By: Molly Helfend
Have you ever traveled or stumbled upon a locale and just inexplicably known that this was where you were meant to be? For as long as I can remember, Santa Cruz has been that place for me. I will never forget the moment my mom and I first drove in. The foggy mist was gently caressing the pronged redwood trees, while the sun yawned and beckoned to say good morning. I instantly knew Santa Cruz was an unspoiled paradise nestled into the central California coast. It is a rare magical spot on earth, where ancient redwoods exude wisdom and pristine pronged cliff beaches manifest mediation. Where sea lions, stork birds, monarch butterflies and humpback whales migrate. Where surfers, barefoot hippies and college students meld together, prospering within a mixing pot of creative, fresh and liberal energy. Where “high” vibes are truly the typical attitudes, as you wave hello to your chilled out neighbor walking, skating, biking or boogying down the streets.
It is easy living in Santa Cruz. Most people are not living the typical “9 to 5” lifestyle. Instead, residents do not conform to the norm, finding love and passion in working to improve the local community and preserve the surrounding nature. Locality and environmental stewardship are extremely important and shine as bright as the California sun. Santa Cruz is filled with liberal outdoor enthusiasts and has a strong organic farming culture. Being a hop, skip and a jump away from at least one farmers market or local farm stand, visitors are obligingly greeted with a warm hug and genuine smile. There is true connection and relationships formed with local farmers and community members, not once, but multiple times a week! Interestingly, because of the increased cost of living, collective style living with a mélange of families and characters on shared land properties is very common, similar to 1960s communes. And to reaffirm the convolution of hippy vibes, the budding marijuana industry found a true home in Santa Cruz. It has blossomed into normality here, with almost every resident growing or investing in this mushrooming and quite honestly profitable business.
And thanks to the youthful UCSC college students, there is a groovy arts and music scene to enjoy. It's pretty easy to be swept away by the tides of the “hang loose” idiom. If you simply stroll along Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz, you will discover a charming authentic surf town that, with the conscious impacts of the older local community, has remained classic and un-commercialized. Or check out Capitola, the absolutely picturesque and quaint beach neighborhood, with colorful homes comparable to the Amalfi coast. Or even Aptos and Soquel, home to some of my favorite hikes within an infinitude of deep rooted earthy biodiversity. But, I will not lie, there is a prerogative attitude surrounding the phrase “locals only.” It is a well known secret that Lords of Dogtown ripped off Santa Cruz skate culture. But, there are also just some secrets I cannot share, which means, you may just have to visit to Santa Cruz and uncover them yourself. There is so much pride amongst residents, and truly a reason why people come and never leave. It is beyond an atmosphere of monomania, but a place where positive energy and happiness prosper. So, hop in your car, roll the windows down and take a little spin along Route 1 to discover why residents are born, raised and stay here forever.
This beachfront hotel is a beloved local landmark. It offers bright and colorful rooms and suites with modern amenities. Gorgeous views of the ocean.
175 W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | 844-291-9681
One of Capitola’s historic landmarks, this laid-back inn is part accommodations and part butterfly sanctuary. They offer rooms, suites and cottages overlooking the ocean with free in-room breakfast.
620 El Salto Dr, Capitola, CA 95010 | 831-464-1295
A great way to experience Santa Cruz and live amongst the locals. There are plenty of beachside and forest dwelling options.
If you are willing to rough it a bit more, this is a great way to immerse yourself in the breathtaking nature of California. The weather is fairly temperate throughout the year, with cool foggy mornings and sunny afternoons.
Café Gratitude isn't just in Los Angeles! It is actually a collection of 100% organic vegan restaurants specializing in gourmet raw and cooked cuisines across the country (I even found one on a road trip through Kansas City!). With conscious and sustainability always in mind, this restaurant gathers their organic produce from their very own farm the Be Love Farm.
103 Lincoln St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | 831-427-9583
This funky burger staple restaurant offers classic diner food with hip and offbeat vibes and creative menu twists. They also have surprisingly healthy options and substitutions as well. I love the Tracks in the Grass veggie burger with a lettuce bun and sweet potato fries.
1222 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | 831-600-7056
This is the perfect spot for a quiet coffee or to get some work done, as you will find college students and residents alike working on their computers here. It is a quaint spot that also offers some yummy snacks and small items to go along with their beverage menu. I am not a coffee drinker myself, but I recommend a green tea bowl of soul - it is heavenly.
