What to do in Santa Cruz?
Located on California’s central coast, Santa Cruz is known for its long wharf and beautiful beach boardwalk. It features many tourist attractions, such as the Natural Bridges State Beach with its famous bridge-shaped rock formation. But there’s more! Discover our 10 favourite things to do in Santa Cruz and don’t miss out on any of the fun while you’re there!
How to Get There
Santa Cruz is connected by multiple bus connections, so it is very easy to get there from cities across California and out of state. Plus, there’s nothing better than discovering a new city by stopping between bus rides! Not only does this allow you to see new places, but it can also be a trick for cutting into long layovers that can last several hours.
Santa Cruz Bus Schedules
- San Francisco: Take the bus to Santa Cruz with Greyhound. The San Francisco Greyhound bus station is located downtown in the financial district and buses to Santa Cruz leave three times a day. Buses leave at 5:30 am, 10:30 am, and the third of the day leaves at 9:00 pm, with the bus ride lasting about 3 hours.
- Santa Barbara: The usual Greyhound connections from Santa Barbara take the Highway 101 far from the coast. With three departures a day at 1:40am, 8:50am and 4pm, you’ll be in Santa Cruz in about 6 hours.
- Los Angeles: With 13 daily departures between LA and Santa Cruz, there are plenty of bus options to reach Santa Cruz. Buses depart from Downtown LA, Union Station and North Hollywood, depending on the departure.
1. Stroll Down the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
If you’re wondering what to do in Santa Cruz, the first thing you must do is hit the beach boardwalk! Founded in 1907, this oceanfront park is one of California’s oldest amusement parks—and one of the coolest places to head for some guaranteed fun. Indeed, the Santa Cruz boardwalk features a large variety of games and rides, spread out over a mile-long stretch of sandy beach. You can ride a carousel, stock up on calories, do some shopping and enjoy the local attractions—all in one same place! And, don’t forget your bathing suit to cool off in the ocean after all the excitement.
- Where is it? The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is located right in front of the main beach at 400 Beach St.
- How to get there?
- Using public transportation: in the summertime, a trolley runs between downtown Santa Cruz and the beach boardwalk every half hour. For more info, check out the full schedule and stops.
- Using your car: if you’re driving, your biggest concern will be finding parking close to the boardwalk. Two parking lots are accessible via Beach Street and will set you back some $15 for the day. Watch out, parking spots fill out quite fast, so if you’re planning on hitting the boardwalk late in the day, consider parking at a farther lot and taking the free shuttle down to the boardwalk. You’ll want to go to the parking lot located at 701 Ocean St—it’s also cheaper than the main lots on Beach Street ($10).
- When to go? The Santa Cruz Boardwalk Hours vary from day to day, so it’s best to check their exact calendar before taking off.
- How much time to visit? People usually spend two to four hours on the boardwalk.
- How much does it cost? Accessing the boardwalk, arcades and beach is completely free—but if you’re thinking of hitting the rides, you’ll need a special pass. Prices start at $39.95 + tax, depending on selected options!
Insider tip: The Santa Cruz beach boardwalk gets really crowded in the summer and the temperature quite hot as the day unfolds. To get the most out of the experience, it’s best to head there bright and early when it opens and ideally, on a weekday.
2. Explore the Santa Cruz Wharf
When you’re in Santa Cruz, visiting the famous wharf is an absolute must. It may seem touristy, but viewing sea lions and various bird species, strolling by the ocean, and having tasty fish for dinner definitely makes it worthwhile. Built in 1914, the Santa Cruz Wharf is a popular destination for pier fishing, taking a boat tour, enjoying the local nightlife and browsing the wharf shops. Stretching out over close to 3000 feet, it’s actually the longest pier on the West Coast! And one of its main perks is the breathtaking view from the pier, especially when the sun sets over the water.
- Where is it? The Santa Cruz Wharf is located between Main Beach and Cowell’s Beach.
- How to get there? You’ll see the wharf from far away, what with its massive pier stretching out into the ocean. Simply walk down Main Beach and Beach Street until you reach the roundabout at Pacific Avenue.
- When to go? You can visit the Santa Cruz Pier anytime, but the wharf holds many events you might like to attend. Check out their calendar!
- How much time to visit? Most people spend one to three hours on the wharf, but if you dine there, you might stay longer.
- How much does it cost? Admission to the wharf is free of charge, but food and souvenirs are not.
