31 Best Things To Do In Santa Cruz, CA For The Perfect Beach Vacation

Santa Cruz doesn’t get nearly as much love as cities like San Francisco, CA or Monterey, CA do, but it equally deserves the attention of travelers. Today, I’m going to show you why!

Santa Cruz, California is no doubt one of the best beach/surf towns in the USA. With fresh coastal air, Mediterranean-like weather, and a killer surf culture, Santa Cruz equate to a wonderful weekend trip. Though it may best be known for Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, one of the best old-school amusement parks, the city is so much more than that!

The laidback city of Santa Cruz is not only home to the boardwalk, but it’s also the epitome of laidback vibes, featuring surf, redwood forests, mountains, and all-around happy hippy culture. With so many terrains to explore all in one place, it’s no wonder there are so many cool things to do in Santa Cruz!

And despite the plethora of activity you can get yourself into, you’ll find that once you arrive, you can’t help but relax. This city is everything you imagine a classic California beach town to be.

This Santa Cruz city guide will dive into all the best things to do in Santa Cruz (and beyond), as well as give you pointers on where to stay, what to eat, and what local events are not to be missed. So without further ado, let’s get into it!

*Please note: This post may contain affiliate links. You won’t be paying a cent more, but in the event of a sale, the small affiliate commission I receive will help keep this blog running/pumping out useful content. Thanks!


WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT SANTA CRUZ, CA?

September to October is probably the best time to visit Santa Cruz for a few reasons. First, this will be your best bet for sunshine and clear skies (oddly, summer weather tends to be primarily overcast, with a few extremely sunny days here and there). At this time of year, it’s still warm enough for the beach. Second, there will be fewer crowds due to summer vacation being over for many families.

By far, summer (June to August) is the busiest time in Santa Cruz; this is when tourism is the heaviest. The good weather and summer events keep the people coming!

In fact, the city, which is relatively quiet throughout the year, gets so busy during the summer to the point where most of the hotels and motels get booked up. Expect more expensive room rates during the summer months.

Spring usually peaks early in Santa Cruz, with average highs reaching the mid-60s and 70s from March to May. During these months, Santa Cruz County is enjoying warm weather, sunny skies, and lots of outdoor activities.

Winter in Santa Cruz can be pretty chilly and drizzly, but if you’re not bothered by that, it’s still a good time to visit as you’ll find fewer crowds and many discounts on accommodations.

Pro Tip: If you’re looking to save on lodging costs, you may be better off traveling during the off-season. All of the top Santa Cruz attractions are open year-round, plus you will find more hotel availability at way lower prices. Alternatively, if you want to visit in the summertime, consider staying in nearby cities like San Jose, Scotts Valley or Capitola.


HOW MANY DAYS TO SPEND IN SANTA CRUZ, CA

To really experience all that the city of Santa Cruz has to offer, I recommend spending no less than 2 full days in the city.

If you plan on doing a few day hikes in Santa Cruz County or Monterey County, then 3 days would be better. Three full days will definitely give you enough time to explore other nearby towns, beaches, or state parks.


HOW TO GET TO SANTA CRUZ, CA

The best way to get to Santa Cruz is by driving. Either bring your own car or rent one!

If you’re coming from San Francisco, Santa Cruz is just over an hour’s drive from San Francisco with no traffic. There are two potential routes from San Francisco.

The fastest route is Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz mountains. This road is scenic (takes you through the forest) but has a lot of windy turns.

The alternative route from SF to Santa Cruz is via Highway 1, which hugs the coast almost all the way down. If you can spare the time, this is the route I recommend taking.

Along the way, you’ll get to experience plenty of roadside attractions and photo stops, making the journey down so worth it. This route will pass through fun towns including Half Moon Bay, Pescadero, and Davenport. Read more about all the exciting stops along the way from SF to Santa Cruz in this post!

NOTE: Taking the 1 adds about 20-30 minutes to your journey, excluding all the time you’ll need for stops. Taking this route also means you enter Santa Cruz via West Cliff Drive, which is the perfect way to get introduced to the city. More on that below.

If you’re flying into the Bay Area, the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) will land you closest to Santa Cruz, CA. Other Bay Area airport options include San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Oakland International Airport (OAK). From the airport, simply rent a car and be on your merry way.

