From San Francisco, an easy day trip is to pop across to the gorgeous town of Santa Cruz, famed for its boardwalk, laid back vibe and surfing opportunities galore. We’ve visited a number of times, and based on our experiences, have come up with a guide to all our favourite things to do in Santa Cruz.
This guide to visiting Santa Cruz would serve well for visiting Santa Cruz for anything from a few hours (perhaps as part of a California road trip?) to a few days. As well as a guide to what to do in Santa Cruz, we’ve also included some extra ideas, resources and links to prepare you for your visit to this lovely spot – however long it may be!
Table of Contents
Things to do in Santa Cruz
1. The Wharf
Certainly one of the most popular activities to do in Santa Cruz is to take a walk out on the west coast’s longest pier. It’s just celebrated its centenary, and offers gorgeous coastal views, not to mention sea lion spotting opportunities.
It’s also offers up a good variety of places to eat, many of which specialise in seafood of course. The takeaway fish and chips is a popular option, just watch out for hungry gulls…
2. Amusement park and Beach boardwalk
Back on dry land and just next to the wharf is another classic attraction, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This is California’s oldest amusement park and is free to enter, with payment on a per ride basis.
Sure, you won’t get the white knuckle thrill rides of some of the larger parks in California, but there is a wooden roller coaster and numerous more classic fairground attractions to keep you entertained.
3. Surfing museum on West Cliff Drive
All of West Cliff Drive is worth visiting, as it offers excellent views of the pier and city, not to mention giving you the chance to watch the surfers playing in the waves of “Steamer Lane” down below.
If you want to learn a bit more about the history of surfing though, you should take a moment to drop in at the Santa Cruz surfing museum in the Mark Abbott Memorial lighthouse, found on Lighthouse Point.
This is around a 15 – 20 minute walk from the pier, and features all kinds of information on the history of surfing, from its origins in Hawaii as well as the 100 years or so of surfing history in Santa Cruz itself.
No guide to what to do in Santa Cruz would be complete without mentioning one of the cities most famous activities – surfing! If a surfing museum sounds a bit dry for your tastes, then just hop into the water below, at the aforementioned Steamer Lane surfing hotspot, which is just below the lighthouse.
Access is easy to this well known spot, and it’s believed that the modern day surfing wetsuit and leash were developed here by Jack O’Neill, who had his shop just nearby.
Beyond Steamer Lane, there are 10 more locations you can surf at in Santa Cruz, including the legendary Pleasure Point, so you certainly aren’t going to be bored, whatever your level.
5. Natural Bridges State Beach
Ok, so this was my favourite thing to do in Santa Cruz. Because I like sunsets, natural beauty, and taking pictures of both of those things.
If you continue along the West Cliff Drive Road for a couple of miles, you’ll come to the Natural Bridges State Beach National Park. This is a 65 acre national park, with the highlight being that natural bridge out in the water, which is coated in birdlife, including pelicans and cormorants.
There’s an excellent view of the sunset from the vantage point carpark above the beach, but my favourite spot was down on the beach itself looking at the arch, with the sun setting off frame. Bring a neutral density filter for some great long exposure opportunities!
6. More Museums
If you’re interested in visiting a museum whilst in Santa Cruz beyond the surfing museum, the city has plenty of options for you to consider.
These include the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, Santa Cruz’s Children’s Museum of Discovery, Capitola Historical Museum and the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Exploration Museum.
As you can see, whatever your interests may be, we are sure you will find a museum you will enjoy in Santa Cruz.
7. The Mystery Spot
Now for a few locations outside of Santa Cruz, starting with the Mystery Spot. This is a very popular and fun attraction just outside the city, where you can appear to witness the laws of gravity bending before your very eyes!
The Mystery Spot has been a popular attraction since the 1940s, and is today listed on the California Registry of historical places. The attraction features a house built upon a specific location, where you can see all sorts of odd things happening, like balls appearing to roll uphill.
The attraction is a lot of fun, especially if you are visiting Santa Cruz as a family. Visits are by guided tour only, with tours leaving multiple times an hour (tour regularity depends on time of year).
You will need a car to visit – in fact, the attraction first launched to cater specifically to new automobile owners looking for things to do in the Santa Cruz area.
There’s parking on site, with a per vehicle fee charged. If you have a larger vehicle like an RV you will want to reserve a parking spot in advance as parking for larger vehicles is limited.
I would also add that the Mystery Spot is very popular, especially in the summer months. There is a maximum capacity per tour, and tours can sell out hours in advance. For this reason, we strongly suggest booking your tour timeslot in advance on the official website here.
Once your tour is booked, leave plenty of time to get to the Mystery Spot. You will want to arrive around 30 minutes in advance of your tour time to give you time to get up the narrow road to the parking lot, pay for parking and pick up your tickets.
While you are in the area, which is found within the beautiful redwood forest, you might also want to check out the 30 minute hiking trail which is also found on site.
8. Roaring Camp
If you love steam trains and giant redwoods, then you’ll definitely want to ensure a visit to Roaring Camp is on your to-do list when you visit Santa Cruz.
Roaring Camp is primarily popular for the historic train rides it offers. There are two main routes – you can take the train to and from Santa Cruz, or you can take a steam train ride through the Redwood Forest.
The latter is definitely a must-do experience, as the train winds its way up through the stunning redwood trees to the top of nearby Bear Mountain.
