How Safe Is Santa Cruz for Travel?

Santa Cruz, United States
Safety Index:
94

I should’ve started writing this article about Santa Cruz, California, 30 minutes ago but I got too caught up in all the breathtaking photos.

Santa Cruz is a sensational surfing and seaside wonderland.

The Beach Boardwalk is a hallmark of the community and has been going non-stop since 1907.

Two of the rides from back in the day still stand and draw long lines.

Abundant beach opportunities await whether you want to be a big kahuna and surf, spot some whales, tour the tide pools, or just sit and smell the salt air.

You’ll be an expert at tide schedules by the time you leave.

You can also head inland to get a look at some of the biggest trees in the world at Big Basin Redwoods State Park or the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park.

True crime junkies might remember this is the area where two serial killers operated in the 1970s, Edmund Kemper and Herbert Mullin.

Both have since been caught and are safely locked away.

Surfing fans will remember this is the hometown of pro-surfer Jay Moriarity, whose surfing skills were second to his positive influences and attitude that sparked the saying “Live Like Jay.”

This is a city that prides itself on having liberal views and is very LGBTQ+-friendly.

The artistic and eclectic flair of this town sets it aside from other more traditional beach cities.

Warnings & Dangers in Santa Cruz

Overall Risk

OVERALL RISK : LOW

There's a low overall risk but that comes with a heap of caveats. This city was once considered one of the most dangerous in America. Rampant crime, drug use, and homelessness controlled the streets. Police have since done a great job of cleaning up much of the crime, but there's still a grit to this seaside beauty.

Transport & Taxis Risk

TRANSPORT & TAXIS RISK : LOW

Santa Cruz Metro provides the bus service here and throughout the county. Greyhound and Amtrack are also available in this area. In town, you've got traditional taxis and rideshares. There is also an in-town trolley system that mainly goes up and down Pacific Avenue. Whatever you choose, there's a low risk, but be vigilant at bus stops as there are a lot of homeless people here who can become aggressive.

Pickpockets Risk

PICKPOCKETS RISK : LOW

I'm going back to 2019 for crime stats on this one because there was a sharp drop off during the pandemic. There were 18 pickpockets or purse snatching in 2019, a fraction of the 2,363 thefts that happened. There's low risk if you protect your valuables and keep belongings secured.

Natural Disasters Risk

NATURAL DISASTERS RISK : LOW

Wildfires are the biggest risk here and when one starts it can get big quickly. Assuming there isn't a wildfire burning during your visit, there's a low risk. If there is a fire, it quickly goes up to medium.

Mugging Risk

MUGGING RISK : LOW

There's a low risk of mugging here but the robbery rate is higher than the national average. Since there is a grittier side to this city, it's worth the warning about not fighting back if someone takes your stuff by force. It's not worth risking your life.

Terrorism Risk

TERRORISM RISK : LOW

With a more remote location on the coast and no military bases nearby, there's a low risk of terrorism in Santa Cruz.

Scams Risk

SCAMS RISK : LOW

The only reported scam that might impact a tourist is a romance scam that starts with meeting someone online and eventually they gain access to your accounts or convince you to give them money. You know better than that, right? We'll call it a low-risk.

Women Travelers Risk

WOMEN TRAVELERS RISK : LOW

Rape statistics are now at the lowest level in four years, and there is a one in 2,406 chance of that happening. Nothing else stands out that should give female travelers concern about being here other than the same concerns for others. You should have your guard up here, but there's no quantifying reason to say there's anything but a low risk.

Tap Water Risk

TAP WATER RISK : LOW

Santa Cruz hasn't had a tap water violation since 2016, so there's a low risk. It also meets or exceeds all requirements of the EPA and state agencies.

Safest Places to Visit in Santa Cruz

You haven’t visited Santa Cruz if you haven’t gone to the Beach Boardwalk.

The boardwalk is more than a century old and still has the 1924 Giant Dipper roller coaster made of wood and the 1911 Looff Carousel.

