Santa Cruz: beaches and suggestive views along the California coast

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Martí Micolau

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We are discovering a corner in north-central California, perhaps a little less known to international tourism but no less interesting. Along the spectacular coastal road Highway 1 we go down from San Francisco which is about an hour and twenty minutes from our destination, Santa Cruz, a town characterized by the typical climate of this area: the mist of the evening and early morning, particularly in summer, a "haze" that often turns out to be scenographic.

Visiting Santa Cruz means crossing a fun and sunny destination with coastal roads which offer splendid panoramic views, a sea suitable for surfing, good food, excellent local wines and beautiful sequoia woods in the surrounding area.

A curiosity about Santa Cruz This corner of California also brings with it a bit of Italianness in the “Via Riva Trigoso”, a tribute to the emigrants from the Ligurian town of the same name who settled here many years ago and dedicated themselves to fishing.


  • What to see in Santa Cruz
    • Downtown
    • The beaches of Santa Cruz
    • The natural parks
  • Where to shop
  • The events of the city
  • Where to eat
  • Where to sleep in Santa Cruz
  • Where it is and how to reach it

What to see in Santa Cruz

Here we are, north of the wide bay of Monterey and Big Sur, ready to know this reality for everyone, young people, adults, families and many sportsmen who come in droves to practice surfing.


We begin our visit in the long downtown Pacific Avenue, the heart of Santa Cruz. We see street performers in front of restaurants, theaters, cafes, nightclubs. Some shopkeepers strategically display their wares even outside the store to attract attention.

Pacific Avenue is an artery with a pleasant architectural impact and with the presence of trees and wide sidewalks. It is partly pedestrianized and, despite the lack of a proper cycle path, the use of bicycles is still allowed. Loud music, skateboarding and smoking are not allowed on this street.

Il Del Mar Theater (1124 Pacific Ave.) is an added value, a historic art deco style theater whose facade fully represents the typical icon of those buildings and which is best appreciated with the evening lights. Outside we see the signs with the names of the programs as the site is fully operational. The interior is colorful and inviting and the ceiling is gorgeous. Just the Del Mar theater is one of the stops of the Beach Downtown Trolley, the bus that, at a cost of 25 cents per ride, makes a few stops along the coast from May to September from noon to 20 pm. The other two stops are at the Sanctuary Exploration Center (35 Pacific Ave.) and at 124 Locust Street .

Between Pacific Avenue and Water Street, we find the Town Clock: the clock tower which stands out for its particular structure with an arched brick base, the colored dome and the waving flag; in reality this tower was part of a building that has not existed for some time, the citizens helped to finance the project to maintain the tower by buying the bricks of the base and affixing their names.

The beaches of Santa Cruz

In ten minutes by car we go down south from downtown on Beach Street where the Santa Cruz Wharf, the pier built in 1914, an active area, full of energy, where he spends some time between shops, refreshment points, a bowling green and the classic telescopes to observe the view. From here it is possible to rent boats for sea excursions, fishing and admiring the bay. Sea lions, sea otters, dolphins and whales can be spotted. The pier is open from 5 to 2 in the morning.

Near, Cowell’s Beach (109 Beach St.) is a beach where the sea has long, gentle waves, ideal for surfing newbies. Also on Beach Street, at number 400, the  Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk it is a long walkway parallel to the beach, actually an amusement park with roller coasters, historical rides, mini golf, arcade, attractions for children but also dining options and souvenir shops; is an icon of Santa Cruz.

Each attraction has its own cost so you can choose your favorite corner. The park is open every day from May to September and in the remaining months it has reduced operations with closure in December. Always open instead are the bowling alley, the games room, the mini golf and the attraction Il Regno di Nettuno. Strolling along the boardwalk admiring the ocean and beach life is truly enjoyable.

