The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Santa Cruz California

Santa Cruz, California, is a coastal city located in Northern California. Known for its beautiful beaches, laid-back atmosphere, and vibrant culture, Santa Cruz is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. Whether you’re looking for outdoor adventures, cultural experiences, or just a relaxing vacation, Santa Cruz has something to offer. Here’s our ultimate guide to visiting Santa Cruz, California.

guide Santa Cruz California Boardwalk ride

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Getting to Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is located about 75 miles south of San Francisco and about 35 miles north of Monterey. The easiest way to get to Santa Cruz is by car, as it is easily accessible from major highways such as Highway 1 and Highway 17. If you prefer to travel by public transportation, there are several bus and train options available.

Where to Stay

Santa Cruz has a variety of accommodations to fit any budget. Here are a few of our favorites place to lay our head in Santa Cruz.

Dream Inn

The Dream Inn Santa Cruz is a beachfront hotel located on Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz, California. The hotel offers 165 guest rooms and suites, many of which feature ocean views and private balconies. The rooms are decorated in a modern, beachy style, with bright colors and contemporary furnishings.

The Dream Inn Santa Cruz is known for its laid-back atmosphere and friendly staff. The hotel offers a variety of amenities, including a heated outdoor pool, a hot tub, and a fitness center. Guests can also enjoy complimentary beach chairs and towels, as well as access to the hotel’s beachfront restaurant and bar.

The Hotel Paradox

The Hotel Paradox is a stylish and modern hotel located in downtown Santa Cruz, California. The hotel features 170 guest rooms and suites, all of which are decorated in a contemporary style with natural elements such as tree trunks and potted succulents. The rooms offer modern amenities such as flat-screen TVs, free Wi-Fi, and mini-fridges. The hotel also features a heated outdoor pool, a fitness center, and a restaurant serving farm-to-table cuisine.

The Hotel Paradox is known for its unique design and vibrant atmosphere, which captures the essence of Santa Cruz’s bold contradictions. With its central location and modern amenities, the Hotel Paradox is a popular choice for visitors to Santa Cruz.

Chaminade Resort & Spa

The Chaminade Resort & Spa is a luxurious mountaintop hotel located in Santa Cruz, California. The AAA Four Diamond resort offers 156 guest rooms and suites, all of which feature stunning views of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the surrounding mountains. The rooms are decorated in a classic, elegant style, with plush bedding and modern amenities. The Chaminade Resort & Spa is known for its serene atmosphere and beautiful grounds, which feature lush gardens, hiking trails, and a heated outdoor pool.

The resort also offers a full-service spa, as well as a variety of dining options, including a farm-to-table restaurant and a casual bar and grill. With its luxurious accommodations and stunning natural surroundings, the Chaminade Resort & Spa is a top choice for visitors to Santa Cruz.

What to Do

Santa Cruz is home to many activities, from outdoor adventures to cultural experiences. Here are some of the best things to do in Santa Cruz:

  1. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: This iconic Santa Cruz boardwalk is a must-visit for anyone visiting the area. With its historic roller coaster, arcade games, and beachfront location, it’s a great place to spend a day with the family.
  2. Natural Bridges State Beach: This beautiful beach is known for its natural rock formations and tide pools. Visitors can explore the beach’s many trails, or just relax on the sand and enjoy the scenery.
  3. Santa Cruz Wharf: This historic wharf is home to a variety of shops, restaurants, and attractions. Visitors can take a stroll along the pier, or take a boat tour of the harbor.
  4. Santa Cruz Surfing Museum: This small museum is dedicated to the history of surfing in Santa Cruz. Visitors can learn about the sport’s origins in the area, and view a collection of vintage surfboards.
  5. Seymour Marine Discovery Center: This marine education center is located on the UC Santa Cruz campus, and features exhibits on marine life and ocean conservation. Visitors can also take a guided tour of the nearby Marine Lab.
  6. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: This beautiful park is located just outside of Santa Cruz, and features towering redwood trees and scenic hiking trails. Visitors can also take a ride on the park’s historic steam train.
  7. The Mystery Spot: This mysterious attraction is a must-see for anyone visiting Santa Cruz. The Mystery Spot is a gravitational anomaly, where objects appear to defy the laws of physics. Visitors can take a guided tour and experience the strange phenomenon for themselves.
guide Santa Cruz California mystery spot
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  1. Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History: This museum showcases art and history from the Santa Cruz area. Visitors can view exhibits on topics such as local agriculture, surfing culture, and Native American history.
  2. Lighthouse Field State Beach: This beautiful beach is located near the Santa Cruz lighthouse, and is a popular spot for surfing and beachcombing. Visitors can also take a stroll along the nearby West Cliff Drive and enjoy the scenic ocean views.
  3. Strawberry Picking in Davenport: Davenport is 10 just north of Santa Cruz and Swanton Berry Farm offers one of the few remaining U-Pick farms in the entire Bay Area. Take home a homemade berry pie or some berry jam to spread on toast. You can also opt for ice cream topped with their handcrafted sauces, cookies bursting with fruit, or nourishing smoothies. Coffee, hot chocolate, and other drinks provide fuel for your picking adventure. Picnic tables dotted around the property allow you to sit and savor treats while taking in the peaceful surroundings.