We like to rent from Hertz. Why? Well with their Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program (completely free to join), you’ll get counter-free pickup at select locations, and even mobile alerts with your exact rental car and its location before you arrive.

If you are more the type to compare prices between rental car companies, use Priceline’s rental car search. Not only does the tool allow you to compare rental car prices, but most of the time you can book with no prepayment and no cancellation fees.


31 BEST THINGS TO DO IN SANTA CRUZ, CA

EAT AND SHOP IN DOWNTOWN SANTA CRUZ

Downtown Santa Cruz CA - Best Things To Do In Santa Cruz, CA - Travels With Elle

Downtown Santa Cruz has such a vibrant art and entertainment scene. Our favorite thing to do here in the daytime? Explore Pacific Ave, eat, and shop until you drop! Don’t miss cute shops such as Botanic and Luxe, Redemptions, Go Ask Alice, and Old School Shoes.

Grab a few snacks from the various food joints while you’re shopping or make a stop at Verve Coffee Roasters, a local institution, for some really great coffee.

For refreshing tiki drinks, head to Hula’s Island Grill. Stay or come back for the nightlife, because downtown Santa Cruz, dotted with bars and venues, often hosts a lot of music events.

THRIFT STORE SHOPPING

MoonZooon Santa Cruz, CA - 30 Best Things To Do In Santa Cruz

If you’re into consignment/vintage clothing, downtown’s got you covered. While strolling along Pacific Avenue, pop your head into the local thrift shops.

Stores like MoonZooom or Cognito Clothing feature quirky vintage finds while Crossroads Trading Co. (my personal favorite for modern one-of-a-kind finds) offers more wearable, modern pieces. Follow it up with a visit to the record store for some rare vinyl.

Downtown Santa Cruz CA - Best Things To Do In Santa Cruz, CA - Travels With Elle

If you happen to be in town for the second Sunday of the month, don’t miss the Santa Cruz Antique Faire, where vendors offer an eclectic blend of antiques, vintage clothing, collectibles and more! Visit the Antique Faire on Lincoln Street between Pacific and Cedar.

SANTA CRUZ BEACH BOARDWALK

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Swing - San Francisco To Santa Cruz Road

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, perhaps what the city is most famous for, is a mile-long beachfront amusement park that is jam-packed with fun activities to do such as riding amusement park rides and playing arcade games, bowling, laser tag, and mini-golf.

I’m a fully grown adult, and I still think the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is magical. Sure it’s kitschy, but it’s also so nostalgic and taps into the little kid inside you. And if you’re traveling with children? Oh, they’ll fit right in!

It’s free to walk the boardwalk (you can still walk around even when its closed for business), but the rides and snacks cost money. Enjoy amusement park treats like candy, corn dogs, kettle corn, saltwater taffy, and deep-fried Twinkies! While you’re exploring, don’t miss the famous Giant Dipper, the indoor arcade, the dated souvenir shops, and a nice casual stroll on the beach.

The boardwalk is open daily from late May to late August, plus most weekends and holidays throughout the year. During the off-season, the arcades, laser tag, miniature golf, and bowling are still open. You can check their opening hours here.

The boardwalk is a top Santa Cruz attraction, so don’t miss it!

NEPTUNE’S KINGDOM

While you’re at the boardwalk, be sure to explore Neptune’s Kingdom. Neptune’s Kingdom is a nautical-themed amusement park within an amusement park.

This historical building once housed a huge saltwater pool, but today it plays host to a wide range of activities including an 18-hole mini-golf course, a billiards room, ping-pong, and two mini arcades.

HIT THE BEACH

Santa Cruz Beach Sunset - Travels With Elle

The two most popular (and busiest) beaches in Santa Cruz are Main Beach and Cowell Beach.

Main Beach, great for families, sits right in front of the Boardwalk. Cowell Beach, a classic surfing spot that’s great for beginners, sits on the other side of the wharf.

Be sure to get there early in the day to secure parking! Or show up later to witness one of California’s epic sunsets.

