Where to Stay in Santa Cruz

SD › Best Places to Stay in Santa Cruz
Updated: November 18, 2022
By Santorini Dave

Our Favorite Hotels

• Luxury Hotel: Hotel Paradox
• Boutique Hotel: Capitola Hotel
• B&B: Inn at Depot Hill
• Cheap Hotel: Ocean Pacific Lodge
• Beach Hotel: Dream Inn Santa Cruz
• Holiday Home: Opal Cliff Beach House
• Best Pool: Dream Inn Santa Cruz

Wharf and beach in Santa Cruz.

The city of Santa Cruz boasts a string of sandy beaches and a historic wharf.

Best Areas to Stay in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is a quintessential California beach town, facing the Pacific some 70 miles south of San Francisco. It’s best known for its miles of sandy beaches, excellent surfing, the rides of Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park (including the vintage Giant Dipper), the UC Santa Cruz campus, and a thriving LGBT scene.

In the city itself, much of the action (and accommodations) lies on or near the Boardwalk/Beach neighborhood, while Downtown is a mile or so inland, centered on Pacific Avenue. Just across the San Lorenzo River, which splits the city in two, lie the hip Midtown and Seabright neighborhoods, while the primarily residential area along the coast from Santa Cruz Beach is known as Westside. We’ve also included Capitola, the upscale seaside town 6 miles east of Downtown Santa Cruz, and the San Lorenzo Valley to the north, dominated by the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains. There are no 5-star hotels in Santa Cruz, but there are a handful of luxurious 4-stars, plus several high-end boutique hotels, charming B&Bs, and midrange/budget chain hotels. Santa Cruz has an excellent bus system, with $2 basic fares and all-day passes for $6. Though you really don’t need a car to explore most of the areas surveyed below, it’s more convenient to drive if exploring the San Lorenzo Valley.

The Best Places to Stay in Santa Cruz

Dream Inn and the wharf at Santa Cruz Beach, California

Dream Inn (the short, white building on the left) is the best hotel on Santa Cruz Beach, right on the sand and just steps from the historic wharf.

Best Neighborhoods in Santa Cruz for…

Capitola city view from above Soquel Creek toward the beach

Charming Capitola Village on Soquel Creek with the beach in the background.

