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The Best of Santa Cruz, California

Colleen M. Alley

Main beach and boardwalk, photo by Colleen

Sometimes I think Santa Cruz is as much about a style of living or a state of mind as it is a town. It has a "progressive" city council with a left leaning bent, and the town has a reputation as a center of counter culture. One of the benefits of this is that artists in all different media are attracted to the town, and sell their work at many local venues and art fairs.

Santa Cruz is a very casual place - people wear flip-flop sandals, shorts, and Hawaiian shirts year round to just about every event - and fit in! Of course, the large population of surfers who ride the waves at Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point have a little something to do with the laid back town atmosphere. If you've heard of O'Neill's surfboards and wetsuits, Santa Cruzan Jack O'Neill invented the wetsuit and his company is headquartered here.

Santa Cruz is a somewhat small town (pop. about 55,000) on Monterey Bay on the coast of California, approximately 60 miles south of San Francisco. It's one of the original 21 Mission towns settled by Spanish Catholic priests in the 1700's.

The weather is temperate; rarely warmer than 80-85 degrees or colder than 35-40 degrees.

Santa Cruz has wide and clean white sand beaches, just perfect for beachcombing, sunbathing, volleyball, or Frisbee. You'll see many sailboats with colorful spinnakers slipping out of the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor. Wednesday nights during summer you can watch the yacht races on the bay.

Located in the redwoods on hills overlooking the city and the bay is the University of California Santa Cruz - one of the most beautiful campuses of the University of California system.

"You'll catch 'em surfin' at Del Mar. Ventura County Line. Santa Cruz and Trestles.
Australia's Narabine. All over Manhattan, and down Doheny way.
Ev'rybody's gone surfin'. Surfin' U.S.A."
- - Brian Wilson, Beach Boys, 1963 - -

How to get to Santa Cruz

If you're coming from the direction of the San Francisco Bay Area, you have three choices:

  • Highway 280 South to 880/17 South (four-lane highway through the Santa Cruz Mountains)
  • Highway 280 South to Highway 9 (two-lane highway through the Santa Cruz Mountains)
  • Highway 1 South (mostly two-lane highway along the Pacific Ocean)

All three are scenic drives, and you won't go wrong with any of the routes. If you choose option 1 on a weekend (especially during summer), be sure to get an early start as the road is bumper to bumper by about 10am. Plan on about an hour and a half drive from San Francisco to Santa Cruz; plus about thirty minutes if you drive the coast route.

Coming from Monterey or the Central Valley, follow the signs from 101 to Highway 1 North for Santa Cruz.

Touring Santa Cruz

Beach Boardwalk

Many people think of the Beach Boardwalk when they think of Santa Cruz. The Boardwalk at 400 Beach Street has a large and fascinating penny arcade, many amusement park rides (including quite a few for small children), clothing and souvenir shops, and food stands with "amusement park food" like salt water taffy, cotton candy and candy apples from the Marini family. (My first job was making cotton candy at Marini's during the summer!) The Boardwalk also has booths selling delicious local treats like deep fried artichoke hearts from nearby Castroville and freshly made clam chowder.

Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf

Just up the street from the Boardwalk is the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. If you're looking for fresh seafood - cooked or fresh off the boat - this is the place. Most of the restaurants have been here for years, and were started by local families who originally made their living solely from fishing. These families still have seafood stands where you can buy freshly caught fish. Check out Carniglia's, Stagnaro Brothers, Gilda's, and the Miramar. A pleasant side benefit of dining on the wharf is the beautiful views out the wide windows. On the north side of the wharf you'll see Lighthouse Point; facing south is the Main Beach, Boardwalk and the south coast.

If you walk to the end of the wharf, you'll be greeted by the barks of sea lions who "hang out" along the wharf's low wooden beams. They're lively and noisy, and sometimes appear to play to the crowds watching them!

Natural Bridges State Park

The drive from the Wharf north to Natural Bridges State Park is one of the most scenic routes in town. On West Cliff Drive you'll pass gorgeous Victorian homes and B&B's on one side and the Surfing Museum (in the old lighthouse) and crashing waves against ice plant covered cliffs on the other. Watch out for surfers crossing the road!

