Home to Northern California’s best surf beaches, epic redwood groves, and a powerful food scene, radical Santa Cruz, California, appeals to even the most conservative visitors. Known as Surf City USA, her vibrant nature attracts plenty of hippies and environmentalists, plus a growing population of tech execs scooping up oceanfront property, and, of course, the battalion of intellects studying up on the hill at University of California Santa Cruz.
Northern California’s most enchanting beach community, Santa Cruz not only offers heaps of outdoor activities, but also plenty of culture. Winemakers flock to the redwood-shaded Santa Cruz Mountains to craft interesting light red and white wines. Chefs draw from the surrounding organic farms to source their restaurants. Throw in a dance community to rival most cities, an innovative art scene spearheaded by the Museum of Art and History, and a growing theater scene.
Santa Cruz is split into three main communities. The westside houses Natural Bridges State Park, a gorgeous stroll along West Cliff Drive, the university, the Boardwalk, and downtown’s light-strewn shops and restaurants along Pacific Avenue.
Farther south, mid-town is populated with grad students and families. This sunny slice boasts breweries, cafes, Seabright Beach, and the harbor. It’s easy to bike from this central location to downtown.
Some say the heart of Santa Cruz is Pleasure Point, also known as Live Oak. Here legend Jack O’Neill opened his surf shop, built a house over the world-class surf break, and brought the world to see Santa Cruz as a hub for surf. A thriving culture grew out of the water as well, with artists, coffee roasters, and chefs needing entertainment after dark.
While Santa Cruz itself is the epicenter for the region’s happenings, the neighboring beach towns are just as enchanting. Beachcombers and surfers will find less crowds in the Aptos, Davenport, and Capitola swells. Antique shoppers dig into finds in Soquel’s historic buildings.
Uphill, Scotts Valley, Felton and Boulder Creek promise off the beaten path fun. Historically a logging route, now these mountains towns lure with Bigfoot lore, wine-tasting, redwood hikes and swimming holes.
Whether you opt for a day in the sun, some family fun, or a week by the sea, Santa Cruz delivers.
Cruise through the Cruz: Santa Cruz in a Day … Surf, hike the redwoods and cruise through the Cruz
Sun, Surf and Seashells: Santa Cruz for Families … A week of play for the whole clan in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz on $150 or Less in a Day … Nature’s beauty without the hefty price tag in Surf City USA
While Santa Cruz delights year round, with random hot days pleasing locals in February, travelers should plan to visit during late spring, summer, and fall. If you must visit during winter, when cold spells and rains might thwart plans, budget extra time so as not to miss your chance to hike, bike and even swim with the dolphins in the bay. The summer busy season drives up accommodation prices, and often hotels sell out during holiday weekends.
Bay Area residents sojourn to the beaches on weekends, proving that Santa Cruz can be enjoyed in a day. That being said, you’ll want at least a weekend, and ideally a week, to fully explore the wealth of beaches and hiking trails.
Santa Cruz’s high season is summer, when the days are long, musicians play free shows along the shores, and the warm days allow for epic beach adventures. Though UCSC students depart in late June, the summer still brings hordes of tourists and plenty of traffic.
That being said, on most weekends, Bay Area school holidays, and during major events, the population swells dramatically, so be prepared to mingle with the crowds year round.
In general, Fall and Spring are the ideal seasons to visit the area. The weather is more reliable, the beaches house fewer sun-worshippers, and the whales are still hanging around the bay. Though the weather is less dependable in winter, travelers appreciate the annual monarch and whale migrations peaking in December/January.
While climate change has altered the weather in Santa Cruz County, bringing more warm sunny days, you’ll be wise to still pack jackets, even in the height of summer. The average year round temperature is about 60 degrees Fahrenheit–though summer temperatures usually hang around the 70 degree mark.
For most of June, however, this coastal region makes you hug your fleece tight and spit a frustrated brrr. Never—even when inland temperatures reach triple digits—come to the coast without a warm sweater.