Continuing east, beyond the San Lorenzo River, the coast continues without a funfair behind it. Speaking of the river, a nice place to admire it is the green area of ​​Riverwalk Park (Along the Leevee). Seabright State Beach (15 E. Cliff Dr.), at the end of which we find the Walton lighthouse, is a long, wide beach, dog friendly, with a suggestive archway along the coast accessible or not depending on the tide.

Il Santa Cruz Harbor (135 5th Ave.) hosts several boats; from here depart boats that make tours to meet whales, fishing tours and around the coast; this port momentarily interrupts the coastal strip which resumes again at the Twin Lakes State Beach (E. Cliff Dr.) and ends at the Black Point headland. It is a popular beach for swimming, picnics and bird watching in the adjacent Schwan Lagoon

But further east, on the beach of 30th & E.Cliff Drive skilled and extreme surfers gather and the show is guaranteed. Apart from surfing emotions, this whole area of ​​the East Cliff Drive it offers beautiful ocean views that many prefer to enjoy by bike rather than by car. But also West Cliff Drive it is no exception in terms of road with panoramic views to be enjoyed alike by car, by bicycle, on foot (some on rollerblades).

within the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, a beautiful brick lighthouse, there is a very popular point of interest, the Surfing Museum (701 W. Cliff Dr.) inside which we find photographs dating back to 100 years ago, boards and articles related to this sport so important in Santa Cruz, the surf city. A legend tells of when three Hawaiian princesses brought surfing here in 1885 followed by legendary athletes like Duke Kahanamoku. In the inevitable shop you can buy books and articles related to this discipline. The museum is open from 10am to 17pm, except Wednesdays, from July until early September. In the remaining months it is operational from 12 to 16 except Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

And that's not all, the lighthouse is located in Lighthouse Field State Beach where Steamer lane it is the most popular beach for surfing and it would be advisable to be good surfers to try their hand, otherwise it is like us who watch evolutions that we will never do, which in any case give great emotions. They also explain that in winter sea lions and “monarch” butterflies with beautiful yellow-orange-brown falls colors are sighted. The coast is accessible from 7 to sunset.

Do not miss Natural Bridges State Beach (2531 W. Cliff Dr.), the location known for hosting a spectacular natural arch close to the coast, created by the erosion of water and wind (originally there were three). This is also an excellent location for monarch butterflies (October-February), seabirds, whales, seals and otters to be seen. During low tide you can walk in the pools where sea anemone crabs and colorful marine life are in the open, or at least more visible. The beach is accessible from 8 to sunset. The entrance fee is determined by the type of vehicle and the age of the driver: $ 10 for a full-size car and $ 9 if the driver is a senior aged 62 and over.

The natural parks

Coast and beach are definitely strong points in this area, but an obligatory stop for those who love nature is Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (2591 Graham Hill Rd. - Scotts Valley) in the Santa Cruz Mountains, an unmissable park a little further north with different scenarios ranging from sand dunes to green areas but above all the massive presence of redwood trees, sequoias that reach up to 84 meters in height and 5 in width.

Here you can go horseback riding, picnics, swim in the deep named pool Garden of Eden or in the clear waters of the streams, take scenic walks, trekking, climbing. Do not be surprised if someone kisses a "banana slug" in the middle of the green, a kind of very long snail with a color similar to that of the fruit; they explain to us that it is a ritual for many inhabitants of Northern California, moreover it is the mascot of the students of the local University of California. The park is open from sunrise to sunset. The entrance fee, for standard size cars, is $ 10 for an adult driver and $ 9 for a senior aged 62 and over. Caravans cannot be longer than 9.5 meters and campers no longer than 10.5.

The numerous campsites are very popular, some of which are only accessible on foot. We recommend the Henry Cowell Redwoods Graham Hill campsite with 107 pitches in the shade, in the forest, at the exit of the Graham Hill road, about 800 meters from the Santa Cruz Sandhills urban area and 8 kilometers from the city of Santa Cruz. It is essential to have maps and ask for valuable advice from the rangers you will find at Visitor Center operational from 10 to 16.

