Planning a Northern California getaway? Leave time in your itinerary for checking out all the best things to do in Santa Cruz, CA. Located just south of San Francisco and San Jose, this spectacular seaside city, famed for its surf culture, is the perfect antidote to the big city vibes of the Bay Area.
Among the top tourist attractions in Santa Cruz, you’ll find stunning redwood forests, magnificent gardens, sandy beaches, and one of only two World Surfing Reserves in the United States. No matter what type of traveler you are, Santa Cruz offers a variety of destinations to let enjoy nature and the area’s captivating history.
Not sure what to do in Santa Cruz? Start planning the ultimate itinerary with this complete guide to the best places to visit in Santa Cruz, CA.
Best places to visit in Santa Cruz, CA
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
For a day of fun for the whole family on your Santa Cruz adventure, carve out time to visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Located on Santa Cruz’s oceanfront, the park is one of the last great seaside amusement parks in the United States and a California State Historic Landmark. It’s home to several cool attractions, including the Casino Arcade and Neptune’s Kingdom.
The kids will love roaming around this nautical-themed entertainment center. At Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, you can play mini-golf, air hockey, ping pong, or get in the pool.
There’s also a wide variety of food on offer here, whether you want to dine in or take away. Try the park’s famous cornbread, made with a secret recipe. Got a sweet tooth? The caramelized apples are another absolute must!
For an epic adventure, take a ride down memory lane on the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster, and the Loof Carousel; both of these famed amusement park rides are National Historic Landmarks!
Wilder Ranch State Park
Want to take a trip back in time? Visit Wilder Ranch State Park to step back into late 19th-century California ranch life. Built in 1897, the ranch’s Victorian house comes complete with a water power machine shop from 1896. While you’re here, you’ll also encounter plenty of farm animals, something that the little ones will love.
Wilder Ranch State Park spans 7,000 acres and stretches all the way down to the coast. The nature reserve’s sea access is beautiful, making it an ideal place to take pictures or have a picnic with a panoramic view.
Inside Wilder Ranch, you can camp or go hiking, horseback riding, and biking along its 35 miles of trails, reaching into the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Roaring Camp Railroads
If you’re in the mood for a Wild West adventure deep in the redwood groves, head over to Roaring Camp Railroads. Located 15 minutes north of downtown Santa Cruz, the camp offers a wide variety of creative activities for children and adults alike.
At Roaring Camp Railroads, steam train tours meander through the forest and along the beach. You can even participate in festivals such as Brewgrass or Steam and Harvest, or partake in one of the many nighttime activities.
Take the Redwood Forest Train and learn about the Redwood Forest ecosystem and the steam trains themselves. The trail runs through the redwood forest and climbs up Bear Mountain in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
If you prefer the city atmosphere, choose the Santa Cruz Beach Train, one of the oldest train lines in California. The train leaves from the Santa Cruz Mountains and travels along a picturesque path to the Santa Cruz Beach Broadwalk.
Aside from the various routes on the forest train, Roaring Camp showcases unique themes such as the Great Train Robbery, the Starlight Dinner Party, and Kids Club, where the little ones can enjoy endless fun activities.
Santa Cruz Wharf
Built on Santa Cruz Beach in 1914, the Santa Cruz Wharf serves as the city’s main fishing pier and a promenade for tourists. From the pier, you can enjoy panoramic views of Monterey Bay, including the fishing boats and the bathers at Cowell Beach next door. Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf is the ideal spot for spending a whole day on the coast.
At the Santa Cruz Wharf, you can rent equipment for fishing or water sports. Looking for nature? You can spot sea lions and other aquatic animals from the wharf as you dine on seafood in one of the many restaurants along the waterfront.
Opened just a year after Santa Cruz Wharf, Marini’s Candies upholds a long tradition of making and selling sweets. Visit Marini’s on the Wharf to try some of their candied apples, a house specialty coming in a wide variety of flavors.
Natural Bridges State Beach
One of the prettiest areas to take a stroll and enjoy the scenery around Santa Cruz is Natural Bridges State Beach. At this popular Santa Cruz beach, low tide pools uncover the rich marine life that includes anemones, sea stars, and shore crabs.
Take an evening walk along the coast of Natural Bridges State Beach and enjoy the golden sunset, picturesque rocks, and active animal life. You may be able to witness shorebirds flying low and whales in the distance, as well as seals and otters, basking in the shallows.
Natural Bridges State Park also hides another treasure for nature lovers: the Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve. At the preserve, you can learn about this beautiful butterfly species, their migration patterns, and why the reserve is essential to their continued existence.
