10 Best Things To Do in Santa Cruz, California
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!
1. GO SURFING
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.
2. WALK WEST CLIFF DRIVE
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.
3. VISIT THE FAMOUS SANTA CRUZ BEACH BOARDWALK
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!
4. GO SEA KAYAKING IN MONTEREY BAY
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!
5. GO SHOPPING DOWNTOWN OR CAPITOLA VILLAGE
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!
6. PLACES TO EAT & DRINK IN SANTA CRUZ
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:
- I can’t go anywhere near Santa Cruz without making a detour to Tacos Moreno, a hole in the wall taco heaven. Their salsa is just perfect. The vegetarian taco with beans and cheese is basically a simple vehicle to showcase their garlic-y salsa but the carne asada taco is awesome too.
- Coffee will get your blood pumping and have you ready for that kayak adventure or hike. Get your coffee or chai tea latte with a true Santa Cruz vibe at Caffe Pergolesi. This cool coffeehouse is situated right downtown in an old Victorian mansion with a big verandah. You just can’t beat it. Other recommended coffee spots in town include Verve and Firefly.
- Don’t be afraid of carbs, get your fix at The Bagelry with creative and classic bagels. Their spreads are local legends, the Fandango, Luna and Pink Flamingo are always popular. I like a garlic bagel toasted and topped with hummus and sliced tomato. You won’t have nice breath afterward but it is worth it.
- A semi-industrial area on the Westside has been converted into a cute shopping area with cafes and an organic supermarket. Stop in to Kelly’s French Bakery for tasty brunch and lunch or pick up some pastries to eat by the beach.
- Zachary’s is the classic place downtown to come for a big brunch. The food isn’t super fancy, but the portions are huge. Mike’s Mess is popular with the hungry folks. If you’re looking for brunch, Linda’s Seabreeze is another cute option in the Seabright area.
- A typical sporty beer bar with pub style food, 99 Bottles has a good beer selection that should please beer connoisseurs as well as those who are just in the mood for a cold one. I like their local beer selections.
- A lovely restaurant downtown, Laili serves delicious Afghani cuisine in a spacious setting. Definitely recommended if you are looking for something a little exotic and a lot delightful.
- In the mood for wine? Head to Soif Wine Bar. You’ll find all kinds of wine to try as well as small plates of gourmet dishes that pair perfectly with the wines.
- Santa Cruz is an awesome place to eat ice cream. What’s better than an ice cream cone after a day at the beach? Go for the classic at Marianne’s (my fave is the Mudpie) or try the gourmet flavors at The Penny Ice Creamery.
7. CATCH SOME LIVE MUSIC IN SANTA CRUZ CLUBS
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.
8. WINE TASTING IN THE SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS
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!
9. SANTA CRUZ FARMERS MARKETS
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!
10. HIKE OR BIKE IN SANTA CRUZ PARKS
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:
- Wilder Ranch State Park: this park has a diverse landscape with everything from strenuous hiking and biking trails to activities for the kids. Check out the old farm buildings, walk the ocean cliff paths, and head to the hills for amazing vistas.
- Big Basin Redwoods State Park: the Skyline to the Sea trail is a classic favorite but the park has over 80 miles of trails as well as camping facilities.
- Año Nuevo State Park: check out the elephant seals on the beach!
- Pogonip: this small park is situated between residential neighborhoods and the University of California. In fact, I used to hike or bike through here to get to my classes! It’s a charming park with eight miles of trails that is easily accessible from the center of town, perfect for a quick trail run. It also connects to Henry Cowell State Park for more hiking and biking opportunities.
PLACES TO STAY IN SANTA CRUZ
- Hostel Santa Cruz is a unique accommodation, set in a quiet neighborhood in old Victorian houses known as Carmelita Cottages.
- Near the historic Boardwalk and West Cliff Drive 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.
- Babbling Book Inn is an adorable B&B nestled on a hill just above downtown.
- Stay by the beach near Capitola for some peace and quiet. Monarch Cove Inn is located near New Brighton State Beach. or check out The Inn at Depot Hill.
- Santa Cruz is also popular on Airbnb. Sign up here to save $35 off your first booking.
- You can also find really interesting accommodations on Hipcamp in the Santa Cruz area. Bring your tent or rent a camper or RV, some places have cabins too! Sign up for Hipcamp here and get $20 off your first stay.
Camping in the area? Check out these websites for awesome places to camp. Or find a good deal at a local hotel.
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.
And you might enjoy these books:
- The Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Book by Tom Taber
- Haunted Santa Cruz California by Maryanne Porter
- Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains by John V Young
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