Westside: Iconic landmarks & can’t-miss institutions

Westlake Park is a popular Upper Westside destination for humans, canines and waterfowl
Westlake Park is a popular Upper Westside destination for humans, canines and waterfowl.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As a neighborhood well-accustomed to tourism, the Westside is a welcoming area. Lower Westside landmarks include West Cliff Drive, with the surfer statue, Steamer Lane, the Surfing Museum and Natural Bridges State Beach all well-known tourist destinations. The Upper Westside boasts UC Santa Cruz — not to be covered here, as the “City on a Hill” merits a guide of its own — peaceful Westlake Park, where local elementary students fish for bass or feed ducks; food for the feathered ones is available at Westside Farm & Feed — the Moore Creek trailhead at the end of Meder Street, and the classic stroll along West Cliff.

Other debatably Westside sights include Neary Lagoon, which allows for a quiet stroll over bridges across duck ponds and past the wastewater treatment plant, bringing you from Depot Park up to the lower Westside, and The Dream Inn, with its dreamy Jack O’Neill lounge overlooking Cowells — the notable landmarks of border territory.

While the Westside is vastly residential, several pockets of commercial development offer restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, yoga and other fitness studios and commercial spaces that rival any urban hub. Some of the city’s best spots to dine, work out, explore and sip are here, and worth the trek through traffic coming from other areas. The far Westside is experiencing a development boom — the “other” High Street, not the one leading up to UCSC — is actually High Road — a near-missable right turn off of Delaware Avenue.

At the intersection of High Road and Easy Street — the Westside has a sense of humor — is the home of Venus Cocktails & Kitchen, the crown jewel of the mixed-use development that also includes living and office space. In this walkable area, you can reach Cat & Cloud Coffee’s Westside outpost and the Swift Street Courtyard, home to the second 11th Hour Coffee and various boutique shops, Santa Cruz Yoga and Capoeira Santa Cruz. Around the corner on foot is Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, West End Tap & Kitchen, Santa Cruz Mountain Winery, MJA Vineyards’ tasting room, and the landmark New Leaf Community Market. Cross Fair Avenue and you’ll find Verve Coffee and Bantam, one of the area’s best farm-to-table restaurants. Far from the suburban feel of the neighborhood’s past, the Westside of today offers all these walkable delights.

Up Fair Avenue on the other side of Mission is the fortunate pandemic-era addition to Santa Cruz’s best fine-dining restaurants in chef Jesikah Stolaroff’s 1920s-themed Vim, across the way from a new establishment, Mission West. This is a fancy dive bar which kept the former establishment’s “Ye Olde Watering Hole” sign out front, opening up into a pretty outdoor patio, lending it a speakeasy vibe.

The surfer statue on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz
The surfer statue on West Cliff Drive.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Explore

West Cliff Drive

Ask any Westsider what their favorite thing to do in the area is or where they would bring an out-of-town guest visiting for the first time, and they’ll invariably highlight the walk along West Cliff. It includes dramatic views of the Pacific Ocean with its otters, sea lions, pelicans and occasional whales and dolphins, and several world-class surf breaks. Some of the Westside’s best tide pools can be found at low tides at Its Beach and Natural Bridges. At the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, you can find bike trails, marine exhibitions and even pet a shark.

Lighthouse Field

The area was almost lost in 1972 when plans for a hotel, convention center and shopping mall were approved. Residents saved their green space with the help of environmental lawyer Gary Patton. Fortunately, the California Coastal Commission rejected the proposed development, and today the field continues to draw spectators to the dramatic cliffs and bluffs providing firsthand views to some world-class surfing. Afterward, check out the tiny surf museum inside the lighthouse.

Surfer statue

Created by Thomas Marsh, the official name of the “surfer statue” is the Surfing Monument. It was placed in 1992 in honor of Bill Lidderdale Jr., an original member of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club. It’s one of the most recognizable landmarks in Santa Cruz and is decorated seasonally. (He also wore a mask for some time during the pandemic.) Some community members have been talking about whether room can be made to put up an adjacent female surfer statue.

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Its Beach (aka “Dog Beach”)

While not legally an off-leash beach, the frolicking packs would signal otherwise. Its is an it spot for bodyboarders, boogieboarding, tidepooling — at very low tides — and running your dog if you’ve got one.

Mitchell’s Cove

Further west from Its, Mitchell’s is another dog-friendly spot with an intermediate/advanced surf break on the right swell. Beds of dry kelp make Mitchell’s a little less desirable for sunbathing, but great for a dog walk or stroll by the shore through salty — and seaweedy — air.

Natural Bridges / Butterfly Trail

Natural Bridges State Beach is named for its impressive rock formation — there used to be two of them but one collapsed. It includes the iconic Monarch Trail, a 0.6-mile walk to where butterflies seek sanctuary on their migration journey during winter months.

A monarch butterfly at Natural Bridges State Beach
A monarch butterfly at Natural Bridges State Beach.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Rail Trail

The Westside’s ongoing trail project leads out to Wilder Ranch State Park. Though technically outside the neighborhood’s outer limits, Wilder is a Westsiders’ favorite for walking trails and biking along dramatic bluffs above the wild Pacific. The long-in-the-making and sometimes-controversial project originates on the Westside — “Segment 7” runs from Natural Bridges Drive to downtown, pointing the way for a bike-commutable future. Up the trail or Highway 1, Wilder Ranch is technically outside the borders of Santa Cruz’s Westside, but the Westside is your avenue of arrival to the splendid overlooks and bike trails.

Pogonip & Moore Creek Preserve

For hikers, at the end of Spring Street, enter the Pogonip Trail and take in views of the city below until you enter the redwood-lined path. The hike offers a few surprises, including a garden of cairns and a pond filled with koi. Meder Street, meanwhile, dead-ends at another trailhead, opening up hikes through the greenery and wide-open pastures of the Moore Creek Preserve, often with cows along the way.

The so-called Circle Church
The so-called Circle Church stands in the center of Errett Circle on Santa Cruz’s Westside.
(Nik Altenberg / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Circles

Errett Circle forms the innermost ring of the neighborhood known as “The Circles,” where streets suddenly turn into exactly that. The “Circle Church,” formerly known as Garfield Park Community Church, stands in place of what used to be the Christian Church of California’s octagonal tabernacle in the 1890s. The church is the bullseye of the Circles, and Wilkes, Walk and Errett circles embrace it. This Lower Westside neighborhood has an old-time feel, and residents recall days when farm animals roamed pastures here. Today, it retains its charm with the landmark Circle Market and quiet streets with houses often on odd-sized lots because of the area’s shape. In a locally controversial move, the church property’s current owners plan to demolish it to build more housing.

Swift Street Courtyard

Formerly a Brussels sprouts packing plant, so many of Swift Street Courtyard’s shops and businesses have turned over since the pandemic, with staples such as Kelly’s French Bakery and French Theft closing and others — 11th Hour, notably — coming in to take their place. However the commercial space at Swift and Ingalls streets has evolved, its status as a favorite Westside destination for shopping and dining hasn’t changed.