25 Of The Best Things to Do in Santa Cruz, California (2024 Guide)

Wondering what activities and attractions you can’t miss in Surf City? Our guide to the best things to do in Santa Cruz is just what you need!

If you’re on the lookout for a sun-soaked, beachfront paradise with a dash of vibrant city life, look no further than Santa Cruz, California. Nestled along the stunning Central Coast in Northern California, Santa Cruz is a treasure trove of incredible experiences and activities just waiting to be explored.

In this post, we’re going to dive into the best things to do in Santa Cruz, from the classic thrills of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to the artistic charm of downtown Santa Cruz, and even the mesmerizing natural beauty of places like the Natural Bridges State Beach.

So, grab your shades, lather on that sunscreen, and let’s embark on a true Californian adventure like no other! 

25 Incredible Things to Do in Santa Cruz

These are the top 25 things we think you should add to your Santa Cruz itinerary.

Hike Among Redwoods in the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, nestled in the majestic Santa Cruz Mountains, is a nature lover’s paradise and a vital addition to the list of things to do in Santa Cruz. This expansive park is renowned for its towering old-growth redwood trees, some of which are over 1,500 years old and reach heights of 277 feet.

Visitors can explore a network of well-maintained trails that wind through the ancient groves, providing an opportunity to immerse themselves in the serene beauty of these towering giants. A highlight of the park is the Redwood Grove Loop Trail, an easy and accessible path that allows visitors to get up close to the awe-inspiring redwoods and experience the tranquility of the forest.

Aside from hiking, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park offers picnic areas, interpretive programs, and opportunities for birdwatching and wildlife observation. It’s a perfect destination for those seeking a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of city life and a chance to connect with the natural wonders of Santa Cruz.

Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or simply looking for a serene place to relax and take in the beauty of ancient redwoods, this park is a must-visit among the many things to do in Santa Cruz, offering a captivating glimpse into the region’s rich natural heritage.

Read Next: Check out this post on all the great things to do in San Francisco!

Wander the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is an iconic and must-visit attraction for anyone exploring Santa Cruz, offering a vibrant and nostalgic atmosphere that captures the essence of the California beach experience.

Situated right on the sandy shores of the Pacific Ocean, this historic amusement park is not only a fun-filled destination but also a significant part of Santa Cruz’s cultural heritage. With a plethora of thrilling rides, classic games, and delectable treats, it consistently ranks as one of the top things to do in Santa Cruz.

Whether you’re plunging down the Giant Dipper roller coaster, indulging in cotton candy, or playing carnival games to win a prize, the Boardwalk offers timeless enjoyment for visitors of all ages.

Aside from the exhilarating amusements, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk boasts a lively entertainment lineup, including free concerts and movie nights by the beach. Its picturesque location provides spectacular ocean views, making it an ideal spot for a leisurely stroll along the wooden boardwalk, capturing the essence of the city’s laid-back coastal vibe.

For travelers seeking a quintessential Santa Cruz experience that combines nostalgia, excitement, and stunning seaside vistas, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is undeniably one of the top attractions and an essential stop on any Santa Cruz itinerary.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
There is always something fun to do at this iconic boardwalk!

Catch a Wave at Any Number of Surf Spots

Santa Cruz is renowned as a premier surfing destination, and learning to surf here is an exhilarating experience for both beginners and experienced riders. With its consistent waves and supportive surf culture, Santa Cruz offers some of the best beaches for novice surfers.

One standout location is Cowell Beach, situated right by the Santa Cruz Wharf. Its gentle waves, especially in the summer months, make it an ideal spot for those just starting their surfing journey. Lessons and board rentals are readily available at Cowell Beach, making it convenient for newcomers to get started.

The beach also offers a welcoming atmosphere, where surfers of all skill levels come together to ride the waves and enjoy the ocean.

Cruise into the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is a beloved institution that celebrates the rich history and culture of surfing in Santa Cruz, earning its place among the top things to do in the city for surf enthusiasts and curious visitors alike.

