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

Written by Lisa Alexander and Lura Seavey
Updated Mar 29, 2021

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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.

For inspiration around your beach vacation, read our list of the top 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 attractions. There is no charge to enter the expansive seaside amusement park, and you can decide between wristband access or ticketed ride admission, a nice option for families on a budget or 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, has become a landmark in Santa Cruz. 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 boardwalk has a huge variety of attractions, activities, free entertainment, and dining options. You will find multiple arcades that are home to both classic and modern video games, air hockey, skee ball, and other traditional arcade 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 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.

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 things to do at the wharf, and it is one of the most popular places to sample the local seafood at one of the nine restaurants here. This is also a great place to buy souvenirs, with plenty of shops and boutiques.

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 panoramas 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 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 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 Railroad

Roaring Camp Railroad
Roaring Camp Railroad | aaron_anderer / photo modified

Tourists looking for a change of pace can take an old-fashioned steam train ride through the most scenic areas of Santa Cruz, an activity that appeals to young and old alike. 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 Santa Cruz Beach Steam Train departs from the Santa Cruz Mountains in Felton 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 Boardwalk station and take a reverse round-trip, however the last train at 4:15pm does not return to the beach. Tickets may be purchased from the conductor at the Boardwalk departure location.

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

Address: Roaring Camp Railroad, 401 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

Dolphin, whale, and ocean wildlife sightseeing cruises are one of the top things to do when visiting the California coast, and Santa Cruz is well-situated alongside the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary where an abundance of sea life thrives in its protected waters.

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is 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.

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 to feast on the bay's native buffet.

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. U.C. Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden

U.C. Santa Cruz Arboretum
U.C. Santa Cruz Arboretum | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

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 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 Rock 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" that 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 also presents docent-led tours (on the first Saturday of the month) and art exhibits throughout the year.

A highlight of the Arboretum, Norrie's Gift and 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. Mystery Spot

Mystery Spot
Mystery Spot | TroysPhotos / photo modified

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

10. Downtown Santa Cruz

Downtown Santa Cruz at night
Downtown Santa Cruz at night

Santa Cruz has a pleasant downtown area with lovely tree-lined streets that are perfect for an afternoon stroll. The main street, Pacific Avenue, is lined with restaurants, cafés, ice-cream shops, and fresh-squeezed juice kiosks. 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 also home to not only recognized name-brand stores but also a wide variety of unique boutiques, 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.

Official site: www.downtownsantacruz.com

11. Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Seymour Marine Discovery Center | Smart Destinations / photo modified

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 U.C. 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.

For those who want to learn even more about marine life, there are guided tours of the Seymour Marine Discovery Center and a self-guided walk of the center's Coastal Science Campus.

Address: 100 Shaffer Road, Santa Cruz, California

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

12. 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 Shakespeare, as well as other classical theater.

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 in a glen with marvelous views of the Monterey Bay.

The season runs from June 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

13. 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 Historic State 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

14. 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 U.C. 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 offered (free of charge) on Saturday and Sunday at 1pm.

Address: 1401 Coast Road, Santa Cruz, California

Where to Stay in Santa Cruz for Sightseeing

Luxury Hotels:

  • The three-star beachfront Dream Inn is in an ideal location just a short walk to the Santa Cruz Wharf. In addition to having plenty of ocean-view rooms, this is the place to stay if you want private beach access.
  • 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 home built in 1877. A perfect getaway for couples, the inn is full of romantic elements, like a wrap-around porch with ocean views, fireplaces, and marble bathrooms.

Mid-Range Hotels:

  • Beach Street Inn and Suites sits between the wharf and the boardwalk, overlooking the palm-lined beach. Amenities include an outdoor swimming pool, hot tub, and on-site beachwear shop. Guest rooms feature refrigerators and microwaves; some of the suites have kitchenettes.
  • A dependable name in hotels, the Hyatt Place Santa Cruz is another good mid-range 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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imageSan Francisco Sightseeing: A seaside drive up Highway 1 will bring you to northern California's most-visited city, 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 beautiful beaches of Half Moon Bay.

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