Best Places to Visit in Santa Cruz
This quintessential California beach town is synonymous with sun, sand and summer fun. Most visitors go straight to the boardwalk and go no farther than the nearby beach and fishing pier. But Santa Cruz has a lot more to offer.
Stunning coastal views, historic mission churches, and a fascinating downtown will reward visitors who discover more. The scenic Highway 1 along the Monterey Bay coast with stunning ocean views is just a short drive from Santa Cruz. In this pristine marine environment, seals play in the azure waters and surfers ride the giant waves of the Pacific Ocean.
Outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers appreciate Santa Cruz’s tranquil beaches and pristine landscapes. Rugged Wilder Ranch State Park boasts breathtaking coastal hiking trails, while lush Mediterranean vegetation and pink-throated hummingbirds thrive at UC. Santa Cruz Botanical Gardens and Botanical Gardens.
Santa Cruz also offers interesting cultural attractions. For an enchanting experience, visitors can watch Shakespeare on a starry night in the enchanted Sequoia Canyon. There’s also a surf museum that gives visitors a taste of California’s surfing culture.
Have a look at our list of the Best Places to Visit in Santa Cruz and make your trip enjoyable.
10 Best Places to Visit in Santa Cruz
Let’s explore the top 10 Most Beautiful and Best Places to Visit in Santa Cruz:
1. Santa Cruz Beach Walk
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk offers classic summer fun, including amusement park rides, games, and attractions. Admission to the expansive waterfront amusement park is free, and you can choose from unlimited all-day rides, a season pass, or a pay-as-you-go MyBoardwalk game pass (perfect for those who don’t live all day).
Overlooking Main Beach, the park has been delighting visitors since 1907. It is considered one of the best seaside amusement parks in the world due to its wonderful setting and historic roller coaster rides.
The Giant Big Dipper is a wooden roller coaster built in 1924 and listed as a National Historic Landmark. Other activities include exciting outings, family outings and children’s outings, with the perfect mix of classic and modern designs for all tastes.
In addition to rides, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk offers entertainment and dining options. Kids can play the latest video games as well as air hockey, Skee-Ball, table football and other traditional arcade games.
The beachfront boardwalk is also filled with food vendors, where you can enjoy treats like corn dogs, fried artichokes, chocolate ice cream, marshmallows, and salty fudge.
Address: 400 Beach Street, Santa Cruz, California
Official website: https://beachboardwalk.com
2. Main Beach and Cowell Beach
Besides the boardwalk, the beaches are the main reason to visit Santa Cruz. The sunny Mediterranean weather, sandy beaches and safe waters make Santa Cruz one of the best beach destinations in California. Visitors can choose from several excellent beaches; The two most popular are Main Beach near the pier and Cowell Beach near the other side of the pier.
The Main Beach is a popular spot for sunbathing and swimming and is great for kids too. There is plenty of room for the little ones to spread out and build sandcastles, and the beach is in a sheltered cove so water walking is safe. Beach volleyball players also flock to take advantage of the beach volleyball court.
Located in the same bay as Main Beach across from the pier, Cowell Beach is a famous surfing spot. This stretch of sandy beach is also known for its coastal scenery and beautiful sunsets. The Dream Inn in Cowell Beach offers stylish oceanfront accommodations.
During the summer, lifeguards patrol Main Beach and Cowell Beach.
3. Santa Cruz Wharf
Santa Cruz Pier was built in 1914 to serve deep-water vessels, but today it is used as a fishing pier and sightseeing lookout. Visitors will find numerous shops and activities at the marina, one of the most popular places to sample local seafood. One of the best restaurants in the marina, Stagnaro Bros. offers fresh seafood, including classics like fish and chips, with stunning bay views.
Bird watching and sea lion watching are other reasons why the marina is so popular with tourists. Sea lions nest here year-round and their splashing and barking can be easily heard from the pier. The viewing area offers visitors a beautiful view of the sea lions living in the pier structure.
Whales, dolphins and otters can also be spotted in the waters during certain seasons. The marina also has a water sports shop that rents out fishing gear, boats, and canoes so you can get closer to the wildlife and enjoy the water.
Next to the pier (35 Pacific Avenue) is the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Discovery Center. The resort features interactive exhibits that educate visitors on how to responsibly enjoy the ocean and help conserve the marine environment. Visitors can explore the marine environment through a biodiverse kelp forest, an intertidal touch pool, and an open ocean mini-theatre.
4. West Cliff Drive and the Surfing Museum
A 6-mile trail on West Cliff Drive clings to the shoreline and offers a scenic route for walking and biking. Along the way, the view of the Pacific Ocean is truly breathtaking. The trail is completely flat and wheelchair accessible, so this excursion route is suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels.
Well-placed benches invite passersby to sit and enjoy the panoramic view of the undulating azure sea, with seagulls soaring and flocks of pelicans surrounding the water’s edge. Santa Cruz is billed as California’s original surf town, and the picturesque part of Monterey Bay is a favorite destination for surfers.
There is a bronze surfer statue and the world’s first surfing museum on the way. The Surf Museum is located on the cliffs of the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse (701 West Cliff Drive). Souvenirs such as old photos of surfers from the 1930s are displayed in small exhibits.
5. Natural Bridge State Beach
The extraordinary sea arches that adorn this beach are formed by cracks in the mudstone cliffs. With its iconic natural beauty, this small protected beach is a great place for relaxation and bird watching.
