20 Things To Do In Santa Cruz

- This post may contain affiliate links. Read our disclosure.

Santa Cruz is a haven for those seeking a laid-back and more alternative lifestyle than in sprawling cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. Beach and surf culture ooze from every street, shop and restaurant, all directing newly arrived visitors to Main Beach, Cowell Beach and the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, where you will find most of the things to do in Santa Cruz.

Situated a mere 70 miles (113 km) from San Francisco and the Bay Area, Santa Cruz is near enough for a day trip and far enough to unwind away from the daily grind completely. Perfect for families, intrepid urban explorers or lonely travellers backpacking through California, Santa Cruz’s treasure trove of fantastic sights and activities to enjoy are virtually unlimited. From the picturesque Santa Cruz Mountains to the entertaining performances of Shakespeare in Santa Cruz, the city offers plenty to keep yourself busy and entertained as you enjoy the best California has to offer.

Santa Cruz, California

20 Things To Do In Santa Cruz

1- Have Fun On Main Beach

things to do in santa cruz with kids photo of the amusement park rides on the beach
Having fun on the amusement park rides is one of the fun things to do in Santa Cruz for families.

Santa Cruz’s fantastic Mediterranean climate, seaside locale and azure waters make this Californian seaside town a haven for avid beachgoers looking for the ultimate blend of sun, surf, culture and attractions.

No beach in Santa Cruz is more famous or popular than Main Beach, situated right in the epicentre of all the oceanfront fun next to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.

The sheltered Main Beach is perfect for swimming, with waters quite calm and mild temperature-wise.

Volleyball and sunbathing are also two activities widely enjoyed on the warm shores of Main Beach, making it the ideal beach to visit when you’re in Santa Cruz.

2- Explore The Wineries Of The Santa Cruz Mountains

things to do in santa cruz this week tree-covered mountains
If you’re looking for things to do in Santa Cruz this weekend, hear to the Santa Cruz Mountains and enjoy the views (pictured here from Castle Rock hiking trail).

Often overlooked in favour of the city’s beaches, historic sites and lively boardwalk, the picturesque Santa Cruz Mountains are a magnificent attraction in their own right.

Littered with wineries producing top-notch Californian red and white wines, you’d be forgiven for mistaking you’re in the Sonoma Valley while touring through the Santa Cruz Mountains.

It’s the Santa Cruz Mountains’ laid-back atmosphere and stunning vistas that draw large crowds to this wine-producing region instead of more popular Napa or Sonoma.

Situated right on the doorstep of Downtown Santa Cruz, visiting the Santa Cruz Mountains is a must for any vinophile or outdoor enthusiast.

3- Wander Along The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

things to do in santa cruz ca
Looking for things to do in Santa Cruz? If you’re visiting with kids, you’ll have no problem. Just hear to the beach near boardwalk.

The ever-bustling and Instagram-worthy Santa Cruz Boardwalk is easily the city’s best attraction, treating guests to unrivalled ocean views, Californian sunshine and a lively carnival atmosphere all day long.

Sandwiched between two of Santa Cruz’s best beaches, Main Beach and Cowell Beach, the boardwalk is a great place to grab some food while enjoying the day out visiting the city’s beaches.

Buzzing with families and thrill-seekers, the boardwalk’s fun amusement rides, its Giant Dipper, a designated National Historic Landmark rollercoaster, and the various attractions in and around the boardwalk.

Delighting visitors since 1904, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk is a highlight of any trip to Santa Cruz and one which promises a lifetime of fun memories.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is at 400 Beach St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

4- Enjoy Santa Cruz Harbor

unique things to do in santa cruz boats on the bay
Going sailing or just enjoying the view of boats on Monterey Bay is one of the things to do from Santa Cruz wharf on sunny day.

An access point to the sprawling Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and bordering two large marinas, the Santa Cruz Harbor is popular with kayakers, fishermen and sailors who use the harbour daily to head out to the chilly Pacific.

Not only is Santa Cruz Harbor a fully operational maritime port, but the harbour is also a tourist hotspot, with many of the city’s best eateries and shops calling the harbour home.

A Launchpad for the many whale and dolphin tours that operate just off the Santa Cruz coast, the Santa Cruz Harbor is a wonderful destination where you can enjoy all the ocean fun Santa Cruz has in store for visitors.

