It's easy to fall head over heels in love with Santa Cruz. This resort may only be home to 55,000 people, but its combination of sunshine, pristine beaches, wild surf and cultural attractions means that it punches well above its weight in the ranks of US tourist destinations.
Santa Cruz is a city designed for relaxation. You can stretch out on beautiful beaches at Natural Bridges State Park, rent sailing boats to tour secluded coves, kayak along the coast or visit natural attractions like Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
But if it's more excitement you're after, Santa Cruz delivers. The city is one of the world's greatest surfing destinations, with huge waves at places like Steamers Lane. There's plenty of cultural excitement too, thanks to the city's International Blues Festival and summer beach concerts.
All of this makes Santa Cruz perfect for families, singles, couples and groups of friends. You can party, relax, sunbathe and surf - all just a few miles from San Francisco and easily accessible by plane from anywhere in the USA.
Santa Cruz is famous for its flawless beaches. The people and local government take pride in their coastline, protecting it from damage, resulting in a series of beaches that are gorgeous and clean. The water at Main Beach and Natural Bridges is warm and inviting, so dive in, snorkel or surf. There's no better beach destination.
Santa Cruz is world famous as a surfing destination. The breaks at locations like Steamers Lane attract elite surfers (particularly in the winter) and crowds of people watching them battle the epic surf. If you are a novice or an expert, Santa Cruz will have surfing spots to suit you.
Santa Cruz is also famous for its artistic, creative community. You can buy artisan jewelry at stores like Bead It!, shop for vintage clothing at Retro Paradise, or check out artworks by local painters at the Sesnon Gallery.
Santa Cruz Boardwalk provides a chance to step back in time to a more innocent age. This charming seafront district has great restaurants, a fine city beach and family attractions like the Looff Carousel and Roller Coaster. It's a wonderful place to spend time.
Music is a major part of life in Santa Cruz, and local events like May's International Blues Festival attract thousands of visitors. The beach also hosts a summer-long program of open-air concerts featuring major rock and pop artists, while the Kuumbwa Jazz Center always welcomes innovative artists to display their skills.
Never mind the celery raisin ice cream, the rainbow-haired sidewalk singer crooning Pink Floyd's "Goodbye Cruel World'', and forget about the world-class surfing. Since Teddy Roosevelt's presidency, nothing brings out-of-towners to Santa Cruz like the stretch of thrills and spills at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Featuring a rollicking arcade of games, gift shops, and more than 40 rides, including two national landmarks - the wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster and the Looff Carousel - the boardwalk is an essential slice of the Californian experience. Fresh saltwater taffy and the frying grease of corn dogs compete with flashing wheels, blinking machines, blasting music, and children's screams to rouse the senses. The Sky Glider cable car - with its dramatic views of the Santa Cruz Mountains, jagged cliffs, and epic surf breaks - lets you ''cruz'' over that crazy fun.
The Grateful Dead's archives are stored at the nearby UC Santa Cruz, so calling downtown Santa Cruz eccentric would be putting it mildly. Pacific Avenue, downtown's chief thoroughfare, is a patchouli-and-cannabis-scented sidewalk safari through vintage clothing shops, New Age gift shops, coffee bars, health food and book stores, not to mention enough bong displays, street art, madcap characters, and general zaniness to flabbergast even the most open-minded. Find garlic cookies to ward off vampires at the bakery, and the morning eggs at the restaurant may come to the table direct from the chicken coop. "Resolve to evolve" at a lounge set aside for dreamers, but whatever you do, don't miss California's green-earth goodness at the Wednesday afternoon Farmer's Market.
"Catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world." Or so say the Beach Boys. Real surfer dudes would likely say something like: "You've shred the nar of a choice tube, and you're totally amped." In any case, Main Beach's huge swath of soft sand is the best place to soak up sun, play volleyball, swim, surf and check out the latest in boardshorts and bikinis.
Jutting into the Pacific for a half mile, the Santa Cruz Wharf sees about 10,000 people a day, including the boat tour groups, nightlife revelers, and the sun-baked anglers fishing for everything from halibut and salmon to rockfish and calico surf perch. Large herds of sea lions congregate and bark to establish or defend their territory, and at the Riva Fish House the secret recipe for the scrumptious Mata Hari Calamari is likewise guarded.
Hop aboard to explore the Santa Cruz Mountains and the mighty Redwood Forest on a steam locomotive at the Roaring Camp in Felton. How the forest came to be, its vegetation and wildlife, and a veritable history lesson on the old logging railroad illuminate a one-hour ride through one of nature's true splendors.