BREAKFAST BURRITOS AT THE POINT MARKET

Breakfast Burritos The Point Market Santa Cruz, CA

The Point Market in Pleasure Point is an unassuming corner store that sits steps away from the shore. It’s worth your time because they serve the best breakfast burrito in all of Santa Cruz.

When you go into the shop it may seem like you might be in the wrong place (there’s no sign of a kitchen anywhere), but just head to the counter/cash register area where you’ll find the breakfast menus. Once you know what you want, go right up to the counter and order one of their iconic breakfast burritos.

We ordered The Barrel and it came loaded with eggs, potatoes, avocado, bacon, cheese, and salsa. The ITS is also another good choice.

Pro Tip: A large breakfast burrito is most definitely shareable between two people. Don’t get too full, you’ll want to have room to sample other great eats in SC throughout the day!

EXPLORE PLEASURE POINT

Pleasure Point Santa Cruz, CA - SF To Santa Cruz Road Trip - TravelsWithElle

Situated on Santa Cruz’s east end, this seaside neighborhood is one of the most vibrant surf destinations along the California coast. Pleasure Point is like the quintessential beach community that you see in a lot of Hollywood movies. It’s exactly what people envision when they think of the word ‘California’.

Pleasure Point reminds us a lot of La Jolla, CA (near San Diego, CA) and we absolutely love the easygoing atmosphere here.

Pleasure Point’s main street, 41st Avenue, will immerse you in the town’s surf/beach culture. A few streets up from the shore sits various surf shops, eateries, beachy home decor stores, and boutique clothing stores. There is also a Verve Coffee Roasters and The Penny Ice Creamery here!

ABBOTT SQUARE MARKET

We love that Santa Cruz has its own food hall! With a wide variety of both food and drink offerings, everyone in your group can try something different.

Enjoy vegan cuisine, sip on locally roasted coffee, enjoy a glass of wine or a pint of beer, or munch on an authentic Neapolitan pizza. And that barely scratches the surface of what’s offered here. With 9 food and drink establishments so far, there’s so much culinary talent packed into one spot!

THE PENNY ICE CREAMERY

The Penny Ice Creamery is a local institution and a must-try when in Santa Cruz, CA. Their ice cream is to die for!

The Penny Ice Creamery serves freshly made gourmet ice cream with seasonal flavors using locally farmed and organic ingredients. Some of their creative flavors include mascarpone hazelnut, gingersnap, and whiskey custard. Don’t forget to ask for their torch-blown marshmallow fluff topping, it’s what they’re known for!

There are two brick-and-mortar shops–one in Pleasure Point/Opal Cliffs and one in Downtown Santa Cruz. They also have a stall at the farmer’s market.

ATTEND A FIRST FRIDAYS EVENT

First Fridays is a free local event that takes place rain or shine. On the first Friday of every month, business owners offer up their spaces to display local art. This is where talented artists will promote their hard work and creativity to the community.

On these special days, admission to the Museum of Art & History is free to all during the day. Then at night (from 5pm to 9pm) the museum hosts live music, a bar, as well as art activities for all ages.

WALK AROUND THE UC SANTA CRUZ CAMPUS

The University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) has got to be one of the most beautiful campuses in the world. With classrooms, buildings, and libraries set amid the redwoods and ocean views peeking out here and there, a stroll around campus is totally warranted.

My sister went to college here, and I loved visiting her–the atmosphere is perfect for outdoor lovers like myself. Walking through the UCSC campus is like taking a leisurely hike and visiting a school at the same time!

Don’t miss the 145-acre arboretum and botanical gardens, featuring cool plants from around the world. You can book a tour of the campus or take a self-guided tour on your own.

VISIT A LOCAL FARMER’S MARKET

portland farmers market 2

The Santa Cruz area has five different farmer’s markets dotted in various cities throughout the week, showcasing the best of the region’s produce, seafood, meats, and artisan-made goods. The Downtown farmer’s market on Wednesday afternoons is one of the more popular ones.

All in all, it’s a fun place to spend the afternoon. Here during the weekend? The Scotts Valley
farmer’s market takes place on Saturdays and the Live Oak farmer’s market is on Sundays (year-round). Check the times and locations of all five markets here.