If you are looking for sun, generally you will get a hefty dose in September and October. The rest of the year typically brings rainy winters (the Santa Cruz Mountains is one of the rainiest spots in Nor Cal), foggy mornings ideal for redwoods, and plenty of temperate days to explore Monterey Bay.
National Holidays include:
January (1st): New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Day
February (third Monday): Washington’s Birthday
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July (4th): Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
October (second Monday): Columbus Day (aka Native American Day)
November (11th): Veteran’s Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December (25th): Christmas
Surfing American Prime West competition for under-18 short-board surfers at Steamer Lane.
The Baroque Festival has been a major event in town since 1974.
Paddlefest at Steamer Lane.
Woodies on the Wharf celebrates the cars that represent surf culture.
Santa Cruz is located in the Pacific time zone.
To check the local time in Santa Cruz, click here.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) happens in the spring (early March, on a Sunday morning at 2AM). It’s when clocks are advanced one hour so there is more daylight later into the evening. In the fall (late October or early November on a Sunday morning at 2AM), clocks shift back one hour to standard time. The entire U.S. (except most of Arizona) participates in this ritual of ‘springing forward’ and ‘falling back.’
Santa Cruz style fluctuates between grungy chic and beach casual. Year round, you’ll want to pack a swim suit (a thick wetsuit), some sandals, and summer gear, plus a heavy sweatshirt. Don’t forget your raincoat in winter/spring.
While locals grumble about the rising cost of housing, travelers can exist in Santa Cruz on a shoestring budget. There are low-budget motels lining the Beach Flats area, and heaps of campsites in the region’s parks. For those wanting a more luxurious beach holiday, there are a handful of posh resorts and pricey vacation rentals ready to lure your credit card from your wallets.
For those wanting to explore the wealth of state parks, you might want to invest in the annual park pass, which includes prime beachfront parking as well as granting access to the Central Coast’s most striking natural wonders.
While Santa Cruz sits at the north end of what is called the nation’s salad bowl, food can often be downright expensive in the county — especially if you want to sample the bounty of sustainable produce growing in Santa Cruz’s backyard. In response to rising food costs, you’ll likely notice plenty of taquerias and fast food joints scattered throughout downtown.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 to $300 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Download the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. Memberships cost about $7 a month; rentals are about $8-10 per hour; gas and insurance are included.
Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Money Saving Tip: Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)
Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day. By the way, when renting in California, there are no additional driver fees by law.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical — Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework — check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include pennies (1 cent), nickels (5 cents), dimes (10 cents), quarters (25 cents). The 50 cent and dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so plan to have $20s or smaller bills in hand.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, many restaurants in the major metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill.
Most bell staff receive $1-$2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5-$10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2-$3 per day and about $5 per day in higher end properties.
At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets, or simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Current etiquette calls for $10-$20 per person, per day for concierge help. Car valet staff expect $1-$2 for delivering you your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
As progressive as Santa Cruz is, you’d think there would be better options for public transportation around the county. Unfortunately, unless you plan to stay in downtown and never leave, you’ll want a car to fully explore this region.
While distances between Santa Cruz proper and outlying communities like Aptos and Capitola are only about ten miles, traffic can make trips take up to an hour to travel from one part of the county to the other.
If you are in town for only weekend, and staying in downtown, it’s possible to walk, or bike to the main points of interest. Just bring good walking shoes and enjoy those epic beachfront strolls.
Monterey Peninsula Airport and San Jose International Airport are both about a half hour from Santa Cruz. San Francisco International Airport and Oakland International Airport are both about an hour and fifteen minutes away. There are plenty of car rental agencies at these airports.
Driving to Santa Cruz from the Bay Area on weekends gets hectic. Hordes of people from the valley motor over CA 17 to cool off at the beaches; so if you head here on the weekends, go early. In winter, rain (and even sometimes snow) makes the trip over CA 17 even harder. An easier (but longer commute) is to take CA 1 south from San Francisco.
