Cruise down to Santa Cruz for a getaway that's easy like Sunday morning. (Photo by Reuben Rohard on Unsplash)

Modern Guide to Santa Cruz: Beach Eats, Surf Style, and Breweries on Tap

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For local, design-savvy getaways, San Franciscans usually look north to Napa and Sonoma.

But 90 minutes south of the city, Santa Cruz has been quietly redefining a style once dictated by a scruffy mix of surfers, students, and free-spirits. Today, the laid-back beach town exudes a creative new energy as exemplified by the following hip spots.


Where to Stay in Santa Cruz

Dream Inn

The only beachfront hotel remaining in Santa Cruz, this retro-chic stay is as charming as they come. The whole property, from the well-appointed rooms to the pool deck, is dressed in bright colors with details that evoke the city's laid-back surf culture. Time your stay to catch one of Dream Inn's brand new vertical concerts, where bands like Los Lobos and Larkin Poe play to an audience overlooking the stage from the balconies of their private rooms. // 175 W Cliff Dr., dreaminnsantacruz.com

Hotel Paradox

The Paradox is a surprisingly chic boutique hotel with a playful, forest-themed interior. SF's Orlando Diaz-Azcuy Design drew inspiration from redwood trees dotted about the property for features like a front desk made from a giant felled tree, a ceiling photo mural of a tree-branch cluttered sky and resin squirrels scampering about. Don't miss the sunny pool deck with private cabanas and food + cocktail service. // 611 Ocean St., hotelparadox.com

Outsite

It's laptops and leisure at this coworking and lodging property one block from the waves of the Monterey Bay. Whether you stay a night or a month, you'll find like-minded digital nomads and entrepreneurs enjoying a fully equipped office, living space, and activities like yoga, surfing and coding classes. Don't miss their weekend networking events that trade conference rooms for campsites along the Big Sur coast. // Locations at Pleasure Point and Westcliff, outsite.co

Best Restaurants in Santa Cruz

PROPER MEALS

Copal

One of Santa Cruz's newest restaurants, Copal is a love letter to the flavors and spirits of Oaxaca, Mexico. Everything, from milling the corn for their tortillas to grinding the spices for their moles, is done in house. The result is crispy potato and chorizo molotes, savory homestyle tamales, and street-style quesadillas filled with epazote and nopales. In the bar you'll find dozens of wild- and cultivated-agave mezcals straight from the source along with craft cocktails, beer and wine. // 1203 Mission St, copalrestaurant.com

Jack O'Neill Restaurant and Lounge

New executive chef, Gus Trejo, has elevated beachfront Jack O'Neill's from tasty restaurant to farm-to-table destination. Trejo, who spent ten years in the kitchen at Carmel Valley Ranch, partners with local farms, ranches and fishermen to showcase the best of Santa Cruz County and the Monterey Bay. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, the menu features sustainable, seasonal eats like almond-crusted mussels, harvest-vegetable bisque and grilled lamb chops with heirloom potatoes and asparagus. // 175 W Cliff Dr, jackoneillrestaurant.com

Alderwood Santa Cruz

One of the most refined, upscale options in town, Alderwood has a bright, design-forward interior and a menu that emphasizes fresh seafood and steak. From its raw bar to decadent dinners like wood-roasted scallops with Champagne beurre blanc and dry-aged bone-in strip steak with bordelaise sauce, chef/owner Jeffrey Wall crafts each dish with precision and exquisite regional ingredients. // 155 Walnut Ave, alderwoodsantacruz.com

Bantam

Since 2012, a Chez Panisse alum has been firing up delicious Neapolitan pizza with a bubbled crust and a nice char. Don't skip the salads and starters, which include bites like a little gem Caesar and chicken liver toast with cherries, fennel and hazelnuts. The handsome, open space flaunts colorful recycled wood, vintage lamps, and old-school reggae grooving overhead. // 1010 Fair Ave Suite J, bantam1010.com

Oswald

A downtown mainstay, Oswald is a city-savvy restaurant with a great bar and localized version of California cuisine. Enjoy comforting fare such as house-made gnocchi, duck confit with chili fried rice, and local halibut at dinner and be sure to not to miss the rotating collection of local art. // 121 Soquel Ave., oswaldrestaurant.com


SNACKS + COFFEE

Companion Bakeshop

Companion Bakeshop, known for hearty loaves—mostly made with sourdough starter—gained a local following from CSAs and farmers markets before opening its permanent location on Santa Cruz's happening Westside. Go early for the morning lineup of pastries including buttery ham and gruyère croissants, rich tea cakes, and a proper pour of Blue Bottle Coffee. // 2341 Mission St., companionbakeshop.com

