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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Five reasons to take a solo trip this year

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In the not-too-distant past, there seemed to be a stigma against solo travelers, especially nomads of the female variety. But then came The Blonde Abroad, Alex in Wanderland, Anna Everywhere, Globetrotter Girls and a whole host of other brave, blogging trailblazers…and suddenly, to a new generation of travelers, striking out on one’s own didn’t seem so scary after all.

If you thought solo traveling was only for lone wolves, photographers or teens taking a gap year, think again—it’s for anyone who wants to see the world and isn’t afraid of a little self-discovery along the way.

Here are 5 reasons why you don’t need a companion to take that dream trip.

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It’s your party; you can lounge by that Vegas pool if you want to.

Reason #1: Your schedule is totally up to you.

If you’ve ever traveled with a companion, you know what it feels like to get frustrated when the two of you fall out of sync. Maybe, on a previous trip, you’d have preferred to check out the 6 a.m. cafe scene in a new city had your spouse not been more amenable to sleeping in. Or perhaps you’d have liked to take your time exploring that museum over the course of a whole day, but your friend insisted on sprinting through two more museums before noon.

When you travel alone, you’ll never have to run on any schedule but your own. Celebrate freedom of choice by taking that mid-afternoon nap you wish you could have taken on your last trip. Or, once your feet start to hurt, don’t hesitate to loiter on a park bench and people watch rather than bravely soldiering on for the sake of your companion. Where you go and what you do is completely and totally up to you…no more compromises!

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Perks of traveling alone: no one’s there to complain about the Friday night museum line.

Reason #2: You can follow your heart.

When you travel alone, not only is your schedule yours alone, but it’s also free from any outside social pressure. When I visited New York for the first time on a solo trip, I had no desire to see the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building or Times Square, and I wanted to keep things as simple and cheap as possible. Had I traveled with someone else, I may have felt obligated to visit these NYC hallmarks and splurge on a nice hotel room. But because I was alone, I didn’t hesitate to reserve a bunk at a centrally-located hostel or to follow my heart to funkier, lesser-known locales like the Cloisters in Inwood, a gritty, greasy diner on the Lower East Side and a used designer clothing shop in NoLiTa.

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Backpacking with new friends in Trieste.

Reason #3: You’ll meet cool new people.

While part of the allure of solo travel is the alone time it affords you, sometimes it’s nice to get out of your own head and strike up a conversation with someone new. Traveling solo is the perfect way to meet interesting new people, especially other solo travelers your age.

Think of the world like a high school cafeteria: When you’re a new student, you’re more likely to walk up to a friendly-looking table of one instead of the boisterous group of popular kids. In the same vein, when you travel with someone else, strangers are less likely to approach you (and sometimes that can be a good thing…see: creepers). But when you’re alone, other travelers will find you less intimidating and more approachable.

If you want to make friends but have concerns about aforementioned creepers, your best bet will be to stay in casual environments where you’ll be surrounded by lots of people, like pubs, museums, low-key concerts and popular parks. Open your mind, take off your sunglasses and flash your pearly whites.

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Reflecting from a canoe on the 4th of July.

Reason #4: You’ll learn to depend on yourself.

When you’re alone and you get a splitting headache, you can’t stay under the covers at the hotel while your companion runs to the drug store. When you lose your passport, no one else is there to help you find the nearest embassy and navigate the complicated waters of international bureaucracy. While that may sound somewhere between daunting and downright terrifying—and to be honest, it is, at least in the moment—it’s also hugely educational. Those mini (and maxi) crises you face alone become defining moments in your life, moments you can point to and say, “That’s when I really became an adult,” or, “That’s when I overcame my biggest fear.”

When you weather storms by yourself, you feel like a total confident badass…like you literally CAN take on the world. And—bonus!—you usually get a great story out of it.

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Exploring my own backyard.

Reason #5: You’ll get to know yourself better than ever before.

Comments from friends with whom I’d traveled in the past made me think my travel preferences skewed heavily toward arts, culture and snobbery. While I won’t deny that I love a night at the symphony, traveling alone made me realize some of my preferences were less upper-crust and more serflike. Now, when I explore a new destination, I know to create loose itineraries that combine the high-class with the lowbrow. If I were in Paris, I might don a sundress and spend the morning at the D’Orsay, spend lunch on the Seine with a grocery store baguette and a juice box of wine, and change into ripped jeans for a night at a hole-in-the-wall hangout in the Latin Quarter.

Finding your unique style as a traveler is great, but even better are the discoveries you make about yourself as a person when you’re on the road. Traveling alone allows you to discover your limits, physically and emotionally, and sometimes put them to the test. It illuminates your strengths and establishes your weaknesses. I’ve never felt more self aware than at the end of a solo trip.

Have you traveled alone? What tips would you give to aspiring solo wanderers?