Santa Cruz, California: An Insider’s Guide

Santa Cruz, CA

As someone who lived in Santa Cruz for over four years, I feel as though I discovered much of what it has to offer and found many places outside the normal “tourist” agenda.  Here is the insider’s guide to visiting Santa Cruz!

Santa Cruz Food & Drink
  • 515 Kitchen & Cocktails: A great spot for any occasion! This is my favorite place to go out to in Santa Cruz, whether it is for food or just drinks.  Very accommodating to those with dietary restrictions and always have at least one main dish (and many apps/sides) that is or can easily be made vegan.
  • Cafe Gratitude: Wonderful, relaxed atmosphere that makes this one of my top spots for lunch out!  100% vegan menu that includes a variety of food, smoothies, drinks, and desserts.  Good portion of the menu is raw vegan as well.
  • Walnut Avenue Cafe: Great spot for brunch, although there is always a wait as this is a popular place.  Vegetarian and vegan friendly.
  • Saturn Cafe: One of the few places with delicious food that is open until very late at night!  Great for anything from brunch to late night snacks and has a very cheerful staff.  Menu is  entirely vegetarian and a good portion of it is vegan.
  • Gabriella Cafe: A more high end dining experience, this cute cafe offers a charming atmosphere to dine in.  Very delicious food, makes for a great date night choice!
  • Red Room: If you like dive bars, then this is your place! Inside is features almost everything in red (including the lighting) and offers the standard dive bar selection of drinks.  Fun place for a low key night with friends.  Sometimes referred to as the “Lower Red” (see next entry for why).
  • The Red: In the same building as the Red Room, but upstairs leading to it sometimes being called the “Upper Red”.  Part lounge bar, part dining room, this place has amazing food and drinks!  Another wonderful spot for a date night.  The groups of couches in the lounge area are ideal for groups.
  • Penny’s Ice Creamery: Delicious ice cream and sorbet made in the store with many ingredients from local vendors!  Along with the always present Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream and chocolate sorbet, the flavors constantly change depending on what ingredients are in season.  Come here to try some very unique and delicious flavors!
  • Betty’s Burgers: One of the best burger places in town! They also offer “adult” (spiked) milkshakes.  There are several locations of this local chain.
  • Burger.: Another great burger place with quirky atmosphere and menu! Also offers a great selection of brews.
  • Cafe Cruz: One of my top picks for a nice meal out, Cafe Cruz is simply delicious!  With a very friendly, accommodating staff, I have never had a bad dining experience here.
  • Cafe Brasil: One of the most popular weekend brunch spots in Santa Cruz, there will always be a wait!  This crowded restaurant lives up to the hype with amazing Brasilian cuisine.
  • Harbor Cafe: You might have guessed by now that Santa Cruz is a town that loves brunch!  Harbor Cafe is another great spot for it and there is almost always a wait.  Parking can be a bit tough, but it is a short stroll down to the beach if you want to walk off some of that food afterwards.  Dog friendly patio.
  • Los Pericos: My favorite Mexican food joint in town!  Perfect for a quick, filling, tasty bite!
Santa Cruz Attractions:
  • Panther Beach: My favorite beach in the area, this one is a bit of a drive out of town but well worth the trek! With a steep climb down a hillside to get to the beach, this isn’t for the spot for those who have mobility issues.  Be warned that this is rumored to be a nude beach and I have seen a few old men doing naked yoga before, so it does happen!
  • Natural Bridges State Beach: Great for larger groups, picnics, or just hanging out on a nice day this beach can get crowded.  It is walkable from the Boardwalk and you can stroll by all the big houses with ocean views.
  • Seabright Beach: A frequent spot for me since it is a bit closer to town than Panther Beach, Seabright is a lovely spot for relaxing and even allows BBQ’s and bonfires! This is also the beach many people flock to on July 4th to watch others set off (illegal) fireworks.
  • Hiking on UCSC campus: With plenty of choices amongst trails to hike on the beautiful UCSC campus, there is sure to be one for everyone!  Personally, I recommend the trails in Pogonip, which you can access from Campus.  The view along Glen Coolidge Drive are stunning, on a clear day you can see the entire town as well as Monterrey all the way across the bay.
  • The Boardwalk: Honestly, I really dislike the Boardwalk and the beach surrounding it.  It is often too crowded for my liking, but there are a few redeeming features.  First, in the summer there is usually free live music every Friday night.  Second, there are often fun events held there every few months such as the Chocolate Festival or Clam Chowder Cook Off.
  • Pacific Avenue: The heart of Santa Cruz, this main street and its surround blocks offer a top selection of places to eat, shop, and hang out.  One of my favorite activities is to meet friends to grab a meal or drink then stroll around and people watch or window shop.  There are also several cool, old style theaters here that have fun features or events.
Santa Cruz Accommodations
  • Airbnb has some great listing for Santa Cruz and the surrounding area
Getting Around Santa Cruz
  • Driving: With cheap and ample parking downtown, driving is a good option.  It is easier to get to the places you want to go and usually takes less time.
  • Bus: Santa Cruz has a fairly good bus system which can take you almost anywhere you want to go.  This includes a bus run by Amtrak that takes you over Highway 17 and can be used to go to and from Santa Cruz.
  • Walking: If you’re sticking to attractions that are all in the same area, walking is a nice alternative and when the weather is good can be quite enjoyable!
  • Biking: Very popular among residents, biking around Santa Cruz is fairly easy and there are various shops where you can rent bikes during tourist season.  Be prepared that there are some steep hills in Santa Cruz, including the one going up to UCSC campus!
General Tips for Santa Cruz
  • Santa Cruz will be the most crowded from May through August due to nice weather.
  • Don’t visit on graduation weekend for UCSC, there will be no place to stay and everything will be crowded with celebrating families and newly minted grads.
  • Weekdays in late June through early September will be less crowded as most students will be on summer break and most tourists visit on the weekend.
  • If you enjoy rainy weather, Santa Cruz is the perfect place to visit in the fall and winter months, especially during UCSC’s winter break as most students will be gone.
  • Watch out for traffic on Highway 17, it will almost always be bad.  This is a tough drive for anyone not thoroughly familiar with the narrow road’s twists and turns, especially in bad weather. Be safe!

Hi, I'm Heather! By age 17, I had visited all seven continents and fully developed an obsession with traveling. I feel most alive when I'm learning about other countries and cultures, meeting locals, and discovering beautiful places. My goal of this site is to help you get the most out of your adventures!

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Activity, Food, Personal, Tips