With its beautiful Mediterranean weather, most people visit Santa Cruz to escape the Bay Area summer heat. But there’s so much more to Santa Cruz than the beach! Surrounded by mountains, redwoods, and miles of shoreline, Santa Cruz is a nature lovers paradise with a variety of outdoor activities. And with a vibrant arts scene, surf culture, and advocating a healthy lifestyle, there’s plenty of reasons to love and visit Santa Cruz. Walking around Santa Cruz you’ll also see a great mix of fashion trends, cultures, and quirks that make Santa Cruz so unique.
Growing up, I spent most of my time outside exploring with friends. The best part of the many outdoor activities is that many of them are free, which was perfect for teenagers without much money. Because of my knowledge from running around, I’m able put together a locals guide to the best things to do in Santa Cruz.
Best Things to Do in Santa Cruz
As I mentioned above, there’s no question that people visit Santa Cruz to relax on the beach. With that Mediterranean climate, the temperatures in Santa Cruz tend to be cooler than in the Bay Area making it a great escape from the heat. And there really isn’t much better than hanging at the beach where you can lay in the sand and listen to the waves or work on your tan as you play in the water and hang out with friends. There are plenty of different beaches to choose from with various activities or amenities nearby.
Make sure you practice the principles of Leave No Trace and pack out your trash to keep the beaches clean!
Tip: Make sure to pack layers as the mornings and evenings tend to be chilly with coastal fog.
Located right on the beach, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a fun spot for the entire family. Ride California’s oldest roller coaster, the Giant Dipper, and enjoy the amazing views of the beach, ocean, and Santa Cruz. And if you’re not into roller coasters, there’s plenty of fun games you can play for prizes, lots of tasty treats, refreshing drinks, an arcade (complete with laser tag!), and a bowling alley across the street. We used to go as kids and I still enjoy going on the rides and playing games as an adult.
The Boardwalk is free to enter and walk around, but you have to pay for rides, games, and obviously any food or drinks. And honestly it’s a pretty fun place to visit even without going on any rides. The Boardwalk is open daily during the summer from Memorial Day through early August and is open most weekends and holidays throughout the rest of the year.
Fishing is a fun activity, whether you fish from the pier, rent a boat, or book a fishing charter with friends. I highly recommend Santa Cruz Coastal Charters because they include all the gear you need rather than charging you extra to rent it from them. Plus the captain and deckhand are incredibly knowledgeable, nice, and fun to talk to.
Tip: You don’t need a fishing license if you fish from the pier
See a Show at The Catalyst
If you have the time or can find a show you want to see, I definitely recommend seeing a concert at The Catalyst. They primarily play hip hop, rock, and reggae. It’s a smaller venue but it’s intimate and has multiple rooms. Seeing a show at the Catalyst is just something we did growing up and feels like Santa Cruz. Most of the time someone just asked if I wanted to go see a show at the Catalyst with them and it didn’t matter who was playing. It’s loud, typically packed with people, and grungy, but that’s what makes it an unforgettable experience. And it’s part of what makes it so Santa Cruz.
Take a drive up Highway 1 to Davenport. It’s a beautiful drive and you’ll escape the crowds in Santa Cruz. Grab a bite to eat at the Whale City Bakery Bar & Grill and then head down to the beach. Climb down the cliffs to the remains of the abandoned pier and take some pictures in front of the graffiti or on the swing hanging from one of the pillars.
Garden of Eden
This secluded swimming hole is a local favorite in the summertime. It’s an easy 15-20 minute hike from the car to the Garden of Eden. Much of the hike is along live railroad tracks so make sure to pay attention for the occasional passing Roaring Camp train. When you get to the Garden of Eden, you’ll find a hidden oasis with some sandy beaches and a swimming hole surrounded by rocks. As teenagers, we used to jump off the rocks into the water, but there have been some pretty serious injuries, so use your own best judgement and be careful!
Also note that while this is a family friendly location, you’ll more than likely encounter 420 friendly people. This spot is also NOT dog friendly or alcohol friendly and you will be ticketed if the rangers show up.
