Almost synonymous with sun, sea, sand, and surf, the small coastal city of Santa Cruz is a wonderful place to both visit and live. Set on the north shore of Monterey Bay, it lies not far from San Jose and San Francisco with lots of lovely scenery and incredible Californian coastline to be found nearby.
Nicknamed ‘Surf City’, it is renowned for its laidback lifestyle and counterculture scene with life in town revolving around its beautiful beaches and bustling boardwalk. While its sun-kissed sands and superb surf spots are what attract many people, you can also find some interesting things to do in Santa Cruz, in the town itself. With countless spellbinding beaches, nature spots, fun tourist attractions and viewpoints for you to discover along the coast, Santa Cruz is definitely well worth checking out if you have the chance.
12. Cowell Beach
Long a popular surf spot, Cowell Beach is set right next to the Santa Cruz Main Beach and is only separated from it by the city’s wharf. Aside from waves and breaks, it has swathes of golden sands for you to enjoy with phenomenal views on offer over the ocean and pier.
Widely regarded to be one of the best places to learn to surf in the States, it attracts beginners and experts alike with its wide variety of waves. While advanced surfers can attempt the challenging Steamer Lane, surf schools teach newbies in more gentle conditions on beginners’ waves.
Besides surfing and sunbathing, you can play volleyball on its inviting sands or stroll along the pier and enjoy unforgettable sunsets. Overlooking everything is the enormous Dream Inn – one of the most recognized landmarks along the coast.
11. University of California
Set in an stunning spot, the University of California campus sprawls across several hills overlooking both the city and ocean below. Tucked away amidst its towering redwoods, you can find some interesting architecture and historic sites with lots of stupendous scenery and nature on show.
One of ten University of California campuses in the state, it was established in 1965 with countless college buildings and sport fields now strung across the largely rural site. Aside from its Museum of Natural History, there is the decaying nineteenth-century Cowell Ranch to check out while many of its buildings feature interesting designs and are made of recycled materials.
Its main draw, however, is its idyllic Arboretum and Botanic Garden while some outstanding hiking and mountain biking can be had in the forests and state parks that border the campus.
10. Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
As Santa Cruz is synonymous with surfing, it is well worth checking out this small but superb museum when you are in town. Located in an old lighthouse, it lies along the top of the scenic West Cliff Drive and fittingly looks out over one of the city’s most famous surf spots – Steamer Lane.
Full of fabulous photos and short films, surfboards, and memorabilia, it was the first museum of its kind to open in 1986. Through informative exhibits, it documents over a hundred years of surfing culture in Santa Cruz with the sport having first been introduced in 1885 by three Hawaiian princes.
The lovely little lighthouse in which the collection is housed also stands as a memorial to Mark Abbott who sadly died in 1965 while surfing at the nearby Pleasure Point.
9. Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Just past West Cliff Drive and Natural Bridges State Park you can find the state-of-the-art Seymour Marine Discovery Center which offers up a fascinating look into the ocean, its animals, and ecosystems. As well as indoor and outdoor exhibits, it has several aquaria to explore that are full of shoals of fish and sea creatures.
Part of the University of California’s Santa Cruz Coastal Science Campus, the magnificent museum is perched atop of a cliff overlooking the ocean. At its entrance, you are welcomed by ‘Ms. Blue’ – the largest blue whale skeleton on display anywhere in the world.
Aside from this staggering sight, there are also tanks of sea anemones, starfish, and sharks for you to see as well as hands-on activities and interactive exhibits for kids to enjoy.
8. Wilder Ranch State Park
Home to a delightful array of landscapes, scenery, and nature, Wilder Ranch State Park can be found just a stone’s throw from the marine center. Offering up all kinds of outdoor activities, it is a popular and picturesque place to visit with the park’s valleysand coastal bluffs lying just ten minutes’ drive west of the center.
Formerly a dairy ranch, the expansive estate was turned into a park in 1996 with an old quarry, lime kilns, and various historic buildings still dotted about its confines. Protected as part of a museum, its farmhouse, barns, and rodeo arena now highlight how early ranchers used to live in California.
In total there are over fifty kilometers of trails for you to hike, mountain bike, or horseback ride along with fantastic scenery and views wherever you go.
7. Mystery Spot
Since opening in 1939, the intriguing Mystery Spot has been a very popular tourist attraction in Santa Cruz due to all its amazing illusions that seem to defy gravity. Set on a steeply sloping hillside just ten minutes’ drive north of the center, it is fun a place to visit and take photos of yourself at improbable angles.
