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A Local Shares 7 Essential Santa Cruz Experiences

A Local Shares 7 Essential Santa Cruz Experiences

Get insights from a local on what to do in Santa Cruz and where to have the best time.

Barbara Pearson


6 min read

May 11, 2023

Just an hour’s drive from San Francisco lies Santa Cruz, a bustling seaside town with tourist attractions and glorious natural landmarks. Santa Cruz is a beautiful encapsulation of everything that makes the Golden State great. Here you will find great surf, boundless beaches, amazing dining options, redwood forests, wonderful shopping venues, and so much more. It’s no wonder that some people choose Santa Cruz as their next hometown. With so many great activities to choose from, it’s always nice to have a neat guide of what to do in Santa Cruz, so here are seven essential Santa Cruz experiences that will make your trip to this seaside city a vacation to remember. 

Enjoy a magical tour through Santa Cruz’s redwood forests on a vintage 1800s steam train.

Roaring Camp Railroads 

Location: 5401 Graham Hill Road, Felton, CA 95018

Hours: Open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Price: $39.95 for adults (ages 13 and up), $24.95 for children (ages 2-12) 


Whether you love everything trains or are looking for what to do in Santa Cruz that the whole family can enjoy, Roaring Camp is the place to go in Santa Cruz. This wonderfully preserved heritage railway offers two beautiful routes perfect for Santa Cruz sightseeing and is the ultimate thing to do in Santa Cruz with kids. For a quick foray through nature, take Roaring Camp’s 1800s steam trains for a 75-minute ride through redwood forests, over tall trestle bridges, and up a winding railway to the summit of Bear Mountain. As you admire the majestic beauty of nature and snap a few shots for The Gram, the train’s conductor will narrate the history of this former logging railway. 

Alternatively, take the Santa Cruz beach train for a one-of-a-kind trip to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This train starts at Roaring Camp and takes you on a one-hour journey across beautiful old bridges and through mountain tunnels until you arrive right in downtown Santa Cruz. This trip takes one hour and is the ultimate way to arrive in style at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Roaring Camp also hosts an annual model train show that recreates their own railroad in miniature, a Santa Cruz must-see for train enthusiasts.   

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is an iconic location that's filled to the brim with fun things to do.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Location: 400 Beach Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Hours: Check schedule for up-to-date hours on rides, food locations, shopping, and arcades. 

Price: See website for ride ticket prices. 


The centerpiece of Santa Cruz’s beach is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. There are so many fun activities on the boardwalk that you’ll never be left wondering what to do in Santa Cruz if you come here. Going to this amusement-themed beachside boardwalk is the best thing to do with kids in Santa Cruz because there’s so much fun to be had. Spend hours in the Santa Cruz Boardwalk arcades, or ride the boardwalk’s exhilarating selection of fast-paced rides. There’s the Giant Dipper, a high-speed wooden rollercoaster that you must try at least once, and Logger’s Revenge, a ride that takes you down a fast cascading track for a big splash at the bottom.   

If all that sounds too intense, you’ll be happy that the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk also has some slow-paced rides. The boardwalk’s Looff Carousel was built in 1911 and is a national historic landmark perfect for making your kid’s magical dreams come true. Plus, there are many standard theme park rides besides bumper cars, boat rides, swing rides, twirling teacups, and many more. After a long day on the boardwalk, you’ll be happy to know that plenty of restaurants offer various dishes, from crepes to seafood, so you can keep fueled up for more fun times. 

Enter Mystery Spot and challenge your perceptions of reality as the laws of physics melt away.

Mystery Spot

Location: 465 Mystery Spot Road, Santa Cruz, CA 95065

Hours: Open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., open Sundays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Price: $10 per person, free for children ages 3 and under, $5 per vehicle for parking (Cash or check only if paying at the venue)  

One unusual place to go in Santa Cruz is Mystery Spot, a theme park specializing in the strange and supernatural. Founded in 1939 and perched in the verdant hills above the city, the Mystery Spot is a hiking trail filled with stupefying visual illusions that seem to defy gravity. Enter this place, and you will find yourself in what the folks at Mystery Spot call an ‘anomaly,’ or a place where the laws of physics seem to melt away.  

