What to Do in Santa Cruz in Winter

Reviewed by Elina Ansary
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Santa Cruz isn’t just a summer beach town, it’s also a great location to explore during the winter. Discover what to do in Santa Cruz in winter.

You can’t go wrong with the little beachside town of Santa Cruz. Up until now, I’ve mainly talked about what you can do in the warm months to soak up those lovely rays of sunshine.

Today I’m here to tell you that Santa Cruz is fun all year long, by showing you about what to do in Santa Cruz in the winter.

Although it definitely gets a lot colder in the Monterey Bay than it does down in Southern California, the temperature in Santa Cruz, California stays fairly nice all year round.

Winter in Santa Cruz, California

The temperature in Santa Cruz in December can dip as low as the 30s, but generally, Santa Cruz winter weather stays around 40 or 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why I’ve included a few outdoor activities on this list.

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Seymour Marine Discovery Center

The first activity on my list of what to do in Santa Cruz in the winter is to visit the Seymour Marine Discovery Center.

The Seymour Marine Discovery Center is one of my favorite Santa Cruz places to visit and is located near West Cliff Drive and is the second best thing (and less expensive option) to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Run by UC Santa Cruz, there’s a lot of interesting marine life to get to know here year round.

This is a great activity to do in Santa Cruz in December because it allows you to mingle with sea life and even touch a shark in the cold weather!

Visiting the Seymour Marine Discovery Center is one of the fun things to do in Santa Cruz with kids, in fact, I enjoyed several field trips here while I was in school.

You can also visit Mr. Blue while you’re there, the highlight to any of my elementary school field trips.

Mr. Blue is one of the largest whale skeletons in the world and is a must add to any Santa Cruz sightseeing list.

At 87 feet long and 18 feet high, you can start to get the gist for just how magnificent these creatures are.

Seymour Marine Discovery Center is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 am -5 pm. Admission costs $8 for adults and $6 for children, seniors, and students.

Related: 101 Things to do in Santa Cruz (From a Local)

Whale Watching

Speaking of whales, the winter is prime whale watching season in the Monterey Bay, making it one of the top attractions in Santa Cruz in January.

Although you can often spot seven different species of whales and seven separate species of dolphin and porpoise year-round, 20,000 beautiful gray whales pass through the Monterey Bay every year from December through April.

You’ll likely see an abundance of sea lions, seals, otters, and tons of different species of birds too.

This is one of the best spots on the California coast to go whale watching – just make sure to dress warm and wear gloves and a beanie because it gets chilly out in the Monterey Bay during winter.

Also, it’s good to bring some binoculars to get the most out of the experience. 

Stagnaro’s Santa Cruz Whale Watching is probably the most popular and well-known company to experience this one of many outdoor things to do in Santa Cruz.

Tours run on average 3.5 hours and set you back about $50 per person

Monarch Butterflies

Potentially my favorite fall/winter activity in Santa Cruz is seeing the thousands of Monarch Butterflies at Natural Bridges State Beach. On average there are around 100,000 monarch butterflies that migrate to Natural Bridges every year and stay from October to February, although November is generally the height of the season.

That many delicate butterflies in one spot is truly a sight to behold even if you’re not a butterfly person – but honestly, how could you not be a butterfly person!?

Seeing the butterflies is one of the top things to do in Santa Cruz. This is a FREE activity and there are even free tours on the weekends given by docents at 11 am & 2 pm both Saturday and Sunday while the butterflies are still there. No reservations are necessary as long as you have a group of under 10 people.

Año Nuevo State Reserve

Another one of the many fun activities in Santa Cruz is heading out to the desolately beautiful Año Nuevo State Reserve during elephant seal breeding season. Up to 10,000 elephant seals come to breed, give birth, and molt their skin every year from December to March.

During breeding season, the Natural Preserve is only accessible through guided walks due to the importance of keeping a safe distance away to not disrupt breeding and aggravate the males. And because this is such a sought after experience, it’s recommended you book ahead of time on Reserve America.

There is also a Marine Education Center, plenty of dunes, and some of the best beaches in Santa Cruz to explore around the State Reserve. The reserve is about a 30-minute drive from Santa Cruz. The entrance fee into the park is $10 per car and the public seal walks are $7 per person.

Want to explore more Santa Cruz beaches? Check out our guide to Shark Fin Cove.

Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

If you want to spend the cold days learning new things in one of the warm fun places to go in Santa Cruz head to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Located in the heart of downtown Santa Cruz, the museum is a mix of local art and cherished history.

The MAH is one of the top things to see in Santa Cruz at any time of the year. A nice aspect of the MAH is that it’s a decently sized museum with plenty to offer, but not overwhelmingly so. It’s a manageable sized learning center that you could easily enjoy through the course of an afternoon. They also have a rockin’ gift shop.

