Like this artwork? You can buy stickers and cards here! 🙂
Santa Cruz is a small town but there is a lot to do, especially if you love nature and the ocean. But there are also plenty of activities to entertain foodies and shoppers as well. There are many fun things to do in Santa Cruz, places to eat and areas like West Cliff Drive, Downtown and Capitola to explore. Let’s explore this coastal California town!
Santa Cruz is world famous for surfing. One of the most well-known surfing spots is Steamer Lane, but there are surfing areas for all levels from barney to expert. Depending on the swell and tides of course.
Cowell’s just next to the wharf is an excellent place for the beginning surfer to practice their skills. In fact this is where I first learned to surf! Just grab your board and head down the cliffside stairs to the water.
Like some help learning to surf? Check out these beginner surf lessons!
Not up for hanging ten? Visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum to learn about the history of the sport and hang out right there on the cliffs to watch the pros ride the waves at Steamer’s.
Want to be near the water but not in it? Take a walk along West Cliff Drive. With the ocean on one side and beautiful houses on the other, it’s an ideal place for a stroll any time of year. A great route is from Lighthouse Point (the location of the Surfing Museum mentioned above) to Natural Bridges State Beach and back, a relaxing walk of about four miles. Watch out for bikes, runners and rollerbladers.
Natural Bridges State Beach is worth a little side exploration. The small park has eucalyptus trees that are home to migrating monarch butterflies in the fall and winter months. The tidepools below the cliffs are also amazing at low tide. Read more about it on the Natural Bridges website.
On this walk along West Cliff Drive you may spot surfers, sea otters, pelicans, sea lions, harbor seals, and perhaps even humpback whales. It is one of the most romantic things to do in Santa Cruz.
This historic seaside amusement park is famous for its beachfront location and wooden rollercoaster, the Giant Dipper. Built in May 1924, the Giant Dipper is now almost 100 years old.
I used to live around the corner from the Boardwalk when they had “50 cent Tuesdays” where every ride was only 50 cents after 5PM. We’d ride the Giant Dipper over and over again, letting off steam by shrieking during the drops and turns. Then maybe a spin or two on the bumper cars and off to grab burritos for dinner. Ah the good old days.
Some parts of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk are open year round like the arcade and bowling alley but the true season is summertime. Check their calendar for opening hours and special events. They have summer concerts on the beach and special deal nights in the off seasons. The Boardwalk is a fun place to visit for history buffs, the young and young at heart.
There are lots of cute, inexpensive historic hotels and motels near this popular area, check out the Carousel Beach Inn and the Seaway Inn. For a bit more luxury and beautiful views, check out the classic Dream Inn or the historic Victorian West Cliff Inn just down the street. More local lodging ideas follow below.
Be sure to take a walk out on the pier also to say hi to the sea lions at the wharf. Which leads us to the next tip!
Rent a sea kayak from Venture Quest Kayak at the Santa Cruz Wharf and paddle out to the kelp beds of Monterey Bay. The area is a marine preserve and is teeming with sea life.
No experience is required to paddle an open top sea kayak. You just strap your life vest on, grab a paddle and hop in. If you aren’t confident or experienced you can try a double kayak and have a buddy help you paddle.
In a sea kayak you can have an amazing experience. Enjoy the relaxing movement of the ocean and breathe in the fresh salty air. Cruise the kelp beds and watch the otters floating by. You might spot a dolphin or even a whale!
Let’s take a break from the seaside and do a little shopping! Santa Cruz is a popular tourist destination so of course there are lots of little trinket shops scattered around. But these shopping areas are still filled with a lot of charm and there are many local favorite stores as well.
The downtown area has seen a lot of changes in the past (nearly) 30 years since the disastrous 1989 earthquake damaged or destroyed many of the old buildings. The hippie town has gotten a bit more stylish but there is still a little funkiness to keep things real.
Capitola Village is another popular place to stroll around and pop into shops. Clothing boutiques and specialty shops are common here. Shopping is probably one of the most popular things to do in Capitola but you can also go for a long walk on the beach or surf at the different point breaks. The neighborhood is surrounded by seacliffs and sand, adding a lot of charm to the area.
Sprinkled among the shops you’ll find lots of tasty places to eat. Which leads us to our next idea!
Like any good town, Santa Cruz has a huge range of eateries. Old favorites and new places, hole in the wall joints and upscale restaurants. There is a wide variety of places to eat in Santa Cruz. Here are a few spots we would suggest checking out:
The small city of Santa Cruz is a great place to catch live music of all varieties. Popular spots include Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Moe’s Alley and of course The Catalyst. Check what’s on during your visit by looking at Good Times. There are also seasonal music festivals like Santa Cruz Mountain Sol and the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival. Many bars and restaurants will also have live bands on Thursday through Saturday so just check around to see what’s happening. There are always fun things to do in Santa Cruz at night even though it is a somewhat small town.
Love wine? Make your way to the Santa Cruz Mountains for a different wine tasting experience. Sure, Napa and Sonoma are nice but we’ve all been there before, haven’t we? Visit some of the 70 wineries located in the mountains and valleys around Santa Cruz and sample unusual wines you won’t find elsewhere. We highly recommend a designated sober driver or why not book a tour and leave your worries behind? The Santa Cruz Experience organizes wine tasting tours and beer brewery tours as well, or go with Santa Cruz Wine Tours or Ag Adventure Tours.
Santa Cruz also has a new craft distillery called Venus Spirits. Stop in for a tour and tasting.
If you love wine, take a trip down the coast to Santa Barbara too!
Foodies should be sure to check out the weekly Santa Cruz Farmers Markets. The produce from the area is some of the finest in the world. Depending on the season you’ll find oysters, wild mushrooms, strawberries, lettuce in every shape and size, free-range eggs, juicy tomatoes, fresh herbs, local goat cheese, dried fruits, prepared foods and more! The Wednesday downtown market is a favorite but the other neighborhood markets are fantastic too. Pick up some goodies and take a picnic to our next tip!
Hiking and mountain biking are extremely popular activities with locals in the Santa Cruz area. There are many state and regional parks with great trails and diverse landscapes. Some of my favorites include:
For a limited time, if you register at Booking.com using this link and then reserve using the links below you can get $20 cash back! It’s a special offer from Booking.com.
We hope you enjoyed these 10 tips for things to do in Santa Cruz! Have fun on your visit!
To get excited for your visit to Santa Cruz, I recommend watching the classic movie The Lost Boys.
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