Surfers march toward the early morning tides like boyish priests to an altar... Although it's not quite as heavy as all of that, this is a perfect time for Lesson One: People in Santa Cruz are SO
serious about their surf. And you can probably see why: Decent waves kick up early, pounding against rocky cliffs that hug the city's lengthy shores. And once you've claimed your turf, it's
yours...for a while. But beware: beneath the hippie vibes, it can be a real turf war, so just be respectful where you drop in your surfboard and you'll find your groove—and maybe get props while
you're at it. Plus, pop-up surf shops offer surfing and standup paddleboarding rentals and lessons all day long, so if you need equipment or a refresher, you've got it.
Head to the Hills
But the other outdoorsy draws are the mountain biking (MTB), skateboarding, and hiking. Google "Santa Cruz" and you'll find hits on these activities, plus high-tech businesses that drive these industries, like Bell Helmets, Fox, Giro, and Silicon Valley satellites—even before you spot a tourism site in the search results. Now that's my kind of city!
It's one of the mountain biking capitals of the U.S.—and even the world. So it's no surprise that mountain bikes can be rented at any bike shop in Santa Cruz or nearby mecca Aptos, including the world famous Santa Cruz Bicycles, which is the company logo you'll see every-single-where representing the entire city. But places like Epicenter Cycling also have the process down for you and your family to road cycle or MTB with all the gear and snacks and tips you need. Plus they're right next to loads of popular single-track trails, in addition to having convenient locations throughout the area.
Beautiful, beginner-friendly, multi-use trails (like the newly built Emma McCrary Trail) with smaller features and switchbacks criss-cross endless—I really do mean endless—intermediate and pro trails with bermed corners, fast and flowy spots, big drops and logs galore, and plenty of built parks too, giving visitors and locals alike spoils of choices on how to kick up some dirt. Do be surprised if you recognize someone on the trail or the road s they blink by, because there are professional skaters and MTBers tacked from end to end in Santa Cruz.
Most of Santa Cruz seems like a laidback playground, where surfers, mountain bikers, hikers, and just-feel-gooders can explore and enjoy the outdoor sports, great foodie culture, and its breweries, wineries, and distilleries. It's an incredibly welcoming vibe. A favorite area to post up for dinner is the West End Tap & Kitchen, which is replete with phenomenal dishes like steak, wild salmon, and herbed duck fat popcorn. The beers are also top flight, of course, with almost every style to choose from, from West End Amber to Dark to Wheat, plus other local brewers' best picks and local fine wines as well. Best part is, the bar hopping is easy. There is another brewery and winery within the same complex. It's easy to get a cab or Uber from the area too.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: Yes, it's a tourist trap, but if you want a few hours of mini golf, rollercoasters, and eating rock candy while strolling and listening to children having a blast, this is a great day stop. Plus Downtown Santa Cruz is a sleepy, adorable escape with bustling hipster coffee shops—with incredible baked goods from local favorite Manresa Bakery—plus diners, knick-knack shops, skater shoe stores, O'Neil Surfboards, and national clothing chains like Urban Outfitters.
The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History at the McPherson Center is already so affordable, at $5 for adults, but the first Friday of every month it opens its doors for free all day.
Don't get it twisted: Mornings are more like in San Francisco than in Los Angeles: So they'll start out foggy and cool, but worry not, as the clouds tend to burn away by noon or 1 pm. So be prepared and bring warm, and waterproof layers that you can peel off as the sunny paradise begins to unfold.
Everything from the modern-meets-70s-retro Dream Inn Hotel right on the water, which is part of the Joie de Vivre Boutique Hotels, and the chic, woodsy-meets-airy Hotel Paradox; to the Best Western Plus to camping to Hi-Santa Cruz, a member of Hostelling International, there are plenty of options for every budget. And nothing is more than a 20-25 minute drive to activities, so anywhere you choose will be convenient.
Coastal driving delivers fairly dramatic scenery—with whales, seals, surfers, oh my!—without having to go to Monterrey or Big Sur, and lookout points are super-romantic for taking in the views as the sun sets.
In short, Santa Cruz has what a a lot of people really need when they're on vacation: the space for true R&R (rest and relaxation). It's a cruisers town, for sure, where you can get by doing very little; but it's also an outdoor sports mecca. So that coupled with the shore—family-friendly boardwalk and all—plus the nooks of culture and eateries means this chill city has something for absolutely everyone.