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

Written by Lisa Alexander and Lura Seavey

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 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. For more ideas, read our list of the top things to do in Santa Cruz.

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

1. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Bicycles on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

For classic summertime fun, head to the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where you will find rides, games, and attractions that will please all ages. 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 sandy shores of Monterey Bay 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 like the Giant Dipper, a wooden coaster built in 1924, which has become a landmark in Santa Cruz. Amusements 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.

Other major attractions include a laser tag arena, mini golf, bowling, a climbing tower, and the Fright Walk Under the Boardwalk where it's always Halloween. The 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

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, and 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

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 sanctuary's remarkable 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

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 path is completely flat and wheelchair-accessible, making this sightseeing route appropriate for all ages and fitness levels. 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, 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, the small, protected sandy beach is an excellent place for relaxation and bird-watching. The location is also ideal for viewing shorebirds and 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 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, 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

For a change of pace, 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 trains run on weekends during spring and fall and daily during the summer.

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.

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

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.

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 also catch a glimpse of migrating killer whales, and pods of the gigantic blue whale are also 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 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 quarter-mile-long Hummingbird Trail, which 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, 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 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

Downtown Santa Cruz | Allie_Caulfield / photo modified

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. Downtown is also where you will find the city's music scene, and 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 features a fascinating aquarium, shark pool, and touch pool filled with starfish, sea urchins, hermit crabs, and sea anemones. Operated by U.C. Santa Cruz, the discovery center is an education-focused facility that 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. The whole family will have fun touching many of these animals in the invertebrate pool, including sea urchins, sea stars, and hermit crabs. Outside the discovery center, marvel at the 87-foot skeleton of "Ms. Blue" to get a perspective on the size of the massive blue whale.

Those who want to learn even more about marine life and what goes into the research and presentations at the center can take a docent-led, behind-the-scenes tour of the Joseph M. Long Laboratory.

Address: 100 Shaffer Road, Santa Cruz, California

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

12. Santa Cruz Shakespeare

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. 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, 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. A lovely oil painting of the Virgen de Guadalupe 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.

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. 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, 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 34 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, a water-powered machine shop built in 1896, and other historic structures. Guided tours are available on weekends.

Address: 1401 Coast Road, Santa Cruz, California

Official site: www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=549

Where to Stay in Santa Cruz for Sightseeing

  • Luxury Hotels: The four-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 offers complimentary refreshments, free parking and breakfast, and fireplaces in guest rooms. Overlooking the beach, the hotel is within an easy walk to the wharf and the Boardwalk.

    Set back from the shore but within a short walk to the beach, the West Cliff Inn is housed in an Italianate Victorian home. 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 a heated outdoor pool, a fridge and microwave in the rooms, and free Wi-Fi. Kitchenette suites are also available.

    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 a free hot breakfast, a heated pool and hot tub, a fitness center, and complimentary Wi-Fi.

  • Budget Hotels: Located near downtown Santa Cruz, Best Western Plus All Suites Inn offers affordable rates and a range of family-friendly amenities, including microwaves and mini-fridges in guest rooms, a complimentary breakfast, and self-serve laundry facilities.

    Another good budget option in the downtown area is the Quality Inn, located just off Highway 1. Amenities include a free hot breakfast, free parking, a fitness center, and an outdoor pool. The property is also pet-friendly.

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Nearby 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 fine dining.

San 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 exciting things to do with kids.

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