The best things to do in Santa Cruz from someone who grew up in the city! These are my favorite places to eat, visit, and local experiences to have around my hometown.
Having grown up in the city, my list for the best things to do in Santa Cruz could go on and on (especially in terms of places to eat!).
With that said, I tried my best to consolidate my recommendations to 101 things to experience in my hometown.
This list covers not just the city of Santa Cruz but the county as well, including places like Capitola, Aptos, and Felton. With around 276,000 residents these days, Santa Cruz County is becoming a bustling medium-sized hotspot in California.
This also means that the city has gone through a ton of changes in the past decade or two.
Although there has always been plenty of natural beauty around Santa Cruz, there are now more Santa Cruz tourist attractions and places to eat and drink than ever before.
Santa Cruz is the place to go for people coming from ‘over the hill’ as we used to say growing up (aka from San Jose and San Francisco). And it’s not hard to see why.
There’s a lot to love about Santa Cruz – the beaches, the healthy cuisine, our love for local businesses and the lack of chain stores.
And, of course, the redwoods, Santa Cruz Mountains, and the countless opportunities to get outside in nature and breathe clean, fresh air.
One of my favorite aspects of sightseeing in Santa Cruz is that most attractions are completely free because most of them are outdoors.
These are my top recommendations for what to do in Santa Cruz, whether you’re a local or just passing through!
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101 Things to Do in Santa Cruz, California
I broke down this Santa Cruz bucket list by tourist sights, best beaches, local attractions, outdoor activities and hikes, museums, food and drinks, tours, day trips, and events.
Feel free to navigate from the table of contents above.
Top Things to do in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
You can’t visit Santa Cruz and not visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk at least once. This is our #1 tourist attraction in Santa Cruz and the location of my first job when I was 15. Heyooo.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is one of the most famous (and oldest) seaside amusement parks in California, with our Giant Dipper roller coaster dating all the way back to 1924 and a historic carousel from 1911.
The park features more than 40 Santa Cruz rides that are good for all ages. Case in point – my siblings and I have been going to the Boardwalk since we were toddlers and still visit regularly as adults.
They do a good job of offering a variety of rides so no matter how you like to get your thrills (or don’t), there is something for everyone.
And if rides aren’t your thing, the Boardwalk still has a carnival-like atmosphere with tons of games you can play for prizes throughout the park.
Plus, it’s a stunning amusement park with a location right on the beach and views that look out over the Monterey Bay.
The boardwalk is completely free to enter, you just have to pay for rides, so you can just walk around and enjoy the historic park and park atmosphere.
At the Boardwalk, there is also a fun merman-themed mini golf spot called Neptune’s Kingdom, a full arcade with laser tag, and the Boardwalk Bowl across the street.
Local tip: Try and stop by the Boardwalk Bowl on either Thursday or Sunday night when they do Atomic Bowling (aka blacklight bowling).
The Boardwalk is also right on Main Beach, so after checking out a few attractions, you can spend the rest of the day lying on the beach.
The Boardwalk is only open full hours from late May through late August, but, outside of those months, you can still usually find it open most weekends and during the holidays.
Double check their website if you’re visiting Santa Cruz outside of summer.
Some locals might call the Mystery Spot a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s also a beloved place that has been in Santa Cruz for ages (you’ll probably see a few Mystery Spot bumper stickers around town).
The Mystery Spot opened in 1940 and is a California Historic Landmark. It was one of the first tourist attractions in the city to create some tourism buzz around Santa Cruz.
The Spot is nestled in the midst of the redwoods and showcases a number of attractions that seem to defy gravity through a 45 minute tour.
It’s a fun place to confuse your mind for an afternoon and take hilarious pictures while you’re at it.
There’s also a short 30-minute trail on the property if you want to spend time in the redwoods either before or after your tour. As an added bonus, they just added a huge dahlia garden along the trail.
This is one of the more touristy things to see in Santa Cruz, but still worth visiting at least once.
Roaring Camp Railroads
I seriously love Roaring Camp and still go on their tours as an adult, even if they’re slightly more geared for children. #sorrynotsorry
Roaring Camp trains leave from the depot in Felton and take you through ancient redwoods in an open-air 19th century steam train.
Tours last 75 minutes and are fully narrated to give you a history lesson about the railroad and the surrounding land.
There’s a break mid-way through to stretch your legs, take some pics with the steam train, and get even more up close with giant redwood trees.
Chugging through the peaceful redwood forest on this train is one of the most magical experiences you can have in Santa Cruz. If you have an afternoon to spare, check out Roaring Camp. You won’t regret it.
Santa Cruz Trolley
If you’ve been to San Francisco, you’ve probably seen the historic trolleys that are part tourist attraction and part local transportation.
Well, Santa Cruz has its own trolley too.
The great thing about the Santa Cruz Trolley is that it provides super cheap transportation to and from the Santa Cruz Wharf and downtown Santa Cruz.
This means you don’t have to worry about Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk parking, which can be expensive and a pain. And the best part? A one-way ride on the trolley only costs $0.25. Talk about a deal!