Downtown Santa Cruz

Pacific Avenue is Santa Cruz's "downtown." Years ago it was renamed the "Pacific Garden Mall," and is lined with shops, bars, restaurants and a movie theatre. There are a few generic "mall stores" like Gap and Starbucks, but most of the shops are small, quirky, and locally owned. (Peet's Coffee is way better than Starbucks!) You'll still see a vacant lot or two on Pacific Avenue - damaged brick buildings from the 1989 magnitude 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake were razed immediately afterwards and no new buildings have gone up yet. (The epicenter was only 6 miles away in the middle of Nisene Marks State Park.)

Be warned that Santa Cruz is "the last holdout of the hippie culture," and downtown is where they like to hangout. You'll see panhandlers and folks wearing original 1960's tie-dyed clothing. There's a street musician or two on every block - although few are good enough to entice me to tip them!

Bookshop Santa Cruz at 1520 Pacific Avenue is the largest independent bookstore in the area. It carries a wide variety of new books, magazines and newspapers. Next door to BSC is Chocolate - a dessert bar/cafe with outdoor tables that's the perfect spot to relax with a gelato or a fantastic Italian hot chocolate. Yum!

Lulu Carpenters at 1545 Pacific Avenue is a small and casual cafe serving homemade soups, sandwiches, some vegetarian quiches and coffee drinks. They have a few tables out front facing Pacific Avenue; their back patio is filled with greenery and is quiet and peaceful.

For a delicious Martini, drift in to Clouds Downtown at 110 Church Street. It's a beautifully decorated bar and restaurant serving a variety of very good meals! We've always been pleased with the food, the atmosphere, and the service at Clouds. It's on the high end of the dining scale, at $15+/person for lunch.

Logos Books and Records at 1117 Pacific Avenue is where you'll find some new but mostly used books, music albums, CD's, DVD's and rare books and music. My dad was searching for weeks for a copy of Nina Simone's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" on CD, and finally found it at Logos.

In the mood for a movie? Check out what's on at the Nickelodeon at 210 Lincoln Street downtown. "The Nick" is Santa Cruz's "art house" movie theatre, playing mostly foreign and independent films.

A description of downtown wouldn't be complete without a mention of The Catalyst at 1011 Pacific Avenue. The Catalyst has been around for years and years (I've been going there since I was a teenager!) and is the biggest local live venue for all musical genres, but mostly rock.

There are many historical Victorian homes on the streets to the west of Pacific Avenue. Walnut Street in particular has several wonderfully maintained and colorful "painted ladies" (Victorians) with the Santa Cruz Historical Society descriptive oval plaque on them. The street is lined with mature sycamore trees that meet overhead, and keep the street cool and shady almost year round.

Capitola Village

Head south to Capitola Village ...

It started off about 150 years ago as "Camp Capitola" - a resort-type refuge from the Central Valley's summer heat. There are still a few Victorians in the lower village and on Depot Hill overlooking the town. (Some have been turned into B&B's.) Today there are shops, restaurants and nightclubs along the Esplanade. Parking can be difficult to find - and expensive. Meters run from 8am to 8pm, take only quarters, and are $1.00/hour. There are two (metered) city-run parking lots - follow the overhead banner signs in the village to find them.

Capitola beach is great for families - it's kept clean of seaweed and other flotsam, and there are outdoor showers and enclosed public bathrooms near the old Capitola Theatre. You'll often see beginner surfers trying their luck on the mini-waves by the breakwater jetty.

The legendary Capitola Venetian (hotel/condo) is right on the beach and vies with another hotel just across from it near the wharf - the Harbor Light.

To best enjoy the view of Monterey Bay while drinking and/or dining, walk to the end of the Capitola Wharf to The Wharf House restaurant. During the summer season there's live music on the deck on weekend afternoons. Usually it's rock or blues on Saturdays and jazz on Sundays. (They serve great breakfasts here, too!) You can fish from the Capitola municipal wharf without a license. The bait shop on the pier also rents kayaks and boats.

The best ice cream in Capitola is at Polar Bear at the corner of the Esplanade and San Jose Avenue. Pizza My Heart sells delicious thin crust New York style pizza by the slice.

The Craft Gallery offers handmade ceramics, sculptures, photographs, paintings, jewelry and other miscellaneous gift items. Rainbow's End sells a variety of novelty items such as dashboard hula dancers, plastic flamingo drink stirrers, and brightly colored wind socks.


