Touted as the birthplace of surfing in North America, Santa Cruz is a laidback beach town just over an hour south of San Francisco. Surfers, skaters and thrill seekers flock to this quirky corner of Northern California all-year-round, thanks in large part to its huge boardwalk funfair made famous by 80’s cult vampire movie The Lost Boys.
As a university town, Santa Cruz has a pretty big student population with a buzzing food scene and lively nightlife to match. If drinking isn’t your thing, this eclectic beach town also boasts coastal walks, beautiful beaches and a whole host of outdoor adventures. Whatever your jam, Santa Cruz has something for everyone. Here’s how we spent 24 hours in this charming coastal resort.
We drove from Yosemite which took about 4 hours, but it’s such a short journey from San Francisco (75 miles) that you could easily travel directly from SFO. There is a local train station and greyhound bus station in town, so there are plenty of options whatever your preference.
Where we stayed
This ultra-modern hotel was just a short walk from the main beach area with easy access to Downtown. We loved it for its laidback vibe and minimalist design, and the staff gave us some great recommendations for places to eat during our stay. Our room was huge and so comfortable! Whether sipping poolside cocktails from their varied menu or unwinding in the jacuzzi, this was the perfect base to kick back after a day of living like a local.
What we did
We woke up early to take some pictures of the sunrise over the boardwalk and get our bearings whilst it was still relatively quiet. It felt blissful to stroll along the beach with the cool breeze rolling in over the ocean, as joggers ambled past and seagulls flocked overhead. After stretching our legs, a good old fashioned American diner breakfast was on the cards. We had heard that Gilda’s had the very best pancakes in all of Santa Cruz, so we just had to see for ourselves! We were seated right next to the window overlooking the water and tucked into fried eggs, pancakes and hash browns, washed down with steaming mugs of coffee as we planned our day. It wasn’t fancy but it was just cheap, cheerful and just what we needed. I highly recommend visiting this local joint if you are in search of a hearty meal to kickstart your day.
Sufficiently refuelled, we headed to the beach to sign up for surf lessons with the famous Club Ed Surf School. They had previously taught Michael Portillo, so we knew we were in good hands, ha! Our instructor was brilliant and helped us to improve our form whilst navigating the busy surf spot – making sure we were catching as many waves as we could whilst teaching us how to look out for other surfers. I highly recommend paying them a visit if you’re looking for the best surfing lessons in the area. They have a fantastic reputation and it’s easy to see why. After two hours of action we had worked up a bit of an appetite, so we headed back to shore to find lunch.
After a quick pit stop at vegetarian restaurant Chocolate for homemade quiche and sandwiches, we spent the afternoon exploring the Downtown area, checking out some of the shops along the main street. They have a great mix of high street stores and independent boutiques from Urban Outfitters to O’Neill’s (it is a surf town after all) and my personal favourite The Bookshop, a huge bookstore with wall-to-wall books on display. There were so many great titles to choose from that I couldn’t leave without picking up a few, including one of my favourites, The Harry Quebert Affair.
By this point, we had worked up a bit of a sweat, so we took a pit-stop at casual restaurant El Palomar for cooling frozen margaritas and guacamole. This Mexican restaurant and sports bar has a super laid back atmosphere with great happy hour deals, just what the doctor ordered! One afternoon drink was enough to soothe our weary feet and take the edge off our hunger, so we finished our cocktails and hopped in a cab to our dinner reservations at popular seaside eatery The Crow’s Nest.
Lots of walking and 2 hours of surfing meant we were feeling pretty hungry, so we had definitely come to the right place. Just a 10 minute taxi ride from Downtown, The Crow’s Nest is situated overlooking Santa Cruz Harbour, with stunning views of the wharf for miles. Its location isn’t the only draw, as locals flock here to sample the restaurant’s delicious fresh seafood and other traditional American fare. The setting was so inviting so we pulled up a pew on the outdoor deck, and tucked into mouthwatering fish tacos and tempura prawns whilst listening to the live music provided by a local band with the sun setting in the distance.
Chocolate chip cookies are my biggest weakness, so when I saw Pacific Cookie Company in Downtown earlier that day, I knew I had to finish the evening sampling one of their freshly baked creations. We headed back to the area after dinner to get our hands on a sweet treat. Let me tell you, the smell of warm cookie dough when you walk in is enough to make your mouth water. There were so many flavours to choose from but I opted for a triple chocolate cookie and a coffee to go. They were hands down the best cookies I’ve ever had. If only they shipped to the UK! A must-visit for anyone with a serious sweet tooth.
We couldn’t leave Santa Cruz without checking out the famous board walk (and riding The Giant Dipper of course), so we finished off our day playing arcade games and lining up to try out the traditional rides that make up this mini seaside funfair. The boardwalk has a real carnival atmosphere, with people from all ages eating candyfloss, playing mini golf or riding the attractions late into the night. It’s like if Blackpool met Disneyland – a little bit old-fashioned, but with that unmistakeable California sparkle, and I wouldn’t expect anything less.
Santa Cruz might be known for surfing, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and we loved that it had a real community feel that made us feel right at home. Have you ever visited this part of California?