Nature and history come together at the Wilder Ranch State Park (1401 Coast Rd.) Which traces life on a farm at the end of the 800th century. The main building is a Victorian house from 1897, then there are the barns, the rodeo arena, the animal farm, lots of space for picnics and on weekends departing at 13pm, one-day tours are organized. it's time to visit other buildings too. With more than 56 kilometers of trails, you can venture into the Santa Cruz Mountains or along the coast. From the parking lot of the park you can take the Ohlone Bluff Trail which will take you to admire the splendid views along the coast.

Another beautiful corner of nature is theArboretum & Botanic Garden (1490 High St.) within the University of California. There are thousands of plant specimens; we recognize lilac, tea tree, heather, manuka, eucalyptus and yucca that we find together with the others in the sections called “gardens” of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, California and Aromatic. The nice thing is that there are always plants in bloom all year round and then bird-watchers can observe many birds including some species of hawk, dove, eagle, crows, herons, hummingbirds and robins.

The park is open every day from 9am to 17pm, except Thanksgiving, and December 25-28. Tickets cost $ 5 for adults and $ 2 for ages 6-17. Admission is free on the first Tuesday of each month. Instructor-led tours cost $ 10. It may be interesting to stop at the Gift & Garden Shop open daily from 10 to 16.


A short distance from the botanical garden we conclude our tour of Santa Cruz at the Holy Cross Church (126 High St.), a Catholic church next to a smaller one dating back to the times of the Franciscan missions with a relaxing and peaceful atmosphere. Inside there are beautiful decorations and painted glass windows. There is also an unusual collection of various models of cassocks worn by prelates. Do not miss the visit to the palm garden, the fountain and the patio. The building has a gift shop.

Where to shop

If you love to do Shopping Pacific Avenue is the way to go. But then here in Santa Cruz we cannot fail to visit a shop that "talks" about surfing and then we point out Freeline Surf Shop (821 41st St.) which rents surfboards, bodyboards and wetsuits, everything you need to try your hand at local sport, even with customization of the boards and accessories.

The events of the city

Various events take place in the city throughout the year. In February il Clam Chowder Cook Off at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk (400 Beach St.) is a free event with cooking competitions, chefs at work, and the sale of clam chowder (clam chowder with diced potatoes, onions, celery and parsley). Then Japanese culture is featured in June with the event Japanese Cultural Fair at Mission Park Plaza (103 Emmett St.) which expresses itself through food stalls, tea ceremony, kimono workshops, floral decorations, dancing, music, arts and crafts. The next two events are about Mexican culture.

Il Taco & Tequila Festival in August involves the San Lorenzo Park (137 Dakota St.) in the downtown which houses food stalls, craft beer, live music, art and crafts; tacos and tequila are the protagonists of the event with tastings for everyone and sales but it should be borne in mind that to taste alcoholic beverages you must be 21 years old. The entrance ticket costs $ 10 for ages 12 and up.

In September il Mole & Mariachi Festival at the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park (144 School St.) in downtown is an event the proceeds of which are used for educational programs, visitor services and renovations of the Santa Cruz Mission. Food vendors, stalls, mariachis, folk dancers, lotteries, children's activities, competitions and tastings of mole (salsa with peppers, spices, chocolate and dried fruit) bring this event to life. It is said that the best bulk in the city is produced here, in fact it can be interesting to buy it.

Also in September, the free event takes place at the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church in downtown (223 Church St.) Live Like a Greek with authentic Greek cuisine (barbeque food and meat on the spit over the fire), live music, dancing and shopping that pleasantly take us to Hellenic land. While you are here for the event you should visit the church with its rich colors especially in the altar area, the iconography and the interior decorations.

