Visit this coastal classic for ocean views, legendary surfing, and throwback fun along the waterfront
Things to do
Places to Eat & Drink
The ultra-mellow beach town of Santa Cruz along Highway 1 has a decidedly split personality, with surfers, UC Santa Cruz students, and visitors who come for the culture and a little fun in the sun all contributing to the vibe.
Things to Do in Santa Cruz
First, there’s family fun at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a yesteryear-style esplanade lined with arcade games, corn dogs, and a historic carousel. The star of the show here though is undoubtedly the Giant Dipper roller coaster, a wooden behemoth of a ride that’s been thrilling beachgoers since 1924. Then there’s downtown Santa Cruz—stroll down Pacific Avenue, where college students browse for vintage and boho chic, gallery owners invite passersby to browse art, and down-to-earth restaurants focus on healthful meals made of organic, local ingredients. On Wednesdays year-round there’s a farmers’ market where prepared foods such as El Salvadoran pupusas and fish and chips can be had as well as all types of produce, and on First Fridays, local artists team up with local businesses to showcase their art. If you’re in town during the month of November, don’t miss the November Wine Walk.
Santa Cruz Nature and Wildlife
If you love nature, Santa Cruz makes an excellent launching pad. Board a boat tour from the wharf for whale watching—grays, blues, or humpbacks, depending on the time of year—or take a winding drive in the Santa Cruz Mountains to see the ancient trees at Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Another place to take in nature about 48 miles to the north is Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve, where the Purisima Creek Canyon beckons hikers with the preserve’s namesake trees, as well as a creek and lush ground covering of ferns and wildflowers. (The views of Half Moon Bay and the coast from here alone are worth the trip.) And there’s another nature-inspired gem tucked in these hills: a generous selection of wineries, most specializing in Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Surf Scene in Santa Cruz
But at its heart, Santa Cruz is a surf town, dating back to 1885 when three visiting Hawaiian princes rode the local waves on redwood planks, and where today’s top surfers seek out quintessential California breaks at Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point. Need more proof? The late legendary surfer Jack O’Neill, wetsuit pioneer and elder statesman of everything surf-related, made Santa Cruz his home. The O’Neill Coldwater Classic and other international surfing contests take place here every year.
The Santa Cruz Wharf and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
The century-old Santa Cruz Wharf is the longest wooden structure of its kind on the West Coast—a staggering 2,701 feet long. Walk to the end to get a bird’s-eye view of Steamer Lane surfers to the north, or come at dusk to watch the lights glow on the colorfully lit Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Along the waterfront, you can rent kayaks, standup paddleboards, or motorboats. Stroll past the fresh fish restaurants and souvenir shops and strike up a conversation with fishermen angling for perch, rockfish, and lingcod. Better yet, join ’em. You don’t need a license to fish from the pier, and local tackle shops can get you outfitted.