5- Explore Nature At Natural Bridges State Beach

things to do today in santa cruz natural bridge rock formation in the ocean
Admiring the geological features in Natural Bridges State Park is one of the things to do in Santa Cruz California for lovers of nature.

No place inspires visitors and portrays Santa Cruz’s natural beauty better than the scenic Natural Bridges State Beach.

Widely regarded as one of California’s prettiest beaches, Natural Bridges State Beach is famous for its striking mudstone sea arch, which has served as the backdrop for countless family photos, desktop wallpapers and paintings.

Not only is the beach beautifully scenic, but it’s also an excellent spot to see some migrating whales from April to November, as well as various species of birds, sea otters and seals.

Speckled with tide pools, colourful blooms and groves of eucalyptus trees, Natural Bridges is the ideal spot to enjoy the great outdoors with friends and family.

Natural Bridges State Beach 2531 W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

For more California ideas, see:

6- Ride The Roaring Camp Railroads

unique things to do in santa cruz railroad
Going on a train ride on the Roaring Camp Railroads is one of the cool things to do in Santa Cruz to see its surrounds.

Santa Cruz’s Roaring Camp Railroads is a mainstay on the city’s tourism radar and is one of the best ways of seeing Santa Cruz’s top natural attractions, such as its redwood forests, scenic coastline and beautiful mountains.

The Roaring Camp Railroads started as a lumber transportation service in the 1880s before it was decommissioned and turned into a top tourist attraction in 1963.

Whisking passengers from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, the Roaring Camp Railroads winds through Downtown Santa Cruz and all along the Pacific coast on a unique sightseeing journey like none other.

Roaring Camp Railroads is at 5401 Graham Hill Rd, Felton, CA 95018.

7- Admire The Views On The West Cliff Drive

things to do in santa cruz today Lighthouse at Walton Santacruz california during dusk
One of the best things to do in Santa Cruz is to go for a drive. Pictured here is the Walton Lighthouse at dusk.

West Cliff Drive is a scenic 6-mile-long (10 km) stretch of road, bikeway and pathway along the Pacific Ocean, which is one of Santa Cruz’s best free attractions, offering commanding views over Monterey Bay, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and beyond.

Lined with cypress trees, gorgeous beaches and stunning lookout points, driving, hiking or biking the majestic West Cliff Drive is bound to be a memorable experience.

8- Shop And Eat On Santa Cruz Wharf

free things to do in santa cruz today
Looking for things to do in Santa Cruz, California? You’ll love these suggestions.

Originally established as a docking point for large seafaring vessels, today the Santa Cruz Wharf is alive with avid anglers, sightseers and tourists browsing through the many thrift shops lining the wharf.

A must-visit destination for top-notch seafood restaurants, the Santa Cruz Wharf is right next to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center and its interactive exhibits and friendly staff.

A fantastic bird, whale and dolphin-watching spot, the Santa Cruz Wharf is one of Santa Cruz’s best landmarks that simply cannot be left out of your Santa Cruz itinerary.

Santa Cruz Wharf is at 21 Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

9- Watch The Sunset At Cowell Beach

things to do in santa cruz california people on the beach and rocks
Spending time on the beach is another of the top things to do in Santa Cruz.

Adjacent to the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk and Main Beach, Cowell Beach offers the same favourite beachside activities and entertainment that Main Beach provides, with the added benefit of larger swells that surfers would enjoy.

Cowell Beach is clean, safe and popular for families with children and solo travellers and is in the same sheltered cove as Main Beach.

Located next to some of Santa Cruz’s best accommodation options and with trained lifeguards on duty, Cowell Beach is a fantastic beach to visit if you’re looking for perfect views, idyllic sunsets and golden sand.

10- Solve The Puzzle Of The Mystery Spot

Nestled in a thick circular redwood forest roughly 151 ft (46 m) wide, the aptly-named Mystery Spot has been puzzling scientists and intrepid tourists since it was first discovered in 1939.

Famous for its gravity-defying forces where people and objects seem tilted instead of upright, the source of the Mystery Spot’s strange phenomena is still unknown to experts.

This has not stopped visitors from coming up with theories, some plausible and some bizarre, with conspiracy theorists even claiming extra-terrestrial forces cause the Mystery Spot’s physics-defying effects.