Note: the Santa Cruz trolley only runs from Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day Weekend from 12 pm to 8 pm.
Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
Established in 1986, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is a must-visit on any trip to Santa Cruz because it talks about what Santa Cruz is most famous for – surfing!
There’s a long-held rivalry between locals from Huntington Beach in Southern California and locals in Santa Cruz for the title of Surf City USA.
If you listen to the Beach Boy’s song Surfing USA, where they clearly mention Santa Cruz, you’ll know that Santa Cruz is the clear winner.
Side note: f you meet someone from Huntington Beach who claims their city is Surf City USA, please correct them for me.
But I digress. This is all to point to the fact that surfing is a big deal in Santa Cruz and worth learning more about while you’re in town.
The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is a fun museum to visit to learn more about the 100-year history of surfing in Santa Cruz and mainland USA. It’s also completely free to visit.
It’s a small museum so it probably won’t take you more than 30 minutes to walk around, but it’s also located in a beautiful spot on West Cliff Drive at Lighthouse Point Park.
You can watch the surfers at Steamer Lane and catch the sunset after walking through the museum.
The museum is open from 12 pm to 4 pm Thursday through Monday (they’re closed Tuesday and Wednesday). Check out the To Honor Surfing Monument next door to the museum as well.
Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Santa Cruz is surrounded by the Monterey Bay, a body of water that has some of the most diverse marine life in the world.
This is why the Monterey Bay Aquarium is such a world-renowned aquarium. There is just so much cool marine life around Santa Cruz, from kelp forests to cute otters and sea lions.
If you don’t want to make the trek to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center is a good alternative.
This is a good activity to add to your Santa Cruz to-do list if you want to learn more about what makes the Monterey Bay so special.
The center also talks more specifically about the marine life on the shores of Santa Cruz and the conservation efforts being implemented along the coast.
You can either walk through the center at your own pace or go on a tour.
There are a few 45-minute afternoon tours and a morning 30-minute family tour if you want to dive deeper into local marine life and the work the center is doing.
One of my favorite parts of Seymour is seeing Ms. Blue, one of the largest blue whale skeletons in the world that is located right outside the center.
At 87 feet long, the skeleton really gives you an idea of how large and majestic these mammals are.
Whale Watching Cruise
Speaking of whales, there are a lot that migrate past Santa Cruz every year, making the city a top whale watching destination in California.
The whale watching tours run year-round because there are so many different species that swim near the shore throughout the year – about seven different whales and seven different dolphins and porpoises to be exact.
The humpback whale is the most common, but you’ll also find plenty of grey whales during certain times of the year.
If you’re going on a tour, make sure to bring a good pair of waterproof binoculars to get the most out of the experience.
In addition to the main marine life attractions, you’ll also have the chance to see sea lions, seals, otters, dolphins, some of the 100 different species of sea birds around Santa Cruz, and sometimes even jellies, sharks, and sea turtles.
Best Free Things to do in Santa Cruz
Pacific Avenue Mall
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 you can spend whole afternoons in.
Walking down Pacific Avenue is one of those fun things to do in Santa Cruz for free because it’s the beating heart of our city. It really gives you an idea of how weird and lovable Santa Cruz is.
I might be biased, but the coffee in Santa Cruz is some of the best I’ve tried. Try as many of the local coffee shops as you can, they all have their own vibe and talented baristas.
One of the best things to do in downtown Santa Cruz is to simply spend an afternoon walking around Pacific Avenue, poking your head into different local stores, eating, and people watching.
Santa Cruz Wharf
Compared to a lot of wharves 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 our vocal seal residents up close.
If you’re feeling like a nice seafood dinner, go to Riva Fish House. It’s one of my favorite restaurants in Santa Cruz and allows you to sit alongside huge windows overlooking the ocean on the Santa Cruz pier.
Stop in at Marini’s Candies for some of their famous saltwater taffy to eat while walking back to your car. Visiting and having dinner out on the wharf is a must-do in Santa Cruz, for at least one night while you’re in town.
West Cliff Drive
West Cliff Drive is one of my favorite places in Santa Cruz. It’s a gorgeous spot 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 at Steamer Lane.
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.
I have so many good memories from West Cliff, from adolescence to adulthood. You should make some there too while you’re in town.
West Cliff is a place that showcases the best parts of Santa Cruz, and, in my opinion, it’s the most beautiful part of the city.
East Cliff Drive
East Cliff Drive is the slightly more local sister of West Cliff Drive. It’s not quite as stunning and doesn’t get as much traffic as West Cliff, but it’s still a beautiful area of Santa Cruz to drive or walk around.
East Cliff is less touristy and has a less developed feel to it if you’re looking to check out quieter cliffside views.
If you’re looking for free stuff to do in Santa Cruz that’s quintessential to this beachy town, driving along both West Cliff and East Cliff Drive is a good place to start.
