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17 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Santa Cruz

Written by Lisa Alexander and Lura Seavey
Updated Mar 22, 2022

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This quintessential California beach town is synonymous with sun, sand, and summer fun. Most tourists head straight for the boardwalk and don't get much farther than the nearby sandy beaches and fishing pier. However, Santa Cruz has so much more to offer.

Spectacular seaside scenery, a historic mission church, and a charming downtown reward visitors who explore further. Just a short drive from Santa Cruz is the gorgeous Highway One route alongside Monterey Bay, with amazing ocean views. In this pristine marine environment, seals frolic in the deep blue waters and surfers ride the crashing waves of the Pacific.

Outdoor sport enthusiasts and nature lovers appreciate Santa Cruz for its serene beaches and unspoiled landscapes. Breathtaking coastal hiking trails are found at the rugged Wilder Ranch State Park, while lush Mediterranean flora and pink-throated hummingbirds thrive at the U.C. Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden.

Santa Cruz also offers interesting cultural attractions. For an enchanting experience, tourists can attend a Shakespeare performance on a starry night in a magical redwood glen. There's also a Surfing Museum that gives visitors a taste of California surfing culture.

Whether you're planning a beach vacation or a day trip, find inspiration for your next visit to California's Central Coast with our list of the top attractions and things to do in Santa Cruz.

See also: Where to Stay in Santa Cruz: Best Areas & Hotels

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Bicycles on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Bicycles on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk delivers classic summertime fun, complete with amusement park rides, games, and tourist attractions. There is no charge to enter the expansive seaside amusement park, and you can decide between all-day unlimited-rides access, a Season Pass, or a pay-as-you-go MyBoardwalk Play Card (ideal for those who are not staying the whole day).

The park overlooks the Main Beach and has been delighting visitors since 1907. It's considered one of the best seaside amusement parks in the world because of its fantastic setting and historic roller coaster rides.

The Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster built in 1924, is classified as a National Historic Landmark. Other activities include thrill rides, family rides, and kiddie rides, with a good mix of classic and modern designs to suit every taste.

In addition to the rides, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk offers entertainment and dining options. Kids can play air hockey, Skee-Ball, pinball, and other traditional arcade games, as well as the latest video games.

The beachfront boardwalk is also full of food vendors, where you can treat yourself to goodies like corn dogs, deep-fried artichokes, chocolate-coated ice-cream, cotton candy, and salt water taffy.

Address: 400 Beach Street, Santa Cruz, California

Official site: https://beachboardwalk.com

2. Main Beach & Cowell Beach

Telescope overlooking Main Beach
Telescope overlooking Main Beach

Besides the boardwalk, the main reason to visit Santa Cruz is the beach. The sunny Mediterranean weather, sandy shores, and safe waters make Santa Cruz one of the best beach destinations in California.

Visitors can choose from several excellent beaches; the two most popular are Main Beach, adjacent to the Boardwalk, and Cowell Beach, which is next to Main Beach on the other side of the wharf.

Popular for sunbathing and swimming, Main Beach is also great for kids. There's enough room for little ones to spread out and make sandcastles; and because the beach is in a sheltered cove, it is safe to wade in the waters. Beach volleyball players also flock here to take advantage of the sand volleyball courts.

In the same cove as Main Beach on the opposite side of the wharf, Cowell Beach is a famous surfers' spot. This stretch of sandy shoreline is also known for its coastal views and beautiful sunsets. The Dream Inn on Cowell Beach offers stylish seaside accommodations.

Lifeguards patrol Main Beach and Cowell Beach during the summer.

3. Santa Cruz Wharf

Santa Cruz Wharf
Santa Cruz Wharf | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

The Santa Cruz Wharf was built in 1914 to serve deep-water vessels, however today it is used as a fishing pier and sightseeing vantage point.

Tourists will find plenty of shops and things to do at the wharf, and it is one of the most popular places to sample the local seafood. One of the best restaurants on the pier, Stagnaro Bros. serves fresh seafood, including classic dishes like fish and chips, in a dining room with stunning bay views.

Bird-watching and sea lion viewing are other reasons the wharf is so popular with tourists. Sea lions make their home here year-round, and their splashing and barking is easily heard from the pier. A viewing area allows visitors a good look at the sea lions resting on the pier structure.

