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15 Best Things to Do in Santa Cruz, California

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Santa Cruz is just an hour south of San Francisco, but it feels worlds away from big city life. Instead, it feels like a remote paradise with redwood mountains, beautiful beaches, and great surf. 

The city has a long history, beginning in 1769 with a Spanish explorer discovering the land. This explorer, Don Gaspar de Portola, named the flowing river “San Lorenzo” in honor of Saint Lawrence and called the hills above the river “Santa Cruz,” which means holy cross in Spanish.

Although de Portola discovered the land in 1769, Santa Cruz didn’t receive its city charter until 1876, over 100 years later. The young city prospered with logging, commercial fishing, and agriculture. In addition, Santa Cruz quickly became a tourist destination with its scenic views and mild weather. 

Santa Cruz is famous for its beach boardwalk and long wharf on California’s central coast. The picturesque boardwalk includes amusement park rides like the Giant Dipper roller coaster and a vintage 1911 Looff Carousel. 

While Santa Cruz is famous for the beach and boardwalk, the city offers much more. Adults can delight in museums, shopping, hiking, wineries, and over a dozen state parks. Children will be delighted to pick apples and olallieberries at a local farm, pet a live shark at the aquarium, or take the steam train through the redwood forest.


If you’re looking for fun things to do in Santa Cruz, this short list can get you started:

  • Most significant landmark – Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
  • Park to visit – Ocean View Park
  • Free activity – Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
  • Activity for kids – Seymour Marine Discovery Center
  • Activity for adultsSidecar Wine Tour
  • Place to eat – Hula’s Island Grill or Pizza My Heart
  • Nightlife – The Blue Lagoon
  • Place to stayBest Western Inn Santa Cruz

Things to Do in Santa Cruz, California

1. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk entrance

Address: 400 Beach St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

The boardwalk is undoubtedly a top Santa Cruz, California tourist attraction, with its vintage amusement park rides, restaurants, and shops. People usually think of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk when they think of Santa Cruz.

It’s arguably the best seaside park worldwide, with its long history, fantastic beach setting, and vintage rides. Since 1907, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has been the go-to summer entertainment venue, with free admission and affordable ride tickets. 

The Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster and the Looff Carousel are National Historic Landmarks’ most famous rides. Although those two rides are the oldest and most notable, more than 40 rides and attractions exist. Head to the indoor arcade for vintage games, two-story miniature golf, pinball machines, and the latest and greatest video games. 

Even when the rides are closed, you can walk on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and enjoy the oceanfront. Marine life, such as sea lions, dolphins, otters, and even whales, is common off the shoreline. You don’t have to be a roller coaster enthusiast to enjoy the boardwalk. Many visit for the delicious deep-fried Twinkies, chocolate-covered bacon, corn dogs, or fried artichokes. 

It’s also very accessible. While there are two parking areas right next to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, you can also take the Santa Cruz trolley from downtown in the summertime. If watching the ocean from the boardwalk gives you mermaid vibes, you can have an unforgettable mermaid experience and photoshoot right on the beach. This is an incredible opportunity for kids, families, and groups!

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is fun for the entire family, whether you’re 5 or 95 years old. You can stay next to the boardwalk at the Carousel Beach Inn or the Sea and Sand Inn and shop, eat, surf, and play, all within steps of your room. 

See Related: Things to Do in Pismo Beach

2. Downtown Santa Cruz

Downtown Santa Cruz
Image source: TripAdvisor

Address: Located between River Street and Center Street

A trip to downtown Santa Cruz is necessary if you are hungry, thirsty, or want to peruse local shops. Located next to the San Lorenzo River between River Street and Center Street, downtown Santa Cruz offers plenty to do for every age group!

If you want local art, there are multiple art studios and galleries in downtown Santa Cruz. If you get inspired to paint your pottery after a trip through the local galleries, head to Petroglyph Ceramic Lounge for a fun and relaxing time.

Comic lovers (kids and adults alike) will enjoy Atlantis Fantasyworld, Comicopolis, and Bookshop Santa Cruz. Video game enthusiasts will want to head to Mythic Games or Level Up Video Games. Foodies will love all the food options in downtown Santa Cruz, from Pizza My Heart to Hula’s Island Grill.

Pizza My Heart has a cult following in California, and the family-owned pizza restaurant will have you dreaming of their pizza when you’re back home. Hula’s Island Grill is a downtown Santa Cruz staple with a California casual Tiki theme. You can order everything from Cajun Ahi Chop Chop Caesar to Kingston Crab Curry. Enjoy your lunch or dinner with a tropical cocktail!

