Great for beginners
Capitola Beach is a great place to get started. Just to the left of the small rock jetty is where Capitola usually breaks, offering perfect longboard waves when conditions allow. Probably won't be as crowded as Cowell's, but a lot less wave to go around. Plenty of parking down in the village, but watch out for Capitola meter-nazis--they hide in the bushes and tickets aren't cheap.
The southern tip of that charming stretch of rocky shoreline collectively known as Pleasure Point, The Hook is located down the stairs at the end of 41st Avenue. On bigger days you might get away with shortboard but it's generally big sticks out there. Be prepared for a taste of localism, not recommended for beginners.
Manresa State Beach
A solid beach break
Head south on Highway 1 towards Aptos and get off at the big sign that says "Manresa State Beach." Solid beach break as long as the wind stays down, and generally not as crowded as surfing spots within Santa Cruz or Capitola. It can get pretty big when a substantial north swell is rolling in. Watch out for rips.
By far the most famous surf spot in all of Santa Cruz, but if you want to paddle out at "the Lane," you better be a damn good surfer. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being friendly, the localism factor at the Lane is an 11. When the swell is up, the lane offers world-class waves, at times reaching triple overhead. It's the most dangerous place to surf in Santa Cruz and people actually die out there on a semi- annual basis. Once again however, it's the best place to watch great surfing pretty much year round. The lane is the stretch of coast off West Cliff between Cowell's and the Lighthouse.
A good starting point
The best place to start out if you're new to the sport, Cowell's offers long gentle waves textbook for longboarding. It's generally understood that Cowell's is the spot for beginner or novice surfers, so the scene in the water is crowded yet generally polite. Easily accessed by stairs off of West Cliff drive or if you're up to it by paddling out from the beach north of the wharf.
36th and East Cliff
A good variety
The heart of Pleasure Point- depending on tides and swell, there are lots of waves to be ridden between The Hook and 30th Ave., the stairs at 36th is generally the central access point. Great varieties of longboard waves, on less crowded days a good place for beginners and experts alike. On weekends it will remind you of the Nimitz Freeway at 5 p.m. on a Monday.
30th and East Cliff
Aerials and aggressive riders
Experienced surfers only! 30th is where the Pleasure Point elite surf. There are maybe two or three people on the planet who are allowed out there on a longboard, and they are certainly locals. Great spot for aerials and aggressive rides, spectators welcome.
When the conditions are right, just south of the rock arches of Natural Bridges offers surfing conditions similar to the Lane, except without the crowding out in the water and the local groms on the cliff throwing rocks at you. The only problem is the conditions aren't right that often- it's still a beautiful place to just paddle out and chill in the kelp- tons of marine life and scenery.
If you're interested in a bit of an adventure, just head north out of town on Highway 1 and watch out for waves. It's a great way to avoid crowds, and on any given day one of dozens of 'secret' surfing spots is usually breaking. Try Waddell Creek State Beach, Ano Nuevo, or just pull over and hike to the shore anywhere you stop- you may find the perfect wave. Bring a wet suit and a buddy, if you get into any trouble there's usually no one around for miles and plenty of Great Whites to finish the job.
World class big waves
One of the most popular surfing spots, Mavericks is known for some of the biggest waves and wildest surfing conditions in Northern California. Every year, Mavericks hosts surfing events that draw hundreds of spectators interested in watching many of the top surfers in the world. Even on a non-event day, watching the surfers tackle the enormous waves can be exciting.
Killer rides outside of town
If you've exercised all other options and you don't mind driving half way to Monterey, Moss Landing offers miles of beach break and, near the harbor entrance, can offer up some killer rides. Usually not crowded, but definitely for more advanced surfers. Again, watch out for rips. It's about 20 miles south of Santa Cruz on Highway 1.