With its surf culture, artsy vibe, and youthful university atmosphere, there really is no city quite like Santa Cruz. This is the place where surfing was first introduced to the mainland in 1880. Surfers from around the world still flock here to ride the giant waves at the city’s world-famous break, Steamer Lane.
But you don’t have to be a surfer to visit Santa Cruz. You can spend your days brunching at a popular café, shopping on Pacific Avenue, and riding rollercoasters at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Outdoor enthusiasts will love hiking and biking at nearby Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Wilder Ranch State Park. And if you just want to lounge on a beach and soak up the California sun, Santa Cruz boasts 29 miles of coastline and 34 beaches!
With so many things to see and do in this quintessential California town, it’s difficult to know where to begin. So, we’ve gathered a list of our favorite activities and the best things to do in Santa Cruz for you. This Santa Cruz bucket list is full of outdoor adventures, quirky roadside attractions, and must-see natural wonders.
Don’t forget to check out our web story: The 15 Best Things to Do in Santa Cruz, California
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15 cool and unique things to do in Santa Cruz
1. Spend an Afternoon at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
No trip to Santa Cruz is complete without spending a few hours at the historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. If this beachfront amusement park looks familiar, that’s because it’s been featured in popular movies like The Lost Boys, Us, and Chasing Mavericks. Not only is this famous attraction located right on sandy Main Beach but the Beach Boardwalk is free to enter if you just want to have a look around.
You’ll find all sorts of fun rides, carnival games, and pop-up attractions around the Beach Boardwalk. If you only have time for one thing, be sure to take a ride on the Giant Dipper. This iconic wooden roller coaster dates all the way back to 1924 and is arguably the most famous landmark in Santa Cruz!
The Beach Boardwalk also boasts laser tag, a miniature golf course, and more to keep you entertained all day long. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, there are tons of food stands serving up creative treats. Think deep-fried Twinkies, fresh-dipped corn dogs, and battered Castroville artichokes.
2. Take a Stroll Along the Historic Santa Cruz Wharf
Just down the road from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the Santa Cruz Wharf is yet another popular Santa Cruz attraction. The pier dates back to 1914 and stands proud as the longest wood wharf on the West Coast.
Today, the wharf is a popular spot for fishing, enjoying scenic seafood meals, and spotting local wildlife. No matter what time of year you visit, you’ll likely spot sea lions basking in the sun and frolicking in the ocean below the pier.
If you’re lucky, you might even see whales, otters, or dolphins. You can rent kayaks at the pier if you feel like getting up close with these incredible sea creatures!
The Santa Cruz Wharf is lined with plenty of souvenir shops and seafood-centric restaurants. If you want to sample some of the best clam chowder in town, be sure to pay a visit to Stagnaro Bros. The popular restaurant serves up award-winning New England clam chowder in their signature bread bowl.
3. Learn About Santa Cruz’s Surfing Culture Along West Cliff Drive
For panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and Monterey Bay, go for a scenic walk or bike ride along West Cliff Drive. Cruising along the three-mile pathway is one of the top things to do in Santa Cruz for locals and visitors alike!
Stretching from the Santa Cruz Wharf to Natural Bridges State Beach and Park, you’ll find plenty of interesting sights along West Cliff Drive. Be sure to stop off at Lighthouse Point and marvel at all the local surfers competing to ride the massive waves at the world-famous surf break, Steamer Lane. Don’t forget to snap a selfie at the famous Surfer Statue.
If you want to learn more about Santa Cruz’s unique surf culture, head into the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. The quaint museum houses vintage surfboards and interesting paraphernalia belonging to iconic local surfers from decades past. Plus, you’ll learn all about the history of surfing on the mainland and how surfing was first brought to Santa Cruz by Hawaiian royalty.
The pathway ends at Natural Bridges State Beach and Park, which just happens to be one of the prettiest places in Santa Cruz!
