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 things to do in Santa Cruz could go on and on (especially in terms of places to eat!), but 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 to enjoy around Santa Cruz, there are more places to eat and tourist attractions to enjoy than ever before. Santa Cruz is the place to go for people coming from 'over the hill' as we used to say growing up (i.e. 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 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.
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
I broke down this list by tourist sights, best beaches, local attractions, outdoor activities and hikes, museums, food & drinks, tours, day trips, and events. Feel free to navigate from the table of contents above.
Top Tourist Sights
1. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (+Boardwalk Bowl, Neptune's Kingdom & Casino Arcade)
2. Mystery Spot
3. Roaring Camp Railroads
4. Santa Cruz Wharf
5. Mark Abbot Memorial Lighthouse & To Honor Surfing Monument
6. Pacific Avenue Mall
7. Mission Santa Cruz
8. Santa Cruz Trolley
9. Seabright State Beach
10. Sunny Cove (very local beach, treat it nicely!)
11. Pleasure Point Beach
12. Main Beach
13. Twin Lakes State Beach
14. Cowell's Beach
15. Capitola Beach
16. Lighthouse Field State Beach
17. New Brighton State Beach
18. Walking/driving along West Cliff Drive
19. Seeing the butterflies at Natural Bridges State Park (best time to go in November)
20. Watching the surfers at Steamer Lane or The Hook
21. Santa Cruz Roller Rink
22. Bookshop Santa Cruz
23. The Del Mar
24. Downtown Farmer's Market
25. Walton Lighthouse
26. East Cliff Drive
27. Capitola Village
28. Santa Cruz First Fridays
29. SS Palo Alto
Outdoor Activities & Hikes
32. Bocce Ball Courts at George Washington Grove
33. The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
34. Wilder Ranch State Park
35. UCSC Arboretum
37. Delaveaga Park
38. Quail Hollow Ranch
39. Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park
40. Neary Lagoon Park
41. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
42. Moran Lake County Park
43. Natural Bridges Tide Pools
44. Big Basin Redwoods State Park
45. Ocean View Park
46. Seymour Marine Discovery Center
47. Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
48. Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History
49. Capitola Historical Museum
50. Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History
51. Bigfoot Discovery Museum
Food & Coffee
Coffee & Tea
52. Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company
54. Cat & Cloud Coffee Shop
55. Hidden Peak Tea House
56. Walnut Avenue Cafe
57. Linda's Seabreeze Cafe
58. Cafe Brasil
60. Taqueria Vallarta
61. Tacos Moreno
62. Betty's Burgers
63. Saturn Cafe
64. Cafe Gratitude
66. Planet Fresh
67. Riva Fish House
68. Tortilla Flats
69. Lillian's Italian Kitchen
70. The Crepe Place
72. El Palomar
74. Marini's Candy (my first job!)
75. Marianne's Ice Cream
76. Polar Bear Ice Cream
Nightlife & Live Music Venues
77. Red Room
78. The Catalyst
79. Rosie McCann's
80. Abbott Square
81. Rio Theatre
82. Kuumbwa Jazz Center
83. Moe's Alley
Short Day Trips
87. 17 Mile Drive & Carmel By the Sea
88. Ano Nuevo State Park
89. Monterey Bay Aquarium
90. Half Moon Bay
92. Pleasure Point Street Fair (June)
93. Woodies on the Wharf (June)
94. Capitola Rod & Custom Classic Car Show (June)
95. Friday Night Concerts at the Beach Boardwalk (June-August)
96. Wharf to Wharf Race (July)
97. Shakespeare Santa Cruz (July-August)
98. Capitola Art & Wine Festival (September)
99. Capitola Beach Festival (September)
100. Santa Cruz Greek Festival (September)
101. Santa Cruz County Fair (September)
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 probably 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 great 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.
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.
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 the 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 cost $17.50.
How to Get from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz
If you're coming from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz, it's a much longer journey. Your best bet is to rent a car and drive up I-5 N and I-101 N to CA-1 N. The journey takes at least 5.5 hours without much traffic, but coming from LA there's almost always traffic so it's better to plan for 6.5-7 hours.
Alternatively, you can take a Greyhound bus for about $30 directly from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz, but it will take you 9-10 hours.
You could also take the Amtrak train from Los Angeles to San Jose and then the Highway 17 bus from San Jose to Santa Cruz. However, the trains in California are as slow as taking the bus, but more expensive, so the only reason you would take one is if you prefer to travel by train.
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 if you're staying in downtown Santa Cruz.
There's now Uber in Santa Cruz if you prefer to get around the city that way and you don't have a car! 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 you'll find 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 not Canada, but prepare for temperatures to dip as low as 40s to 50s at night and/or during the winter. That's cold for us!
There are very few free parking areas in downtown Santa Cruz these days, so 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, 2 hours, 8 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 touristy Capitola Village).
What to Pack for Santa Cruz
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 for 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.
MY FAVORITE AIRBNB
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.
Located on the Westside, this hostel is located near UCSC and downtown Santa Cruz (less than a mile from Pacific Avenue).
It's the best option if you're looking for a social accommodation to meet new friends, or you're traveling on a budget. Includes barbecue facilities, a patio, sun terrace, shared kitchen, and offers both private rooms and shared dorms.
One of my favorite locations in Santa Cruz (right next to Twin Lakes and East Cliff Drive), the Harbor Inn is a great spot if you're looking to stay in a quieter part of Santa Cruz, a short drive from downtown.
As the name suggests, the hotel is close to the Santa Cruz Harbor and the beach! This is a no frills place to stay, but cozy with a rustic personality at the same time. Make sure to grab breakfast at Aldo's at the harbor if you stay here!
Located right in the heart of downtown Santa Cruz on Pacific Avenue, Pacific Blue Inn is an eco-friendly hotel that has the most convenient location out of any accommodation on this list.
And even though the hotel is right in the middle of the action, it somehow still provides a calm and peaceful atmosphere for guests. Free guest parking and only a 10-minute walk to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
If you want to stay in my absolute favorite part of Santa Cruz - West Cliff Drive, look no further than West Cliff Inn. Be ready for amazing sunsets, long walks along the cliffs, and a historical Victorian bed and breakfast-style accommodation if you stay here.
If you're in Santa Cruz for a special occasion, prefer luxury stays, or simply want to treat yourself, stay here. You won't be disappointed. The hotel is right across from Cowell's Beach, rooms feature fireplaces and marble-tile bathrooms, and bicycle rentals are available at an additional cost.
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