Santa Cruz—located 75 miles south of San Francisco and about 30 miles east of San Jose—may not be huge, but it is a fun city to go for a weekend or a few days. The Central California destination has various enticing attractions, including a famous historic boardwalk with an amusement park, and scenic drives leading to beautiful beaches where surfers play and Monarch butterflies gather in the state's only natural preserve. The Santa Cruz area also offers whale watching opportunities, open studio tours with local artists, and one of the country's tallest lighthouses to explore. With 29 miles of breathtaking coastline, there is something for everyone in this pretty city.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk near the pier is perhaps the best remaining seaside amusement park in the state—the charming California Historic Landmark opened in 1907. Some rides are new, yet some go back in time like the 1911 Looff Carousel and the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster from 1924. To add to the fun, the boardwalk features arcades, miniature golf, laser tag, restaurants, fast food stands, and shopping.
No entrance fee is charged, but there are various options to buy ride tickets. The Boardwalk also hosts concerts on the nearby beach in the summer, and it's beautiful at night when everything is lit up.
Santa Cruz had the nickname "Surf City" for awhile; it's where some say the state's surf culture got its start—although that's a claim that Huntington Beach in Southern California would dispute.
The Santa Cruz area is home to some of the state's loveliest beaches. They include a spot with a half-sunken ship just offshore, places like Seacliff Beach that's custom made for a day of play in the sand, and Waddell Creek Beach, a popular destination for windsurfing. To make it easier for you to find a place to go, we've ferreted out the best beaches for your interests.
West Cliff Drive makes a wonderful scenic coastal drive and a delightful walk. The city street runs for 3 miles starting at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf and ending at Natural Bridges State Beach. Drive north of town until you are near the Surfing Museum. Park your car anywhere you can find a space along the street and do what the locals do: Take a walk along the clifftops to watch surfers at Steamer Lane, kayakers paddling along the coast, and black, shiny cormorant birds diving for fish.
In the early summer, you may be walking in the fog, but don't let that stop you, as it's an enjoyable walk no matter what.
The Santa Cruz region is one of the best places to go whale watching in California, especially if you travel about 45 minutes south toward the Monterey Bay area and its 7-mile-long Elkhorn Slough.
An underwater canyon nearby and The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary combine to make the perfect whale-watching location. Even better, you can watch whales in Monterey Bay almost any time of the year. As a bonus, it's common to get a view of Pacific white-sided dolphins, Risso's dolphins, and Dall's porpoises in the bay—often in a group of 1,000 or more.
Santa Cruz is a favorite place for local sailors, but if you don't have your own boat there, the Chardonnay Sailing Charters offers landlubbers a chance to go sailing without all the fuss.
You can try their food-oriented trips featuring local wineries and microbreweries, but for a true local's experience, join them for Santa Cruz's informal Wednesday night Regatta Charter sailboat races—you'll get to enjoy pizza, beer, and wine while watching a fast-paced competition of up to 80 boats.
About 26 miles north of Santa Cruz on the coast, Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park features one of the most-photographed and most-Instagrammed lighthouses in California. Standing at 115 feet, it's one of the tallest lighthouses in the U.S. as well. The lighthouse is not open for public tours while repairs are being done, but you can take a picture of the stellar structure or stay in the Pigeon Point Lighthouse hostel on the grounds, which has a hot tub by the cliffs and an outdoor fire pit.
The Santa Cruz Mystery Spot, which opened in 1940, is a slightly cheesy, old-fashioned tourist destination, "a gravitational anomaly" that will give visitors a new way of looking at the laws of physics and gravity. Located in the redwood forest outside of town, it's the kind of place that kids seem to love—and it appeals to adults who enjoy kitschy tourist spots.
Despite some skeptics, hundreds of thousands of international tourists check out the site, and there are so many Mystery Spot bumper stickers on Silicon Valley vehicles that you have to conclude there's something worth seeing. For a hassle-free experience, follow these tips on buying tickets, parking, and more.
You can find lovely creations by local artists at shops downtown; one option is to take a self-guided tour during the First Friday Art Tour. Also, check out Many Hands Gallery in Capitola, just a 10-minute drive from Santa Cruz.
However, the most hands-on way to delve into their works is during the annual Open Studios weekends in October, when the local artisans allow visitors to take free, self-guided tours of their studios while their artwork is sold directly to the public.
In 1791, Mission Santa Cruz (meaning Holy Cross Mission) was founded, the 12th out of 21 historic Spanish missions in California that span from San Diego to Sonoma. Visitors can see a reconstructed version of the mission church, which was originally twice as big and was built from 1793–1794 with a thatched roof.
In the nearby Mission Santa Cruz Historic Park, you'll find the state's only surviving neophyte Indian quarters, where native Californians who were new Christians lived.
Santa Cruz is one of the best places in California to view gorgeous black and orange monarch butterflies during their winter migration.
At Natural Bridges State Beach, the best time to see the colorful creatures is from mid-October to late January (especially in late October or anytime in November). Guided tours are given on weekends from early October until the butterflies take off from the area. Monarch Grove at Natural Bridges has been declared the state's only natural preserve.