101 Best Things to Do in Santa Cruz, California (From a Local)

Things to do in Santa Cruz

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!). 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.

What to do in Santa Cruz
I’m excited to share my picks for what to do in Santa Cruz, it was a magical place to grow up!

 

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 (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.

One of my favorite aspects about 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!

Note: this post contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips. 

101 Best 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.

what to do at the beach in Santa Cruz - surfing

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 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’re free to 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. 

What to do at the Beach Boardwalk - Free Friday Night Concerts

Mystery Spot

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

If you want to experience the beautiful redwoods that surround Santa Cruz in a novel way, look no further than 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. 

Grab your tickets for Roaring Camp Railroads here

santa cruz to do - roaring camp railroad in felton

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 12pm to 8pm. 

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 12pm to 4pm Thursday through Monday (they’re closed Tuesday and Wednesday). Check out the To Honor Surfing Monument next door to the museum as well. 

Where to stay in Santa Cruz

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.

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. 

You can find out more about the whale watching cruises on offer here

what to do in santa cruz ca - whale watching cruise

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. 

Browse through a few of my favorite downtown Santa Cruz stores, including Bookshop Santa Cruz and Bunny’s, or sip a cappuccino at Santa Cruz Coffee Roasters.

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.

A couple of my other favorite coffee shops on Pacific Avenue besides Santa Cruz Coffee Roasters are Verve and Lulu Carpenter’s.

The best places to grab food on Pacific Avenue include: El Palomar, Chocolate, and Zachary’s (Brunch).

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. 

Visit Santa Cruz California - travel tips

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 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. 

santa cruz attractions - santa cruz wharf

West Cliff Drive

West Cliff 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. 

Santa Cruz restaurants - Riva Fish House

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.

Local tip: Grab a slice from Pleasure Point Pizza and a coffee from Verve and head to The Hook lookout point for a perfect way to spend an afternoon in Santa Cruz. 

places to go in santa cruz - east cliff drive, watching the surfers at the hook in pleasure point
Watching the surfers at The Hook in Pleasure Point at the end of East Cliff Drive.

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.

free things to do in santa cruz - monarch butterflies at natural bridges state park

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. 

If you want to learn more about the boat and what to do in Aptos and Capitola as a whole, check out my vlog below.  

Capitola Village

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. 

Things to Do in Capitola

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. 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 has 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. 

things to do around santa cruz - walton lighthouse and santa cruz harbor

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 things to do - Beach Boardwalk
The Beach Boardwalk is one of the most popular Santa Cruz attractions and the oldest seaside amusement park still open in the US. And, they offer free concerts in the summer.

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.

You can find out more about the California missions here

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. 

A few of my favorite Santa Cruz thrift stores include Cognito Clothing, Crossroads Trading, Moon Zoom, and All Shook Up. 

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 about 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 showcases just how good the produce is in this area of California is the Downtown Farmers’ Market. 

The market happens year round on Wednesdays from 1pm – 5pm in the fall/winter and 1pm – 6pm 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 full on 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. 

what is there to do in santa cruz - downtown farmers market

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 Jazon 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. 

Santa Cruz nightlife

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. 

I did a self-guided wine tour around the Santa Cruz Mountains while I was staying at Hotel Valencia Santana Row in San Jose a few years back. You can check out my full guide to those wineries here

Weekend Getaway with Hotel Valencia Santana Row

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. 

Related: 101 Things to do in Sacramento

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

Seabright is the happy medium out of the beaches on this list. It’s popular but not overly touristy like Main Beach is. It’s also a lengthy beach, so even during the summer it rarely feels overcrowded.

Seabright is in a central part of town, making it easy to get to. The beach allows dogs on a leash and it’s one of the best Santa Cruz beaches for bonfire parties.

The only downside to Seabright is that parking can be a hassle sometimes, but if you don’t mind walking a few blocks it’s usually fine. 

