Santa Cruz is a small coastal city (population about 55,000) on the north end of Monterey Bay in California, about thirty miles south of San Jose. While it gained some tech jobs during the boom, it is still best known for fun weekend tourist attractions like the Beach Boardwalk and the Mystery Spot, and its University of California campus.
Highway 17 south from San Jose is the most direct route when driving from the more populated parts of the Bay Area. It is a winding road over the mountains, shared during the week with heavy gravel trucks, so heed the speed limits; accidents were once common, but the road is much safer since the addition of concrete barriers some years ago.
A much more beautiful, but slower, approach to Santa Cruz is on Highway 1, either from San Francisco and Pacifica to the north (about 65 miles), or from Monterey and Big Sur to the south (about 35 miles).
If you take public transportation, there is a commuter shuttle, the 17x, that runs from the Caltrain station in San Jose on weekdays, and multiple lines that go east to Watsonville 7 days a week. Both Greyhound and Amtrak also run buses to the city. All these lines go to, or next to, the Santa Cruz Metro Center, which is conveniently located in the downtown area.
The nearest major airport is in San Jose, but San Francisco and even Oakland aren't much farther away, and sometimes have cheaper flights. There is a small regional airport in Monterey, but in most cases San Jose is the best choice. Scheduled airport shuttles provide service every few hours to San Jose, and less often to San Francisco.
While driving is certainly an option (there is enough parking in most places), Santa Cruz Metro also runs a very good bus service: http://www.scmtd.com . Especially during the summer, Santa Cruz is a wonderful town for bicycling. In and around town and up and down Highway 1 is easy, but roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains are steep and winding and will be challenging for many cyclists.
The Beach Boardwalk. A historical amusement park that has been around since the 1900s, the Beach Boardwalk features one of the oldest wooden rollercoasters still in use in the US as well as numerous modern attractions. Entrance is free, rides cost between $1-3 each. Day, month, and yearly passes available.
Natural Bridges State Park, Open daily, sunrise to sunset. State beach park with nature trails. Yearly monarch butterfly migration. Entrance free. Fee for parking.
Surf Museum Located in the lighthouse at Lighthouse Point, West Cliff Drive. Memorabilia from the origins of surfing in California (a statute of Hawaiian Duke is a few yards from the museum) to the present day. Thursday through Monday, Noon-4:00 p.m
UC Santa Cruz Up on the hill at the north end of town. This is the smallest UC campus (except for the brand new campus in Merced), with about 15,000 students, but it is spread over almost a thousand acres, mostly covered with redwood forests with the occasional stunning view of the bay. There is an arboretum specializing in native plants and plants from Australia. Mountain bike and hiking trails criss-cross the upper part of campus, connecting Wilder Ranch State Park to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (get a trail map and a parking permit from the kiosk as you enter campus). The Bay Tree Bookstore sells clothes with the UCSC mascot -- the banana slug -- but keep your eyes open for the mountain lions often seen on campus.
Santa Cruz is a beach town, with a beach to match almost any interest. Main Beach and Cowell Beach attract large crowds to the boardwalk area on sunny summer weekends. Flocks of novice surfers balance on their boards in the quiet waters just north of the municipal wharf, in front of the big hotel that locals still call the Dream Inn. Volleyball nets are strung just south of the wharf. The boardwalk amusement area is adjacent to main beach. Heading north, Steamers Lane isn't a beach, but the famous surf break in front of the lighthouse. In the summer, its sometimes hard to see what the fuss is about, but the winter can bring big waves and spectators line the rail watching the surfers and the sea lions. In the summer, docents are often on hand on weekends to help with wildlife spotting in the Monterey Bay Sanctuary.
North of the lighthouse are a series of little pocket beaches, some that disappear entirely in the winter. The first one, It's Beach, is one of the few places in town that dogs can be run off leash (before 10 AM and after 4 PM only), and often dozens of dogs are chasing sticks, balls, and each other. Mitchell's Cove, just north, also allows dogs. Natural Bridges State Beach, whose famous monarch butterflies are discussed above, is a popular windsurfing beach. The name is misleading: one of the two stone bridges collapsed a few years ago. Just south of Natural Bridges is the tiny clothing-optional 2222 Beach.
Heading further north, you leave the city limits and pass through agricultural fields for about 10 miles before reaching the small town of Davenport, which has a couple of restaurants, a B&B, and a huge cement plant that dominates the skyline. Each turnout along the road marks a beach, many of which are prime surf spots. Wilder Ranch State Park can be reached by a new bike path from just north of Natural Bridges. Its several nice beaches include Three Mile Beach and Four Mile Beach, named after their distances from town. Further north are Red, White, and Blue Beach, a private nude beach (at the red, white, and blue mailbox), Laguna Creek Beach (with parking on the east of highway 1), Panther and Hole-in-the-Wall Beach (connected by a passage that closes at high tide), Bonny Doon Beach (another famous clothing optional spot), and Davenport Beach. For those who want to tour the beaches, Highway 1 has wide shoulders that are generally safe for cycling.
