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Santa Cruz can make a fantastic addition to any California itinerary, yet unfortunately, many visitors seem to skip it. I guess this is what happens when you're tucked away between the mega-attractive city of San Francisco and the coasts of Big Sur. We've visited Santa Cruz twice already and had a wonderful time. I have no doubt we'll be back, too.
With that in mind, I've prepared this list of top things to do while visiting Santa Cruz. We've done quite a few of these but need to get back and complete some items. I hope you'll find it helpful too!
- Mission Santa Cruz
- Beach Boardwalk
- University of California at Santa Cruz
- Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History
- Surfing Museum
- Seymour Marine Discovery Center
- Mystery Spot
- Natural Bridges Beach Park
- Wilder Ranch State Park
- Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
1. Mission Santa Cruz
There’s no better place to begin a tour of Santa Cruz than at the city’s spiritual birthplace: the Mission Santa Cruz. Founded by Franciscan monks in 1791, Mission Santa Cruz is near the San Lorenzo River and is the 12th oldest Catholic mission in California.
Unfortunately, many of the mission’s original buildings, bells, and artworks were destroyed over the years in a series of wars, earthquakes, and lootings. They don’t call this the “Hard Luck Mission” for nothing! In the 1930s, however, locals built a smaller replica of the original church that’s thankfully still standing today.
If you look carefully, you could find traces of the Mission Santa Cruz’s turbulent past throughout the complex. For instance, there’s an original baptismal font now used as a fountain in the Mission Plaza. Be sure to ask guides where to find historic stone fortifications and surviving artifacts on your visit.
Location: 120 Emmett St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Opening Hours: Monday and Thursday through Saturday from 10AM – 4PM; Sunday from 12PM – 4PM
Admission Fee: FREE
2. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
There are many iconic boardwalks in California, but the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is extra special for many reasons. First off, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk has the oldest continuously operating amusement park in the Golden State (first opened in 1907). But that’s not all! Two rides at this amusement park are registered as National Historic Landmarks: the Loof Carousel and the Giant Dipper roller coaster. Plus, the Beach Boardwalk has the widest array of indoor arcade games in all of Northern California.
In between playing games and enjoying rides, don’t forget to sample some glorious guilty pleasures from area food vendors. A few fabulous foodies finds include chocolate-covered bacon and Santa Cruz’s special corn dogs… yeah, probably best not to let your cardiologist know about this trip!
At sunset, be sure to walk out onto the Santa Cruz Wharf for a romantic finish to your fun-filled day. You could also head across the street to the Boardwalk Bowling Alley for extra fun with family and friends.
We visited the boardwalk on a weekday and it was nice and quiet. We just enjoyed the perfect weather, ocean views, and ice cream. Best of all, we spotted a sea otter in the water! For a long while, we watched it diving for clams, then floating on its back while cracking them open and eating the contents. Overall, a lovely few hours of relaxation.
Location: 400 Beach St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Opening Hours: Usually rides are open between 10:00AM – 10:00PM every day in the summer months, but check the online calendar for more details.
Admission Fee: There are many different card options available, but most day visitors pay for points as they go. $1 equals 1 point, and every ride requires a different number of points.
3. University of California at Santa Cruz
Interestingly, a visit to the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) is more likely to delight nature lovers than scholars. Indeed, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the UCSC campus and a wild redwood forest. Be sure to schedule some time to admire the local scenery on one of UCSC’s well-maintained walking or biking trails.
With UCSC’s reputation for natural splendor, it should come as no surprise that one of the top attractions on campus is the Arboretum & Botanic Garden. Guests at this 135-acre Arboretum will get to see over 300 colorful plant species from Oceania, South Africa, and, of course, California.
Another unique attraction on the UCSC campus is the Cowell Lime Works Historic District. From the 1850s till the 1920s, this 32-acre complex was one of the nation’s most important lime quarries and manufacturing sites. Anyone interested in seeing original kilns and buildings from those industrious years can take a complimentary tour.
Location: 1156 High St, Santa Cruz, CA 95064
Opening Hours: Varies by attraction
Admission Fee: FREE
4. Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History
If you only have time to visit one museum while in town, definitely put the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History at the top of your list. Continuously operating for over 100 years, it’s safe to say this museum has been doing something right.
Taking the time to admire this museum’s collection will help you better appreciate the rich history and ecology of the Monterey Bay area. Just a few permanent artifacts on display include Native American tools, animal skeletons, and indigenous plants. There are also many special exhibitions that take place here throughout the year, so be sure to check the museum’s website for details.
Location: 1305 E Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95062
Opening Hours: Tuesday through Friday from 11:00AM – 4:00PM and Saturday through Sunday from 10:00AM – 5:00PM. Closed on Mondays.
Admission Fee: $4 for adults and free for children below the age of 18. Senior discounts apply.
5. Surfing Museum
Founded in the mid-1980s, the tiny Santa Cruz Surfing Museum documents how Hawaiian surfer culture took over this coastal city in the 20th century. Visitors to this Lighthouse Point museum can check out rare artifacts that help tell the story of how surfing became such a critical part of Santa Cruz’s modern identity.
In addition to learning about the past, the Surfing Museum is an excellent place to check out the city’s current surfer culture. Enjoy the great views of surfing pros “hanging ten” at Steamer Lane, considered one of the finest surfing spots in the contiguous USA. Don’t be surprised if you get so inspired from your visit that you decide to enroll in a Santa Cruz surfing lesson.