Housed in the historic Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, the museum overlooks the famous surf break known as Steamer Lane, offering panoramic views of the ocean and the surfers riding the waves. Inside the museum, visitors can explore a fascinating collection of surfboards, photographs, and memorabilia that trace the evolution of surfing in Santa Cruz, from its early beginnings to the present day.

It provides insights into the iconic surf spots, legendary surfers, and the vibrant surf culture that have made Santa Cruz a world-renowned surfing destination.

The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum hosts educational programs, special events, and surf-related films, offering visitors a deeper understanding of the sport’s history and its integral connection to the community. It’s not only a tribute to the past but also a testament to the enduring spirit of surfing that continues to thrive in Santa Cruz.

For anyone passionate about surfing or interested in learning more about this iconic aspect of Santa Cruz’s heritage, a visit to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is an essential stop, where you can ride the waves of history and surf culture in this coastal haven.

Related: Don’t miss out on these activities in nearby Monterey!

Stroll Along the Historic Santa Cruz Wharf

The Santa Cruz Wharf is a beloved landmark and a bustling hub of activity, offering a delightful blend of seaside attractions and opportunities for wildlife enthusiasts. It is one of the quintessential things to do in Santa Cruz, providing a unique perspective on the city’s coastal charm.

One of the highlights of the Wharf experience is the chance to watch the lively and playful sea lions that often gather near the pier. These charismatic marine mammals have made the Wharf their home, and visitors can witness their amusing antics as they bask in the sun, frolic in the water, and interact with each other.

It’s a wonderful opportunity for families and wildlife lovers to observe these fascinating creatures up close while enjoying the sights and sounds of the ocean.

The Santa Cruz Wharf also offers a wide range of activities and attractions. Visitors can explore a variety of shops and boutiques selling unique souvenirs, beachwear, and gifts. The Wharf is also a seafood lover’s paradise, with several restaurants serving fresh catches of the day.

Whether you’re interested in dining, shopping, or simply taking in the coastal ambiance, the Santa Cruz Wharf provides an inviting and lively atmosphere, making it a must-visit destination among the many things to do in Santa Cruz.

Explore the Wilder Ranch State Park

Wilder Ranch State Park is an absolute must-visit when exploring the vibrant array of things to do in Santa Cruz. This sprawling coastal gem seamlessly blends natural beauty and rich historical heritage.

As you venture along the park’s winding trails, you’ll be captivated by panoramic vistas of the Pacific Ocean, making it a haven for hikers, bikers, and nature enthusiasts. The park also boasts meticulously preserved farm buildings that provide a fascinating glimpse into California’s ranching past, offering an enriching educational experience for visitors of all ages.

Whether you’re looking to soak up the stunning coastal scenery or immerse yourself in the region’s history, Wilder Ranch State Park is a quintessential Santa Cruz destination that delivers on both fronts.

Wilder Ranch State Park isn’t just about its scenic trails and historical sites; it’s a testament to Santa Cruz’s commitment to preserving its natural and cultural heritage. The park’s diverse ecosystems, from coastal bluffs to dense forests, offer opportunities for birdwatching, picnicking, and quiet reflection.

So whether you’re exploring the rugged coastline, admiring the lush flora, or learning about the ranch’s fascinating history, a visit to Wilder Ranch State Park promises an enriching and memorable experience for anyone seeking to immerse themselves in the unique blend of nature and history that Santa Cruz has to offer.

Explore the Tide Pools at Natural Bridges State Beach

Natural Bridges State Beach is a captivating natural wonder that ranks high among the top things to do in Santa Cruz. Located along the picturesque California coast, this protected beach is renowned for its unique geological formations, particularly the natural rock bridges that have been sculpted by centuries of ocean waves.

These natural arches are not only visually striking but also serve as a vital habitat for shorebirds and other marine life. Visitors can explore the tide pools at low tide, where they’ll encounter a colorful array of sea creatures, including sea stars, anemones, and hermit crabs.