During specific seasons, whales, dolphins, and otters can also be seen in the waters. The wharf also has water sports shops that rent fishing gear, boats, and kayaks, so that you can get closer to the wildlife and enjoy the water.

Right by the wharf (at 35 Pacific Avenue) is the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center. The facility features interactive exhibits that educate visitors about how to responsibly enjoy the ocean and help protect the marine environment. Visitors can explore the marine environment through a Biodiversity Kelp Forest, an Intertidal Touchpool, and an Open-Ocean Mini-Theater.

4. West Cliff Drive & the Surfing Museum

West Cliff Drive & the Surfing Museum
West Cliff Drive & the Surfing Museum | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

A six-mile pathway on West Cliff Drive hugs the coastline and provides a scenic route for walking and cycling. Along the way, the views of the Pacific Ocean are truly breathtaking. The path is completely flat and wheelchair-accessible, making this sightseeing route appropriate for all ages and fitness levels.

Well-positioned benches invite passersby to sit back and soak up the panoramas of undulating deep blue seas as seagulls soar above and flocks of pelicans hover near the water.

Santa Cruz claims to be the original California surf town, and this picturesque section of the Monterey Bay is a favorite surfers' spot.

A bronze surfer statue is found along the path, as is the world's first surfing museum. The Surfing Museum is housed in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse (701 West Cliff Drive) on a bluff overlooking the crashing waves. The small exhibit shows memorabilia, such as vintage photos of surfers in the 1930s.

5. Natural Bridges State Beach

Natural Bridges State Beach
Natural Bridges State Beach | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

The remarkable sea arch that graces this beach was formed from the fractures in mudstone cliffs. With its iconic natural beauty, this small protected sandy beach is an excellent place to visit for relaxation and bird-watching.

The location is also ideal for viewing migrating whales from April through November. Sometimes seals and otters can be seen playing just offshore. Farther along, the beach has tide pools that are home to sea stars, small crabs, sea anemones, and other ocean creatures.

During springtime, the park near the beach is filled with vibrant wildflowers. From mid-October to mid-February, the park's Monarch Grove, declared a Natural Preserve, comes alive with monarch butterflies. The grove's fragrant eucalyptus trees blossom in winter, providing the butterflies with a source of food. November is the best time to observe the monarchs.

The beach has a picnic area with barbecue pits and restroom facilities, located in a shady grove of pine and eucalyptus trees.

Address: 2531 West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, California

Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=541

6. Roaring Camp Railroads

Roaring Camp Railroads
Roaring Camp Railroads

For a change of pace and to see the area from a unique perspective, hop onboard an old-fashioned train in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Roaring Camp Railroads takes passengers through the picturesque natural environment of Santa Cruz. These scenic train rides appeal to young and old alike.

Roaring Camp Railroads offers two different routes: one departing from Roaring Camp (in Felton, in the Santa Cruz Mountains) and traveling to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and another from Roaring Camp to Bear Mountain.

The Santa Cruz Beach Train departs from the Santa Cruz Mountains in Felton (Roaring Camp) and travels a spectacular route through the awe-inspiring Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park into the San Lorenzo River Gorge, passing through a tunnel built in 1875. The trip ends at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and then embarks on its return trip.

Alternatively, passengers can hop aboard the train at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk station and take a reverse round-trip; however, the last train at 4pm does not return to the Beach Boardwalk. Tickets may be purchased at Roaring Camp or from the conductor at the Boardwalk departure location.

The Redwood Forest Steam Train is a narrow-gauge steam locomotive (dating to the 19th century). This historic train takes passengers through soaring redwood groves, and winds through the mountains to the top of Bear Mountain. During the journey, the conductor shares information about the forest and the history of Roaring Camp Railroad since it was created in the 1880s to haul lumber out of the mountains.

The Redwood Forest Steam Train runs daily year-round, whereas the Santa Cruz Beach Train only runs on weekends from the spring through the fall.