EXPLORE AND CATCH THE SEA LIONS AT THE WHARF

Viewing the sea lions in all their glory is one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz. They can be seen year-round at the end of the Santa Cruz Wharf, located adjacent to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

You’ll find a few snoozing away on the rafters, while others hang out on the platforms along the side of the wharf. Some of the playful ones may even be seen splashing about in the water.

Once you’re done watching the sea lions, walk around and enjoy the wharf itself. The wooden pier is lined with seafood restaurants, shops, and locals fishing right off the pier. You can find everything from upscale restaurants to small seafood markets selling shrimp or crab cocktails.

TAKE A STROLL ON WEST CLIFF DRIVE

If you’re looking to take a stroll on one of the most scenic promenades in existence, head straight for West Cliff Drive. The entire multi-use pathway stretches for 3 miles (from the Santa Cruz Wharf to Natural Bridges State Beach), but you don’t have to walk the entire way. Even a quick stroll along the path is completely worth it.

Expect stunning views of Monterey Bay along with sights of the iconic surfer statue and Lighthouse Point. Be on the lookout for whales and dolphins in the distance, as they’re frequently spotted off the shore. This is one of the top places to visit in Santa Cruz, and certainly one of the most beautiful!

Pro Tip: Come at sunset and watch the sky light up with colorful hues that California sunsets are known for.

SEE THE BUTTERFLIES AT NATURAL BRIDGES STATE BEACH

Natural Bridges State Park Monarch Grove - Best Things To Do In Santa Cruz, CA - TravelsWithElle

Have you ever been interested in seeing the epic migration of the monarch butterflies? Well, Santa Cruz is an excellent spot to witness it for yourself! Natural Bridges State Park’s Monarch Grove provides a temporary home for up to 100,000 monarch butterflies each winter.

The sight is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. There are thousands upon thousands of Monarch butterflies flying around and clustered together, hanging up in the eucalyptus trees. Visitors can view these beauties by walking down the park’s wheelchair and stroller-accessible boardwalk to an observation deck in the eucalyptus grove.

While the butterflies can only be seen from October to February, the trail is open all year long and is quite scenic in itself.

Pro Tip: If you plan on photographing the butterflies, bring an actual camera with a zoom lens. The butterflies are too far away to photograph on a regular phone camera.

GO ON A WHALE WATCHING TOUR

Whale Watching Tour - Best Things To Do In Santa Cruz Monterey - TravelsWithElle

Santa Cruz hosts whale-watching tours all year round. Yes, there are really that many of them throughout the year!

The most common whale spotted out of Monterey Bay is the Humpback whale, usually seen from April through November. Then from December through April, over 20,000 Gray Whales pass through the waters right off of Monterey Bay.

There are different species to look out for at different times of the year, including humpbacks and grey whales. Along the way, you may very well also spot sea lions, dolphins, otters, and seals!

Check out the various dolphin and whale watching tours in Santa Cruz here.

PATAGONIA OUTLET

Patagonia Outlet Santa Cruz, CA - Patagonia Outlet Prices - TravelsWithElle

Outdoor enthusiasts, you’re really going to like this one. The Patagonia Outlet is a store where nearly everything is on sale. It’s a place where some regular merchandise exists among many of last season’s products.

It’s a little-known fact, but Patagonia actually has a limited amount of outlet locations scattered throughout the United States. Lucky for you, there’s one right here in Santa Cruz, CA!

On any given day, the gear sold at this Patagonia outlet will typically be 40-50% off retail–what a steal! Learn more about the Patagonia Outlet experience in this post.

CATCH A SHAKESPEARE SHOW IN THE FOREST

One of the reasons why I personally love the summertime? It’s when Shakespeare Festivals make a comeback!

From June to August, you can catch a show by Santa Cruz Shakespeare at the Grove, a picturesque forest theater located in DeLaveaga Park. This venue is not only very unique, but it boasts great views of Monterey Bay.

Bring a blanket, a picnic, and a bottle of wine, and be prepared for a good time with the family.

GO SURFING OR SURFER-WATCHING

Pleasure Point, CA - San Francisco To Santa Cruz Road Trip - TravelswithElle

Due to its many expansive beaches and some of the world’s best off-shore breaks, Santa Cruz is really famous for its surf. Surfers from all over the globe visit for the waves year-round. Whether or not you choose to take the waters yourself, be sure to spend some time watching the surfers catch the waves.