1545 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | 831-439-9200
One of my personal favorites, Earthbelly promotes an inspiring message about the current state of our food systems in America. They are deeply committed to serving 100% non-GMO, organic food that is affordable. With an allergy friendly and delicious menu, almost anyone can find something they will enjoy. I recommend the Triathlete salad for lunch or the blueberry pancakes for breakfast (all gluten free)!
381 Soquel Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95062 | 831-621-2248
If you are craving something cold or sweet on a sunny day, then check out Penny. This renowned shop is the only handmade ice cream in Santa Cruz made completely in house. With seasonal flavors and local organic ingredients, the menu will always surprise your taste buds.
913 Cedar St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | 831-204-2523
Voted the best breakfast in Santa Cruz, Walnut Avenue is a local winner that is almost always packed for brunch and for good reason. It sells health conscious American style menu items, located in the quintessential spot, right in the center of town.
106 Walnut Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | 831-457-2307
Made famous by the movie Chasing Mavericks, this classic pizza joint has been the preferred pizza locale since 1975. Super friendly staff and simply the best pizza in town, they also even offer vegan and gluten free options. Great choice after a beach or surf day, as it is located right next to Pleasure Point.
4000 Portola Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95062 | 831-475-4002
My personal favorite spot, easily the best breakfast burritos in town. Quirky and artistic with local surf vibes, this small hole in the wall joint has fast service and a peaceful environment. If you are like me and allergic to gluten, do not fret, as they can make burritos into delicious scrambles. Also, do not forget, CASH ONLY.
860 41st Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95062 | 831-477-0543
This is the creme de la creme of quality restaurants. Chef Katherine Stern has created a fresh, market-driven Italian menu inspired by the local community of farmers, foragers and fishermen. They also offer an outstanding wine selection. Every Tuesday night, be sure to check out neighborhood night, with live music and your choice of pasta or a pizza and a glass of wine for only $18.
538 Seabright Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95062 | 831-457-2782
Verve, which has now spread like California wildfire to Los Angeles and even Tokyo, is a local treasure in Santa Cruz, as the first ever shop was started right on 41st Avenue. Working with farmers across the globe, their sustainable “Farm level Initiative” supports every hand that holds the coffee, from seed to cup, which positively impacts communities at the local and global level. Approachable and modern, they have a great selection of coffee, tea and allergy friendly pastry goodies to chose from.
816 41st Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95062 | 831-471-8469
This Brazilian cafe offers deliciously addicting and creative organic acai bowls. They also offer an array of allergy friendly menu items including acai smoothies, hot acai and yerba mate drinks, pastries, coffee and espressos. I recommend the colorful Pelé bowl with extra coconut cream and cacao nibs toppings.
291 Water St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | 831-458-2224
The local health market chain in Santa Cruz, this specific location has a fantastic salad and sandwich bar, which is a great to-go quick healthy bite option. They also offer a great superfood smoothie bar, with top notch matcha lattes. I love snacking on some fresh fruit, while browsing the menus!
1210 41st Ave, Capitola, CA 95010 | 831-479-7987
There are so many great Mexican restaurants in Santa Cruz, however, I would recommend this family style Mexican restaurant in the heart of Soquel. Vibrant and tucked away in a quaint corner, its impossible not to want to stop in. They offer such a warm and friendly atmosphere and even have a section for healthy menu options!
4724 Soquel Dr, Soquel, CA 95073 | 831-477-1048
Get outside! - If you really want to immerse yourself in Santa Cruz, there is nothing better than simply being outdoors. Go surfing. Go for a hike. Breathe in the misty sea air. Appreciate the majestic beauty. Even taking a drive through the majestic redwoods, around the sinuous backroads of Soquel, is a great way to spend the day. Here is a great reference for some of the best hikes. (My favorite hike is local secret, so you must come uncover it yourself!)
This famous boardwalk is the perfect family outing. Walk around, grab classic carnival snacks, play arcade games, or hop on a amusement park ride. If you are visiting during summer, be sure to check out their summer concert series every Friday night!
With handcrafted goods fresh produce and local vibes, the downtown Santa Cruz market is great place to mingle and get the scoop on whats going on. Check it out every Wednesday, with others across the county in Felton on Tuesdays, Live Oak on Sundays, and Scotts Valley and Westside on Saturdays. But, don’t worry if you miss out on one of these, there are farm stands throughout the Soquel mountains to grab all your organic produce needs.