Address: Roaring Camp Railroads, 5401 Graham Hill Road, Felton, California

Official site: www.roaringcamp.com

7. Dolphin and Whale Watching Cruises

A humpback whale breaches in Monterey Bay
A humpback whale breaches in Monterey Bay

Santa Cruz is just a 45-minute drive from the historic waterfront town of Monterey and is situated alongside the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, one of the largest marine sanctuaries in the United States. This protected ocean environment extends for 276 miles along the coastline and provides habitat for 36 marine mammal species and 525 fish species.

This area, off the coast of Monterey, is one of the best places to visit in California to take whale watching and ocean wildlife sightseeing cruises. Cruises depart from the Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey. The Half-Day Whale-Watching Tour from Monterey gives passengers the chance to spot gray whales, humpback whales, and blue whales, depending on the season.

Each year, from April through November, humpback whales migrate through the region, and there is also a small population of humpbacks that stick around all summer.

Gray whales are also very common here, and a migration season of December through April gives winter tourists the opportunity to experience whale watching.

In late spring, tourists might catch a glimpse of migrating killer whales, and pods of the gigantic blue whale are seen in Monterey Bay with some regularity.

8. UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden

U.C. Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden
UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Overlooking Monterey Bay, the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden stands on an ancient marine terrace in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This exceptional site on the university campus is a vast outdoor classroom for scientific study, as well as a destination for gardeners and nature lovers. The 135-acre site provides the ideal microclimate and topography for Mediterranean plants to grow.

Different sections represent plants from Australia, California, New Zealand, and South Africa. Many of the plants are endangered in their native environments, and the Arboretum works to protect them from extinction.

Special features of the Arboretum include the Australian Garden; a fragrant Eucalyptus Grove; the small Butterfly Garden, planted with flowers and shrubs that attract butterflies; a research garden used to study the native flora of California; and "Hummingbird Hotspots," which offer a chance to see pink-throated Anna's hummingbirds.

Visitors can enjoy a picnic lunch in the picnic area with its stunning ocean views. The Arboretum offers free docent-led tours (on the first Saturday of the month) and art exhibits throughout the year.

A highlight of the Arboretum, Norrie's Gift & Garden Shop sells beautiful Mediterranean plants that are ideal for home gardens.

Address: 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, California

Official site: https://arboretum.ucsc.edu

9. Santa Cruz Harbor

Santa Cruz Harbor
Santa Cruz Harbor

The Santa Cruz Harbor shelters two large marinas and provides boating access to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The harbor is a hub for sailing, kayaking, and other recreational water sports such as stand up paddleboarding. Visitors may rent kayaks and paddleboards.

Several companies at the harbor offer charter-boat fishing excursions, private sailboat trips, or yacht charters. The Sea Spirit Ocean Safari focuses on whale watching and ocean wildlife viewing.

Keeping watch of the coastline, the Walton Lighthouse stands on a jetty at the harbor. The lighthouse was constructed in 2002.

Tourists will appreciate the dining options at the harbor. The restaurants feature a lively ambience, gourmet cuisine, and waterfront views.

10. Mystery Spot

Mystery Spot
Mystery Spot | Iv-olga / Shutterstock.com

This surprising site needs to be seen to be believed. The Mystery Spot is located on a circular area of the redwood forest that is 46 meters in diameter, where the normal effects of gravity do not apply. Objects and people appear to be tilted even when attempting to stand up straight, and the gravitational anomaly makes visitors question the laws of physics.

The effect is utterly puzzling, and scientists have not been able to explain the phenomena at Mystery Spot since it was discovered in 1939. This has not stopped speculation, however, and both professionals and amateurs have come up with theories, from potential natural causes to the presence of extraterrestrial beings.

After taking a guided tour and pondering the scientific mysteries, visitors may go for a hike on the nearby trail, which winds through the redwood trees.

Address: 465 Mystery Spot Road, Santa Cruz, California

Official site: www.mysteryspot.com

11. Downtown Santa Cruz

Downtown Santa Cruz at night
Downtown Santa Cruz at night

Santa Cruz has a pleasant downtown area with lovely tree-shaded streets that are perfect for an afternoon stroll. The main drag, Pacific Avenue, is lined with restaurants, cafés, ice-cream shops, bakeries, and retail boutiques. Many of the restaurants and cafés have sidewalk tables for outdoor dining, allowing tourists to people-watch while soaking up the sunshine.

Downtown Santa Cruz is home to name-brand stores, as well as a wide variety of unique locally owned shops, several of which carry one-of-a-kind items created by local designers.

The city's music scene gives the downtown area a happening ambience. During the summer months, there are regular performances that are free and open to the public.

Downtown Santa Cruz hosts First Fridays, art exhibits by local artists, and a weekly Community Farmers' Market held on Wednesday afternoons year-round.

Official site: www.downtownsantacruz.com

12. Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Blue whale skeleton at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Blue whale skeleton at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center | Matthew Corley / Shutterstock.com

Near Natural Bridges State Park, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center immerses visitors into the fascinating world of marine life. The education-focused facility is operated by UC Santa Cruz and stresses the importance of conservation.

The Exhibit Hall educates visitors about oceanic research and topics such as elephant seal behavior and the sea otters' ecosystem, and also hosts regularly changing exhibits.

The center is also home to an Aquarium, which gives visitors the opportunity to view a wide variety of both large and small aquatic life, including sharks. Kids will have fun discovering sea anemones, sea urchins, sea stars, and hermit crabs in the touch pool.

Address: 100 McAllister Way, Santa Cruz, California

Official site: https://seymourcenter.ucsc.edu

13. Santa Cruz Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Works
Shakespeare's Works

Theater lovers can spend a magical evening in a redwood glen while being entertained by superb Shakespearean actors. The Santa Cruz Shakespeare company performs plays written by William Shakespeare, as well as other theater productions inspired by Shakespeare's works.

Performances are held at the Audrey Stanley Grove, which is located in the heart of Santa Cruz at DeLaveaga Park. This outdoor theater venue includes a picnic area on the ocean bluffs, which features marvelous views of the Monterey Bay.

The season runs from July through August, and advance purchase of tickets is recommended; ticket prices vary depending on the seating section.

Address: Audrey Stanley Grove, 501 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz, California

14. Santa Cruz Mission

Santa Cruz Mission
Santa Cruz Mission

The Santa Cruz Mission is part of a State Historic Park on Mission Hill within easy walking distance of downtown Santa Cruz. Founded by Franciscan Christian missionaries from Spain in 1791, the Misión la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz (Exaltation Mission of Santa Cruz) was the 12th mission established in California.

The mission was severely damaged by a devastating earthquake in 1857, and today only one small adobe building survives from the original mission.

The rest of the complex is a replica constructed in 1931 from adobe and wood, designed to look exactly like the original, including a one-third scale replica of the 1797 mission church. Original paintings, wooden crosses, and a tabernacle door are found in the church, recreating the historic ambience.

In the style of California missions, the austere white-painted adobe church features a wooden-beam ceiling and is minimally decorated. A lovely oil painting of the Virgen de Guadalupe adorns the side wall of the church.

The Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park also features exhibits about the California Indians, the Ohlone, Costanoans, and Yokuts people, who resided here at the time the missionaries arrived.

Address: 144 School Street, Santa Cruz, California

15. Seaside Town and Beach of Capitola

Colorful houses in Capitola
Colorful houses in Capitola

With its sheltered sandy beach featuring gentle turquoise waves and pastel-painted waterfront houses, Capitola is reminiscent of a Mediterranean fishing village. This charming seaside village was California's first beach resort (dating back to 1874), and the picturesque setting has made it a tourist-favorite destination for over a century.

Several quaint streets wind through the small downtown area of Capitola, which overlooks the beach and gives the village a refreshing quality. Many of the town's cafés and restaurants have ocean views. Visitors enjoy strolling through the town to browse the boutiques, as well as taking walks along the bayside esplanade.

Right next to the downtown, Capitola Beach is a popular spot for sunbathing, swimming, and surfing. Because the waters are calm, it's also a good place for boogie boarding and stand up paddleboarding.

Other things to do include fishing from the Capitola Wharf or taking a fishing excursion by boat in the bay. Boat rentals are available from Capitola Boat and Bait (a fishing license is required).

Foodies should be sure to make a stop at Gayle's Bakery & Rosticceria, a short drive from the Capitola Beach and downtown area. Gayle's combines an authentic French bakery with an Italian deli and espresso bar. Here, you can savor the finest cappuccinos, croissants, and other freshly baked pastries, or pick up gourmet sandwiches for a picnic at the beach. Gayle's also serves hearty meals like beef bourguignon, rotisserie chicken, and lasagna.