Pleasure Point Beach and The Hook are two of the most popular surf spots in Santa Cruz, as is Four Mile Beach at Wilder Ranch State Park and Steamer Lane on West Cliff Drive. Go check these spots out on your free time!

VISIT THE SANTA CRUZ SURFING MUSEUM

Visit The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum to learn all about the city’s significant surf history with artifacts, photographs, and plenty of old-school boards. This little surfing museum, housed inside a quaint little lighthouse along West Cliff Drive, sure packs a punch, detailing 120 years of surfing history.

The hours are limited, so be sure to check the latest opening hours here.

Outside the museum is Steamer Lane, the perfect spot for watching surfers surf.

SEYMOUR MARINE DISCOVERY CENTER

The Seymour Marine Discovery Center is a community-supported marine science education center of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Though it may not be as big (or as packed) as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, there’s still plenty of marine life to see!

There is an aquarium and exhibit hall, as well as several outdoor activities to enjoy including tide pools, a scavenger hunt, a larval fish geocache activity, and two grand whale skeletons to feast your eyes upon.

WINE TASTING

Did you know there are more than 70 wineries and tasting rooms in the Santa Cruz Mountains? It’s one of the lesser-known things to do in Santa Cruz, but equally as entertaining. If you’re open to venturing out into the mountains for some wine tasting, check out these popular wineries: Regale WineryMJA Vineyards and Beauregard Vineyard.

If you don’t want to venture out that far, you can start at Surf City Vintners, located right in Santa Cruz. Surf City Vintners is a collective of small, family-owned wineries that resulted from an urban renewal project. These wineries are housed in a cluster of renovated warehouses on the west side of town, offering a convenient wine tasting experience.

WILDER RANCH STATE PARK

Wilder Ranch State Park is a coastal state park at Santa Cruz’s northern edge. This park offers something of everything–from beaches to a magical seaside waterfall, and from towering redwoods to miles of hiking and biking trails.

There are even a couple of 19th-century historical sites in the park for history buffs to enjoy (a semi-functional dairy ranch and limekiln ruins).

For a short and easy stroll by the ocean, take the Old Landing Cove Trail, a pleasant 2.3-mile loop trail that’ll bring you right along the coastal bluffs and delivers absolutely stunning views.

As this is a California State Park, there is a $10 vehicle day-use fee.

ROARING CAMP RAILROADS

Roaring Camp Steam Train - Felton, CA - Travels With Elle

One of the most unique things to do in Santa Cruz, CA is to head to Roaring Camp Railroads in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where you can take an authentic steam train ride through the redwoods!

These 19th-century trains were once used to haul giant redwood logs out of the mountains, but nowadays, they’re dedicated to transporting passengers curious to see the beauty of the redwoods.

The classic train redwood forest route takes you up Bear Mountain. During the train ride (a bit over 1 hour long), you’ll get to enjoy unbeatable forest views as well as hear the conductor narrate the story of Roaring Camp.

You can also catch a steam train from Roaring Camp all the way to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk during the high season. Reverse roundtrips departing from the beach in Santa Cruz to Roaring Camp and back may be purchased from the conductor on the train departing from Santa Cruz. Read more about Roaring Camp and see the train schedules here.

BIGFOOT DISCOVERY MUSEUM

The Bigfoot Discovery Museum is located in the San Lorenzo Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains in Felton. This is a fun roadside stop along the twisty, redwood-shrouded Highway 9.

The museum’s mission is to “attract & edutain the public with the facts about mystery primates around the world.” Love that!

The collection includes exhibits of local history tied with Bigfoot sightings, popular culture as it relates to the public view of Bigfoot, and actual evidence in the form of plaster footprints and handprints. Admission to the museum is free.

VISIT THE MYSTERY SPOT

The Mystery Spot is a classic California roadside attraction that touts itself as a “gravitational anomaly”. They state that “within the Mystery Spot you will be stunned as your perceptions of the laws of physics and gravity are questioned. But don’t take our word for it, come and decide for yourself!”

Some people love the quirkiness of this spot, while others call it a tourist trap. Either way, this optical illusion attraction in the Santa Cruz redwoods can be a fun way to spend an hour.

