Santa Cruz Travel Guide

Santa Cruz is perhaps the Central California coast's best kept secret.  An eclectic college town, the long-standing motto of this rapidly growing city is "Keep Santa Cruz Weird." From massive public murals to weekly peace rallies to the Mystery Spot, Santa Cruz takes pride in being quirky. On any given day, visitors can take in an impromptu street performance on Pacific Avenue, a thespian masterpiece at Shakespeare Santa Cruz and world-renowned surfing at spots like Steamer Lane. Santa Cruz is most widely known as a hippie haven, and while there are still plenty of free spirits of all ages, it has grown into a multi-faceted, ever changing cornucopia that offers visitors an abundant activity list. Whether hiking in redwood forests, ocean kayaking, meditating at the beach or wine tasting, Santa Cruz keeps it interesting.

UC Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz's biggest claim to fame is the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). This world-class research university situated high a top a hill is as unorthodox as the city it overlooks. The school's mascot is a banana slug, which often attends school sporting events and is always present at the ever-popular April 20 celebration in Porter Meadow.

Though scientific research, especially in the field of marine biology, is the school's strong point, students also excel in the liberal arts, hosting art exhibits, theater festivals and concerts nearly every week of the school year to showcase their talents.

The university is divided into ten colleges, each with a special focus. Connecting the various campus buildings are sequestered trails that provide a peaceful forested reprieve for students, and professors, trekking to and from classes. Behind the university is the area known as "Upper Campus," a vast wilderness reserve with miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. Prospective students and their families are encouraged to explore the campus at their leisure and soak up the unequaled experience of UC Santa Cruz. There is also a building code on the campus grounds prohibiting an buildings from being taller than the tree tops, which makes UCSC feel more like a summer camp than an institution.

Each year, the internationally recognized Shakespeare Santa Cruz puts on works by the world's greatest playwrights, always with at least two shows by the Bard. Performances are held in the ample indoor UCSC Main Stage and the magical Forest Glen, a tree-lined outdoor amphitheater that welcomes audiences to picnic while they watch fantasies unfold on stage. The festival prides itself on its unique interpretations of classics, introducing audiences to new playwrights and for bringing in some of the theater world's biggest names to Santa Cruz. SSC runs from mid-July through August and holds a Fall Benefit series every year.


Pacific Ave is the lifeline of Santa Cruz. This tree lined road is downtown, and it's always bustling with students, local residents, street performers and visitors. Restaurants featuring everything from Thai to Mexican to Italian food are all on offer, as well as more than enough coffee shops, bars, and confectionary shops to satiate any craving. Locally owned clothing stores, as well as more recognizable labels like Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, line the boulevard and provide shoppers with an abundance of choices. There is the world-famous, and infamous, Catalyst Night Club, and an art museum highlighting the work of local artists. Nearly every side street features a smaller yet no less enticing sampling of stores and eateries. Downtown Santa Cruz is the perfect place to window shop, take in a movie and grab a bite to eat.

Downtown's most lively event is the weekly Wednesday afternoon Farmers Market (2:30pm to 6:30pm). It is a feast for the senses. Local farmers overload stands with the freshest seasonal fruits and vegetables, which splash reds, greens, yellows and even purples in appetizing arrays of color. Honey makers, sustainable meat producers, flower growers and coffee grinders also attend what is really a community gathering. A separate section of the Farmers Market features crafts for sale and food booths with ready-made meals. It's kind of a ritual to grab a bite in this part of the Market before meandering the stands, sampling goodies like peaches and almonds, before taking home something delectable to make for dinner.


Santa Cruz wouldn't be Santa Cruz if it wasn't located right next to the ocean. The south side of the city juts up against the Pacific, where cliffs and soft-sanded beaches create some of the most magnificent landscape in the world. Most locals simply drive, walk, run or bike along West Cliff Drive, a winding route that mirrors the topography of the cliffs. Natural Bridges, Seabright, Twin Lakes, 14th Ave, 26th Ave and many other beaches without officials names are some of the favorite spots for locals to sunbathe, surf and watch the sunset. Every Santa Cruzan has an opinion on what the best beach is, and any of their suggestions won't disappoint.


As equally essential to Santa Cruz's topography are the mountains that border it to the east. In a short five to ten minute drive, intrepid travelers ascend from a beach town 14 feet above sea level to a mountainous region marked by towering redwoods, trickling creeks and vigorous hiking trails. Wilder Ranch, The Forest of Nisene Marks and the Garden of Eden are some gems among the treasure trove of trails in Santa Cruz.

Where to Go in Santa Cruz


Pelican Point Inn

expert pick

21345 East Cliff Drive

Maintains old style charm with the modern amenities that make your stay extra nice
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Chaikhana Tea Culture

expert pick

317 Cedar Street

Learn the secrets to brewing the perfect cup of tea.
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The Buttery

expert pick

702 Soquel Avenue

A popular bakery serving luxuriant pastries, cakes, cupcakes, and breads.
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The Catalyst

user rating

expert pick

1011 Pacific Avenue
Santa Cruz

Legendary music venue
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