It’s a mesmerizing experience that provides a glimpse into the diverse and delicate marine ecosystems of the region.

In addition to its natural beauty, Natural Bridges State Beach offers excellent opportunities for picnicking, sunbathing, and birdwatching. The beach is especially popular for its annual monarch butterfly migration, with thousands of these vibrant insects seeking shelter in the eucalyptus trees that dot the area from late fall through early winter.

It’s a remarkable sight to witness as the monarchs create a vibrant spectacle of orange and black, making this beach an exceptional destination for both nature enthusiasts and anyone seeking tranquility by the sea in Santa Cruz.

Natural Bridges State Beach
The natural scenery at Natural Bridges State Beach is breathtaking.

Enjoy Wine Tasting

The Santa Cruz Mountains wine region is a hidden gem in California’s wine country, and wine tasting is undoubtedly one of the top things to do in Santa Cruz for oenophiles.

Nestled among the lush forests and rolling hills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, this region is known for producing exceptional wines, particularly Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon. When visiting Santa Cruz for wine tasting, make sure to include a stop at the renowned Ridge Vineyards.

Perched on a ridge with breathtaking views, Ridge is famous for its Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon, which has received international acclaim. The winery offers tastings and tours, providing a captivating look into the winemaking process.

Another standout winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains is Bargetto Winery. Located in the charming town of Soquel, Bargetto is one of the oldest wineries in the region, known for its Italian varietals and award-winning dessert wines. The winery’s historic tasting room and picturesque courtyard create a welcoming ambiance for wine enthusiasts.

For those seeking a more intimate and boutique experience, Beauregard Vineyards in Bonny Doon offers an exceptional selection of Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Set in a serene forested setting, Beauregard provides a relaxing atmosphere for wine tasting, allowing visitors to savor the flavors of the Santa Cruz Mountains in a tranquil setting.

These wineries, along with many others in the region, offer a taste of the Santa Cruz Mountains’ exceptional wines, making wine tasting a must-do activity when exploring Santa Cruz.

Take a Ride on the Roaring Camp Railroads

Roaring Camp Railroads offers a nostalgic and immersive experience that transports visitors back in time to the era of steam locomotives and the California Gold Rush. Situated amidst the towering redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains, this historic attraction is a unique and memorable addition to the list of things to do in Santa Cruz.

Visitors can embark on a scenic ride aboard an authentic steam train, winding through the lush forested landscapes and crossing picturesque trestles. The Redwood Forest Steam Train is a particular favorite, taking passengers on a journey through ancient groves of towering redwood trees, some of which are over a thousand years old. The experience is not just a ride; it’s a captivating voyage into California’s rich history and natural beauty.

Roaring Camp Railroads also offers other attractions, including gold panning, hiking trails, and picnicking areas. For families and history enthusiasts, the opportunity to learn about the Gold Rush era and the significance of railroads in California’s development is both educational and entertaining.

Whether you’re seeking a family-friendly adventure or a scenic escape into the heart of the redwood forest, Roaring Camp Railroads offers an authentic taste of Santa Cruz’s history and natural splendor, making it a must-visit attraction among the many things to do in Santa Cruz.

Geek Out at the Mystery Spot

The Mystery Spot, located in the beautiful redwood forests of Santa Cruz, is a quirky and entertaining attraction that has fascinated visitors for generations. This gravitational anomaly is a popular stop among the unique and fun things to do in Santa Cruz.

The Mystery Spot is known for its bizarre optical illusions and unusual gravitational phenomena that seemingly defy the laws of physics. Guided tours take visitors through a series of interactive demonstrations and mind-bending experiences, all within a small, tilted cabin.

Objects appear to roll uphill, visitors lean at impossible angles, and normal perceptions of gravity seem to be completely upended. The Mystery Spot provides a lighthearted and amusing adventure for individuals and families alike, making it a must-see destination for those seeking a bit of whimsy and wonder in Santa Cruz.

