Located on the picturesque California coast, Santa Cruz is a city filled with surf beaches and fun attractions. If you only have a day in Santa Cruz, head to Main Beach to see the city’s iconic wharf, swim in the Pacific Ocean, and ride the roller coaster at Santa Cruz Boardwalk. This free amusement park just so happens to be one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz with kids and one of the best group activities in Santa Cruz.
For other free and cheap things to do in Santa Cruz, head to one of the city’s many beaches or state parks, which are made for hiking, swimming and exploring. As for things to do in Santa Cruz at night, head downtown where there are plenty of live music venues and hip bars. Here are more ideas for fun things to do in Santa Cruz, California.
1. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
One of the best free things to do in Santa Cruz is to visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk – an admission-free and family-friendly oceanfront amusement park. It was established in 1907 as the West Coast’s Coney Island and is home to two national historic landmarks: the Looff Carousel and Giant Dipper Roller Coaster. The amusement park features over 40 rides, the best treats, an indoor arcade, mini-golf at Buccaneer Bay, and a laser tag course.
2. Natural Bridges State Beach
Natural Bridges State Beach gets its name from the natural arch carved into a large rock off its shoreline. It’s a great place to visit to see migrating whales, playful seals and otters, seabirds, and smaller sea life in the tide pools that reveal themselves at low tide. Natural Bridges State Beach is also where you’ll find the Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve, which becomes a temporary home to nearly 150,000 monarch butterflies every winter.
3. Santa Cruz Wharf
The longest pier on the West Coast, Santa Cruz Wharf attracts around two million visitors every year. Nestled between Main Beach and Cowell Beach, people head to the wharf to see its resident sea lions, to pick up a souvenir from Made in Santa Cruz, to enjoy its fun annual festivals, and to wine and dine at one of its 10 restaurants. From the wharf, you can hop on a whale-watching tour or rent a kayak.
4. Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
Appropriately surrounded by some of the region’s best surf beaches, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is located inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse at Lighthouse Point Park. Dedicated a World Surfing Reserve in 2012 (one of only a handful around the world), the museum focuses on the 100-year history of surfing in Santa Cruz, through displays featuring photographs, iconic surfboards, and memorabilia. Don’t leave without checking out the cool surf-related souvenirs at the gift shop.
5. Steamer Lane
Steamer Lane is one of the renowned surf beaches mentioned above. Located next door to the surfing museum, Steamer Lane has been one of the city’s top surf spots since the 1930s. With 11 surf breaks, it hosts international surfing contests every year. Head to Lighthouse Point Park for a great vantage point of local surfers doing what they do best. Fun fact: Jack O’Neill developed the modern wetsuit with leash attachment at Steamer Lane.
6. West Cliff Drive
West Cliff Drive is a three-mile walking and biking path that hugs the rugged Pacific Ocean coastline. With scenic Monterey Bay views, popular places to visit along West Cliff Drive include Santa Cruz Surfing Museum at Lighthouse Point, Its Beach, Mitchell’s Cove and Steamer Lane, one of America’s top surfing beaches. The path ends at picturesque Natural Bridges State Beach. One of the city’s most popular attractions, West Cliff Drive is particularly busy on weekends.
7. Wilder Ranch State Park
Located on the Pacific Ocean coastline, Wilder Ranch State Park is a former dairy ranch. Fortunately, many of its buildings – including a late 19th-century Victorian home, a water-powered machine shop, barns, and a Gothic Revival farmhouse from 1859 – have been restored and transformed into a living history museum. Wilder Ranch State Park also has 35 miles of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails, which take you through valleys or along the coast.
8. Roaring Camp Railroads
One of the most family-friendly things to do in Santa Cruz is a train journey with Roaring Camp Railroads. Its 19th-century steam engines take you on two journeys: the Redwood Forest Steam Train takes you to the summit of Bear Mountain, while the Santa Cruz Beach Train travels through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and down San Lorenzo River Gorge before arriving at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Roaring Camp Railroads also hosts events throughout the year.
9. Mystery Spot
One of the area’s most mysterious tourist attractions is The Mystery Spot. Opening to the public in 1940, there are several Mystery Spots located across the United States, which are all classified as gravitational anomalies. Located in the ancient redwood forest, this Mystery Spot includes a wooden house tilted on a 20-degree angle. This visual illusion leads to misperceptions and irregularities like rolling uphill. The Mystery Spot is also home to a popular 30-minute hiking trail.
10. Seymour Marine Discovery Center
A part of the University of California, Seymour Marine Discovery Center is a marine science museum and aquarium. Located by the seaside, at Seymoure Marine Discovery Center you can see both a blue whale and a gray whale skeleton outside, learn more about the local marine life through displays in the Exhibit Hall, and touch certain sea life at the hands-on aquarium. Unlike traditional aquariums, it’s focused on teaching visitors about behind-the-scenes marine science research.
