self-pour tap wall sip a rich array of drinks and savor delicious food, amidst a laid-back, conversational atmosphere. With seventy taps on hand, and new selections tapped daily, they raise their glasses to the marriage of craft tradition and innovation. Their open layout and community-style redwood tables make their beer hall is the perfect place to meet an old friend or make a new one. Lunch, Dinner, beer/wine. Telephone: 831-535-7007 Web: Pour Taproom.