Santa Cruz has a quintessential California beach town, with the sun, sand, and summer fun. Most tourists head straight for the boardwalk, but you get much more than just a sandy beach if you make your way down to Santa Cruz.
With scenic seaside views, historical mission churches, and a charming downtown in the area for visitors to explore, Santa Cruz’s Highway One is where you can find those who appreciate nature. In this pristine aquatic environment, seals frolic in the deep blue waters and surfers ride the crashing waves of the Pacific.
Nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts enjoy the beaches and surroundings of Santa Cruz. At the Wilder Ranch State Park, hikers will find coastal hiking trails that are breathtaking to see and experience firsthand. The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Gardens boasts lush Mediterranean flora and pink-throated hummingbirds.
Santa Cruz also offers a slew of cultural activities. For an enchanting experience, Santa Cruz has a Shakespeare performance under the stars and in a magical glen. There’s also the Surfing Museum that gives visitors a taste of California surfing culture.
When you’re thinking about planning a vacation to California’s Central Coast, start by checking out our list of the top attraction in Santa Cruz.
1. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk offers the perfect way to enjoy summer in California. With classic amusement park rides and attractions, you can experience unlimited rides throughout the day without needing to pay a set fee or getting a season pass.
The Main Beach Amusement Park in Ventura is one of the best in the world because of it’s fantastic setting and historic roller coaster rides.
With a wide range of rides from old favorites to new, the park has something for everyone.
In addition to being able to grab a ride with an ice cream, Boardwalk also offers entertainment. Youngsters have fun playing traditional arcade games and enjoy watching the latest games as well.
On the beach, you can find food vendors that have delicious products like hot dogs, fried artichokes, chocolate-covered ice cream, cotton candy, golden taffy and more.
Address: 400 Beach Street, Santa Cruz, California
2. Main Beach & Cowell Beach
Besides the boardwalk, beach is one of the main reasons to visit Santa Cruz. With those white sunny rays, the sandy beaches, and the safe water, it creates one of the best coastal destinations in California.
The two beaches popular with visitors are Main Beach, located next to the Boardwalk, and Cowell Beach, which is located on the other side of the wharf.
Main Beach is popular for sunbathing and swimming because of its ample room for kids to play in the sand; there’s enough room that little ones can form a sand castle from scratch. The beach also attracts volleyball players who enjoy playing on the sand courts.
On the other side of the wharf, another famous surfers’ spot is located along Cowell Beach. It’s a sandy beach line that has gorgeous sunset views and it’s known for being a place where people can retreat to in order to spend time relaxing. The Dream Inn on Cowell Beach offers stylish accommodations near pristine beaches.
The Beach is a Wonderful Place to Spend a Summer Day
3. Santa Cruz Wharf
Both fishing and tourist activities are open at the Santa Cruz Wharf with its use as a sightseeing pier. This site dates back to 1914 with deep water connections.
The wharf is a popular location for tourists and local cuisine, drawing in people from all over who flock to sample fresh seafood. Stagnaro Bros., a seaside restaurant with spectacular views borders the pier and if you’re looking for great seafood, this is your place.
Sea lions, bird-watching and other reasons make Pier 54 so popular with tourists. Sea lions make their home by the pier year-round, and their splashing, barking can be heard from the pier. An area where visitors can go to see the sea lions resting on the structure of the pier.
During specific seasonal months, you may see some whales, dolphins, and otters in the local ocean. The waterfront also has specialty shops that sell fishing gear as well as boats and kayaks so that you can visit while enjoying the water.
Right near the wharf is the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center. The center features interactive exhibits that educate visitors about how to responsibly enjoy the ocean and help protect the marine environment. Visitors can explore the marine environment through a Biodiversity Kelp Forest, an Intertidal Touchpool, and an Open-Ocean Mini-Theater.
4. West Cliff Drive & the Surfing Museum
A six-mile pathway on West Cliff Drive hugs the coast and is perfect for a leisurely walk or bike ride. Along the way, there are breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. The path is completely flat and wheelchair accessible, making this site appropriate for all ages and fitness levels.
The benches are strategically placed next to the waterfront, inviting you to rest and experience the panorama of sea, sky and cloud.
Santa Cruz is often dubbed the original California surf town, and this picturesque area of the Monterey Bay has been a favorite spot for surfers since it’s creation.
A bronze surfer statue is found along the path, as well as the world’s first surfing museum. Coincidentally, it is housed in The Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse on top of a bluff overlooking the crashing waves. On display are vintage photos of surfers from the 1930s.
5. Natural Bridges State Beach
This astonishing natural space is the sea arch at Capers beach, a small protected sandy beach. With its amazing natural beauty, it’s an excellent place to visit for relaxation and bird-watching.