11. UCSC Arboretum
The University of California, Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden is home to one of the world’s most impressive plant collections. In fact, it’s home to the largest collection of native Australia and New Zealand plants outside of their respective countries. Other specialty gardens include the California Garden, the Eucalyptus Grove, the South Africa Garden, and the South American Garden. The Arboretum and Botanic Garden is a great place to visit on a sunny California day.
12. Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve
As mentioned, the Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve is located at Natural Bridges State Beach. The preserve’s eucalyptus grove is a winter home for nearly 150,000 monarch butterflies, which are characterized by their orange and black wings. They usually migrate to California and its warmer winter temperatures every year from October to February, although the exact period can differ year to year. On winter weekends, tours with knowledgeable guides are available at Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve.
13. Pleasure Point Beach
Pleasure Point Beach is a surf beach located in Pleasure Point County Park. From the park on the bluff, you can easily walk down a set of stairs to access the beach. With minimal amenities and a small sandy shore, Pleasure Point Beach is really a beach exclusively for experienced surfers. To see them in action, take a seat at one of the park’s waterfront benches and picnic tables. Nearby you’ll find Cliff Beach and Two-Six Beach.
14. Garden of Eden
The Garden of Eden is a remote wilderness area located at Henry Cowell Redwood State Park. An offshoot of the San Lorenzo River, which weaves its way through the park, the Garden of Eden includes a picturesque natural swimming hole. A popular local clothing-optional spot, you reach the Garden of Eden from either the Pipeline or Ox Fire Road trailheads. Another place to cool off within the park is the Big Rock Hole swimming hole.
15. Dolphin and Whale Watching Cruises
Thanks to its location on the Pacific Ocean, there are several local companies offering dolphin and whale watching cruises. Throughout the year, gray and humpback whales are spotted off the city’s coastline, while there are infrequent orca and blue whale sightings too. Santa Cruz Whale Watching is one local company that offers dolphin and whale watching cruises year-round, as does Monterey Bay Whale Watch. Alternatively, Venture Quest Kayaking organizes adventurous whale watching tours by kayak.
16. Downtown Santa Cruz
If you’re looking for the city’s best shopping, dining, and entertainment options, you need to head downtown. Firstly, if you like art, visit either the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History or the Felix Kulpa Gallery. Then shopping enthusiasts should check out Crossroads, a popular consignment store, Bookshop Santa Cruz, and Pacific Trading Co. When you’re ready to eat and drink, visit Betty’s Eat Inn and 99 Bottles for the best beer selection downtown.
17. Santa Cruz Shakespeare
One of the most fun things to do in Santa Cruz in summer is to head to the theater. Santa Cruz Shakespeare is a professional theater festival that happens every summer in the outdoor amphitheater at The Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga Park. A range of plays are performed at the annual festival, but not all works are by Shakespeare. For example, this upcoming season includes adaptations of Twelfth Night and A Flea In Her Ear.
18. Nickelodeon Theatre
A part of Landmark Theaters, Nickelodeon Theater is a small movie theater located in the city’s downtown district. You can catch a range of indie and foreign films, important documentaries, and new release movies at Nickelodeon Theater. It’s also known for its delectable artisan snack selection if that piques your interest. So if you’re looking for things to do in Santa Cruz on a rainy day, head inside and catch a film at Nickelodeon Theater.
19. Brew Cruz
Catchy names aside, Brew Cruz is the city’s original brewery tour. The local company offers four-hour public and private tours. The public tour takes you to four popular local breweries and allows you to meet knowledgeable brewmasters while sipping discounted beer. Meanwhile, private tours have more inclusions and see you visit three breweries. As important as the Brew Cruz tours are its two beloved rides – a retired school bus and a 1960s VW Kombi van.
20. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Located in the picturesque Santa Cruz Mountains, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is most well-known for its 40-acre grove of towering old-growth redwood trees. Popular activities at the park include hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, swimming at natural swimming holes (here’s looking at you Garden of Eden and the Big Rock Hole), and camping. Some of the park’s top hiking trails include the Redwood Grove Loop Trail, the Cowell Highlights Loop, and the Observation Deck.
21. Capitola Mall
Another popular rainy day activity is a visit to Capitola Mall, as it’s the county’s only enclosed shopping center. It features over 90 specialty stores and food options, like Ulta Beauty, Victoria’s Secret, Five Guys, and Olive Garden. The three main department stores at Capitola Mall are Macy’s, Kohl’s, and Target. There’s also Art of Santa Cruz, which exhibits and sells work by local artists, and Giggles N Wiggles’ indoor playground and arcade for children.