If you only have time to see one beach in Santa Cruz, this would be the one I recommend. 

fun things to do in santa cruz - seabright beach

Sunny Cove

A cool place in Santa Cruz for that more local vibe, Sunny Cove is one of those secret local spots that not many tourists have discovered yet.

It’s a small beach and a little hidden and hard to get to, but it’s one of the only beaches that isn’t overrun in the summer. Since the beaches are the main attractions in Santa Cruz, if you want to avoid the crowds, go here.

Sunny Cove is 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 good dog beach alternative with friendly pet owners who will strike up an easy conversation with you.

best beaches in santa cruz

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.

If you’re not a surfer, this is the perfect place to watch the surfers from above or walk along the cliffs. The Pleasure Point area is a stunning place to walk around.

Local tip: Grab a burrito from Taqueria Vallarta nearby and eat burritos at Pleasure Point Beach at sunset. You can thank me later. 

what to do at the beach in Santa Cruz - surfing

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.

The great thing about Main Beach is that it’s super central. It’s the closest beach to downtown Santa Cruz and right next to the Boardwalk and the Santa Cruz Wharf.

With that said, because it’s the most convenient it’s also the most touristy.

However, if you’re already going to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk or the Wharf, it can be the perfect spot to soak up some California sun for a few hours at the beach during a quick trip to Santa Cruz. 

If you’re an active beach goer, there are volleyball courts near the casino that are fun for a game or two in the sand with friends. 

most popular beach in santa cruz, california - main beach

Twin Lakes State Beach

One of my favorite beaches in Santa Cruz after Sunny Cove, Twin Lakes is another local beach that’s good for surfing or boogie boarding.

The beach is close to the Santa Cruz Harbor so parking can be difficult sometimes, but if you can find a place to park, this beach is worth the hassle.

It’s one of the best places to watch the sunset in Santa Cruz (after West Cliff), and there is the Crow’s Nest restaurant, Cafe El Palomar, and Java Junction coffee shop nearby for snacks, coffee, or a nice meal. 

This is the beach where you can see the Walton Lighthouse across the harbor. It’s a good family-friendly beach in Santa Cruz for sandcastle building, frisbee throwing, or a game of volleyball at the built in courts on the beach.

santa cruz beach things to do - twin lakes state beach

Cowell’s Beach

The best beach in Santa Cruz for beginner surfers. If you’re just learning how to ride the waves, make sure to try the surf at Cowell’s Beach. If you’re taking surf lessons in Santa Cruz, this is probably where they’ll be. 

With that said, it’s not the cleanest beach and it can get quite touristy and crowded in the summer. If you’re not surfing, this wouldn’t be the first beach I’d recommend visiting. 

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.

Although Capitola Village can be touristy, Capitola Beach is actually a pretty peaceful and relaxed beach that doesn’t get as crowded as the beaches near the more central parts of Santa Cruz.

Capitola Beach is one of the best beaches near Santa Cruz. It’s also a scenic beach with Capitola Village right there and the rows of colorful Italian-inspired houses.

My recommendation would be to spend the day at the beach and then head to Margaritaville or Zelda’s for dinner with a view at sunset. 

Lighthouse Field State Beach/Its Beach 

A popular beach along West Cliff Drive, Lighthouse Field State Beach (known as Its Beach by locals) is right next to Steamer Lane – the most famous surf spot in Santa Cruz – and the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. 

If you’re looking for the best dog beach in Santa Cruz, this is it. Its Beach is where happy dogs can run leash free in the California sun.

Because of this it might not be the best beach for sunbathing, but if you have a pooch this is the Santa Cruz beach for you. 

best dog beach in santa cruz - lighthouse field state beach or its beach

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.

Although it’s near the action at West Cliff, this is a super quiet local’s beach that has stunning views and a lot of space.   

santa cruz beach activities - natural bridges state beach

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. 

must do in santa cruz - kayaking the monterey bay

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 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. 

Things to Do in Santa Cruz CA
One of my favorite things to do in my hometown – hiking at Wilder Ranch State Park.

UCSC Arboretum

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 and fauna.  

Pogonip

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 is 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. 