Watch Surfers at Steamer Lane

Steamer Lane is a legendary surf spot that holds a special place in the hearts of surfers and is a must-visit attraction for anyone interested in the sport. Located on the northern edge of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Steamer Lane is famous for its consistent and powerful waves, making it one of the premier surfing destinations along the California coast.

The name “Steamer Lane” originates from the days when steamships would pass by this point, causing the waves to break consistently, attracting surfers from far and wide. Today, it continues to draw surfers and spectators alike, offering a captivating blend of thrilling surf action and stunning coastal scenery.

Surfers from all skill levels, from beginners to seasoned pros, come to Steamer Lane to ride the waves. For those not ready to hit the waves themselves, it’s a mesmerizing experience to watch surfers tackle the challenging breaks.

The dramatic cliffs and breathtaking views of Monterey Bay from this vantage point add to the allure of Steamer Lane. Whether you’re a surfer looking for the ultimate wave or a spectator hoping to witness some of the best surfers in action, Steamer Lane is a definitive highlight among the many things to do in Santa Cruz, offering an authentic glimpse into the region’s surf culture and natural beauty.

Explore Pacific Avenue in Downtown Santa Cruz

Pacific Avenue is the vibrant heart of downtown Santa Cruz and a must-visit destination for those seeking a blend of shopping, dining, and cultural exploration. This bustling street is one of the main thoroughfares in Santa Cruz and offers a diverse range of activities and experiences, making it a prominent entry on the list of things to do in Santa Cruz.

Strolling along Pacific Avenue, you’ll encounter a mix of boutique shops, art galleries, and eclectic stores that cater to a variety of tastes. Whether you’re in search of unique clothing, handcrafted jewelry, or local artwork, the shops along Pacific Avenue provide an array of options for shoppers and browsers alike.

Pacific Avenue boasts a dynamic dining scene with a wide range of restaurants and cafes. From cozy coffee shops serving artisanal brews to international cuisine and locally sourced eateries, there’s no shortage of culinary delights to discover.

Street performers and musicians often add to the lively ambiance, contributing to the street’s reputation as a cultural hub in Santa Cruz. For those looking to immerse themselves in the local scene, Pacific Avenue offers a quintessential Santa Cruz experience, where you can shop, dine, and soak in the city’s vibrant atmosphere all in one place.

Sightseeing In Santa Cruz
Go sightseeing in Santa Cruz and you’ll never run out of things to see or do.

Visit the Charming Capitola Village

Capitola Village is a charming and picturesque seaside destination that encapsulates the laid-back coastal vibe of Santa Cruz. Located just a short drive from downtown Santa Cruz, Capitola is a hidden gem and one of the delightful things to do in Santa Cruz.

The heart of Capitola is its vibrant and colorful village, which features rows of pastel-painted houses overlooking the beautiful Soquel Creek. Strolling through the streets of Capitola Village, you’ll find a variety of boutique shops, art galleries, and cozy cafes.

It’s the perfect place to enjoy a leisurely day of shopping for unique souvenirs, savoring local cuisine, or simply basking in the idyllic seaside atmosphere.

Capitola Beach, often referred to as Capitola Village Beach, is a central attraction within the village. This charming and family-friendly beach is known for its gentle waves, making it an ideal spot for swimming, sunbathing, and paddleboarding.

Visitors can rent paddleboards and kayaks to explore the tranquil waters of Soquel Creek or simply relax on the sandy shores. The beach is also home to colorful rowboats that are a signature part of Capitola’s character.

With its scenic beauty, boutique shopping, and relaxed beachfront ambiance, Capitola Village is a delightful addition to the list of things to do in Santa Cruz, offering a quintessential coastal experience for visitors of all ages.

Browse Books at Bookshop Santa Cruz

Bookshop Santa Cruz is more than just a bookstore; it’s a beloved cultural institution and a vibrant hub for literature, ideas, and community in the heart of Santa Cruz. This independent bookstore has been a cornerstone of the city’s literary scene for decades, providing a welcoming space for readers of all ages to browse through an extensive and thoughtfully curated selection of books.