Sip on an hoppy IPA and check out one of Santa Cruz’s various breweries. The beer culture is vibrant here, so I would definitely recommend a beer crawl, if you can handle it! Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing is a local favorite.
Pick your own berries while admiring the scenic landscape. The perfect romantic, family or just weekday activity to participate in. There is nothing more satisfying then harvesting your own food with love. I recommend checking out Crystal Bay Farms.
You haven't truly experienced Santa Cruz culture without learning to surf or paddleboard. Adventure Sports School is the premiere company, with quality instructors who know the waters like the back of their hands. Or, if you are already a pro, they rent out top condition gear.
The quintessential area to browse. With vintage shops, surf stores and delicious dining options, its easy to lose track of time meandering. Take a stunning walk along the famous beach bike path, find a bench to settle down and people watch the local surfers catching some “gnarly” waves.
Be sure to take advantage of the free admission offer the first Tuesday of every month!
This darling small local market doubles as a apothecary, selling a very high quality and vast array of herbs.
Surf and Skate Shops - Its hard to pick just ONE shop to stop at. I would recommend browsing whichever one you stumble upon throughout the town, as all are fantastic and each owner supports one another! Although, you should pick up some eponymous Santa Cruz skate gear if you can…
Vintage and Thrift Stores - Santa Cruz thrives on vintage and thrift shopping. 41st street and Pacific Avenue will have all your shopping needs.
Santa Cruz Antique Faire and Skyview Flea Market - However, flea markets might just be the main source of clothing for the youth in Santa Cruz. Check out the Skyview Flea Market every Friday and Saturday from 7am to 6 pm and Sunday from 7am to 5:30pm and the Antique Faire on the 2nd Sunday of every month from 8am-5pm, which is where I have found some of my all time favorite clothing steals.
Burn makes some the best darn hot sauce we have ever tried. Fermented with probiotics and organic farm to table ingredients, you can choose your heat spectrum preference to match your taste buds from mild Cayenne to hot Habanero. You can find the owners Amanda and Chase serving the most delicious food drizzled with Burn every week in the morning at the farmers market.
I stumbled upon Creative Cultures’ incredible probiotic drinks and fell in love with their Pollen Up beverage. Although only sold in select stores, Kelly Dearie’s unique formulas were designed to heal her husband’s incurable disease, and many now swear by them! Check out their Beet Kvass and Green Dream as well.
Yes, this non-toxic candle and scent-based beauty company is named after the hilarious Portlandia sketch. With all of their ingredients being 100% cruelty free, vegan, paraben and phthalate free, as well as, harvested in sustainable manners, this company does it right. They also buy their supplies from small businesses on the west coast and were added to the list of certified Green Businesses in California.
Urb Apothecary is a chemical-free and all organic skincare line. Their vision comes directly from the land itself. The herbs they put into their products speak for themselves by complimenting each other and influencing healthy and natural glow in the skin. This is the body care to balance your mind, body and spirit.
We all need our daily dose of probiotics to keep our digestive and immune health up to speed. Living Cultures is my number one favorite brand of dairy-free coconut yogurt brand that has 60 billion probiotics per 4 oz, making it 10 times more effective than other yogurt cultures on the market! Creamy and delicious with raw honey, seasonal berries and figs.
This sustainable, family owned clothing company truly represents the ethics we love about the Santa Cruz culture. Inspired by the beautiful fabrics and textiles of South East Asia, this eco-conscious company produces clothing with as minimal environmental footprint as possible. And when you are finished with a Synergy product, you can recycle it to one of their retail locations in Santa Cruz and get a discount off a future purchase. Thankfully, their clothing happens to also be fashionable and comfortable as well!
Rocky reef, long point-break during any size swell
Great spot, but work harder to find good waves
*There are tons of little waves scattered across town, well really the entire county. If you are feeling adventurous, venture up to the hidden waves around Davenport. Just remember to tread lightly around local spots. GENERALLY, the eastside is a bit more open to outsiders, while the westside is more localized*
Molly Helfend is part of the HOC team and is a writer, ethnobotanist and environmental activist. She graduated from University of Vermont in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies and a concentration in Holistic Health and recently from University of Kent in 2018 in Canterbury, England with a Masters of Science Degree in Ethnobotany. She has worked for Urban Moonshine, Greenpeace and received her herbalism training with Spoonful Herbals. Her goal is to travel the world, researching plant-human interconnected relationships while continuing to educate about the transformational energy of life. Molly resides in Raglan, New Zealand and Santa Cruz, California.