Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in Santa Cruz, CA

  • Published 2023/01/27

The vibrant city of Santa Cruz is the county seat and largest region of Santa Cruz County in California.

The city is a popular tourist destination because of its beach spots and surfing culture, as well as several historical landmarks.

In 1886, Santa Cruz was incorporated as a city, and the creation of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in 1907 turned the area into a thriving seaside resort community.

Several attractions and experiences await tourists in this premier summer destination, and the good news is that you can enjoy most of them without spending a dime.

Here are 15 free things to do in Santa Cruz, California:

Walk along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Far view of Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

David A Litman /

Immerse yourself in the dynamic lifestyle of Santa Cruz locals when you walk along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Located along Beach Street, this spot is considered the most popular attraction in the Santa Cruz area, so it would be a shame not to visit it at least once.

You don’t need to shell out cash to go inside the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which means you can explore the area as much as you’d like for free.

People at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

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Get a good look at the thrilling rides and carnival games, and simply enjoy the lively atmosphere.

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is also by the beach, so feel free to walk barefoot on the white sand if you’re up for it.

Carnival ride at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

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Watch Out for Community Free Days at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Exterior of the Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Matthew Corley /

The Seymour Marine Discovery Center on McAllister Way is on the list of must-visit places in Santa Cruz, mainly because it provides an educational and fun experience for visitors.

While the discovery center usually imposes admission fees, you can score free tickets during community days.

Community days are certain dates when the Seymour Marine Discovery Center offers a free pass for visitors to explore the facility, so if you’re looking to drop by while on a budget, make sure to check the center’s schedule.

Whale skeleton in front of the Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Matthew Corley /

Once inside, check out the various interactive and outdoor exhibits decorating the center and learn more about the creatures from the deep blue.

You can also go on a self-guided or group tour where guides will walk you through all the cool displays in the discovery center; you’ll also learn interesting facts about marine life.

Check Out the Surfing Community at Pleasure Point County Park

Pleasure Point County Park along E Cliff Drive is one of the most popular surfing spots and is home to Santa Cruz’s vibrant surfing community.

Feel the authentic surf vibe emanating from the entire area as you walk around and explore the beach town.

Pleasure Point is a thriving area within Santa Cruz and is more than just a spot for expert wave riders to hang out.

In fact, the area has a bustling commercial scene where local businesses are very much alive.

If you’re a certified movie buff, you’ll find great joy in knowing that Pleasure Point was one of the filming locations for the movie “Chasing Mavericks.”

Enjoy a Panoramic View of Monterey Bay at the Santa Cruz Wharf

Restaurants at Santa Cruz Wharf

Ken Wolter /

Situated between the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Steamer Lane is the scenic Santa Cruz Wharf.

Spanning a total of 2,745 feet, the Santa Cruz Wharf offers visitors some of the most stunning views of the California coast and a vibrant atmosphere.

The timber centenarian was built in 1914 and is one of the best places to enjoy Monterey Bay views.

People at Santa Cruz Wharf

Runner1928, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Go for a relaxing walk along the wharf or swing by the gift shop to buy some souvenirs.

But besides being a popular viewing spot, the wharf is also a hotspot for local gatherings where events and festivals are celebrated.

Aerial view of Santa Cruz Wharf

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Watch the Monarch Butterflies Fly around Natural Bridges State Beach

Scenic view of Natural Bridges State Beach

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You’ll find Natural Bridges State Beach along West Cliff Drive, offering plenty of outdoor activities for visiting families and large groups.

One of the highly anticipated events in this Santa Cruz attraction are the monarch butterflies flying around, which usually occurs from mid-October to late January.

You’ll also find the rock formations and natural bridge a sight to behold, as you’ll get to see migrating whales, shorebirds, seals, and otters nearby.

Monarch butterflies at Natural Bridges State Beach

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Beach bums are free to lounge around the sand, go for a swim, or even play a few games and fly some kites.

Natural Bridges State Beach also connects to a few hiking trails at the Moore Creek Wetlands Preserve.

Note that while beach entry is free, parking fees apply.

Pelicans at Natural Bridges State Beach

Iv-olga /

Watch the Sunset at Cliff Drive Vista Point

Sunsets by the beach are a sight to behold, but when visiting Santa Cruz, you can take your viewing experience to the next level at Cliff Drive Vista Point.

Visiting Cliff Drive Vista Point is a must in Santa Cruz, as it offers stunning views of the ocean waters beneath the horizon.

The Santa Cruz Boardwalk and beach can be spotted from Cliff Drive Vista Point’s west side, while Seabright Beach and the Walton Lighthouse sit on the east end.

Feel free to stick around the area for an hour or two or ride your bike along the pathways scattered around Vista Point.

There are also some picnic tables in the area, which are perfect for those who want to enjoy their meals with a stunning view of Santa Cruz and a relaxing atmosphere.

Learn about the History of Surfing at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

Exterior of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

Galina Gutarin /

Surfing has always been a big deal in Santa Cruz, so much so that a museum is dedicated to its history and development.

If you’re among the many surfing enthusiasts visiting Santa Cruz, you might want to check out the Surfing Museum on West Cliff Drive.

Building sign of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

Michael Vi /

As you wade through hundreds of photographs and dozens of surfboards in the museum, you’ll also enjoy a stunning view of Steamer Lane, an internationally renowned surfing hotspot.

