Situated in Northern California, Santa Cruz is a popular choice for those looking for a coastal getaway on the US West Coast. The city has a very youthful vibe, with plenty of interesting creative hubs and a fantastic beach! This all combines to create an easy-going atmosphere that attracts visitors year-round.
Whilst a fairly small city by Californian standards, Santa Cruz can still be difficult to navigate. It does not receive the same tourism numbers as the larger resorts in the state, meaning it can be hard to figure out where to stay.
That’s where we come in! We’ve built this guide to the seven best neighborhoods in Santa Cruz to help you plan your itinerary for your upcoming trip to this seaside gem.
So let’s jump right into it!
Quick Tips – Where to Stay in Santa Cruz
- The Boardwalk – Best neighborhood in Santa Cruz for your first time
- Downtown – Where to stay in Santa Cruz close to everything
- Midtown – Where to stay in Santa Cruz for nightlife
- Aptos – Best neighborhood in Santa Cruz for families
- University of California – Where to stay in Santa Cruz on a budget
- Capitola – Best neighborhood in Santa Cruz for couples
- Live Oak – Best off-the-beaten path neighborhood in Santa Cruz
Where to Stay in Santa Cruz
Looking for a specific place to stay? These are our highest recommendations for places to stay in Santa Cruz.
Best Hostel in Santa Cruz
Whilst being the only hostel in Santa Cruz, this Hostelling International accommodation still pulls out all the stops in ensuring you have a great stay in the city! With excellent communal facilities, this is by far the best option for backpackers that want to mingle with other travellers during their trip.
Best Budget Hotel in Santa Cruz
This charming hotel gives you luxury levels of comfort whilst offering budget-friendly rates on rooms! There are excellent facilities available for use throughout the year, and the staff are incredibly friendly. This ensures you will feel truly welcome throughout your stay in this hotel.
Best Luxury Hotel in Santa Cruz
Hotel Paradox has some of the best guest reviews in the city thanks to their unbeatable facilities and great levels of service! Part of the Autograph Collection, Hotel Paradox is the real pinnacle of luxury in Santa Cruz. With great spa facilities, a delectable breakfast and even a library, you will feel right at home.
Santa Cruz 7 Best Neighborhoods to Stay in
Let’s take a look, in more detail, at the five best neighbourhoods in Santa Cruz. Each caters to different interests, so be sure to pick the neighbourhood that’s right for you.
(Best neighborhood in Santa Cruz for your first time!)
- COOLEST thing to do in The Boardwalk – take a laid back tour of the city with Segway Tours Santa Cruz
- BEST place to visit in The Boardwalk – head to the Boardwalk itself to enjoy carnival rides, stalls and of course the large beach
The Boardwalk is the most popular neighborhood in Santa Cruz and the main hub of activity! Lining the beach, it is filled with a carnival atmosphere and great attractions. If you want to soak up the seaside atmosphere of Santa Cruz, this is the place to be and a must-visit for any first-time travellers.
It is located within walking distance of both Downtown and Uptown, allowing you to explore some of the other attractions in the city with ease! This is also where most of the hotels and hostels are located, many of which are offered at great prices.
- Hop on board the Chardonnay II, a large ship that hosts wine tastings, craft beer sessions and evening parties
- Ideal Bar & Grill is a popular dining establishment located right on the coast, with a great selection of American food and beers
- The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is quite a small museum but offers excellent exhibits on the natural development of the California coast
- Kuumbwa Jazz Centre is a great alternative nightlife venue where you can listen to one of America’s most renowned music styles
- If you want to try out some seafood, Stagnaro Bros offer a massive selection at surprisingly good prices given its central location
Best Hostel The Boardwalk
Hostelling International are the most popular hostel chain across the United States, and their Santa Cruz location is perfect for backpackers that want to visit the city! They have large communal areas, including a well-equipped kitchen, that are perfect for mixing with other guests. They also offer cheap on-site parking.
Best Budget Hotel in The Boardwalk
The Sea & Sand Inn is one of the closest hotels to the boardwalk, and is perfect if you are on a budget and want to stay centrally! All of the rooms in the hotel have a sea view, as well as a large en-suite bathroom. A continental breakfast is served every day.
Best Luxury Hotel in The Boardwalk
This gorgeous four star hotel is located right on the waterfront, giving you mesmerizing views across the Pacific Ocean! Rooms are well equipped with coffee machines, high speed WiFi and all the modern conveniences you could ever possibly need. There are two restaurants on-site with takeaway options, as well as free parking.
Have your dates picked? Read up on hostels in San Diego before you book!
(Where to stay in Santa Cruz close to everything!)
- COOLEST thing to do in Downtown – take in a show by local, as well as nationally renowned, performers at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium
- BEST place to visit in Downtown – the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History is a great place to learn about the city’s past and present
The Downtown area of Santa Cruz is the most central neighborhood for those that want easy access to all parts of the region! The main bus station is situated in Downtown, and there are plenty of excellent tour operators that allow you to explore the city and further afield with ease.
Aside from its convenience, Downtown has plenty of cultural attractions for visitors to discover. This is where the local arts scene comes alive, and there is no shortage of theatres, galleries and concert venues across the area. It is also a major shopping district in the city – especially if you want locally owned stores!
- The Pacific Garden Mall is a massive shopping centre in the heart of the area where you can find local boutiques and international brands
- Mutari Chocolate is mostly used as a chocolate shop throughout the year, however, if you book in advance they also offer chocolate making workshops
- Current eBikes are a great way to explore the city – though mostly run manually, they are motorised to make it easier to navigate hills
- Rosie McCann’s is a popular Irish pub with local patrons – it is a little more upmarket than Irish bars elsewhere in the world, but retains a fantastic atmosphere
- Californian culture and Mexican cuisine go hand in hand, and there’s no better place in Santa Cruz to discover this than El Palomar
Best Hotel for Backpackers Downtown
This large motel has an outdoor pool, making it a fantastic choice for backpackers on a tight budget who want to still enjoy some extra comforts! Rooms are pretty basic, but come with a coffee machine and WiFi access. There are free parking facilities available on-site.
Best Budget Hotel in Downtown
This is another great budget option, though is best for those wanting a little more of an upgrade! It is located on the boundaries between Downtown and the Boardwalk area, giving you easy access to both parts of the city. They offer a great buffet breakfast every morning alongside high speed WiFi.
Best Luxury Hotel in Downtown
Another fantastic four star option, the Pacific Blue inn has an eco-friendly ethos – making it an excellent choice for travellers that are environmentally conscious! Rooms are brightly decorated and come with all the modern conveniences you require. Not only do they provide a complimentary breakfast, but also free pastries and coffee all day.
(Where to stay in Santa Cruz for nightlife!)
- COOLEST thing to do in Midtown – enjoy a night out at One Double Oh Seven Club, the hippest nightlife venue in town!
- BEST place to visit in Midtown – wander around San Lorenzo Park, a large greenspace with unspoiled views across the coast
Midtown, as well as the neighboring Seabright neighborhood, is the hipster part of Santa Cruz. This has had an immense impact on local culture, creating an eclectic arts scene during the day and a bustling nightlife scene in the evenings! For those that want to party, you have to head to Midtown and Seabright.
It has an incredibly youthful atmosphere that makes it an attractive choice for backpackers! What’s more, it is also somewhat cheaper than the neighbouring Boardwalk area – allowing you to stay in the city centre whilst sticking to a tight budget. Midtown has plenty of surprises waiting to be discovered.
- Catch a show at the Rio Theatre – a popular venue for discovering up and coming musicians and theatre companies
- 100 Mile Meals is a local initiative that aims to serve food using only ingredients that can be found in the surrounding area
- Ocean View Park is a little busier than San Lorenzo, but with good reason – it has magnificent sunset views every evening
- Seabright Brewery is one of the largest craft breweries in the city, and a must-visit for beer lovers
- Need to ease a hangover? Head straight to Hindquarter Bar & Grill – they have an excellent menu and great customer ratings
Best Hotel for Backpackers Midtown
This is a fantastic choice for those on a budget that want to stay centrally, but also still enjoy great levels of comfort! It is located on the boundary between Midtown and the Boardwalk, giving you easy access to most of the main city centre attractions. There is a large spa centre with heated pools on-site.
Best Budget Hotel in Midtown
Holiday Inn Express are known globally for their budget-friendly comfort, and their Santa Cruz location is no exception! There is an outdoor pool and sauna on-site, and they offer a large buffet breakfast every morning. Parking facilities are available at an additional fee. They also have high speed WiFi.
Best Luxury Hotel in Midtown
This gorgeous hotel is one of the most luxurious in the city, with cabanas, outdoor pools and even fire pits to keep you warm throughout the evenings! Rooms are fully soundproofed, ensuring you enjoy a full night of sleep. A complimentary American style breakfast is provided every morning.
Let’s narrow it down! Near Lax Airport are some of the best hostels!
(Best neighborhood in Santa Cruz for families!)