At the end of East Cliff Drive, make sure to spend some time in another one of my favorite areas of Santa Cruz – Pleasure Point. This is where you’ll find another popular surf spot called The Hook to watch the surfers from above.
Butterflies at Natural Bridges State Park
One of my favorite hidden gems in Santa Cruz involves butterflies in their natural habitat. If you want to see 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 visit Natural Bridges is in November when thousands of butterflies call the eucalyptus trees at Natural Bridges home.
SS Palo Alto
The SS Palo Alto, known as “the Cement Ship” by Santa Cruz locals, was a World War I tanker boat that was launched in 1919 in Oakland, and eventually docked at its final resting place in Aptos, California years later.
Although its original purpose was for World War I, the SS palo Alto was never used in the war because it ended before the boat’s construction did.
For 10 years, it was left as a useless 6,100 ton cement ship, until a company bought it and towed it down to Aptos to make it into an entertainment attraction near Santa Cruz.
They added in a full ballroom, casino, swimming pool, and carnival games. Unfortunately, this was right around the time of the Great Depression and the attraction never took off.
The ship was then turned into a fishing pier, but due to its deterioration over the years that also closed down.
It’s now just a sinking sight to see from afar. But, it has become the habitat for local marine life and sea birds over the years, making it a good spot for wildlife watching.
Although it’s one of the more popular Santa Cruz tourist spots, especially in the summer, Capitola Village is a lovely spot for a stroll on a nice day.
One of my favorite free things to do in Santa Cruz County is go window shopping around Capitola Village, grab an ice cream, and eat it out on a bench near the beach.
In Capitola Village, you’ll find a seaside community that has colorful Italian-inspired houses and an overall laid back vibe.
The Village features local restaurants, boutique stores, and a location right on the beach. This is the place to shop for unique beachy Santa Cruz souvenirs.
Compared to Pacific Avenue where the crowd is a bit younger, you’ll find somewhat of an older scene in Capitola. The shopping in Capitola Village is more for touristy souvenirs or clothing for middle-aged women.
The ocean views from the restaurants in Capitola Village are maybe only beat by those on the Santa Cruz Wharf. It’s a gorgeous place to grab a bite to eat at sunset.
Capitola Village also hosts one of the most popular free festivals in Santa Cruz every September – the Capitola Art & Wine Festival.
Walton Lighthouse and Santa Cruz Harbor
Located at the end of Seabright Beach, the Walton Lighthouse was built in 2001 and offers stunning views of the ocean and beach beside it.
You’re not able to go inside the lighthouse, but this is one of my favorite Santa Cruz spots to take pictures from. After walking around the lighthouse, you can chill out at one of the best beaches in Santa Cruz – Seabright Beach.
The lighthouse is also near the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History and Aldo’s Restaurant, my favorite breakfast place in Santa Cruz. Make sure to spend some time walking around the beautiful Santa Cruz Harbor as well.
If you walk to the other side of the harbor, stop in at one of the most popular fine dining restaurants in Santa Cruz, the Crow’s Nest.
Java Junction nearby is also a good place to grab an iced coffee or smoothie and sit out on the beach.
Hike the DeLaveaga Trails
There are a variety of trails you can tackle at DeLaveaga Park for a light or strenuous hike. It’s also an ideal 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.
Local tip: there are mountain lions in most of the hiking spots around Santa Cruz, including the DeLaveaga trails. Because of this, it’s recommended that you keep your dogs on a leash and to hike with other people.
If you do want to hike alone (many locals, myself included, do), go before dusk and keep to the more heavily trafficked trails.
In general, mountain lions are much more afraid of humans than we are of them, but it’s still good to be aware while you’re hiking local trails.
Summer Concerts at the Boardwalk
One of the best free things to do in Santa Cruz in the summer is to enjoy the Friday night concert series that the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk puts on every year.
From June through the end of August, you’ll find live bands playing on an outdoor stage right on the beach next to the Boardwalk.
Bring a few blankets or beach chairs and enjoy the show as the sun goes down.
Although most performers are either local or not super well known, there is always at least one or two nights that feature a somewhat once well-known band.
Case in point – A Flock of Seagulls graced the stage in 2010 and Smash Mouth makes regular appearances as well.
Regardless, it’s good music that’s free and on the beach. What more could you ask for?
Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park and Mission Santa Cruz
Housing the oldest building that still exists in Santa Cruz, the site of the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park dates all the way back to 1791.
The park features historical exhibits about the original Mission Santa Cruz residents and the life of the California Indians. There’s a small relaxing garden and gift shop to enjoy as well.
Once you’re done at the historic park, head over to the replica of the original Mission Santa Cruz to see a recreation of what the mission once looked like.
A visit to both the park and mission replica should take less than 30 minutes, but it’s a free experience and provides an interesting look at some of Santa Cruz’s oldest history.
Mission Santa Cruz was the 12th mission built in California. There were 21 missions in total that were built up and down the state, and it’s fun to try and visit as many as possible on a California road trip.
Thrift Store Shopping
If you’re looking for a unique Santa Cruz shopping experience, there are plenty of thrift stores all over the city, especially in downtown Santa Cruz.
