Top 10 Things to Do in Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz, California, is a tourist hot spot that continually draws in thousands of visitors each year from all over the state, nation, and even worldwide. The first factor in favor of Santa Cruz is its central location on California’s Pacific Coast, right on the sunny, sandy shores of Monterey Bay. Next, the city offers near-perfect waves, earning it the nickname “Surf City.” And also of note is the city’s historic aura, having been founded as a Spanish Mission back in 1791.

But to get more specific, here are 10 things to do in Santa Cruz that will make you understand why the city is so popular:

1. Explore the Redwoods

Sequoioideae trees at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (Image Source: Flickr)

Of all things to do in Santa Cruz, none is so ancient and iconic as touring the nearby redwood forests. In Pogonip Open Space, redwoods and tall oaks line the Pacific Coast, and nature lovers roam below the towering canopy on rugged, winding trails.

But you can also hop on board the Big Trees Railroad on Chestnut Street and view the redwoods of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park on an old-style train excursion. And you may just want to stop off at the state park and do some more walking through the park’s famed “Redwood Grove.”

2. Walk the Boardwalk

Santa Cruz Bay Area

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (Image Source: LinkedIn)

Take a walk “back in time” when you stroll along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk from the Wharf to the San Lorenzo River. Besides taking in the classic scenery and the fresh sea breeze, you will want to stop and enjoy the entertainment.

The Board Walk is the oldest theme park in California, dating from 1907. Its wooden roller coaster, the Giant Dipper, is a symbol of Santa Cruz. The Looff Carousel, which turns to the tune of music from an organ built in 1894, is also a must-ride. But also be sure to stop by Neptune’s Kingdom for a pirate-y adventure and try your hand at laser tag in the Casino Fun Center.

3. Surf, Swim, and More

The whole shore of Monterey Bay by Santa Cruz is dotted with beautiful beaches, many of them perfect for surfing. Cowell’s Beach is the best spot for beginners and for longboarding. Steamer Lane and Scott Creek are the most challenging to surf, the latter being less crowded and more peaceful.

For swimming, wading, sunning, and viewing sea life, try Natural Bridges State Park. Twin Lakes State Beach in downtown Santa Cruz is a great retreat for picnicking and bird watching.

4. Visit the Farmers Market

vegetables at the Santa Cruz Farmers Market

Image Source: Santa Cruz Life

One of the most underrated things to do in Santa Cruz, but a truly enjoyable experience, is taking a trip to the Santa Cruz Farmers Market. Every Wednesday, this downtown market is filled with a sprawling array of interesting and delicious produce.

The market has a focus on sustainable, organic, and artisan foods, and the vendors themselves are incredibly interesting to talk to. You may want to try to “get yourself invited” for a tour of local farms and plantations where the market’s fare originates.

5. Peruse the Historic Sites

Golden Gate Villa, Santa Cruz

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Many of the things to do in Santa Cruz are of recent origin and exist for the sake of tourism, but historic Santa Cruz has been there for centuries. Touring the city’s many historic buildings is both intriguing and educational.

The replica of Mission Santa Cruz at 126 High Street is a must-see, as is the entire Mission Hill Area Historic District. The Branciforte Adobe, Cowell Lime Works, Golden Gate Villa, Downtown Historic District, Live Oak Ranch, and the Neary-Rodriguez Adobe are also very popular.

6. Get Acculturated Downtown

Mural in Santa Cruz, California

Street Art in Downtown Santa Cruz (Image Source: Pinterest)

Not only is downtown Santa Cruz packed with a plethora of unique boutiques and specialty cafes, it is also scene to the city’s “artistic expression.” Take a few minutes to stop and listen to skilled musicians sing or play their instruments.

See real-life artists at work on their paintings, and maybe pick up a piece or two as souvenirs. And you will encounter all kinds of miscellaneous entertainers as well, so prepare to be amazed or driven to laughter.

7. Take a Scenic Bike Ride

Not only can you see the natural and urban beauty of Santa Cruz on foot or by train, you can also tour the town on its many bike paths. The area near the Boardwalk has extra-wide bike lanes, and all the main streets have at least standard-sized bike lanes.

And you can take a truly scenic tour on the biking paths that wind the shores of the San Lorenzo River.

8. Visit Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Next door to Natural Bridges State Park, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center is perfect for a one-hour or half-hour tour with kids. The first thing you see on the way in is the biggest reconstructed skeleton of a blue whale on the planet.

Once inside, your kids will love the touch pools filled with safe but authentic tidal ecosystem species. And there are numerous aquariums full of fish and other sea life. Even the adults are likely to see a few creatures they’ve never seen before.

9. Mystery Spot

Mystery Spot, Santa Cruz

Image Source: Pinterest

About four miles north of Santa Cruz, people have been coming to Mystery Spot to find out what’s the mystery for over 70 years.
We certainly don’t want to spoil the fun of discovering that mystery for yourself, but it is something like a kooky, outdoor fun house set on the steep side of a hill.

10. Eat at Engfer Pizza Works


Image Source: Yelp

Eateries don’t normally “make the list,” but Engfer Pizza Works is different. It is one of the more unique things to do in Santa Cruz when you’re hungry for food, fun, and nostalgia.

Engfer uses wood fires and old-fashioned pizza ovens and makes each pizza pie from scratch. Guests kill time playing ping pong while the pizza cooks to perfection, and many down mugs of local craft beer along with their pizza.

Summing Up

These are but 10 of the near-endless array of things to do in Santa Cruz, CA, but we believe they are among the most interesting and unique. If you have any other ideas on things to do in Santa Cruz or want to share your experiences at some of the places listed, feel free to leave your comments below!