Are you not ready to head home after dinner? Head to the Blue Lagoon for late-night drinks, comedy, or live music. One of the most fun and immersive ways to explore downtown is a scavenger hunt starting at Verve Coffee Roasters on Pacific Avenue. The scavenger hunt is remote and interactive, with a live host to assist and encourage you.

This super fun scavenger hunt is both family and dog-friendly. If you want to stay in the middle of downtown Santa Cruz, check out the Pacific Blue Inn, a mere 5-minute walk to both Hula’s Island Grill and Pizza My Heart. 

PRO TIP: If you happen to be in town on the first Friday of the month, First Friday in downtown Santa Cruz is a must-do!

3. Santa Cruz Surfing Museum and Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse

Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse

Address: 701 W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Whether you like surfing or know what “hang ten” means, this surfing museum is one of many fun things to do in Santa Cruz, California. Located in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum houses over 100 years of surfing history.

The museum’s location overlooking international surfing hotspot Steamer Lane is the cherry on top. The lighthouse was built in 1967 to memorialize twenty-year-old surfer Mark Abbott. Abbott died at the Pleasure Point surf break while surfing.

The surfing museum was established in 1986, almost twenty years later, to document the area’s surfing history. As the first surfing museum in the world, it showcases artifacts from the beginning of the sport, including photographs, surfboards, and videos.

Santa Cruz was first introduced to surfing by three Hawaiian princes in 1885: David Kawānanakoa, Edward Abnel Keliʻiahonui, and Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole.

These princes surfed with plank boards at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. There is a plaque dedicated to the three princes at the surfing museum.

The museum showcases surfboards from different eras, from the enormous redwood planks in the 1930s-1940s to the short boards of the 1970s. The gift shop has plenty of surfing souvenirs and books for purchase.

See Related: The Santa Cruz Mystery Spot (Explained!)

4. Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Image source: TripAdvisor

Address: 100 McAllister Way, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Undoubtedly, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center is one of Santa Cruz, California’s best things to do. Located on the UC Santa Cruz campus as part of the Long Marine Lab, the Seymour Center is dedicated to educating the public on ocean conservation and marine science.

Because the Long Marine Lab is a highly regarded, state-of-the-art research facility, the Seymour Center can offer the public a glimpse into its marine research. Before entering the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, you’ll notice the famous blue whale skeleton out front. At almost 90 feet long, it’s the largest whale skeleton on display!

A trip to the Seymour Center is fun for all ages, with touch tanks featuring sea anemones, sea stars, and a 3-foot swell shark (don’t worry, it doesn’t bite!). In addition to the touch tanks, the aquarium allows visitors to see marine life up close.

There are tanks full of jellyfish, giant crabs, and fish. Some outdoor exhibits include life-size elephant seal sculptures and a gray whale skeleton, in addition to the famous giant blue whale skeleton. 

You can also enjoy fantastic views of Monterey Bay and potentially see whales, sea lions, otters, or dolphins in their native environment. One of the newest exhibits, The Water’s Extreme Journey, is a maze that takes visitors on a quest for clean water.

Museumgoers can experience firsthand what it’s like to be a water drop and learn the science behind the water cycle. For hours and admission info, visit the museum’s website. 

See Related: Best Whale Watching Places in the World

5. Wilder Ranch State Park

Wilder Ranch State Park

Address: 1401 Coast Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Wilder Ranch State Park encompasses roughly 7,000 acres, with dozens of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails and historic Victorian buildings. You can spend your day doing outdoor adventure activities like hiking, biking, or surfing and explore the history of early farmers and ranchers.

The state park features living history demonstrations so visitors can experience life during the Victorian period. Visitors to the cultural complex can also see barns, shops, gardens, and homes from that era.

This area also has a rodeo arena, ranch buildings, and workshops entirely run by water power. Visitors of all ages will enjoy the interpretive tours, during which the docents dress in period clothing and perform living history demonstrations. 

If you want to camp at Wilder Ranch State Park, there are six first-come, first-served campsites for visitors with horses. To make arrangements for access to the horse camp, call (831)423-9703.

Unfortunately, the park does not offer other camping options. The California Department of Parks and Recreation’s website recommends hikes at Wilder Ranch State Park and has a great list of suggested biking trails.

Have you ever wanted to learn the basics of wilderness survival, such as starting a fire with friction or identifying edible plants? This awesome survival class is just a short drive from Santa Cruz at the Boulder Creek Scout Reservation.

