Santa Cruz is a charming, old-fashioned beach town. I love it because it has a laid back, no frills, hippie type of vibe. It’s so different from all of the other California beach towns, almost like you’re going back into time.
Fire season hit the Northern California valley hard in August this year, so not only was it hot but it was smokey as well (it’s as unpleasant as it sounds). It was seriously unbearable to be outside, and my boys cannot handle staying indoors all day (does anyone else have boys that would live in the backyard if they were given the choice? Or just mine?) We needed to get out of town and get some fresh, cool air so we decided to take the boys to the beach in Santa Cruz.
I loved seeing my older son’s expression as we got there (the younger one is happy seeing anything, really). The huge trees on the way in, the boardwalk roller coasters, the wide beach with big waves, the boats in the harbor, the lighthouse, even the seagulls. It’s such a magical place for kids, and an overly family friendly town. So, if you’re heading to the Bay Area and want to visit a surfer’s paradise, consider Santa Cruz!
(Like I mentioned Santa Cruz is huge so my guide is for the boardwalk vicinity because it’s easily walkable.)
How to get to Santa Cruz
SJC: The closest airport to Santa Cruz is San Jose International Airport, it’s a little over 30 miles away and about 45 minutes without traffic. SJC is a small-ish, easily manageable airport.
SFO: San Francisco International Airport is roughly 60 miles north of Santa Cruz and about an hour away without traffic. SFO is a beast of an airport. You’ll most likely find more direct options for flights at a cheaper price, but you’ll have to deal with the craziness.
OAK: Oakland International Airport is about 65 miles away from Santa Cruz. Unless you’re starting your trip in the Bay Area and then heading to Santa Cruz, I wouldn’t recommend flying into Oakland for a Santa Cruz trip. But if you’re staying in the Bay first, I prefer it because it’s smaller than SFO.
Luckily, there are airport shuttles that will take you to Santa Cruz from any of the airports above. See a list here.
How to get around Santa Cruz
Walk or Bike: If you stay near the Wharf or the Boardwalk (which I recommend), you can easily get around by walking or biking. It’s very common to see a lot of people biking around town. I even overheard a local say to someone that “biking is a part of our DNA.”
If you want to explore the whole area or check out neighboring cities, then rent a car. Check for rental cars here.
Where to stay in Santa Cruz
There are all types of places you can stay in Santa Cruz—from bed and breakfasts to beachfront hotels. Note that there aren’t the high rises and luxury resorts you’re used to around big beach areas. There are a lot more 2-and 3-star inns and hotels.
Here are a few family-friendly options for hotels around the Boardwalk area:
Dream Inn. LOVE. It has a fun, retro vibe. It’s the only hotel in Santa Cruz that is actually on the beach and ALL rooms have a beach view. It has a fabulous outdoor area too, with a heated pool, hot tub, food and drink service, and fire pit. It also has a small coffee shop in the lobby for coffee, pastries, and breakfast items. There are no options for suites with separate rooms, but every room has a big, furnished patio for you to escape to after the kids go to sleep. Cribs or pack-and-plays are offered at no extra charge.
Sea and Sand Inn. Right next to the Dream Inn, this hotel not only has a great location but is on top of a bluff, so it has killer views of the beach. They have an option for a one-bedroom suite with a private patio and a jacuzzi, but all rooms have an ocean view. They also serve complimentary breakfast scones and yogurt in the morning, fresh baked cookies and refreshments in the afternoon, and wine and cheese in the evening.
Beach Street Inn. It’s fun and bright design gives it an old time California feel. Across the street from the boardwalk and the wharf, it is in the prime location. In addition to standard rooms, there are many options for 1- or 2-bedroom suites with kitchens. The outdoor area features a heated pool, hot tub, and fire pit. They also have free washer and dryers available!
Carousel Beach Inn. This brightly decorated hotel is steps away from the beach boardwalk. A complimentary continental breakfast is served daily and a fridge and microwave are in every room. Only standard rooms are offered, but each has a private patio.
House or apartment rentals:
Or you can always rent a house or apartment. Check out some great options here.
