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17 Can't-Miss Things to do in Santa Cruz

17 Can't-Miss Things to do in Santa Cruz

Next time you’re planning a getaway on the Central Coast, check out these 17 things to do in Santa Cruz. You'll love every second.


7 min read

April 17, 2021

Cravin’ those Central Coast beach vibes? Head to Surf City and stroll 34 beaches—it’s no wonder most people head straight to Santa Cruz for fun in the sun. But there’s plenty more to the city than just splashing around. Old-growth coastal redwoods and a charming downtown reward those who choose to explore further. Next time you’re planning a getaway on the Central Coast, check out these 17 things to do in Santa Cruz.

The Best Things to Do in Santa Cruz

You'll have plenty of time to hit the beaches in Santa Cruz, but first, you have to check out the majestic Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

1. Explore the trails at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park 

Redwoods stretching far and wide, towering over you as you hike through winding trails—sounds fun, doesn't it? Get your dose of rustic paradise at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, a must-see on your Santa Cruz itinerary. Once a Native American habitat, the forest is packed with unparalleled views and stunning riverside overlooks. There are 15 miles of hiking and biking trails at the state park, so put on a pair of your sturdiest boots, it’s time to rendezvous.

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2. Visit the Santa Cruz Wharf

One of the best things to do in Santa Cruz is checking out the wharf. Filled with activities the whole family can enjoy, this Santa Cruz Wharf is always worth the visit. Try clam chowder, check out souvenir shops, and marvel at the sea lions hanging out at this Santa Cruz attraction. If you’re keen on watersports, rent a kayak and feast your eyes on the views from the coastal bluffs.

There's something about whale watching that puts our minds at ease. Experience the serenity of whale watching whenever you're in Santa Cruz.

3. Go on a Whale Watching Cruise 

The Golden State coastline is home to a plethora of wildlife—Santa Cruz happens to give you a front-row seat. One of the coolest activities in Santa Cruz is offered by Santa Cruz Whale Watching. The luxury charter boat takes you to the heart of whale territory, allowing you to view magnificent animals. While the humpback whale is the most common creature found in these waters, you’ll also spot seven different species of dolphin and porpoise. 

4. See Shakespeare under a eucalyptus grove

If you’re an avid theatergoer, let Shakespearean actors show you that the world’s a stage. Spend a magical evening with Santa Cruz Shakespeare Company and let the towering trees enhance your experience. Get up close and personal with the works of the legendary playwright in one of the most beautiful outdoor venues in the city.

Fun Things to do in Santa Cruz 

It's always a great idea to go on a hike, so why not go on a waterfall hike? The 30-foot Maple Falls is a sight for sore eyes.

5. Hike to Maple Falls at the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park

Go off-the-beaten-path with the 7.7-mile Bridge Creek Trail that takes you to a cascading waterfall. The moderately rated hike is undoubtedly a Santa Cruz hidden gem; the 30-foot Maple Falls is your reward at the end of the trail. Make your way through the scenic bridges, dense redwood forests, and unusual rock formations. Be careful on your way—the muddy trails can get slippery at times.

With more than 34 beaches to check out, visiting Santa Cruz Main Beach must be on the top of your itinerary.

6. Check out Santa Cruz Main Beach    

Looking for fun things to do in Santa Cruz? It doesn’t get better than hitting the beach. Santa Cruz Main Beach is the heart and soul of Surf City. Considered one of the best in Santa Cruz, this beach is the ultimate spot to sink your toes in the warm sands. Watersports fans get all their kicks here—fishing, kayaking, and boating opportunities are aplenty. Spend your day sunbathing, swimming, and playing volleyball at this awesome must-visit beach. 

7. Bike along West Cliff Drive  

Stretching from Natural Bridges State Beach to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, West Cliff Drive is lovely. Bike, skate, and stroll down the scenic road as panoramic views enhance your experience. Considered one of California’s top bike ride destinations, West Cliff Drive is fit for both beginners and experienced cyclists. If you’re looking for outdoor activities in Santa Cruz, this is it. 

