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Insider's guide to Santa Cruz, California

a visit to Santa Cruz is not complete without going to the Boardwalk
a visit to Santa Cruz is not complete without going to the Boardwalk
Santa Cruz has spectacular beaches and lots of things to do and see
Santa Cruz has spectacular beaches and lots of things to do and see
Karla Erovick
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For a great destination less than a two hour drive from San Francisco, visit the beach town of Santa Cruz. There are quicker routes to Santa Cruz, but the journey is part of the experience. And what could be nicer than a scenic drive down the Coast from San Francisco. If there is fog in Santa Cruz it lifts by noon, so there is plenty of time to make a leisurely drive along some of the most beautiful coastline in California.

From San Francisco you can drive along Ocean Beach or take Highway One to Pacifica, a beautiful coastal town. Click here for things to do and places to eat in Pacifica. This is a nice place to stop for breakfast or coffee.

From Pacifica the drive goes South along the treacherous cliff-side with outstanding views. There are a series of small coastal towns each with their own charms. For suggestions on what to see on this stretch of coastline, click here.

Half Moon Bay is the largest town on this stretch of the Coastside. For things to do in Half Moon Bay, click here. This scenic drive continues along the coast with pristine beaches and green farmland which kisses the ocean. Hawks circle lazily overhead and people aren't in a hurry here. You will notice some surfing beaches on the drive South. There are also farm produce stands selling fresh fruit and vegetables which can be very tempting. For home-baked pies, stop in Pescadero, a mile off Highway One, at Duarte's Tavern. Their olallieberry pie is out-of-this-world. You will be glad you made the detour.

Eventually you will arrive in Santa Cruz, an interesting town with more to see and do than just the beach or the boardwalk. This article will share places frequented by locals, so come along and discover some new places. Santa Cruz is divided into two areas, the Westside and the Eastside. Many locals favor one over the other.


West Cliff Drive skirts the coast on the West and has things to see such as the Surfing Museum housed in an old lighthouse, parks and beaches, as well as views of the iconic Boardwalk. There are some popular surfing locations here at Steamers Lane and Cowells. When the waves are big it is fun to watch the surfer's from one of these vantage points.

The Boardwalk:

Whether you are a tourist or not the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a fun place to spend a few hours or an entire day. This Coney Island of the West recently celebrated its 100-Year Anniversary. Their most famous ride is the Giant Dipper wooden rollercoaster which has been thrilling riders since 1924. With its landmark red and white structure, spectacular view of the Monterey Bay, and speedy successive dips and fan curves, it keeps both new and older generations coming back for more. It is the fifth oldest roller coaster continuously operating in its original location in the U.S. and has given more than 55 million rides.  In addition to the rides, there are arcade games, laser tag, minature golf, shopping, dining and events. Their free summer concert series on Friday nights at the beach kicks off on June 18 and runs through September 3, 2010.

The Wharf:

The municipal pier and wharf has shops and restaurants frequented by both locals and tourists. Take a stroll for views of the Boardwalk and the ocean. Try the Dolphin near the end of the municipal pier for fresh seafood and outdoor seating with great views. The Stagnaro Brothers fish market is a great place to buy fish or fresh seafood and they also have a full service restaurant. Marini's Candies makes the best candy in the area: fresh saltwater taffy, chocolates, carmels, you name it they make it and it is delicious.  Also located on the pier are Vino Prima, wine bar and Olita's Cantina & Grille, favorites with the local crowd.

Kayak Rentals:

Santa Cruz is a great place to kayak. Whether you are experienced or a beginner, you can get instruction and/or rent a kayak. There are a number of rental places, most are located near the Wharf. Click on the links for information from each of these companies: Kayak Connection, Venture Quest or Eskape Sea Kayaking.


To the east of the Boardwalk is East Cliff Drive which winds along the coastline and the harbor. There are lots of beaches in this direction, many of which the tourists never discover.

Santa Cruz Harbor: The Santa Cruz Harbor has a collection of restaurants and shops as well as beaches and boat rentals. You can charter boats or go out on the Chardonnay, for a sunset pleasure cruise. See above photo. There is also a beach here that is popular with locals and is the location for volleyball matches. On Saturdays the Ukelale Club of Santa Cruz comes to the beach to practice. 


The Crow's Nest is an integral part of the harbor since it opened in 1969. They have indoor and outdoor dining with views of the ocean and the harbor. During the summer, they sponsor Thursday night beach parties. See above photo of the Crow's Nest.

Cafe El Palomar serves Mexican food and is a locals favorite. Johnny's Harborside Restaurant has a good happy hour. Aldo's Harbor Restaurant is a favorite breakfast location of locals.  Kind Grind is the local coffee shop right on the beach. 


