Located on the north end of Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz is the perfect getaway within easy reach of San Francisco, at less than two hours' drive south. A magnet for artists and writers, surfers and beach-lovers, Santa Cruz is stacked with history, arts, culture, wine and flair for the wild and wonderful. Stroll the beach boardwalk, jump into a game of beach volleyball or time your getaway to dive into the film or wine festivals.
The drive to Santa Cruz is a quick slide inland and down to Monterey Bay once you're out of San Francisco, via US-101 S or I-280 S. Just head toward San Jose, but you'll bend southwest around the city. Pass through Cupertino and turn onto CA-17 S at Los Gatos. That will carry you all the way into Santa Cruz.
For another route, consider taking CA-1 all the way down the coast from the Bay to Santa Cruz. It's the stuff of roadtripping legend. There are countless photo-worthy, leg-stretching stops along the way. You'll no doubt know them when you see them.
The Ocean Pacific Lodge is only five minutes' stroll from the beach. In case you need to know anything more, this spot serves up comfort with contemporary design. It's smoke-free and is within three blocks of the historic Santa Cruz Wharf, Beach and Boardwalk. Continental breakfast and Wi-Fi flow freely. There's an outdoor pool and hot tub, too.
The Seaway Inn offers a charming mashup of old-school beach town motel and contemporary touches. The Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Wharf and Beach fun in the sun are all within easy reach, being only a one-minute walk away. The Seaway Inn racks up the some of the best raves from guests in all Santa Cruz for its staff friendliness and room cleanliness besides, of course, the killer location.
The Dream Inn knows its in a cool beach town with character and makes that clear to all its guests, too, with surf boards hanging like wall art and, well, every other amazing touch throughout the place. The vibe in this place is fresh, fun and couldn't be beachier-keen. You can practically fall out your door onto the beach, and rooms have views of the wharf, seagulls and salty ocean horizon. The price is steeper than other places, but for great reasons.
The Saturn Cafe runs the gamut of good stuff, from burgers and meat-filled sammiches to veg and vegan. The breakfast is worth a stop for sure, but the range of salads, wraps, and fresh and light delights is wide and well worth putting on your list of eats for the trip.
The Crow's Nest might well be the most reviewed restaurant in town, and because locals and travelers alike love to rave about it. It's open 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., so hit it up when the time feels right. You can start with the shrimp and crab omellete and boat watch, move through lunch into happy hour and watch the sun set. It's a pricier spot than, say, the pub or taco cart, true enough. But this "flagship restaurant of California" is worth a look, if you've got a special meal in mind.
The Buttery! It's a breakfast must-do. The bakery and cafe satisfies foodie dreams you didn't know you had, and for prices that feel good. The burgers get notice here, too, but we'd say start with breakfast, maybe even grab some extra pastries to munch when you hit the boardwalk and see where the day leads you when it's burger time.
Santa Cruz Beach is the heart of history and fun in the sun around here. You can hang out on the beach and watch all day to see the real vibe of this place, with the surfers and other water sports enthusiasts, beach volleyballers, boardwalk games and rides ... beach action at its best happens in iconic Santa Cruz.
The Santa Cruz Wharf is fantastic for a stroll and seeing what marine life and history are about. You can grab fistfuls of sweets at the candy shop, watch seals do what they do (honestly, that's mostly lie around in the sun, but it's still fascinating while you lick on an ice cream cone), and walk the history of fishermen and sea-based industry. There are plenty of shops and restaurants, too, when you want to step in out of the sun and take a break.
The Surfing Museum in Santa Cruz is perfect, because it's small enough to let you pop in, get the gist of some cool and iconic history and not feel like you have to spend the day to make your admission fee worthwhile. And it's in a lighthouse, which adds some weird and awesome appeal. Hit up the museum, learn how surfing came to be the thing it is, check out the lighthouse and view of the sea. Well worth part of a morning.
Stagnaro Sport Fishing Charters and Whale Watching Cruises is the top crew on the seas for riding the swells and spotting sea life in the Santa Cruz end of Monterey Bay. Getting on one of these boats is a fantastic way to experience the seas without having to do any of the work. If you're prone to motion sickness, ready yourself and take the plunge. This is a unique experience you won't want to miss.
Nothing brings out the kid in us like strolling a boardwalk with cotton candy in hand and playing carnival games. And the people watching on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk is pretty fun, too. Hop onto some rides, drop some quarters in the 1980s video game arcade, munch on powdery funnel cake. This is old-school seaside amusement park thrills at its best.