During your time here, you’ll probably be taking a bunch of photos of you and your friends in mid-air which makes for great souvenirs to bring home.

It’s a really popular place, so buy tickets in advance online before your visit.

VISIT DAVENPORT, CA

Davenport, CA is a tiny town and a fun, quick stop located along Highway 1 just 15-20 minutes from Santa Cruz. Davenport used to be a bustling whaling village, established in 1867 by a whaling captain named John Pope Davenport.

One of the main attractions of Davenport is the famous Shark Fin Cove, one of the coolest-looking beaches in all of California. The views are stunning and the rock formation really does look just like a shark fin!

Another totally Instagram-worthy spot is Davenport Pier, a frequently photographed landmark. At times, you’ll find a random swing anchored to one of the pier foundation arches which stretch out into the surf. The pier deck has been gone for years, but that makes this spot even more photogenic.

Davenport Pier is located at the beach below the bluff, but it is not easy to get to. You’ll need sturdy shoes and should only attempt if a rope to guide you down the bluff is present (or, bring your own ropes). Photos can also be taken from the bluff which is much safer.

All in all, this is a great spot for snapping a few photos, grabbing lunch (try American Abalone Farms for oysters, abalone, sea urchin, and crab!), or taking a quick coastal stroll.

SWANTON BERRY FARM (DAVENPORT, CA)

Swanton Berry Farm - California Coast Road Trip Stops - TravelsWithElle

A visit to Swanton Berry Farm will grant you the classic u-pick experience in the summertime! Families have been visiting this hidden gem for years to pick strawberries and grab freshly made pies, jams, and other delicious treats.

As soon as you step out of the car, you’ll be greeted by the sweet, sweet aroma of fresh strawberries in the air! You can either pick your own berries or browse the store for already picked berries and other goods.

If you want to pick your own berries, simply pick up a box from inside the market, head out to pick to your heart’s content, then pay inside. Inside the market, you’ll find goods like olallieberry pie, strawberry shortcake, berry jams, freshly squeezed strawberry lemonade, and even t-shirts for sale.

If you’re planning on skipping on the desserts, don’t! Trust me when I tell you, their strawberry shortcake is absolutely delightful. Please do yourself a favor and get a slice of pie or shortcake per person–it’ll be so good that you won’t want to share!

VISIT CAPITOLA, CA

Capitola, CA - San Francisco To Santa Cruz Road Trip - TravelswithElle

As the West Coast’s oldest beach resort, Capitola, CA sure is worth a visit. This little resort town is located just 5-8 minutes away from the Pleasure Point neighborhood in Santa Cruz. Capitola offers a wide variety of trendy beachfront stores, restaurants, and museums.

Aside from enjoying the warm sand and sun at Capitola Beach, take some time to stroll through Capitola Village, being sure to enjoy the ambiance, eateries, and shops.

Planning a visit in the summer? Be sure to check the city’s event calendar! During the summer months, a variety of special events are hosted at the beach, including free family movies, art shows, and a twilight concert series.

BIG BASIN REDWOODS STATE PARK

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, located in Boulder Creek, is another beloved state park and hiking spot that offers easy access to towering ancient sequoia groves. For a relatively short day hike, take the 3.4-mile out-and-back hike to Sempervirens Falls.

For a longer option jam-packed with beauty, we love the 10.2-mile roundtrip Berry Creek Falls Loop Hike. Berry Creek Falls is by far the most popular destination in Big Basin. This hike travels through the lush groves of old-growth redwood trees and giant sequoias of the beautiful Santa Cruz mountains.

Not only will you see Berry Creek Falls in all its glory, but you will also get a chance to visit Silver Falls and Cascade Falls. Depending on the time of year you hike it, you can very well spot dozens of banana slugs on the ground during the hike! It may sound like a pretty long hike, but it isn’t all that difficult.

While the intensity of the falls varies depending on the time of year (the best season is spring), the entire park is drop-dead gorgeous and worth a visit all year round.

FIRE CLOSURE: As of March 2021 there are closures in this park or area due to wildfire. For the latest information, please visit their website here.