For more hiking spots near campus, don’t forget to check out the other popular UC Santa Cruz trails. They offer some of the best views of Santa Cruz, and you may even come across the famous limestone kilns in the forest.

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. 

Visit Santa Cruz, Redwoods
If you visit Santa Cruz, you have to hike amongst the redwoods at Henry Cowell State Park.

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. 

places to visit in santa cruz - natural bridges tide pools

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

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 bird life. You can also go camping in Big Basin, but similar to Henry Cowell, spots fill up fast so book early. 

where to go in santa cruz - big basin redwoods state park in boulder creek

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. 

Museums in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (or the MAH) is the most popular museum in Santa Cruz.

The museum is located right next to Abbott Square in downtown Santa Cruz and its purpose is to connect people through shared experiences of creativity, stories, and ideas. 

At the museum, you’ll find everything from Native American history to fine art and a look at Santa Cruz through the ages.

The MAH hosts a number of cultural events throughout the year as well, so make sure to check out their website to see if anything is happening while you’re in town. 

Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History - California

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.

This small museum won’t take you long to walk around (less than 30 minutes), but it’s where you’ll get a unique overview of Capitola’s history through the years.

The museum features artifacts, photographs, stories, and helpful knowledgable volunteers to give you more of a back story about Capitola.   

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. 

The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History was one of the first museums in California and features a huge cement grey whale out front that children love to climb on. 

Local tip: the museum is located right next to Seabright Beach, so it’s a good stop to include before or after a day at the beach. 

Bigfoot Discovery Museum

The Bigfoot Discovery Museum is 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. 

The person who runs the museum will tell you about his experience seeing Bigfoot when he was a child, and there’s a video and numerous artifacts and old photographs of Bigfoot. 

Santa Cruz is known as being a bit weird and wacky and this is the museum to lean more into that side of the city. 

Food & Coffee

Coffee & Tea

  • Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company
  • Verve
  • Cat & Cloud Coffee Shop
  • Hidden Peak Tea House (the best Santa Cruz tea house)

Breakfast

  • Walnut Avenue Cafe
  • Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe
  • Cafe Brasil
  • Aldo’s

Lunch

  • Taqueria Vallarta
  • Tacos Moreno
  • Betty’s Burgers
  • Saturn Cafe
  • Cafe Gratitude
  • Dharma’s
  • Planet Fresh
Santa Cruz restaurants - Betty's Burgers
Betty’s Burgers in downtown Santa Cruz.

 

Dinner

  • Riva Fish House
  • Tortilla Flats
  • Lillian’s Italian Kitchen
  • The Crepe Place
  • Carpo’s
  • El Palomar

Dessert

  • Chocolate
  • Polar Bear Ice Cream
  • Marini’s Candy (my first job!)

 

Santa Cruz Attractions - Marini's
There are three different locations for Marini’s – the Boardwalk, the Wharf, and downtown Santa Cruz.

 

Nightlife & Live Music Venues

One of the best things to do in Santa Cruz at night is 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

Related: Best Things to do in San Francisco at Night

Santa Cruz nightlife

Best Santa Cruz Tours

Surf Lessons in Santa Cruz

One of the most quintessential Santa Cruz activities to learn how to do is surfing! 

Being Surf City USA and all, Santa Cruz is one of the best cities in California to learn how to surf. So, if you’ve been thinking about learning and you want to give it a go, sign up for this Beginner Surf Lesson in Santa Cruz.

The three-hour lesson includes tips for balancing on a surfboard, paddling, popping up, and how to ride a wave. There’s also a focus on how to read wave breaks, ocean conditions, surf etiquette, and safety in the water. 

Book your surf lesson here

looking for cool things to do in santa cruz? How about a surf lesson.

Santa Cruz Bike Tour

Because Santa Cruz is such a cyclist-friendly place, one of the best ways to see the city is through a Santa Cruz Bike Tour.

This three-hour tour shows you the best views and local culture of Santa Cruz through an eight-mile loop route with minimal hills.