The thrift store shopping in Santa Cruz won’t be as crazy as what you’ll find in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, but it can still be a fun way to spend an afternoon in the city.
Local Attractions in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz Roller Palladium
If you want to step back in time to the 1950s, head over to the Santa Cruz Roller Palladium.
The rink probably hasn’t been updated since the 1950s when it first opened, but if you’re okay with a retro no frills atmosphere, lace up some skates and take to the wooden floor.
They have a disco ball and they’re known to play cheesy classics from the 70s, 80s, and 90s like any good roller rink should. On weekends, they also usually include the limbo and hokey pokey at random times throughout the night.
At only $8 to skate, it’s one of the best cheap things to do in Santa Cruz and a fun way to spend a couple of hours.
Bookshop Santa Cruz
Beloved Bookshop Santa Cruz has been a local staple in the city since 1966 and it’s easily one of my favorite bookstores in the world.
At over 20,000 square feet, they have a good variety of all kinds of books, a decent travel section (yes, please), and new and used books for sale. They also have a gift section where I’ve found many eccentric Christmas gifts over the years.
Bookshop Santa Cruz hosts regular events and live readings with authors and it’s simply a magical place to walk around and peruse the many books they have for sale.
It’s also one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz when it’s raining because you don’t get cozier than Bookshop Santa Cruz (and Chocolate Restaurant right next door).
The Del Mar
The Del Mar is the most famous downtown Santa Cruz movie theater with oodles of character and history.
Once called the “crown jewel of Pacific Avenue”, the Del Mar was Built in 1936 and has been another local Santa Cruz attraction for decades.
Although the theater was originally built to be a vaudeville theater, today it is the best theater in Santa Cruz for independent films (along with its sister theater, the Nickelodeon) and midnight showings.
If you’re going to see a movie here, make sure to ask which showing will be on the main screen, because that is where you’ll truly be able to experience the magic of the Del Mar. It’s the coolest retro movie theater to experience in Santa Cruz.
One of my favorite aspects of the theater besides its historic elegance is the snack bar.
You won’t find any hydrogenated soybean oil labeled as butter here. They only serve real butter and organic, GMO-free kernels popped in organic canola oil. You can even sprinkle some nutritional yeast on your popcorn instead of salt.
Yep, it’s very Santa Cruz.
Besides the popcorn, they offer up a bunch of organic snacks from local vendors, as well as traditional treats like Twizzlers and Junior Mints.
Downtown Farmers’ Market
Central California, and Santa Cruz especially, is blessed with some of the best agricultural regions in the whole state.
I never realized how lucky I had it growing up in Santa Cruz in terms of crazy fresh local and organic produce until I moved out of the city.
One of the best weekly Santa Cruz events that showcase just how good the produce is in this area of California is the Downtown Farmers’ Market.
The market happens year-round on Wednesdays from 1 pm – 5 pm in the fall/winter and 1 pm – 6 pm in the spring/summer.
And you’ll find more than just fresh fruits and veggies here. There are a variety of local vendors selling everything from baked goods, to artisanal spreads, and lunch and dinner options.
There’s always live music as well. It’s a community event not to be missed if you’re in town on a Wednesday, whether you’re a local or just visiting.
See a Show at The Catalyst
Every town has that grungy live music venue that you probably never want to see with the lights turned on, but which holds special memories from the many good concerts you’ve seen there.
The Catalyst is that place in Santa Cruz.
It’s probably the most famous live music venue in Santa Cruz and plays a wide variety of acts. I’ve seen every type of show at The Catalyst, from psychobilly Tiger Army concerts to Jason Mraz.
Check out their schedule online and see if there’s a good show playing when you’re in town. It’s a very Santa Cruz experience to go to a concert at The Catalyst.
Grab a Drink at Abbott Square
A relatively new drinking establishment in Santa Cruz, Abbott Square was the first place that actually made me think Santa Cruz could be trendy.
This space is similar to what you might find in a swanky warehouse in San Francisco and features a variety of bars and restaurants that serve everything from fresh oysters to huge gin and tonics (I’m looking at you Front & Cooper).
They often have live music out on the patio on the weekends as well. It’s a fun place to soak up the communal atmosphere and have a few drinks with friends in downtown Santa Cruz.
Enjoy Live Jazz at Kuumbwa Jazz Center
If the grungy unkept venue that is The Catalyst doesn’t sound like your style, another quality spot for live music is the Kuumbwa Jazz Center.
This place is the polar opposite of The Catalyst, namely because it’s clean, organized, and classy.
If you’re looking for a good date night or you’re simply a fan of live jazz, head to Kuumbwa for some of the best jazz you’ll find in the city.
First Friday Santa Cruz
Looking for cool things to do in Santa Cruz on a Friday?
First Fridays are monthly art parties in Santa Cruz that, as you probably guessed it, happen on the first Friday of every month.
This is a free local event where you can see Santa Cruz artists showcased in a block party atmosphere.