The Mystery Spot
Looking to add something a little quirky to your Santa Cruz itinerary? Leave time for a visit to The Mystery Spot, one of the weirdest places to go in Santa Cruz.
The history of this mysterious attraction dates back to 1939, when a couple bought a plot of land north of Santa Cruz. As the typographer was taking measurements, he noticed odd variations on the compass and felt a tad dizzy. After some investigation, the new owners discovered a gravitational anomaly that the family’s since capitalized on to forge this quirky roadside attraction.
At The Mystery Spot, visitors will experience optical illusions that seem to defy the laws of physics. You’ll witness marbles rolling uphill and other travelers standing at seemingly impossible angles. Even if you don’t buy into its magical hype, it’s well worth a visit—especially if you’ve got kids in tow.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Ready to be amazed by nature? The 4,650 acres of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park will leave nature lovers in awe. At this popular Calfornia state park, magnificent redwoods rise to a jaw-dropping 277 feet tall, witnessing up to 1,500 years of history. Prominent figures such as John C. Frémont and President Theodore Roosevelt have toured the park and promoted efforts to protect it.
Bring your family to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park for a day of fun and learning. Explore the hiking tours on foot or by bicycle, jump in and take a swim, ride a horse, have a picnic, and even camp.
Looking to give your hiking shoes an easy workout? Take the Redwood Grove Loop Trail. It’s just 0.8 miles long and the perfect spot to enjoy the greenery in the fresh air.
The density of the trees and the abundant vegetation makes the forest a quiet and peaceful place. The silence is only interrupted from time to time by the roar of the old Roaring Camp trains, whose tracks run alongside the Redwood Grove Loop Trail.
Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
What’s unique about the coasts of Santa Cruz compared to other areas in Northern California is that they’re an ideal destination for surfing. In fact, surfing has been a prominent part of the community for decades. Today, you can explore the area’s surfing history at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. The museum lies inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse on West Cliff Drive.
The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is the first of its kind in the state of California. It’s been preserving the area’s surfing history for over 35 years. Located on the cliff above Steamer Lane, an internationally renowned surf spot, the museum offers wonderful views of the Pacific Ocean.
Inside the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, you can browse historical exhibitions with photographs and surf memorabilia. On the way out, surfing enthusiasts can buy literature about the sport in the gift shop.
UC Santa Cruz Arbortetum & Botanic Garden
To the northwest of Santa Cruz, along Empire Grade Street, lies the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden. The immense area encompassing this popular spot includes four large gardens, housing rare species from different areas of the world. They include the New Zealand Garden, South African Garden, Australian Garden, and, of course, a local California Natives Garden.
The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden also includes smaller gardens like The Aroma Garden and The Eucalyptus Grove that preserve aromatic species, filling your lungs with healthy greenery. The Butterfly Garden, the first of its kind in California, is promising as well. This area of California is very important to the life cycle of several species of butterflies.
Looking for a little more info? The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden offers visitors specialist-led tours. You need to can book tours in advance on its website here. There’s also a picnic area where you can sit down to enjoy a delicious meal.
Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Beautiful views of the sea, a whale skeleton, and a shark that you can pet are just some of the things you’ll find at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center. Located at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), the center is a great place to visit with the whole family and offers a dual purpose.
On the one hand, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center educates professionals who study ocean life. on the other, it teaches visitors about the wonderful underwater world and how ocean conservation works.
By visiting the center, you can learn about Monterey Bay, known to marine life scholars as the “Serengeti of the Sea” due to its diversity.
Admire the indoor underwater life exhibits created by marine scientists. Or spend your time browsing its outdoor exhibits, including sea lion sculptures and the world’s largest blue whale skeleton. All the exhibitions are interactive, educational, and entertaining for the little ones.
Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History
Eager to dive into local art? An enriching combination of discourse and culture awaits at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, one of the best places to see in Santa Cruz.
Among the museum’s permanent exhibits, you can visit the Santa Cruz County History Gallery. Here you’ll see the individual stories of the inhabitants, from the Ohlone natives and immigrants to more recent prominent figures. Together they offer a fascinating collective history of Santa Cruz County.
One of the most interesting temporary exhibitions is Queer Santa Cruz. It presents the fight of the LGBTQ+ community in Santa Cruz to achieve inclusion and equality.
The exterior of the museum is as attractive as its interior, too. On the terrace, you can enjoy a sculpture garden designed by local artists. Right outside the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, you’ll find Abbott Square, with several places to enjoy dinner and a drink.