The location is perfect to view migrating whales throughout the year and sometimes seals and otters can be also seen playing just offshore. The tide pools have crabs, sea stars, small anemone, and other ocean creatures.
Springtime is the best time of year to see the wildflowers in the park near the beach. The Monarch Grove reserve near the peninsula becomes covered with butterflies that feed on eucalyptus trees during this time period before winter.
There is plenty to do at this beach. There are barbecue pits, picnic areas, and restroom facilities. Nearby you’ll find a shady grove of pine and eucalyptus trees.
Address: 2531 West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, California
6. Roaring Camp Railroads
For a unique perspective of various natural locations around the area, hop aboard and old-fashioned train in the Santa Cruz Mountains. These scenic rides appeal to young and old alike. Roaring Camp Railroads offer such rides in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The Roaring Camp Railroads offer two different routes: one starts in the valley and travels to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and the other begins at Roaring such camp and travels to Bear Mountain.
The Santa Cruz Beach Train departs from the Santa Cruz Mountains in Felton and travels a spectacular route through the awe-inspiring Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park into the San Lorenzo River Gorge, passing through a tunnel built in 1875. The train stops at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk before embarking on its return trip.
The last train that arrives in Santa Cruz at 4pm reverses its journey to return to the Roaring Camp Resort station. Tickets may be bought at Roaring Camp or from the Conductor on the train.
Passenger can ride on the historic Redwood Forest Steam Train, which has been operating since the 19th century and takes them through deep in between redwoods. The conductor shares information about Roaring Camp Railroad and its forestry history.
The Redwood Forest Steam Train operates year-round, and the Santa Cruz Beach Railway runs only on weekends in the spring to fall time frame.
Address: Roaring Camp Railroads, 5401 Graham Hill Road, Felton, California
7. Dolphin and Whale Watching Cruises
The city of Santa Cruz is a 45-minute drive from Monterey, and it’s situated along the coast alongside the mighty Marine Sanctuary of Monterey Bay. The sanctuary extends for 276 miles along the coast, and provides habitat for 36 marine mammal species and 525 fish species.
This area, off the coast of Monterey, is one of the best places to visit in California to take whale watching and other ocean wildlife sightseeing cruises. Cruises depart from the Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey. The Half-Day Whale-Watching Tour from Monterey offers passengers the opportunity to spot gray whales, humpback whales, and blue whales.
During the summer, from April to November, humpback whales migrate through the region, and there is also a small population of humpbacks that stay all year round.
The winter migration of Gray whales is a fascinating event to engage tourists, with opportunities to find and experience whale watching year-round.
In the summer, killer whales migrate to the coast and can be seen in Monterey Bay. The giant blue whale and humpback whale are often sighted during their migrations in the area.
8. UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden
Overlooking Monterey Bay, the University of California, Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden, stands on an ancient marine terrace in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This exceptional site on the university campus is a vast outdoor classroom for scientific study. The 135-acre site provides the ideal microclimate and topography for Mediterranean plants to grow.
The Arboretum offers plants native to Australia, California, New Zealand, and South Africa. Many of these types of plants are endangered in their natural habitats and the Arboretum works to protect them.
Features of the Arboretum include the Australian Garden, which houses fragrant eucalyptus; a small Butterfly Garden that is planted with flowers and shrubs that are attractive to butterflies; and a research garden used to study the native flora of California.
Arboretum visitors can enjoy a leisurely lunch in the Arboretum with ocean views. The Arboretum offers free docent-led tours on the first Saturday of the month and art exhibits throughout the year.
The Arboretum has many different types of plants that are great to be used in a home garden. Norrie’s Gift & Garden Shop has some of the most beautiful Mediterranean plants that you could find anywhere.
Address: 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, California
9. Santa Cruz Harbor
The Santa Cruz Harbor has two large marinas for boating as well as access to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It is a hub for sailing, kayaking, and other recreational water sport such as stand up paddleboarding. Rent kayaks and paddleboards at the Harbor.
Several maritime companies offer fishing charters and boat rentals, as well as yachts for private use. The Sea Spirit Ocean Safari is focused on whale watching and ocean wildlife viewing.
The Walton Lighthouse, located on a pier near the harbor, has the distinction of being one of the few lighthouses in the world placed on a floating dock.
With its culinary options, a lively ambience, and waterfront views, the harbor is popular among tourists around town.
10. Mystery Spot
Of all the places in the world, this is by far one of the most bizarre. If you want to visit, it’s 46 meters around and where gravity doesn’t apply. You will swing when you walk around on it and question physics.
The Mystery Spot is a great example of a paradox, but no scientific theory has been able to explain its origins. This has not stopped speculation. Many people have come up with theories of liquid and rocks positioned improperly on top of each other for natural explanations, to the presence of extraterrestrial beings.
After taking a guided tour and pondering scientific mysteries, visitors may choose to take a hike through the redwood forest on the nearby trail.
