Planning a trip to the California coast and looking for things to do in Santa Cruz? You’ve come to the right place!
I live about an hour north of Santa Cruz in the San Francisco Bay Area, and am filled with glee whenever someone mentions a spontaneous weekend trip to Santa Cruz. And because I’m always looking for more things to do in Santa Cruz, I’ve asked California expert Carol of Wayfaring Views to give us the scoop on all things to do in this cool, laid-back city. Enjoy!
Santa Cruz is the quintessential California beach town. It’s a bit quirky, a bit hippy, and a bit surfer dude. And it’s a whole lot of fun. So check out these 15 things to do in Santa Cruz and design your own perfect beach vacation!
Pre-Travel Guide to Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz might be a small town but it spreads all over the place. If you stay near downtown, you can easily walk to the Boardwalk and Pacific Ave. But most of these things to do in Santa Cruz will require a car.
Where to Stay in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz lodging ranges from basic beach motels to high end B&Bs. You’ll need to pick your price-point to find the best accommodation that’s right for you. Here are a few suggestions:
Four Stars: The Dream Inn will give you a modern mid-century room, a pool and fabulous sunset view from the balcony.
Three Stars: The Rio Vista Inn is a cute restored Victorian located conveniently between downtown and the boardwalk. They offer a generous breakfast buffet, helpful staff and cozy, well furnished rooms.
Two Stars: The Coastview Inn Santa Cruz isn’t fancy but it will do the trick. It has basic motel amenities and is located right across the street from the beach and boardwalk.
What to Pack
This section of California coastline is often foggy in the morning, warm at midday, and cool at night. With that being said, pack layers and be prepared for wardrobe changes! If you are going to the beach, it might be worth your while to buy some cheap beach chairs and a small cooler. You can always discard them at your hotel when you go home.
When to Go
April/May and September/October are always the best times to visit the coast. The weather is usually warmer and you can avoid the summer vacation crowds. And if you can, any weekday will always be less crowded than the weekend! Traffic is real here you guys, unfortunately! So grab a friend, ditch work, and head off for a fun day in Santa Cruz!
Check out this itinerary for how you can combine some of the suggestions below into a chill weekend getaway in Santa Cruz.
Top 15 Things to Do In Santa Cruz
1. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
The Santa Cruz beach boardwalk is an old timey amusement park with arcade games, rides, and fried foods. They have rides at all thrill levels and the park is conveniently located on an expansive beach. And don’t forget to indulge in a deep fried Twinkie (or two or three). 🙂 As they say, you only live once! The beach boardwalk is definitely one of the most popular things to do in Santa Cruz, so expect crowds in the summer.
2. Spot Sea Lions at Santa Cruz Wharf
Take a stroll from the boardwalk down to the wharf and check out the resident population of sea lions. While there, be sure to spend some time scanning the ocean. There are regular migrations of gray and humpback whales in the spring and fall. And the elephant seals and dolphins live in the area year round.
3. Go Sea Kayaking
If you would like to get closer to sea lions and otters, take a kayak tour with Venture Coast Santa Cruz. They offer two hour paddle tours that includes a guide and all of the necessary equipment. They even offer sunset and cave tours.
4. Visit Ano Nuevo State Park
If you are really into marine mammals, then Ano Nuevo should top your list of things to do in Santa Cruz. The park is located 20 miles north of Santa Cruz. They have a year-round population of resident elephant seals. The park is very popular and they have limited spots so make a reservation in advance if you want to go. And have you seen an elephant seal before?! What strange and intriguing looking creatures!
5. Take a slow coastal drive
After your state park visit, take a slow drive back south along Highway 1. The road follows right along the cliff and offers wide open sea views. There are many pull-outs where you can stop and see yet more seals and sea lions.
6. Watch the Sunset at Natural Bridges State Beach Park
Natural bridges has a fun beach any time of day, but it really shines at sunset. Grab some snacks, pull up a chair, and gaze at the ocean. No better way to end the day in Santa Cruz!
7. Watch the Surfers
Santa Cruz truly is a surf town. When the waves are up, you can watch the surfers all along West Cliff Drive, between the Boardwalk north to Natural Bridges State Park.
8. UC Santa Cruz Arboretum
The UC campus arboretum is a research and teaching facility. Not only do they have over 300 different plant species, including native California plants, but also rare species from around the world! They have botanical art, bird watching, a gift shop, and tours as well.
9. The Mystery Spot
The Mystery Spot is one of those quirky things to do in Santa Cruz that you should only attempt with your tongue firmly planted in your cheek. It’s located in the nearby redwood forest and allegedly sits upon a “gravitational anomaly”. The 45 minute tour will show you amazing feats that defy the laws of physics. It’s goofy fun and not to be missed during any weekend in Santa Cruz.
10. Hike the Redwoods
After you defy gravity, put your feet back on the ground and take a hike. The Nisene Marks State Park isn’t far from the Mystery Spot. Hiking there will take you through 30 miles of trails in the ancient, fragrant groves. There are also lush second growth redwoods in the Henry Cowell State Park. Or for coastal views, you can hike the trails at Wilder Ranch State Park.
11. Stroll Around Downtown
You can kill a lazy afternoon strolling down Pacific Ave in downtown Santa Cruz. Stop into Bookshop Santa Cruz for some excellent staff pics, have some coffee in Verve, and hit up one of the 12 stores selling shoes.
12. Eat Dinner Downtown
Spend a fun evening eating and drinking on Pacific Ave. For dinner, you can have your pick of cuisine at either the Surfrider Cafe (beach casual), Laili Restaurant (Greek) or Oswalds (New American). All delicious and extra satisfying!
13. Have a Post-Dinner Drink
After dinner, go to the Pour Taproom where you can pour your own from a wide variety of beers on tap. If you prefer your drinks with umbrellas, go to the Hula’s Island Tiki Room. But beware of the devil rum because they pour drinks with a heavy hand into a very large glass – aka don’t plan on waking up early the next morning!
14. Get Rid of Your Hangover with Breakfast
If you had the tiki bar rum drinks, then perhaps the next morning you’ll be wanting a big breakfast to tamp down the jitters. The Walnut Cafe and Zachary’s will fit that bill and fill your stomach. Both are right in the downtown area and helpful to cure any hangover!
15. Go Wine Tasting
Did you realize so many things to do in Santa Cruz involved alcohol?! 😛 Start all over again and go wine tasting! There are 62 wineries in the Santa Cruz mountains, including very tasty offerings from Ridge. There are also some tasting rooms right in the downtown Santa Cruz area.
Piece together your own itinerary with these top things to do in Santa Cruz and have the perfect beach getaway! Now get planning, my friends!