This is just a sampling of the many things to do in the area, for more ideas check out this article on free and cheap activities in Santa Cruz!

Where to Eat

Santa Cruz has a diverse food scene, with options ranging from fresh seafood, to amazing coffee shops to farm-to-table cuisine. Here are some of the best places to eat in Santa Cruz:

  1. The Crow’s Nest: This waterfront restaurant is known for its fresh seafood and stunning views of the harbor. Try the crab cakes or the fish and chips.
  2. The Picnic Basket: This casual eatery is a great spot for a quick bite. They offer a variety of sandwiches, salads, and snacks, all made with locally-sourced ingredients.
  3. Laili Restaurant: This Mediterranean restaurant is located in downtown Santa Cruz, and features dishes such as lamb kebabs and falafel. Don’t miss the house-made hummus.
  4. The Penny Ice Creamery: This artisanal ice cream shop offers a variety of unique flavors, such as black sesame and honey lavender. They also make their own waffle cones.
  5. The Crepe Place: This cozy restaurant serves up sweet and savory crepes, as well as a variety of beers and wines. Try the Nutella and banana crepe, or the spinach and feta crepe.

Day Trips From Santa Cruz

Monterey Bay

Just a short drive south of Santa Cruz, Monterey offers a wealth of attractions and natural beauty. Explore the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, where you can marvel at the diverse marine life and learn about ocean conservation. Take a stroll along Cannery Row, a historic waterfront street lined with shops, galleries, and restaurants. For a dose of history and culture, visit the adobe buildings of the Monterey State Historic Park, which provide a glimpse into California’s early days.

Additionally, don’t miss the scenic 17-Mile Drive, a picturesque coastal route that showcases stunning vistas, pristine beaches, and iconic landmarks like the Lone Cypress. With its charming atmosphere and a variety of attractions, Monterey promises a delightful day trip from Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz to Monterey Bay

The drive from Santa Cruz to Monterey Bay is a scenic journey along the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as Highway 1. The route takes travelers through some of the most beautiful coastal landscapes in California, including rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, and rolling hills.

The drive also passes through several charming coastal towns, including Capitola, Aptos, and Carmel-by-the-Sea, each with its own unique character and attractions. Whether you’re looking for outdoor adventures, cultural experiences, or simply a relaxing drive along the coast, the Santa Cruz to Monterey Bay route offers something for everyone.

Big Sur

For those seeking awe-inspiring natural beauty, a day trip to Big Sur is an absolute must. Head south on the scenic Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) and prepare to be enchanted by the rugged coastline and towering cliffs that meet the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. Explore Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, home to the iconic McWay Falls, a waterfall that cascades onto a pristine beach.

Hike through ancient redwood forests in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and revel in the tranquility of nature. As you drive along the winding roads, you’ll encounter breathtaking viewpoints and hidden beaches, providing ample opportunities for unforgettable photo ops. With its unparalleled beauty and serene ambiance, Big Sur is an ideal day trip destination for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

Other day trips include a visit to San Jose, Carmel-by-the-Sea, San Juan Bautista and Pacific Grove!

Santa Cruz may be a small city, but it has plenty to offer visitors. With its beautiful beaches, outdoor activities, and vibrant culture, it’s the perfect destination for a weekend getaway or a longer vacation. And with a diverse food scene and plenty of accommodations to choose from, it’s easy to make the most of your time in Santa Cruz California using this guide. So next time you’re planning a trip to California, be sure to add Santa Cruz to your itinerary.

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