If you’re looking for a small but charming town on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, equally packed with beaches and cultural establishments, as well as fine dining and lively surf culture, look no further than the northern Monterey Bay and the city of Santa Cruz.
If you’ve already seen the postcard-like beaches and piers on the internet, you’ll know what we’re talking about. All that’s left for you to do is check out this guide and choose where to stay in Santa Cruz.
The 3 Best Parts of Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is a small city, with most of the accommodation options concentrated either on the Boardwalk or in downtown Santa Cruz. But don’t worry — its size guarantees that you can visit all the interesting places and important landmarks in merely a couple of days.
One last disclaimer, though, would be that The Boardwalk is not exactly the safest place you can find yourself in, and theft is a common thing in that part of Santa Cruz.
Our personal favorite areas include:
- The Boardwalk: The coastal historic amusement park is what brings most of the tourists to Santa Cruz, but the area also offers the cheapest accommodations in the city.
- Downtown: A little bit further from the sea, downtown Santa Cruz boasts the best accommodations and cultural establishments; the city center is the best choice for first-time visitors to Santa Cruz.
- Capitola: This small Mediterranean-like city to the east of Santa Cruz is a little bit pricier, but it’s considered the coolest town in the wider area.
The Best Areas & Hotels in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is a major tourist destination in California, and it’s practically packed with accommodations of all types and sizes and in all price ranges.
Whether you want to stay on the coast and near the ocean or you prefer a more urban environment downtown, you’ll surely find what you’re looking for. The Boardwalk is where you’ll find the cheapest hotels in Santa Cruz.
That makes this district the most budget-friendly in the wider area, but that comes at the price of being the least safe. Downtown is versatile and boasts the best accommodation in the city. You may even find some budget options, too.
Finally, Capitola is the most upscale town in greater Santa Cruz. Its Mediterranean vibe, rich culture, and great beaches mostly attract tourists who are looking for luxury.
1. The Boardwalk
The Boardwalk in Santa Cruz is definitely a place you have to visit, even if you’re not staying there. Located right next to the beach and very close to the city center, it’s an obvious magnet for tourists, and rightfully so.
That said, it also boasts some of the cheapest and most affordable accommodations in the city (and Santa Cruz’s only hostel), and we highly recommend staying here if you’re looking for a budget hotel or a motel.
The Boardwalk got its name from the old (already historic) amusement park that existed for more than a century, boasting some of the oldest rides in the history of amusement parks and definitely in California.
It also offers boardwalk games, arcade games, minigolf courts, laser tag, bowling, and numerous restaurants and cafes where you can eat and drink at reasonable prices.
It had its humble beginnings in the year 1865 when the first bathhouse started working. Then came the casinos, the carousel, the roller coaster and the other uncountable rides and games. In other words, visiting the Boardwalk is as much a learning experience as it is fun.
The beaches are the obvious second (or for some first) reason for staying in this part of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz Beach is the most popular beach in the area, literally part of the Boardwalk itself.
It offers plenty of activities, restaurants, and surfing shops. Surfers, as you probably already know, are more than welcome in Santa Cruz. There’s only one problem with staying in this district: the night hours aren’t particularly the safest time, and theft is considered a serious problem.
We recommend being careful and asking the hotel staff or local authorities for some tips and advice about safe spaces and the latest situation in the area.
Things to Do
- There are some things you simply shouldn’t miss on the Boardwalk, namely, the Giant Dipper, which is the legendary roller coaster built in 1924. Then, there’s the Looff Carousel, one of the oldest rides in the park. If you’re after an adrenaline rush, climb the Sky Glider: the scariest ride on the Boardwalk. In the end, try the Sea Swings, one of the newest and prettiest rides in the park.
- As the park is officially between 115 and 130 years old (the number depends on who you ask), There’s plenty to learn about its history, and there’s no better way to do that than by visiting the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Historium museum, located on the second floor of Neptune’s Kingdom.
- The Boardwalk is one of the most famous surfing locations in all of California, and the waves crashing on this stretch of Santa Cruz’s shores need no introduction. If you’re a rookie, you’ll be glad to know that you’ll easily find instructors that will get you up on a board and on the waves in no time. There are also a couple of shops nearby that sell everything connected to surfing and surfers: O’Neill Surf Shop, located directly on Santa Cruz Beach, and Santa Cruz Surf Life, located on Beach Street, right next to the beach.