Address: 465 Mystery Spot Road, Santa Cruz, California
11. Downtown Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz has a wonderful downtown area lined with high-end contemporary eateries, shops, and cafes set at sidewalk level for the best people-watching views. A few of the most notable are outstanding ice cream parlors like La Paloma, as well as casual unique restaurants such as Boon’s Cafe.
Downtown stands out for its many name-brand stores and multiple locally owned shops, which carry original items created by local designers.
The downtown area has a lively ambience because of the city’s music scene. During the summer, there are regular performances that are free and open to the public.
Downtown Santa Cruz hosts First Fridays, art exhibits by local artists, and a weekly community Farmers’ Market held on Wednesday afternoons year-round.
12. Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Near Natural Bridges State Park, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center is a fascinating education-focused facility operated by UC Santa Cruz that stresses the importance of conservation.
The Exhibit Hall is the ideal destination for science educators and those interested in sea otter behavior, freshwater turtle conservation, and marine specimens from across the globe.
The Aquarium at the center is one of the highest rated attractions on TripAdvisor, providing exhibits where visitors can view sea life up close, including sharks. The touch pool allows kids to discover new underwater creatures that look something like a sea anemone, urchin, or hermit crab.
Address: 100 McAllister Way, Santa Cruz, California
13. Santa Cruz Shakespeare
Theater lovers can spend a magical evening in a redwood glen surrounded by superb Shakespearean actors, watching productions of great plays like Hamlet and Macbeth, as well as other performance inspired by the works of William Shakespeare.
Performances at the Audrey Stanley Grove are held in a large outdoor venue located at DeLaveaga Park, with ocean views. For those who can’t miss out on this momentous occasion, provisions are made for stargazers and picnickers.
Tickets for the season run from July through August, and advance purchase can save money with the price of seats varying according to the area.
Address: Audrey Stanley Grove, 501 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz, California
14. Santa Cruz Mission
The Santa Cruz Mission is part of a State Historic Park on Mission Hill, within easy walking distance of downtown Santa Cruz. Founded by Franciscan Christian missionaries from Spain in 1791, the Misión la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz (Exaltation Mission of Santa Cruz) was the 12th mission established in California.
With the mission badly damaged from a devastating earthquake in 1857, today only one small adobe building remains from the original mission.
The rest of the complex is a replica constructed in 1931 from adobe and wood, designed to look exactly like the original, including a one-third scale replica of the 1797 mission church. Original paintings, wooden crosses, and a tabernacle door are found in the church, recreating the historic ambience.
The church, adorned with white adobe bricks, features a wooden ceiling and little decoration design. One of the walls is covered with an oil painting of the Virgin de Guadalupe.
The Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park has dedicated exhibits about the California Indians, the Ohlone, Costanoans, and Yokuts people. They lived in the area when the missionaries arrived.
Address: 144 School Street, Santa Cruz, California
15. Seaside Town and Beach of Capitola
Capitola is a tourist-favorite destination for over a century with pastel-painted waterfront and gentle turquoise waves.
Many of the town’s cafés and restaurants offer ocean views, while visitors can enjoy strolling through the town to browse the boutiques, or taking walks along the bayside esplanade. Capitola is reminiscent of a quaint European village with many winding streets.
Capitola Beach is located in downtown, which is the best place for surfing and where you can see lots of people practicing boogie boarding and stand up paddleboarding.
Other things to do include fishing at the Capitola Wharf or taking a fishing excursion by boat in Port San Luis. Boat rentals are available from Capitola Boat and Bait (you need a fishing license).
For any foodie, it is just a short drive to the Capitola Beach and downtown area to try some authentic bakery, Italian deli, and espresso bar food such as croissants, cappuccinos, sandwiches, lasagna and more.
16. Wilder Ranch State Park
This state park is four miles north of downtown Santa Cruz, right by Highway One and the UC Santa Cruz Campus. It has 35 miles of trails on over 7,000 acres, perfect for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. The great views of tranquil valleys and gorgeous coastal terraces make it a hot spot for outdoor activity that is also a convenient location to visit.
The park includes a historic 1859 Gothic Revival farmhouse, 1897 Victorian homes, and other historic buildings dating back to the early 19th century. These can be explored by visitors from the front porch of one of them.
This park charges a day-use parking fee, and offers guided tours to the public, with no reservations required and on Saturday and Sunday at 1pm.
Address: 1401 Coast Road, Santa Cruz, California
17. Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)
The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History showcases an assortment of art, cultural events and California landscapes. Exhibitions range from paintings of the Monterey Bay to biographies of 19th-century Santa Cruz County residents.
The crowning experience of the museum is the Mary and Harry Blanchard Sculpture Garden on the rooftop terrace. View of Santa Cruz from this garden is breathtaking.
Address: 705 Front Street, Santa Cruz