This classic California beach town is a byword for fun in the sun, sand, and summertime. Most visitors stop only at the neighboring sand beaches and fishing pier before heading directly for the boardwalk. Santa Cruz, though, has a lot more to offer.
Visitors who investigate further are rewarded with breathtaking beachfront views, a historic mission church, and a lovely city. The breathtaking Highway One route with breathtaking coastal views runs beside Monterey Bay and is only a short drive from Santa Cruz. Seals play in the clear seas of this marine preserve while surfers ride the Pacific’s pounding waves.
Santa Cruz’s tranquil beaches and pristine landscapes are beloved by outdoor sports enthusiasts and environment lovers. The Wild Wilder Ranch State Park offers breathtaking coastal hiking paths, while the U.C. Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden is home to rich Mediterranean vegetation and pink-throated hummingbirds.
Best Places to Visit in Santa Cruz
With our list of the top Santa Cruz attractions and things to do, you may get ideas for your next trip to California’s Central Coast, whether you’re planning a beach vacation or a day excursion.
1. Boardwalk at Santa Cruz Beach
With its amusement park rides, interactive activities, and tourist attractions, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk offers traditional summertime entertainment.
The large coastal amusement park is free to enter, and you may choose between unlimited rides, a season pass, or a pay-as-you-go MyBoardwalk Play Card (perfect for visitors who won’t be staying the entire day).
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Since 1907, the park, which boasts a view of the Main Beach, has delighted visitors. The magnificent location and historic roller coaster rides make it one of the top coastal amusement parks in the world.
2. Cowell Beach and Main Beach
The beach is the primary attraction in Santa Cruz, except the boardwalk. Santa Cruz is one of the top beach towns in California because of the warm, Mediterranean-style weather, sandy beaches, and secure seas.
The two most popular beaches available to visitors are Main Beach, which is close to the Boardwalk, and Cowell Beach, which is located next to Main Beach on the opposite side of the wharf.
3. Santa Cruz Wharf
The Santa Cruz Wharf was constructed in 1914 to accommodate deep-water vessels, but it is now used as a fishing pier and vantage point for tourism.
The wharf is a great spot for tourists to buy and discover things to do, and it’s also one of the best sites to try the local seafood. Stagnaro Bros., one of the top eateries on the pier, offers mouthwatering views of the bay while serving fresh seafood favorites like fish and chips.
4. The Surfing Museum and West Cliff Drive
West Cliff Drive has a six-mile trail that follows the shoreline and offers a beautiful route for biking and strolling. The vistas of the Pacific Ocean are just breathtaking as you travel. All ages and fitness levels can enjoy this scenic route because it is entirely flat and wheelchair accessible.
Benches that are strategically placed encourage onlookers to relax and take in the views of the undulating, deep blue oceans, seagulls soaring above, and groups of pelicans hovering close to the water.
5. Beach State Park at Natural Bridges
The mudstone cliffs’ fissures are what gave rise to the magnificent sea arch that graces this beach. This tiny protected sandy beach is a wonderful location to visit for relaxing and birdwatching because of its outstanding natural beauty.
From April through November, the area is excellent for seeing whales that are migrating. Just offshore, seals and otters occasionally can be spotted having fun. The beach’s tidal pools, which lie further along, are home to sea stars, tiny crabs, sea anemones, and other marine life.
6. Roaring Camp Railroads
Get on a vintage train in the Santa Cruz Mountains for a change of pace and to explore the region from a distinctive angle. Passengers are taken through Santa Cruz’s stunning natural setting by Roaring Camp Railroads. Both young and elderly enjoy taking these picturesque train journeys.
Two distinct routes are provided by Roaring Camp Railroads: one that travels from Roaring Camp (near Felton, in the Santa Cruz Mountains), to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and another that travels from Roaring Camp to Bear Mountain.
7. Whale and dolphin-watching cruises
Santa Cruz is located next to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, one of the largest marine sanctuaries in the United States, and is only a 45-minute drive from Monterey, a historic waterfront town. 36 marine animal species and 525 fish species have habitat in this protected maritime ecosystem, which stretches for 276 miles along the coastline.
One of the best spots in California to go for whale watching and ocean wildlife tours is this area, which is located off the coast of Monterey. From Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf, cruises leave. Depending on the season, participants on the Half-Day Whale-Watching Tour from Monterey have the potential to see gray whales, humpback whales, and blue whales.
8. The Arboretum & Botanic Garden at UC Santa Cruz
The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains on an old coastal terrace with views of Monterey Bay.
This outstanding location on the university campus serves as a sizable outdoor classroom for scientific study as well as a tourist attraction for those who enjoy gardening and the outdoors. The atmosphere and topography at the 135-acre location are perfect for Mediterranean plant growth.
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Plants from Australia, California, New Zealand, and South Africa are represented in various sections. The Arboretum seeks to prevent the extinction of the many plants that are endangered in their natural habitats.
9. Santa Cruz Harbor
Two sizable marinas are housed at the Santa Cruz Harbor, which also offers boat access to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Sailing, kayaking, and other leisurely water sports like stand-up paddleboarding are popular in the harbor. Visitors can hire paddleboards and kayaks.
Several businesses in the port provide yacht charters, private sailing outings, and charter-boat fishing excursions. Whale watching and ocean wildlife observation are the main priorities of the Sea Spirit Ocean Safari.
10. Mysterious Spot
You must visit this amazing site to believe it. The Mystery Spot is situated in a 46-meter-diameter circle of the redwood forest where gravity does not normally operate. Even while attempting to stand up straight, objects and people appear to be slanted, and the gravitational anomaly causes visitors to doubt the laws of physics.
Since the phenomenon at Mystery Spot was discovered in 1939, scientists have been baffled by the effect and have been unable to explain it. However, this has not stopped speculating, and both experts and laypeople have developed theories, ranging from possible natural reasons to the existence of extraterrestrial beings.
The small coastal city of Santa Cruz is a great destination to visit as well as call home because it is practically synonymous with sun, sea, sand, and surf. It is located on the northern bank of Monterey Bay, close to San Jose and San Francisco, and has stunning views of the California coastline.
It is known as “Surf City” and is known for its laid-back attitude and counterculture atmosphere. The town’s vibrant promenade and stunning beaches serve as the focal points of daily life.