Things to do in Santa Cruz with Kids 

8. Visit The Arboretum and Botanic Garden in UC Santa Cruz

Home to flora from different parts of the world, the Arboretum and Botanic Garden is one of the coolest places to visit in Santa Cruz. Here, you’ll find both native and exotic plants lining the paths. Go for a walk, enjoy a family picnic, and explore more than 300 plant families. With several major collections throughout the botanical garden, this hidden gem in Santa Cruz is one to remember.

9. Spend a day with the family at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center 

Looking for an underrated Santa Cruz tourist attraction? The Seymour Marine Discovery Center is your best bet. Discover life underwater at this center—your kids will have the time of their lives in the exhibit halls, aquariums, and touch pools. The most fascinating thing you’ll see at the discovery center is the world’s largest whale skeleton. Uncover the mysteries of the ocean and feel closer to marine life at one of the coolest places to go in Santa Cruz

10. Pay a visit to Roaring Camp Railroad Museum

Towering redwood groves, narrow-gauge grades, and nonstop fun on steam trains—you’ve arrived at Roaring Camp, a hidden gem in Santa Cruz. The railroad takes you through Henry Cowell State Park with guaranteed breathtaking views along the way. Travel through time across a 1909 steel truss bridge and an 1875 tunnel, as the friendly conductors tell you all about local railroading history.

11. Enjoy a family day at Natural Bridges State Beach

Only a short drive from downtown Santa Cruz, Natural Bridges State Beach is your escape from the city buzz. This scenic beach showcases stunning large rock formations extending from the shore. The wide variety of birds and wildlife will put you in a daze. Take a few family photos during sunset and watch surfers ride the waves at this Central Coast surf spot. Enjoy an oceanfront picnic and make the most of your day at Natural Bridges.

Free Things to do in Santa Cruz 

Let's face it, nothing beats a day spent at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with your friends.

12. Explore the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk 

No Santa Cruz trip is ever complete without a visit to this iconic boardwalk. Overflowing with rides, games, and scenic backdrops, the expansive area is admission-free. This cool boardwalk is a must-visit, especially when there are free outdoor movie screenings on the beach. Does it get better than this?

Want to shop 'til you drop? The best place to do exactly that and more is Downtown Santa Cruz.

13. Walk through Downtown Santa Cruz 

If you’re looking for things to see in Santa Cruz, look no further than the downtown district. Dotted with tree-lined streets, Downtown Santa Cruz is the perfect place for an afternoon stroll. Whether you’re window shopping or simply going for a walk, this is the place to be.

The district’s vibrant art and entertainment scene makes it a delight to visit—summer performances are mainly free and open to the public. Soak in the charm of Downtown Santa Cruz and enjoy spending quality time with your family. 

14. Get Creative at Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

It’s time to unleash your inner creativity at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, a place where something new happens every day. Igniting shared experiences, the museum is home to exhibitions such as Queer Santa Cruz, Mary and Harry Blanchard Sculpture Garden, and Atmosphere. Can’t get enough of the exhibits? Become a member to discover more fun things to do in this Santa Cruz museum. 

Romantic Things to do in Santa Cruz  

Old shipwrecks make watching the sunset a million times better.

15. Watch the Sunset from Seacliff State Beach 

Don’t think too hard about romantic things to do in Santa Cruz—watching the sun go down is always a good idea. Ship remnants make sunsets at Seacliff Beach more dramatic. The concrete-clad SS Palo Alto sits at the end of a 500-foot wooden fishing pier, reminding you of an era long gone.

Coastal bluffs surround you at every step at this Central Coast gem. Grab a blanket and snuggle with your partner while watching the last bits of light disappear below the horizon. 

16. Catch a flick at Landmark’s Del Mar Theatre 

From big-budget movies to quirky indie films, Landmark’s Del Mar Theatre is one of the best places to visit in Santa Cruz. This art deco triplex features a grand auditorium with regular movie screenings. Get your tickets, stock up on snacks, and make your way to your seats at the theater. If you and your partner have recently made the switch to organic food, you’re in luck—the popcorn is GMO-free and made with real butter, yum.

17. Go Rollerblading Together 

With no shortage of unique things to do in Santa Cruz, check out the city streets on your next date—but do it on wheels. Put your skates on and live that roller skating life with your beaux. If you fall, you’ll have your date to catch you. 

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