Many more rides abound with options, from the dizzying Fireball to the “oh heck no I’m not going that high up” choice of spinning teacups.

This park has water rides and laser tag, as well as a Fright Walk under the boardwalk.

Plenty of dining options are on-site too, from a fresh seafood meal to a custom-sugared churro and root beer float.

Bring me back a funnel cake, will ya?

Now let’s head to the beach.

Right in the center, you’ll see Santa Cruz Wharf.

This is the longest wooden pier in the country and goes nearly 2800 feet over Monterey Bay.

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is located here.

Families might feel a little more relaxed at Harbor Beach and Twin Lakes State Beach.

To catch the surfers in action, the most popular spot is Steamer Lane.

Waves can get up to 18-feet high here.

For the best whale watching, you’ll need to visit Lighthouse Field State Beach.

If you walk far enough south on the beach, you’ll end up at Capitola Wharf, a Mediterranean-styled town with a gorgeous wooden pier.

Downtown Santa Cruz is a charming historic area filled with cafes, locally-owned stores, and various entertainment options.

Downtown Ambassadors are waiting throughout the day for a call to help you find the perfect spot for your trip.

Places to Avoid in Santa Cruz

The crime maps show the incidents are very widely spread out in the city, but it’s also not that big of a city at just 15 square miles.

The Beach Flats, which is near the boardwalk, is one of the more rundown parts of town, so avoid it if you can (which will be hard since it’s on the Boardwalk).

Lower Ocean is another neighborhood riddled with crime, but it’s also the entrance to the beach area.

You just always have to be on guard here, more than in some other beach cities.

This city is filled with people who believe strongly in whatever their belief system is and they have the courage of their convictions.

Don’t get into a political argument or stare at someone who might look different from you.

Inclusion and diversity are the essences of Santa Cruz and people express themselves in a variety of ways.

Just be open to whatever you see and don’t cast judgment.

There are surfing spots in California and then there’s Santa Cruz.

The surfers here take it very seriously, and you are among some of the best surfers in the world here.

Avoid going surfing near the professionals, no matter how good you did in your lessons.

Ask your surfing instructor where the best place is to go for practice.

Don’t just assume that because people are surfing in a certain spot, that means it’s okay for you to go there.

There is a long history of surfers vs non-surfers in Santa Cruz.

To get in the spirit of Santa Cruz surfing culture, watch the movie Chasing Mavericks.

One of my favorites!

You should avoid even thinking about giving to a panhandler.

Don’t look at them and don’t say anything.

They are notoriously aggressive here to the point where you should have your phone in your hand ready to dial 911 at times.

Safety Tips for Traveling to Santa Cruz

  1. Sign up for emergency alerts from the Santa Cruz Police Department through Nixle. This covers weather warnings, missing people, civil emergencies, and the like. You can easily opt-out when you leave.
  2. Get to know the tide schedules well as it will limit where you can go or open new seaside doors, depending on if it’s high tide or low tide. If you hear someone mention King Tides, those are the highest of the high tides and happen seasonally.
  3. If you want to swim or surf, you’ll need a wet suit to avoid hypothermia. The warmest it ever gets is 61.5°(F). Cold shock can quickly set in if you don’t wear the right gear.
  4. If you are traveling with a dog, you cannot leave it alone in a hotel room. The city takes it seriously and they could call Animal Control if a pet is found unattended. There are plenty of pet-friendly beaches and restaurants to explore with your dog.
  5. You can use recreational marijuana in Santa Cruz, but there is a whole list of “buts” that go along with it. You can’t just walk down the street smoking a joint. Check with the city for specifics about where you can and can’t smoke. Even if you aren’t into that, it’s good to know the rules for your visit there.
  6. I wasn’t kidding about the homeless here. Even a Santa Cruz travel website reads, “some transients are chronic law violators who often infringe upon the rights of others. We suggest using a combination of caution and respect around panhandlers and other strangers.”
  7. It’s tempting to keep the windows down on your car to breathe in the ocean air, but especially in areas like Lower Ocean, keep the windows rolled up and the doors locked. You might see some prostitutes or gang indicators, so it’s best to take the safest ride possible.
  8. The Boardwalk is going to get crowded. Very crowded. Clean out your purse or wallet before you go and only take what you absolutely need and then somehow secure it to your body. A backpack is ideal for this. I’m surprised the pickpocket numbers aren’t higher here.
  9. You can drink alcohol on the Boardwalk, and many people drink too much, but you can’t take it on the beach. Finish your drink before hitting the sand. Grab a glass of water too.
  10. If there’s a wildfire near Santa Cruz during your trip, make other plans. Wildfires can be spread by wicked winds and lead to evacuations of the area. It’s not worth risking your life by trying to hope for the best.