- There’s probably no better way — aside from the amusement park — to spend a day on the Boardwalk than to relax at the beach and swim in the ocean. You should also know that during the summer, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk organizes concerts and movie screenings at the beach. Make sure to check the schedule and catch at least some of them.
Where to Eat
- The Picnic Basket is an American restaurant specializing in tasty quick bites. Mostly suitable for breakfast, brunch, or lunch, right on the Boardwalk, it’s a great place to grab a breakfast burrito or a crunchy croissant in the morning.
- Lillian’s Italian Kitchen is a great Italian restaurant owned by an Italian family. It boasts all the well-known Italian dishes, like pizza, gnocchi, and pasta, all while having numerous vegan and vegetarian options, an extensive wine list, and a lot of desserts. It also has a large parking space!
- Firefish Grill is a new American restaurant and grill specializing in seafood, located right on the Municipal Wharf of Santa Cruz, boasting a fantastic view of the ocean. They offer fresh fish, a particularly nice clam chowder, and a lot of different cocktails.
The Boardwalk Budget Hotels
- Fireside Inn By The Beach Boardwalk & Bowling is a very cheap but quite decent two-star hotel located just five minutes from Santa Cruz’s Boardwalk. There’s free Wi-Fi throughout the premises and one parking space available per room.
- Aqua Breeze Inn is another decent and very cheap two-star hotel offering free Wi-Fi, free parking, facilities for disabled guests, and a great location: just across the street from the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk. There are laundry facilities as well.
The Boardwalk Mid-Range Hotels
- Howard Johnson by Wyndham Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a slightly more expensive two-star hotel located very close to the Boardwalk and offering an excellent view of the ocean. There’s a grab-and-go breakfast, which is nice, but we simply have to mention the awesome hot tub.
- Ocean Pacific Lodge is a great two-star hotel located around three blocks from the historic Boardwalk. The hotel has a lovely outdoor swimming pool and rooms equipped with all the amenities, including a microwave, coffee machine, and refrigerator.
The Boardwalk Luxury Hotels
- Casablanca Inn on The Beach is a gorgeous and luxurious four-star hotel overlooking Monterey Bay and located just across Santa Cruz Boardwalk. The hotel is practically on the beachfront, offering an excellent view of the ocean and concierge services to all the guests.
- Dream Inn Santa Cruz is a beautiful and very luxurious four-star hotel located next to the Boardwalk, and it has an elegant outdoor swimming pool. There’s also a bar on the premises that serves great cocktails and very professional room service.
If you don’t mind staying a little bit further off the coast and the beaches and you prefer a more urban environment, make sure to stay in Santa Cruz’s downtown.
This lively neighborhood, located to the north of the coast and the Boardwalk, is packed with hotels, motels, and apartments.
Moreover, there are numerous shops, galleries, and landmarks. Simply put, it’s the most suitable place for first-time visitors to Santa Cruz. Not many people know that Santa Cruz is a respectable arts hub and that it has a particularly rich and interesting history.
In other words, tourists usually don’t visit this charming California city for other things except the beautiful beaches and the super-fun amusement park on the Boardwalk.
But the city’s history goes back to the end of the 18th century. Downtown, in particular, is where you can feel the aura of its Spanish past and check out its lovely artistic scene.
We recommend the following establishments:
- Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is basically the most important and most visited museum in the city.
- Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park holds the remains of the Spanish Misión la Exaltacion de la Santa Cruz from 1791.
- Civic Auditorium is the premier performing venue in Santa Cruz, and the place where you go if you want to check out an authentic live performance.
With all that said, Santa Cruz’s Downtown is still rather close to the Boardwalk, the coast, and the beaches, making it your perfect exploration home base: you’ll only need around 20 minutes on foot to get to the beach.
The accommodation options and the restaurants are simply amazing in this part of town.
There’s a hotel of every class, type, and price range, as well as different kinds of restaurants from all over the world. That’s why the center is the best choice for first-time visitors to the city.
Things to Do
- The center of Santa Cruz is one of the best locations in the city for relaxed strolling. You can discover most of the city on foot. Visit the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park in the northern parts of the area, and check out its patios, the buildings, and the fantastic view of the city. Also, don’t forget to take a stroll along Pacific Ave, definitely the busiest and most beautiful street in the city.
- If you love sports, downtown has a couple of interesting offers for you. First, it provides the home court to the G-League’s Santa Cruz Warriors; if you love basketball, you’ll be glad to know the matches do get lively. Then, the center hosts the home games of the roller derby team, Santa Cruz Derby Girls: it’s a really exciting roller skating contact sport that deserves more attention.