There are lots of beaches south of Main Beach as well, but you'll need another guide for them.
Shopping on Pacific Avenue includes surf shops, bookstores (especially the local landmark Bookshop Santa Cruz and the excellent used book and record store Logos), clothing, and gifts.
Saturn Café A Santa Cruz institution. Cheap veggie/hippy cuisine in a zany atmosphere.
Mobo Sushi Innovative sushi and jazz club. Check local listings for music.
Oswalds, Classy Californian cuisine. $8-25. Reservations recommended on the weekend.
Malabar, Soquel Ave. Excellent curried mangos and Kofta Joe. The service can be... surly, but don't worry about it. Eat and be happy.
Asian Rose, (a lunch spot at the end of Pacific Ave, run by the same people who run Malabar, above). Vegan Californian/Asian food. $1-5 depending on the number of items.
Pizza My Heart, Basic cheap pizza by the slice, salads. $1-$5. Pacific Ave.
Costa Brava, Mexican and South American flavors. Reasonable prices for a nice atmosphere and good service.
Zachary's, Fantastic breakfasts featuring homemade bread French toasts, fruit salads, homefries, and more. Finishing Mike's Mess is a worthwhile challenge. Expect a line Saturday and Sunday. $1-$10
Taqueria Vallarta, 608 Soquel Ave. There are many taquerias in town, but this one attracts Mexican-American families, college students, and visitors from up and down the coast who come just for the huge traditional style meals. $1-$6.
Almar Grill, 841A Almar Avenue (in mini-mall with Safeway, off Mission St on the Westside), 831-420-0114. Open for lunch and dinner, closed Su and M. Great Spanish tapas hiding in one of the most unpromising locations imaginable. Get lots of little dishes and share. Spanish tortillas are good, as is the paella. There is always something new to find on the long and interesting menu. Not kid friendly. Typical tab, excluding alcohol, is around $10-$15, though you could go way up or down depending on choices and appetite.
El Palomar, 336 Pacific Avenue, (831) 425-7575. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Reservations are taken only for large parties on weeknights, and the wait can be very long on weekends. Great Mexican food in dramatic dining room, but not cheap. Brighter cantina in back is a good lunch spot that becomes a bar at night. Lots of seafood specialties. Homemade tortillas are excellent, as are the margaritas. Strolling guitar players some evenings. Kid friendly. Typical entrees $10-$16. http://www.elpalomarrestaurant.com/santa/santacruz.html
Pearl Alley Bistro, 110 Pearl Alley (between Lincoln and Walnut streets, downtown), 831-429-8070 (reservations strongly recommended). Open from 5 PM for dinner every day. A rotating menu, with monthly themes, but mostly southern European home-style cooking. Cozy dining room, upstairs from street, with bar filling center. Entrees $16-$26. http://www.pearlalley.com
Seabright Brewery, 519 Seabright Ave, 831-426-BREW. 11:30 AM - 11:30 PM daily (kitchen closes at 10 PM). Updated pub grub, and fresh beer made on the premises. Salmon fish and chips, with beer battered salmon fried in Japanese bread crumbs and served with sesami-wasabi tarter sauce and teriyaki garlic chili sauce is almost too rich to eat. Lots of vegetarian food. Big patio overlooks a busy road, but is a pleasant place to head after a day at the beach. Beer and pizza specials on some weekdays. $8-$12 sandwiches and entrees. http://www.seabrightbrewery.com/
For its size, Santa Cruz boasts a large number of drinking establishments from Irish pubs to nightclubs. Many of the bars are located along Pacific Avenue. A serious pub crawl can be done starting at either the Asti (listing below) and ending about 7 blocks away at the Rush Inn or the other way around.
99 Bottles (half a block of Pacific Ave). Get a free membership card and get a stamp for trying all 99 different beers and win a T-shirt. Good California pub food (fried calamari sandwiches, burgers, salads, etc). Good student hangout.
The Asti End your pub crawl here and have a photo of your bare butt added to the lovely collage on the wall. Lots of cheap beer and college students.
Blue Lagoon, 923 Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz, CA. 831-423-7117
Club Dakota 1209 Pacific Ave. The most cocktail-lounge-y place on the crawl. Gay/Lesbian friendly. 831-454-9030.
Crow's Nest, 2218 East Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. 831-476-4560. In the top three annually for "best happy hour" award from the local weekly paper.
The Poet and Partiot 320 Cedar St. (One block off Pacific Ave.), music sessions and darts games.
The Red Room 1003 Cedar St. (One block off Pacific Ave,)
Rosie McCann's Irish Pub Pacific Ave. Upstairs pub with all the trimmings-- lamb stew, Irish dance and music, cider and many beers on tap.
The Rush Inn Friendly little place, bar tenders were voted Most Friendly Bar Tenders 2003 in the Santa Cruz Metro weekly paper.
Cafe Pergolisi, 418 Cedar Street, SC, 831-426-1775. Free WiFi access.
The Union, 120 Union Street, Santa Cruz, 831-459-9876.