4. Watch the Sunset at Natural Bridges State Beach
Located at the end of the three-mile paved path on West Cliff Drive, you’ll find one of Santa Cruz’s most popular and visually stunning beaches. Whether you want to have a sun-filled beach day, take gorgeous sunset photos, or see local wildlife, Natural Bridges State Beach and Park won’t disappoint.
With its famous rocky sea arch, this is easily the most photographed natural attraction in Santa Cruz. Plus, the beach is outfitted with picnic benches and barbecue pits if you want to spend some time at the beach soaking up the sun and enjoying the views. This is also a popular place to be for epic sunsets!
If you visit from April through November, you might even spot whales, seals, or otters playing in the waters. When the tide is low, you can also check out the sea stars, crabs, and other cool little sea creatures in the beach’s tide pools.
From mid-October to mid-February, hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies flock to the park’s Monarch Grove to feed on the eucalyptus trees. If you time your visit right, this is definitely one of the coolest things to do in Santa Cruz.
5. Surf With the Pros at Steamer Lane and The Hook
It’s no secret that Santa Cruz – the birthplace of surfing on the mainland – is a mecca for surfers. If you’re a surfing enthusiast and want to surf like the locals do, you’ll definitely want to beeline it for Steamer Lane (aka The Lane).
It should be noted that this world-famous surf break should only be attempted by experts since the waves at Steamer Lane can reach up to 18 feet! If you just want to watch the pros in action, you can gather with the rest of the onlookers on the bluff at Lighthouse Point.
Just down the coast, in the popular Pleasure Point neighborhood, you’ll find yet another super-popular local surf spot. With its towering swells, The Hook draws adrenaline junkies from around the world. Located at 41st Avenue at East Cliff Drive, you’ll also find a viewing area with picnic tables, as well a bunch of surf shops.
If you’re just starting out or aren’t skilled enough to take on Santa Cruz’s massive waves, Cowells Beach boasts mellow waves perfect for beginners. Don’t worry if you don’t have your own gear. You can rent or buy boards and surf gear from Cowell’s Surf Shop.
6. Defy Gravity at The Mystery Spot
Drive around Santa Cruz, and you’ll notice cars boasting bright yellow bumper stickers that read “The Mystery Spot.” Although it’s super touristy, this unique attraction is an institution in Santa Cruz.
Tucked away in the middle of a redwood forest, The Mystery Spot appears to defy gravity. Walk around the 150-foot-wide area, and everything will appear tilted. You can even see balls roll uphill!
The Mystery Spot was discovered in 1939 and has baffled visitors ever since. Rumor has it that this anomaly is the work of aliens, while others believe it is caused by carbon dioxide permeating from the earth.
Whatever it is, The Mystery Spot is a fun place to spend an hour marveling at the bizarre perspectives and taking quirky photos. For the best photo ops, be sure to explore the funky wood house (aka the “gravity house”) where everything appears slanted and distorted. When you’re done, pay a visit to the onsite gift shop and pick up your very own The Mystery Spot bumper sticker or T-shirt!
7. Ride Through Redwood Forests at Roaring Camp Railroad
A visit to Roaring Camp Railroad is one of the most unique things to do in Santa Cruz. It’s the perfect activity for little ones, but adults will be equally as entertained! Located in nearby Felton, this popular attraction offers visitors two routes on its 19th-century narrow-gauge steam train: the Redwood Forest Steam Train and the Santa Cruz Beach Train.
The Redwood Forest Steam Train journey lasts 75 minutes and takes you from the redwood-studded town of Felton through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and the San Lorenzo River Gorge. Along the way, conductors narrate historical facts about Roaring Camp Railroad. Plus, you’ll learn all about how narrow-gauge steam locomotives once carried giant trees out of the mountains in the 1880s.
If you’re planning to visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the Santa Cruz Beach Train departs from the Santa Cruz Mountains and drops you off at the boardwalk. On this 3-hour trip, you’ll pass through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and the San Lorenzo River Gorge and go across a 1909 steel truss bridge.
