Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in Santa Cruz, CA

  • Published 2022/10/09

The city of Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz County is largely recognized as California’s quintessential beach town.

But before it became a popular destination for beachgoers, Santa Cruz started off as a settlement inhabited by the Spaniards in 1791.

The city underwent several periods that shaped its culture and heritage, including the indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, and American periods.

These influences are evident in the Santa Cruz community today, resulting in a vibrant and diverse atmosphere that locals and visitors love.

If you’re planning to visit this city anytime soon, here are the best things to do in Santa Cruz, California:

Take a Picture of the Santa Cruz Breakwater Lighthouse

Scenic view of Santa Cruz Breakwater Lighthouse

Andrew Zarivny /

Located at the west jetty of the Santa Cruz Harbor is the famous Santa Cruz Breakwater Lighthouse that operated from 1964 to 1996.

It’s a sight to behold, standing at a whopping 41.5 feet.

Scenic view of Santa Cruz Breakwater Lighthouse

Michal Balada /

Over the years, the harbor light became unsightly, which prompted Bill Simpkins and Jim Thoits to replace it with a more classic design.

The new lighthouse was constructed in 2001, weighing 350,000 pounds.

If you ever find yourself near Santa Cruz Harbor, don’t miss the chance to take a picture of the Santa Cruz Breakwater Lighthouse to commemorate your visit.

Scenic view of Santa Cruz Breakwater Lighthouse

Lucky-photographer /

Hang Out at Natural Bridges State Beach

Scenic view of Natural Bridges State Beach

Chintla /

It’ll be a shame not to swing by some of the beaches when in Santa Cruz, and if you’re looking for some of the best ones, you can add Natural Bridges State Beach to your list.

Compared to other public beaches in Santa Cruz, Natural Bridges State Beach is rather secluded, which makes it the perfect spot for someone who wants to enjoy peace and quiet.

Scenic view of Natural Bridges State Beach

Chintla /

You’ll also find the famous rock formation in the shore break, so make sure to bring your camera to take a few photos to commemorate your trip.

Besides enjoying the sands and clear waterways, there’s also a butterfly migration preserve and exhibit you can visit.

You can even go on a short hike or set up a small picnic that you can enjoy with your family or closest friends.

Spend a Day at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

People having fun at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

GagliardiPhotography /

One might think that traversing a boardwalk isn’t something a tourist would want to do, but not if you’re walking along the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.

There are many things to do and great places to eat at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, so you definitely won’t get bored even if you spend an entire day there.

People having fun at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Min C. Chiu /

Enjoy the view while munching on sweet treats and great snacks from restaurants like the Fisherman’s Gallery, Surf City Grill, and more.

There are also a lot of attractions at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk for teens, kids, and adults, ensuring that everyone will have a great time.

Of course, you’ll get a great view by Santa Cruz Beach, so make sure to bring your swimsuits and beach equipment while you’re there.

People having fun at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Ken Wolter /

Have a Glass of Wine at Rexford Winery

There’s nothing more relaxing than sipping on a glass of fine wine while enjoying the scenic views of Santa Cruz.

If you’re looking for a place where you can do that, you might want to check out Rexford Winery on Ingalls Street.

Established in 2008, Rexford Winery is home to a great selection of handcrafted wines that reflect the various characteristics of grapes.

Enjoy the flavors of favorite drinks like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, and other collections.

Rexford Winery is handled by two expert winemakers who tailor the flavors according to European styles.

Learn about the Marine Life at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center

View of Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Kurkul /

Learn more about life under the sea when you visit the Seymour Marine Discovery Center on McAllister Way.

This Santa Cruz tourist spot first opened its doors to the public in 2000 with a mission to educate guests about marine science and ocean conservation.

View of Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Matthew Corley /

As you explore the discovery center, you’ll see a wide variety of permanent, rotating, and interactive exhibits that you won’t find anywhere else.

You’ll find popular attractions, such as Blue Whale Skeleton displays like Ms. Blue and other live animals, once you step outside.

This premier Santa Cruz destination also offers two guided tours, which can take you around the entire discovery center or the Younger Lagoon Reserve.

Ride the Waves at Surf School Santa Cruz

One thing you should know about Santa Cruz is that its beaches are most popular for having great waves.

If you’re new to the sport, you can swing by Surf School Santa Cruz on Delaware Avenue and learn a thing or two about surfing.

Become one with the ocean, and ride the waves at Surf School Santa Cruz with your friends.

You’ll have a variety of classes to choose from, including a private two-person surfing lesson or a group surfing lesson if you’re traveling with a bunch of people.

If you want to learn from the best, there’s also a surfing lesson taught by Bud Freitas, a world-famous professional surfer.

Watch the Sunset from West Cliff Drive

Scenic view of West Cliff Drive

stellamc /

There’s nothing more therapeutic than watching the sunset, and when in Santa Cruz, West Cliff Drive makes the perfect spot to catch that kind of view.

It is located just between Bay St and Natural Bridges State Park, with the latter also adding great views of the city’s natural wonders.

West Cliff Drive is also a three-mile walking trail where you can ride your bike or go for a run before dark.

Scenic view of West Cliff Drive

Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Once you’ve found the perfect spot along this scenic spot, all you have to do now is simply enjoy the view.

While you’re here, you’ll also get a good look at the Pacific Ocean and Monterey Bay.