Amtrak services San Jose and Salinas on the Seattle-Los Angeles route. To get to the coast from Salinas, take Monterey Salinas Transit. From San Jose, you can hop on SCMTD.
Many people rent (or bring) a bike to explore the region. All of Santa Cruz County towns are bike-friendly, though you still need to look out for vehicles. Another notable detail is that Santa Cruz police will ticket bikers for not following the rules of the road.
As with most parts of the Northern California region, having a car is the best way to explore. CA 1 is the major artery connecting the Central Coast to San Francisco. It is slow going on summer weekends, so be patient.
This wild landscape seems meant to become a radical community. Yet the in 1769, when the Spanish explorer Don Gaspar de Portola “discovered” the area, he deemed the region sacred, calling the rolling hills above the river Santa Cruz (or holy cross). By 1791, Father Fermin de Lasuen had constructed the twelfth California mission, instituting another conquest for the missionaries. A conquest that would be usurped by renegade gold seekers, then loggers, surfers, artists and innovators. Santa Cruz might have been built on a spiritual intentions (a vibe still infused in the yogi community), but her soul is purely founded in testing boundaries to take advantage of county’s abundant nature.
These redwood-covered mountains were once home to a thriving Ohlone and Costanoan community. Over 10,000 Native Americans lived in the area. Then in 1769 the Spanish explorer Don Gaspar de Portola claimed the region as his discovery, inviting Spanish missionaries to establish the state’s twelfth California mission.
The Gold Rush, Logging, and Surfing
By the 1820s Mexico ruled California, but those gold seekers started arriving in droves, seeing dollar signs in the redwoods and flat fields of the southern swath of the county. The logging community helped construct the railway connecting the beach to the major inland arteries. And it seemed everyone was talking about Santa Cruz’s natural wealth. So much so that when California became an American state, Santa Cruz County was thriving enough to become one of the twenty-seven original counties.
By the turn of the century, residents made buckets of cash in logging, agriculture, and fishing. Suddenly urbanites and people escaping the inland heat heard rumors of a beautiful beachfront community with mild climate and stunning nature and started arriving to play on the Capitola shores, and up in the redwoods along Felton’s Mount Hermon.
And then on a sunny day, in 1885 three Hawaiian princes hopped on longboards and introduced Santa Cruz’s favorite past-time to the mainland. Surfing quickly became the soul of this beachfront town, with eager daredevils shaping boards out of redwood trees to brave the waves.
By 1904 folks flocked to the the Santa Cruz Boardwalk to play, and to the surrounding beach breaks to ride the swells. Soon the city was incorporated. But after the Great Depression and the lag in the logging community, the city needed a boost. And in the late 1950s, regents decided to construct a university high on the hill. In 1965, University of California Santa Cruz opened its doors. Now with a fleet of progressives in the community, and a liberal arts focus, Santa Cruz became one of America’s most progressive communities. Residents participated in Cesar Chavez’s protests and plenty of anti-Vietnam war demonstrations ultimately giving the area the moniker of America’s Most Leftist City.
Today residents might bemoan the expansion of the university, but locals also take pride in the major accomplishments of UCSC. From helping to regenerate the farm-to-table movement, to saving endangered peregrine falcons, and much more, the Banana Slugs have brought plenty of bragging rights to Santa Cruz.
At first glance, Santa Cruz might appear one-dimensional. All those surfboards latched atop cars, and wetsuits hanging from windows, where flip flops and yoga pants are de riguer. But at closer inspection you’ll notice a thriving undercurrent of creative expression. Yes, the masses who flock to Santa Cruz county do so for the easy beach life. But this natural setting inspires a rich culture that questions the norm.
For the most part, community life centers around the beach. The Santa Cruz Boardwalk area draws out-of-towners, while the West Cliff walking path, and Pleasure Point areas lure locals. Farmer’s markets also act as gathering places. For people watching, check out the Wednesday downtown market; though the Aptos Saturday market and the Live Oak Sunday market are both worth a stop.