THEO’Neill Coldwater Classic Contest is a surfing competition that takes place in October or November at Steamer Lane beach (700 W. Cliff Dr.). It is almost obvious to say how appealing the event is. Along the boardwalk (400 Beach St.) in November the Santa Cruz Sea Glass Ocean Art Festival, an event where we find unique works by American artists who create works of art with sea glass, ceramic objects, plates, vases, frames and above all jewels. The entrance fee for adults is $ 5. 10% will be donated to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The period Christmassy is filled with events like Surfing Santa, Boardwalk Holiday Ice, Creative Crafting, Breakfast with Santa, Downtown Holiday Parade, Old Fashioned Christmas Tea and Caroling Under the Stars, all to create the right atmosphere.

Where to eat

We report some restaurants to choose from. A place with a very affordable cost, with a style and casual clothing is the Chill Out Cafe (860 41st Ave.) which features sandwiches, soups, salads and smoothies and Mexican touches with delicious burritos. The Santa Cruz Diner (909 Ocean St.) is another affordable casual restaurant that is also popular with cooking expert Guy Fieri. The restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, serves sandwiches, pasta, meat, fish, omelettes, soups, purée, spring rolls, smoothies and banana split, among many other options. Possibility of vegetarian dishes and to have breakfast all day.

At an average price we point out theHula’s Island Grill & Tiki Room (221 Cathcart St.) with a lively atmosphere and tropical decor. The restaurant offers cocktails and dishes that blend American-tropical flavors. In addition to vegan and gluten-free dishes you can order tacos, cajun burger, pineapple rice, cajun shrimp in cesar salad, shrimp rolls with crispy coconut, shredded roast pork with soy glaze, fish soup with coconut, ginger and noodles , certainly interesting dishes, not common for us and therefore worth trying.

In a casual atmosphere with a beautiful view of the yacht harbor and Monterey Bay thanks to the large windows, the Johnny’s Harborside (493 Lake Ave.) with medium to high prices, it offers seasonal, fresh and local ingredients, particularly fish but also steaks, salads and sandwiches. Sunday brunch is possible. Here the “fresh catch made your way” formula is applied which allows you to choose the type of fish proposed from the menu and decide the cooking method.

Where to sleep in Santa Cruz

West Cliff Inn

We point out some structures in which to stay overnight. L'Holiday Inn Express & Suites (1410 Ocean St.) is approximately 2 miles from the boardwalk and 15 minutes from Pacific Avenue. The rooms and suites are equipped with wi-fi, refrigerator, microwave and coffee maker. The price includes breakfast. The hotel features an outdoor heated swimming pool, fitness center, meeting room and business center.

In a historic Victorian house overlooking the north shore of Monterey Bay, close to the boardwalk and Pacific Avenue is located Boca del Cielo Inn (118 1st st.) With its family atmosphere, a generous homemade breakfast with tortillas, omelets, eggs, crepes and vegetarian options. The rooms have Mexican motifs, rich colors, antique furnishings, private bathrooms, wi-fi and some have a fireplace. Select second-floor rooms offer views of the boardwalk, pier, and beach. Coffee, drinks, sandwiches, fruit, salads and snacks are available at the patio café from 7.30am to 17pm.

Il West Cliff Inn (174 W. Cliff Dr.) is a Victorian B&B with coast-inspired decor, located on a cliff between Cowell's beach and the Boardwalk. Many rooms have ocean views and whirlpool tubs. Buffet breakfast is included in the price. Upon request, dinner is prepared. Drinks are available all day. Customers are offered newspaper in the lobby each morning, local calls and wi-fi are free, there is on-site parking, and books and games are available.

Search for a hotel in Santa Cruz

Where it is and how to reach it

To reach the city, usually theairport of reference is the international one of San Francisco (Hwy101) about an hour and 10 minutes from Santa Cruz but there is also the San Jose airport (1701 Airport Blvd.) at 40 minutes. If you prefer to travel by train or bus in the city there is the station railway Amtrak and Greyhound buses both at Metro Center Station (920 Pacific Ave. - downtown). The main roads leading to Santa Cruz are there Highway 1 which runs along the Pacific Ocean while State Route 17 develops between Santa Cruz and the San Francisco Bay area (San Jose).

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