Stops include the Santa Cruz Wharf with views of the Boardwalk, Steamer Lane, West Cliff Drive, and other cool spots in Santa Cruz. 

Book a spot on the tour here

Brew Cruz 

When I was growing up, craft beer in Santa Cruz was nonexistent. But, luckily for anyone visiting Santa Cruz in the present day, the times have changed and Santa Cruz now has a bustling craft beer scene in California. 

So much so that there’s an official beer tour around the city now. 

One of the best ways to experience the local craft beer is through the Brew Cruz. They offer a four-hour group tour and the choice between two routes – either exploring the Eastside or Westside Santa Cruz beer trail. 

During the tour, you’ll get to ride around in a 1960s VW Bus learning about the local craft beer history and take in the Santa Cruz sights while sipping on good beer. 

 Note: if you’d rather do your own craft beer tour around Santa Cruz, check out my post about California craft beer to get some ideas for where to go. 

New Bohemia Brewing, Santa Cruz, California
Beersies with friends in Santa Cruz.

Chardonnay Sailing Charters 

One of the best ways to take in the beauty of Santa Cruz is from a sailboat.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience a few Chardonnay Sailing trips, either through school field trips or friend’s birthday parties, and they really showcase the natural beauty of the city from the sea. 

Chardonnay offers a bunch of different public tours (you don’t have to rent out the whole boat), including a champagne brunch, brewery/wine charter, sunset tour, BYOB tour, wildlife tour, and more. 

Sailing with Chardonnay is a unique thing to do in Santa Cruz that not many tourists take advantage of. Add this to your Santa Cruz bucket list for a fun activity to do on your last day or night in the city. 

best tours in santa cruz, california - chardonnay sailing charters

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)

You’ll find elephant seals all over Central California, but one of the best places to see them in their natural habitat is at Año Nuevo State Park.

This is one of the largest breeding colonies in the world for northern elephant seals.

The best time to visit Año Nuevo is in the winter during the breeding season, from December 15th through March 31st, when they do guided elephant seal walks.

This is when you’ll most likely see male elephant seals fighting for their mates and females giving birth to pups. 

If you want to see the elephant seals, make sure to reserve a spot on a guided walk well ahead of time because they book up fast. You can book on ReserveCalifornia. 

If you’re going to be in Santa Cruz in the spring or summer, April 1st to August 31st is the second best time to visit Año Nuevo State Park.

This is because it’s molting season, when the elephant seals come ashore and shed their outer layer of skin and fur.

best day trips from santa cruz, california - ano nuevo elephant seals

17 Mile Drive and Carmel-by-the-Sea (1 hour)

One of the best places to visit near Santa Cruz for gorgeous coastal views, the 17 Mile Drive is one of my favorite drives in California (after Big Sur).

The 17 Mile Drive is located on the opposite side of the Monterey Bay and features some of the best coastal views you’ll come across in the state. 

There is an entrance fee of $10.50 per vehicle to enjoy the drive, but it’s well worth it for the views. 

Give yourself a good half day to take in all aspects of the 17 Mile Drive and to make plenty of stops for pictures and scenic viewpoints along the way.

A few spots that you shouldn’t miss along the drive are the Lone Cypress (pictured below), Bird Rock, and the Del Monte Forest. 

After an afternoon of taking in gorgeous coastal views and a stunning sunset, stop in at the picturesque Carmel-by-the-Sea for a nice dinner near the ocean. 

Local tip: this area is close to Monterey, so it could be a good idea to add in the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the morning, and then tackle the 17 Mile Drive in the late afternoon for a full day of sightseeing.

Santa Cruz to Monterey to Carmel-By-the-Sea | 17 Mile Drive
The beautiful 17 Mile Drive! It’s just a short drive from Santa Cruz to Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea on the other side of the Bay.

 

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. 

This was the first aquarium in the world to have a living kelp forest exhibit, and it’s still one of the coolest exhibits in the Monterey Bay Aquarium today. 