Regardless of what you believe about the Mystery Spot’s trippy nature, the area’s guided tours, hiking trails and beautiful redwood trees make the Mystery Spot a great destination to visit whenever you’re passing through Santa Cruz.

The Mystery Spot is at 465 Mystery Spot Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95065.

11- Go Hiking In Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

romantic things to do in santa cruz Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Putting your hands around a Redwood tree is one of the most calming things to do when visiting Santa Cruz.

The sprawling 4,650-acre (1,882 ha) Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is home to towering redwood trees and hiking trails.

You’ll find visitors hiking, picnicking and horseback riding from sunrise to sunset.

Some of the most popular attractions inside the park include a 277-foot tall (84 m) redwood tree, a hollowed-out tree with a hiking path tunnelling right through it, and the serene Garden of Eden, a secluded natural pool.

If enjoying nature in the great outdoors is what you’re after, look no further than Santa Cruz’s Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is at 2591 Graham Hill Rd, Scotts Valley, CA 95060.

12- Experience The Mediterranean Lifestyle In Capitola

things to do in santa cruz with kids mission-style buildings
Going on a day trip to Capitola, a city in Santa Cruz County, is one of the things to do near Santa Cruz.

Inspiring images of idyllic fishing villages on Italy’s Amalfi Coast or rustic Spanish seaside pueblos, the colourful beachside town of Capitola, with its pastel buildings overlooking quiet beaches, draws many visitors to its boutiques, beaches and cafes.

Capitola traces its roots back to the 19th century, when it was established as California’s first beach resort in 1874.

Since then, the town has exploded with people longing for a Mediterranean village atmosphere complete with Italian delis and French bakeries serving up delectable pastrami sandwiches and fresh croissants.

13- Watch Shakespeare in Santa Cruz

Hosted by the Santa Cruz Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare in Santa Cruz delights fans of the thespian performances of plays written by William Shakespeare every year between July and August.

Shakespeare in Santa Cruz takes place in the centrally-located Audrey Stanley Grove, a lovely outdoor venue in Santa Cruz’s DeLaveaga Park overlooking Monterey Bay.

Even if you’re not a fan of watching live performances of plays such as ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Macbeth’, and ‘Othello’, Shakespeare in Santa Cruz is still an interesting experience worth seeing.

Book your tickets well before you go if you plan on attending a show since Shakespeare in Santa Cruz sells out quite quickly.

Santa Cruz’s DeLaveaga Park is at 855 Branciforte Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95065.

14- Visit Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park

Within walking distance of the Santa Cruz city centre, the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park is littered with buildings and artefacts detailing the life and living conditions of the Franciscan Christian missionaries who settled the region in 1791.

The star attraction at the park is the Santa Cruz Mission, the 12th mission established in California by the same Franciscan monks who arrived in the region from Spain in 1791.

The Santa Cruz Mission was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1857, leaving much of the original structure in ruins, with just the adobe building still standing today.

Nevertheless, the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park is a wonderful place to visit to explore the region’s rich cultural heritage and learn more about the people who settled there.

Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park is at 144 School St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

15- Explore Downtown Santa Cruz

things to do in santa cruz in november markets man holding fresh veggies
Shopping in the Farmers Market is one of the things to do in Santa Cruz if you’re visiting at the right time.

With tree-lined streets, boutiques, cafes and a vibrant live music scene strolling and discovering Santa Cruz’s downtown area is the perfect way to enjoy the baking California sunshine whilst touring the heartbeat of Santa Cruz.

Alive with hip artists and musicians, the streets of Downtown Santa Cruz are never quiet.

One of the area’s biggest attractions is the weekly community farmer’s market, which sees crowds of local vendors and shoppers descend on the city’s streets every Wednesday afternoon.

16- Explore Wilder Ranch State Park

things to do in santa cruz, ca, wilder ranch
Discovering the history and dramatic landscape of Wilder Ranch is another thing to do in Santa Cruz.

Situated just 4 miles (6 km) north of Santa Cruz’s city centre, the Wilder Ranch State Park sprawls across a vast area of more than 7,000 acres (2,833 ha) and is crisscrossed with 35+ miles (56 km) of hiking paths.

Unblemished and perched between the Pacific Ocean shores and the University of California Santa Cruz campus, the Wilder Ranch State Park is every outdoor lover’s paradise.