Insider tip: Santa Cruz wharf restaurants are a little pricey, but definitely worth the expense if you’re feeling up for some delicious seafood with a beautiful view.
3. Visit the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Centre
Just a few steps away from the ocean and the Santa Cruz Wharf, this Exploration Center offers several exhibits and some serious fun for children and adults alike. In fact, this Santa Cruz aquarium features state of the art exhibits, as well as interactive displays, highlighting the nearby Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary. The best part: It’s entirely free!
- Where is it? The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center in Santa Cruz is directly in front of the wharf, within walking distance of the pier and Main Beach.
- How to get there? The best way to get to the exploration centre is via the free trolley that connects downtown Santa Cruz to Main Beach and the wharf area. Check out the trolley’s schedule and stops.
- When to go? The venue is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 AM to 5 PM. On holidays, it’s best to call ahead: (831) 421-9993.
- How much time to visit? A full visit of the centre typically takes up to three hours.
- How much does it cost? It’s free!
Insider tip: Due to the at-risk fauna and flora, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is an underwater protected environment that supports one of the richest and most diverse underwater ecosystems in the world.
4. Bike around West Cliff Drive
As you visit Santa Cruz, you won’t want to miss out on West Cliff Drive. This stretch of scenic road offers walking and biking paths from Main Beach all the way down to Natural Bridges State Beach. Hike or bike down West Cliff Drive and enjoy the breathtaking views of its surroundings—including cliffs, unusual rock formations and a lovely lighthouse. The Cliff Drive is about three miles long, so count approximately six miles for the round trip.
- Where is it? West Cliff Drive stretches out over three miles, from Main Beach to Natural Bridges State Beach.
- How to get there? From Main Beach, simply head North on West Cliff Drive and stick towards the coast.
- When to go? You can go anytime, but sunrise on West Cliff Drive should definitely be in your bucket list!
- How much time to visit? Walking down West Cliff Drive takes more or less two hours (round trip).
- How much does it cost? Again, this awesome Santa Cruz destination is completely free!
Insider tip: If you want to avoid the tourists, go early in the morning! In our opinion, the best day plan for visiting West Cliff Drive is to head from Main Beach down the coast at dawn and watch the sun rise. Then, relax for the rest of the morning by setting up on one of the most picturesque beaches in Santa Cruz: the Natural Bridges State Beach.
5. Chill out at Natural Bridges State Beach
If you’re following our lead, you’ll be spending a morning out on Natural Bridges State Beach to relax after your bike trip to West Cliff Drive. Great choice! This incredible beach is in fact a five-acre state park, renowned for its unusual natural bridge structure made out of rock. What’s more, the Natural Bridges State Beach is a popular destination for monarchs and is known as a cool spot to see butterfly migrations from October to February, when around 150,000 monarchs flock to the park! If you’re not already seduced by the idea of visiting the Natural Bridges State Beach, know that it’s one of the most beautiful beaches in Santa Cruz. It’s small, sheltered and open year-round with loads of fun things to do, such as swimming, surfing, hiking and picnicking.
- Where is it? The Natural Bridges State Beach is an hour’s walk away from Main Beach, towards the end of West Cliff Drive.
- How to get there? You can drive, walk or bike to the State Park!
- When to go? The park is open from 8 AM to sunset every day. If you plan on going to the visitor centre, note that is opening hours are 10 AM to 4 PM Friday through Monday.
- How much time to visit? To get the most out of your visit to the Natural Bridges State Beach, we recommend planning to be there for a good three to five hours.
- How much does it cost? If you’re walking or biking, access is free! If not, admission is $10 per vehicle.
Insider tip: if you like to move around, you won’t want to miss out on the Natural Bridges State Beach Hiking Trails! Passing through the Moore Creek Estuary and the Monarch Butterfly Nature Preserve, the trails can be visited on fall and winter weekends with a guide. The rest of the year discover the trails by opting for a tour of the tidal pools or simply take a nature walk on your own!
6. Surf on Cowell’s Beach
Cowell’s Beach is one of the most popular beaches in the US for people who want to learn how to surf. Whatever your level: rookie/experienced surfer/born-on-a-surf-board, there’s no better spot than California—and more specifically Santa Cruz. Yes, the best surf school in Santa Cruz is located on Cowell’s Beach. They rent surfboards and wetsuits and give surf and stand-up paddle-board (SUP) lessons, classes and marine tours.