First Fridays allow you to hop from art galleries to shops and cultural venues to experience all things art. Most venues offer cocktails or wine and cheese plates and there is usually live music to encourage a more festive vibe.
And First Fridays aren’t just centered in one area of the city, they happens all throughout Santa Cruz County – from Soquel to downtown Santa Cruz.
If you’re not keen to trek all over the city, the best place to base yourself is downtown where you’ll find the greatest concentration of participating venues.
Most of the venues open around 5pm or 6pm onward for First Friday festivities. You can find the list of participating First Friday venues here.
Wine Tasting in the Santa Cruz Mountains
One of those underrated things to do near Santa Cruz is to go wine tasting!
Most people don’t realize that there is actually really good wine tasting opportunities in Santa Cruz’s backyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
There’s no need to go all the way to Napa – California’s most famous wine region.
In fact, I actually prefer the Santa Cruz Mountain wineries compared to Napa, mostly because they’re not quite as pretentious as Napa wineries.
Spend an afternoon checking out some of the best local wineries in the mountains, such as Regale, Loma Prieta, and Picchetti.
And it’s not just the wine that’s worth the journey, all of these wineries provide stunning views or beautiful properties to sip on a chilled glass of chardonnay or tasty pinot noir.
Hot Chocolate from Chocolate the Restaurant
If you are a chocolate enthusiast, one of the best places to go in Santa Cruz to satisfy your sweet tooth is Chocolate.
I haven’t come across many other hot chocolates that rival what I’ve found at Chocolate, even in my travels through Belgium.
You can find every hot chocolate your little chocolately heart desires, including Mexican chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate, milk chocolate, hazelnut (my personal favorite), and so many more.
If you’re looking for a good date night idea in Santa Cruz or you’re wanting to impress someone special with a nice evening in downtown, head to Chocolate.
They have a cute patio lit up with lights that is perfect for a nice summer evening in Santa Cruz.
They also have delicious mains for dinner if you want to make a full meal of it. My personal favorite is the pasta rosettes. Just make sure you come here with plenty of time since their service is not the fastest.
Shakespeare Santa Cruz
One of the best summer theaters in California, Shakespeare Santa Cruz is a favorite local event to attend from July to the end of August.
What makes Shakespeare Santa Cruz productions so special, besides the talented artists, is the location. Although plays used to be performed up at UCSC, which was also magical, they’re now located at the Grove in DeLaveaga Park.
Let me tell you, watching theater in an open-air environment surrounded by trees and good views is a wonderful experience. You can also bring your own picnic and wine and beer to the shows to make a night of it.
Outdoor Activities & Hikes
Kayaking the Monterey Bay
If you’re up for an adventure activity in Santa Cruz, Kayaking the Monterey Bay is one of the best ways to get up close to the bustling sea life around the shore.
Whether you rent a kayak or go on a guided tour with a local company, this is one of the best ways to explore all that the Monterey Bay has to offer.
When kayaking around the Bay, it’s not uncommon to come across otters, seals, sea lions, pelicans, dolphins, whales, and a variety of other marine life that call the Monterey Bay home.
The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
One of the best places to visit in Santa Cruz to get lost in the redwoods, The Forest of Nisene Marks is nestled in Aptos and features 28 hiking trails that span 40 miles and 10,000 acres of nature.
It’s one of the best spots in Santa Cruz for locals to go hiking so you won’t come across very many tourists like you might at Henry Cowell State Park. This is also a popular place for mountain biking and trail running.
A few moderate trails to tackle at Nisene Marks include Bridge Creek Trail to Maple Falls, Aptos Creek and West Ridge Trail Loop, and Loma Prieta and Bridge Loop Trail.
Wilder Ranch State Park
One of the most beautiful places in Santa Cruz for coastal hiking, Wilder Ranch State Park is such a stunning park that it might feel like you’re walking through a postcard on some of its trails.
A fun fact about the park is that it used to be a dairy ranch in the 1800s. The original ranch buildings have since been restored and turned into a museum that showcases the history of the park and California’s ranching past.
Wilder Ranch spans 7,000 acres and my favorite trail in the park (pictured below) is the Old Landing Cove Trail.
UCSC is surrounded by a lot of good hiking trails, nature, and fun Santa Cruz outdoor activities. One of the best places to enjoy nature near campus is at the UCSC Arboretum.
At the Arboretum, you’ll find easy hiking trails and a variety of exotic and native California plants. The individual gardens are set up to showcase plants from different countries around the world.
It’s an ideal spot for a quiet afternoon walk through different types of flora.
Situated right behind UCSC, Pogonip is another favorite spot that locals like to hike, mountain bike, or horseback ride.
It offers just over 11 miles of trails and connects all the way up to Henry Cowell State Park and the UCSC campus. The main draws to Pogonip are its wide-open meadows, peaceful creeks, and woodlands.
Local tip: There was a bit of a heroin drug problem for a while at Pogonip a few years back. Apparently, the city has since cleaned this up, but there were still quite a few homeless people living in the woods the last time I hiked here.
