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Best Things to Do in Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz is an idyllic land of towering mountains, perfect surf, and awe-inspiring redwoods. It’s a city that has this distinctly laid-back vibe that’s been luring in both adventurous and ‘hippie’-typevisitors and residents for decades. It’s home to the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and has pretty much everything that you could imagine when picturing a classic Californian beach town.

If you consider yourself a nature lover, Santa Cruz is practically made just for you. West Cliff Drive provides travelers with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, while Natural Bridges State Beach is a must-visit for anyone looking to enjoy a little fun in the sun.

Santa Cruz also provides travelers with countless world-class shopping, dining, and entertainment options that are sure to keep you and your family thoroughly delighted for the duration of your visit.

We here at Viewcation are big fans of Santa Cruz. As such, we’ve compiled a list of some of our absolute favorite attractions and sights in and around the Santa Cruz area. Join us as we take you on a little tour of one of the Golden States’ best seaside towns.

Viewcation Presents: The Best Things To Do In Santa Cruz, California.

The Wharf

One of the most popular attractions in town, the wharf, also happens to be the west coast’s longest pier. The Wharf recently celebrated it’s 100th anniversary, and it’s known for providing visitors with beautiful views of the coast. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a sea lion or two!

Along the pier, you’ll discover numerous dining establishments – the majority of which are highly recommended. Of course, many of these specialize in seafood! Be sure to try the fish and chips – a local staple! Just be on the lookout for hungry seagulls! Those flying rats won’t stop at anything to score a bite of your leftovers! 

The Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Adjacent to the Wharf, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is one of the most popular and iconic attractions in town. This must-visit attraction is home to the oldest amusement park in the state and is free to visit, although individual rides do require a small payment.

While you won’t find the high-adrenaline thrill rides that you’ll find at bigger amusement parks, there is a wooden roller coaster called the Giant Dipper and several other classic attractions that will keep you amused for a while.

The Santa Cruz Boardwalk has been open since 1907. The seaside attraction provides a little something for visitors of all ages. From bowling to arcade games and county fair-style food items, a visit to the boardwalk should be high up on any visitor’s itinerary.

West Cliff Drive

Taking a scenic drive along the California Coast is the kind of thing that dreams are made of. The stretch of road along West Cliff Drive is an excellent example of the kind of serene scenery that this stretch of coastal highway has become famous for. Throughout your drive, you’ll see misty cliffs, lush foliage, and endless waves beckoning you to pull over and take a few snapshots for your Instagram feed.

Take it slow as you explore West Cliff Drive. There’s no need to rush. Be sure to stop at the various viewpoints while soaking in the fresh ocean air. Without question, it’s one of the most beautiful places to visit in Santa Cruz.

Surfing Museum

While all of West Cliff Drive is worth seeing, it also provides visitors with the opportunity to watch surfers doing their thing in the waves of what’s known as “Steamer Lane” down below. If you’re interested in learning a little more about the history of surfing, you can always take a moment to make a pit stop at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum at Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse which can be found at a place called Lighthouse Point.

The museum is about a 15-minute walk from the pier, and it’s home to all sorts of exhibits detailing the history of surfing from it’s ancient origins in the volcanic state of Hawaii to today. As you explore the museum, you’ll also learn about the century or so of surfing history in Santa Cruz.

Natural Bridges State Beach

If you enjoy a good sunset, taking pictures, and basking in natural beauty, this is one destination that you should definitely check out. If you keep going along West Cliff Drive for a few miles, you’ll reach this excellent National Park.

The park comprises an area of about 65 acres with it’s primary highlight being the titular natural bridge that juts out of the water. Typically this beautiful landform is covered in birds. If you pause to observe, you’ll see species like cormorants and pelicans.

Above the beach at the carpark, you’ll find a fantastic vantage point for catching a fiery sunset. Down at the beach, however, not only can you watch the sky deliver it’s colorful nightly show, but you’ll also be able to see the park’s namesake arch. Really, there’s no better place at the park for avid photographers to snap breathtaking shots of one of Santa Cruz’s most famous attractions.

Roaring Camp Railroads

One of the most unique things to do near Santa Cruz is taking a steam train ride through the redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The tracks and the 19th-century logging steam train that follows them were originally constructed to haul enormous redwood logs out of the mountains. The round trip takes about an hour and fifteen minutes, and along the route, you’ll pass through Bear Mountain as the conductor tells the fascinating tale of the defunct Roaring Camp. 

