Mention Santa Cruz anywhere in the Bay Area, and everyone immediately calls up the same idyllic image. The beaches. The Beach Boardwalk. The incredible climate. Whatever your fantasies may be about this seaside haven, the coast has cast its spell for generations. A few hundred years ago it enticed the first Europeans, Franciscan fathers who founded the small Spanish settlement of Santa Cruz. 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.

Many of these maverick visitors, attracted by the endless summer lifestyle, decided to stay on. Graced over two decades ago with the opening of a University of California campus, Santa Cruz now makes room for students along with a recent influx of entrepreneurs in search of that perfect getaway location. Mix in its earlier population of die-hard hippies from tiny nearby hill communities, and the result is an effervescent mix of artists, retirees and other ex-patriots from mainstream life.

Packed with historic architecture, eclectic boutiques and a variety of ethnic restaurants, downtown Santa Cruz has much to offer adventurous visitors. Spacious bookstores anchor each end of Pacific Avenue, the city’s tree-shaded main retail strip lined with a bonanza of espresso vendors, taquerias and outdoor pizza patios. A thriving coffeehouse scene offers ample rendezvous destinations. Pacific Avenue is also a shopper’s paradise, with a vivacious population of small emporia, clothing boutiques, shoe stores, galleries and import bazaars clustered around the Art Deco-style Del Mar movie palace.

Visitors will find shops specializing in contemporary designer jewelry, art glass, unique clothing, kitchen accessories, local crafts, and adventure sports equipment; eco-import stores filled with sustainably produced clothing and home furnishings; as well as “only in Santa Cruz” skateboard and surf shops.

The town’s diversity has made the dining scene just as varied, with options for all budgets, moods and tastes. Choices include a galaxy of sushi bars, trattorias, countless taquerias, trendy lounges, ethnic eateries ranging from Afghan to Indonesian, old-fashioned ice-cream parlors, burger joints and a variety of cafes, with several trendy wine bars added to the mix. The emphasis on locally sourced flavor experiences has led to several acclaimed coffee roasters and their accompanying cafes.

Santa Cruz retains a strong sense of its past in the beautiful Victorian mansions splashed along many of its side streets, but a lively “new wave” culture manages to coexist with the historic ambiance surrounding it. Progressive venues like the Kuumbwa Jazz Club and the Poet & Patriot Irish Pub help provide Friday nights with a pulse with youthful energy.