Santa Cruz is a coastal city of about 65,000 people situated in the Monterey Bay area of Santa Cruz County. The city has been called numerous things: Surf City, laid-back beach town, and coastal resort community are just some of the titles the city has earned over the years.
While Santa Cruz is widely known for its spectacular beaches, nice weather, surf culture, and vibrant arts and culture community, the city is also known for many other things.
Visitors can participate in an abundance of outdoor activities, including bird-watching, biking, hiking, and rock climbing.
In Santa Cruz, there are many world-class attractions, including the Santa Cruz Wharf, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and the vibrant downtown area – in particular, Pacific Avenue.
Many festivals take place in Santa Cruz, including the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Santa Cruz Film Festival, Santa Cruz County Fair, Capitola Art and Wine Festival, and Santa Cruz Blues Festival.
Below are 15 of the best things to do in Santa Cruz, California.
1. Visit the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History
One of the best ways to learn about a place is to visit the local museum and learn more about the history and culture. The place to do this in Santa Cruz is the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.
This fascinating space is filled with exhibitions about the area’s culture, history, and people told through light, art and sound.
The exhibits change from time to time, but some examples of past and current ones include Community is Collective Care, Santa Cruz County History Gallery, Mary and Harry Blanchard Sculpture Garden, In These Uncertain Times, Atmosphere, and Lost and Found.
2. Spend a Day Outdoors at Wilder Ranch State Park
Wilder Ranch State Park is a large natural space just outside of Santa Cruz. Within the park, you can participate in outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, and horseback riding along the 34 miles of scenic trails.
The park is also the site of a historic dairy ranch that is now a living museum. Several buildings built in the late 1800s depict what life was like for ranchers during those times, including a farmhouse, Victorian home and machine shop.
The coastal area of this park is a protected area called Natural Bridges State Beach. Here, you’ll see interesting tide pools teeming with marine life and the immense sea arch.
Between October and February, you can view monarch butterflies in the Monarch Grove.
3. Step Back in Time at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
More than just a seaside boardwalk, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk is a historic amusement park that has been a popular attraction in Santa Cruz for more than 100 years. To this day, it’s considered to be one of the top amusement parks of its type in the world.
On-site are a variety of thrilling rides for all ages, including Logger’s Revenge and a wooden roller coaster built in 1924.
Also on-site are laser tag facilities, mini-golf, several arcades, a climbing tower, and bowling. When hunger strikes, there are plenty of food vendors offering everything from corn dogs to ice cream.
4. Satisfy Your Hunger at the Crow’s Nest Restaurant
The Crow’s Nest Restaurant is an eatery overlooking the water. This popular restaurant serves a variety of classic American dishes.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served. On the menu, you’ll find many items, including appetizers, salads, soups, fresh seafood dishes, grilled options, burgers, and pasta dishes.
The attached Breakwater Bar & Grill is where you can enjoy snacks and light meals to the sound of live entertainment in a lively environment. The on-site Beach Market also serves snacks and beverages and sells unique jewellery and home decor.
5. Take a Historic Journey with Roaring Camp Railroads
Roaring Camp Railroads offers visitors to Santa Cruz the opportunity to take a ride on a perfectly-preserved 19th-century steam engine. This is a perfect activity for all ages and for anyone who wishes to see some of the most picturesque places in the area.
You can choose from two different itineraries. The Santa Cruz Beach Steam Train leaves the depot in nearby Felton and passes along the Santa Cruz Mountains, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, and the San Lorenzo River Gorge. The last stop is at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.
The Redwood Forest Steam Train passes through beautiful redwood groves and mountains. During both trips, the knowledgeable conductor tells passengers about the history of the railway and the region.
6. Visit the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History
Since the early 1900s, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History has been collecting, preserving, and sharing items related to the natural history of the city and surrounding region.
The museum showcases an extensive collection of Native American items and archaeological artefacts across a number of exhibits, including The Ohlone People, Geology of Santa Cruz, and Wildlife Habitats.
