A Complete Guide to Moving to…Santa Cruz, California

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Don’t listen to Wikipedia: Santa Cruz is, and always will be, the real Surf City USA. Along its miles of coastline, there are waves to catch for beginners and experts alike, from the easy currents at Cowell’s Beach to the tall, terrifying tubes at Mavericks, the home of a world-famous wave-riding competition.

But even if you don’t surf, there are plenty of ways to live the Hang Ten lifestyle in Santa Cruz. The county boasts a temperate climate hovering in the 60s and 70s year-round, a mellow, laid-back vibe among the locals and university students, and an ideal location between hip San Francisco and scenic Big Sur. Add to that a burgeoning food and beer scene and an iconic beachfront amusement park and it’s no wonder millions of visitors fall in love with Santa Cruz every year.

If you’d like to trade pantsuits for wetsuits and boots for Birkenstocks, get ready to pack your bags. Here’s what you need to know before relocating to my hometown of Santa Cruz, California!

West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, California, photo by Jill Kimball

COST OF LIVING

As effortless as life in Santa Cruz might seem, prospective residents won’t find it easy to get a foot in the door. In 2016, Santa Cruz was named the second most unaffordable place to live in the U.S. just behind Brooklyn. Rent will set you back an average of $2,742 for a two-bedroom apartment, and it’ll cost you even more to live near downtown or within a mile of the ocean. The farther inland and south you travel, the more money you’ll save–so if you’re willing to commute, try the rural, picturesque hills above Soquel and Aptos or the increasingly vibrant city of Watsonville, where the Mexican food can’t be beat!

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, photo by Jill Kimball

THE SCENE

Considering its size, Santa Cruz has a bustling and varied nightlife–and it’s mostly thanks to downtown’s proximity to the University of California Santa Cruz. If you’re looking for sleek, upscale lounges serving manhattans and martinis, you’re in the wrong place–Santa Cruz is all about laid-back pubs, funky, dimly lit clubs in converted Victorian houses and hip new breweries lined with long tables. Some of the most popular watering holes these days are Beer30, The Redroom and 515.

Despite its many good bar options, Santa Cruz isn’t known as a party destination. Its residents are more concerned with eating healthy (and often vegetarian), staying politically active and getting outside. On weekend mornings, you’ll see them congregating at the farmer’s market, waiting in line at a packed breakfast joint or jogging along the waterfront, fog or shine. Rather than spend the afternoon watching football, they’re more likely to hit a hiking trail in the Santa Cruz Mountains, take a mountain bike up to the trails at Nisene Marks or play a little frisbee on the sand.

If you’re new to the area, the best way to make friends is to join a hiking, running or beer-tasting meetup online–check out all the options here.

A van on East Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, photo by Jill Kimball

THE PEOPLE

Santa Cruzans feel such intense hometown pride that they’ve covered their cars, surfboards, skateboards and bodies in locally-branded merchandise. If you want to blend in, you can find your own Santa Cruz clothes at Pacific Wave or the O’Neill flagship store–and while you’re there, pick up a pair of the über comfortable Reef flip flops all the locals sport.

Santa Cruz has long had a reputation as a hippie town, second only in fame to the People’s Republic of Berkeley. If you live in Santa Cruz, you’re guaranteed to know at least one vegan, stoner, ultimate frisbee player, militant political activist, deadhead, avant-garde artist and surfer–and one of those people is probably you. That said, the rising profile of nearby Silicon Valley is rapidly changing the vibe; every year, more and more tech workers move in, driving out downtown’s scuzzy clubs and patchouli-scented stores and ushering in new gastropubs and chain clothing stores.

Like other Californians, locals tend to be friendly and talkative, but they’re known for an aversion to “Vallies,” the nickname we’ve given inlanders who clog Highway 1 on summer weekends to visit the beach.

The nautical parade at Capitola's annual Begonia Festival, photo by Anthony Swagerty Dei Rossi

Photo: Anthony Swagerty Dei Rossi

Local Traditions

All summer long, this town’s beaches swarm with sunburned tourists, but locals don’t mind–they know the best time to soak up the sun is in September, when the crowds are long gone but the temperatures are warmer than ever. Santa Cruz ushers in the real summer season with a dizzying series of festivals, where residents can take in art, wine, classical music, creative sand castles and a peculiar but beautiful nautical parade with floats made entirely of begonias.

During the holidays, Santa Cruz lights up the dark days in style with a giant menorah in its main plaza and twinklers on the trees. But the winter’s best tradition by far is New Year’s Eve, when, at sunset, thousands of locals in outrageous costumes take to the street for the DIY Last Night Parade. Hours later, people young and old spill out of the bars just before midnight and run toward the clock tower for an all-night dance party, complete with DJ, light show and lots of bubbles.

If you’re moving to Santa Cruz for school, you can’t leave campus without witnessing or participating in the annual First Rain run–and you and your friends must snap a group portrait on top of the Squiggle, UCSC’s most famous sculpture.

A pedestrian path along East Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. Photo by Jill Kimball

Ready to make your dream a reality? Check out more Santa Cruz resources below. 
Local Housing | Santa Cruz Sentinel | Job Listings | Hiking Guide | UCSC Academics | Local Events | Santa Cruz LocalWikiYou Know You’re a Santa Cruzan When…

 

READ NEXT: Five reasons to take a solo trip this year

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