See Related: Best Things to Do in Capitola

6. UC Santa Cruz Arboretum

Address: Arboretum Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95064

The arboretum at UC Santa Cruz is one of many fantastic places to visit in Santa Cruz, California. The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum is perfect for all ages, capabilities, and backgrounds. Over 300 rare or threatened plant families are showcased at the arboretum at any given time.

Many species are so rare that they are not available for study in American botanical gardens. The arboretum focuses on bulb-forming plant families, primitive angiosperms, and world conifers. 

The plants are grouped by their country of origin: 

  • California natives
  • South Africa
  • Australia
  • New Zealand

However, you don’t have to have a green thumb to enjoy a visit to the arboretum. Information-packed signs near every garden’s entrance educate visitors. You are also welcome to walk through the garden just to enjoy the birds and nature. 

Some visitors find bird watching to be especially fascinating. Children will relish strolling through the garden, finding beautiful flowers, chasing butterflies, seeing hummingbirds, and doing fun activities. Head to their website for information about hours, admission, events, and guided tours. 

7. Natural Bridges State Park Beach

Natural Bridges State Park Beach

Address: 2531 W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Natural Bridges State Beach is a beautiful park where visitors can watch seals, otters, and birds play offshore. In addition, visitors can often spot migrating whales from the beach. Most sightseers head down to the beach to see the public-access tidepools.

At low tide, these tidepools reveal the hidden underworld of life beneath the ocean. You can often see crabs, sea anemones, sea stars, and other life within the tidepools. These tide pools are filled with thousands of tiny marine creatures that must adapt to being fully submerged and continuously exposed to a dry, rocky shore.

They are protected by law, helping to maintain their natural state for generations. Head to Natural Bridges State Beach at low tide to view nature’s resiliency. Although the shoreline is beautiful, use common sense and safety as rogue waves can come out of nowhere and catch visitors by surprise.

In addition to the tidal pools, many visitors come to Natural Bridges State Beach during monarch migration. While the exact time of year differs depending on temperature and other factors, migration typically begins around mid-October. Therefore, visiting Natural Bridges in November or December is the best chance to observe monarch butterflies on their long journey.

The Monarch Grove is the only state monarch preserve in California. The preserve designation protects the butterflies and their habitat from harm.

To view the migrating monarchs, head down the accessible boardwalk to an observation deck in the grove. Head to their website for more information on day-use rates, parking, and other park-related information.

See Related: Best Things to Do in California & Places to Visit

8. Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Address: 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is roughly an hour’s drive from Santa Cruz but is absolutely worth the trip. The two-story aquarium boasts numerous exhibits with marine animals of all types. The aquarium comprises almost 300 marine animals, ranging from the Abalone to the Zebra Shark. 

The first floor includes sea otters, octopuses, and Monterey Bay habitats. In addition, several decks overlook Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean, where you can enjoy wildlife sightings. Finally, there are several touch pools where children and adults can safely touch marine animals. 

An auditorium allows presentations and learning experiences, while the Great Tide Pool showcases specific marine life. The second floor of the aquarium features different touch pools, a “Splash Zone,” and a penguin exhibit.

On the other side of the floor are jellyfish, seabirds, and an open sea exhibit with sharks. A day trip to the aquarium is a memorable experience for all ages. Note that visitors must reserve and purchase tickets in advance. To book tickets or inquire about membership opportunities, head to their website. 

See Related: Islands in the US to Visit

9. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Address: Day use entrance: South of downtown Felton on Highway 9 in the Santa Cruz Mountains

If you’re wondering what to do in Santa Cruz, California, the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park should be near the top of your list. A trip to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is necessary to glimpse some gorgeous towering redwood trees.

The park’s 40-acre redwood grove is spectacular, with the tallest tree almost 300 feet tall, 16 feet wide, and around 1,500 years old. While there are no drive-through trees in the Cowell Redwoods, you can step inside the famous Fremont Tree with your family. Don’t forget your flashlight! 

Located on almost 5,000 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the state park attracts travelers from every country. The redwood grove is impressive, but visitors can also enjoy horseback riding, swimming, hiking, and camping. Because of the diverse habitats beyond the grove, you may see coyotes, banana slugs, bobcats, or steelhead trout. 

Campsites are available at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, but you must enter the campground east of Felton using Graham Hill Road. There are over 100 campsites available in the shady pine and oak forest. 

Reservations are strongly recommended during the popular summer season. Head to Reserve California’s website to reserve a campsite. While visiting Santa Cruz, visit the Visitors Center or view the park events webpage for information on guided tours.