There are plenty of hiking trails locally, such as at Harvey West municipal park (watch out for the bright yellow banana slugs on the trails!), Henry Cowell Redwoods, Big Basin and the Forest of Nisene Marks state parks.

Hiking in Nisene Marks state park:

Big Basin state park:

Henry Cowell Redwoods state park

Harvey West municipal park

If you're in the Big Basin area of Felton/Highway 9, the steam train at Roaring Camp  on Graham Hill Road recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. The train goes through beautiful forests of redwoods up to the top of Bear Mountain. I've seen people getting married in the "cathedral grove" of trees. Riding the train on a hot summer's day is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon with friends and family. Roaring Camp offers other special events during the year; check their calendar on the website. Free entrance to the park; there is a parking fee.

Other Sights and Things to Do

See the remains of a cement ship - grounded in the bay; it's accessible via Seacliff State Park.

Visit the Mystery Spot: "Within the Mystery Spot you will be baffled as the laws of physics and gravity cease to exist."

See the Monarch butterflies at Natural Bridges State Park.

Go whale watching as California Gray Whales migrate up and down the coast, or see other species feed in the Bay's outer waters.

Santa Cruz is home to some excellent wineries, including Ahlgren (wonderful non-oaky Chardonnay), Cinnabar (delicious cabernet-merlot blend), and Burrell School Vineyards (tasty merlot). There are a few wine tasting rooms in town, or check the link for winery addresses.

Visit Soquel and Aptos villages for antiques and collectibles. My favorite place to browse is The Village Fair - lots of different vendors in one large building.

If you're in town during the season, do not miss a performance by Shakespeare Santa Cruz! In 2003, friends and I saw a fantastic "Hamlet" during a sunny afternoon at SSC's outdoor theatre on the UCSC campus.

On weekends you can find just about anything at the Skyview drive-in Flea Market at 2240-2260 Soquel Drive.

Best Places to Eat

Best Views

Crow's Nest Restaurant
Dine overlooking the yacht harbor at the Crow's Nest Restaurant. Great views, good food and service; expect to pay about $35/person for dinner without liquor. On weekend nights there's live music or a comic headlining upstairs in the bar.

616 Atlantic Avenue, tel: 831-426-3736
On the other side of the yacht harbor, Aldo's is well known locally for its hearty and delicious breakfasts, although they also serve other meals.

Shadowbrook is a Capitola landmark, well known for its elegant dark wood paneled bar with live music, dining rooms on a variety of levels on a hillside overlooking Soquel Creek, and its excellent food. Expect to pay $40+/person for dinner without liquor.

Best Vegetarian

Dharma's in Capitola has a large and airy dining room, with a wide variety of tasty vegetarian and vegan menu options. Order at the counter and wait for your name to be called. About $12/person for lunch or dinner.

Best Steaks

303 Soquel Avenue, tel: 831-426-7770
The Hindquarter is a meat lover's paradise. Good service and prices.

Portola House
3326 Portola Drive, tel: 831-476-2733
Portola House is my family's favorite steakhouse; partly because it's in the neighborhood but mostly because it has great food.

Best Italian Food

Cafe Mare
Cafe Mare in downtown Santa Cruz has an authentically Italian menu, with consistently excellent food and service. See my review on Slow Travel.

Best Mexican Food

We usually eat at Tampico Kitchen in Santa Cruz, or Little Tampico in Soquel or El Toro Bravo in Capitola, but honestly - none of these places has "great" Mexican food. They're all good, but not outstanding. If you find The Best Mexican Food in Santa Cruz, tell me where!

Best Bakeries

Santa Cruz: Hoffman's at 1102 Pacific Avenue

Capitola: Gayle's Bakery, www.capitola.com/gayles.html

Best Ice Cream

Santa Cruz: Marianne's at 1020 Ocean Street

Capitola: Polar Bear, Capitola Village

Vacation Rentals

(I haven't personally used any of these sites.)



Check the local entertainment paper - The Good Times - for town and on-campus events. It's issued weekly on Thursdays.

The local daily newspaper is the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

You can read more about Santa Cruz here

When Colleen is not traveling, she can usually be found either reading about travel or writing about it.

© Colleen M. Alley, 2004

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