This informative experience is great for riders of all ages. During the high season, you can even ride the steam train all the way to the boardwalk.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

A visit to the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is a great way to take a leisurely stroll through a 40-acre grove of looming Redwoods. The tallest tree that calls the park it’s home is 277 feet tall. There’s even a tree that’s been hollowed out so that you can step inside!

The Redwood Grove is just a small part of a much larger park that spans 4,650 acres. Park guests can participate in activities such as horseback riding, hiking, swimming, picnicking, and camping. One of the standout spots at the park is known as the Garden of Eden. Here, you’ll find a natural swimming hole nestled between the trees.

Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Located at the University of California Santa Cruz, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center is a large indoor and outdoor natural science complex and museum. One of the center’s most prominent features is an aquarium that has tanks that house sea creatures like jellyfish, rockfish, and sharks.

Outside, guests can see well-preserved skeletons of a gray and blue whale. You can also explore 45 acres of pristine California’s exquisite coastal ecosystems.

Wilder Ranch State Park

Located due west of downtown Santa Cruz, Wilder Ranch State Park is a 19th-century dairy ranch that is home to a quaint Victorian homestead as well as a water-powered machine shop. Of course, both of these attractions are open for tours.

Visitors hoping to stretch their legs can take a hike on the property’s tapestry of trails. There are more than 35 miles of trails to explore that traverse the Santa Cruz mountains and line the area’s coastal bluffs.

The Farmer’s Markets

Santa Cruz is home to five different farmer’s markets, each showcasing the region’s best produce, prepared food items, and craft goods. Recent visitors have described the Santa Cruz farmer’s markets as having a distinctly health-conscious ‘hippie’ vibe. From fresh bone broth to free-range meats and organic vegetables, if you’re someone that is always in search of the highest quality and most ethical ingredients, these markets should be right up your alley. Be sure to consult each market’s website to see a listing of operational hours.

Historic Downtown

Downtown Santa Cruz is a fantastic place to spend an afternoon exploring local shops, cafes, boutiques and restaurants. For a decent cup of joe, check out Lulu Carpenters or Verve. For a bite to eat, we recommend checking out Abbot Square Market. This bustling and vibrant marketplace has several wonderful food outlets as well as a popular cocktail bar.

As for shops, noteworthy stops include the Homeless Garden Project, Wallflower Boutique, Om gallery, and Nectar Creations. There are also a few popular chain stores like Urban Outfitters and Free People.

The Mystery Spot

While some have labeled it as a tourist trap, the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot bills itself as a gravitational anomaly where the laws of physics have gone askew. Regardless of your take on it, this quirky optical illusion can provide an entertaining way for you to spend an hour or so while snapping a few mind-bending photos of your friends in mid-air. To avoid waiting, purchase tickets online!

Berry Creek Falls

Berry Creek Falls Trail at Big Basin State Park offers outdoorsy types with one of the most beautiful hikes in Santa Cruz County. There are more than 80 miles of trails and quite a few waterfalls to see including the namesake Berry Creek Falls.

To reach this locale, you’ll need to commit to an 11-mile round-trip trek that climbs 1000 feet. So, needless to say, this is one attraction that isn’t for the faint of heart.

Big Basin is the state’s oldest state park, and a few of the Redwoods that call it home are said to be more than 2,000 years old!

The Del Mar Theatre

This classic American theater was originally built as a vaudeville theater in 1936. These days, it’s one of the best places in town to catch a movie. To get the full-on retro experience, try to catch a showing on the main screen. The theater also has a unusual snack bar that includes nutritional yeast as a popcorn topping! What could be more Santa Cruz than that?

The Big Foot Museum

For years, Santa Cruz and the surrounding forest has been subject to countless rumors pertaining to the elusive and legendary primate. At this unique museum, visitors can get the full scoop on the mysterious cryptid that supposedly calls the Santa Cruz mountains it’s home.

Santa Cruz is sure to be one of the highlights of your next California vacation. Hopefully, after watching this video you now have a pretty good idea of what to expect on your visit! Regardless of whether you’re a nature buff, surfer, or foodie, Santa Cruz has a little something for everyone to enjoy.

In the comments, let us know know what your thoughts are on this iconic Californian coastal town. Have you had the pleasure of visiting Santa Cruz already? If so, what are a few of your favorite sights and attractions in and around town. If not, what are you most excited to see and do on your first Santa Cruz adventure?