Our lowdown on the best things to do in Santa Cruz, California. Updated for We went there as part of our epic California road trip.
28 fun things to do in santa cruz, california
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means we get a small commission if you make a booking at no extra cost to you. Thank you! You might recognise the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk from the movies as this iconic amusement park has been the backdrop to countless cinema scenes.
The old-fashioned funfair fronts the beach and features classic rides like a big dipper roller coaster and a spinning carousel. The boardwalk is open daily from late May to late August, plus most weekends and holidays throughout the year.
You can check the opening hours here. During the off-season, the arcades, laser tag, miniature golf and laser tag are still open.
Driving along the California Coast is the stuff of dreams and the stretch along West Cliff Drive is a good example of the waves, mist and cliffs that have come to epitomise that journey. Take it slow, stopping to take in the viewpoints and basking in the ocean air. One of the most unique things to do in Santa Cruz is to head to Roaring Camp Railro in the Santa Cruz mountains where you can take a steam train through the redwoods, offering a perspective like none other. The 19th-century logging steam train and tracks were originally used to haul giant redwood logs off the mountains.
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And the one-hour-fifteen-minute trip takes you up Bear Mountain while the conductor tells the story of Roaring Camp. You can also catch a steam train from Roaring Camp all the way to the boardwalk during the high season. about Roaring Camp and see the train schedules here.
The Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is an easy place to take a walk through a acre grove of towering redwoods. The redwood grove is part of a much bigger park of acres where you can enjoy hiking, horseback riding, picnicking, swimming, and camping.
One particularly popular spot is the Garden of Eden, a natural swimming pool hidden beneath the trees. Santa Cruz is a work-famous surf spot, attracting surfers from all over the world.
Whether or not you can surf yourself, be sure to spend some time watching them catch the waves. Great places to watch surfers include Pleasure Point home to the Hook surf spot and West Cliff Drive, which is home to a well-renowned surf spot called Steamer Lane just next to the surfing museum. This is a must on the list of what to do in Santa Cruz.
Download the map here. The teeny tiny surfing museum, detailing years of surfing history, is housed inside a quaint little lighthouse along West Cliff Drive. Outside the museum is a good spot to watch the surfers from at Steamer Lane.
The Penny Ice Creamery serves freshly made ice cream with seasonal flavours and organic ingredients. There are two shops: one in Pleasure Point and one in downtown Santa Cruz, and they also have a stall at the farmers market. We went to the downtown market, which had a decidedly hipster bent, including fresh bone broth and other on-trend health foods. Find out times and locations of all five markets here. And in November, you can see thousands of butterflies in the eucalyptus trees.
University of California, Santa Cruz UCSC has one of the most beautiful campuses in the world, with ocean views and a library set amid the redwoods. You can book a tour of the campus, or do a self-guided tour yourself. Find out more here. And an amusing fact for you: the UCSC mascot is a banana slug!
20 best & fun things to do in santa cruz (california)
Downtown Santa Cruz is a sweet place to while away an afternoon. I also enjoyed the tiny cupcakes at Buttercup Cakes. See our guide to where to eat in Santa Cruz at the end of this post. It operates on an honour system and also has lots of boardgames and books to enjoy while you take a break from your car journey.
In the strawberry season, you can also pick-you-own from the Swanton Farm. Santa Cruz is home to many sea lion colonies. The easiest place to see them is on the wharf where they reside all year round. Plus the view from the end of the wharf is stunning. This is a great Santa Cruz activity for families. The Mystery Spot calls itself a gravitational anomaly where the laws of physics go haywire.
Others will call it a tourist trap. Either way, the lighthearted optical illusion attraction can be a fun way to spend an hour, taking improbable photos of your friends in mid-air. Buy tickets in advance online to avoid disappointment. There are some beautiful coastal hikes in Santa Cruz. And locals love the trails at DeLaveaga Park. Just 15 minutes outside of downtown Santa Cruz is the charming village of Capitola.
There are over 80 miles of trails and many waterfalls, including Berry Creek Fallswhich can be reached by an mile track that climbs feet.
Things to do in santa cruz, california (from a local)
The two most popular and busy beaches are Main Beach, which is right in front of the Boardwalk, and Cowell Beach, on the other side of the wharf. Main Beach is best for families, and Cowell Beach is a classic surfing spot, perfect for beginners. Whales migrate past Santa Cruz all year round and there are plenty of whale watching tours you can do. There are different species to look out for at different times of year, including humpbacks and grey whales.
And you might also spot some sea lions, dolphins, otters, sharks and seals. One of the best free things to do in Santa Cruz is to catch a concert at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which puts on free concerts on Friday nights from June to the end of August. It features mostly local bands, but also some big names too.
The Del Mar is a classic American theatre that was built in as a vaudeville theatre. Nowadays it shows movies. Try to catch a showing on the main screen for the full retro experience. It also has a very hippy snack bar — you can even get nutritional yeast flavoured popcorn! A lesser known region is the Santa Cruz Mountains, which is right on the doorstep of the city. It has a similar laidback feel to Sonoma as opposed to glitzy Napa and the mountain views from the wineries are stunning.
The Bigfoot Discovery Museum has all the info on this elusive creature. The Walton Lighthouse is at the end of popular Seabright Beach. While there, take a walk around the Santa Cruz Harbor as well. It teaches a lot about marine conservation and has large aquariums as well as hands-on exhibits — you can even touch a shark! There are are some seriously beautiful ones, including this cabin of dreams, pictured above.
Some of my favouirtes, alongside this cabin, are: a treehouse looking out over a vineyard to the ocean, a cute tiny house, and a dreamy home with a magnificent pool. The Inn at Pasatiempo is a well-deed simple inn with colourful gardens and a heated pool. Cheap date night Santa Cruz your stay now. The retro-surf-chic Dream Inn is a stylish beachfront hotel, featuring rooms, all with ocean views.
Santa Cruz County has some beautiful forests, so if you want a bit of time amid the trees, you could opt to stay in one of the many cabins on offer in the area. There are plenty on Airbnb. Markets: Santa Cruz has a few different farmers markets, which are a great place to buy local produce and put together a picnic to enjoy on the beach or among the redwoods.
We went to the downtown farmers market, which takes place on Wednesdays. See the dates for other markets here. September is the best time to visit Santa Cruz as there are fewer crowds and the weather is perfect. We were there a little later in October when the weather was starting to cool. Springtime in Santa Cruz is also a good bet. By far the busiest time in Santa Cruz is June-August when the tourists arrive in droves. Winter in Santa Cruz can get pretty chilly and rainy, similar to San Francisco, but this is still a good time to visit for accommodation bargains and fewer crowds.
I also recommend stopping at Swanton Berry Farm, which has a delicious array of strawberry products.
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Taking this route also means you enter Santa Cruz via West Cliff Drive, which is the perfect intro to the city. We recommend rentalcars. That said, parking can be difficult, so once in town, try to walk as much as you can. Uber is also readily available. We recommend World Nom or True Traveller who both offer reliable, comprehensive cover, including medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities.