12 Top Tourist Attractions in Santa Cruz & Easy Day Trips
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 further than the nearby sandy beaches and fishing pier. However, Santa Cruz has so much more to offer. Spectacular nature sites, the historic mission church, and a charming downtown reward visitors who explore further. Take a drive along the gorgeous coastline and stop to soak up the amazing ocean views. Spot seals frolicking in the deep blue waters of Monterey Bay and watch surfers ride the crashing waves of the Pacific. Go hiking in the rugged, unspoiled Wilder Ranch State Park and discover extraordinary plants in the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum. For an enchanting cultural experience, attend a Shakespeare performance on a starry night in a magical redwood glen.
See also: Where to Stay in Santa Cruz
1 Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
For classic summertime fun, head to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This famous amusement park, overlooking the sandy shores of Monterey Bay, 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 boardwalk is the most popular tourist destination in Santa Cruz and is especially popular with families. The biggest crowds turn out during the summer months (around June through September) for the exciting rides and fun-loving games. Be sure to go on the park's most famous roller coaster, the Giant Dipper, a wooden landmark built in 1924 that still has a thrilling effect plus panoramic ocean views. On a hot day, the Logger's Revenge ride is a great way to cool off as the boat-like cars splash through a watery track.
The boardwalk has many attractions for children of all ages. A favorite for little kids is the Looff Carousel, a musical merry-go-round that dates to 1911. Young children also enjoy riding on the Kiddie Cruzers vintage 1940s cars or on the back of Bulgy the Whale. Other highlights are the Ferris Wheel, bumper cars, bowling, and miniature golf. Families on a budget will appreciate that admission into the amusement park is free and tickets for the rides are affordable. During summertime, the entertainment is also free. Some people come to the boardwalk just for the food, for special treats like corn dogs, deep-fried artichokes, chocolate-coated ice cream, cotton candy, and salt water taffy.
Address: 400 Beach Street, Santa Cruz
2 Main Beach & Cowell 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 Northern 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. Main beach is the place to go for sunbathing and swimming. It's a place where kids can make sandcastles and safely wade in the waters. Volleyball players can take advantage of the sand volleyball courts. Cowell Beach is popular with surfers and bodyboarders. Lifeguards patrol Main Beach and Cowell Beach during the summer.
3 Santa Cruz Wharf
For more than 100 years, the Santa Cruz Wharf has been used as a fishing pier. It was constructed from 70-foot-long Douglas fir pilings driven 21 feet into the ocean floor. More than 2,000 feet in length, the wharf was built in 1914 to serve deep-water vessels. The original steamship dock and freight warehouse no longer exist. Nowadays, the pier is only used for recreational fishing and tourism. Visitors enjoy strolling the pier, taking in the serene views of the bay, and shopping at the boutiques. With several excellent fish restaurants, it's a great place to enjoy a fresh seafood meal. Birdwatching and sea lion viewing are other favorite pastimes. 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 be seen in the waters. The wharf also has water sport shops that rent fishing gear, boats, and kayaks.
Right by the wharf (at 35 Pacific Avenue) is the Sanctuary Exploration Center overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This tourist-friendly center features interactive exhibits that educate visitors about how to responsibly enjoy the ocean and help protect the marine environment. Visitors can explore the sanctuary's remarkable marine environment through a Biodiversity Kelp Forest; an Intertidal Touchpool; and an Open-Ocean Mini-Theater, which shows images of fish and marine mammals that are protected by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a federally protected marine area.
4 West Cliff Drive & the Surfing Museum
For a breathtaking scenic walk or bike ride, head to West Cliff Drive. A six-mile pathway hugs the coastline and travels a scenic route with sensational panoramas of the cliff-fringed Pacific Ocean. The completely flat, wheelchair-accessible path along the road is designed for walking and cycling. Benches positioned at scenic spots 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. This picturesque section of the Monterey Bay is popular with surfers. A bronze surfer statue is found along the path and a tiny Surfing Museum (the world's first surfing museum) is housed in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse 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
The remarkable sea arch that graces this beach was formed from the fractures in mudstone cliffs. With its iconic natural beauty, the small protected sandy beach is an excellent place for relaxation and birdwatching. The location is also ideal for viewing shorebirds and migrating whales during the season. Sometimes seals and otters can be seen playing just offshore. Further 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, and from mid-October to mid-February, the park's Monarch Grove, declared a Natural Preserve, comes alive with monarch butterflies. The Monarch Grove is full of fragrant, shady eucalyptus trees, which blossom in winter, providing the butterflies with a source of food. November is the best time to observe the monarchs. Visitors may take advantage of the park's docent-led tours of the Monarch Grove, nature trails, and tide pools. A picnic area with barbecues and restroom facilities lies in a shady pine-tree grove.
Address: 2531 West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz
6 Roaring Camp Railroad
Visitors can take an old-fashioned steam train ride through the most scenic areas of Santa Cruz. The Roaring Camp Railroad based in nearby Felton offers two different 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 travels through soaring redwood groves, winding 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 Santa Cruz Beach Steam Train departs in the Santa Cruz Mountains and travels a spectacular route through the awe-inspiring Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park into the San Lorenzo River Gorge and through a tunnel built in 1875. The train finally arrives at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Alternatively passengers may take a reverse roundtrip departing from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (except for the 4:15pm train, which does not return to the beach). Tickets may be purchased from the conductor at the boardwalk departure location. The trains run on weekends during spring and fall and daily during the summer.
Address: Roaring Camp Railroad, 401 Graham Hill Road, Felton
7 Santa Cruz Mission
The Santa Cruz Mission is part of a state historic park on Mission Hill within easy walking distance from 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. Built in the late 18th century, the mission was severely damaged by a devastating earthquake in 1857. 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. A lovely oil painting of the Virgen de Guadalupe (dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico) adorns the side wall of the church. In the style of California missions, the austere white-painted adobe church features a wooden-beam ceiling and is minimally decorated. A Latin inscription in front of the altar alcove reads: "Adoramus Te Christe Et Benedicimus Tibi Quia Per Crucem Tuam Redemisti Mundum" ("We Adore You Christ and Bless You Because Through Your Cross You Have Redeemed the World").
This Historic State Park features exhibits about the California Indians, the Ohlone, Costanoans, and Yokuts people, who resided here at the time the missionaries arrived. The park also has a Garden Project to cultivate native plants and hosts a Summer Series of movies on the first Fridays of the month as well as campfires and other events.
Address: 144 School Street, Santa Cruz
8 U.C. Santa Cruz Arboretum
Overlooking Monterey Bay, the U.C. Santa Cruz Arboretum 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 145-acre site provides different microclimates, soil types, and topography, which allow for an incredible botanical diversity. 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 Rock Garden, a fragrant Eucalyptus Grove, the shady Redwood Grove, the Aroma Garden filled with aromatic plants, a research garden used to study the native flora of California, and a ¼-mile-long Hummingbird Trail that offers a chance to see pink-throated Anna's hummingbirds. Visitors may also shop at the gift and garden shop. Pack a lunch to enjoy in the picnic area with its stunning ocean views. Docent-led tours, lectures, and workshops are available to the public. Admission is free on the first Tuesday of every month.
Address: 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz
9 Mystery Spot
This surprising site needs to be seen to be believed. Just outside Santa Cruz, the Mystery Spot is a gravitational anomaly that makes visitors question the laws of physics. In a circular area of the redwood forest that is 46 meters in diameter, the normal effects of gravity do not apply. Objects and people appear to be tilted even when attempting to stand up straight. The effect is utterly puzzling, and no scientific theory has been able to explain the Mystery Spot since it was discovered in 1939. After pondering the scientific mysteries, visitors may go for a hike on the nearby trail that winds through the redwood trees.
465 Mystery Spot Road, Santa Cruz
10 Downtown Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz has a pleasant downtown area with lovely tree-lined streets. The main street, Pacific Avenue, is lined with restaurants, cafés, ice-cream shops, fresh-squeezed juice kiosks, and clothing stores that sell beachwear and surfing gear. Many of the restaurants and cafés have sidewalk tables for outdoor dining; it's a relaxing way to soak up the sunshine and balmy weather of Santa Cruz.
11 Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Near Natural Bridges State Park, the Seymour Marine Center features a fascinating aquarium, shark pool, and touch pool filled with starfish, sea urchins, hermit crabs, and sea anemones. The Exhibit Hall educates visitors about oceanic research as well as topics such as elephant seal behavior and the sea otters' ecosystem.
Address: 100 Shaffer Road, Santa Cruz
12 Santa Cruz Shakespeare
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 Shakespeare as well as other classical theater. The Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen, known as "The Glen," is considered one of the most beautiful outdoor theater venues in the country. The Glen is on the U.C. Santa Cruz campus and is a wonderful place for a picnic before the show. Guests may bring their own food or purchase food from Hoffman's Downtown stand at the Glen, which sells sandwiches, snacks, refreshments, and desserts. The season runs from June through August, and advance purchase of tickets is recommended; ticket prices vary depending on the seating section.
Address: Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen, Meyer Drive at Heller Drive, Santa Cruz
Where to Stay in Santa Cruz for Sightseeing
We recommend these great hotels in Santa Cruz, near top attractions like the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the wharf:
- Dream Inn: four-star luxury, beachfront, ocean-view rooms, lovely pool overlooking the beach, seasonal cuisine at Aquarius restaurant.
- Sea & Sand Inn: mid-range pricing, gorgeous sea views, steps from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, complimentary snacks and refreshments, gas fireplaces in guest rooms.
- Best Western Plus All Suites Inn: affordable rates, close to downtown, microwave and mini-fridge in guestrooms, hot tub and sauna.
- Quality Inn: budget hotel, near the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, free hot breakfast, seasonal outdoor pool.
Wilder Ranch State Park
Wilder Ranch State Park lies four miles north of downtown Santa Cruz, immediately west of Highway One and bordering the U.C. Santa Cruz campus. With 34 miles of trails, 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.
Address: 1401 Coast Road, Santa Cruz
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Established in 1902, Big Basin is the oldest state park in California. About 23 miles from Santa Cruz, the park contains ancient coast redwoods as well as a recovering redwood forest, along with oaks and other vegetation. Breathe in the fresh air and enjoy an invigorating hike through this pristine forest. The park also has campsites and picnic areas.
Address: 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
About eight miles from downtown Santa Cruz, in the mountains, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is a great place for hiking and horseback riding. The park has 15 miles of trails that meander through redwood, evergreen, and pine forests. Some of the trees are 1400 to 1800 years old. The park has a self-guided nature trail, a nature center, and bookshop. The tallest tree in the park is about 285 feet tall and about 16 feet wide. The park has a campsite and picnic area.
Address: 101 North Big Trees Park Road, Felton
Just six miles away from Santa Cruz, Capitola is a picturesque beach town with a charming village atmosphere. This historic seaside resort has a great selection of restaurants, cafés, and boutiques. Tourists will enjoy spending a few hours here for a meal and shopping. The town is an especially inviting place for brunch on a sunny day because many of the restaurants and cafés have gorgeous views of the Monterey Bay. Shadowbrook Restaurant is an upscale restaurant with a unique tropical ambiance. An elevator takes guests down a mountain to enter the restaurant.
Spanish Mission at San Juan Bautista
Tucked away in the peaceful San Juan Valley, about 35 miles from Santa Cruz, the small historic town of San Juan Bautista is full of character. Tourists will appreciate the Old World ambience and selection of restaurants downtown. For sightseeing, the highlight is the mission. Founded in 1797, the Old Mission San Juan Bautista is one of the most beautiful Spanish missions in California with the largest and one of the loveliest churches of all the Spanish missions. Unlike most mission churches, the San Juan Bautista Church has a highly decorative architectural style as well as ornate wall paintings. The San Juan Bautista Mission complex has also retained the original arcaded Spanish Plaza, the only one remaining in California. Visitors can imagine daily life in the 18th and 19th century, when missionaries attended to their daily errands in the plaza's arcaded courtyard. The Old Mission San Juan Bautista offers daily Masses and is also used for weddings.