- Where is it? Cowell’s Beach is located on the pier, from Main Beach.
- How to get there? Quite easy—just head towards the Santa Cruz wharf. The beach will be on the east side of the pier (opposite from the west side, where you’ll find Main Beach and the Beach Boardwalk).
- When to go? The best time to hit Cowell’s Beach is in the morning if you want to avoid the crowds, but if you’re planning to take surfing lessons, you’ll want to call ahead and book your appointment beforehand.
- How much time to visit? You’ll want to spend at least two hours in Cowell’s Beach and perhaps four if you want to get more surfing done!
- How much does it cost? Beach access is free of charge. Surfing lessons start at $100 and equipment rentals depends on where you’re renting it from.
Insider tip: Book your surfing lessons beforehand at the Richard Schmidt Surf School! They can be reached by phone from 8 AM to 8 PM at (831) 423-0928.
7. Sample the Local Craft Beer
Craft Beer scenes are popping up in many cities across the USA and Santa Cruz is no exception. Discover regional beers and support local businesses, with a great range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic Californian brews. Our two favourite spots for beer tasting in Santa Cruz? The Lupulo Craft Beer House for its relaxed ambiance and Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, for its organic certified beers.
The Lupulo Craft Beer House
This laid-back Beer House is a great find to sample domestic and international craft beers in a smooth setting. Relax in their large indoor seating area or enjoy their front terrace and discover many amazing brews! Lupulo is famous for its many beers on tap, which they offer in a constant rotation featuring many rarities. The beers are always served in small glasses so they can be enjoyed fresh, but you can also purchase a vast selection of bottled beers. Oh, and if you have a craving, Lupulo Santa Cruz cooks up a great variety of foods with its menu inspired from a Spanish tapas bar and a Belgian beer café.
- Where is it? The Lupulo Craft Beer House is located in downtown Santa Cruz, at 233 Cathcart St, Santa Cruz, California 95060.
- How to get there? It’s a short 15-minute walk from Main Beach, so now you know where to head after a long day at the beach!
- When to go? Opening hours are:
- Monday through Thursday, from 11:30 AM to 10 PM
- Friday from 11:30 AM to 11:30 PM
- Saturday from 11 AM to 11:30 PM
- Sunday from 11 AM to 10 PM
- How much time to visit? You’ll need to plan around one and a half hours to sample a few beers, perhaps more if you intend on eating too.
- Price range: $—$$
Insider tip: Expect a $2 surcharge if you drink bottled beers on premises. Also, be sure to check Lupulo’s calendar for special trivia nights and live music events.
Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing
Next stop on the Santa Cruz Brewery Tour? Mountain Brewing! This great beer house has been around since 2005 and has become famous for its certified organic beer. All their beers are brewed in-house and Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing also hosts food pop ups featuring local food trucks. Enjoy a beer or a whole flight of handcrafted, micro-brewed organic ales in the large indoor seating area or outside in their beer garden, in which even your dog is welcome to join you as you sip.
- Where is it? Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing is located on the west side of Santa Cruz, at 402 Ingalls Street S, Santa Cruz, CA 95060. You can reach them by phone: (831) 425-4900.
- How to get there? From downtown Santa Cruz, take the bus (line 20), get off at Delaware Avenue & Swift and walk 6 minutes.
- When to go?
- To sip a beer: Monday through Friday, from 11:30 AM to 10 PM & Saturdays and Sundays from 11 AM to 10 PM.
- To attend an event: Check out their calendar.
- How much time to visit? You’ll need a good two hours to get the full experience.
- Price range: $—$$
Insider tip: If you’re curious, you’ll want to take a tour of the Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing production facility. Simply email them to book your spot.
8. Go to a Wine Tasting
With Santa Cruz being so close to one of the best wine regions in the world, Napa Valley, you can just imagine how many amazing wineries and wine bars are located in the area. Be sure to make a quick (or not so quick) visit to the Birichino Winery Tasting Room and the Vino Locale Wine Bar while you’re in town.
Santa Cruz Winery: The Birichino Tasting Room
With its eight vineyards spread out across California, Birichino is one of the best wineries in Santa Cruz. You can sample all their wines in the elegant tasting room located downtown Santa Cruz.