7. Learn About the History of Surfing at The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
Santa Cruz is known for its world-class surfing and long history as one of the country’s top surfing locations. At The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, you can learn all about the history of this beloved sport and the culture that helped shape the Santa Cruz of today.
The best way to experience this little museum is by combining the experience with a scenic hike along West Cliff Drive. The coastal path leads to the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, where the museum is housed.
Along the trail, you’ll see a statue commemorating the surfing culture of the area. The lighthouse itself serves as a memorial to surfer Mark Abbott, who was killed while surfing in the area.
Inside the museum, you’ll find more than 100 years of surfing history showcased across various exhibits housing photos, videos and old surfboards from various eras.
8. Tee off at Delaveaga Golf Course
Delaveaga Golf Course is situated in a beautiful area surrounded by mountain and ocean views. This highly-ranked 18-hole, par-70 course is known for being challenging, although it’s suitable for all levels.
On-site amenities include a driving range and golf shop; lessons are available. The property also features two bars and a beautiful restaurant with a fireplace and outdoor patio.
9. Stroll Along the Santa Cruz Wharf
The Santa Cruz Wharf once served a commercial purpose, but today, over 100 years after it was constructed, the wharf serves as a popular meeting place and tourist attraction.
Just walking along the wharf and taking in the beautiful scenery and lively atmosphere is an exciting venture in itself. As you stroll along the wharf, you’ll likely find many other things that pique your interest.
The Santa Cruz Wharf is the longest pier on the West Coast. There are nine restaurants and many boutique shops along the wharf. If you’re interested in participating in water activities, several shops rent kayaks, fishing gear, and other watercraft.
Another popular activity on the wharf is watching the sea lions that hang out there. Dolphins, whales, otters, and many species of birds are also spotted in the area.
10. Learn About Life Beneath the Waves at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Education and conservation are at the forefront at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center. This fascinating centre, overlooking Monterey Bay, has interesting exhibits suitable for all ages.
The first thing you’ll notice upon arrival at the centre is the 87-foot skeleton of a blue whale. The on-site aquarium showcases a variety of marine species, including sharks. The touch pool provides visitors with the opportunity to touch starfish, sea urchins, and hermit crabs.
As you browse the exhibit hall, you’ll learn about the behaviour of various sea creatures and the unique ecosystems that house them.
11. Sample Local Craft Beer at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing
Since 2005, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing has been creating unique, handcrafted beers using organic and locally-sourced ingredients.
This family-operated brewery uses traditional and sustainable brewing techniques to create tasty and better-for-you brews, such as Missing Piece IPA, Boogie Board Stout, Pressure Drop and Daffodil Blonde.
These beers can be sampled in the on-site taproom. Tours of the brewery are available.
12. U. C. Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden
The U. C. Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden is a 145-acre property featuring a wide variety of plants from all over the world, some of which are endangered. The plants thrive in various micro-climates similar to their native climate.
As you explore the site, you’ll see an Australian rock garden, Eucalyptus grove, Redwood grove, aroma garden, and hummingbird trail.
13. Go Whale Watching in Monterey Bay
Several companies offer whale watching tours off the shores of Santa Cruz in Monterey Bay. During one of these tours, you’ll see a variety of whale species, including humpback whales and grey whales.
Sometimes, killer whales and massive blue whales are spotted in the area. You’ll also discover dolphins, seabirds, and other marine species.
14. Dine on Authentic Italian Cuisine at Lillian’s Italian Kitchen
At Lillian’s Italian Kitchen, you’ll sit down in a cosy environment and enjoy traditional Italian cuisine.
The menu features a variety of options, including appetizers, soups, salads, pasta dishes sandwiches and main courses such as fettuccine alfredo, pesto primavera and wild mushroom and kale ravioli.
15. Explore Big Basin Redwoods State Park
With more than 80 miles of hiking trails, Big Basin Redwoods State Park is the perfect place to escape into nature.
As you hike through the park, you’ll see stately redwood trees, canyons, waterfalls and many species of birds.