Santa Cruz, located on the coast of central California, extending to the northernmost edge of Monterey Bay, is a popular tourist destination for several reasons.
In the summer months of June, July and August, the warm, dry temperatures range from the low 50’s at night to the high 70’s during the day.
Weather-wise, it’s the peak time to travel to Santa Cruz, not too hot and not too cool.
There are so many things to do and see in the city.
If you love beaches, the Santa Cruz coastline has some of the best in the country.
You’ll never run out of things to do in Santa Cruz, CA.
1. Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Put on your walking shoes and take the family on a day trip to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center.
The visitor center in Santa Cruz covers a 20,000 square foot space.
The fascinating exhibits and displays will give you a newly found respect for the sea and sea-life creatures, and their vital importance in the ecosystem.
Their interactive format allows you to do things you never imagined doing, like touching a shark.
If you’ve always wanted to scuba dive to experience the immense beauty of the depths of the sea but couldn’t muster the nerve to do it, you can experience it here in the Seymour Marine Discovery Center without even getting wet.
There are huge aquariums dedicated to showing off the majestic life in the ocean’s depths.
There are nice, short tours lasting about 30 minutes that start at 11 AM for families with toddlers and small children.
Sundays at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center are especially dedicated to families who want to take part in activities together, doing fun arts and crafts projects.
In the months of July and August, they’re open daily from 10 AM to 5 PM.
The rest of the year they are closed on Mondays.
If you’re planning a trip to Santa Cruz, this is one of the attractions you won’t want to miss.
It’s one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz, California.
Address: 100 McAllister Way, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
2. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is the most legendary spot in Santa Cruz, and it’s nothing but pure fun.
The amusement park was built in 1907, and is also referred to as the Coney Island of the West.
Two of their rides, The Carousel and the wooden roller coaster, The Giant Dipper, are national landmarks.
In fact, the Giant Dipper, which was built in 1924, is celebrating its 95th anniversary this year.
It’s the longest roller coaster in the country.
Probably best not take the ride on a full stomach because, at one point, it rises to 70 feet and dips to 65 feet at a rate of 55 mph!
The Carousel is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s oldest ride.
The 73 exquisitely carved horses, each unique, feature real horse hair tails.
The music is provided by an organ that was built in 1894.
It’s a mixture of fun and charm.
One fun ride probably won’t be enough.
Rides aren’t the only things to do at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
There are two arcades, a two-story, 18-hole, miniature golf course, and even a family bowling center.
On Fridays, at night, there are free concerts on the beach.
You might also want to take a romantic stroll on the mile-long boardwalk at night.
Check the calendar for opening/closing times and events.
A visit to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is one of the top things to do in Santa Cruz, CA.
Address: 400 Beach St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
3. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
If hiking and camping are your bailiwicks, check out Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
The over one thousand-year-old redwoods loom above like living skyscrapers, the tallest of them about 280 feet.
There are 30 miles of hiking trails ranging from easy to strenuous.
Whether you have an hour or a full day, there are breathtaking trails to suit your skill level and your time.
The weekend will be more crowded than weekdays, of course.
The campgrounds are set among beautiful oaks and pine trees.
You can pitch a tent, camp out of your car or use your RV, though there are no hook-ups so it might be better to plan to tent.
There are amenities such as flush-toilets and coin-operated showers.
A half-mile trek will take you to the highest point, Observation Deck, from where you can see all the way to Monterey.
Travel tips for this location would warn that the campgrounds are close to the ocean, so the mornings and evenings can be chilly.
Also, keep in mind that this state park likes to keep the environment as natural as possible so they don’t weed out poison oak, and it grows rather plentifully, so use caution.
Address: 101 N Big Trees Park Rd, Felton, CA 95018, USA
4. Big Basin Redwoods State Park
This is California’s oldest state park and one of the most beautiful places in the US.
They boast that the redwoods here are over 2000 years old.
With a whopping 80 miles of trails, hikers will be in their glory.
If you’re a serious hiker and want to camp along the way, the very popular Skyline to the Sea Trail for backpackers is sure to be one of the points of interest here.