The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday from 11am-5pm and only costs $5 for general admission and $3 for students, teens, and seniors. Children under 12 are free and there is a free admission day on the first Friday of every month.

UC Santa Cruz Arboretum

The UCSC Arboretum is where to go in Santa Cruz if you are a plant lover and nature enthusiast. It’s a research and teaching facility that also offers 300 different plant families for the general public to appreciate, including rare and threatened plants.

The Arboretum sprawls over 148 acres and acts as a living museum of the plant kingdom. It’s the perfect spot to explore on a not-so-cold winter day. Make sure to take a drive around the forested UC campus while you’re there as well, you won’t be disappointed with the stunning nature you’ll see.

The UCSC Arboretum is open every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and is $5 for general entry and $2 for children. They have free days on the first Tuesday of every month.

Related: Where to See the Redwoods Near San Francisco 

Glaum Egg Ranch

I had to include the Glaum Egg Ranch on this list of fun things to do in Santa Cruz during the winter, just for eccentric purposes and because it’s oh so very Santa Cruz. The ranch is family-owned and 100% cage-free. When you visit the Aptos ranch, get your eggs from the Glaum Egg Vending Machine. It is hilarious. I promise it’ll be the most unique egg purchase you will probably make in your life.

Things to do in Santa Cruz, Glaum Egg Ranch

The price for 22 eggs from the vending machine is $4.

Go to the Movies

Santa Cruz has a variety of movie theaters to choose from, which is why going to the movies is a great option when it looking for things to do in Santa Cruz at night. The city has the mainstream Regal Cinema 9 (where I worked in high school and which has super comfy reclining seats) and the Riverfront Twin, but there are also two indie theaters downtown called the Nickelodeon and the Del Mar.

The Del Mar has to be my favorite movie theater in Santa Cruz, an art-deco style theater in a historic building that used to be a vaudeville theater. Built in 1936, it’s the oldest theater in the city of Santa Cruz and some locals (like my mom) even like to say that it’s a little bit haunted.

The best part about the Del Mar besides being in a super cool old building are the concessions! You won’t find your standard movie theater fare here. Instead, you’ll find vegan brownies, frozen treats from the local creamery, and quality organic non-GMO kerneled popcorn that’s popped in organic canola oil, and which you can top with nutritional yeast and real butter. None of that partially hydrogenated soybean oil here.

With 18 screens to choose from just in downtown alone, you can see where I get my movie theater obsession from. You’re spoiled for choice and you can generally find just about any movie that’s playing right now. The perfect Santa Cruz experience for a rainy and/or cold day.

Craft Beer to warm your soul

Lastly, I had to mention the craft beer scene because a.) it has taken off in Santa Cruz in the last few years, b.) I LOVE craft beer and c.) there is nothing better on a cold night than a smooth stout to warm your soul.

Activities in Santa Cruz, New Bohemia Brewing, California

Santa Cruz now has a number of breweries to choose from, including Discretion, Santa Cruz Mountain, Uncommon, Santa Cruz Ale Works, New Bohemia, Seabright (the original!), Steel Bonnet, and Sante Adairius Rustic Ales.

I would personally recommend Discretion, Uncommon, New Bohemia, and Seabright Brewery if you can’t hit all of them. Discretion and New Bohemia also great places to eat in Santa Cruz.

fun things to do in Santa Cruz, New Bohemia Brewing, California

The only brewery that technically doesn’t have a public tasting room is Uncommon, but you can easily book a tour to see the brewery and try their beers in person by calling and booking an appointment at (831) 621-6270.

If you’re looking to try a great variety of different styles and breweries I would very much recommend checking out the new Beer 30 in Soquel and the local’s downtown favorite, 99 Bottles – both of which offer an astounding selection of local and foreign beers.

The other option if you don’t want to be driving or Ubering all over town is to hop on the Brew Cruz. The Santa Cruz Microbrewery Tour is 4 hours, $69 per person, and takes you along the local beer trail in a classic hippie school bus in true Santa Cruz fashion.

Not a big beer drinker? Head to one of the many Santa Cruz wineries instead!

Where to Stay in Santa Cruz

Ocean Pacific Lodge 

This Santa Cruz lodging is great for anyone who is enjoying winter in Santa Cruz on a budget.  The Ocean Pacific Lodge is a short walk away from the historic Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk, which will allow you to see the Santa Cruz Christmas train if you stay at the motel in December. This motel has free Wi-Fi and a hot tub and is also pet-friendly.