  • Best Neighborhood for First Timers: Boardwalk/Beach
    Though Capitola is much nicer, if you’re coming to see Santa Cruz you should really sample life in the Santa Cruz Boardwalk/Beach neighborhood, where the bulk of the accommodation options are located, and there’s easy access to the main attractions – the beach itself, and the Boardwalk theme park. There’s plenty to eat and drink along Beach Street, and there’s always something happening in the summer from beach volleyball contests to the “Bands on the Beach” concert series. There are also excellent seafood restaurants and shops on the historic Santa Cruz Wharf – stretching into the bay over half a mile (800 meters), it’s the longest pier on the West Coast. Santa Cruz Beach is also relatively central when it comes to traveling to the other neighborhoods.
  • Most Romantic Neighborhood: Capitola
    Though it can get crowded in the summer, Capitola Village is certainly the prettiest place to stay in the area with its small Mediterranean-style cottages and cafes lining the waterfront and a cache of indie boutiques and romantic restaurants in the center – perennial favorite Shadowbrook is one of the best dining experiences for a special night out. The spread of charming inns and B&Bs here also lends itself to romance – especially the Inn at Depot Hill
  • Best Neighborhood for Nightlife: Downtown
    Though the beachfront can get pretty lively, especially in the summer and on weekends, Pacific Avenue in Downtown Santa Cruz is the city’s nightlife hub – most spots are conveniently located within stumbling distance of one another. Here you’ll find the Redroom, with its main bar downstairs and a restaurant and lounge upstairs, popular dive bar Asti, buzzy nightclubs Motiv and the Catalyst Club, live venue the Blue Lagoon, and world-class jazz at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. Westside gets an honorable mention for its excellent microbreweries, such as Humble Sea Brewing Co and Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, and numerous wine tasting rooms (including MJA Vineyards and Sones Cellars).
  • Best Neighborhood for Food and Restaurants: Downtown
    It’s hard to beat Downtown Santa Cruz again when it comes to eating. Standouts include the Mexican and Spanish plates at Lupulo Craft Beer House, upscale New American restaurant Alderwood Santa Cruz, wine-shop/restaurant combo Soif, Penny Ice Creamery, and the Abbott Square Market food hall. Verve Coffee Roasters is one of many hip cafés, while Walnut Avenue Café is a classic spot for breakfast. Downtown Santa Cruz’s Farmers’ Market (year-round on Wednesdays) also boasts tasty local food pop-ups.
  • Best Neighborhood for Shopping: Downtown & Soquel
    Downtown’s Pacific Avenue wins again when it comes to shopping, with plenty of quirky stores and independent businesses to browse. An O’Neill Surf Shop is here in the Cooperhouse Shopping Center; the chain was founded in Santa Cruz in 1959 by California surf legend Jack O’Neill. Bookshop Santa Cruz is another favorite, along with women’s fashions at Pacific Trading Co, and lifestyle store Artisans & Agency. The Santa Cruz Antique Faire is usually held monthly on Lincoln Street, between Pacific and Cedar streets. Otherwise, the best place for antiques is in the old town of Soquel (5 miles east of Santa Cruz), especially along Soquel Drive – there’s a cluster of fine antique stores here, such as Center Street Antiques.
  • Best Neighborhood for Local Vibe: Westside
    We love the laid-back businesses, cafés and craft breweries of Westside, especially along Mission Street and Swift Street – you’ll almost always be mixing with locals here. The Swift Street Courtyard at 402 Swift St (an old brussels sprout packing plant) is home to urban tasting rooms for six local wineries, plus Kelly’s French Bakery, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery, and El Salchichero’s handcrafted charcuterie. There are great local cafés like Westside Coffee Co (inside Almar Shopping Center), and Emily’s Good Things to Eat, cool restaurants like Vim Dining and Desserts, and interesting stores like the Santa Cruz Shirt Outlet and Noe Surfboards, as well as the wacky Court of Mysteries at 515 Fair Avenue, a bizarre-temple like complex built by a couple of eccentrics in the 1930s.
  • Safe and Unsafe Areas of Santa Cruz
    Santa Cruz is relatively safe by California standards, though the usual precautions should be taken at night. The Boardwalk/Beach area can get boisterous at night, and robberies do occur (theft from cars is also an issue). The main areas to avoid are the Beach Flats (bounded by Beach, Third, and Cliff streets), and Lower Ocean Street areas. Like many Californian cities, Santa Cruz city center hosts a large homeless population. Capitola is generally the safest place in the area.

The 6 Best Neighborhoods in Santa Cruz for Tourists

1. The Boardwalk/Beach

Beach hotel in Santa Cruz.

The pool and view of the beach at the Dream Inn.

The beach remains the biggest draw in Santa Cruz, a wide, sandy strip on either side of the hundred-year-old wooden pier, Santa Cruz Wharf. There are volleyball courts on the beach, and the water is safe and (usually) warm enough for swimming in the summer. The pier itself is crammed with fresh-fish stalls, seafood restaurants, and gift stores, while the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, just to the east, boasts an old-fashioned arcade, amusement park, mini-golf, laser tag, and free concerts in the summer. Among the bumper cars, donut stands, and vintage carousels, the perennial favorite is the Giant Dipper, a wooden rollercoaster that was constructed in 1924. Other attractions include the admission-free Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center. Staying here means there’s lots of choice when it comes to accommodation, and getting to Downtown is easy by taxi or bus. This neighborhood can get rowdy at night, and theft can be a problem here – your hotel should be able to advise you on the latest situation.

2. Downtown Santa Cruz

The Town Clock in and historic buildings in Downtown Santa Cruz, California

Downtown Santa Cruz, north of Laurel Street, lies on the west side of the San Lorenzo River, a mile or so north of the beach district – it’s quite distinct from the coastal areas, with businesses, art galleries, restaurants, and bars along the tree-lined main drag, Pacific Avenue. There’s a weekly farmer’s market here, and great places to eat – standouts include Snap Taco and the sweet treats at Pacific Cookie Company. Attractions include the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and the adjacent Octagon Building on 118 Cooper St, which leads into the Abbott Square Market. Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park lies at the northern end of Pacific Avenue, preserving the remains of the Spanish Misión la Exaltacion de la Santa Cruz, founded in 1791. There’s also the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, a performing arts venue, and the Kaiser Permanente Arena, which hosts games by the NBA G-League Santa Cruz Warriors and Santa Cruz Derby Girls (a roller derby team). There are a few B&Bs and inns in Downtown; the closest hotels are in the Beach/Boardwalk area, or across the river in Midtown/Seabright

