Santa Cruz Travel Guide

USA  #3 in Best Day Trips from San Francisco
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Courtesy of StephanHoerold/Getty Images

Best Things To Do in Santa Cruz

Calling all nature lovers: Santa Cruz was practically made for you. Natural Bridges State Beach and West Cliff Drive delight travelers with their Pacific Ocean views, while shopping at places like the Santa Cruz Wharf and carousel rides at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk are even more fun underneath the warm California sun. What's more, shorelines like Santa Cruz Main Beach are lovely places to while away the day. For some shade, travelers can always hop aboard the Roaring Camp Railroads for a train ride through the area's towering redwoods. 

How we rank Things to Do

Updated April 7, 2017

  • #1
    Things to do in Santa Cruz
    View all Photos
    #1 in Santa Cruz
    1.3 miles to city center
    Hiking, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    1.3 miles to city center
    Hiking, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    This 3-mile walking and biking path offers some of the best views of the county – and it's a great workout too. Along the way, you'll be treated to pristine vistas of the Pacific Ocean and you might even spot some surfers riding the waves at Steamer Lane or whales and dolphins cresting the water at Lighthouse Point. You can also stop in to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum along your stroll, which is stationed inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse.

    Recent travelers and locals said West Cliff Drive is a must-do. According to reviewers, the beauty is unparalleled, and the benches that line the path are a nice pit stop along the 6-mile round-trip walk. To avoid crowded paths, some travelers recommend visiting on a weekday and also note parking can be difficult to come by on weekends. 

  • #2
    Santa Cruz Main Beach
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    #2 in Santa Cruz
    1 mile to city center
    Beaches, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    1 mile to city center
    Beaches, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Santa Cruz Main Beach is also known as Boardwalk Beach since it stretches the length of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. In the summer, it's one of the busiest beaches in Santa Cruz thanks to its lengthy list of amenities, including lifeguards, restrooms, nearby food options and amusement park rides and games. During other seasons, it's a popular place to take scenic strolls. 

    With its on-duty lifeguards and fairly gentle waves, travelers say this is a great beach for families. If you're visiting during the summertime, reviewers recommend arriving early in the day to stake out a prime spot, as the sand can get crowded quickly. 

  • #3
    Santa Cruz Wharf
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    #3 in Santa Cruz
    0.8 miles to city center
    Shopping, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    0.8 miles to city center
    Shopping, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    The Santa Cruz Wharf dining and shopping district sits on the water of a nearly 100-year-old wharf and features all those gifts that coworkers and family members expect you to bring back, from locally made Marini's Candies to Made in Santa Cruz apparel.

    For most travelers, it's not the shops or eateries that warrant a visit here – it's the views from the wharf. Some recent travelers reported spotting sea lions lounging nearby, but others said the vistas of the famous surf spot Steamer Lane and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk are pretty awesome, too.

  • #4
    Seymour Marine Discovery Center
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    #4 in Santa Cruz
    2.5 miles to city center
    Museums, Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    2.5 miles to city center
    Museums, Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    The University of California, Santa Cruz's Seymour Marine Discovery Center is an indoor and outdoor natural science museum. The center features an aquarium, complete with tanks housing rockfish, jellyfish and even a touch pool with sharks. Outside, travelers can see the skeletons of a blue whale and a gray whale, as well as 45 acres of California coastal ecosystems.

    Many recent travelers said kids love the discovery center's indoor tanks. Others appreciated the focus on education at the discovery center, complimenting on the knowledgeable docents.

  • #5
    Roaring Camp Railroads
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    #5 in Santa Cruz
    5 miles to city center
    Natural Wonders, Sightseeing, Tours
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    5 miles to city center
    Natural Wonders, Sightseeing, Tours
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    The same redwoods that awed passengers back in 1875 when the Roaring Camp Railroads opened are still doing so today. Roaring Camp, headquartered in Felton, California, takes visitors on train rides through the towering trees up to the summit of Bear Mountain or to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Visitors can also tour the train depot's grounds, which include an old-fashioned general store, playing fields, a stage for special events and more. 

    Although the train tickets are pricey, most recent travelers said the breathtaking views of the redwoods are worth every penny (some described the experience as "magical"). Some reviewers recommend visiting during Roaring Camp Railroads' special events, including Thomas and Percy's Halloween Party and the Holiday Tree Walk. 

  • #6
    Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
    View all Photos
    #6 in Santa Cruz
    0.9 miles to city center
    Amusement Parks, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    0.9 miles to city center
    Amusement Parks, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a mile-long boardwalk and amusement park just south of central Santa Cruz. Operating for more than a century, the boardwalk boasts a plethora of rides, two of which – the Giant Dipper and the Looff Carousel – are National Historic Landmarks. The boardwalk also touts a bevy of carnival fare, including corn dogs, deep-fried artichokes and deep-fried Twinkies. You'll also find an arcade, a two-story miniature golf course and a laser tag arena, among other attractions.

    The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a favorite among both locals and visitors, who comment on its old-timey charm and Americana appeal. Some travelers recommend visiting on Friday nights in the summertime when the boardwalk hosts two free concerts at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Others appreciated the ample parking across the street.

  • #7
    Natural Bridges State Beach
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    #7 in Santa Cruz
    2 miles to city center
    Beaches, Natural Wonders, Recreation
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    2 miles to city center
    Beaches, Natural Wonders, Recreation
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    In the summertime, Natural Bridges State Beach is a picturesque beach, punctuated by rock formations and teeming with wildlife – shorebirds, seals, sea stars and more. In the fall and winter, thousands of monarch butterflies flutter into the area's milkweed plants and eucalyptus trees (in 2016, an estimated 8,000 butterflies overwintered here). The state beach also contains a visitor center, picnic areas and hiking trails.    

    Many recent visitors said the shoreline is peaceful and beautiful, but some say the rock arch (natural bridge) is a bit underwhelming. For a quick look, some travelers recommend stopping at the free 20-minute parking lot to take in the view and snap a few photos.

  • #8
    Wilder Ranch State Park
    View all Photos
    #8 in Santa Cruz
    3 miles to city center
    Hiking, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    3 miles to city center
    Hiking, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Located just west of central Santa Cruz, Wilder Ranch State Park is a 1800s-era dairy ranch, home to a Victorian homestead and a water-powered machine shop (both of which travelers can tour). Visitors can also stretch their legs on the property's more than 35 miles of trails, which crisscross the Santa Cruz Mountains and line the coastal bluffs. 

    Recent travelers said the ranch's buildings are interesting, but that the real treasure is the ability to hike, bike or horseback ride on the trails, which feature beautiful views unfettered by passing cars. 

  • #9
    Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
    View all Photos
    #9 in Santa Cruz
    1.5 miles to city center
    Museums, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    1.5 miles to city center
    Museums, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum overlooks one of the most renowned surfing spots in Santa Cruz – Steamer Lane. Along with historic surfing photographs and boards, the museum features a bevy of surfing memorabilia. Visitors can also purchase souvenirs, such as books, the proceeds of which support the nonprofit museum. 

    Many travelers say this small museum is worth a short pit stop, and they recommend popping in during a walk on West Cliff Drive. Others suggest building in some time to watch the surfers on Steamer Lane. 

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