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17 things to do in Santa Cruz, the old-school beach town that makes for a charming getaway

On a spring day in Santa Cruz, visitors have a mind-boggling opportunity: to see a city bloom and shrink, all at the same time.

The bloom is actually not a big surprise: Santa Cruz is located in a beautiful spot on the northern edge of Monterey Bay, surrounded by redwood forests. It has attracted heat-happy visitors from inland California since at least 1907 Beach promenade of Santa Cruz opened.

That amusement park is perhaps the most famous attraction in the city. I love the sight of the lights and scaffolding at night, and if you remember the 1987 movie “The Lost Boys” you’ll recognize it as a hangout for a vampire gang led by Kiefer Sutherland.

If you make your way there, whether it’s summer or not, you’ll find that Santa Cruz is dominated by surfers, tech workers, and students at UC Santa Cruz. It is not for nothing that the city has the reputation of being an artsy, wooded, liberal enclave. Despite the pandemic, ambitious and distinctive restaurants have multiplied in recent years, including Copal (see below), vim And Bad animala restaurant-bar-bookstore hybrid that I hope to hit on the next trip.

So how is the city shrinking? One of the biggest challenges of the area is coastal erosion, accelerated by climate change. This is reflected in frequent road repairs along West Cliff Drive after winter storms, as waves eat away at the sea cliffs. In the Pleasure Point neighborhood and elsewhere, local leaders have tried to contain the force of the sea with rip-rap and seawalls. (In Santa Cruz, next to Aptos, the state announced Feb. 16 that it would close the storm-damaged Seacliff Pier.)

This is a common problem in California: on average found a study, the state’s coast is losing 2 inches a year. Santa Cruz’s share in that erosion is simply spectacular.

In other words, the longer you wait to see Santa Cruz, the less there will be.

Here’s a rundown of 17 things a visitor can do in and around Santa Cruz, all of which I’ve tried over the past few months.