I would still recommend it as a good place to hike in Santa Cruz, just don’t be surprised if you find some of the local homeless population around the park.
Quail Hollow Ranch
Up in Felton, you’ll find Quail Hollow Ranch, a 300-acre nature wonderland and popular wedding venue. This is still very much a hidden gem for hiking in Santa Cruz, making it an ideal place to enjoy nature without too many other humans around.
The ranch is a habitat for native plants and animals and includes a dwarf redwood forest and seasonal wetland.
Although there are only five miles of hiking trails, there are plenty of classes and tours offered year-round at the ranch as well, including bird watching, history tours, and stargazing.
An interesting fun fact about Quail Hollow Ranch is that the ranch house used to be the test kitchen for Sunset Magazine.
Neary Lagoon Park
Neary Lagoon Park is a wildlife refuge in Santa Cruz that features floating boardwalks looking out over the lagoon, trails, and bird-watching areas. There’s also tennis courts and a playground if you’re looking for things to do with kids in Santa Cruz
This place is a great spot to get away from the city and the busier parts of Santa Cruz to spend some time in nature. There’s hardly ever anyone else there which can be ideal for wildlife watching.
I’d recommend giving yourself about an hour to walk around the lagoon.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
The most popular spot to go hiking near Santa Cruz, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is one of the best places to see old-growth redwood trees up close. You can even walk inside some of them!
Besides the park’s busiest attraction – the redwood grove – there are over 4,600 acres of land to explore through the many hiking trails in the park.
Make sure to stop by The Garden of Eden, a popular swimming spot in the San Lorenzo River within the park.
The park offers 107 campsites but they tend to fill up months in advance, so book early if you want to camp amongst the redwoods.
Henry Cowell is also right next to Roaring Camp Railroad if you want to include both in one day.
Moran Lake County Park
A small park with beach access in the Live Oak area of Santa Cruz, Moran Lake County Park is a local place to relax away from the crowds.
The nine-acre park features a grove of eucalyptus trees and some short walking paths, as well as picnic tables. It’s a dog-friendly park so feel free to bring your pup along too and head down to the beach.
Natural Bridges Tide Pools
I’ve mentioned before that the Monterey Bay is full of diverse marine life and one of the best places to see that marine life above water is at the Natural Bridges Tide Pools.
The Natural Bridges tide pools are located to the north of the main beach where you’ll find an assortment of marine life, including different types of algae, barnacles, mussels, sea sponges, crabs, and purple sea anemones.
Make sure to visit when the tide is at its lowest for the day for the best experience.
Local tip: The tide pools are close to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, so seeing both in an afternoon is a good way to experience Monterey Bay marine life first hand.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Note: Big Basin Redwoods State Park is sadly closed after the CZU Lightning Complex wildfires in 2020 and it doesn’t look like it will be opening again anytime soon.
After Henry Cowell, Big Basin Redwoods State Park is the next most popular spot to go hiking in the Santa Cruz redwoods. This is actually the oldest state park in California, having been established in 1902.
Big Basin is one of the best things to do in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The trails that cut through the park give you a chance to get up close to California’s famous coastal redwood trees.
Some of these trees are 1,000 to 1,800 years old and 50 feet around. They’re an incredible sight to see.
Growing up in Santa Cruz, redwood trees easily became my favorite type of tree in the world. No other tree comes close to how majestic the coastal redwoods are.
The park has 80 miles worth of trails and features numerous waterfalls, many animals, and birdlife. You can also go camping in Big Basin, but similar to Henry Cowell, spots fill up fast so book early.
Ocean View Park
If you’re not as big on hiking, but you’re looking for a pretty place to be outside and enjoy a nice view, Ocean View Park is the perfect option.
Located on Ocean View Avenue, Ocean View Park is a good place to take the young ones if you’re visiting Santa Cruz with kids.
There are a bunch of slides and a fun playground for kids to run around in. It’s also a popular place to bring dogs.
At the park, you’ll find a basketball court, picnic tables, restrooms, and, as the name suggests, beautiful ocean views.
Local tip: bring wax paper for the slides to really zip down them at top speed. This was a favorite pastime when I was a kid.
Best Beaches in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz has so many good beaches it’s hard to know where to start sometimes. These are a few of my favorites, from the popular to the more local spots.
- Seabright State Beach – A local favorite that’s located in a residential neighborhood and not too touristy. It’s also right next to the Santa Cruz Harbor and Walton Lighthouse.
- Sunny Cove – A nice beach in Santa Cruz for that more local vibe, Sunny Cove is one of those secret local spots that not many tourists have discovered yet.
- Pleasure Point Beach – One of the best beaches for surfing in Santa Cruz. If you want to catch some waves, head over to Pleasure Point Beach and The Hook surf spot.
- Main Beach – This is the most popular beach in Santa Cruz so I only recommend it if you don’t mind the crowds, especially in the summer.