16. Wilder Ranch State Park

Wilder Ranch State Park
Wilder Ranch State Park

Wilder Ranch State Park lies four miles north of downtown Santa Cruz, immediately west of Highway One and bordering the UC Santa Cruz campus. With 35 miles of trails on 7,000 acres, this unspoiled nature site is an inspiring place to go hiking, biking, and horseback riding. The scenic trails wind through valleys and coastal terraces with sensational ocean views.

Tourists can also learn about the lives of California's early ranchers by visiting the park's historic dairy ranch. Here, visitors can explore an 1859 Gothic Revival farmhouse and an 1897 Victorian home, the ranch's barns and rodeo arena, and other historic structures.

The park charges a day-use parking fee. Guided tours are offered (free of charge) on Saturday and Sunday at 1pm; reservations are not required.

Address: 1401 Coast Road, Santa Cruz, California

17. Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History presents a wide variety of art exhibits and cultural events with a focus on topics related to California landscapes and local history. Exhibitions range from paintings of the Monterey Bay to biographies of 19th-century Santa Cruz County residents.

A highlight of the museum is the Mary and Harry Blanchard Sculpture Garden on the museum's rooftop. This sunny outdoor patio space displays interesting contemporary sculptures and features panoramic views of Santa Cruz.

Address: 705 Front Street, Santa Cruz

Official site: https://www.santacruzmah.org

Where to Stay in Santa Cruz for Sightseeing

Luxury Hotels:

  • The three-star beachfront Dream Inn is in an ideal location next to Cowell Beach and just a short walk to the Santa Cruz Wharf. All of the guest rooms at this hotel have ocean views. Amenities include an outdoor swimming pool and concierge services.
  • A small establishment with a lot to offer, the Sea & Sand Inn treats guests to complimentary cookies and refreshments every afternoon. Overlooking the beach, the hotel is within easy walking distance to the boardwalk and offers an ocean view from every room.
  • Set back from the shore but within a short walk to the beach, the West Cliff Inn - A Four Sisters Inn is housed in a lovely Italianate-style Victorian mansion built in 1877. A perfect getaway for couples, the inn features a wraparound front porch with ocean views, fireplaces, and marble-accented bathrooms.

Mid-Range Hotels:

  • Beach Street Inn and Suites is tucked away behind the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, overlooking Main Beach and Cowell Beach. Amenities include an outdoor swimming pool, hot tub, and on-site beachwear shop. Guest rooms are decorated in "beach cottage" style, and feature refrigerators and microwaves. Some rooms have ocean views; suites have kitchenettes or full kitchens.
  • The Hyatt Place Santa Cruz is a three-star hotel in the downtown area. A great option for families, the hotel offers complimentary breakfast, an outdoor swimming pool and hot tub, and a fitness center.

Budget Hotels:

  • A good budget option in the downtown area is the Quality Inn motel, located just off Highway One. Accommodations include breakfast and parking. Families will appreciate the outdoor swimming pool. The property is also pet-friendly.
  • The Islander Motel provides clean, comfortable guest rooms at affordable rates. Each room is equipped with a mini refrigerator and hairdryer. An added bonus, the property includes an outdoor swimming pool and free parking.

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imageNearby Seaside Destinations: At the other side of Monterey Bay, the small but historically significant city of Monterey offers a variety of diversions, from Fisherman's Wharf and the Monterey Bay Aquarium to shopping and dining in the lively Cannery Row neighborhood. Neighboring Carmel-by-the-Sea is a top seaside destination for couples, known for its romantic ambience. Here, you will find an old-world atmosphere among the storybook cottages and Victorian homes that are intermingled with unique shops and upscale restaurants.

imageSan Francisco Sightseeing: An 80-mile drive north along the oceanfront Highway One leads to California's top tourist destination, the sophisticated city of San Francisco. Best known for its impossibly hilly streets, cable cars, and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is also an ideal destination for families, with plenty of things to do with kids, as well as interesting day trip destinations, such as the university town of Berkeley and the coastal town of Half Moon Bay with its sweeping sandy beaches.

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