You’ll also see a bunch of artifacts that trace a century-long history of Santa Cruz surfing, as well as surfing books and other helpful resources.

Facade of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

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Dive into Local History at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

Exterior of Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

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There are a lot of stories to uncover in Santa Cruz, and the Museum of Natural History on East Cliff Drive is the best place to know more about the city’s tales.

Dive into Santa Cruz’s cultural history and learn everything there is about the sciences within the region.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History houses a great collection of biological, ethnographic, and historic artifacts that serve as the window to the past.

There are about 16,800 things to see inside the local museum, so be sure to take your sweet time when going through each of them.

The museum also displays special exhibits on certain days, giving guests a glimpse of something different every time they visit.

Schedule your visit every first Friday of the month for free admission!

Attend the Holiday Parade Downtown

Holidays are fun in Santa Cruz because aside from beach views, you’ll also enjoy several festivities.

If you’re in Santa Cruz for the holidays, make sure to stick around long enough to witness the Holiday Parade downtown.

The Holiday Parade is the city’s way of bringing the community members together for a day of fun and excitement that leads to Christmas day.

Expect a great time and create new memories with your family as Santa Cruz turns into the North Pole.

One of the events you should also look forward to is Santa Claus chilling on an antique fire truck at the end of the parade.

Soak up the Sun at Cowell Beach

Lifeguard tower at Cowell Beach

Ken Wolter /

You’ll be missing out on a lot of great adventures if you’re not thinking about visiting at least one of Santa Cruz’s beaches.

So what are you waiting for?

Grab your beach bags and sunblock and make a ton of new memories by the Santa Cruz sands.

Located west of the Municipal Wharf pier in downtown Santa Cruz is Cowell Beach, a popular attraction for those who love to soak up the sun.

Water waves at Cowell Beach

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Aside from the sight of clear waters and white sands, you’ll also get to see Santa Cruz Harbor from a distance.

Beach volleyball is a popular activity in the area, as well as surfing, so if you’re someone who likes to catch some waves, be sure to bring your board along.

Spend a Relaxing Day at DeLaveaga Park

Golf course at DeLaveaga Park

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If you’re looking to spend a day of relaxation after exploring the vibrant streets of Santa Cruz, swing by DeLaveaga Park on Branciforte Drive.

Named after Jose Vicente DeLaveaga, the park was his old property and vacation home during the 1800s.

The 35-acre site used to have horse stables, exotic plants, and a small zoo before it was willed to several non-profit organizations.

Today, DeLaveaga Park is a hotspot for those who want peace in Santa Cruz or have a small picnic with their families.

This Santa Cruz park also has several walking trails, horseshoe pits, ball courts, playgrounds, and more.

Check Out the Lighthouse Point

Daytime view of Lighthouse Point

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Situated right across the Lighthouse Field State Park is the famous Lighthouse Point, a local term for Santa Cruz Point.

The Lighthouse Point is home to the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, California’s 12th lighthouse.

Built in 1869, the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse in Santa Cruz Point was originally a two-story frame house sporting a Fresnel lens.

The lighthouse was moved inland from its original position over the years because sea caves were forming under the structure.

Today, Lighthouse Point remains a popular subject for professional photographers because of its stunning location and landscape.

View the Exhibits at Tannery Arts Center

Sitting along River Street is the Tannery Arts Center, an eight-acre arts campus that regularly hosts public art exhibits.

The campus also serves as a hotspot for artists to showcase their work or even hold activities for the people of Santa Cruz.

The Tannery Arts Center is where you can witness the talents of Santa Cruz artists in creating works from various media.

The arts center is also famous for hosting the First Friday Art Tour, where visitors can expect a packed campus filled with hundreds of unique creations.

So if you consider yourself a dedicated art aficionado, be sure to swing by the campus when exploring the streets of Santa Cruz.

Take a Stroll at West Cliff Drive

People at West Cliff Drive

stellamc /

Scenic spots are everywhere in Santa Cruz, but if you want to visit the best one, make sure to swing by West Cliff Drive.

Get a good look at Monterey Bay when you go on a relaxing stroll along West Cliff Drive, and enjoy the breathtaking view.

West Cliff Drive has a walking trail that spans a total of four miles, which makes for a great pastime when in Santa Cruz.

Bicycles at West Cliff Drive

Michael Barajas /

The trails are also suitable for biking and skating if you want a different mode of exercise aside from walking.

There’s also a beach access point in the area, so feel free to take your surfboard and beach bags with you when visiting this spot.

People walking with dogs at West Cliff Drive

Michael Barajas /

See What’s Cooking at the Clam Chowder Cook-Off

The Santa Cruz Clam Chowder Cook-Off is an annual event held every February at the Santa Cruz Wharf.

It’s a two-day event where amateur chefs compete for the best chowder in the city for everyone to see.

If that’s your cup of tea, swing by the Santa Cruz Wharf and get a good look at the tough competition.

Tasting kits are available at the Wharf, but if you’re not considering spending a couple of bucks, you’ll still get to enjoy the festivities by walking around.

The Clam Chowder Cook-Off is also an annual fundraiser spearheaded by the city’s Parks and Recreation department.

Final Thoughts

Vacationing in Santa Cruz doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.

By sticking to this list of free things to do in Santa Cruz, California, you’re still bound to have fun without spending much.

Begin your adventure by booking a trip today!

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