You’ll find thousands of different animals at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and one of the best aspects about visiting is how interactive most of the exhibits are.

There are regular feedings, touch pools, and plenty of kids areas for young ones to play and learn more about life under the sea.

If you enjoy learning about marine life at all, don’t miss out on the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’ve been to a lot of aquariums throughout my travels and none have compared to what the Monterey Bay has to offer.

best things to do near santa cruz - monterey bay aquarium

Half Moon Bay (1 hour)

A small city near Santa Cruz located on Highway 1 and usually passed over by the average tourist, Half Moon Bay has a lot more to offer than what first meets the eye.

Mostly, it’s where you’ll get a better idea of local coastal California culture without as many tourists. This area has tons of great hiking opportunities and non-crowded beaches to enjoy on a nice day. 

Half Moon Bay is also super close to Mavericks Beach where the huge waves come through and the famous annual surf competition takes place. 

Local tip: If you have an extra day in Santa Cruz, I’d recommend spending the day hiking or at the beach in Half Moon Bay. Then, grab dinner at one of the local restaurants with an ocean view at sunset for a local experience on the coast.  

best weekend trips from santa cruz - half moon bay

San Jose (1 hour)

San Jose is another often overlooked city in the Bay Area, with most people traveling straight from Santa Cruz to San Francisco or vice versa.

And although there might not be as much to do in San Jose as there is in SF, there’s still a charm to this South Bay City that is worth experiencing. 

Head to Santana Row for shopping, get spooked at the Winchester Mystery House, satisfy your sweet tooth at Psycho Donuts, or simply walk around historic downtown and pop into one of the many museums in the city.

There are plenty of things to do in San Jose. 

If you want a full guide for how to spend a day in San Jose, check out my full post about San Jose here

places to visit near santa cruz - San Jose - Northern California

San Francisco (1.5-2 hours)

You can’t visit Northern California and not visit San Francisco for at least a day or two. The city is full of unique neighborhoods and attractions to explore, as well as plenty of hikes and stunning bay views.

Chances are you’ve probably already visited San Francisco or you’re going to. You’ll soon realize that you’ll never be able to fit in everything you want to see with just one trip to the city.

It’s bigger than it looks on Google Maps and there are countless experiences to have in the city. 

If you plan on spending more than a day in SF, make sure to check out my post about the best things to do in San Francisco at night

things to do in san francisco, california

Seasonal Events

  • 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)

 

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

Best time to visit Santa Cruz
Spring in Santa Cruz means colorful wildflower blooms – although September is still the best time to visit Santa Cruz imo.

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 cost $17.50.

How to get from San Francisco to Santa Cruz

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.

Related: 101 Things to do in LA

How to get from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz

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! 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 not Canada, but prepare for temperatures to dip as low as 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

Only have a day in Santa Cruz? Check out my local guide to spending a day in the city below. 

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!

Living in Santa Cruz + travel tips

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.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park Campground, Forest of Nisene Marks, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park Campground.

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

Check availability here

BUDGET 

HI Santa Cruz Hostel

Located on Westside Santa Cruz, 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.

The hostel includes barbecue facilities, a patio, sun terrace, shared kitchen, and offers both private rooms and shared dorms.

Check availability here

Harbor Inn

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.

Check availability here

MID-RANGE

Pacific Blue Inn

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.

As an added bonus, they offer free guest parking and it’s only a 15-minute walk to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Check availability here

LUXURY

West Cliff Inn

If you want to stay in my absolute favorite part of Santa Cruz, 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, book a few nights 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.

Check availability here

 


 

PRACTICAL INFO FOR SANTA CRUZ

Find accommodationbook your rental car, or sign up for a local tour.

Book a vacation rental on AirBnB (and get $40 off your first booking).

Buy your California Guide here.

101 Things to do in Santa Cruz - The Atlas Heart

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

101 Things to do in San Diego (From a Local)

How to Spend a Weekend in Mendocino 

101 Things to do in Sacramento

I’m Moving Back to California 

Best Things to do in Lake Tahoe

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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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