Santa Cruz is a popular coastal destination in Northern California that offers a ton of activities for people of all ages. From the scenic beach and boardwalk attractions to the massive redwood forests, here’s my list of some of the best things to do in Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz Main Beach
Main Beach is one of the most popular beaches to hang out, especially for tourists. It’s where you’ll find the famous boardwalk and wharf – there is always a lively atmosphere at the beach.
Visit the beach with friends or family to enjoy a fun day out in the Santa Cruz sun. The long stretch of beach has plenty of room to lay out blankets and go for a sandy stroll. Main Beach is a fun surfing spot with gentle waves perfect for beginners. And if you’re up for some recreation, beach volleyball is a favorite activity.
Stick around for one of the most beautiful sunsets in Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz Wharf
Extending from the Main Beach is the Santa Cruz Wharf, the longest pier in California. The large wooden pier is so long that cars can drive onto it to reach the end. Or you can go for a leisure stroll.
Santa Cruz Wharf has several visitor attractions. You can get a taste of the best seafood in Santa Cruz at one of the restaurants or browse some cool souvenirs in the small shops.
If you make it to the end of the wharf, you’ll reach a popular spot for seeing Sea Lions all year round.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is one of the most fun things to do in Santa Cruz. It’s where you’ll find the famous amusement park and have incredible views looking out into Monterey Bay.
The boardwalk is known for its amusement park with large rides towering over Main Beach. Go for an adrenaline-filled ride on the Giant Dipper roller coaster or win prizes at one of the carnival-style games. Be sure to enter Neptune’s Kingdom for pirate-themed arcade games and mini-golf.
Admission to the amusement park is free, and you only have to pay-per-ride or games.
The local slogan in Santa Cruz is “keep Santa Cruz weird,” and the Mystery Spot is a perfect example of how it’s accomplished. Tucked inside the redwood forests, it’s one of the quirky things to do near Santa Cruz.
As soon as you enter the attraction, it’ll transport you to a gravitational vortex where you’ll experience unexplainable natural phenomena. You’ll take a guided tour through an old cabin where heights are distorted, you can lean while defying gravity, and see some other interesting sights.
While it’s still unclear whether it’s an optical illusion or other explained causes, it’s a place worth checking out to determine yourself.
Surfing in Santa Cruz
Despite other nearby cities trying to claim the title, the true Surf City, USA, is Santa Cruz. It’s historically documented that surfing was introduced to the US mainland via Santa Cruz. Whether you’re a seasoned expert or a first-timer, you’ve got to try out surfing in Santa Cruz.
There are lots of popular surfing spots to check out with the ideal wave conditions for everyone. Catch some waves in Monterey Bay at Cowell’s Beach or visit Pleasure Point. You can find lots of nearby surfing spots for picking up gear or taking a quick lesson.
Visit the Surf Museum to learn more about the local surfing history.
Downtown Santa Cruz is an exciting area to hang out in the daytime and night. Take a walk down Pacific Avenue, the central downtown hub where you’ll find most local activity.
Pacific Avenue is lined with boutique shops and restaurants on either side. You’ll discover unique art, clothing, antiques, surf shops, and more. There are some favorite tourist destinations like the Art and History Museum and the famous Penny Ice Creamery.
It’s an excellent people-watching spot with street performers or pick up some local handicrafts from the sidewalk vendors.
You can take a trolly from downtown to the beach boardwalk area.
Big Basin State Park
Get ready to be amazed at the sheer size of the massive Redwood trees found inside the Big Basin State Park. The park was established in 1902, making it the oldest state park in California. It’s one of the best outdoor things to do near Santa Cruz.
Big Basin State Park preserves the old-growth forest predominantly consisting of redwoods. Hiking trails wind throughout the park, where you’ll be able to see famous trees and other landmarks like the Mother and Father trees and the scenic Berry Creek Falls.
If you can’t get enough of the park in one day, it also permits camping at one of the over 100 designated campsites.
West Cliff Scenic Drive
It’s no secret that Santa Cruz is among the top scenic destinations along the California coast. The West Cliff Scenic Drive gives a chance to take it all in at once. It’s a 3-mile stretch used by locals for exercise, but as a tourist, you’ll have plenty of viewpoints worth stopping by.