Scenic view of West Cliff Drive

Larry McElhiney, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Swing by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

Front view of Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

WCCasey at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Art aficionados will have a great time touring the halls of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History on Front Street

Aside from having unique exhibits and featuring state-of-the-art collections, the museum is also a gathering place where art in all its forms comes alive.

Swing by the Santa Cruz County History Gallery and learn everything about the city and county’s rich culture and heritage and the people who pioneered them.

Art is alive more than ever even when you step outside the museum doors, as there is also an outdoor exhibit on the rooftop.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History is also the venue for several city-wide festivals, such as Dia de los Muertos, Frequency, and CommonGround.

Reconnect with Nature at the UCSC Arboretum

View of UCSC Arboretum

Mike Fernwood from Santa Cruz, California, United States, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s something about nature-filled areas that just make you feel calm and relaxed.

If you’re looking for that kind of experience while in Santa Cruz, the UCSC Arboretum is the right place to visit.

It can be found inside the UCSC campus and encompasses 135 acres.

The living museum boasts a terrific collection of rare and unique plant species, amounting to over 300 plant families of Mediterranean climates.

You’ll find a variety of primitive angiosperms, world conifers, and bulb-forming plant families as you walk around the UCSC Arboretum.

Don’t think that this Santa Cruz attraction is like your normal arboretum because the gardens feature many international plant species from countries like Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Beat the Heat at Cowell Beach

View of Cowell Beach

Ken Wolter /

The California sun can get blazing, but fortunately, there are a lot of beaches in Santa Cruz where you can beat the heat.

Cowell Beach is situated just west of the Municipal Wharf Pier in downtown Santa Cruz, making it accessible to many people.

As you take a dip in the waters, you’ll also be treated to a great view of the Dream Inn Hotel and the pier by Santa Cruz Harbor.

Cowell Beach is also a popular spot for playing beach volleyball, so if you want to engage in a friendly competition with your friends, this beach is the right place for you.

The beach is also famed for having beginner-friendly waves where you can work on your surfing skills.

Explore Downtown Santa Cruz

View of Downtown Santa Cruz

arkanto /

Downtown attractions in most cities are always fun to explore, and Santa Cruz is no exception.

Shop, eat, and play while wandering the streets of Downtown Santa Cruz, and have a blast immersing yourself in the culture of the people.

Explore the city while on a zipline, shop for some antiques, or take a picture of some of Santa Cruz’s best murals on display.

View of Downtown Santa Cruz

Rosangela Perry /

Downtown Santa Cruz brands itself as a hub for entertainment, business, and social and cultural centers, which means every street will have something that will make your visit extremely memorable.

Once you’re done with your tour, make sure to fill up on some good food in downtown favorites like Alderwood, The Bagelry, Cafe Campesino, and more.

Hone Your Artistic Skills at Santa Cruz Art League

Art is undeniably everywhere in Santa Cruz, and Santa Cruz Art League on Broadway has much to do with it.

Founded in 1919 by a dedicated group of young artists, it is a haven for artists to showcase their talents and hone their skills.

You’ll see a lot of rotating exhibits featuring regional and international artists while exploring the facility, covering anywhere between 12 and 15 annual exhibitions.

Santa Cruz Art League also offers classes for students to craft their talents seven days a week.

So if you’re looking to maximize your potential as an artist or develop an appreciation for the arts, feel free to enroll in some of the league’s classes using different media and themes.

Go Wine Tasting at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard

Sign in Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard

Michael Vi /

Originally established as the Jarvis Brothers Vineyard in 1863, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard offers some of the finest wines you’ll ever find in California.

You don’t have to worry about getting jammy and oaky wines with high alcohol content while in this vineyard, which is one of the reasons why Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard wines are popular among locals.

Taste the true characteristics of grape varieties fill your taste buds when you go wine tasting in this vineyard, which is full of experienced winemakers and boasts a rich history of the craft.

Commemorate your visit to Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard by shopping for a few bottles of wine, specifically the Pinot Noir variants.

Wander the Halls of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

Learn anything and everything about the wonderful city of Santa Cruz when you visit the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History on East Cliff Drive.

Travel back to about a hundred years ago, when Santa Cruz was just beginning to earn its stripes as a bustling district in California.

Wander around the halls and get a closer look at natural history displays like fossils, shells, minerals, animals, and insects.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History also highlights human, animal, and plant communities that came from the shoreline of Monterey Bay to the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Other collections and exhibits you’ll also find in the museum cover topics like ethnography, history, fine arts, and the art of surfing.

Spend a Family Day at Neptune’s Kingdom

Inside view of Neptune’s Kingdom

Logan Bush /

Make your trip to Santa Cruz one that even your kids will never forget when you spend a family day at Neptune’s Kingdom at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Neptune’s Kingdom is a nautical-themed entertainment center in Santa Cruz that has attractions that both kids and adults are sure to enjoy.

Engage in a friendly competition with your family by playing a round of mini-golf, or see if you have what it takes to conquer the Laser Maze.

Kids at heart can go to the arcade section, play their favorite classic games, and have a good time.

You can also swing by the Captain’s Game Deck and enjoy games like air hockey, foosball, ping pong, and more.

Final Thoughts

You’re sure to have a great time in the city if you stick to this list of the best things to do in Santa Cruz, California.

Aside from having great entertainment venues and scenic places, Santa Cruz is filled with history that will pique your interest.

Book a trip today, and let the adventure begin!

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