- We already mentioned that Santa Cruz is an under-appreciated art hub. Aside from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, which is a must-see for every art lover, there are a couple of galleries that provide some fantastic art products. Make sure to check out both of them since they are very exciting and avant-garde: the more famous Felix Kulpa Gallery and the equally interesting Radius Gallery.
- Lovers of nature, on the other hand, are offered a couple of interesting establishments that continue the tradition of Monterey — of teaching and training the population of California about how to take care of their striking natural landmarks. We recommend that you check out the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center.
Where to Eat
- If you love books more than anything — along with food — Bad Animal is your dream combo. A bookstore and a creative new American restaurant with a varied menu, it has a huge library, an even more extensive menu, and a great wine list. It’s truly one of a kind.
- For the exotic tastes of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, check out Laili Restaurant, which is officially listed as an Afghan-fusion eatery. It has quite an extensive and unusual menu, with the best lamb burger you’ll ever try.
- Hula’s Island Grill and Tiki Room is an interesting American and Polynesian restaurant that also functions as a bar. It’s basically a great place for both food and drink, but we’d suggest it for either lunch or dinner, especially if you prefer meat and alcohol.
Downtown Budget Hotels
- Motel Santa Cruz is the right place for you if you want to stay near the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and the most important landmarks downtown. Cheap and affordable, with free Wi-Fi, parking, and a restaurant, it’s really quite the convenient full package.
- SureStay Hotel by Best Western Santa Cruz is a two-star hotel with a seasonal pool and a great location: right in Santa Cruz’s center, close to most of the best restaurants and shops in the city. It also offers a tasty continental breakfast in the morning.
Downtown Mid-Range Hotels
- Best Western Plus All Suites Inn offers a reliable hotel experience and is part of the famous Best Western Chain of hotels. Sporting a great location in close proximity to the Boardwalk, it also offers rooms with flat-screen TVs and other three-star amenities.
- Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites is another great three-star hotel in this price range, but it offers so much more than its cost would suggest. For starters, it has an outdoor pool and an excellent view of the city, but it punches above its weight all around.
Downtown Luxury Hotels
- Hyatt Place Santa Cruz is definitely one of the best and most luxurious hotels in the city. It has an outdoor swimming pool, a fitness center, and a bar on the premises — as you’d expect — as well as a tasty breakfast in the morning. There’s also a hot tub and a sun terrace on the premises.
- Hotel Paradox, Autograph Collection is a luxury hotel with a rustic chic vibe, has an outdoor swimming pool, and a great restaurant. This four-star hotel practically has it all: great amenities in all the rooms and a perfect location.
Just a ten-minute drive from the center of Santa Cruz lies the charming Mediterranean-like coastal town called Capitola. It is divided almost perfectly by Soquel Creek, which goes deep into the mainland, giving it a unique and very beautiful flare to the town.
As we mentioned, its likeness to the five famous cities and villages that comprise the heavenly Cinque Terre is not imperceptible, and that’s why it’s usually considered the coolest area in Santa Cruz.
Granted, Capitola is also a little more upscale than Santa Cruz, packed with charming cafes, wineries, and cocktail bars. Expect numerous pricey accommodations and plenty of shopping options.
It’s a sublime pleasure to stroll and explore the small and narrow streets in the center of the town, as well as the unique coastline consisting of pastel-colored small houses. The beaches in Capitola are simply amazing — dare we say, top ten on the West Coast.
You won’t find any shortage of restaurants and bars with an excellent view of the ocean, either. Adjacent to the city is the most popular Capitola Beach, sequestered and shielded on both sides by the Monterey Bay Cliffs.
It’s a favorite destination for the locals and offers plenty of different activities, like kayaking, surfing, and volleyball. Quite unexpectedly, this small and non-pretentious city has a rich and even weird history.
In 1861, it was inexplicably attacked by hundreds of birds, an episode that inspired none other than Alfred Hitchcock — a regular in Santa Cruz — to create what became the legendary movie “Birds.”
If you want to discover the secret nooks and trapdoors of the history of Capitola, check out the Capitola Historical Museum for some unexpected info.
The accommodation options in the city are decent enough, but because of the Mediterranean-like charm, they can be a little bit pricey and attract a significantly richer clientele.
It’s great for visitors who are looking for luxury, but if you’re looking for something cheaper, backtrack to our prior two suggestions.