The Penny Ice Creamery

This popular-from-day-one institution produces one of California's only ice creams made completely from scratch. True-tasting flavors like Honey Ginger Apricot and Meyer Lemon Sorbet change with the season and feature the region's food producers. There are two locations, but we love the stylish bolt-hole in Pleasure Point, a neighborhood with a SoCal surf town vibe. // Downtown Santa Cruz: 913 Cedar St; Pleasure Point: 820 41st Ave., thepennyicecreamery.com

Steamer Lane Supply

The beach vibes are on point at this modern snack shack on West Cliff Drive. They keep things simple here with a butcher paper menu and bright blue Adirondack chairs outside, and the sandwiches, quesadillas and bowls are fresh and tasty. When the fog rolls in, keep warm with a mug of locally roasted coffee, hot cocoa, chai or spiced apple cider. // 644-670 W Cliff Dr, steamerlanesc.com

Verve

The town's popular third wave roaster guarantees strong brew, competent baristas, and a counter full of confections from local bakeries. If you take it sweet, try their Bowl-of-Soul: tea steeped in soy milk and honey and topped with soy froth. // Multiple locations, vervecoffee.com

Mutari

Sample ethically sourced, single-origin chocolates and sip bean to cup, European-style drinking chocolates at Mutari's cafe/factory/shop. On warm days, try the frozen hot chocolate, blended with ice to yield a luscious, milkshake-like treat. // Mutari, 504 A Front St., mutarichocolate.com.

Santa Cruz Breweries & Wine Tasting Rooms

Humble Sea Brewing Co

The nautical design and lively outdoor beer garden with fire pits make this taproom a perfect spot for summer days. Humble Sea has an interesting selection of mainly New England–style IPAs, including Socks & Sandals with an aromatic and juicy taste. If you are hungry, grab a bite from the brewery's own food truck, which launched in June. // 820 Swift St., humblesea.com

Venus Spirits

Former Gordon Biersch brewer Sean Venus is producing small batches of organic spirits and racking up awards in his shipshape Westside distillery. Try multiple styles of gin and rum, a single-malt whiskey aged in charred American oak casks, a trio of smooth blue agave spirits, or one of Venus' canned cocktails. Tastings and more are offered daily. // 427 A Swift St., venusspirits.com

Beer Thirty Bottle Shop + Pour House

Beer Thirty is among the many establishments that make Santa Cruz one of the most-underrated beer destinations in California. The bottle shop and pour house is outfitted with a number of rotating taps that allow for the most extensive sampler in town. Enjoy 'em in the smart-looking interior or out in the dog and kid-friendly beer garden strung with lights. // 2504 S Main St. (Soquel), beerthirtysantacruz.com

Sante Adairius Rustic Ales

Some of Santa Cruz's best beer can be found at this Capitola brewery and Santa Cruz tasting room. While Sante Adarius brews a variety of styles, their real genius is in barrel-aged Saisons and farmhouse ales, which sip with all the structure and complexity of your favorite vino. // 103 Kennedy Dr. (Capitola), 1315 Water St. (Santa Cruz), rusticales.com

New Bohemia Brewing Company

Bitter about the hegemony of IPAs? Swing by this fetching Pleasure Point brewery for delicious old world lagers and hefeweizens. Brewmaster Dan Satterthwaite honed his craft at a century-old, family-owned brewery in Bavaria before working at Bay Area shops like Trumer Pils. The redwood-sheathed taproom and beer garden is dedicated to barbecue and sides like giant pretzels and mac and cheese. // New Bohemia Brewing Company, 1030 41st Ave., nubobrew.com.

Surf City Vintners

A collective of wineries in walkable proximity means you can ditch the car—and single lane Santa Cruz mountain roads—and stroll 10 tasting rooms pouring the region's famed pinot noir. Swing by Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard for unique Spanish varietals and a noteworthy brandy. // Swift St. & Ingalls St., surfcityvintners.com

Soif Wine Bar & Merchants

Soif has been Santa Cruz's urbane wine destination for some time, but a major expansion and remodel begs a second look. A reconfigured wine shop stocks local finds like Birichino's Malvasia Bianca while an expanded kitchen is able to crank out a wider array of refined small plates and mains, including artichoke and leek tarts and three cheese and corn ravioli. Nab a seat at the bar where an informed staff will pour tastes of less familiar wines or take you on a cabernet franc flight. // Soif, 105 Walnut Ave., soifwine.com.