What to do in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz has many different beaches with different vibes. My two favorites are:
- Main Beach: This is where all the action is. This is the beach that the beach boardwalk is on. It’s also within walking distance of the wharf. Completely family friendly, there are all kinds of food options, volleyball nets, big public bathrooms, showers, bike racks, and water fountains available.
- Twin Lakes Beach: Another popular area, Twin Lakes beach is This is also one of the only beaches that allows bonfires, so you’ll usually see a couple happening in the cooler morning or evening hour
The biggest draw to Santa Cruz is the legendary Beach Boardwalk—this place is like right out of a movie. Rides like huge roller coasters to baby approved carousels, all types of games, a variety of foods from funnel cakes to craft beers, the casino arcade, mini golf, bowling, all with perfect beach views. To top it off, during summer there are nightly family events. Firework shows, yes. Live music, yes. Drive-in movies, yes. Should you go there, yes!
Another old school classic is the Santa Cruz Wharf. Wear comfy shoes because it stretches for half a mile—it’s the longest wooden pier in the country! It’s within walking distance of the boardwalk and there are plenty of restaurants, beach ware and souvenir shops, and beautiful views of beaches and open sea for as long as you can see (there are telescopes too!) While you’re strolling you can make friends with the sea lions that like to chill there, and sometimes you can even spot whales or dolphins.
Ride bikes on West Cliff Bike Path
A bike is a must to get around Santa Cruz, it’s how you can really discover the town. And the most popular bike (and walking) path is West Cliff Drive. It’s a wide path, very easy to navigate, and almost all flat. It starts at the wharf and goes about three miles where you’ll rider past cliff views, Steamer Lane (where you can watch the gnarly surfers), the famous surfer statue, an open grassy area to run around, Its Beach, Mitchell’s Cove, then end at Natural Bridges Beach. You’ll get the best views in town from this path!
Downtown Santa Cruz
I love how charming and still trendy Downtown Santa Cruz is. It’s full of restaurants, shops, bars, music venues, a movie theater, even street performers! The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and history and various art galleries are also there. The charming aspect of it is that unlike many outdoor shopping malls, Downtown Santa Cruz is full of local shops, bookstores, and family-owned restaurants. Some of the cool events are Wednesday Farmer’s Markets, First Fridays (when the area turns into a art gallery with live music and wine), the Greek Festival in May, Pride in June, and the Chocolate Festival in January (yum!)
Roaring Camp Train
If your kid in any way likes trains, this is the thing to do. Seriously, this is IT. A real deal steam train ride through the Redwood Forest and up to the summit of Bear Mountain. It’s a little over an hour, and it departs from Felton so you’ll need a car for this excursion. There are a couple of rides a day and adults are $33pp while children over 2 are $24 each. There’s also a three-hour option if you have kids that can sit for that long. It leaves from the Santa Cruz Mountains, rides through Cowell Redwoods State Park, goes down the San Lorenzo River gorge, then arrives at the Beach Boardwalk (there’s one that starts at the Boardwalk on certain days). This one is $35 for anyone over 13 and $27 for kids 2-12. Reserve your tickets prior here.
Where to eat in Santa Cruz
I haven’t been to a restaurant I didn’t like in Santa Cruz, but here’s a list of THE places to eat.
American: Crow’s Nest
Seafood: Riva’s Fish house
Burgers: Betty’s Burgers
Sample itinerary for Santa Cruz
Day 1: Get to Santa Cruz.
Drive to the Harbor and put your name down at Crow’s Nest.
While you wait for your table, get your feet in the sand on Harbor Beach and walk over to the Lighthouse for some great pictures.
Go downtown and get breakfast at Zachary’s.
Head over to the bike rental shop and ride the West Cliff bike path. Make stops for plenty of pictures, and cool off at Natural Bridges Beach.
Hit the boardwalk for the rest of the day.
Walk the wharf and get breakfast and do some shopping.
Get in the car and head over to the Roaring Camp railroad.
Have you been to Santa Cruz? What’s your favorite part? Let me know in the comments!
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