Things to do in Santa Cruz California

Santa Cruz: Beaches and Picturesque Views along the California Coast

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We are exploring Santa Cruz, located in North Central California. This city may not be a popular destination for international tourism, but it is no less interesting. Along the spectacular Highway 1, we descend along the coast from San Francisco, which is about an hour and twenty minutes from Santa Cruz, a city characterized by mist in the evening and early morning, particularly in the summer. This “veil” of mist creates scenic views of the city.

Santa Cruz is a fun and sunny destination, with coastal roads that offer beautiful panoramic views, ocean beaches for surfing, good food, excellent local wines and beautiful redwood forests in the surroundings.

Location and Directions

To get to the city, you may choose the San Francisco International Airport (Hwy 101), which is about an hour and 10 minutes from Santa Cruz or the San Jose Airport (1701 Airport Blvd) that about 40 minutes away. If you prefer to travel by train or bus, Santa Cruz has a train station and a Greyhound bus station. Both are located at the Metro Center Station (920 Pacific Ave – downtown). The main roads that lead to Santa Cruz are Highway 1, which runs along the Pacific Ocean, and State Route 17, which connects Santa Cruz to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Things to Do in Santa Cruz

Here we are, north of Monterey Bay and Big Sur, ready to discover this city that has something for everyone, including for young people, adults, families and for the many surfers who come here in droves to surf.


Santa Cruz Downtown

We begin our tour downtown on Pacific Avenue, in the heart of Santa Cruz. We see street performers on streets lined with restaurants, theaters, cafes, nightclubs. Some retailers strategically display their merchandise outside the store to draw attention.

Pacific Avenue is the main artery of Santa Cruz, with exquisite architecture, trees and wide sidewalks. It is partly pedestrian and, although it lacks a proper bike path, it is still permitted to use a bicycle. Loud music, skateboarding and smoking are not allowed on Pacific Avenue.

Santa Cruz touristic attractions

The Del Mar Theater (1124 Pacific Ave.) is gem; it is a historic theatre built in Art Deco style whose iconic facade can be appreciated at its best with the evening lights. On the outside we notice the signs with the names of the programs as the current shows. The interior is colorful and inviting and the ceiling is beautiful. The Del Mar Theater is one of the few stops of the Beach Downtown Trolley, a cable car service. Tickets are 25 cents a ride. The trolley runs along the coast and is active from May to September from 12:00 pm to 8:00 pm. The other two stops are at the Sanctuary Exploration Center (35 Pacific Ave) and 124 Locust Street.

places to visit in santa cruz

Between Pacific Avenue and Water Street you will spot the Town Clock, the clock tower that is distinguished by its arched brick base, the colorful dome and a waving flag. This tower was part of a building that no longer exists. The names of citizens who helped to finance the project to maintain the tower are found on the bricks.

Santa Cruz Beaches

Santa Cruz beaches

From downtown, we drive 10 minutes south to Beach Street to the Santa Cruz Wharf, the pier built in 1914. It is an active and energetic area where you can spend some time shopping, getting food, bowling and observing the view with telescopes. From here it is possible to rent boats, to take boat tours, to fish and to admire the bay. You can spot sea lions, sea otters, dolphins and whales. The pier is open from 5:00 am to 2:00 am.

Nearby, Cowell’s Beach (109 Beach St) is a beach where the sea has long, gentle waves that are ideal for surfing. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk at 400 Beach St runs parallel to the beach and also has an amusement park with roller coasters, historic rides, mini-golf, a game room, children’s attractions as well as food and souvenirs. The boardwalk is a landmark of Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz things to do

Each attraction has its own price for admission, so you can choose which ones you prefer. The amusement park is open every day from May to September and during the rest of the year it remains partially open, but it stays closed in December. Meanwhile the bowling alley, the games room, mini-golf and “The Kingdom of Neptune” are open throughout the year. It is nice even to just stroll along the boardwalk admiring the ocean and life on the beach.

The coast continues across San Lorenzo River and past the amusement park. Speaking of the river, Riverwalk Park (Along the levee) has a nice view of the river. Seabright State Beach (15 E. Cliff Dr) is a long, wide, dog-friendly beach, with an impressive arched passage along the shoreline that may or may not be accessible depending on the tide. The end of Seabright State Beach is marked by Walton Lighthouse.

Santa Cruz Harbor (135 5th Ave) is home to several boats. Activities here include whale watching, fishing tours and sightseeing tours around the coast. The coastline is interrupted by port and continues at Twin Lakes State Beach (E. Cliff Dr), which ends at Black Point. It is a popular beach for swimming and picnics while Schwan’s Lagoon, located nearby, is a great place for bird-watching.

Further east, on the beach at Pleasure Point, skilled and extreme surfers gather and it’s a sight to behold. This area on East Cliff Drive offers beautiful ocean views and many find other ways to enjoy the scenery besides surfing, such as biking or driving. West Cliff Drive is no less scenic, where you can also walk, bike or drive (or roller skate).

Inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, a beautiful brick lighthouse, there is the very popular Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (701 W. Cliff Dr.), in which we find photographs dating back 100 years, boards and articles related to this important sport in Santa Cruz, also known as Surf City. According to legend, three Hawaiian princesses brought surfing here in 1885 followed by legendary athletes like Duke Kahanamoku. In the gift shop, you can buy books and articles about surfing. From July to early September, the museum is open from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, except on Wednesdays. In the remaining months, it is open from 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm and it is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

And that’s not all. In Lighthouse Field State Beach, the same beach where the lighthouse is located, you will find Steamer Lane, the most popular beach for surfing, which is great if you are a good surfer, otherwise, if you’re like us, it can still be thrilling to watch. In the winter, you can see sea lions and monarch butterflies with beautiful yellow-orange-brown wings. The coast is accessible from 7:00 am to sunset.

Natural Bridges State Beach santa cruz

You should also visit Natural Bridges State Beach (2531 W. Cliff Dr.). The location is known to host a scenic natural arch close to the coast, created by water and wind erosion (originally there were three). This is also an excellent location to see monarch butterflies (October-February), seabirds, whales, seals and otters. At low tide, you can walk in the puddles where sea anemone, crabs and colorful marine life are exposed or more visible. The beach is accessible from 8:00 am to sunset. The entrance fee is determined by the type of vehicle and the age of the driver. Visitors pay $10 is for a standard size car and $9 if the driver is a senior aged 62 years and over.

Nature Parks

santa cruz california parks

The coast and the beach are definitely strong points in this area, but nature lovers will enjoy visiting Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (2591 Graham Hill Rd. – Scotts Valley) in the Santa Cruz Mountains, an incredible park a little further north Santa Cruz with diverse scenery ranging from sand dunes to green areas, but it is dominated by redwood trees that can be up to 275 ft tall and 16 ft wide.

Here you can go horseback riding, have picnics, swim in the deep pool called Garden of Eden or in the clear waters of the streams, take scenic walks, hike, and go mountain climbing. Don’t be surprised if you see someone kissing a banana slug, a long snail with a color similar to that of the fruit. It is said to be a ritual for many inhabitants of Northern California. Moreover, it is the mascot of the University of California Santa Cruz. The park is open from dawn to dusk. The entrance fee, for standard size cars, is $10 for adult drivers and $9 for seniors aged 62 or older. Trailers may be no longer than 31 ft and RVs may be no longer than 34 ft.

The numerous campgrounds are very popular, some of which are only accessible on foot. We recommend the Henry Cowell Redwoods Campground, which has 107 spaces in the shade. To get there, when you arrive at the exit for the Graham Hill Road, about 2625 ft from Santa Cruz Sandhills and 5 miles Santa Cruz. It is important to get maps and ask rangers for advice at the visitor center, which is open from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.

Attrazioni Santa Cruz

Nature and history come together at Wilder Ranch State Park (1401 Coast Rd), which shows life on a farm in the late 1800s. The main building is a Victorian house from 1897 and there are also barns, a rodeo arena, a farm with animals and plenty of space for picnics. On weekends starting at 1:00 pm, there are one-hour tours to visit other buildings. With more than 35 miles of trails, you can venture into the Santa Cruz Mountains or explore the beautiful views of the coast. The Ohlone Bluff Trail, a scenic trail on the coast, begins in the park’s parking lot.

Another spectacular natural area is the Arboretum & Botanic Garden (1490 High St) on the University of California Santa Cruz campus. There are thousands of plants, such as lilac, tea tree, heather, manuka, eucalyptus and yucca. In addition, there are “gardens” of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and California and aromatic gardens. The nice thing is that there are always plants blooming year-round and bird-watchers can observe many birds, including some species of hawks, doves, eagles, crows, herons, hummingbirds and robins.

The park is open every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, except on Thanksgiving, and December 25-28. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children 6 to 17 years old. Free admission is offered on the first Tuesday of each month. Guided tours cost $10. It may be worth it to stop by the Gift & Garden Shop, which is open daily from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.

A short distance from the botanical garden, we conclude our tour of Santa Cruz at Holy Cross Catholic Church (126 High St), a Catholic church next to a smaller one dating back to the time of the Franciscan missions. The church has a relaxing and quiet atmosphere and inside there are beautiful decorations and stained glass windows. There is also an unusual collection of various cassocks worn by prelates. Visit the garden, which has palm trees, a fountain and a patio. There is also a gift shop.

Shopping in Santa Cruz

If you love shopping, Pacific Avenue is the place to go. However, since you are in Santa Cruz, you must visit a surf shop, so we recommend Freeline Surf Shop (821 41st St.). It rents out surfboards, bodyboards and wetsuits, everything you need for water sports. The store even has custom boards and accessories.