Casablanca Inn on The Beach

The Casablanca Inn is one of the stunning Santa Cruz hotels on the beach. This hotel overlooks Monterey Bay and is across the street from Santa Cruz Wharf and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This top rated hotel offers guests wonderful service, free Wi-Fi, and free toiletries. The on-site restaurant, Sawasdee by the Sea makes delicious Thai cuisine for lunch and dinner.

Dream Inn Santa Cruz

Dream Inn is a luxurious beachfront hotel that is located next to Santa Cruz’s famous boardwalk and steps from the heart of the city. It is an ideal destination for those who looking for romantic things to do in Santa Cruz. The hotel has a natural, laid back vibe and all of the rooms have private balconies with views of the Monterey Bay. You can watch gorgeous sunsets, admire the surfers and listen to waves as you fall asleep.

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Mimi McFadden
Founder & Editor-In-Chief

Mimi McFadden initially started The Atlas Heart in 2013 to write about her adventures abroad. But since 2019, The Atlas Heart has become a love letter to the Golden State. Mimi enjoys sharing her first-hand knowledge and expertise with the places she knows so well and making the most comprehensive travel guides possible. When she’s not hiking and exploring new places in California, she loves to travel abroad, read in her cozy chaise lounge, play basketball, and connect with friends and family over board games. Over her 28 years in California, she has lived in Santa Cruz (18 years), San Diego (5 years), and the San Francisco Bay Area (5 years), where she currently resides.

Looking for more California travel inspiration? Check out these related posts!

Best Weekend Trips from San Francisco

Best Hikes in Santa Cruz

Best Things to do in Capitola

The Best Things to do in San Francisco at Night

The Perfect Weekend Getaway to Mendocino

Guide to Big Basin Redwoods State Park 

Things to do in San Luis Obispo

Big Sur Camping Guide

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Hi, I'm Mimi! I'm an outdoorsy Californian who has spent over 28 years immersed in the incredible natural beauty that California has to offer. My goal is to inspire others to get out and find their next adventure in California. Whether it’s escaping to an alpine lake in the Sierras, finding peace among the giant redwoods, or road tripping down the PCH, there’s always more to explore in this beautiful state.


22 thoughts on “What to Do in Santa Cruz in Winter”

    • Yes, well at least I used to, I grew up in Santa Cruz! San Jose is a great spot too, I’ve finally had more of a chance to explore it since I’ve been stateside this past year. I just heard of Glaum ranch this past trip surprisingly and I knew I had to include it on the list. 🙂

  1. I LOVE This post and I am a total fan of Sana Cruz!! I used to visit San Jose a lot to see relatives so we always made time for Santa Cruz….I have never been in the winter…would love to be there instead of here in Cold Seattle!!

    Thanks for sharing!
    Fashion and Travel

    • Thanks Varlerie! I know what you mean, I’m living up here in Portland now and it’s just not quite the same beachy weather I grew up with in Santa Cruz, haha. Hope you make it back again soon!

  2. That looks and sounds so beautiful! I think I could just sit all day on the water there and just relax all day… and i would be satisfied although seeing the butterflies at Natural Bridges sure looks like it would be wonderful, too! Thanks for this great information!

  3. With the exception of the Brew Cruz, the old town looks much the same. And as for local trivia, do you remember what the building housing the Museum of Art & History used to be? 😉

    • I know! I was excited to discover the Brew Cruz on this most recent trip, although they were taking a break for the holidays while I was there so I didn’t get to experience myself. And was it the old county jail?

      • Yup, the jail with open barred windows so walking by incurred many, uh, colorful hoots and harassments! Can’t say I’ve ever lived in a city where the criminal element was so centrally located.
        It’s much better suited as a museum.

  4. I love Natural Bridges, but haven’t seen any butterflies so I will have to hit up soon! 99 Bottles is also a great choice. If you have never been to the crepe place or Mariannes ice cream those are musts.

  5. Ohhh 99 Bottles and Seabright, bringing back not so fond memories of my early 20s. Too many nights spent drinking there. Oh, and the Red Room. Another bright spot is Gayle’s, definitely worth a stop even though they’re always busy.

    • It’s funny because I’ve only really just discovered the nightlife and bars in Santa Cruz in the last few years because I grew up there and left for college when I was 18 – but Seabright Brewery, especially, was one I always used to go to with my dad for dinner near the ocean. That place is great. I love the key lime pie from Gayle’s, so good!!

  6. I love going to see the butterflies at Natural Bridges! My parents used to take us when we were little but I’ve recently been going with my friends. I’ve never been to the museum or discovery center though, I’ll definitely have to make a trip to them! But I’ve definitely gone out and enjoyed myself some beer 🙂

    • I love the butterflies, Natural Bridges is such a tranquil and stunning place. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed some of the beersies, I’ve been impressed with how many breweries there are popping up everywhere around my hometown!


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