See Related: Best Things to Do in San Jose, California  

10. Roaring Camp Railroads

Roaring Camp Railroads

Address: Roaring Camp Railroads, 5401 Graham Hill Road Felton, CA 95018

Roaring Camp Railroads provides a lifetime experience with both the Redwood Forest Steam Train and the Santa Cruz Beach Train. These train rides are easily two of the top things to do in Santa Cruz, California, with kids.

The Redwood Forest Steam Train is a highly memorable event for all ages. It travels through old redwood groves to Bear Mountain’s summit while listening to the history of the railroad and Roaring Camp. 

This 75-minute excursion takes you back in time. In the 1880s, steam locomotives were commonly used to transport redwood logs. Roaring Camp’s steam engines are some of the most preserved narrow-gauge engines providing passenger service in the United States. 

Roaring Camp owns several train cars, including Shay locomotives, Climax, and Heisler, as well as five diesel engines. While most of them are operational and transport visitors to Bear Mountain, some are undergoing renovation and refurbishing. The Santa Cruz Beach Train is a 3-hour tour from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

This tour travels through the Santa Cruz Mountains and the San Lorenzo River Gorge and ends at the beach boardwalk. Beach Train passengers can start their journeys from the beach in Santa Cruz or the Roaring Camp in Felton. While visiting Santa Cruz, check Roaring Camp’s website for special events or to buy tickets. 

See Related: Most Beautiful Running Trails in America

11. Del Mar Theatre

Address: 1124 Pacific Ave #4415, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

The Del Mar Theatre is a triplex movie theatre featuring a large auditorium, organic popcorn, and weekly midnight movies. The Art Deco theatre was built in 1936 to be a vaudeville theatre. However, the invention of cinematic movies made vaudeville a long-lost thought, so the original vaudeville plans didn’t last long. 

It became a run-down AMC theatre for a while, but thankfully, the city of Santa Cruz and Nickelodeon purchased it in the 2000s. While renovated in 2002, the theater retained much of its original design. 

Most current moviegoers appreciate the theater’s history and love to reminisce about coming to it when they were young. Landmark Theatres has operated the theater since 2015. Today, the theater shows foreign language films, independent films, and Hollywood blockbusters. Head to Atom Tickets to get the best price and see movie times.

See Related: Things to Do in Laguna Beach

12. DeLaveaga Park

DeLaveaga Park
Image source: TripAdvisor

Address: 855 Branciforte Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95065

When you visit Santa Cruz County, stop at DeLaveaga Park. This park is a place filled with natural beauty for visitors to enjoy. The park was originally a vacation spot for successful financier and businessman Jose Vincente DeLaveaga. Originally from San Francisco, DeLaveaga purchased the Santa Cruz land as a hacienda, with horses, deer, foxes, and even a zoo with bears and buffalo.

When DeLaveaga died, he left over three-quarters of his estate to various charities. Since then, the park has been a place for archery, a Boy Scout camp, an outdoor entertainment stage, hiking trails, and an SPCA animal shelter.

Although the zoo and animal shelter are long gone, DeLaveaga’s vision for his hacienda is now a reality. Today, the Santa Cruz park includes a golf course, a disc golf course, an archery range, bocce ball courts, a creek, playgrounds, hiking trails, sports fields, and a large grassy space.

Head to their website to book a tee time at the golf course. For more information on the disc golf course, call (831) 423-7214.

See Related: Day Trips from San Francisco

13. Pleasure Point

Address: E Cliff Dr and Pleasure Point Dr. Santa Cruz, CA 95062

Pleasure Point is one of many free things to do in Santa Cruz, offering a beautiful Pacific Ocean view. It is located on Santa Cruz’s east end, with shops, restaurants, and beautiful ocean views. While it was supposedly named during the hedonistic Prohibition era, most visitors would say that visiting Pleasure Point is a pleasure.

41st Avenue is the main thoroughfare, with endless surf shops, restaurants, and souvenir stores. Sunday mornings are busy with the Live Oak Farmers Market, where market-goers can shop for locally grown ingredients while listening to live music.

One of the most beautiful parts is East Cliff Drive, a waterfront promenade that overlooks Monterey Bay. This promenade is part of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail, which takes visitors around the beautiful bluffs near the bay.

