Home to sandy beaches and lush redwood forests, Santa Cruz is full of adventure and relaxation. There are plenty of boardwalks and state beaches to explore, as well as local bakeries and wineries to indulge in. Wherever you go, you’ll be met with breathtaking views and scenery.
Santa Cruz is known as one of the most beautiful beach towns in California and it’s easy to see why. Here’s our shortlist of favorite things to do in Santa Cruz for your next visit!
1. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
As California’s oldest amusement park, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has been thrilling visitors for over 100 years. Filled with heart-racing roller coasters and nostalgic carnival games, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a landmark situated right on the sandy shores of the Monterey Coast.
One of the boardwalk’s most famous rides is the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, which is considered the best wooden roller coaster in the world. If you’d rather spend the day relaxing, you can always step down to the beach for an afternoon of sun and water sports.
- 400 Beach St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
- Ride and arcade hours vary
2. Natural Bridges State Beach
Natural Bridges State Beach is one of the most beloved Santa Cruz sights. The spectacular rock formation, after which the park was named, stands in the ocean near the coast. The rock’s bridge-like structure was carved over centuries of harsh wind and waves.
Besides admiring the rocky bridge, visitors come to Natural Bridges State Beach for wildlife viewing. The tide pools are home to sea stars and crabs, while sea lions and dolphins play further out in the water. If you’re lucky, you might spot a humpback whale playing nearby!
- 2531 W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
- Daily, 8 a.m. – Sunset
3. Santa Cruz Wharf
Between the gourmet restaurants and souvenir shops, the Santa Cruz Wharf is bustling at all hours of the day. The dock juts almost 3,000 feet into the water, making it the longest pier in the Western United States.
There are dozens of bars and restaurants to choose from, each one offering unparalleled views of the surrounding ocean. If you’re looking to catch your own dinner, then you can also fish off the sides of the wharf.
However, the charming sea lions are by far the main attraction. You’ll find them playing in the water or sunbathing on the wooden planks of the pier.
- 21 Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
- Daily, 5 a.m. – 2 a.m.
4. Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
Located inside the historic Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, the Santa Cruze Surfing Museum showcases the past 100 years of surfing history. You’ll learn about the city’s famous surf scene and how the sport has impacted its culture over the past few decades.
This small, charming museum contains a vast collection of memorabilia, like photographs, videos, and even vintage surfboards. Everyone from beach-lovers to hard-core surfers will walk away from the museum with a deeper appreciation for Santa Cruz’s most cherished pastime.
- 21 Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
- Daily, 5 a.m. – 2 a.m.
5. Steam Train through Redwoods
Hop aboard the Redwood Forest Steam Train for a historical exploration of one of Santa Cruz’s most scenic landscapes. This 19th-century locomotive chugs through the towering redwood groves to the peak of Bear Summit.
This open-air ride is completely narrated by your knowledgeable conductor and guide, who will gladly tell you the history of the park. You’ll also learn more about the locomotive industry in the 1800s and how the trains continue to run to this day.
Although a steam train ride is a fun and educational Santa Cruz attraction, it also boasts some of the best views in the city. It’s the ideal way to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the grand redwood forest!
- 5401 Graham Hill Road, Felton, CA 95018
- Daily rides
6. Local Farmers Market
Shop for locally-sourced produce and dine on gourmet treats with a trip to a farmer’s market in Santa Cruz. You’ll find dozens of food stalls and booths selling everything from pasture-raised meats and home-brewed beer to crafted home goods and freshly baked pastries.
Depending on the time of year, there are five main farmers’ markets to visit. Several of the markets are Santa Cruz staples and have been operating for over 25 years. Not only will you be shopping for ethical products, but you’ll also be supporting local jobs and promoting small businesses.
- Downtown, Felton, Live Oak, Scotts Valley, Westside
- Hours vary
7. Santa Cruz Companion Bakeshop
The smell of freshly baked bread and pastries radiates from the mouth-watering Santa Cruz Companion Bakeshop. This charming bakery is also a cafe and serves hot coffee and light snacks for breakfast or lunch.
Although the Santa Cruz Companion Bakeshop started out making sourdough bread, they’ve expanded to sell a variety of delicious treats. You can try vegan oat bars, sticky cinnamon buns, and even oven-baked pizzas. We also recommend trying the sweet or savory galettes for a more filling meal.
Westside Santa Cruz
- 2341 Mission Street, Santa Cruz CA
- Tuesday to Friday 7 a.m. – 5 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 8 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Downtown Santa Cruz
- 725 Front Street, Santa Cruz CA
- Monday to Thursday 7 a.m. – 6 p.m., Friday-Saturday 7 a.m. – 7 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.
8. Abbott Square Market
Located in the heart of Santa Cruz, the Abbot Square Market is a lively entertainment venue filled with restaurants and cafes. This trendy outdoor space also hosts a variety of entertainment, including art exhibitions and live music, making it the prime spot for a fun night out with friends.
Whether you’re starting your weekend with a strong shot of espresso or ending the night with a hand-crafted cocktail, you’ll find something that sparks your interest in Abbot Square Park!
- 118 Cooper St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
- Sunday – Thursday 7 a.m. – 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 7 a.m. – 12 a.m.