It’s 25-30 miles long and takes about 3 days to traverse.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park is one of the top places to visit in Santa Cruz, CA.
It might be crowded on the weekend.
A shorter trail of about 10 miles is the Berry Creek Loop, where your eyes and ears will be dazzled by the sights and sounds of a series of waterfalls.
The elevation is about 1800 feet.
You can hook onto the Skyline to the Sea Trail from this one if you want a longer hike.
Campgrounds are also available with the same amenities as Redwoods State Park.
If you’re a mountain biker, this is the place for your fun.
The Skyline to the Sea Trail has dirt roads that allow bikes.
Address: 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek, CA 95006, USA
5. The Penny Ice Creamery
For some old-fashioned frozen fun, you’re not going to want to miss the best organic ice cream you’ll ever experience at The Penny Ice Creamery with two locations in Santa Cruz, one in the downtown area.
They use Thomas Jefferson’s original recipe to make their vanilla ice cream.
How’s that for old-fashioned?
They’ve ditched modern technology to make their artisan-crafted, homemade, frozen delights.
Their several scrumptious flavors from which to choose with the option of a topping of torched marshmallow fluff (also homemade and organic) might make some travel hacks with a fetish for marshmallow and ice cream fly out to visit Santa Cruz, California for that alone.
You might have to wait in line for your turn, especially on a hot weather weekend, but it’s worth the wait.
Address: 913 Cedar St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
6. Birichino Tasting Room
The Birichino Tasting Room is another of the not to be missed attractions if you’re a wine lover.
The two extraordinarily experienced winemakers who own this tasting room set themselves apart from other of the many wonderful tasting rooms in Santa Cruz because of their unique style.
They source their grapes from very old, family-owned vineyards, and are purists in their approach to winemaking.
They’re conveniently located in an old, downtown building.
The old-world ambiance of the tasting room complements the wine tasting experience.
Alex Krause and John Locke, the internationally known wine-makers and owners, are your welcoming hosts and pourers.
It’s one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz, CA.
Address: 204 Church St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
7. Downtown Santa Cruz
While you’re downtown in Santa Cruz, CA, you may as well take advantage of this Santa Cruz shoppers’ paradise.
There are more than a hundred specialty shops.
Many are boutiques featuring unique clothes from local designers you’ll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
Of course, it’s also going to have its share of surf shops like O’Neill’s, Rip Curl and Surf Life.
Shop at The Homeless Garden Project Downtown Store for some local and great organic gifts, while contributing to a worthy cause.
There are smoke shops, herb stores, shoe stores, thrift shops, book stores and so much more.
Downtown Santa Cruz, CA is one of the places to go to get your shopaholic fix.
Address (The Homeless Garden Project): Shaffer Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
8. Eat A Nice Meal
No doubt, all that stuff to do and buy in downtown Santa Cruz has gotten you hungry.
One of the favorite places to go and dine is 515 Kitchen & Cocktails.
For more casual dining, you can try the Surfrider Cafe which boasts the best burgers anywhere in Santa Cruz, California.
Can’t decide what to do?
Let the wheel make a lunch decision for you.
Address (515 Kitchen & Cocktails): 515 Cedar St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
Address (Surfrider Cafe): 429 Front St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
9. Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Market
The Downtown Farmers Market is open year-round on Wednesdays and is a fun place to visit.
While listening to live music, you can sit in the shaded cafe area and have a picnic lunch.
It’s a great way to sample cuisine of local foods and baked goods.
If you’re stymied for what to do on a Wednesday afternoon, this is certainly one of the top places to visit on your trip to Santa Cruz, CA.
Address: 700-798 Cedar St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
10. Santa Cruz Beach Train
What better way to enjoy the fun than to sit back and relax with a train ride tour?
The Beach Train is a great way to see points of interest while someone else does all the driving.
You can take the complete, six-mile, narrated tour that rides through the Santa Cruz Mountains all at once.
You can also take a day trip to the Santa Cruz beach in the morning, spend the day there and take the ride back in the late afternoon.
