10 Top Things to Do in Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz, California

Andrei Stanescu / Getty Images

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 visit for a weekend or a few days. The Central California destination is home to heaps of 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 access to one of the country's tallest lighthouses. With 29 miles of breathtaking coastline, there is something for everyone in this pretty city.

01 of 10

Chill Out at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden

UC Santa Cruz Arboretum

UC Santa Cruz Arboretum

Arboretum Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95064, USA
Phone +1 831-502-2998

Located just a five-minute drive from downtown Santa Cruz, the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden provides a welcome respite following a long day of sightseeing and makes a fun place to go for a stroll or have a picnic if you're trying to escape the crowds along the coast.

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the gardens feature an impressive collection of native flora from all over California as well as plants from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. The eucalyptus grove, butterfly garden, aroma and succulent gardens, and conifer collection are also worth a visit.

02 of 10

See the Santa Cruz Mountains by Train

Roaring Camp Railroads in Santa Cruz

Roaring Camp Railroads

5401 Graham Hill Rd, Felton, CA 95018-9745, USA
Phone +1 831-335-4484

Just 20 minutes north of the city, Roaring Camp Railroads offers two memorable train rides aboard steam engines that date back to 1890.

Choose from a 75-minute trip highlighting the beautiful California redwoods that leads up to the Bear Mountain summit, or opt for a three-hour return trip aboard the Beach Train, which takes passengers from the scenic Santa Cruz Mountains across a historic steel truss bridge from 1909 and through a tunnel from 1875 before arriving at the famed Boardwalk.

03 of 10

Ride a Historic Roller Coaster at the Boardwalk

The funfair at the end of Santa Cruz Beach
David Clapp / Getty Images
400 Beach St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
Phone +1 831-423-5590

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, located 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 others—such as the Looff Carousel, from 1911, and the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster, from 1924—date back to the early 20th century. 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.

04 of 10

Swim and Surf on Santa Cruz Beaches

The main beach in Santa Cruz

Michael Koukoullis / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Santa Cruz Beach, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA

Santa Cruz had the nickname of "Surf City" for awhile; it's where some say the state's surf culture got its start, although it's a claim Huntington Beach in Southern California would definitely dispute.

The Santa Cruz area is home to some of the state's loveliest beaches, including a spot with a half-sunken ship just offshore, places like Seacliff Beach that are custom made for a day of play in the sand, and Waddell Creek Beach, a popular destination for windsurfing. To make it easier to find a place to go, check out our list of the best Santa Cruz beaches based on your interests.

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05 of 10

Walk and Ride on West Cliff Drive

Sunset view of West Cliff Drive
Walter Bibikow / Getty Images
W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA

West Cliff Drive makes a wonderful scenic coastal drive and a delightful place to walk. The city street runs for three 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.

06 of 10

Go Whale Watching or Sailing in the Santa Cruz Area

Whale Breaching in Monterey Bay

Zoran Kovacevic / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Elkhorn Slough, California, USA

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 Monterey Bay and its 7-mile-long Elkhorn Slough. Here, an underwater canyon nearby and The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary combine to make the perfect whale-watching location. 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 also a favorite spot for local sailors, but if you don't have your own boat here, the Chardonnay Sailing Charters offers landlubbers a chance to go sailing without all the fuss. Try its food-oriented trips featuring local wineries and microbreweries, or, for a true local's experience, join a sailing during 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.

07 of 10

View Pigeon Point Lighthouse

Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Eddie Brady / Getty Images
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, 210 Pigeon Point Rd, Pescadero, CA 94060-9713, USA

Located about 26 miles north of Santa Cruz, Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park features one of the most photographed and most Instagrammed lighthouses in all of California—standing at 115 feet, it's one of the tallest in the U.S. as well. While the lighthouse is not open for public tours while repairs are being done, you can take a picture of the stellar structure or stay at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse hostel on the grounds, which has a hot tub by the cliffs and an outdoor fire pit.

08 of 10

Get Curious at the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot

Mystery Spot entrance sign in Santa Cruz, California

CA_Designs / Getty Images

465 Mystery Spot Rd, Santa Cruz, CA 95065-9658, USA
Phone +1 831-423-8897

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 just outside of town, it's the kind of place that kids seem to love. It also appeals to adults who enjoy kitschy tourist spots.

Despite some skeptics, hundreds of thousands of international tourists have checked 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 here. For a hassle-free experience, follow these tips for buying tickets, parking, and enjoying your time here.

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09 of 10

Surround Yourself with Monarch Butterflies

Close-up of Monarch Butterflies on Branch

GomezDavid / Getty Images

2531 W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA

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 also been declared the state's only natural preserve.

10 of 10

Visit Old Mission Santa Cruz

Mission Santa Cruz

Fritz Liess / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

120 Emmett St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA
Phone +1 831-426-5686

Founded in 1791, Mission Santa Cruz, meaning Holy Cross Mission, was the 12th out of 21 historic Spanish missions in California spanning 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 quarters, where American Indians and other Californians who were newly converted to Christianity once lived.

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10 Top Things to Do in Santa Cruz, California