My Favorite free things to do in Santa Cruz! How to enjoy the best that this seaside town has to offer without spending a dime.
Okay, so maybe Santa Cruz doesn’t have as much going on as Los Angeles, San Francisco, or San Diego. And maybe I’m a little biased being that I was born and raised here, but I do believe that Santa Cruz is a place that you should visit at least once in your lifetime.
Sure, it’s a small beach town like many that exist on the West Coast of California, but the city has its own unique charm that I have yet to come across anywhere else, and there are a ton of free things to do in Santa Cruz to make it even more attractive for the average visitor.
I love that there are plenty of beaches within walking distance, yet also hiking trails through the beautiful redwoods right there as well.
I love that there are so many locally owned stores and coffee shops, organic produce, hippies, and street musicians.
I love that I can get decent food in pretty much any cuisine even though it’s a relatively small town. I love that we’re close to the big cities in the Bay Area for concerts or weekend getaways, but still tucked away in our own little community.
I love that I grew up going on field trips to the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium.
As much as I sometimes resent the fact that everything closes up by 9pm, I really do love Santa Cruz. As a local, here are some of my favorite free things to do, other than spending your money at the Beach Boardwalk (my first job at 16!) or the Mystery Spot, which is what most tourists do.
Related: How to Spend Winter in Santa Cruz
Watch the surfers from West Cliff & drive along East Cliff
West Cliff is one of my favorite places in Santa Cruz. It’s a gorgeous place to walk or just sit and watch the ocean. In my opinion, this is the best place to watch the sunset and the surfers down below the cliffs.
It’s also a pretty drive at night, listening to good music with the windows rolled down (or heater full blast depending on the season) with the twinkling lights across the Monterey Bay as your background.
East cliff is worth checking out as well. It’s less popular than West Cliff and thus less touristy, but it has beautiful views of the ocean and a different, less developed feel to it.
If you’re looking for free stuff to do in Santa Cruz that’s quintessential to this beachy town, going to watch the surfers at these key spots around West and East Cliff Drive is the perfect activity.
Window Shop on Pacific Avenue
I love walking around Pacific Avenue, basically the street that makes up most of our downtown. There are various locally owned boutiques and coffee shops that I spend whole afternoons in. Walking down Pacific Avenue is one of those ideal things to do in Santa Cruz for free because it’s the beating heart of our city.
Browse through Bookshop Santa Cruz, find eclectic pieces of jewelry at Bunny’s, or sip a cappuccino at Santa Cruz Coffee Roasters. The coffee in Santa Cruz is some of the best I’ve tasted. Try as many of the local coffee shops as you can, they all have their own vibe and talented baristas.
Hike the DeLaveaga trails
A great place to go on a light or strenuous hike, there are a plethora of trails you can tackle at DeLaveaga Park. It’s also a great place to walk your dog or have a nice morning jog with just you and the quiet redwoods.
Hiking around this park is one of my favorite secret things to do in Santa Cruz, that mostly only locals know about.
Some of the trails overlook the disc golf course if you want to check out the game and maybe find some frisbees. Find the spot called “The Top of the World”, if you can. The view will be worth the hike, but you’ll probably come across some of the local stoners at the top since it’s a popular spot to smoke.
Every time I explore more of the DeLaveaga trails, I fall a little more in love with the beauty of my hometown.
For more hiking spots, don’t forget to check out the UC Santa Cruz trails. They offer some of the best views of Santa Cruz, and you may even come across the famous limestone kilns. Henry Cowell State Park is another place to come up and close with the giant redwood trees, but just note that it has a $10 entrance fee.
Sunny Cove Beach
One of the secret local spots that tourists haven’t taken over yet. Sunny Cove is a small beach and a little hidden and hard to get to, but it’s one of only beaches that isn’t overrun in the summer. The beaches are the main attractions in Santa Cruz, especially in the summer, so if you want to avoid the crowds, go here.
It’s the perfect place to lay on the sand in the warm sun and feel like a local. If you’re traveling with a dog, 20th Ave beach is a great dog beach with friendly pet owners who will strike up an easy conversation with you.
Walk along the Santa Cruz Wharf
Compared to a lot of wharfs I’ve visited in California, the Santa Cruz Wharf doesn’t have much to it, but if you walk to the end you get an impressive view of the Beach Boardwalk. Not to mention, you get to see and hear the vocal seals up close.
If you’re feeling like a nice seafood dinner, go to Rivas on the Wharf. It’s one of my favorite restaurants in Santa Cruz and allows you to sit alongside huge windows overlooking the ocean. Stop in at Marini’s Candies for some of their famous saltwater taffy to eat while walking back to your car.
Natural Bridges & the Monarch Butterflies
One of my favorite hidden gems in Santa Cruz involves butterflies in their natural habitat! If you want to see the beautiful Monarch Butterflies up close, visit Natural Bridges State Park, near West Cliff Drive.
If you don’t park your car in their lot, there’s free parking on the street and free butterfly tours. The butterflies arrive in October and migrate in February. The best time to come is in November when thousands of butterflies call the Eucalyptus trees at Natural Bridges home.
Other notable places to visit in Santa Cruz
- For live music, go to a concert at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. One of the best cheap things to do in Santa Cruz if you’re into good live music.
- Attend a Shakespeare Santa Cruz production. Each season is usually from July to early September, and you get to watch Shakespeare plays in the middle of the forest up at DeLaveaga Park. It’s a beautiful setting, the acting is phenomenal, and it’s definitely worth the $20-$40 ticket price for the quality of the plays. Make sure to bring warm clothes, blankets, and a picnic since it’s outside.
- And if you’re in the area, make the short drive to Monterey to visit the world famous aquarium and another beautiful city on the same bay.
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