- Twin Lakes State Beach – One of my favorite beaches in Santa Cruz after Sunny Cove and one of the best places to watch the sunset in Santa Cruz (after West Cliff). There’s also the Crow’s Nest restaurant, Cafe El Palomar, and Java Junction coffee shop nearby for snacks, coffee, or a nice meal.
- Cowell’s Beach – The best beach in Santa Cruz for beginner surfers. If you’re taking surf lessons in Santa Cruz, this is probably where they’ll be.
- Capitola Beach – Located right in Capitola Village, Capitola Beach is a nice little beach to visit after a walk around the village on a nice day.
- Lighthouse Field State Beach/Its Beach – A popular beach along West Cliff Drive right next to Steamer Lane (the most famous surf spot in Santa Cruz) and the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (note: this has become an unofficial dog beach in Santa Cruz so don’t be surprised if you see pups running around off-leash).
- Natural Bridges State Beach – A 65-acre beach located at the end of West Cliff Drive, Natural Bridges State Beach offers everything from endless sandy stretches to interesting rock formations and a nearby Monarch butterfly grove at the state park.
Best Museums in Santa Cruz
- Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) – located right next to Abbott Square in downtown Santa Cruz, the purpose of the MAH is to connect people through shared experiences of creativity, stories, and ideas.
- Capitola Historical Museum – If you’re looking for other cool things to do in Capitola besides the beach and Capitola Village, head over to the Capitola Historical Museum where you’ll get a unique overview of Capitola’s history through the years.
- Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History – Another favorite museum in Santa Cruz besides the MAH, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is a good place to bring the kids to learn more about the local environment in Santa Cruz.
- Bigfoot Discovery Museum –probably the most novel museum you’ll find in Santa Cruz, but it’s free and it can be entertaining for anyone who wants to learn more about the elusive Bigfoot legend.
Food & Coffee
Coffee & Tea
- Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company
- Cat & Cloud Coffee Shop
- Hidden Peak Tea House (the best Santa Cruz tea house)
- Walnut Avenue Cafe
- Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe
- Cafe Brasil
- Taqueria Vallarta
- Tacos Moreno
- Betty Burgers
- Saturn Cafe
- Cafe Gratitude
- Planet Fresh
- Riva Fish House
- Tortilla Flats
- Lillian’s Italian Kitchen
- The Crepe Place
- El Palomar
- Polar Bear Ice Cream
- Marini’s Candy (my first job!)
Nightlife & Live Music Venues
One of the best things to do in Santa Cruz at night is to check out the many bars and live music venues around town.
- Red Room
- Rosie McCann’s
- Abbott Square
- Rio Theatre
- Kuumbwa Jazz Center
- Moe’s Alley
Best Santa Cruz Tours
Note: if you’d rather do your own craft beer tour around Santa Cruz, check out my post about California breweries to get some ideas for where to go.
Best Day Trips from Santa Cruz
Once you’ve had enough time to check out the many things to do around Santa Cruz, make sure to go on at least one of these day trips to experience more of the Central Coast or Bay Area.
- Año Nuevo State Park (30 minutes)
- 17 Mile Drive and Carmel-by-the-Sea (1 hour)
- Monterey Bay Aquarium (1 hour) – One of the top attractions near Santa Cruz. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the best aquariums in the world, not only for the fantastic experience they give to guests but for their cutting-edge conservation and research efforts throughout the years.
- Half Moon Bay (1 hour)
- San Jose (1 hour) – Read my full post about what to do in San Jose
- San Francisco (1.5-2 hours) – Read my full post on the 100+ things to do in San Francisco
- Pleasure Point Street Fair (June)
- Woodies on the Wharf (June)
- Capitola Rod & Custom Classic Car Show (June)
- Wharf to Wharf Race (July)
- Santa Cruz Greek Festival (September)
- Santa Cruz County Fair (September)
- Capitola Art & Wine Festival (September)
- Capitola Beach Festival (September)
Get your FREE California Travel Planner – including printable checklists and my favorite two-week itinerary for the state.
What to Pack for Santa Cruz
- Light jacket
- Flip Flops
- Bathing Suit
- Good walking shoes (e.g.Allbirds Tree Runners)
- Nice pair of shoes (for going out at night)
- Beach bag
- Waterproof camera
- Reusable water bottle
- Portable charger
- Travel insurance for Santa Cruz
Best Time to Visit Santa Cruz
By far the best time to visit Santa Cruz is in September. The weather is usually at its nicest, the tourists have mostly dissipated, and the UC Santa Cruz students haven’t moved onto campus yet.
Santa Cruz in September is one of the quietest times in the city when you can still enjoy beach weather and not find yourself stuck in traffic.
It’s probably why there are so many seasonal local events in September because it’s the nicest time to be in the city.
Spring is the second-best time to visit Santa Cruz when the wildflowers are in full bloom and the weather is getting nice again for hiking and spending time at the beach.
If the fall isn’t ideal for your travel plans, springtime in Santa Cruz is a good alternative.