Surrounded by agriculture, Santa Cruz restaurants populate menus with organic and sustainable produce, often boasting from which farms they sourced their food. California cuisine is the most consistently perfected style in the area, with seafood being a favorite choice among chefs. That being said, there are a number of notable taquerias throughout the county.
The redwood-covered mountains are proving successful places to grow wine grapes. And new vineyards continue to open, many of which offer tasting rooms in downtown Santa Cruz.
Beer-lovers will be smitten with the wealth of micro-breweries throughout the county. Many of which offer lively gardens to sample unique hops.
English is the primary language spoken in California, though knowing Spanish might help as well.
Drawn to the stunning natural setting and the proximity to Bay Area cities, many notable authors call Santa Cruz home. The following is a partial list of local authors who have lived, or still reside, in the region. For a comprehensive list, please click here.
Jonathan Franzen (his new book Purity is partially set in the Santa Cruz Mountains)
Laurie R. King
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
Karen Tei Yamashita
Karen Joy Fowler
An ever-growing art scene was injected with spice with the opening of the Museum of Art and History (MAH). Around the same time, another art hub opened–the Tannery Arts Center, a collection of galleries, a dance studio, a performance space, a sweet cafe, and affordable apartments for artists. Though art seems on display everywhere, from UCSC’s Sesnon Gallery to the local coffee shop, some notable places for viewing work by local artists include the Felix Kulpa Gallery, and the galleries in the old Wrigley Gum building on the westside.
On the first Friday of the month, galleries, restaurants and even hair salons stay open late to showcase the work of local artists. Get detailed information in the free weekly newspaper Good Times. The MAH also hosts a fun Third Friday event for families.
Santa Cruz is a popular place to film movies. Here is a short list of some favorites. For a more comprehensive list, click here.
Mutiny On The Bounty – 1935
Vertigo – 1958
The Endless Summer – 1966
Harold and Maude – 1971
Escape to Witch Mountain – 1975
East of Eden (TV mini-series) – 1981
The Sting II – 1983
Back to the Beach – 1987
The Lost Boys – 1987
Killer Klowns from Outer Space – 1988
Dangerous Minds – 1995
Glory Daze – 1996
Homegrown – 1998
Kinsey – 2004
Chasing Mavericks – 2012
Santa Cruz boasts a healthy music scene. The best place to learn about local happenings is through the free weekly newspaper, Good Times. There are dozens of places to hear live music throughout the county, with the most popular being the Catalyst, Moe’s Alley, Kuumbwa, Don Quixote, and the Crow’s Nest.
In summer, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk offers free Friday night concerts on the sand. Past performers include Eddie Money, Macy Gray, and Flock of Seagulls.
The following is a list of local musicians, and bands who play so much in Santa Cruz that some consider them native.
Devil Makes Three
McCoy Tyler Band
Marty O’Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra
The Abbot Family Band
Sherry Austin and Henhouse
Miss Lonely Hearts
The Coffee Zombie Collective
Dan P and the Bricks
Mike Schermer Bassnectar (from SJ but got his start in Santa Cruz)
Getter (went to UCSC)
The Red Light District
Vultures At Arms Reach
The Bad Light
Light The Band
The Frogman Experience
The Coffis Brothers
For a more comprehensive list, click here.
Here’s a fun NorCal themed Spotify playlist.
Jennifer Gallacher of the Santa Cruz Rehearsal Studio created this fantastic Santa Cruz themed playlist.
For a small town, there’s a lot going on in Santa Cruz. The most comprehensive place to do some trip planning is through the Santa Cruz Visitor and Convention Bureau.
The main news source in Santa Cruz is the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
The free weekly newspaper, Good Times, also has a handy website that is the locals’ go to for events.
For an up-to-date surf report, click here.
The UCSC student run radio station, KZSC, is also a great place for local info.