Tip: There are no bathrooms or trash cans at the Garden of Eden, so as always remember to Leave No Trace and pack your trash out!
A great option to get away from the crowds of beach goers and see the beautiful coastline from a different perspective is to get out on a kayak or stand up paddle board. You might also get a unique experience up close and personal with the marine life. You can bring your own but there are rentals available. Or take a guided kayak tour which provides the gear but offers some amazing experiences to see the marine life.
Like I’ve said, Santa Cruz really encourages a healthy lifestyle with the outdoor activities and especially the food. I can’t tell you how much I miss going to the Farmers Markets in Santa Cruz. There is the best selection of fresh fruit and veggies available. And my mom and I almost always went home with orchids. But we loved to just walk around the farmers market and talk. For more information on the Santa Cruz Farmers Markets head to their website here.
There are some great surfing opportunities around Santa Cruz. One of the more popular spots to surf or watch the surfers is at Steamer’s Lane where you can watch from the cliffs. There are several surf schools or instructors to take lessons if you want to learn or improve your surfing skills, most lessons will probably take you to Cowell’s Beach. If you’re interested in watching the surfers while you relax on the beach, head over to Pleasure Point, The Hook, or Capitola.
Not many people realize that there are wineries nestled in the Santa Cruz mountains. Wine tasting is a great way to spend an afternoon with friends without having to go all the way to Sonoma or Napa. It’s also a unique way to see some views of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Some of my favorites are Regale, Loma Prieta, Beauregard, and Storrs, but it’s been a while since I’ve been wine tasting in Santa Cruz so check out a more complete list of wineries in Santa Cruz here.
Take a whale watching cruise or shark encounter charter for an awesome opportunity to see the wildlife that lives in Monterey Bay. Along with a beautiful view of California’s coastline, you’ll also likely also see dolphins, sea lions, seals, otters, and a variety of other sea animals. If you’re just passing through, short on time, or looking for a free way to check out some of the sea life, then head to the Santa Cruz wharf to check out the sea lions on the platforms below. You’ll be able to hear them before you see them! And you can usually also see them swimming along the shoreline by the wharf just past people boogie boarding and playing in the water. Or head into the redwoods and hike to bird watch and look for banana slugs.
See the Monarch Butterflies
Another unique experience is to check out the monarch butterflies at Natural Bridges State Beach. They migrate here from mid-October to mid-February to escape winter weather at this natural preserve. There’s a beautiful walkway through the eucalyptus trees where you can watch the butterflies cluster together for warmth on the cool mornings. And then watch as they wake up and fly around. It’s pretty breathtaking to see so many butterflies in one spot. Make sure you check out the plaques which provide interesting details about the butterflies and their habitat.
Tip: You can avoid paying for parking if you park on the streets nearby
Surrounded by coastline, mountains, and towering redwoods, Santa Cruz is a perfect place to go hiking. It’s probably one of my favorite places to hike with the breathtaking views and beautiful weather. The milder climate provides the best weather for hiking, even during the summer months. And There are plenty of opportunities for bird watching and spotting other wildlife.
There are beautiful views and great opportunities for wildlife watching. And with beautiful weather throughout most of the year, you can hike pretty much year round. There are a variety of trails of all difficulty levels, from walking paths along the coastline to multi day backpacking trails in the mountains.
Another one of my long time favorite things to do in Santa Cruz is go camping. Whether that’s backpacking through the mountains or camping for the weekend at the beach. While the weather can get chilly at night, it’s pretty mild and worth being able to listen to the waves and breathe that salty ocean air.
Get a Bloody Mary/Specialty Cocktail
We are always looking for a good Bloody Mary or new cocktail to try anywhere we go. And I’m not sure it gets much better than having a cocktail while looking out at the beach.
Head up to Mount Hermon Retreat Center for treetop adventures in the redwoods. Connect with friends and family while ziplining, participating in aerial obstacle courses, or doing exercises to build teamwork. They also offer a variety of family camp activities such as mountain biking, ranch camp, or catamaran rides.