After a short time in this place, you might question your perceptions of reality and be left befuddled at every turn. What’s causing this? Aliens? Radiation? A government plot? Your answer’s as good as ours, but one thing we know for sure is that this is a great attraction for all ages and definitely a cool thing to see in Santa Cruz. 

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Surfing at Pleasure Point 

If you have a surfing board, surfing at Pleasure Point is one of the best free things to do in Santa Cruz. If you don’t have one, don’t sweat it, as plenty of places will let you rent a board for a day of surfing fun in a slice of NorCal surfing heaven. As the jewel of Santa Cruz, Pleasure Point is the ultimate destination for surfing aficionados and thrill seekers. 

This surfing spot combines two great qualities; it's a place that’s easy enough for most beginner surfers but still has year-long wave breaks thanks to Santa Cruz’s wide-open swell window. The best time to surf here is during the summer when the swells are strongest, and the weather becomes almost tropical. Squint your eyes, and you might think you’re on Venice Beach, or maybe even Hawaii, and just like in those places, Pleasure Point is the best place to get a great tan. It also goes without saying that a Pleasure Point sunset is hands down one of the most magical things to see in Santa Cruz.   

Santa Cruz is a great destination for foodies, thanks to its wealth of premium gourmet dining options.

Downtown Dining

In recent years, downtown Santa Cruz has become a veritable foodie destination and hosts a range of wonderful restaurants representing all sorts of international cuisines. In truth, the list of all the best Santa Cruz restaurants would be too long to list in a single article, so we’ve highlighted two of the best places to go in Santa Cruz.

First off, you must go to Mentone. This restaurant brings the flavors of the Mediterranean to Northern California with a carefully crafted mix of Genoan & French Riviera flavors. This translates into beautiful artisanal pizzas, a wide array of antipasti from fried eggplant to marinated olives, and glorious mains such as Genoan gnocchi. 

For an upscale dining experience that takes American fare to a new level, check out Vim Dining & Desserts. Brought to you by Chef Jesikah Stolaroff, Santa Cruz native and an experienced culinary artist, Vim is a local restaurant that pioneers New American cuisine. Indeed, the name Vim was meant to embody dynamic casual elegance. You can relish in a multi-course dinner here or just come to indulge in one of their decadent desserts. 

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Location: Boulder Creek, CA 95006

Price: $6 parking fee per vehicle plus $2 reservation fee.    

Established in 1902, the Big Basin Redwoods State Park is California’s oldest state park perched in the heart of the Santa Cruz mountains. This is one of the best fun things to do in Santa Cruz if you’re dying to see California’s iconic redwoods. These gigantic trees are between 1,000 and 1,800 years old and, on average, fifty feet around. They are also over three hundred feet tall, or as tall as the Statue of Liberty. 

This Santa Cruz park is also home to many cute little critters, including deer, raccoons, bobcats, and a wide array of birds. You can come here for a day of strolling in natural wonder or set up camp and live amongst the ancient redwoods for a few days. If you come here by bus or bicycle, exploring Big Basin is one of the best free stuff in Santa Cruz you can do.     

Browse the cozy quirky little shops of the Spanish Mission Revival style Capitola village, located right on the beachfront.

Shopping in Capitola Village 

Capitola Village is one of Santa Cruz County's quaintest places, thanks to its colorful Venetian Court neighborhood and chill seaside village vibes. In addition to being the spot for many iconically beautiful Spanish Mission Revival-style homes, Capitola hosts various quirky shops and galleries. 

With eye-catching window displays and funky names, Capitola Village’s shops included family-owned businesses and major franchises alike. All this means is the village has just about anything you could ever want, from surfboards to quality handmade bespoke clothing. Capitola is also home to many great dining spots, such as the Sand Bar & Grill, famous for its delectable fresh seafood and picturesque views of the Pacific Ocean.

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