It’s the time of year when many people want to escape the cold weather and visit a beach town like Santa Cruz. But is Santa Cruz worth visiting? Yes, it’s a year-round destination and there are tons of things to do in this charming town, including attractions, beaches, and scenic views. If you are traveling through Santa Cruz or spending a weekend here, you don’t want to miss these top 21 things to do in Santa Cruz:
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1. Ride one of the 40 rides at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Voted the best seaside park in the world, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is an oceanfront amusement park that’s free to enter. The park has more than 40 rides including a wooden roller coaster and a carousel. The Boardwalk also has bowling, laser tag, arcades, mini-golf, and more! While you’re here, head to Cali Caricature to get drawn, get face painted or henna, or visit the Santa Cruz Magic Shop.
2. Walk under the arch at the Natural Bridges State Beach
One of the best beaches in Santa Cruz, the Natural Bridges State Beach is known for its huge sandstone-made arch. Nearby, you can also watch for Monarch butterflies as they migrate to the Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve. Bring your binoculars to spot seabirds or whales in the distance.
3. Watch for Sea Lions at the Santa Cruz Wharf
Head to the Sea Lion Port Hole on the Santa Cruz Wharf to see multiple sea lions basking in the sun. Visited by 1.5 million people annually, this wharf has tons of things to do including fishing, dining, and shopping. Stop by at one of their souvenir shops for a Santa Cruz souvenir.
4. Walk Around Downtown Santa Cruz
When visiting a new town, always walk around its downtown area to get a feel of the town. Downtown Santa Cruz is filled with many places to eat, drink and shop. You might also see street performers along the downtown streets. Since downtown Santa Cruz is a walkable distance from the ocean, you can head to the beach in the morning then head downtown for lunch.
5. Watch surfers at Lighthouse Field State Beach
As its name says it all, the Lighthouse Field State Beach is known for its 1967 lighthouse. But that’s not all this beach offers! Look out for surfers at Steamer Lane, a popular surfing spot. Near the beach, you’ll also see a Surfers Memorial statue to recognize all the surfers who’ve lost their lives due to the waves.
6. Visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
At the Lighthouse Field State Beach, you can also visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. This is California’s first surfing museum that’s packed with the history of America’s surfing culture. The museum also has artifacts and surfboards that date back more than 100 years ago. Grab a surfing souvenir or two at the museum’s gift shop.
7. Surf the Waves at Cowell Beach
Even though you’ll see pro surfers at Steamer Lane, that doesn’t mean you can’t try out a few waves. Go to Cowell Beach for smaller waves and to learn how to surf or practice surfing. This is only a 10-minute walk from the Santa Cruz Wharf so pack your beach essentials for the beach then head to the wharf for some post-beach seafood.
8. Debunk the Laws of Physics at the Mystery Spot
Ever been to a place that’s questioned what you’ve studied in school? Book a 45-minute guided tour at the Mystery Spot to immerse yourself in visual illusions and areas that seem to disprove laws of gravity. Surrounded by redwood trees, the Mystery Spot is great to spend time on a hot sunny afternoon.
9. Learn about California’s ranching history at the Wilder Ranch State Park
Learn about the state’s ranching history at this park. Check out a Gothic Revival farmhouse, a Victorian home, a rodeo area, and more during their 1-hour weekend tours. You can also hike around the park along the sea cliffs.
10. Check out the tide pools at the Four Mile Beach
After touring and hiking at the Wilder Ranch State Park, go to the Four Mile Beach to spot tide pools. Since the beach receives low tides, you can find sea creatures along the rugged areas on the beach. Try to spot shellfish, urchins, or starfish.
11. Touch a swell shark at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Yes, you read that right! Visit the Seymour Marine Discovery Center to touch a swell shark and also observe jellyfish, eels, octopus, and more. Once you’re done indoors, walk outside to see a huge blue whale skeleton; one of the largest skeletons displayed in the world.
12. Watch a Sunrise at the Vista Point, Terrace Point
Hike to Terrace Point, a vista point for a beautiful sunrise. It’s on the southernmost point on the San Francisco Peninsula so you would be getting a full view of the sunrise. This is located right next to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center so you can also come again after visiting the center. If you look down at the point, you’ll notice consolidated mudstone at the beach.
13. Light a Bonfire at the Santa Maria Beach
With Santa Cruz known as a beach town, most beaches are packed with locals and tourists. If you’re looking for a quieter and less crowded option, drive to Santa Maria Beach. Set up a picnic here with your family or friends and stay until the evening to light up a bonfire for the night. If you’re lucky, you might see dolphins around sunset time.
14. Enjoy the Sunset at West Cliff Drive
If you thought sunrises are beautiful in Santa Cruz, you need to stay for their dramatic sunsets! Walk along the West Cliff Drive walking path during sunset time and leave with an unforgettable sunset view. The West Cliff Drive trail is around 5 miles round trip and you can also bike and skate on the trail. While waiting for the sunset, you’ll also see these beautiful beachside mansions and cottages.
15. Top your ice cream with marshmallow fluff at The Penny Ice Creamery
You need to eat at The Penny Ice Creamery before you head out of Santa Cruz. With locations around Santa Cruz, this place uses local and organic ingredients to create tasty hand-made ice cream. A favorite among new and old customers, the marshmallow fluff topping is a must-try.
16. Spot a Hidden Cove at Mitchell’s Cove Beach
Find some hidden coves at Mitchell’s Cove Beach. The beach also has tide pools and interesting rock formations so plan to spend more time than expected. If you have a dog, you can have them without a leash before 10 am and after 4 pm so let them run free in the mornings or evenings.
17. See Rare Plants at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden
Located in the University of California, Santa Cruz, the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden is the perfect place to see and learn about unique and rare plants. You’ll find more than 300 plant species here. The arboretum is 135 acres and contains plants from Australia to South Africa.
18. Learn Santa Cruz history at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History
You’ll find exclusive Santa Cruz exhibitions and events at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Located in downtown Santa Cruz, this museum has over 7000 history items. It’s a great experience for both kids and adults to learn about Santa Cruz’s history.
19. Camp at the New Brighton State Beach
Spend the night beach camping at the New Brighton State Beach Campground. Wake up and hike around the Monterey cypress and eucalyptus trees and then, visit the New Brighton State Beach. You might notice that the beach is warmer than the others. It might be because of the coastal bluffs that prevent the winds.
20. Watch a Play at Santa Cruz Shakespeare
For 40 years and counting, Santa Cruz Shakespeare has been producing Shakespeare plays. If you’re in the Santa Cruz area in the summer, book your ticket for their Summer Festival Season. They’ve got 3 exciting productions ready for this year’s summer season.
21. Boat Watch at the Seabright Beach
Do you love boats? Then head to the Seabright Beach to watch them steering out of the Santa Cruz Harbor. You can also see the Walton Lighthouse standing 40 feet high at this beach. The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is at a walkable distance if you’re interested in learning about the very first people of California.
Conclusion: Things to do in Santa Cruz
As you can see, it’s hard to pick just a few attractions for Santa Cruz. This coastal town offers an intriguing blend of character, beauty, and culture. Its location on the central coast provides visitors with a colorful oceanfront setting and easy access to miles and miles of beaches. At the same time, this seaside town has plenty of irresistible charm. From unique shopping opportunities to exciting nightlife, Santa Cruz has something for everyone.