If you want to ride the steam train, which is definitely a recommend experience, then we suggest booking your tickets for the ride in advance to secure a spot. You can do that online in advance here.
There is more to see and do at the Roaring Camp depot as well. There are usually live demonstrations of traditional crafts such as blacksmithing, as well as a number of historical themed properties you can tour.
To get to Roaring Camp you can either take the train up from Santa Cruz, or you can drive and park on site. There’s a fee for parking. If you do visit by car, then you should also visit the next attraction on our list, which you can do directly from Roaring Camp without needing to move your car (and pay for parking again!).
9. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Whenever we’re in California, we always make sure we find some time to visit at least one of the redwood forests in the state. Walking among these massive trees is a wonderful experience.
The good news it that there are a number of locations near Santa Cruz where you can redwoods. One of our favourite locations to see the redwoods near Santa Cruz is the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. This is right next to Roaring Camp.
Here, you’ll find a number of trails through the state park, with the most popular of these being those which take you through the 40 acre grove of old-growth redwood trees. The oldest tree in the park is over 1500 years old and 277 feet tall!
There are also wildlife spotting opportunities, places to camp, as well as extensive hiking, horseback riding and swimming options. We can also recommend stopping by the visitor centre where you can learn all about the environment you are experiencing.
Visiting the park itself is free, but there is a day-use car parking fee. As mentioned above, if you want to visit Roaring Camp as well, you can walk between the two attractions, to save having to pay for parking twice.
10. And more!
There is of course a lot more to do in Santa Cruz beyond the above. There’s the Big Basin Redwoods State Park, hiking, kayaking and cycling opportunities, not to mention the busy downtown area to name but a few options.
You might in fact decide that you want to visit Santa Cruz for more than just a few hours. If so, check below for our hotel recommendations for Santa Cruz.
How to get to Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is easy to reach by car from San Francisco, either as a day trip or as part of a Pacific Coast Highway road trip down the coast to Los Angeles. If you want to rent a car for your trip, take a look at Rentalcars.com for the best deals.
You can also reach Santa Cruz by public bus from San Jose – the Highway 17 express, and there are a number of Greyhound options as well.
Where to Stay in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz has plenty of lodging options, from motels through to bed and breakfasts, vacation rentals, campgrounds, resorts. Pretty much something for everyone. A number of properties have gorgeous sea views, and we’re sure you won’t struggle to find the right property for you.
To help you with your planning, here are some options to consider across a range of budget options.
- The Islander Motel – Found around 0.7 miles from the Santa Cruz boardwalk, this is a well reviewed budget motel which offers air conditioned en-suite rooms with microwaves and fridges as well as free parking
- Harbor Inn – a well reviewed budget 2* inn found 10 minutes drive from the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Most rooms come with en-suite facilities, and free parking is available on site with a reservation
- Rio Vista Inn and Suites Santa Cruz – five minutes walk from the Santa Cruz boardwalk, this refurbished historic mansion offers lovely en-suite rooms with free parking available on site
- Ocean Pacific Lodge – just three blocks from the boardwalk, this 2* hotel offers quiet en-suite rooms in a great location with free parking available
- Seaway Inn – just moments from the beach and wharf, this is a well reviewed 2* inn. Rooms are en-suite, breakfast is included, and there’s free parking on site
- Cliff Crest Inn – just a few minutes walk from the boardwalk and wharf, this is a well reviewed 2 star hotel offering a number of individually decorated rooms, most with en-suite facilities. Breakfast and parking are included.
- West Cliff Inn – part of the four sisters brand, this is a beautiful bed and breakfast found in a Victorian home. En-suite rooms come with breakfast, and some offer stunning sea views. There’s free parking, as well as complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvre in the afternoon.
- Beach Street Inn and Suites – just across from the main beach, with many rooms offering beach and sea views, this is a well rated inn. En-suite rooms include free parking.
- Edgewater Beach Inn and Suites – Just across from the beach and boardwalk in Santa Cruz, this is a well rated property with en-suite rooms and free parking
If you’re looking for more options, our advice would be to check out the Santa Cruz listings on booking.com, we find they tend to have the most options when it comes to finding somewhere to stay, and the best prices too.
Where to Eat in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz has no shortage of dining options – whether you’re looking for laid back road-trip fare like burgers, or more upscale fine dining options.
Some of the best options include Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe, the Chill Out Cafe, Dharma’s (for vegetarians and vegans), the Taqueria Vallarta (for Mexican) and Oswal’s (for fine dining). We don’t think you’ll struggle to find somewhere good though, plus there are a number of options along the wharf which offer lovely views as you eat.
When to Visit Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is good to visit year round. The Californian climate means that even in the winter months the temperatures are pleasant (and there are less tourists in town). But we think you’ll enjoy visiting Santa Cruz at any time of year.
Further Reading for your Visit To Santa Cruz
We’ve written a number of guides and articles to visiting the USA that you might find useful for your trip to Santa Cruz. These are:
- A guide to how much it costs to travel in the USA
- Tips for Driving in the USA
- A detailed California road trip itinerary, which includes Santa Cruz
- A guide to driving California’s Pacific Coast Highway
- A photography location guide to nearby San Francisco
- A guide to nearby Los Osos, California
- Also on the California coast a little further south, a guide to visiting Cambria
And that’s it for our guide to what to do in Santa Cruz, California! Got any comments, feedback or additions to this post? Let us know in the comments section below!