Location: 701 W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Opening Hours: Open 10:00AM– 5:00PM every day except Wednesdays between July 4 and Labor Day. After Labor Day, the Surfer Museum is open between 12:00PM – 4:00PM every day except Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Admission Fee: FREE
6. Seymour Marine Discovery Center
The best place in Santa Cruz to bring budding marine biologists is the Seymour Marine Discovery Center near the Natural Bridges State Park. Simply look for a massive 87-foot Blue Whale skeleton to find the entrance to this celebrated museum.
Once you walk inside the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, be prepared to get up-close-and-personal with many sensational sea critters. In the invertebrate pool, you could pet a few sea anemones and starfish collected from the Pacific Ocean. You could even observe a few sharks and stingrays from a safer distance.
Anyone traveling with youngsters should put a stop at this kid-friendly attraction on top of their travel itinerary.
Location: 100 McAllister Way in Santa Cruz, California 95060
Opening Hours: Monday through Sunday from 10 AM – 5 PM
Admission Fee: $9 for adults and $7 for kids, but there are senior discounts
7. Mystery Spot
Located in the Santa Cruz redwoods is a historic hiking trail that seems to defy the laws of physics. Opened in 1941, the Mystery Spot is a strange mountainside cabin in which marbles roll upwards and people comfortably walk on walls.
A local welder discovered this weird area sometime in the late 1930s and quickly turned it into a popular tourist draw. The Mystery Spot is now a California Historical Landmark continues to welcome thousands of stupefied tourists annually.
Everyone has an explanation for why the Mystery Spot is so, well, mysterious. Some scientists argue the wooden cabin was built on a slant, which results in the many gravity-bending visual illusions. Others have a more supernatural explanation for the Mystery Spot’s hidden powers.
Whatever the case may be, you should see the Mystery Spot for yourself on a tour of Santa Cruz. Due to the Mystery Spot’s popularity, it’s highly advised you purchase tickets online well in advance.
Location: 465 Mystery Spot Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95065
Opening Hours: Usually the Mystery Spot is open Mondays through Fridays from 9:00AM – 5:00PM and Saturdays through Sundays from 9:00 AM – 8:00 PM
Admission Fee: Tickets are $8 per person. If you’re buying tickets on-site, then you must pay with cash or check.
8. Natural Bridges State Beach
The 65-acre Natural Bridges State Beach along the Pacific is a must-see destination for anyone interested in Santa Cruz’s ecology. On this beach’s intertidal zone, you’ll get a fantastic glimpse at sea life such as mussels, hermit crabs, and sea stars. It’s also not uncommon for dolphins, whales, and seals to stop by Natural Bridges State Beach.
Although the marine life here is spectacular, the Natural Bridges State Beach’s true claim to fame is its Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve. From the start of autumn through February, this eucalyptus grove is home to hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies migrating from the Rocky Mountains.
Note: you cannot camp overnight at Natural Bridges State Beach. There are, however, plenty of picnic areas guests could take advantage of.
Location: 2531 W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Opening Hours: The beach is open between 8:00 AM – sunset, but the Visitor’s Center is only open from 10:00AM – 4:00PM.
Admission Fee: If you’re traveling by car, there is a $10 parking fee.
9. Wilder Ranch State Park
This unique state park that combines the old dairy Ranch 19th-century buildings - including the family home, barns and even the water-powered machine store - with 35 miles of hiking trails with views to the ocean. If you want to visit inside the farmhouse, you'll need to book a guided tour in advance. Otherwise, you can just enjoy a picnic on the lawn and appreciate the ranch for its historic beauty.
Location: Just outside Santa Cruz at 1401 Coast Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Opening hours: 8:00 am - Sunset
Admission fee: If you’re traveling by car, there is a $10 parking fee.
10. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Drive out of Santa Cruz for a few minutes on Hwy 9 and take a right turn and you'll instantly find yourself in the Redwoods forest. It really is that close (we checked!)
This park protects some of the beautiful riparian areas of the San Lorenzo river as well as a 40-acre grove of old-growth Redwood Sequoias. The big trees are easily accessible in an easy loop trail that starts at the visitors center. When we visited, we also hiked the Meadow-River Loop. This park is beautiful but was very busy on a weekend. There's plenty of parking around but the Redwood Grove Loop Trail was relatively busy. Still, it was easy to get away from the crowds by choosing a more challenging trail.
Location: 101 Big Trees Park Rd. Felton CA 95018
Opening hours: Sunrise - Sunset
Admission fee: If you’re traveling by car, there is a $10 parking fee.
Where To Stay In Santa Cruz?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of Santa Cruz’s hotels and vacation homes are located within walking distance of the Beach Boardwalk. Although there are many interesting attractions in the Santa Cruz area, the Beach Boardwalk remains the major draw for most tourists. Below are three well-reviewed hotels all within walking distance of the popular Boardwalk area.
One of the best “splurge” hotels in Santa Cruz is the Dream Inn, which is located directly on Santa Cruz Beach. Besides its location, the 4-star Dream Inn includes free WiFi, private balconies and patios, and even complimentary bestselling novels placed by your bedside.
Casablanca Inn on The Beach
Anyone who wants a beautiful view of the beach without breaking the bank should check out Santa Cruz’s Casablanca Inn. Located just a short walk from the Beach Boardwalk, Casablanca Inn is best-known for its prime location on Santa Cruz Beach and its historic architecture. A few conveniences you’ll find in your air-conditioned room include a kitchenette, refrigerator, and a microwave.
The Hotel Solares is a fantastic destination for travelers interested in a highly reviewed budget hotel. All guests at this 2-star hotel enjoy access to free WiFi, an outdoor pool, a hot tub, and complimentary breakfast. It will take you about 10 minutes to walk from Hotel Solares to the Boardwalk area.
That's it! I hope you found this guide helpful. Let me know if you know of other must-do items for a Santa Cruz itinerary!