As the laws of gravity seem to be suspended at the site, visitors can lean at seemingly impossible angles without falling. This puzzling phenomenon makes for some great photos with people even appearing tilted when standing up straight in the site’s creaky old cabin.
Aside from snapping photo after photo of the gravitational anomaly to show your friends, you can also enjoy a leisurely hike through the nearby grove of redwoods.
6. Roaring Camp Railroads
A wonderful way to see some of the stupendous scenery that surrounds the city is to sit back, relax, and enjoy a ride along the Roaring Camp Railroads. From its historic old depot in Felton, you can choose between terrific two train rides with one taking you down to Santa Cruz beach and the other winding its way through the remarkable redwood forests.
Since 1963, it has delighted locals and tourists alike with its magical train rides through the valleys, mountains, and forests. As you are pulled along by a vintage steam locomotive, you’ll learn all there is to know about the narrow-gauge railroad, Roaring Camp, and the scenery and nature around you.
In addition to simply enjoying the scenic route, you can also explore its camp which is home to an old-fashioned general store, charming depot, and small museum.
5. Natural Bridges State Beach
Just ten minutes’ drive west of downtown you can find the beautiful Natural Bridges State Beach. One of the most scenic stretches of sand in the state, it is so named due to the striking sandstone sea arch that lies just offshore and makes for such phenomenal photos.
Protected as a state park since 1933, the area is home to lots of exquisite nature and wildlife with craggy coastal cliffs, tidal pools, and saltwater marshes all bordering the beach. While seals and sea otters can sometimes be spotted, the park is renowned for being one of the best places to watch the absolutely unforgettable annual monarch butterfly migrations.
Besides sunbathing, surfing, and hiking along its trails, you can enjoy stunning sunsets and sunrises from the beach with incredible ocean views guaranteed whenever you go.
4. Santa Cruz Wharf
Back towards the center of town is another of Santa Cruz’s top tourist attractions – the lively yet laidback Santa Cruz Wharf. Jutting out into Monterey Bay, it lies in between Main Beach and Cowell Beach, right next to the bustling boardwalk.
Originally built in 1914 for deep-water vessels to dock at, it is now instead used as a fishing pier or vantage point from which to gaze out over the beach, city, and ocean. Lining the wharf are a number of great seafood restaurants for you to try out as well as several souvenir shops.
From here you can also rent kayaks and take scenic boat trips or dolphin and whale watching tours. You don’t have to go far to see wildlife though as a colony of sea lions inhabits the end of the pier.
3. Santa Cruz Main Beach
Right next to the wharf is the Santa Cruz Main Beach which is the best and most popular place to head in town if you’re after sun, sea, and sand. Curving its way gently around the bay, the beach’s broad swathe of sand offers up all kinds of fun activities and lies alongside the endless attractions of the boardwalk.
As life in the city revolves around both the beach and boardwalk, no visit to Santa Cruz can ever be complete without at least spending some time on its sun-kissed sands. Aside from lounging lazily on the beach, you can play volleyball on its courts or swim and paddle about in its sheltered waters.
In addition, Main Beach lies just a stone’s throw from the wharf and boardwalk and has countless shops, restaurants, and cafes for you to choose from.
2. West Cliff Drive
A treat to walk, run, or cycle along, West Cliff Drive winds its way along the coast to the west of the city and stretches almost three miles in length. Along the route there are lots of scenic spots and viewpoints to stop off at with breathtaking panoramas over the Pacific Ocean wherever you go.
Popular with locals and tourists alike, the paved path meanders its way along the clifftops passing secluded coves, beaches, and state parks. In addition, it takes you past such sights as the steep West Cliff Steps and Santa Cruz Surfing Museum before terminating at Natural Bridges State Beach.
Besides simply gazing out over the ocean and the craggy cliffs of the Californian coastline, you can also spy dolphins, whales, and surfers in the sparkling waves down below.
1. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
As it boasts an amazing mix of rides and games, arcades, and attractions, the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk really is not to be missed when in town. The oldest surviving amusement park in the state, it runs alongside the golden sands of Main Beach, attracting locals and tourists alike with its enticing sights, sounds, and smells.
Opened in 1907, the bustling boardwalk has a lovely old-time look and feel with some attractions now even recognized as National Historic Landmarks. Besides its intricately carved Looff carousel, for instance, you can spy all kinds of classic carnival games with the Giant Dipper – its wonderful wooden roller coaster – being its standout sight.
On top of all its thrill rides, arcades, and games, you’ll find innumerable entertainment and dining options with the delicious smell of popcorn wafting through the air the whole way along.