Whether you’re in search of the latest bestsellers, literary classics, niche interests, or local authors’ works, Bookshop Santa Cruz is sure to have something to satisfy your reading cravings. The knowledgeable and passionate staff are always on hand to offer recommendations and engage in conversations about books and literature, fostering a sense of connection among book lovers.

Beyond its shelves lined with books, Bookshop Santa Cruz frequently hosts author readings, book signings, and literary events, making it a dynamic cultural center that celebrates the written word. It’s not uncommon to stumble upon a stimulating discussion or a book-related event while perusing the store.

The bookstore’s commitment to fostering a love of reading and supporting the local literary community makes it a cherished institution, and a visit here is not only about buying books but also about immersing yourself in Santa Cruz’s rich literary culture.

Read Next: Check out all of the other great places to visit in Northern California.

Visit Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park

Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park is a significant historical site that provides a fascinating glimpse into the early history of Santa Cruz and the Spanish influence in California. This state park is home to the only remaining structure of the original 12 California missions, making it an essential stop for history enthusiasts and one of the notable things to do in Santa Cruz.

The adobe church, built in 1791, was part of Mission Santa Cruz and serves as the centerpiece of the park. Visitors can explore the beautifully restored church and its surrounding gardens, gaining insights into the region’s cultural heritage and the impact of Spanish colonization.

The park also offers informative exhibits and interpretive programs that shed light on the Native American tribes, Spanish missionaries, and early settlers who shaped the area’s history. The park’s serene setting, with its lush gardens and courtyard, provides a peaceful oasis in the heart of downtown Santa Cruz.

Learn About Marine Life at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center

The Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz is a captivating destination that beckons both marine enthusiasts and curious minds alike. Nestled along the stunning Monterey Bay coastline, this center is a treasure trove of knowledge about the fascinating world beneath the waves.

Visitors can embark on a journey of exploration through interactive exhibits, where they’ll get up close and personal with marine life, including colorful fish, mesmerizing jellyfish, and even touch tanks where you can interact with sea stars and other creatures.

The center also offers educational programs and guided tours that provide insights into the diverse marine ecosystems of Monterey Bay, making it an ideal destination for families and those eager to deepen their understanding of the ocean’s wonders.

Beyond its indoor exhibits, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center offers an opportunity to witness marine science in action. The Long Marine Laboratory, adjacent to the center, houses researchers and scientists studying marine life, giving visitors a behind-the-scenes look at ongoing research and conservation efforts.

With its breathtaking coastal location and a commitment to education and conservation, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center is not just a place to see marine life but also a hub of inspiration and insight into the vital role of our oceans in our world. It’s a place where visitors can connect with the mysteries of the deep blue and gain a deeper appreciation for the importance of ocean conservation.

Go Kayaking

Whether you’re an experienced kayaker or a novice looking to try it for the first time, Santa Cruz offers a variety of kayaking experiences that allow you to connect with nature and enjoy the region’s stunning scenery.

Kayaking along the picturesque coastline of Santa Cruz is an exhilarating and scenic adventure, and it’s undoubtedly one of the best things to do in the area for outdoor enthusiasts. With its pristine waters and stunning natural beauty, Santa Cruz offers several ideal spots for kayaking.

One standout location is Elkhorn Slough, a serene estuary just north of Santa Cruz. This protected waterway is a haven for wildlife, including sea otters, seals, and numerous bird species. Paddling through Elkhorn Slough, kayakers can get up close to these fascinating creatures while enjoying the tranquil surroundings of marshes and rolling hills.

Another popular kayaking destination is the Santa Cruz Harbor, where you can rent kayaks and explore the calm waters of Monterey Bay. Paddling around the harbor offers fantastic views of the city, the wharf, and the surrounding cliffs.

For those seeking a more adventurous experience, sea kayaking along the rugged coastline and sea caves of Natural Bridges State Beach can be a thrilling option. Additionally, the protected coves of Capitola Beach and Pleasure Point are excellent spots for beginners looking to get a taste of kayaking in Santa Cruz’s picturesque coastal environment.