11. Santa Cruz Wharf
One of the best things to do here is to visit the Santa Cruz Wharf.
You’ll never be at a loss for what to see there.
Wildlife at the wharf is plentiful.
You can watch the sea lions frolic, and observe whales and dolphins.
Bird-watching isn’t just relegated to seagulls.
Depending on the weather and time of year, you can see loons, grebes and jaegers, among others.
At certain times, the Brown Pelicans will put on a diving show for you, and you can watch anglers make great catches off the pier.
Things to see there will have your eyes constantly popping.
Address: 21 Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
12. Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History
A visit to The Museum of Art and History is another of the best things to do in Santa Cruz, California.
Attractions there include the many exhibitions and events they hold.
Some exhibits go on for a short time, while others may last for years.
The exhibits are a learning experience combined with fun activities.
No space is wasted at the Museum of Art and History.
They even use the roof for open-air exhibitions.
The museum hosts musical events and, sometimes, even interactive creative art events, too.
You can easily see that this museum is not just about viewing art and sculpture.
Their outdoor, public community space named Abbott Square, to which they refer as their “front porch”, allows visitors the choice of food from six different restaurants.
There are even two bars.
No matter where your interests may lie, there are always things to see and things to do to please everyone, including the locals who live near it and visit time and time again.
Fun things in Santa Cruz, California are never-ending.
You can easily see why it’s on the list of top things to do in Santa Cruz, CA.
Address: 705 Front St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
13. Arboretum and Botanic Garden
The Arboretum and Botanic Garden at the University of California is yet another of the many attractions of the top things to do on your visit to Santa Cruz.
Interesting to note is that the man who originally owned the lands dedicated to what is today known as Redwoods State Park, Henry Cowell, is the same land baron who originally owned the property The University of California is occupying today.
All of the events at The Arboretum and Botanic Garden at the University of California are open to the public, and some events are free of charge.
Check to see what particular attractions interest you at any given time while visiting Santa Cruz, California.
Their display of plants from Australia is unequaled anywhere in the world, except in Australia.
Plants from New Zealand, South Africa and those from Santa Cruz as well as other areas of California are also featured.
A guided tour of the Arboretum is offered on Sundays at 11 AM.
You might want to make that one of your top things to do in Santa Cruz, California.
It can be a part of a great weekend spent.
Even if it’s your only reason to visit The Arboretum and Botanic Garden, one of the top things to do on a visit to Santa Cruz, California is to shop at Norrie’s Gift and Garden Shop, right near the Arboretum’s entrance.
They feature a spectacular array of treasures for you or to be given as gifts, such as plants, hats, gardening books and artisan jewelry, just to name a few.
Many of their items are limited so if you see something you especially like, it’s best to call ahead to see whether or not it’s still in stock.
As long as it isn’t a one-of-a-kind item, it can be reordered.
Address: 1156 High St, Santa Cruz, CA 95064, USA
14. Natural Bridges State Beach
Still looking for things to do in Santa Cruz, California?
Natural Bridges State Beach ranks as another place for top things to do on your list of fun.
This 65-acre state park provides an area for activities such as windsurfing, kite flying, swimming, surfing, hiking, sight-seeing, sunbathing and picnics.
Experience the area during the weekdays or on the weekend.
The above-mentioned activities are just some of the fun things that should solve any problem for what to do on your trip to Santa Cruz, California.
The mere thrill of watching whales, dolphins, sea birds and the graceful and beautiful monarch butterflies in this area of Santa Cruz is enough to make you want to go back again and again.
The largest of the natural bridges which form an arch from which the park takes its name is an art-form that will stay in your memory long after you’ve left Santa Cruz, California.
It is no wonder that it is one of the most photographed spots here.
Address: 2531 W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
15. Wilder Ranch State Park
Wilder Ranch State Park in Santa Cruz, CA is a great place to go horseback riding.
Surfing is a big hit here too.
It’s located on 7000 acres near the center of Santa Cruz, California so it’s one of the fun things that is near almost anywhere you find yourself in.
Their hiking trails cover an area of over 35 miles.