- COOLEST thing to do in Aptos – golf fan? Enjoy a few rounds at Seascape Golf Club – the largest in the area
- BEST place to visit in Aptos – there are plenty of fantastic beaches in the area – we suggest heading to Rio del Mar
Aptos is a small neighbourhood just outside of Santa Cruz that is perfect for families that want to relax away from the hustle and bustle of the Boardwalk! There are three main areas within Aptos – Seacliff, Rio del Mar and La Selva. These are all lined with gorgeous beaches that have a more exclusive atmosphere than those in central Santa Cruz.
There are also plenty of other great attractions – including a huge golf club and a number of child-friendly entertainment options. The restaurants in this area are a lot cheaper than those in central Santa Cruz, keeping your wallet happy!
- Hidden Beach is somewhat an open secret these days, but it is still much more secluded than other beaches in the region
- For art lovers, you can’t beat a trip to the main shopping street through Rio del Mar – there are plenty of pottery and fine art boutiques along the way
- La Selva Library offers a number of fantastic activities for kids, including live readings and writing workshops
- If you want a break away from the kids, Seascape Village Wine & Spirit is a fantastic tasting experience in Rio del Mar
- Cafe Rio is the most popular restaurant in the area, offering easy going meals at great prices
Best Hotel for Backpackers Aptos
Whilst this is only a two star hotel, it nevertheless offers great facilities for those that want to stay in the area on a strict budget! There is an outdoor pool with sunlounger area, and the rooms are well equipped with modern conveniences. There are also rooms that come with kitchens.
Best Budget Hotel in Aptos
Another brand known internationally for their high standards of comfort, the Best Western Seacliff Inn is a great choice if you are sticking to a budget but still want a little bit of an upgrade! There is a large outdoor swimming pool, and a complimentary breakfast buffet is provided every morning.
Best Luxury Hotel in Aptos
This gorgeous hotel is great if you want the typical resort experience within easy travelling distance of Santa Cruz! There are three pools located within the complex, as well as two restaurants. All rooms come with either a patio or balcony, and there is a small kitchenette area within the suite.
Will you be in San Diego a while? Here’s your guide to the top day trips from San Diego for exploring the area!
(Where to stay in Santa Cruz on a budget!)
- COOLEST thing to do in University of California – discover natural beauty at the Natural Bridges State Beach, located in the Westside area
- BEST place to visit in University of California – head to the Equinox Champagne Cellars to discover how the beverage is brewed locally
The University of California area, as the name suggests, is a major student district in Santa Cruz. This ensures prices are kept low, making it the ideal choice for budget-conscious travellers heading to the coastal city! Though mostly a residential area, there are some great accommodation options nearby.
Though officially a separate area, we also include the Westside in this section about the University of California area. As a neighboring district, it is also popular with students and is a great spot for budget-friendly nightlife! During the day it has some excellent restaurants and shopping facilities.
More Awesome Things to do and see in UniverSity of California
- Wander down Swift Street, a brand new retail venue in the area with excellent craft breweries and locally owned stores
- Seymour Marine Discovery Centre is a great place to learn about aquatic life in the surrounding ocean
- Cafe Brazil is popular with locals, offering an authentic churrascaria experience right in the heart of the Westside
- Garfield Park comes alive every Thursday with the Santa Cruz Food Truck Party, showcasing some of the best vendors in the city
- Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing mostly functions as a craft beer bar, but they also provide small tours of their organic brewing facilities
Best Hotel for Backpackers University of California
Situated on the boundary between Downtown and the University of California area, Mission Inn gives you easy access to the city centre whilst sticking to a strict budget! They offer a complimentary American style breakfast every morning, and there is both a hot tub and sauna on-site.
Best Budget Hotel in University of California
Also situated on the boundary of the University of California area, Fairfield Inn & Suites gives you easy access to the highway – perfect if you are arriving by car and want to explore other parts of the region! They offer free parking on-site, as well as a complimentary breakfast and WiFi access.
Need more specifics? Here are the best neighborhoods in San Diego to stay!
Best Luxury Hotel in University of California
Owned by the Four Sisters Franchise, West Cliff Inn is the perfect splurge option on the edge of the Westside. This four star bed and breakfast has a warm and welcoming atmosphere – perfect if you want to experience the authentic Santa Cruz! Rooms are decorated in a traditional style with fireplaces and marble bathrooms.
(Best neighborhood in Santa Cruz for couples!)
- COOLEST thing to do in Capitola – listen to local musicians and browse arts and crafts at the Sunday Art & Music at the Esplanade event
- BEST place to visit in Capitola – Capitola Village has a breezy, European atmosphere with colorful houses and seaside vibes
Capitola is an artsy neighborhood to the east of the city centre, making it the perfect destination for a romantic getaway to Santa Cruz! The colorful buildings add a creative flair to the area, and there are regular arts and music events that showcase local makers. Though a little more upmarket, it is well worth splurging on this area.
