The Santa Cruz region has cast its spell for generations, and for good reason. Spectacular beaches, forests and backcountry roads offer endless temptations for the inquiring visitor, as do the area’s coastal towns, which are dotted with breweries, wineries, bistros and artisanal shops. by Christina Waters
Europeans founded the first Spanish settlement here more than 200 years ago. Since then, the coast has lured legions of bohemians, entrepreneurs and sun worshipers, all drawn by the sparkling beaches, majestic redwoods and the laissez-faire, non-judgmental attitudes of the local populace.
Back-to-the-land hippies populated the small towns in the nearby mountains until the University of California opened its Santa Cruz campus in the mid-1960s. Then students and their well-traveled professors began redefining and refining the region’s tastes. These have been further broadened more recently by an influx of Silicon Valley techies making Santa Cruz their second home.
Santa Cruz’s location at the northern tip of Monterey Bay protects the local coastline from turbulent waves, and the city’s appealing geography makes it a natural maritime center. The Yacht Harbor at the southern end of town is an ideal port, from which a number of charter boat companies offer cruises as well as fishing and whale-watching trips. Santa Cruz Wharf—a spacious pier that’s home to shops, seafood restaurants and tour boat companies—boasts the colorful sights and sounds of open-air fish markets along with a boisterous population of seals and sea lions. The scene is crowned by the early-20th-century silhouettes of the Giant Dipper roller coaster and the turrets of the nearby Beach Boardwalk’s casino.
Downtown Santa Cruz
Anchored by the popular Bookshop Santa Cruz on one end and the celebrated music venues of Kuumbwa Jazz Club and the Catalyst on the other, downtown Santa Cruz is a shopper’s paradise. Offering prime people-watching, vibrant Pacific Avenue is lined with one-of-a-kind stores selling everything from unique clothing and footwear, designer jewelry and handmade crafts to bamboo home goods and artisanal skateboards.
Surfing apparel shops—including the legendary O’Neill Surf Shop—are the place to go for that “only in Santa Cruz” souvenir. The carnival atmosphere of the Wednesday farmers’ market adds to the action, as do wine-tasting rooms, such as the artisanal Birichino, while the historic art deco-style De Mar Theatre draws audiences for mostly indie films.
Santa Cruzans are religiously devoted to their coffee rituals, and coffeehouses of all descriptions seem to sprout up on every corner. On the dining side, ethnic eateries share the turf with sushi bars, pizza pop-ups, gastropubs and classic burger spots like Betty Burger. At Laili, a contemporary Mediterranean menu with Middle Eastern inflections has attracted a following among local foodies who love dining in the secluded courtyard. Hand-crafted ice creams in a fantastic spectrum of flavors can be enjoyed at the Penny Ice Creamery, across from romantic Gabriella Cafe (a Santa Cruz legend), and at Mission Hill Creamery a few blocks away. Great burgers are also available at the sophisticated new Alderwood steakhouse and restaurant, where the happy hour menu’s galaxy of craft cocktails provides something for every taste. Specialty food boutiques, ranging from wood-fired pizza and glamorous cocktails to astonishing pastries and designer salads, make Abbott Square Market a popular meeting spot. Rendezvous inside to enjoy the cozy industrial interior or take your drinks out onto the spacious deck.
Northwest Santa Cruz
The western edge of Santa Cruz is home to a distinguished and expanding cluster of wineries, breweries, food trucks and specialty shops clustered around the much-loved Kelly’s Bakery.
Centered around two renovated and streamlined warehouses known as Swift Street and Ingalls Street Courtyards, the action never stops here. On Saturday mornings, a thriving farmers’ market provides a true frontier atmosphere. Live music, the morning’s harvests and freshly made breakfasts make for hours of entertainment. From here it is a short drive to Natural Bridges State Park, named for the natural bridge at the ocean's edge—one of the most photographed beach icons in California.
North of Santa Cruz
The drive up the coast heading north threads through vast fields of organically grown Brussels sprouts, artichokes and exotic lettuces hugging the cliffs opposite stands of cypress and eucalyptus trees.
Overlooking the Pacific on Highway 1, the manor houses and barns of Wilder Ranch State Park pop into view, providing a network of hiking and biking trails as well as a glimpse of the region’s history. The sprawling ranch, surrounded by overgrown gardens and containing the ruins of an 18th-century adobe, is a popular starting point for cyclists and hikers following trails that crisscross 5,000 acres of coast-range wildlife habitat.
Continuing north, visitors will find the tiny village of Davenport, home to renowned Lundberg Studios, whose hand-blown art-nouveau and Tiffany-style creations are found in leading museums the world over. Perched nearby on Highway 1, the handiwork of winemaker Randall Grahm rewards adventurous wine tasters with premium varietals at the memorable Bonny Doon Vineyard tasting room. A handful of restaurants and cafés prized by locals and visitors alike are clustered next door.
The bluffs of Davenport, once the site of an active whaling station, invite easy access to dramatic, uncrowded beaches. This jagged coastline is a destination in itself, with stunning stops such as Shark Fin Cove and Panther Beach. From December through May, the annual migrations of giant gray whales south and then back north bring prime whale watching close to shore.
See also our list of Top Experiences in Santa Cruz County.