The location is also ideal for whale watching from April to November. Seals and otters can sometimes be seen playing in the open sea. Further on, the beach has tide pools that are home to starfish, baby crabs, anemones, and other marine life.
In the spring the parks near the beach are filled with vibrant wildflowers. From mid-October to mid-February, the park’s Monarch Grove has been declared a nature reserve and monarch butterflies are active. The fragrant eucalyptus trees in the forest bloom in winter and become a food source for butterflies. November is the best time to observe the monarch.
The beach features a picnic area with barbecue pits and toilet facilities set within a shady pine and eucalyptus forest.
Address: 2531 West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, California
Official website: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=541
6. Roaring Camp Railroads
For a change of pace and to see the area from a unique perspective, hop onboard an old-fashioned train in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Roaring Camp Railroads takes passengers through the picturesque natural environment of Santa Cruz. These scenic train rides appeal to young and old alike.
Roaring Camp Railroads offers two different routes: one departing from Roaring Camp (in Felton, in the Santa Cruz Mountains) and traveling to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and another from Roaring Camp to Bear Mountain.
The Santa Cruz Beach Train departs from the Santa Cruz Mountains in Felton (Roaring Camp) and travels a spectacular route through the awe-inspiring Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park into the San Lorenzo River Gorge, passing through a tunnel built in 1875. The trip ends at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and then embarks on its return trip.
Alternatively, passengers can hop aboard the train at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk station and take a reverse round-trip; however, the last train at 4pm does not return to the Beach Boardwalk. Tickets may be purchased at Roaring Camp or from the conductor at the Boardwalk departure location.
The Redwood Forest Steam Train is a narrow-gauge steam locomotive (dating to the 19th century). This historic train takes passengers through soaring redwood groves and winds through the mountains to the top of Bear Mountain. During the journey, the conductor shares information about the forest and the history of the Roaring Camp Railroad since it was created in the 1880s to haul lumber out of the mountains.
The Redwood Forest Steam Train runs daily year-round, whereas the Santa Cruz Beach Train only runs on weekends from the spring through the fall.
Address: Roaring Camp Railroads, 5401 Graham Hill Road, Felton, California
Official site: www.roaringcamp.com
7. Dolphin and Whale Watching Cruises
Santa Cruz is next to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, one of the largest marine reserves in the United States, just 45 minutes drive from the historic beach town of Monterey. This protected marine environment stretches for 276 miles along the coastline and provides a habitat for 36 species of marine mammals and 525 fish species.
Located off the coast of Monterey, this area is one of the best places to visit in California for whale watching and marine wildlife sightseeing tours. Ships leave from Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf. The Monterey Half-Day Whale Watching Tour gives travelers the opportunity to see gray, humpback and blue whales depending on the season.
Humpback whales migrate from the area from April to November each year, and few humpback whales linger throughout the summer. Gray whales are also common here, and the December-April migration season offers winter visitors the opportunity to experience whale watching.
In late spring, visitors can spot migrating killer whales along with the giant blue whale flocks that regularly appear in Monterey Bay.
8. UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanical Gardens
Overlooking Monterey Bay, the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden is located on an ancient ocean terrace in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This exclusive location on the university campus is a large outdoor classroom for scientific research and a destination for gardeners and nature lovers. The 135-acre site provides the ideal microclimate and terrain for Mediterranean plants to grow.
Different sections represent plants from Australia, California, New Zealand and South Africa. Many plants are endangered in their natural habitat and the arboretum is committed to protecting them from extinction.
The Arboretum includes an Australian Garden, a fragrant eucalyptus grove, a small butterfly garden with flowers and shrubs that attract butterflies, a research garden for studying California native plants, and hummingbirds.
Visitors can enjoy lunch at the picnic area with stunning ocean views. The Botanical Gardens offer free doctoral tours (on the first Saturday of every month) and art exhibits throughout the year.
A botanical highlight, Norrie’s Gift & Garden Shop sells beautiful Mediterranean herbs that are perfect for the home garden.
Address: 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, California
Official website: https://arboretum.ucsc.edu
9. Mystery Spot
+This magnificent site has to be seen to be believed. The Mysterious Spot is located on a circular area of sequoia forest with a diameter of 46 meters that is normally unaffected by gravity. Objects and people appear tilted even when trying to stay straight, and the gravitational anomaly causes visitors to question the laws of physics.
This effect is totally confusing, and scientists haven’t been able to explain the phenomenon since the mysterious spot was discovered in 1939. This hasn’t stopped speculation, however, as professionals and amateurs alike develop theories ranging from possible natural causes to the existence of aliens.
After taking a guided tour and pondering scientific mysteries, visitors can hike a nearby trail through sequoia trees.
Address: 465 Mystic Point Road, Santa Cruz, California
Official website: www.mysteryspot.com
10. Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Located near Natural Bridges State Park, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center immerses visitors in a fascinating world of marine life. Operated by the University of California, Santa Cruz, this education-focused facility emphasizes the importance of conservation.
The exhibit hall hosts regularly changing exhibits, educating visitors on marine research and topics such as elephant seal behavior and the sea otter ecosystem.
The center also has an aquarium that gives visitors the opportunity to see a variety of aquatic life, large and small, including sharks. Kids will discover sea anemones, sea urchins, starfish and hermit crabs in the touch pool.
Address: 100 McAllister Road, Santa Cruz, California
Official website: https://seymourcenter.ucsc.edu
Hope you like our choice of the best places to visit in Santa Cruz. If you think there are some more beautiful places to visit in Santa Cruz, we should cover them. Write us below in the comment box.