101 Things to Do in Santa Cruz (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!), 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.

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 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!

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 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.

what to do at the beach in Santa Cruz - surfing

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

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.

Best Beaches

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

best beaches in santa cruz

Local Attractions

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

west cliff drive santa cruz - Walton Lighthouse

26. East Cliff Drive

27. Capitola Village

28. Santa Cruz First Fridays

29. SS Palo Alto

Outdoor Activities & Hikes

30. Dolphin & Whale Watching Cruises

31. Kayaking the Monterey Bay

32. Bocce Ball Courts at George Washington Grove

33. The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park

34. Wilder Ranch State Park

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

35. UCSC Arboretum

36. Pogonip

37. Delaveaga Park

38. Quail Hollow Ranch

39. Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park

40. Neary Lagoon Park

41. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

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

42. Moran Lake County Park

43. Natural Bridges Tide Pools

44. Big Basin Redwoods State Park

45. Ocean View Park

Museums

46. Seymour Marine Discovery Center

47. Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

48. Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History - California

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

53. Verve

54. Cat & Cloud Coffee Shop

55. Hidden Peak Tea House

Breakfast

56. Walnut Avenue Cafe

57. Linda's Seabreeze Cafe

58. Cafe Brasil

59. Aldo's

Lunch

60. Taqueria Vallarta

61. Tacos Moreno

62. Betty's Burgers

Santa Cruz restaurants - Betty's Burgers
Betty's Burgers in Santa Cruz.

63. Saturn Cafe

64. Cafe Gratitude

65. Dharma's

66. Planet Fresh

Dinner

67. Riva Fish House

68. Tortilla Flats

69. Lillian's Italian Kitchen

Santa Cruz restaurants - Riva Fish House
The view from Riva Fish House is even prettier than this.

70. The Crepe Place

71. Carpo's

72. El Palomar

Dessert

73. Chocolate

74. 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. This spot was where I worked when I was 15.

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

Santa Cruz nightlife

81. Rio Theatre

82. Kuumbwa Jazz Center

83. Moe's Alley

*If you're looking for good craft beer in Santa Cruz, make sure to check out this post

Tours

84. Beginner Surf Lesson in Santa Cruz

85. Beach Train through the Redwoods

86. Santa Cruz Bike Tour

Short Day Trips

87. 17 Mile Drive & Carmel By the Sea

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 onto Carmel-by-the-Sea on the other side of the Bay.

88. Ano Nuevo State Park

89. Monterey Bay Aquarium

90. Half Moon Bay

91. Wine Tasting in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Seasonal Events

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)

What to do at the Beach Boardwalk - Free Friday Night Concerts
Not sure what to do in Santa Cruz at night during the summer? Free Friday night concerts at the Boardwalk is the answer!

96. Wharf to Wharf Race (July)

97. Shakespeare Santa Cruz (July-August)

98. Capitola Art & Wine Festival (September)

99. Capitola Beach Festival (September)

Things to Do in Capitola
There are plenty of things to do in Capitola - including the many festivals that happen here year round!

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.

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.

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

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

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

Living in 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.

What to do in 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).

Visit Santa Cruz California - travel tips

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!

Where to stay in Santa Cruz

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

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.

Check availability here

BUDGET 

HI Santa Cruz Hostel

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.

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. Free guest parking and only a 10-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 - 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.

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

Pin this image for future reference by clicking on the top right-hand corner

Find Me

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
Find Me