Elkhorn Slough
Elkhorn Slough is a great place to spot otters and other marine life while kayaking!

View Art at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH)

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) is a cultural gem nestled in the heart of downtown Santa Cruz and ranks among the top things to do in the city for art and history enthusiasts. MAH is more than just a traditional museum; it’s a dynamic hub of creativity and community engagement.

The museum houses a diverse collection of art, historical artifacts, and exhibits that showcase the rich cultural heritage of Santa Cruz and the broader Central Coast region. Visitors can explore a wide range of artworks, including paintings, sculptures, and contemporary installations, as well as discover the stories and history of the area through various interactive displays.

What sets the Santa Cruz MAH apart is its commitment to fostering a sense of community and participation. The museum hosts numerous events, workshops, and educational programs throughout the year, inviting visitors to engage with art and history in unique and meaningful ways.

From hands-on art projects to thought-provoking exhibitions on local history, the MAH offers a multifaceted experience that encourages dialogue and creativity.

Enjoy the Outdoors at Santa Cruz Harbor

The Santa Cruz Harbor is a vibrant and bustling waterfront area that offers a wide range of activities and attractions, making it a noteworthy destination among the many things to do in Santa Cruz. Situated along the picturesque Monterey Bay, the harbor is not only a functional hub for boating and fishing but also a scenic and enjoyable place for visitors to explore.

You can take leisurely walks along the harbor’s scenic promenade, enjoying the fresh sea breeze and stunning views of the bay. Watching fishing boats come and go, observing sailboats bobbing in the harbor, and witnessing pelicans and sea lions are all part of the maritime charm.

For those looking to engage in water-based activities, the Santa Cruz Harbor provides opportunities for sailing, boating, and kayaking, allowing visitors to venture out onto the bay and enjoy the coastal beauty from a different perspective. Several charter companies offer whale-watching tours that depart from the harbor, giving you a chance to spot humpback whales, gray whales, and other marine life in their natural habitat.

Additionally, the harbor area features seafood restaurants where you can savor fresh catches of the day while enjoying the serene waterfront atmosphere. Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, a water sports enthusiast, or simply seeking a relaxing seaside experience, the Santa Cruz Harbor offers a diverse range of options for an enjoyable visit.

Related: Consider adding Santa Cruz as a stop along a drive of the Pacific Coast Highway!

Stroll Through West Cliff Drive

Whether you’re seeking a peaceful escape or an active outdoor adventure, West Cliff Drive offers an unforgettable experience that embodies the essence of Santa Cruz’s natural charm.

West Cliff Drive, a picturesque coastal road hugging the edge of Santa Cruz, is a veritable treasure trove of natural beauty and outdoor adventure. Offering some of the most breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, West Cliff Drive is a favorite among locals and tourists alike.

A leisurely stroll or bike ride along this scenic route is one of the most popular things to do in Santa Cruz. The stunning vistas, especially during sunset, make it an ideal spot for romantic walks or simply finding solace in the sound of crashing waves.

Along the way, you’ll encounter various points of interest, including the iconic Santa Cruz Surfing Museum housed in a lighthouse, and you can watch surfers ride the waves at Steamer Lane, a world-renowned surf spot.

In addition to its stunning coastal views, West Cliff Drive is home to a diverse range of wildlife, and birdwatchers often flock to the area to spot seabirds, pelicans, and even the occasional dolphin or whale offshore. It’s a nature lover’s paradise where the rugged beauty of the coastline meets the tranquility of the ocean.

Wander Around Pleasure Point

Pleasure Point is a vibrant surf neighborhood along East Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, renowned for its fantastic waves, unique surf culture, and laid-back atmosphere. It is one of the most beloved and iconic surf spots on the California coast, attracting surfers from all around the world.