West Cliff Scenic Drive starts at Santa Cruz Wharf to Natural Bridges State Bridge. You can experience it by driving or walking on the paved sidewalk. You’ll pass by famous buildings, statues, lighthouses, and always see surfers out on the water.
Wilder Ranch State Park
Travel just outside of Santa Cruz to the Wilder Ranch State Park, a popular recreational area for locals and visitors. It’s a historic diary ranch covering 7000 acres that was restored. Many of the original buildings are used as a museum. But the site is most known for the scenic coastal trails.
Visit the Wilder Ranch State Park to go on some of the best coastal hikes near Santa Cruz. Several hiking and biking trails offer incredible views of the Pacific Ocean. The trails wind along the rocky cliffs extending down to a beach area. It’s also a great place to go for horseback riding.
Whale Watching in Santa Cruz
There is lots of marine life swimming off the shores of Santa Cruz. Whales and dolphins are two of the most exciting creatures to spot swimming in Monterey Bay. Hop on a boat for an up-close view of the majestic sea animals.
Santa Cruz has several tour options for whale watching cruises or guided kayaking tours. The cruises leave from the Santa Cruz Harbor or Moss Landing that take you for a few hour excursion into the bay. You’ll have an expert captain that knows just where to go to see the animals.
The peak season to see humpback whales and blue whales is January to April, but there is still a chance to see them throughout the year.
Mission Hill Historic District
Mission Hill was one of the earliest sites established in what would become Santa Cruz. Spaniards arrived and established the mission in 1791 to serve the religious purpose of converting Native Americans into Catholicism. Today, it’s a California Historical Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The historic district is one of the interesting places to visit in Santa Cruz, where you’ll get to see several structures from the mission. Centered around the Mission Plaza are the Holy Cross Church, a replica of the original Mission Santa Cruz Chapel, and ruins.
The site is used as a museum to explore the mission’s history. The hilltop location also offers a nice viewpoint of Downtown Santa Cruz.
Natural Bridges State Beach
You don’t have until forever to see the most famous attraction at the Natural Bridges State Beach, so be sure to put it at the top of your bucket list when visiting Santa Cruz. The beach features a natural bridge formed by erosion.
It’s taken millions of years to form multiple natural bridges on the beach, but today, only one remains. Visitors were once permitted to climb atop the bridge, but now it’s strictly for photos.
A highlight to visiting the beach is the migratory Monarch butterflies. You can see over 100,000 butterflies between October and February.
It will be a unique beach experience that you don’t want to miss.
A trip to Capitola Village is one of the top things to do near Santa Cruz. The small seaside village boasts lots of fun activities during the day for the entire family. And you’ll enjoy the views of the village or the bay.
Capitola Village is a popular Instagram photo spot thanks to the colorful buildings lining the beach. It’s located right on the Monterey Bay shores, where you can enjoy a day at Capitola Beach or explore the village attractions.
The Capitola Museum is a cool place to learn the village history or grab a bite to eat at a beachfront restaurant located on the wharf.
Roaring Camp Railroads
All aboard the vintage steam trains for a unique perspective of the Santa Cruz mountain regions! The Roaring Camp Railroads is a scenic train ride that takes you through the mountains’ redwood forests. It’s a fun ride for all ages, and you’ll have lots of great photo opportunities along the journey.
The train ride experience lasts just over an hour. It’s hosted by a tour guide with a fun personality to give you an entertaining history lesson about the region.
Pro-tip: grab a seat in the open-air car for the best views to look up at the towering canopy.
Seymour Marine Discovery Center
You have lots of opportunities to see local marine life in Santa Cruz. For a more in-depth look at the abundant animals, visit the Seymour Marine Discovery Center. It is a science museum and aquarium where you’ll have many close encounters with your favorite animals.
The Seymour Marine Discovery Center offers guided tours by expert volunteers who walk you through the various exhibitions. You’ll see life-size whale skeletons and even have a chance to pet a shark.
It’s one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz for all ages to enjoy.
This beach town is the perfect vacation destination, especially for people visiting or from the Bay Area. At only an hour or so drive away, there are a bunch of fun things to do in Santa Cruz that you can even do in a day trip. Whether you spend time at a game of skill on the Beach Boardwalk or learn how to forage, I hope this post makes your experience that much better!