14 Best Things to do in Santa Cruz, California

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Santa Cruz sits on the Pacific coast of California along Monterey Bay, loaded with natural wonders, amusement parks, and a progressive modern economy. 

It is the most funkiest, most colorful, and most photogenic landmark in California with full of nautical activities to perform.

Santa Cruz is the most iconic gorgeous and one of the best places to live in California, with colorful communities, laid back vibe, and breathtaking clean beaches. 

Moreover, for outdoor enthusiasts, explorers and surfers, Santa Cruz is a paradise full of natural wonders and outdoor activities to perform. 

This blog is a complete guide and a little help mapping out the best things to do in Santa Cruz and making the itinerary full of fun and adventure. 

What to do in Santa Cruz? Best Things to do in Santa Cruz 

Santa Cruz is an hour’s drive from San Francisco (113 km) and a treasure trove of natural and man-made wonders, and there are endless things to see and do. 

Despite this, Santa Cruz has a plethora of activities to perform; remember not to rush to cover everything, but rather relax and enjoy every bit of it.

So, here is the list of Santa Cruz activities to perform and top attractions to explore. 

Hit the Main Beach & Cowell Beach

Close your eyes and imagine yourself wearing a nice bikini and lying down in the warm sand, covering your face with a big hat right aside from the Pacific Ocean. How do you feel? 

Main Beach and Cowell Beach are the most enchanting destinations for beach lovers. The warm turquoise water, peaceful lagoon, and white sand make the beaches one worthy place. 

Main Beach is famous among kids as it has a nice Boardwalk and amusement park. Santa Cruz Main Beach invites children to make sandcastles, play volleyball, and play around.

On the opposite side of the wharf sits Cowell Beach, the most picturesque, clean, and safe beach in Santa Cruz. 

Moreover, Cowell Beach is the perfect pick for a spectacular view of the sunset.

If you have ever thought of learning to surf, there is no spot better than Cowell Beach. 

Getting a surfing lesson is one of the best things to do on Santa Cruz beach

Surf School Santa Cruz, Richard Schmidt Surf School, and Club Ed are the most popular surf schools in Santa Cruz located in Cowell Beach. 

The surfing lesson fee starts from $ 100, excluding equipment and wetsuits. I would highly recommend Richard Schmidt Surf School. 

Hike in the woods of the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park

Entrance sign for a state park

Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is a 30 minutes trail that sits among the bustling towns along Highway 1 and adjacent to Aptos Village Square. 

Forest of Nisene Marks State Park’s oasis, serene, redwood, rugged wilderness, view of Monterey Bay, lush greenery, and unusual twisted trails are a paradise for hikers.

Nisene Marks at Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is the most dog-friendly hike in Santa Cruz. You can explore the trail with your furry friend. The place features tall redwoods and steep coastal mountains.

However, there are 28 hiking trails, but dogs are welcome in limited areas. The trails offer the explorer an illusion of their presence in the tropical rainforest. 

For dog-friendly hikes, stick to Aptos Creek Fire Road, Split Stuff, Terrace trail, Vienna Woods trail, Monte Toyon Vista, the lower portion of the park, and Eight Verse Trail Loop.

Dogs are also welcomed at picnic areas on paved roads and park entrances. However, do not forget to bring fresh drinkable water with you. 

More walk at Wilder Ranch State Park

Rocky cliff face by the water

North of Santa Cruz is Wilder Ranch State Park which is covered with a layer of 10,000 years of history. This 34-mile-long hiking trail was a dairy ranch in the 19th century. 

The gorgeous view of Ben Lomond Mountains, redwood groves, sea caves, marshlands, historic buildings, seashore, and wave-cut terraces is so relaxing and eye soothing. 

Wilder Ranch State Park in Santa Cruz does not welcome dogs, hence to keep yourself busy, you might take workshops run by water power on the rodeo arena and ranch buildings.

Perhaps Wilder Ranch State Park welcomes families to enjoy and arrange a picnic in the lawn area. I think this is the best thing to do in Santa Cruz with family being close to nature.

I went hiking along the coastal bluffs, watching migrating whales, a flock of pelicans flying, listening to stories of local stones and taking in all the breathtaking views.

The hiking trails range from 2 miles to 10 miles with moderate difficulty into unforgettable views of redwood forests and oceans.

Try out either Ohlone Bluff trail, Wilder ridge loop, or enchanted loop. I would recommend choosing the Ohlone Bluff trail to witness open coastal and redwood forest views.