So... How Safe Is Santa Cruz Really?

Santa Cruz is a city some locals wish the rest of the world didn’t know about.

Ask locals, they’ll say there are too many drunk tourists that cause too many crimes.

Ask tourists, they’ll say there are too many aggressive homeless people and condescending surfers.

The city gets very crowded since it has so many amenities, but those crowds lead to thefts, fights, and drugs.

You can’t go to Santa Cruz and enjoy the best parts of it without also being in the most dangerous parts of it.

Car thefts and thefts from cars are some of the biggest complaints and crimes in Santa Cruz.

You have to take extra care watching and securing your car while you visit here.

Both the violent crime and property crimes in this area are higher than the California average.

There’s a drug problem here and a gang presence.

Is it an overwhelmingly crime-ridden town?

No.

The potential is there.

Check your ego at the city line, lock your cars and park in well-lit areas, keep your belongings close and watch out for how much you drink.

If you see panhandlers, cross the street to avoid them.

If a situation feels shady, get away from it.

The average tourist is going to have a fun yet eye-opening experience here.

The average tourist is going to leave without becoming a victim of a crime.

A lot of the potential rests in how you behave while here.

How Does Santa Cruz Compare?

CitySafety Index
Santa Cruz94
Las Vegas62
San Francisco61
Philadelphia60
Houston59
Brussels (Belgium)60
Shanghai (China)66
Belize City (Belize)37

Useful Information

  • Visas - The Visas get handled at the airport, border, or port of entry. You need nothing else to get into Santa Cruz. The drinking age is 21, so if you are going to drink alcohol, carry an ID with you.
  • Currency - You'll use the U.S. Dollar here. Don't carry around cash if you can and certainly don't talk to anyone about the cash you end up carrying. One credit card should suffice and make sure to set purchase limits on it before you go. That way you'll be alerted if there's a suspicious charge.
  • Weather - Not a whole lot of difference between summer and winter here. The coldest months have highs in the 60s and lows in the 40s. The warmest months have highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s. Bring rain gear, but you might not need it. That rain jacket might help with walks on the beach as the ocean can kick up some high, splashy waves in this region.
  • Airports - The San Jose International Airport is about 40 minutes north. San Francisco's airport tacks on another 20-minute drive at least, do plan for an hour to get there. Oakland's Airport is about 1:15 from Santa Cruz. With airports in the bay area, always add 30 minutes to travel time due to traffic. You can also check the CalTrans website for possible delays along the way.
  • Travel Insurance - Wildfires have notoriously shut down parts of this area, making it a perfect place for travel insurance. If you get a rental car, you should add extra insurance on it as well or make sure your vehicle insurance covers car theft or break-ins in rental cars.
Click here to get an offer for travel insurance

Santa Cruz Weather Averages (Temperatures)

Jan 11° C
Feb 12° C
Mar 12° C
Apr 14° C
May 15° C
Jun 17° C
Jul 18° C
Aug 18° C
Sep 18° C
Oct 16° C
Nov 13° C
Dec 11° C
Choose Temperature Unit

Average High/Low Temperature

Temperature / MonthJanFebMarAprMayJunJulAugSepOctNovDec
High
°C
161718202123232424221916
Low
°C
5667910121211975
High
°F
616364687073737575726661
Low
°F
414343454850545452484541

Where to Next?

Share Your Experience