- Where is it? This Santa Cruz Winery is located one block west of Pacific Avenue, on the corner of Cedar and Church. Search for Birichino at 204 Church St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.
- How to get there? The Tasting Room is in the heart of downtown, a brisk 15-minute walk away from Main Beach.
- When to go? Regular opening hours are:
- Thursday and Saturday, from 1 PM to 6 PM
- Friday, from 1 PM to 8 PM
- How much time to visit? You generally need one or two hours for a wine tasting.
- Price range: $$—$$$
Insider tip: If you intend to visit the Winery with a group (6 or more people), you must reserve by phone beforehand. Call Birichino at (831) 425 4811.
Vino Locale Santa Cruz Wine Bar
This Santa Cruz Wine Bar is best known for its delicious regional wines. Located right on the pier of the Santa Cruz Wharf, Vino Locale has spacious indoor seating and panoramic ocean views. Most evenings, you can enjoy live music out on the patio and you can complement your wine tasting with some delicious food, thanks to their appealing tapas menu.
- Where is it? Right on the Santa Cruz pier, at 55 Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
- How to get there? Head down the pier and stop about halfway!
- When to go? The wine bar is open:
- Monday through Thursday, from 4 PM to 9 PM
- Friday through Sunday, from 12 PM to 9 PM
- How much time to visit? With its inviting atmosphere and beautiful view, you’ll most likely spend two or three hours in this wine bar.
- Price range: $$—$$$
Insider tip: Be sure to check out the Vino Locale events calendar!
9. Shop at the Santa Cruz farmers markets
Local farmers markets in Santa Cruz are quite popular! In fact, there are five markets spread out over the city:
- The Santa Cruz Downtown Farmers Market
- The Felton Farmers Market
- The Live Oak Farmers Market
- The Scotts Valley Farmers Market
- The Santa Cruz Westside Farmers Market
Since most fun things to do in Santa Cruz are located in the downtown area, we invite you to explore the Santa Cruz Downtown Farmers Market, which is open year-round. It’s the perfect place to meet the vibrant local community invested in regional organic produce and shop for healthy food. The farmers market promotes local employment so you can stock up on pasture-raised meats, sustainably harvested seafood, eggs, dairy and perhaps even pick up a souvenir or two of artisan-made goods, all in good conscience.
The Santa Cruz Downtown Farmers Market
Located in downtown Santa Cruz one block off Pacific Avenue, this farmers market takes place on Wednesdays and holds a vast selection of farming goods and artisanal baked goods. An awesome destination if you’re hungry. This Wednesday farmers market also offers a large seating area in the shade and live music.
- Where is it? On the corner of Cedar St. & Lincoln St in downtown Santa Cruz, a few steps away from the Lupulo Craft Beer House.
- How to get there? Take a short walk from Main Beach (15 minutes).
- When to go? This farmers market is open on Wednesdays only. Opening hours vary, according to the season:
- In the winter (November to March): 1 PM to 5 PM
- In the summer (April to October): 1 PM to 6 PM
- How much time to visit? Unless you get carried away, you should make do with one or two hours at the downtown farmers market!
- Price range: $
Insider tip: Plan to bring some cash with you, as cards are not accepted by all vendors.
10. Ride the train at the Roaring Camp Railroads
The Santa Cruz train is a known tourist attraction. It starts down in Felton and runs for over three miles, all the way up to Bear Mountain. With its narrow railroad, the Roaring Camp train is by far the best way to see the typical Californian redwood forest, the Santa Cruz Mountains and various small 1880s logging towns located close to the railway.
- Where is it? The train starts in Felton at Roaring Camp, 5401 Graham Hill Rd, Felton, CA 95018, USA. You can reach them by phone at (831) 335-4484.
- How to get there? To get to Felton from Santa Cruz, the best way is to take the bus line 35A. Get off at Graham Hill Rd (Felton Fair) and walk for 15–20 minutes down to Roaring Camp.
- When to go? Roaring Camp Railroads are open daily from 9 AM to 5 PM.
- How much time to visit? Train rides last around one hour and 15 minutes.
- How much does it cost? A train ticket is $23 for children under 13 and $32 for adults.
Insider tip: To save a few bucks, bring your own food and eat on the campgrounds instead of buying expensive food at the Roaring Camp Railroads. There is a lovely picnic area for you to enjoy your lunch.
That sums up our top 10 fun things to do in Santa Cruz. What are yours? Share below!