Where to Shop in Santa Cruz

Stripe + Stripe Men

Tucked away on a downtown side street, this eclectic shop stocks a meticulous selection of fashionable clothing, gifts, stationery, and accessories. Just a few doors down, a tack-sharp men's shop sports a rugged general store meets haberdashery vibe. There's also a great collection of vintage goods thanks to the owners' tight relationships with local dealers. // 107 and 117 Wal­nut Ave., stripedesigngroup.com

Berdel's

Style yourself like a local at this modish surf shop stocked with contemporary men's and women's apparel. No big name brands here. Instead, find local independent labels like Thieves, Uroko and Ventana that will take you from beach to brewery. // Berdel's, 1233 Pacific Ave., berdels.com

Cameron Marks

Australian designer Vanessa Ambrose settled in Santa Cruz before opening three impeccably curated boutiques with a sophisticated, boho feel. Her keen sense of style translates to exquisite home goods, jewelry, and women's apparel—much of it handmade and by independent designers. With a touch of Denmark, Japan, and Brooklyn, it manages to be perfectly at home in this breezy seaside town. // 402 Ingalls St., cameronmarks.com

Home/Work

Seek out this colorful, modern boutique where owner Sonia McMoran draws upon her background as a tech and design journalist to assemble a covetable collection of home and office décor. Shop a playful mix of vintage finds and contemporary, handcrafted goods from designers like Honey & Bloom, Good Company, and Marlie & Alfie. // 1100 Soquel Ave., shophomework.com

Dig Gardens

This expansive, modern nursery is a refuge of succulents, air plants, and pottery. Artful arrangements call to mind the vivid seascape of nearby Monterey Bay. Drop by for a class or ask one of the staff to help you shape your own terrarium at the dedicated workstation. You'll likely rub shoulders with proprietors of the other spots listed here, all of whom frequent the shop. // 420 Water St., diggardens.com

Things to Do in Santa Cruz (Beyond the Beach Boardwalk)

Santa Cruz Bike Tours

Whether you're in the mood for a leisurely, scenic ride along West Cliff or a hardcore mountain bike adventure in The Forest of Nisene Marks, you'll find your way on a private tour with Santa Cruz Bike Tours. Owner Martin Abaurrea has a wealth of knowledge about the region's past and present, and the energy to tackle even the most rugged trails. Santa Cruz Bike Tours provides the bikes, sanitized helmets, water and snacks, and binoculars for catching sight of whales migrating through Monterey Bay. // Santa Cruz Bike Tours, santacruzbiketours.com

Brew Cruz

We can't think of a better way to sample Santa Cruz's thriving craft beer scene than with Brew Cruz. Former San Franciscan Annie Pautsch shuttles hop heads to breweries and taprooms along the coast in their restored 1964 VW bus, Slowboy. Brew Cruz is currently open for private charters for up to six passengers and will be resuming public tours at the end of summer. // Brew Cruz, scbrewcruz.com

Wilder Ranch State Park

This coastal state park at Santa Cruz's northern edge is one of California's most diverse. Not only does it have beaches and a magical seaside waterfall, it has miles and miles of hiking and biking trails that extend up the bluffs and into the redwoods. On top of that, there are at least two 19th century historical sites in the park: a semi-working dairy ranch and the haunting ruins of the now-defunct local limekiln industry. // 1401 Coast Rd, parks.ca.gov

Santa Cruz Wharf

The Santa Cruz Wharf, the longest in the U.S., strikes a charming balance between kitsch and quality. The wooden pier is lined with seafood restaurants, shops, and locals hoping to catch a bite on fishing lines dangled over the railing. Toward the wharf's end, find two hidden gems —a bocce ball court (balls not included) and portholes for watching the sea lions that cavort, bark, and snooze on the trestle below. // 21 Municipal Wharf, cityofsantacruz.com

Seymour Marine Discovery Center

The Seymour Marine Discovery Center may not be as big the Monterey Bay Aquarium but there's still plenty of sea life there to be seen. Although its aquarium and exhibit hall remain closed due to COVID, there are several outdoor activities to enjoy including tide pools, a scavenger hunt, and two breathtaking whale skeletons. Online, you'll also find a virtual exhibit about deep-sea coral. // Whales can be viewed 24/7, other activities currently available Saturdays 11am to 2pm; 100 McAllister Way, seymourcenter.ucsc.edu.

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