For surf enthusiasts, catching a wave at Pleasure Point is a dream come true. The consistent swell and the long, peeling waves make it a paradise for both longboarders and shortboarders. The relaxed vibes of the neighborhood and the camaraderie among surfers contribute to Pleasure Point’s reputation as a welcoming and inclusive surf community.

Beyond its world-class surf breaks, Pleasure Point is a charming place to explore. East Cliff Drive offers breathtaking views of the rugged coastline, and the palm-lined streets exude a classic California beach town feel.

Visitors can take leisurely walks along the cliffs, soak in the natural beauty, and perhaps even spot whales or sea lions in the Pacific Ocean. The neighborhood is dotted with unique shops, cafes, and boutiques, making it a perfect spot to relax, enjoy some local cuisine, and immerse oneself in the surf culture of Santa Cruz.

Walk Around the Walton Lighthouse

The Walton Lighthouse, perched at the entrance to the Santa Cruz Harbor, stands as an iconic sentinel of the city’s maritime heritage. Visiting this picturesque location is one of the quintessential things to do in Santa Cruz for those seeking a blend of natural beauty and maritime history.

The lighthouse, with its distinctive roof and white structure, offers a captivating sight against the backdrop of the azure Pacific Ocean. It’s a popular spot for photographers and sightseers, providing panoramic views of the coastline and the bustling harbor.

Whether you’re enjoying a leisurely stroll along the adjacent jetty or simply admiring the scenic beauty from afar, the Walton Lighthouse offers a tranquil escape and a glimpse into Santa Cruz’s maritime past.

Walton Lighthouse
Walton Lighthouse is a memorable Santa Cruz landmark.

Check Out UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanical Garden

The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanical Garden is a tranquil oasis and a hidden gem among the many things to do in Santa Cruz. Nestled in the serene foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, this garden showcases a stunning collection of plants from around the world, with an emphasis on species that thrive in the region’s Mediterranean climate.

Spread across 47 acres of lush terrain, the Santa Cruz Botanical Garden offers a peaceful retreat for nature enthusiasts, horticulturalists, and anyone seeking a serene outdoor experience. Visitors can meander through a network of scenic trails that wind through themed gardens, featuring an array of native and exotic plant species, including rare and endangered ones.

One of the highlights of the garden is its commitment to conservation and education. The garden’s staff and volunteers are dedicated to preserving and protecting native flora while educating the public about the importance of sustainable horticulture.

The garden also hosts a variety of events, workshops, and educational programs throughout the year, catering to both adults and children.

Related: Consider visiting Santa Cruz as one of the many great day trips from San Francisco!

Explore the UC Santa Cruz Campus

UC Santa Cruz, located in the scenic hills overlooking the city of Santa Cruz, is a prestigious institution and a significant part of the community. This beautiful campus, with its striking modern architecture and breathtaking natural surroundings, offers more than just academic excellence—it’s also a notable destination among the many things to do in Santa Cruz.

The university’s commitment to environmental stewardship is reflected in its lush landscapes, including redwood forests, meadows, and hiking trails that are open to the public. Visitors can explore these natural spaces while enjoying sweeping views of the Monterey Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Beyond its stunning natural setting, UC Santa Cruz contributes to the local culture and arts scene. The Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery hosts a diverse range of exhibitions and events, showcasing the work of local and international artists.

The campus also hosts lectures, concerts, and performances that are open to the public, providing an opportunity for the community to engage with intellectual and artistic pursuits.

Whether you’re interested in exploring the outdoors, appreciating art and culture, or simply taking in the scenic beauty of the region, UC Santa Cruz offers a multifaceted experience and stands as an integral part of the vibrant tapestry of Santa Cruz’s offerings.

Head Out Dolphin and Whale Watching

Dolphin and whale watching in Santa Cruz is an awe-inspiring and adventurous activity that allows visitors to connect with the incredible marine life of Monterey Bay. This stretch of the California coast is known for its rich biodiversity, making it one of the prime locations for spotting dolphins, whales, sea lions and other marine creatures in their natural habitat.