Some of the best surfing takes place at Pleasure Point, East of the Harbor. Additional surfing spots include 38th Avenue, the Hook, Privates and Sharks. Parking can be challenging at these Eastside beaches. The meandering coastline is beautiful as it winds along toward Capitola. There are many photo opportunities along this coastline.


There are 29 miles of beaches to choose from and many are known by several names making it rather confusing. Depending on what type of beach experience you want to have, will determine which beach you select. Click here for a listing of beaches from which to choose. The Twin Lakes State Beach is one of the few places that allows bonfires on the beach. This is one of the warmest beaches and it is located near a lake-side bird sanctuary that you can explore.

More Dining:

Hank's at the Hook serves organic food and is a favorite of locals and visitors; think healthy Hof Braus. Pleasure Point Pizza has good pizza and when they offer $1 slices; the line is around the block. Don't overlook the dining at the Santa Cruz Harbor.

Places to stay:

Dream Inn is one of Santa Cruz's most iconic places to stay. With 165 rooms, waterfront views and its beach-front location it couldn't be more convenient. The property underwent a major renovation when it was purchased by Joie de Vivre Hotels. The Aquarius Restarant offers American cuisine inspired by fresh and local seafood, complemented by a regional wine list with premier ocean views. See above photo.

West Cliff Inn is a Bed & Breakfast located near the Boardwalk on the Westside. This three-story Italianate Victorian with its spacious, wraparound porch was completely renovated and features a ocean color palate. Many guest rooms have ocean views and jetted spa hot tubs. Room rates include a breakfast buffet, afternoon wine and hors d'oeuvres, evening turndown service, morning newspaper delivery, and bicycles to borrow to explore town.

Sea and Sand Inn also located near the Boardwalk, offers an ocean view with every room and selected rooms have spas. They include a complimentary breakfast, and are easy walking distance to the beach, Boardwalk and the Wharf.

Pelican Point Inn is located on East Cliff Drive, by the Santa Cruz Harbor and Twin Lakes State Beach. They offer ten guest rooms with completely equipped modern kitchenettes, bar counters with stools, refrigerators and microwave ovens, new hardwood floors throughout, and complimentary coffee and tea.

Holiday Inn Express, East offers easy access to the Boardwalk, beaches and wharf. They have a sauna and pool. A complimentary hot breakfast is included with the room.

Bella Notte is located on East Cliff Drive within walking distance of Twin Lakes Beach and the Santa Cruz Harbor. It is a new property located on the quiet side of town. They even provide a complimentary breakfast during high season.

Chaminade Resort & Spa has156 luxurious guest rooms, a spa, and dining choices from their two restaurants. If you are looking for a romantic getaway, look no further.

For a non-touristy experience and to experience life as a local, you might prefer to rent from Vaction Rentals by Owners for all of the comforts of home. Many offer beach-front places so you can indulge your inner-beach personality.

Upcoming Events:

Beach Boardwalk Summer Kickoff Event on Saturday May 22, 2010, at 1 pm with Circo Brazil performing, 5 pm Skydiver's land at Main Beach and at 5:30 pm there is a Flock of Seagulls concert.

Cava Wine Bar in Capitola is celebrating its 4th Anniversary with "Hat Party," wear an outrageous hat to win prizes. This is one cool wine bar, so stop by and join the festivities on Saturday May 22, 2010.

Wharf to Wharf Race on Sunday July 25, 2010 - you can experience six miles of seaside fun with 44 live bands and a limited runner field. The event is sold out but you can still come and enjoy the weather and bands.

Don't miss the slideshow for more photos of Santa Cruz. Click on "View Slideshow" to see more images at the conclusion of the article.

Feel free to leave a comment here or email me at with romantic travel article suggestions.

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Other articles you might enjoy:

 Places to stay and dine in Half Moon Bay, California

Things to do in Half Moon Bay, California

Discover San Mateo County's Coastside

Taste of Spain in San Francisco

World's first Armani Hotel opens in Dubai at World's Tallest Building (video, photos)

Spain's Costa del Sol: Marbella

Best Bay Area Gardens: Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park

Best of San Francisco: things to do and places to see

Perfect afternoon in Pacifica

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  • Lindsay Godfree - Cross Country Travel 5 years ago

    I love all your photos! Great information too!

  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    I love heading to San Francisco. It is an amazing town and one of great place for food and fun! I have thought of living there before, but never have actually done it. I will have to see what is available and maybe I will just have to head out there! Maybe I will just start with a rental property and then go from there.

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