3. Seabright/Midtown

Walton Lighthouse on Seabright Beach in Santa Cruz

Midtown Santa Cruz lies just across the San Lorenzo River from Downtown, centered along Soquel Avenue east of Ocean Street. It’s become something of a hipster neighborhood in recent years, with plenty of cool cafes and restaurants, bike shops, and live music venues. To the south, the adjacent neighborhood of Seabright is best known for Seabright Beach, a sandy extension of Santa Cruz beach between the mouth of the San Lorenzo and Santa Cruz Harbor. The tiny commercial center of the neighborhood lies around Seabright Avenue and Murray Street, with a cluster of bars and restaurants, two blocks from the beach. Attractions include the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History and the highly acclaimed brewpub Seabright Social. Staying in Midtown or Seabright is a little more relaxed than over in Santa Cruz proper, with a good choice of modern hotels in Midtown and cheaper motels along the river

4. Westside

Natural Bridges State Beach on the Westside of Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz’s Westside is best known for its surf breaks, not least at Cowell Beach’s Steamer Lane. The Surfer’s Memorial stands on the cliffs above, near the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (housed in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse), at panoramic Lighthouse Point. From here West Cliff Drive links a series of lesser-visited coves and beaches that indent the coast to Natural Bridges State Beach. Here waves have cut holes through coastal cliffs to form arches, though three of the four “bridges” have collapsed, with just large stacks protruding from the ocean today. The park is also famous for its annual migration of monarch butterflies, while the Natural Bridges Visitor Center features exhibits on the area. Further along the coast sits the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, which boasts one of the world’s largest displayed blue whale skeletons. Inland, Mission Street is the neighborhood’s commercial heart, lined with coffee shops, breweries, and stores. There are not many places to stay in the primarily residential Westside, and other than Mission Street there are not many places to eat and drink – it’s best to explore the neighborhood from elsewhere on a bicycle or by car.

5. Capitola

Colorful buildings, the beach, and the wharf in Capitola, California

Affluent Capitola is a charming seaside community to the east of Santa Cruz, its small center and beach split by the Soquel Creek. On the west side sits the old pier, Capitola Wharf, topped with the Wharf House Restaurant, while candy-colored “Venetian Village” cottages line the sand behind it. On the east side stands the main commercial district, including a number of waterside restaurants along the Esplanade. Capitola is also a great place to learn to surf, with mostly gentle waves and Capitola Beach Company supplying rentals and lessons. Other attractions include the Capitola Historical Museum, set in the old schoolhouse, and the annual Capitola Art & Wine Festival.

6. San Lorenzo Valley

Railroad and trestle bridge through a redwood forest in Felton in the San Lorenzo Valley, California

The San Lorenzo River rises to the north of Downtown in the Santa Cruz Mountains, with its winding valley harboring several forest parks and sights along the way, best explored by car on Hwy-9. Santa Cruz’s Pogonip Open Space is a vast area of meadows, woodlands, creeks, and 11 miles of trails that borders the river just north of the UC Santa Cruz campus. It eventually merges into the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and the adjacent family-friendly Roaring Camp Railroads in the town of Felton, which features narrow-gauge train rides and the standard-gauge Santa Cruz Beach Train down to the Boardwalk and back. Not far from the park entrance is the quirky Bigfoot Discovery Museum, while further north the river is traversed by Felton Covered Bridge, spanning 80 feet and the tallest covered bridge in the US. Felton also boasts a weekly farmers’ market on Tuesdays. The Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center in Ben Lomond and San Lorenzo Valley Museum in Boulder Creek can be found further up the valley. Boulder Creek is also known for its live music scene, especially bluegrass and folk. At the far northern end of the valley lies Big Basin Redwoods State Park. The San Lorenzo Valley offers a real contrast with the beach districts – staying here is all about the woods and the quiet. There are a handful of relatively cheap hotels and rustic resorts up here, but most accommodation comprises RV parks and campgrounds. You’ll need a car to get around conveniently.

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About Santorini Dave

Santorini Dave Author Bio. Santorini Dave was started in 2011 by a guy who loved Greece, travel, and great hotels. We're now a small team of writers and researchers on a mission to deliver the most helpful travel content on the internet. We specialize in Santorini, Mykonos, Athens, and Greece and recommend the best hotels, best neighborhoods, and best family hotels in top destinations around the world. We also make hotel maps and travel videos. I can be contacted at dave@santorinidave.com.