8. Sample the Best of Pacific Avenue
Pacific Avenue is the main drag of downtown Santa Cruz. This is the place where you’ll find some of the city’s best bars, restaurants, theaters, and shops – including locally owned boutiques and big-name brands. You’ll also find plenty of street vendors hawking everything from handmade jewelry to handcrafted trinkets.
If you’re hungry, enjoy brunch at local favorite Zachary’s, grab a slice or two at the surf-themed Pizza My Heart, and have an authentic Mexican dinner at El Palomar. For after-dinner drinks, 515 Kitchen & Cocktails mixes up some of the most creative handcrafted cocktails in town. Or, if you want to keep it mellow, catch a movie at the historic Del Mar Theatre.
There’s always something happening on Pacific Avenue. If you’re in town on a Wednesday afternoon, you can eat your way through the incredible farmers’ market, which boasts everything from a fresh oyster bar to ice cream from the ultra-popular The Penny Ice Creamery. Head here during First Fridays, and you’ll find all sorts of cool pop-up art galleries and wine socials happening.
9. Take a Hike to Berry Creek Falls in Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Established in 1902, Big Basin Redwoods State Park is California’s oldest State Park. While there are all sorts of hiking opportunities in the park, the Berry Creek Falls hike is arguably the best.
This 9-mile out-and-back trail is a “strenuous” day hike. But you’ll be rewarded with the chance to see the largest old-growth redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains as well as four waterfalls, including the 65-foot cascade of Berry Creek Falls! Be sure to head out early and pack a picnic lunch because this hike will take around 5-7 hours.
The trail starts at the Big Basin State Park Headquarters, which leads to Berry Creek Falls. If you want to experience different scenery on the way back, take the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail, which will loop you back to the park’s headquarters. This route is a little bit longer, but well worth it for the spectacular scenery.
The falls run all year long but they’re at their most impressive in the rainy winter months. Plus, this popular hike sees far fewer visitors in the winter compared to the buzzing summer months.
10. Drink and Dine at the Trendy Abbott Square Market
If you’re looking for one of the coolest things to do in Santa Cruz, then be sure to head over to Abbott Square Market. This hip indoor-outdoor food court and event space made its debut inside a former jail in 2017 and quickly became the hippest place in town to hang out with family and friends!
The market is brimming with innovative eateries. You can snack on authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas at Pizzeria La Bufala, dine on West African-inspired vegan fare at Veg on the Edge, or enjoy hearty veg and non-veg burgers at Belly Goat Burger. There is also a sushi place, an ice cream shop, a Cajun-Creole restaurant, and more.
If you’re looking for a place to grab happy hour cocktails with friends, Abbott Square Market is also home to the trendy Front & Cooper. The market is connected to the popular Museum of Art & History. In line with the art theme, expect to find all sorts of artwork and sculptures dotting the market.
If you’re looking for something fun to do in Santa Cruz, Abbott Square Market hosts all sorts of cool events and live music shows throughout the year.
11. Zen Out at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden
If you’re planning to pay a visit to the spectacular UC Santa Cruz Campus, you’ll definitely want to stop off at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden. Set on 135 sprawling acres overlooking Monterey Bay, this unique living museum is home to 300 Mediterranean plant families.
These rare and unique plant species are grouped according to their native country. Explore the grounds and you’ll spot beautiful Mediterranean plants from Australia, California, New Zealand, and South Africa. There’s also an Australian Rock Garden, a Eucalyptus Grove, a Butterfly Garden, and a series of Hummingbird Hotspots.
If you want to spend some quality time at the Arboretum & Botanic Garden, pack a picnic lunch, which you can enjoy at one of the many picnic tables. Before you leave, pick up a souvenir or two at Norrie’s Gift and Garden Shop. The shop is brimming with beautiful Mediterranean plants, gardening gear, and handcrafted jewelry.