The park’s scenic valleys and coastal bluffs perfectly preserve the way the Golden State’s first ranchers used to live, which visitors can tour and learn more about when visiting the park.

The park’s 1897 Victorian home and 1859 Gothic Revival farmhouse are two of the most popular attractions inside the park’s borders, and guided tours of all the historical sites within the Wilder Ranch State Park can be joined completely free of charge.

Wilder Ranch State Park is at 1401 Coast Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

17- Interact With Marinelife At Seymour Marine Discovery Center

things to do with kids in santa cruz sea lions
Seeing marine life is one of the interesting things to do in Santa Cruz.

The Seymour Marine Discovery Center, located close to Natural Bridges State Park, places California’s rich and diverse marine life on full display in various interactive and seasonal exhibits.

A magical centre where visitors of all ages are encouraged to learn, explore and help conserve, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center is a fantastic destination to visit for families with kids.

The centre’s aquarium steals the show, housing animals such as hermit crabs, sharks and sea stars.

There’s a cool touch pool where visitors can touch sea urchins and sea anemones, making the Seymour Marine Discovery Center a great destination to visit during a trip to sunny Santa Cruz.

Seymour Marine Discovery Center is at 100 McAllister Way, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

18- Admire Californian Art At Santa Cruz Museum

things to do at night in santa cruz Natural Bridges rock in the Beach of Santa Cruz, California, USA. With ocean wave in the foreground.
There’s a mixture of things to do in Santa Cruz for everyone, from enjoying nature to manmade attractions.

The expansive Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History exhibits the defining events and artwork that are most important to local Californians while focusing on the state’s beautiful landscapes and important historical moments.

Displays range from ornate paintings to biographies of important 19th-century residents who achieved great feats both locally and internationally.

The museum’s Mary and Harry Blanchard Sculpture Garden, located on the centre’s roof, combines the sunny climate and fantastic views of Santa Cruz with a range of contemporary and modern sculptures and beautiful plants and flowers.

Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is at 705 Front St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

19- Relax At UC Santa Cruz Arboretum

things to do in santa cruz gardens
Exploring the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum is one of the best things to do if you’re into gardening.

An attraction on the campus of the University of California Santa Cruz, the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, which overlooks the beautiful Monterey Bay, covers a sprawling area of over 135 acres (55 ha).

Filled with flora native to California, as well as countries such as Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand, the arboretum is a real outdoor sanctuary aiming to educate and help save countless plant species from extinction around the world.

The arboretum’s Eucalyptus Grove, Butterfly Garden and Australia Garden are some of UC Santa Cruz Arboretum’s biggest draws, but perhaps the most popular attraction at the arboretum is the centre’s local hummingbird population.

Open to visitors and offering free guided tours on the first Saturday of every month, the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum is perfect for a leisurely stroll or a quiet afternoon picnic surrounded by beautiful nature from every corner of the world.

UC Santa Cruz Arboretum is at Arboretum Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95064.

20- See The Redwood Trees At Big Basin Redwoods State Park

things to do in santa cruz at night enchanted forest
Active visitors looking for things to do in Santa Cruz should spend time hiking. Here’s a tranquil Scene at Sempervirens Falls in Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, established in 1902, is California’s oldest state park and covers an area of over 18,000 acres (7,284 ha) of amazing hiking trails and ancient redwood trees rumoured to be over 2,000 years old.

Trails such as the Skyline to the Sea Trail allow visitors to spend multiple days inside the park, camping along the trail in dedicated campsites as they move along the 30-mile (48 km) trail.

One of the USA’s best state parks to visit, the Big Basin Redwoods State Park is always abuzz with hikers, intrepid travellers and nature enthusiasts, making it easily one of the best outdoor destinations in Santa Cruz.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park is at 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek, CA 95006. 

Previous article8 South Carolina National Parks
Next articleSan Diego to San Francisco Road Trip
cropped mark westwood.jpg
Mark Westwood is a Seattle-based writer who writes for various online blogs and travel websites. In 2017, he went on a 12-month road trip across the USA visiting many iconic landmarks and small towns along the way. Having explored over 20 countries, his favourite places to date are along the west coast of the USA but he is happiest anywhere where there are mountains and ocean.