Things to Do in Santa Cruz

There's More Than Just the Boardwalk

75 miles south of San Francisco and about 30 miles east of San Jose, Santa Cruz is a fun place to go for a day - or even a weekend. You might expect a coastal town to have beautiful beaches, and it does, but that's only the beginning of what you'll find in Santa Cruz. 

Try some of these Santa Cruz attractions and best things to do when you decide to explore it for yourself.

  • 01 of 10

    Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

    The funfair at the end of Santa Cruz Beach in Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz County in California, United States of America
    The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is Its Most Popular Activity. David Clapp / Getty Images

    The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is perhaps the best remaining seaside amusement park in the state. It's located right on the beach and near the pier. You can get in and walk around without paying admission, but don't be surprised if you find yourself riding the roller coaster or taking the sky ride just for fun.

    The Boardwalk also host concerts on the nearby beach in the summer, and it's beautiful at night when everything is lit up.

  • 02 of 10
    Main Beach, Santa Cruz
    Main Beach, Santa Cruz. Michael Koukoullis/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

    The Santa Cruz area is home to some of the state's loveliest beaches. They include a beach with a half-sunken ship just offshore, and places custom made for a day of play in the sand.

    There's also the beach where some say California surf culture got its start - although that's a claim that Huntington Beach in Southern California would dispute.

    To make it easier for you to find a place to go, we've ferreted out the best Santa Cruz beaches for your interests.

  • 03 of 10

    West Cliff Drive

    Sunset view of West Cliff Drive
    Sunset View of West Cliff Drive. Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

    West Cliff Drive is a city street that runs south and west from the Municipal Pier and Boardwalk. What's so special about a city street, you might be wondering. In this case, it's also a scenic drive. It's an even more delightful walk. 

    Drive north of town until you get to or past 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 Steamers 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. This walk is fun no matter what.

  • 04 of 10
    Whale Breaching in Monterey Bay
    Whale Breaching in Monterey Bay. Zoran Kovacevic/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    The area around Santa Cruz is one of the best places to go whale watching in California, especially if you travel south toward Elkhorn Slough or Monterey.

    An underwater canyon nearby and a large marine sanctuary combine to make the Monterey Bay the perfect whale-watching location. Even better, you can watch whales there almost any time of the year. 

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10
    Chardonnay II Out for a Sail
    Chardonnay II Out for a Sail. Courtesy of Chardonnay Sailing Charters

    Santa Cruz is a favorite place for local sailors, but if you don't have your own boat to take there, the Chardonnay II offers landlubbers a chance to go sailing without all the fuss.

    You can enjoy 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 sailboat races.

  • 06 of 10
    Person photographing Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Pescadero, early morning.
    Pigeon Point Lighthouse. Eddie Brady / Getty Images

    Just a little north of Santa Cruz on the coast, Pigeon Point is one of the most-photographed and most-Instagrammed lighthouses in California. It's  not open for public tours, but you can photograph it - or stay in the hostel on the grounds.

  • 07 of 10
    Entrance to the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot
    Entrance to the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot. Moment Editorial/Getty Images / Getty Images

    The Santa Cruz Mystery Spot is one of the slightly cheesy, old-fashioned tourist spots.

    It's the kind of place that kids seem to love - and it appeals to adults who enjoy kitschy tourist spots.Others may think it's a waste of time, but at least it's not too expensive.

    There are so many Mystery Spot bumper stickers on Silicon Valley vehicles that you have to conclude this is quite a popular spot.

  • 08 of 10
    "Untitled Clevis # 2," A cor-ten steel sculpture by Harold Moodie, Santa Cruz
    Untitled Clevis # 2; A cor-ten steel sculpture by Harold Moodie, Santa Cruz. Ali Eminov/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

    You can find works of art by local artists at shops in downtown and especially at Many Hands Gallery in nearby Capitola.

    However, the best way to delve into their works is during the annual Open Studios weekends in early October, when the local creative folks open their studios to visitors and sell their creations directly to the public.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10
    Mission Santa Cruz. Fritz Liess/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    In 1791, the twelfth Spanish mission in California was founded at Santa Cruz. Today, you can visit a reconstructed version of the mission church.

    In the nearby state historic park, you'll find California's only surviving neophyte quarters, where native Californians who were new Christians lived.

  • 10 of 10
    Monarch Butterfly. Courtesy of Getty Images/Mike Simons

    Santa Cruz is one of the best places in California to view those gorgeous black and orange monarch butterflies during their winter migration. 

    At Natural Bridges State Beach, the best time to see monarchs is from mid-October to late January. Guided tours are given on weekends from early October until the butterflies leave.