A leisurely day at Natural Bridge State Beach

People relaxing on the sand on the beach

Natural Bridge State Beach got its name for having a huge natural rock arch on the shore. The arch was made of mudstone cliffs making the beach the most photogenic. 

On the western edge of urban Santa Cruz sits Natural Bridge State Beach, just at the end of Swanton Boulevard. There is a lot of parking space, but dogs are not allowed. 

Every year from October to January, the Nature Bridge State Beach is overpowered by the Monarch butterflies that make the location beautiful. 

Natural Bridge State Beach has a Family Park. Here you can soak in great tide pools, watch migrating whales, birds, seals, and otters, or relax on the beach. 

I would recommend you to come here from October to February because near Natural Bridge State Beach; Monarch Grove is crowded with vibrant wildflowers. 

The whole place smells minty with a hint of honey as eucalyptus trees blossom beautifully. Moreover, eucalyptus trees are messy, so the place is a little shady.

Get a quick glance at Bigfoot Discovery Museum

Bigfoot Discovery Museum sits adjacent to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and is one of the best things to do in the Santa Cruz area with kids. 

Very few people have heard about the Bigfoot Discovery Museum with the aim of educating the masses about the probability of Bigfoot, creatures in North American folklore, and narrative history. 

The Bigfoot Discovery Museum was opened in 2004. Inside the museum, you can see a collection of Bigfoot’s giant footprints, hair samples, and photos. 

I was comparing myself with the size of Bigfoot tracks by seeing their bone structure and footprints.  

Remember, the main museum is open from Wednesday through Monday from 11 am to 6 pm. Moreover, you have to pay nothing to gain knowledge.

Small tour to Santa Cruz mountains wineries

Wine barrels inside a building

Santa Cruz is home to some of the oldest vineyards offering top-notch quality wine. 

The Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon region is a popular vineyard region in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

There are many vineyards that offer a family and dog-friendly wine tasting environment with lovely outdoor and benches to sit and enjoy the lush green vineyards. 

Along the banks of Soquel Creek in the Santa Cruz Mountains has been Bargetto Santa Cruz Winery since 1933. Their creekside courtyard is so peaceful and fresh.

If you are a vinophile then you should visit Bargetto Santa Cruz Winery to taste their handmade Blackberry, Rasberry, Chaucer’s Mead, and Pomegranate flavour wines. 

Apart from Bargetto Santa Cruz Winery, you can visit Pierce Ranch Vineyard. I haven’t been to this place but have heard so many good things from my friends.

There is a charming little house on the porch and they specialised in serving Spanish and Portuguese varieties of wines. 

Therefore, a small tour of wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains is a must in your itinerary. In the evening there is a live music performance and you should come here. 

Take a ride on Roaring Camp Railroads

People standing inside of a train

Have you ever wondered how to ride on authentic steam trains? Well, so now you can make your dream come true by booking an old fashion train in Santa Cruz. 

It offers one hour ride through Big Trees Redwood groves to the summit of Bear Mountain and another through Felton’s Roaring Camp to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. 

The ride through a narrow gauge track over 82 m above the forest floor is really a fun thing to do in Santa Cruz. On the way, you will be amazed by the natural air and environment.

Roaring Camp Rail is a popular Santa Cruz activity to soak in the views of the beautiful Bear Mountains, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Redwood forests, and gorgeous coastlines.

The last train is at 4 pm, and you can buy tickets from the conductor at the Boardwalk departure location. 

From the Spring through Falls, Santa Cruz Beach train runs only on weekends whereas The Redwood Forest Steam Train runs every day of the year. 

Spend time enjoying the atmosphere of West Cliff Drive

A 6-mile long West Cliff Drive along the Santa Cruz Coast extends from Swanton Boulevard near Natural Bridges State Beach to Santa Cruz Wharf.

The West Cliff Drive offers a spectacular view of the city, Boardwalk, Monterey Bay, Big Sur, Lighthouse, and Steamer Lane that intensify the calmness, and mental stillness in you.

The West Cliff Drive lane is bike friendly, walking trip, a great place to work out, and treat to beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean. 

I recommend you to visit a dog-friendly beach in Santa Cruz, Mitchell Cove nested at the intersection of Almar and West Cliff Drive. 

Watching the sun going down on the beach with your loved ones by your side is one of the most romantic things to do in Santa Cruz. You can also take your dog to the Beach.

Try to decode your physics knowledge at the Mystery Spot

The Mystery Spot, a well-known puzzling natural wonder within the redwood forest, is a must-visit place in Santa Cruz. It is 46 meters wide and one of the most surprising Santa Cruz attractions.