Numerous boat tour operators in Santa Cruz offer excursions that take passengers out into the bay, providing them with an opportunity to witness these magnificent animals up close. Depending on the season, visitors can encounter a variety of species, including humpback whales, gray whales, orcas, dolphins, sea lions, and more.

One of the highlights of dolphin and whale watching in Santa Cruz is the sense of wonder and exhilaration that comes from observing these creatures in their natural environment. The knowledgeable guides on these tours provide insights into the behaviors and habitats of these marine animals, enhancing the experience.

Whether you’re a wildlife enthusiast, a nature lover, or simply seeking an unforgettable adventure, a dolphin and whale-watching tour in Santa Cruz offers a thrilling and educational opportunity to connect with the beauty and wonder of the ocean. It’s a memorable and humbling experience that adds to the diversity of things to do in Santa Cruz while fostering an appreciation for the region’s marine ecosystem.

Where to Stay in Santa Cruz, California

While there are loads of places to stay in Santa Cruz, here are a few of our top picks for every kind of traveler.

Luxury Option: The Chaminade Resort & Spa

The Chaminade Resort & Spa is a luxurious retreat nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains, offering a high-end experience with stunning views of Monterey Bay. This upscale hotel features elegant rooms and suites, a full-service spa, and an outdoor heated pool.

Guests can indulge in gourmet dining at the on-site restaurant and enjoy wine tasting on the scenic terrace. The resort also boasts beautiful hiking trails and is known for its serene ambiance, making it perfect for a romantic getaway or a luxurious vacation.

Mid-Range Family Accommodation: Best Western Plus All Suites Inn 

Situated in downtown Santa Cruz, the Best Western Plus All Suites Inn offers suites that are ideal for families. The hotel provides amenities such as complimentary breakfast, an outdoor pool, and free Wi-Fi.

Its central location allows for easy access to Santa Cruz attractions, including the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the Mystery Spot, and natural wonders like Natural Bridges State Beach

Budget Option: Torch Lite Inn

The Torch Lite Inn is a budget-friendly option located near the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This motel offers clean and basic rooms with amenities like a swimming pool and free parking.

Its proximity to the boardwalk, dining options, and entertainment makes it a popular choice for budget-conscious travelers.

Wrapping Up

As our Santa Cruz journey comes to a close, it’s clear that this vibrant coastal gem has something for everyone. From the classic delights of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk that whisk you back to the carefree days of childhood to the artistic and eclectic charm of downtown Santa Cruz, this city never fails to captivate with its diverse range of experiences.

Whether you’re a thrill-seeker chasing the adrenaline rush of oceanfront roller coasters or a culture enthusiast wandering the streets of a city that pulses with creativity, Santa Cruz has a place in your heart. And don’t forget the awe-inspiring beauty of Natural Bridges State Beach, where nature’s artistry shines in the form of natural rock bridges and tide pools teeming with life. 

So, whether you’re taking in the stunning sunset at Natural Bridges, devouring an ice cream cone while wandering downtown, or screaming with delight on the Boardwalk’s Giant Dipper, Santa Cruz invites you to savor every moment.

It’s a place where the crashing waves meet the artistic soul, where the sun-kissed beaches beckon you to relax, and where every corner has a story to tell.

So, the next time you’re yearning for adventure or simply seeking a slice of laid-back California paradise, remember that Santa Cruz is there to welcome you with open arms, ready to create memories that will last a lifetime.

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About the Author - Alesha and Jarryd

Hey! We are Alesha and Jarryd, the award-winning writers and professional photographers behind this blog. We have been travelling the world together since 2008, with a passion for adventure travel and sustainable tourism. Through our stories and images we promote exciting off-the-beaten-path destinations and fascinating cultures as we go. As one of the world's leading travel journalists, our content and adventures have been featured by National Geographic, Lonely Planet, CNN, BBC, Forbes, Business Insider, Washington Post, Yahoo!, BuzzFeed, Channel 7, Channel 10, ABC, The Guardian, and plenty other publications. Follow our journey in real time on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

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