One of your more tourist activities when you visit Santa Cruz, but one that is worth visiting at least once, is the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot. It’s filled with a variety of activities that defy physics and it’s a fun way to spend an hour.
Tip: Book your visit ahead of time online as it tends to sell out quickly
Overlooking Steamer Lane and Lighthouse Field State Beach, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is housed inside a 1967 lighthouse and chronicles the evolution of surfing and surf culture in Santa Cruz. It features pictures, videos, and surfboards from each era. It’s also a great spot to surf or watch the surfers, at one of the best surfing spots in Santa Cruz, and also a great spot to watch the sunset.
Tip: There is a parking lot next to the surfing museum but parking can be difficult when the surf is good.
Music & Movies at the Boardwalk
As a teenager, one of my favorite summertime activities in Santa Cruz was going to the Boardwalk and watching the free concerts and movies on the beach. Watch classic movies such as The Goonies or Jaws while sitting on the beach with friends. Check out the Free Friday Night Bands on the Beach lineup here or check out the Free Movies on the Beach lineup here.
Get a closer look at sea life in one of the many tide pools along the coast. This is a great family friendly activity because it’s free (unless you pay for parking) and gives you a fun and unique look at some of the marine life. Please remember the principles of Leave No Trace and do not to disturb the wildlife. Some of my favorite spots to check out the tide pools are Natural Bridges, Wilder Ranch, Santa Maria’s, and Pleasure Point.
Tip: You’ll want to go during low tide, so check the tide charts here! If you plan on spending some time here, arrive an hour before low tide so you have plenty of time to explore.
Santa Cruz is known for it’s vibrant arts, culture, and surf scenes, so there is plenty of great shopping in the area. You’ll see a lot of different fashion styles and trends on the people walking around and in the stores, but somehow it all fits Santa Cruz. Head down to Pacific Ave in downtown Santa Cruz for a great selection of boutiques, thrift stores, and one of my favorite places Bookshop Santa Cruz. The wharf offers clothes geared towards the beach and surf vibes, but they also have shops for souvenirs and a great sock shop we always check out when we visit. In downtown Capitola you will find a great selection of boutiques offering beachy surfer vibes, swim suits, ocean inspired crafts for your home, and some higher end clothing.
Santa Cruz is surrounded by beautiful coastlines, mountains, and trees, which provides amazing photo opportunities of the landscapes and scenery. It seems like everywhere you look there’s something to take a picture of. I always bring my camera with me everywhere because sometimes unexpected shots pop up. But there are some interesting and unique photograph locations around Santa Cruz as well.
Biking Around Santa Cruz
When visiting Santa Cruz, you’ll find that many locals bike to and from work or to run their errands. While many are being environmentally friendly, people bike around because parking is scarce. Especially during the summer or on the weekends, so this makes cycling one of the best ways to get around Santa Cruz. Rent a bike or bring your own and cruise around town. And with all the mountains surrounding Santa Cruz, there are many great trails for mountain biking.
Santa Cruz Wharf
The longest pier in California, the Santa Cruz Wharf is 2745 feet long and definitely worth a visit. The view of the Boardwalk and main beach is beautiful, and you’ll often look out at boats sailing by. There are great shops to get that classic laid back Santa Cruz surf style or pick up some fun souvenirs. And there are some great seafood dining options on the wharf. As I mentioned earlier, you’ll be able to check out the sea lions and seals below the wharf swimming around and lounging on the platforms.
Food & Drink
Santa Cruz really embraces a healthier lifestyle with all of the outdoor activities, but they also offer a variety of great dining options. There are modern, healthier twists on popular cuisine, along with vegan, vegetarian, and gluten free dining options and restaurants. Head over to Abbott Square Market for a great selection of food and drinks.
And being right on the ocean, there is seafood available in most restaurants. If you’re a coffee lover, there are also several great cafes and coffee shops around Santa Cruz.