Lighthouse Field State Beach
Monterey Bay is a coastal area that is the pride of Santa Cruz. From Natural Bridges to Opal Cliffs, the area has been named a World Surfing Reserve. This title has only been given to three other places in the world.
Access this shoreline at Lighthouse Field State Beach and take a stroll along the coast, enjoying the seascape. Watch the professional surfers shredding or ride the waves yourself.
Lighthouse Field State Beach is also home to monarch butterflies. They escape the cold of the Rocky Mountains and spend the winter in this area. The park is a massively important biome for the species.
Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park
Mission La Exaltación de la Santa Cruz was the twelfth mission established in Alta California. It was founded in 1791, after four years of difficulties, while the construction of the church and the mission quadrangle was completed in 1795. Today you can visit this series of buildings and replica church, now known as the Santa Cruz Mission Historic Park.
One of the park’s treasures is the adobe structure built by local Native Americans and completed in 1824. The adobe structure served as a shelter for families living at the Mission and has now been restored for visitors. In California, it’s the only building structure of its kind preserved as a museum.
At Santa Cruz Mission Historic Park, you can see relics from the Mission’s late 18th and early 19th century days. The historical park has all the amenities you’d expect. You can even take your lunch with you and have a picnic on the tables in the garden.
Neary Lagoon Park
Ready for a family outing in nature? Neary Lagoon Park offers green spaces in a stunning aquatic environment.
This wildlife refuge will fascinate the whole family. Kids will especially love the Pollinator Garden. In California alone, there are 1,500 different species of native bees. In the Pollinator Garden, you can learn about the noble work of this buzzing insect.
At Neary Lagoon Park, you can play tennis or basketball, and the kids can choose from two playgrounds. The wooden dock over the lagoon runs for a distance of one mile and gives you great views of the wildlife.
While you’re there, visit the Neary Lagoon Wildlife Refuge, located within the park grounds. Here you can see coots, wood ducks, mallards, and different species of fish and geese, to name a few.
Pleasure Point County Park
If you haven’t had enough of Santa Cruz Beach’s incredible activities and wildlife, consider heading up the Monterey Bay coast. Stop by the market for some breakfast and then find your spot on the sandy beach of Pleasure Point County Park. Here, you can witness some of the best surfers in the area riding the waves.
Pleasure Point is a proud surfing community. The movie Chasing Mavericks was filmed here, based on the story of local surfer Jay Moriarty. The park offers a guide map so you can follow the filming locations of the movie.
The beach itself is beautiful and worth visiting, but if you want to ride waves, you’ve come to the right place. A dozen surfing records have been broken in the waters of the bay. So, for lovers of the sport, Pleasure Point is the ideal surfing destination.
In 1892 a successful Mexican businessman, José Vicente DeLaveaga, purchased a vast 500-acre piece of land in Santa Cruz. After his death, much of his land was donated to the city and is now known as DeLaveaga Park.
At DeLaveaga Park, you can experience many outdoor activities, including archery, hiking, and cycling. There are a variety of short-distance trails, ranging from 0.6 to 1.5 miles. After a walk or bike ride, you can enjoy a picnic on the pretty tables under the shade of the trees.
Want to improve your archery or learn how to fire arrows? The park’s archery course consists of two one-way trails consisting of 14 targets each. If you’re more into golf, you’ll also find a good course to enjoy. No matter what sport you practice, you can be sure that you can do it here in a relaxing, natural environment.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Looking for a natural family getaway? Big Basin Redwoods State Park fits the bill. The park opened in 1902 and is the oldest state park in California. Located in Santa Cruz County, it spans 18,000 acres of ancient redwood trees and includes access to some of the most beautiful beaches in Santa Cruz.
Enjoy everything from short walks to high-performance hikes, with a well-appointed camping area to rest up in. And it’s all set within a stunning forest with beautiful views of waterfalls and the Pacific Ocean.
One of the best things to do in Santa Cruz, CA, is to plan for a full day of hiking on the 10.5-mile Berry Creek Falls Trail. This 2,150-foot elevation trail will lead you through the redwood forest to views of cooling waterfalls.
Easier hiking trail options include Sempervirens Falls at four miles long and the Redwood Loop Trail at just 0.6 miles. For the former, consider half a day of walking; for the latter, one hour is enough.
On the Redwood Loop Trail, you’ll catch a glimpse of two huge redwood trees. These are the Father of the Forest and Mother of the Forest, measuring up to 329 feet tall. They’ll simply take your breath away.