We are all versed with the law of gravitation, but The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz is against all the Physics theories. Every object appears tilted instead of upright. 

There are so many stories and theories, but none got any validation from a scientist. Some claim that an extra-terrestrial force created it.

Others say that spacecraft are buried in the ground. Other theories state that carbon-di-oxide permeates from the Earth, radiation, and more. 

But whatever it is, the mystery remains intact. The mysterious magical spot was discovered in 1939 and since then everything in the area stays at a 17-degree angle. 

You can walk on the walls, climb on tables or walk and take some fun Instagram photos to play with the viewer’s mind. 

Little shopping at Downtown Santa Cruz 

Downtown Santa Cruz is planned with a vibrant sprawl vibe, beautiful tree-lined streets, lovely outdoor cafes, live music venues, stores, designer boutiques, and ice cream stores.

Leisurely strolling and dining in any outdoor restaurant with your partner, talking for hours, and soaking in the sunshine is the best thing to do in Santa Cruz in winter.  

Moreover, the architecture of Downtown Santa Cruz, colorful murals on Locust Street, buildings, and the historic clock tower will remind you of Victorian times. 

There is no debate on how beautiful and happening the ambiance Downtown Santa Cruz offers to its people. 

The biggest attraction of Downtown Santa Cruz is art exhibits by local artists, regular street performances, and the community Farmer Market every Wednesday afternoon.

Stopover at Santa Cruz Mission

White buildings under a blue sky

One of the best things to do in Santa Cruz is to visit the Spanish Mission aka Santa Cruz Mission. This 1791-born Santa Cruz Mission is the 12th Mission out of the 21 California Missions. 

Santa Cruz Mission sits near the San Lorenzo River, which is part of a State Historic Park on Mission Hills. This Roman Catholic Church features a water fountain and a parking ground. 

There is a beautiful big garden at the back of the Mission where wheat, corn, barley, lentils, and beans are grown. 

The reason you should come to Santa Cruz Mission is to witness its gothic arches, adobe buildings designed in woods, wooden crosses, and original paintings painted in 1791. 

Moreover, I hope you do not want to miss taking a snap in front of a white-painted adobe church or paintings of Virgen de Guadalupe. 

Catch a Shakespeare show in Santa Cruz

Are you worried about exploring Santa Cruz in the summer? The best thing to do in Santa Cruz in summer is to book an entertaining Santa Cruz Shakespeare show. 

The show is highly popular among tourists and locals, therefore, it is highly recommended to book your tickets beforehand. The peak season starts from July through August. 

Shakespeare Santa Cruz is different from other shows because no other company shows cast plays in the open air surrounded by trees at DeLaveaga Park. 

The outdoor venue with the view of Monterey Bay at Audrey Stanley Grove is something I can never forget. It feels that I am one of the characters of the times.

I have watched The Formula by Kathryn Chetkovich, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Ellen Maguire.  

Day visit to Capitola

Capitola is a charming town, it looks similar to Italy’s Amalfi Coast that has fame for relaxing, boating, and fishing. The colorful houses are the best place to click pictures, and having fun!

Capitola Village is nestled 5-8 minutes away from Pleasure Point. This place is perfect to enjoy warm sand, sit at fancy cafes, go shopping, grab an ice cream and enjoy the air. 

I would recommend you to visit Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria, a short drive from Capitola. I love their lasagne, and bourguignon. 

They are dedicated to delivering ever-hungry travelers authentic French bakery, espresso bar, finest croissants, and cappuccinos. 

Every year in September Capitola Village hosts the Capitola Art & Wine Festival, which makes the place one of the most demanded places among tourists.

Explore Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

People walking on a boardwalk with colorful buildings

Exploring Santa Cruz Boardwalk, however is the most touristic thing, but Santa Cruz fun is incomplete without a retro ride or unlimited fun at an amusement park. 

Starting from riding, playing games, mini golf to bowling, roller coaster rides, air hockey, Skee-Ball, Santa Cruz Boardwalk is packed with plenty of fun things.

Moreover, Santa Cruz Boardwalk has fame because of the Giant Dipper that was built in 1924. 

I love boardwalk because this is a great place to have chocolate-coated ice cream, and saltwater taffy at a cheap price. 

There are plenty of places to visit in Santa Cruz beyond the above. I feel that Santa Cruz’s beauty is mesmerizing for both mountain and beach lovers. Aside from enjoying the above places you can also visit Santa Cruz Wharf, watch a show at the Catalyst, and taste hot chocolate from Chocolate the Restaurant and more. 

This post was contributed to Volumes & Voyages by Trijit Mallick of Budget Travel Buff.

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