9. Berry Creek Falls
If you have a free weekend and want to know what to do in Santa Cruz, we recommend trekking up to the Berry Creek Falls. This popular 11-mile hike takes you through the dense forest around steep canyons and ascends almost 1,000 feet above the ground.
Halfway through the five-hour hike, you’ll encounter two beautiful waterfalls. It’s a stunning view that’s contrasted against the deep brown and green trees of the redwood forest, which makes it one of our favorite things to do in Santa Cruz.
Overall, it’s a leisurely hike that can be done by most intermediate to advanced hikers. The trail is open year-round but can be muddy in the early spring if it has rained.
10. Sea Lions at Santa Cruz
When in Santa Cruz, you must stop by the water to say hello to the city’s most adorable residents! You can find them sleeping, playing, and swimming in the shallow waters of Monterey Bay. If you want a guaranteed sighting, the Santa Cruz Wharf is known as the best sea lion spotting ground.
However, you can also find harbor seals perched on the rocky islands and bays around the city. We heard that the Wilder Ranch just north of Santa Cruz is also a great place to see these hilarious, fuzzy creatures.
11. Coastal Drive
The most famous coastal drive in Santa Cruz is down Highway 1. Stretching over 700 miles, Highway 1 takes you from Mendocino Country through Santa Cruz and then all the way to Orange County.
Although it would take a few days to complete the entire journey, a short drive down the coast will still give you that nostalgic road trip feeling. You’ll have panoramic views of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz Wharf, and the Wilder Ranch State Park.
Make sure you get the chance to stop at a few beaches or parks to enjoy the fresh, crisp air from the ocean!
12. UC Santa Cruz Arboretum
Teeming with exotic plants and flowering cactuses, the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum contains one of the largest collections of rare plants from around the world. Although the arboretum initially started as a eucalyptus garden in the 1960s, it has grown home to thousands of different species, from almost every type of climate.
You could easily spend a few hours walking through the tranquil gardens admiring the different plants and sculptures. The exhibits are divided by region and include the Australian Garden, South African Garden, and South American Garden. There’s also a beautiful California Garden filled with willows, cottonwoods, and ponderosa pines. Don’t forget to visit the Aroma Garden and Rare Fruit Exhibit to see some of your favorite herbs and edibles.
- 1156 High St, Santa Cruz, CA 95064
- Daily 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
13. Wine Tasting
Santa Cruz is home to over 70 different wineries and taste rooms. Due to its unique microclimate and mineral-rich soil, the grapes from Santa Cruz produce some of the best wines to come from California.
For scenic vineyard views, head to Ridge Vineyards and Beauregard Vineyards, two family-operated wineries. Near the city center sip on Pinot Noir from Storrs Winery and Vineyards or merlot from Bottle Jack Wines.
Most tasting fees are waived with the purchase of a bottle of wine. That means there’s even more incentive to sample as many as you can!
14. West Cliff Drive
Winding three miles alongside the Pacific Ocean, the West Cliff Drive starts at Santa Cruz Wharf and takes you through some of the city’s best attractions, like Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, and Lighthouse Point. We recommend stopping at Natural Bridges State Beach or Cowell Beach for panoramic 360-degree views.
The paved trail makes it ideal for cyclists, runners, dog walkers, or joggers. Come for an early morning stroll or a late evening view of the sunset.
15. Lighthouse Field State Beach
Most surfers in California will know about Lighthouse Field State Beach. The beach is known for having some of the biggest waves in all of Santa Cruz! The beach is so famous for surfing that it actually houses the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, which is located inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse.
Besides surfing, you can also rent boogie boards or set up a picnic on the sand. There are also several walking trails around the beach if you prefer to go for a peaceful walk.
There is plenty of wildlife watching in Lighthouse Field State Beach. If you come during the winter, you’ll see monarch butterflies that have migrated over from the Rocky Mountains. You might also find several adorable sea lions sunbathing on the neighboring rocks.
16. Mystery Spot
Be prepared to be wowed and amazed at Mystery Spot, one of Santa Cruz’s most popular roadside attractions. Located in the redwood forests, Mystery Spot will boggle your mind with its gravity-defying house.
Enter a world of illusion, where balls roll uphill and people can stand parallel on walls. Legend has it that scientists have not been able to figure out the magic behind Mystery Spot since the rules of physics seem to completely disappear once you step inside. Either way, it’s worth a visit for a few photographs and laughs.
- 465 Mystery Spot Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95065
- Daily 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
17. Sunset State Beach
California is home to some of the best beaches in the US, and Sunset State Beach is no exception. Located just a 30-minute drive from Santa Cruz, Sunset State Beach is a vast, sprawling beach where you can escape the bustle of the city.
Spend the weekend sunbathing, swimming, and boogie boarding in the ocean. If you have a fishing license, you can also catch sardines and striped bass off the shore.
If a few hours on the beach aren’t enough, bring your RV or tent and camp on the white-sand beach. There are several campsites and hookups available for rent. Between the relaxed atmosphere and the fantastic views of Monterey Bay, you won’t ever want to leave Sunset State Beach!
- Sunset Beach Rd, Watsonville, CA 95076
- Open 24 hours