Santa Cruz Events

Various events take place in the city throughout the year. In February, there is the Clam Chowder Cook-Off at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk (400 Beach St.). It is a free event with cooking competitions, chef at work, and clam chowder for sale. Japanese culture is celebrated in June at the Japanese Cultural Fair in Mission Park Plaza (103 Emmett St.) with food, tea ceremonies, kimono workshops, flower decorations, dancing, music, art and crafts. The next two events highlight Mexican culture.

The Taco & Tequila Festival in August takes place at San Lorenzo Park (137 Dakota St) in downtown, where you will find food, craft beer, live music, art and handicrafts. Tacos and tequila are the protagonists of the event. They are sold, but there are also tastings. Keep in mind that to be served alcoholic beverages you must be at least 21.

In September, the Mole & Mariachi Festival at the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park (144 School St) in downtown is an event whose proceeds are used for educational programs, visitor services and renovations of the Santa Cruz Mission. Food vendors, booths, mariachi, folk dancers, raffles, children’s activities, competitions and mole tasting (it contains peppers, spices, chocolate and dried fruit) bring this event to life. It is said that the best mole in the city is made here.

Also in September, at the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church in downtown (223 Church St), there is the free Live Like a Greek, a festival with authentic Greek cuisine (barbeque and rotisserie meat), live music, dancing and shopping. While you are here for the event, you should visit the church with richly colored icons and interior decorations.

The O’Neill Coldwater Classic Contest is a surfing competition in October or November at Steamer Lane (700 W. Cliff Dr.). You can imagine how popular this event must be. Another event in November that takes place along the boardwalk (400 Beach St) is the Santa Cruz Sea Glass Ocean Art Festival, where there are unique works by American artists who create works of art with sea glass, ceramic objects, plates, vases, frames and especially jewelry. 10% of proceeds are donated to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The Christmas season is full of events that create the Christmas atmosphere, such as Surfing Santa, Boardwalk Holiday Ice, Creative Crafting, Breakfast with Santa, Downtown Holiday Parade, Old Fashioned Christmas Tea and Caroling Under the Stars.

Places to Eat in Santa Cruz

places to eat in Santa Cruz

Here are some restaurants we recommend. A very affordable, stylish and casual-looking place is the Chill Out Cafe (860 41st Ave) which serves sandwiches, soups, salads and smoothies and delicious burritos. Another affordable place is the Santa Cruz Diner (909 Ocean St), a casual diner that is also a favorite of food expert Guy Fieri. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and serves sandwiches, pasta, meat, fish, omelets, soups, mashed potatoes, spring rolls, smoothies and banana splits. You can enjoy vegetarian dishes and breakfast all day.

A moderate price option is the Hula’s Island Grill & Tiki Room (221 Cathcart St) with a lively atmosphere and tropical décor. The restaurant offers cocktails and American and tropical dishes. In addition to vegan and gluten-free options, you can order tacos, Cajun burgers, pineapple rice, Caesar salad with Cajun shrimp, crispy coconut shrimp rolls, pulled pork with soy glaze, coconut fish soup and other interesting dishes.

For a casual atmosphere with a beautiful view of the yacht harbor and Monterey Bay, go to Johnny’s Harborside (493 Lake Ave.). Its price range is medium-high and it serves dishes prepared with seasonal, fresh and local ingredients. It mostly serves seafood, but also steaks, salads and sandwiches. Brunch is served on Sundays. Here, you can choose the type of fish and decide how you want it cooked.

Where to Stay in Santa Cruz

Lodging in Santa Cruz California
West Cliff Inn

These are some good options for an overnight stay. The SeaSide Inn & Suites (525 Ocean St.) is approximately 1.5 kilometers from the beach, and the rooms and suites are equipped with Wi-Fi, a refrigerator, microwave, and coffee maker. This hotel offers excellent value for money and provides free parking for guests.

The West Cliff Inn (174 W. Cliff Dr) is a Victorian B&B with coastal-inspired décor, located on a cliff between Cowell’s Beach and the Boardwalk. Many rooms have ocean views and a hot tub. Buffet breakfast is included in the price. Dinner is prepared on request. Drinks are available all day. Guests can read the newspapers in the lobby every morning and enjoy the books and games available. Local calls and wi-fi are free. There is on-site parking as well.

To save money, a good option is to stay at the Carousel Beach Inn (110 Riverside Avenue), a 2-star hotel where you can find modest yet comfortable rooms for an affordable price. The location is excellent, just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Boardwalk.

Search for a hotel in Santa Cruz

Our Tip:
Looking for accommodations for your trip from California to other parts of the Southwest? Read our guide that contains reviews of hotels and strategic tips for finding accommodations near major attractions: Where to Stay: Our Tips for the SouthWest Area

Warning: Operating hours can change and closures for extraordinary events can occur, so we strongly suggest to check the venues official websites.

Marianna Licia e Paolo

There are two passions that we share: photography and traveling, especially in the United States.

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