12. Go Winery Hopping in the Santa Cruz Mountains
The Santa Cruz Mountains are home to over 70 wineries and tasting rooms, making it an ultra-popular destination for wine lovers. This is actually one of the oldest wine regions in the entire US and is known for its award-winning pinot noirs.
There are plenty of popular tasting rooms in downtown Santa Cruz. But if you want to sip your wine under a grove of towering redwood trees, you’ll be spoiled for choice!
If you want to make a day of it and go winery hopping, follow the Santa Cruz Mountain Wine Trail, which stretches from Highway 35 to Bear Creek Road. Or, if you don’t want to drive too far, Bargetto Winery, Soquel Vineyards, and Burrell School Vineyards are all less than 30 minutes from downtown Santa Cruz.
If you prefer to stay in town or you don’t feel like driving, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards, MJA Vineyards, and Birichino are popular tasting rooms in the heart of Santa Cruz. Be sure to pick up a bottle of wine or two to enjoy back at home!
13. Explore the Picture-Perfect Seaside Village of Capitola
With its sandy beaches, excellent eateries, and colorful buildings, the beachside town of Capitola is well worth spending some time in. Located a quick 15-minute drive down the coast from downtown Santa Cruz, Capitola is a popular place to spend a day.
You can spend the afternoon learning about the area’s history at the Capitola Historical Museum, shopping at the Capitola Mall, or taking a stroll along the postcard-worthy oceanfront promenade. You’ll also find plenty of cute cafes and boutique shops lining the main drag of this quaint town. If you want to take in a spectacular sunset, be sure to head to Capitola Beach.
When it comes to food and drink, Capitola is brimming with excellent options. You can sip craft brews at Sante Adairius Rustic Ales or sample local wines at Armida Winery. For oceanfront dinners, Wharf House Restaurant, Zelda’s on the Beach, and Paradise Beach Grille are all popular options.
14. Go Hiking or Biking in Wilder Ranch State Park
Located 4 miles from downtown Santa Cruz, Wilder Ranch State Park is the perfect place to get out in nature. Set on 7,000 acres, the park boasts 35 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails.
Wilder Ranch State Park was once a functioning dairy farm and is still home to an 1897 Victorian home, old ranch buildings and barns, and plenty of friendly farm animals. The docents even dress up in period clothing and offer living history demonstrations and guided tours on certain days!
It’s no surprise that the park is popular among hikers. If you’re looking for an easy hike along the coastal bluffs, the 2.5-mile Ohlone Bluff Trail is a popular pick. Or, for a more challenging full-day hike, the Enchanted Loop stretches for 8 miles and takes you into a beautiful redwood forest.
Explore the far reaches of Wilder Ranch State Park and you’ll find hidden beaches, popular surf spots, and plenty of local wildlife. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a pod of migrating whales from the bluffs!
15. Learn About Local Marine Life at Seymour Marine Discovery Center
If you’re looking for a family-friendly activity, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center is one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz. You can easily spend an hour or two exploring the 20,000-square-foot visitor center and the various exhibits. You’ll learn all about the area’s elephant seals, sea otters, and other local marine life and local researchers’ conservation efforts.
Kids will love the aquarium, which is home to all sorts of sea creatures, including decorator crabs, jellyfish, and sharks. There’s also a touch pool filled with sea urchins, sea stars, and sea anemones. Head outside and you’ll find a massive 87-foot gray whale skeleton and life-size elephant seal sculptures.
Seymour Marine Discovery Center offers a variety of educational tours, including special family-friendly morning tours tailor-made for small children. The 90-minute Behind-the-Scenes tours take you to the adjacent Younger Lagoon Reserve, so you can learn all about how researchers track local wildlife and restore native habitats.
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Santa Cruz. What’s your favorite thing to do in Santa Cruz?
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