Things to Do
- Most of the visitors come to Capitola for its magnificent coastline, the pastel buildings, and the beautiful beaches. We use the plural because Capitola Beach is not your only option, although it’s the best. Quite nearby is the relaxed and laid-back New Brighton State Beach, and a little further off, you’ll reach Potbelly Beach and Las Olas Beach. Both are well worth it!
- Like most of California — particularly California Wine Country — Capitola is famous for its wines and has a couple of interesting wineries that are worth visiting. Armida Winery, owned by Steve and Bruce, has produced some of the best wines in Sonoma County. For those who want even more and don’t mind the crowds, make sure to check out the annual Capitola Art & Wine Festival, where you can see and taste the best of the best.
- We mentioned earlier that Capitola has some great shops and boutiques where you can spend your hard-earned money. Just stroll around the center of the city, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by silk-stocking stores. The Capitola Mall is an alternative but not poor in its offering by any stretch.
- Lovers of art should learn more about the unexpectedly rich artistic culture that prevails in these parts of America. Capitola is no exception to that rule (which we’ve seen in Santa Cruz) and has a couple of galleries and theaters, which are worth checking out: Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery, Phoebe’s Fine Jewelry and Art Glass, and CineLux Capitola Cafe & Lounge (a theater).
Where to Eat
- Margaritaville allows you to enjoy a nice Southwestern meal on the beach and sip a lovely cocktail, and is also one of the most popular places in Capitola. It has a versatile menu consisting of Mexican, American, and general seafood options.
- Caruso’s Tuscan Cuisine is a decent option if you’re in the mood for some classically prepared Italian food. The place offers traditional Italian dishes, like pizza, pasta, and lasagna, but also offers seafood, some meat options, and a bunch of great desserts, like tiramisu.
- Shadowbrook Restaurant is a classic American restaurant with a lot of vegan and vegetarian options located on Soquel Creek that is especially well known for its seafood options, like the clam chowder and the yellowfin tuna. It was selected as the 2022 Travelers’ Choice too.
Capitola Budget Hotels
- Quality Inn & Suites Capitola is a relatively cheap two-star hotel located very close to Capitola Beach and the center of Capitola Village. There’s a seasonal outdoor pool on the premises, a tasty breakfast in the morning, and rooms equipped with all the amenities.
- Capitola Venetian Hotel is a great and slightly more expensive two-star hotel with a great location on Capitola Beach. Offering an excellent view of the sea, and nice, clean, and fully equipped rooms and premises, it also provides free parking and free Wi-Fi.
Capitola Mid-Range Hotels
- Best Western Plus Capitola By-the-Sea Inn & Suites, always a safe bet, is located less than a mile from Capitola Beach. It has an outdoor swimming pool, a gym on the premises, and a continental breakfast as soon as you get up.
- If you prefer your accommodation to have both an outdoor swimming pool and a spa and wellness center, and you don’t mind spending a little more money, choose Fairfield Inn & Suites Santa Cruz – Capitola as your permanent residence. Located just ten minutes from the center of Capitola, it has a great location too.
Capitola Luxury Hotels
- Inn at Depot Hill is an-adults only, four-star hotel located very close to Capitola Beach and Capitola Wharf. The most sought-after thing in the hotel is its luxurious full breakfast, which is served every morning, as well as the upscale and relaxing spa baths.
- Seascape Beach Resort is a super luxurious and expensive four-star resort located in the nearby Aptos, right on the beachfront. The resort offers all the luxurious things you can think of, including a great and large swimming pool, a spa and wellness center, room service, a restaurant and a bar, and a fitness center as well.
So, Where Should You Stay in Santa Cruz?
|💸 Most Budget-Friendly Area||The Boardwalk|
|🏆 Best for First-Time Visitors||Downtown|
|🕶 The Coolest Area||Capitola|
As we are preparing to leave Santa Cruz and its beautiful hotels and beaches, let’s do a quick recap and summarize what this fantastic California city has to offer.
- The Boardwalk boasts the oldest amusement park in California, plenty of historic and unforgettable rides, a great city beach, and the cheapest accommodation options in the area.
- Downtown is the obvious and best choice for first-time visitors to Santa Cruz, mostly because of the great hotels, famous historical and cultural establishments, and proximity to the sea.
- Capitola is a small but charming and exclusive Mediterranean-like city located just ten minutes from Santa Cruz’s Downtown, usually considered the coolest place in the area.
So, with so much to see and do and no bad place to stay, what are you waiting for — book your trip today and experience for yourself all that Santa Cruz has to offer. Happy travels!