Downtown Santa Cruz
Pacific Ave in Downtown Santa Cruz is home to great shopping, restaurants, nightlife, and people watching. It’s kind of like the heart of Santa Cruz where you discover what makes it so unique and loveable with people of different cultures and people with different fashion senses. Head down here at night time to discover the night life and talk with the locals over a couple drinks.
There’s nothing quite like some amazing ice cream on a warm summer day at the beach. Some of our favorite places are Marianne’s Ice Cream, Polar Bear Ice Cream, and Penny’s Ice Creamery. To be honest though, I’d eat ice cream from any of these places on a rainy winter day too.
Aptos is another great beach town located within Santa Cruz County. It features the same beautiful towering redwoods, especially at Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, and lots of beaches perfect for relaxing or catching a sunset. There are also some great wineries and restaurants located in Aptos. Also make sure to check out the cement ship at Seacliff State Beach which has quite an interesting history. Some of our favorite camping spots are located in Aptos.
Take a tour of local Santa Cruz breweries in a VW Bus or a restored school bus. Learn about the history of local breweries and drive around beautiful Santa Cruz to several different breweries. While this is a 21+ activity, it’s still a fun (and safe) way to spend a day in Santa Cruz with your knowledgeable and local host, driving around Santa Cruz, and talking with different brew masters.
Loch Lomond Recreation Area
This freshwater lake hidden among the redwoods is a beautiful and relaxing place to spend a couple hours and escape the summer crowds. While the lake is closed to boats not stored on site due to invasive species and closed to swimming because it’s used as drinking water for the city of Santa Cruz, you can store boats on site or rent boats. There are also a couple of hiking trails, one including picnic benches along the lake. And this is a great spot for bird watching.
Tip: They are closed Wednesdays for maintenance!
About six miles from Santa Cruz is the small, vibrant beach town Capitola. It’s a beautiful spot to shop great boutiques, eat at amazing restaurants right on the beach, and play on the beach. Check out the color venetian houses right on the beach, the Capitola wharf (sunset is especially nice!), and the fossils below Depot Hill. Head into the many boutiques and do some shopping or look for surfers in the water. Rent a paddleboard, take surf lessons, or walk along the soquel creek.
Roaring Camp Railroad
A great family friendly activity, especially if you have little ones, is to take a train ride through the redwoods and learn about the history of the area and logging in the Santa Cruz mountains. Find more information on train schedules and special events or purchase tickets at the Roaring Camp website here!
Tip: Definitely book in advance as this fills up quickly!
Seymour Marine Discovery Center
The Seymour Marine Discovery Center is an educational center operated by UC Santa Cruz. Their goal is to educate people on the importance of scientific research to better understand and conserve the oceans. And you can see and touch some of the sea life that lives in the Monterey Bay as you learn about the unique marine environment. For more information, including hours, current exhibits, and admission information, head to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center website here.
Watch the Sunset
One of my favorite things about Santa Cruz are those amazing west coast sunsets. The colors bouncing off the clouds makes for beautiful sunsets. There are plenty of great places to watch a sunset, but my favorite sunset spot is sitting on the beach.
University of California Santa Cruz – UCSC
I love returning to the UCSC campus whenever I visit. There’s plenty of hiking opportunities as the campus is connecting to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and Pogonip, an 11.5 mile trail system located right behind UCSC campus. Also check out the UCSC Arboretum & Botanic Garden which is a great place to spend an afternoon exploring all the different garden beds and unique sculptures. While they are home to over 150 species of plants, they work to preserve indigenous plants.
Santa Cruz has perfect running weather almost all year round, the overcast mornings keep you cool as your body heats up. And there are several great races hosted in Santa Cruz throughout the year. Check out the Firecracker Run in Harvey West Park on the Fourth of July, see if you can get one of the coveted spots in the Wharf to Wharf race where you run from the Santa Cruz Wharf to the Capitola Wharf, or run one of the Surfer’s Path races. Or if you’re looking for a bigger challenge, sign up for the Santa Cruz Triathlon!
Have you visited Santa Cruz before? What’s your favorite thing to do when you visit?