Planning a Getaway to Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk from the Pier
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Betsy Malloy Photography

Santa Cruz, California has been the home of artists, college students, hippies, surfers and sailors for many years. More recently, high tech companies joined other local businesses like Odwalla (the fresh juice people), and the infusion of money fueled a downtown renovation much needed after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The most important thing to know about Santa Cruz: It probably isn't what you think it is (no matter what you think). Its reputation as a beach town and surfing magnet is well known, but it's also home to a renowned contemporary music festival and plenty of other interesting things to do.

Santa Cruz offers a broad range of activities for people of varied interests. Visitors flock there to enjoy the Boardwalk's amusements or play on the beach. Others like browsing through local art galleries or checking into the widely varied music scene.

Best Time to Go to Santa Cruz

Like most of the California coast, Santa Cruz weather can be gloomy in June and July, when marine layer clouds can hover over the beach all day long. That doesn't stop people from packing the place in hopes of seeing a ray of sunshine, but in fact, the weather is better in spring and fall and the place is less crowded. If you want to go in summer, try to visit on a weekday if you can.

Giant Dipper roller coaster
Anthony L. Solis / Getty Images

Don't Miss

By far the most iconic Santa Cruz site is the 100-year-old Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It's the best remaining California beachside amusement park and well worth a visit. Don't miss the Giant Dipper, their 1924 vintage wooden roller coaster.

Sailing ship leaving Santa Cruz harbor
Andrei Stanescu / Getty Images

7 More Great Things to Do in Santa Cruz, California

Sailboating: If you don't own a sailboat, you can let someone else be the skipper while you enjoy the ride on the Chardonnay II.

Go to the Beach: Whether you want to explore the naturist lifestyle or would rather keep your clothes on, Santa Cruz has some of California's best beaches.

West Cliff Drive: It's a beautiful drive, but even better as a walk. Follow the street west from downtown, park wherever you find a place and stroll along the cliffside, stopping at the Surfing Museum, watching kayakers and surfers, or just enjoying the view.

Local Artisans: There's no better time to explore the works of area artisans than during October's Open Studios, but any time of year, you can see their creations at local art galleries.

Marianne's Ice Cream: Their more than 70 homemade ice cream flavors make it the perfect stop for a treat.

Elephant Seals and Monarch Butterflies: Winter is animal season in Santa Cruz. At Ano Nuevo State Park, you can get a rare chance to see male elephant seals fighting for dominance while the females care for newborn pups. In town, monarch butterflies fill the trees near Natural Bridges State Beach.

Santa Cruz Shakespeare performs every summer in an outdoor amphitheater downtown.

Tips for Visiting Santa Cruz, California

  • In summer, if you're going to Santa Cruz on CA Highway 17, get an early start to avoid traffic jams.
  • The weather is just as beautiful in mid-May and mid-September as it is in summer, but the crowds are thinner. Hotel rates may be lower, too.
  • Judging by the fact that every third car in San Jose has their bumper sticker, it looks like a lot of people go to the Mystery Spot. It's a bit of old-fashioned visual trickery and not something everyone would enjoy.

Where to Stay

There are plenty of amazing hotels to choose from, or you can consider pitching a tent at one of the local campgrounds.

Getting to Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz, California is between Monterey and San Francisco on the California coast. It's 32 miles from San Jose, 73 from San Francisco, 157 from Fresno and 147 from Sacramento. You can get there on CA Highway 17 from San Jose or on CA Highway 1 from north or south.

The nearest airport is in San Jose (SJC) or Monterey (MRY).

By Train: You have to drive to Felton to do it, but the Roaring Camp Railroad makes a couple of trips a day from Felton to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and the trip itself is fun, too.