From June-August, Santa Cruz is at its busiest, with people coming down in droves from the Bay Area to enjoy the beaches and that laid back Santa Cruz lifestyle in the summer.
Be prepared for a lot of tourists, but also quite a few events, festivals, and full Beach Boardwalk hours.
The winter can also be a nice time to visit for cheaper accommodation prices and fewer tourists, although the weather is usually rainy and can dip down to the 40s, especially at night.
Related: How to Spend Winter in Santa Cruz
How to Get from San Francisco to Santa Cruz
The quickest way to get to Santa Cruz from San Francisco is to rent a car and take I-280 S or US-101 S to Highway 17 South.
It usually takes about an hour and a half to two hours without heavy traffic. If you’re coming from San Jose, it’s usually only about 45 minutes to an hour.
If you want to save money or you’re not interested in driving, you can take public transit from San Francisco using Caltrain to get to San Jose and then the Highway 17 bus from Diridon Station in San Jose.
The public transit route usually takes around three hours, so be prepared for a long-ish journey.
You can hop on Caltrain in San Francisco at 4th & King St., take it all the way to Diridon Station in San Jose (1.5 hours) and then hop on the Highway 17 bus from there (1 hour).
Caltrain costs $10.50 and the Highway 17 bus is $7, so the one-way journey costs $17.50.
Santa Cruz Travel Tips
- Highway 17 is the quickest way to get to Santa Cruz from the Bay Area – it’s a beautiful highway but also one of the most treacherous in California. There are accidents that happen every week here, usually from people going too fast and being stupid. Don’t be one of those people.
- Santa Cruz gets super busy in the summer and around holidays – if you’re coming down from the Bay Area for a visit, especially on the weekends, be prepared for it to take about twice as long to get over Highway 17.
- The public transit in Santa Cruz is reliable, services most areas around the city, and is fairly affordable – Although it’s easier to have a car to get places quickly and to more obscure hiking spots, public transit is a good option to get around the city, especially if you’re staying in downtown Santa Cruz.
- There’s now Uber in Santa Cruz – if you prefer to get around the city via rideshare and you don’t have a car! The last time I took an Uber in the city, the car was decked out in huge Christmas lights and the driver was bitching about politics the whole time – aka living up to Santa Cruz cliches!
- Santa Cruz is known for its healthy take on a lot of cuisines – especially Mexican! Go with the flow and enjoy the hippie vibes in a lot of the restaurants in Santa Cruz. There has never been a better time to try delicious vegan cuisine than in Santa Cruz.
- Santa Cruz hippies – speaking of hippies, there are still quite a few of them in Santa Cruz. Although sadly, it’s not just weed-smoking hippies and homeless anymore. Santa Cruz has seen an influx of meth and heroin addiction in recent years. You’ll come across people who are clearly on something in places like Pogonip, so be aware of your surroundings while you’re in these more drug prevalent areas (mostly on the Westside – northwest of downtown, near UCSC and Harvey West).
- Bring layers! – people who aren’t from California often think that the whole state is sunny beach weather year-round. In Southern California that might be the case, but Central and Northern California are much more about that fog and brisk ocean breeze. In Santa Cruz, because it’s located in the Monterey Bay, there’s usually a chilly morning fog that burns off to sunshine by the middle of the day. Nights in Santa Cruz are fairly cold, no matter what season it is, and during the winter the city can get a decent amount of rain. It’s still California and not Canada, but prepare for temperatures to dip as low as the 40s to 50s at night during the winter. That’s cold for us!
- There are very few free parking areas in downtown Santa Cruz – be prepared to pay for parking. There are various parking garages around downtown and street meters are color coordinated depending on how long you can park in a spot – loading zone, two hours, eight hours, etc. Most parking is $1/hour or $8/day with free parking on holidays. Even though downtown Santa Cruz is mostly paid parking, most other areas of Santa Cruz are free (besides maybe Capitola Village).
Related: 101 Things to do in California
Where to Stay in Santa Cruz
Because of its resort and summer vacation destination-nature, Santa Cruz isn’t the cheapest in terms of accommodation. With that said, you can still find a variety of prices at Santa Cruz hotels. These are my top picks for each budget!
BEST PLACES TO CAMP
If you want to save money and reconnect with the amazing nature to be found near the city, these are the best campsites in Santa Cruz County. Make sure to book a month or more in advance to guarantee a campsite, especially in the summer.
If you’re in need of camping gear, these are my picks for the best 4-person tents.
MY FAVORITE AIRBNB IN SANTA CRUZ
- Redwood Treehouse in Aptos (sign up for a new account here to get $40 off this booking). I stayed at this property over Thanksgiving and fell in love with the location, surrounding nature, and its peacefulness. Note: This property is up in the forest so be prepared for spotty cell phone service and the need for a car. With that’s said, it’s an ideal place to stay to check out the many things to do in Aptos and Eastside Santa Cruz
BEST HOTELS IN SANTA CRUZ
PRACTICAL INFO FOR SANTA CRUZ
Book a vacation rental on Airbnb (and get $40 off your first booking).
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