All trails are open to bikers, hikers and horseback riders.
The trails run along relaxing and beautiful scenery as they wind through lush valleys and the coastline.
From as early as 8 AM when they open until sunset, you can enjoy your time at this getaway.
Address: 1401 Coast Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
16. Neptune’s Kingdom
Things to do at night in Santa Cruz are never-ending.
Playing miniature golf at night at Neptune’s Kingdom near Beach Flats when it’s lit like an enchanted fantasy-land can intensify your imagination to living in feudal times in between putts.
Rain or shine makes no difference to this indoor miniature golf course.
Address: 400 Beach St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
17. Brady’s Yacht Club
If you’re still in the gaming mood, and wish to relax and mingle with locals, Brady’s Yacht Club in Santa Cruz, California is a great low-end pub.
Here you can show off your pool-playing skills and toss down a couple of cold ones.
It’s basically your typical, local bar and you might wonder why it’s included in this list.
This is the kind of place you might hang out on the weekend at night if you were not in Santa Cruz, it’s a place where you’ll feel comfortable, and can kick back and just relax.
The bartenders are friendly, the drinks are cheap and it’s open until 2 AM.
Address: 413 Seabright Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95062, USA
18. Oswald Restaurant
If you’re looking for a fancier American restaurant in which to dine and perhaps will be the only time you wish to spend more on dining while you’re in Santa Cruz, California, the recommendation of Oswald’s is one for which you’ll be grateful.
The cuisine is superb with entrees including, steak, lamb, roast duck, cod, trout, shrimp, lobster, crab and scallops to name a few.
Their international wine list is second-to-none.
If you’re going to dine there on the weekend, reservations are in order to be assured you’ll be seated at this spectacular restaurant.
Address: 121 Soquel Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
19. La Posta
The cuisine with an Italian flair and traditional Italian dishes at La Posta is a delicious change of pace for the palate with this dining experience.
Listening to live music while dining is an added treat.
It’s a centrally located restaurant near just about any point in Santa Cruz.
The great food, coupled with its location, can make it quite crowded at times, but if you have to wait, it’s well worth it.
They encourage reservations with credit card collateral, but if you don’t cancel in time, the penalties are stringent.
If you’re near the area, stop in and sample an appetizer with a glass of one of their delicious Italian wines.
It’s a nice break in the middle of a day of shopping.
Address: 538 Seabright Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95062, USA
Though you’re coming near the end of the list, depending on how long you’re going to be in Santa Cruz, you probably won’t be able to get through even half of the suggestions.
Still, the list would not be complete without reference to the best surfing spots in the American city where surfing first started.
Whether it’s your first time out or you’re an average or expert surfer, there are surfing locations that are right for your skill level all over the coastal city.
Four Mile Beach at Wilder Ranch State Park (see above) is great for all levels.
Because of the bluffs, it’s sheltered in parts so the novice can participate in the sport without too much danger, and these areas provide enough challenge even for the intermediately skilled surfer.
In the open areas of the beach, the swells are much higher and crashing, so experienced surfers have challenges that make Four Mile Beach a favorite spot for them, too.
Address (Four Mile Beach): 3810 Coast Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
Pleasure Point is another popular area for surfers of all skill levels.
Beginners are urged to try their skills on less crowded days since the more people, the more likely there are going to be surfers who are not skilled enough to even know common surfing etiquette, and that is when accidents are more likely to happen.
There are many hot surfing spots for those who love the sport in Surf City USA.
Choose the one right for you.
Address: East Cliff Drive, Pleasure Point Drive, Santa Cruz, CA 95062, USA
Start Planning Your Trip To Santa Cruz
If, by any chance, you do manage to exhaust all the good-time possibilities listed while you’re on your excursion here in Santa Cruz, a ride to San Jose is only about 40 minutes.
There are, of course, several spots that were mentioned where one day is not going to be enough to do all that you had planned, so you’ll most likely return to your favorite destinations more than once.
It’s amazing how one city can provide so much entertainment, relaxation, good food and culture.
Santa Cruz seems to have it all!