There's hardly a bad time to visit Santa Cruz, but locals tend to recommend traveling in late summer or early fall. A vacation around September and October would be ideal, with warm water and weather, a low chance of fog (which can sometimes enclose the major beaches) and a packed schedule of events. However, June's a good time to go as well, as the beach concert program kicks off.
The closest airport to Santa Cruz is in San Jose, but both Oakland and San Francisco airports are also within an hour's taxi ride. If you fly into San Jose, take bus number 17 from San Jose Diridon Station or take an airport shuttle from companies like Early Bird or Santa Cruz Airport Flyer. A shuttle will cost around $60. Taxis are also available at all airports and will generally cost around $70-100 depending on where you fly into.
If you want to travel by train, the closest Amtrak station is San Jose Diridon Station, which is connected to Santa Cruz by the 17 bus. It's also connected to San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles via Amtrak's Coast Starlight service.
Driving to Santa Cruz is probably the easiest way to reach the city. From San Francisco, take I-280, then Highway 17 into town. Those driving from Los Angeles need to take I-5, while anyone coming from the east can take I-80 to San Francisco, then change.
Santa Cruz Bus Station is on Greyhound's California network, so you can easily catch buses from most locations in the state. The Greyhound stop is located at 920 Pacific Avenue, very close to the center of town.
Visitors to Santa Cruz have a wide range of accommodation options. There are luxury mountain resorts like Chaminade Resort & Spa, family hotels near the boardwalk like Coastview Inn, budget hostels like the Santa Cruz Hostel and cozy B&Bs like the Bay Front Inn. You can even pitch a tent at locations like Butano State Park, which is a great way to enjoy the scenery and climate of the bay.
Seabright – Also known as Midtown, Seabright is where Santa Cruz's population of artisans, musicians and bohemians congregate, and it's a wonderful place to explore. Start your tour on Ocean View Avenue and check out the Santa Cruz Brewery, Seabright Beach or the Museum of Natural History. Or just rent a boat at Yacht Harbor and head out into the bay.
Downtown Santa Cruz – Downtown is where you'll find most of the best restaurants and bars in Santa Cruz. It's home to dance music clubs like Motiv, gourmet eateries like Hula's Island Grill and el Palomar and the city's major cultural institutions, including the Kuumbwa Jazz Center.
Westside – Packed with stores, Westside is the city's retail hub. Head to Mission Street to shop at boutiques like Dog Day Designs and Cameron Marks, buy picnic items at el Salchichero Deli or buy beach essentials at stores like Hotline Wetsuits.
Downtown Santa Cruz and the Boardwalk are easily walkable, and everything is within 20 minutes' walk. However, Santa Cruz METRO runs a modest network of local buses, including routes to the University that could be handy. Adult fares are $2, with $6 day passes also available.
If you are skipping between beaches and resort hotels, taxis can be a useful way to get around, but they aren't cheap. Expect to pay a meter drop of $3.20, then a rate of $2.75 after the first mile. Uber is active in Santa Cruz. UberX vehicles cost a basic fare of $2, then $1.15 per mile (but have a minimum fare of $5.35).
Car rentals in Santa Cruz are available from companies like Avis, Hertz and Enterprise and rates can be as low as $10 per day, so it's a cost-effective way to get around. Parking is also plentiful at the major beaches and Downtown, so there should be few problems.
The main shopping street in Santa Cruz is Pacific Avenue, home to a number of bookstores, artisanal jewelry makers like Bead It!, apparel boutiques like Forever 21, Cognito Clothing and Jade, along with small art galleries, antique vendors and much more. If you want to head to a traditional mall, the Capitola Mall is a good alternative, with household names like Sear's, Macy's and Target.
Many people choose to stay in self-catering homes in Santa Cruz and finding groceries is simple. The city center has branches of Trader Joe's and Whole Foods while suburbs include a Safeway. There are also smaller independent grocery stores like New Leaf Community Markets and Shopper's Corner, which provide a more homely grocery shopping experience. Prices in Santa Cruz are similar to cities like San Francisco. In other words, quite high. Expect to pay $3.60 for a gallon of milk and over $2.50 for a pound of apples.
You'll never run out of high-quality places to eat in Santa Cruz. It's one of the city's greatest strengths. There are superb Mexican restaurants like el Palomar (check out the cantina at the back which serves cheap, delicious tacos). Joe's Pizza & Subs is the place to go for a quick sandwich or slice of pizza, Oswald's serves vegan and organic cuisine, Royal Taj is a highly-rated local Indian restaurant, while the fish and chips at Seabright Brewery are sublime. Expect to pay $12-15 for a mid-range meal and more than $25 at high-end places.