Capital Village is the centrepiece of the neighborhood, and where you will find most of the attractions. There are great restaurants, local artisans and beach activities abound in this gorgeous village within the city. Whether you are visiting as a couple, or simply want to soak up the arts scene, Capitola is a must on your itinerary!
- New Brighton Beach is the main gathering point for locals, and has plenty of watersports and sunbathing facilities
- Capitola Historic Museum is an eccentric attraction detailing the surprisingly complex history of the area
- Bay Bar and Grill is a major social hub in Capitola – it functions as a casual restaurant by day, and bustling bar by night!
- It’s Wine Time gives you a more upmarket experience and is the perfect date night venue, offering an enormous selection of national and international wines
- Bamboo Garden Restaurant has a more romantic atmosphere with an unbeatable menu of food and wine
Best Hotel for Backpackers Capitola
This hotel is popular with digital nomads and business travellers thanks to the highly-rated complimentary WiFi access! For other backpackers, it also offers excellent rates on rooms in one of the most unique areas of the city. For a small additional fee, you can also opt for a patio or balcony.
Still haven’t booked for Anaheim? Find out where to stay in Anaheim for any type of trip!
Best Budget Hotel in Capitola
This is another fantastic option from Best Western – offering you great comfort at equally good prices! This hotel comes with a large fitness suite, allowing you to keep up your routine whilst in Santa Cruz. They also offer an excellent American style breakfast buffet every morning, and free parking spaces.
Best Luxury Hotel in Capitola
For couples looking to splurge in Santa Cruz, you can’t go wrong with the Inn at Depot Hill! The included breakfast has a great spread of pastries, hot food and continental delights. Rooms have their own spa facilities including bath salts, robes and luxury toiletries. Satellite TV can also be accessed.
Will you also visit Long Beach? Check out where we like to stay in Long Beach!
(Best off-the-beaten path neighborhood in Santa Cruz!)
- COOLEST thing to do in Live Oak – try your hand at surfing on Pleasure Point beach
- BEST place to visit in Live Oak – the Santa Cruz Children’s Museum of Discovery is a great attraction for families
Known locally as the Eastside, Live Oak is the huge suburban neighborhood that connects Capitola with the city centre. Whilst formerly a forgotten residential neighborhood, it is somewhat up and coming and is a great choice for travellers looking for a more authentic experience in the city!
The beach, in particular, has seen a lot of renovation work over the past few years – making it a great place not only to sunbathe but also to try out water sports! This has resulted in a number of local businesses popping up around the area – with a great selection of bars, restaurants and entertainment facilities.
- Kayak Connection are a popular water sports hire facility on the beach, with plenty of kayaks and stand up paddleboards to choose from
- New Bohemia Brewing Co. is the perfect example of the up and coming atmosphere of Live Oak, with some excellent craft beers on offer
- Moe’s Alley is a decades-old live music club that has multiple themed nights throughout the year – including Latin, Blues and Reggae
- Santa Cruz Whale Watching is a fantastic attraction for animal lovers that allows you to spot marine animals in their natural habitat
Best Hotel for Backpackers Live Oak
Harbor Inn is located on the boundary between Live Oak and the City Centre, giving you easy access to the main attractions whilst still being away from the main tourist routes! They offer high speed WiFi in every room, as well as free parking spaces for guests
Best Budget Hotel in Live Oak
For a bit of an upgrade, the Bella Notte Inn is only a short walk away from the beach – perfect if you want to soak up the sun! They offer a basic concierge service, giving you a little added touch of luxury despite the budget-friendly rates. They also provide a continental breakfast.
Best Luxury Hotel in Live Oak
Chaminade Resort & Spa is located in the far north of Live Oak, with marvellous views across the surrounding mountain range! This romantic retreat feels like a true getaway from the busy city centre, allowing you to unwind in style. There are great spa and dining options on-site.
Final Thoughts on Where to Stay in Santa Cruz?
Santa Cruz is a fantastic destination that combines California cool with an easy-going atmosphere! If you want great beaches without the hustle and bustle of Southern California’s megacities, Santa Cruz is the place to be.
For best area we are going to go with Midtown! It is located within walking distance from the Boardwalk and Downtown, and also has the best range of entertainment options.
Nevertheless, the best area for you depends entirely on what you want to get out of your stay in the city, and we hope this guide has helped you figure that out.
Have we missed anything? Let us know in the comments!
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