The Hook, located at East Cliff Drive and 41st Avenue, is one of Santa Cruz’s famed surf spots. You’ll often find people watching the surfers from the blufftop park above the Hook. Pleasure Point Park, located at East Cliff Drive at 32nd Avenue, is another excellent spot to watch surfers and is just a few blocks from the Hook.

A giant wooden tiki will greet you at the park’s small overlook. Another fantastic spot for viewing the coastline is Jack O’Neill Park, located at East Cliff Drive and 37th Avenue. This park is named after the surf legend who lived in the house next to the park.

See Related: Best Beaches in the US to Visit

14. Cowell Beach

Cowell Beach

Address: Pacific Avenue and Beach St Santa Cruz, CA 95060

When you visit Santa Cruz County, Cowell Beach should be on your list of things to do. This beach, right on Pacific Avenue, is known for surfing.

If you’re looking at the Santa Cruz Wharf, the beach just to the west is Cowell Beach or Cowell’s if you’re a local. To the east of the pier is Santa Cruz’s main beach. 

Cowell Beach is famous for surfing when the conditions are right. Steamer Lane is the expert surfing spot between Cowell’s and Point Santa Cruz. If you head to Cowell’s, you may want to bring a volleyball, as plenty of sand courts are available for a match with newfound beach friends. 

While many beaches are in the area, watching the sunset along the water with the Santa Cruz pier jutting out to the ocean is beautiful. Do you have the itch to surf after watching the locals?

Take a beginner surf lesson at one of the best surfing spots in the area. If you want to stay right at Cowell’s Beach, the Dream Inn is an upscale resort right on the beach. 

15. Sidecar Wine Tour with Guide and Wine Tasting

Cantine Winepub
Image source: TripAdvisor

Address: Tour begins at Cantine Winepub, 8050 Soquel Dr. Aptos, CA 95003

If you’ve never been able to ride in a tandem sidecar motorcycle exploring Santa Cruz’s wine country, this is your time! The guided tour will take you to three wineries, starting at Cantine Wine Pub outside Santa Cruz in nearby Aptos. Depending on your tour, you’ll visit locations like Lester Family Vineyards, La Vida Bella, Storrs, Alfaro, or Nicholson. 

The backroads of Santa Cruz are gorgeous, with beautiful California scenery. You’ll feel the wind through your hair as your guide tells you about the history of the area’s winemaking. 

You’ll be able to watch the making of wine in person and enjoy trying wine at each tasting room. Each tour ends with a visit to one scenic destination. This 2 1/2 hour sidecar wine tour is a unique way to experience Santa Cruz’s wine country!

Tours in Santa Cruz

1. Capitola Private 2-Hour Walking Tour Top Recommendation

This tour is designed by local Laura Junod, and is the perfect way to explore all the hidden gems of this beautiful village. Walk with us to see some amazing sites like the Heart of Capitola Village, the Shadowbrook, and more! With our Pintours App, you'll have all the information you need about each stop right at your fingertips, and you can even pause or skip stops if you want.

2. Beginner Surf Lesson in Santa Cruz

Your 3-hour lesson will start with the basics of how to paddle out, pop up, balance, and catch a wave, along with surfing etiquette and understanding the ocean. Your experienced instructor will then take you into a spot with small waves that are ideal for beginners, where you'll be able to practice what you've learned. All necessary equipment is included in the lesson, so all you need to bring is your swimsuit and a sense of adventure!

3. Santa Cruz, California Scavenger Hunt

This scavenger hunt is remote, and interactive Live hosts will assist and encourage you along the way as you discover hidden gems, solve clues, and compete against other teams from around the world. With specially hand-crafted adventures, you're sure to have a blast while getting some fresh air and exercise. So what are you waiting for? Book your scavenger hunt today!


Is Santa Cruz, California, worth visiting?

Absolutely! Santa Cruz is just over an hour’s drive from San Francisco, although Santa Cruz is a much more relaxed environment. If you’re driving from San Fran, it’s definitely a picturesque drive on Route 1, with photo opportunities at Half Moon Bay and Davenport. Once you get to Santa Cruz, you can enjoy the beach life, dive into Santa Cruz County’s history, or relax. When you visit Santa Cruz for the first time, you’ll be in awe of how much there is to do in such a small town.

What is Santa Cruz, California, known for?

Santa Cruz is known for many things, among them the surf culture associated with the Hawaiian legends that surfed in Santa Cruz in the 19th Century. In addition to surfing, there is a lot of history, including the Santa Cruz Mission. The Santa Cruz Mission was the 12th California Mission established on August 28, 1791. Santa Cruz is also known for its gorgeous redwood forests.

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