How to Spend a Perfect Weekend in Santa Cruz
Anyone who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s will almost certainly have the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk commercials stamped on their subconscious, alongside their best friend’s landline. But Santa Cruz is much more than a West Coast Coney Island. (The Boardwalk, incidentally, is California’s oldest amusement park and is a fine place to ride a historic roller coaster with an ocean view.)
Santa Cruz, a city of some 60,000, defies easy categorization. A college town (go Banana Slugs!) and a world class surfing destination, it’s within commuting distance of Silicon Valley. And yet somehow it still manages to feel hidden away.
Hugging the northern lip of the scallop shell-shaped Monterey Bay, travelers can reach Santa Cruz via a dreamy coastal drive on California’s Highway 1, or rounding vertiginous curves through the Redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Technically the beginning of the Central Coast, Santa Cruz has been influenced by Silicon Valley without actually becoming a part of it; it is its own county and decidedly has its own vibe. This is a place where, daily and unironically, you’ll see a vintage Volkswagen Vanagon parked next to a Tesla, with surfboards extending from both.
As a former Bay Area kid, I’ve been coming to Santa Cruz for as long as I can remember: Memories of foggy summer days ambling along the Boardwalk with a high-school best friend meld with images of late-night veggie burgers and shakes after backpacking trips in Big Sur. But what once felt like a quirky, crunchy pit stop is now one of my favorite weekend destinations from my home in San Francisco — for unbeatable outdoor adventures, both on land and in the water, a standout live music scene, and excellent food and drink options that can stand up to its higher profile neighbors to the north and south.
Reportedly one of the first places surfed on the mainland, Santa Cruz has spawned more than a few world-class professional surfers and boasts more than 10 surf breaks, with spots for all levels. Popular go-tos include Cowell’s, a cruisey, accessible break best for beginners and beloved by longboarders; Steamer Lane, a famous spot in both Santa Cruz and California at large; and Pleasure Point, a beloved local wave on the city’s sleepy eastern side.
The Santa Cruz surf scene is somewhat notorious for a strong locals-only attitude, but tensions can be avoided by respecting the rules, which are helpfully inscribed on signage mounted atop the cliffs above Steamers and Pleasure Point — alongside monuments to fallen surfer comrades. (In brief: Respect the lineup and don’t be a kook.)
Take the opportunity to learn from local experts at outfits like Surf School Santa Cruz, which offers private surf instruction and group lessons (advanced booking is recommended). If you’re ready to shred on your own and are in need of a board, surf shops, many with rental options, abound, from Cowell’s Surf Shop, right off the water, to the Traveler Surf Club, on the Eastside. The Midtown Surf Shop + Coffee Bar is another worthwhile destination for your gear needs; in addition to boards, wet suits, leashes and fins, they’ve got a nice selection of clothing, gifts, a surfboard shaper (available to rent for $15 per hour) and a cafe serving Verve coffee.
If you’re more comfortable as a spectator, or looking for inspiration, then check out the O’Neill Coldwater Classic, a World Surf League qualifying competition that’s returning to Steamer Lane Nov. 15-19 for the first time since 2015.
While surfing may be king in Santa Cruz, there are other great ways to get in the water, including stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking and swimming, plus ample beaches for beach volleyball, bonfires and, naturally, lounging. And don’t forget about the many opportunities for land-based adventures: Santa Cruz is a famous hub for mountain biking, with trails snaking along the coast and through the surrounding mountains, and is a hiking and camping destination, too, particularly in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which is currently open for limited day-use access following 2020’s C.Z.U. Lightning Complex fires.
Where to stay
There are ample lodging options in Santa Cruz, including Airbnbs and low-key beach motels. The Dream Inn is the city’s only beachfront accommodation; renovated in 2017 in a retro surfer-kitsch style (the hotel’s Jack O’Neill Restaurant got a refresh in 2019), the hotel has 165 rooms (from $299), all of which have an ocean view. The pool deck overhangs Cowell’s Beach, with stairs leading directly to the sand, making for unparalleled ocean and surfing access. Hearing the waves (and the barks of sea lions) from bed is quite nice, too.
For a mountainside retreat that’s still close to downtown Santa Cruz, Chaminade Resort & Spa has 200 rooms (from $359) and is on 300 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains, with direct access to hiking trails. Also on offer are tennis, pickleball, disc golf and Santa Cruz’s only full-service day spa, plus panoramic views of the Monterey Bay from the hotel’s restaurant — fittingly called The View. The property completed a major renovation in 2020 and completed a new pool area in 2022 that includes two pools, cabanas, a bar and a food truck on weekends.