ANO NUEVO STATE PARK, CA

Año Nuevo State Park is a nature reserve featuring wetland marshes, dune fields, coastal scrub, and beaches. There is one main draw that makes this state park stand out. Every winter, from December through April, a must-see-for-yourself event occurs here–thousands of enormous elephant seals arrive on the shores for their breeding season.

In fact, Año Nuevo State Park is the world’s largest mainland breeding colony for the northern elephant seal. As many as 10,000 seals will pay a visit to the dunes and beaches of Año Nuevo State Park to breed and give birth to their pups. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a mother seal giving birth.

The sheer number of seals is certainly impressive, but so is their size. Bull elephant seals can be up to 16 feet wide and weigh an average of three tons each!

Año Nuevo State Reserve is only open for guided tours from December through April, and reservations are required. For the rest of the year,  visitors are free to take self-guided walking tours, but will still need to obtain free permits. Check the Año Nuevo State Park website for more info.


WHERE TO STAY IN SANTA CRUZ, CA

Sea & Sand Inn – Located a 10-minute walk from Santa Cruz Wharf and Boardwalk, this hotel features modern, spacious rooms with ocean views, free guest parking, and daily continental breakfast.

Hyatt Place Santa Cruz – Experience modern accommodations in Santa Cruz style, conveniently located near the Boardwalk and Downtown. Features a pool and hot tub.

West Cliff Inn – A Four Sisters Inn – A renovated Victorian-style inn situated on a bluff across from the beach. For a classy historic hotel stay, look no further!

NOTE: As I stated earlier, if you’re traveling in the summer, you can expect hotel prices to be expensive and lodging availability to be limited. If you’re looking to save on lodging costs, you may be better off traveling during the off-season (when there’s more hotel availability at way lower prices).

Alternatively, if visiting in the summer is a must, consider staying in nearby cities like San Jose, Scotts Valley, or Capitola. While searching for hotels or vacation rentals, be sure to include these cities in the mix. Search for Santa Cruz hotel pricing and availability on Priceline here.


WHERE TO EAT IN SANTA CRUZ, CA

For breakfast, grab breakfast burritos at Point Market or have a sit-down breakfast at Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe or Harbor Cafe.

For lunch, try Jack’s Hamburgers, Cafe Brasil or Taqueria Los Pericos.

For dinner, try Lillian’s Italian Kitchen or Hula’s Island Grill and Tiki Room (I’d skip the food at Hula’s and only get the drinks)!


LOCAL/ANNUAL EVENTS IN SANTA CRUZ, CA

  • Santa Cruz Antique Faire (Second Sunday of the month)
  • First Fridays (The First Friday of each month)
  • Monarch Butterflies at Natural Bridges (October to February) – Natural Bridges Park’s Monarch Grove provides a temporary home for up to 100,000 Monarchs each winter.
  • California Gray Whale Migration (January) – Approximately 20,000 gray whales pass by Santa Cruz on their annual migration between the Bering Sea in Alaska and Baja California.
  • Fungus Faire (January) – A 2-day event celebrating the beautiful and fascinating species of local fungi.
  • Surfing America Prime West (January) – An invitation-only contest for the very best under-18 shortboard surfers in the mainland United States.
  • Clam Chowder Cook-Off (February) – Talented chefs from throughout the West Coast compete for the glory of the best clam chowder. Admission is free, but visitors may purchase tasting kits to sample all the creamy goodness.
  • PaddleFest (March) – The largest paddle-powered surf contest in the world, takes place at Steamer Lane.
  • Santa Cruz Half Marathon/10K (April) – Marathon through beaches, strawberry fields, historic farm buildings,  incredible views of the rugged ocean bluffs.
  • Ducky Derby (April) – A free day of activities with food, carnival games, live music, local entertainment and the racing of 12,000 rubber ducks down a man-made waterway.
  • Santa Cruz American Music Festival (May) – A weekend of music in Aptos Village Park, with food, beer, and wine.
  • Greek Food and Cultural Festival (May) – A weekend event celebrating Greek culture with authentic Greek food, live Greek music, dancing, gifts and crafts.
  • Woodies on the Wharf (June) – This event features over 200 wooded cars, activities, and more.
  • Highland Games and Scottish Renaissance Festival (June) – Celebrates the history, myths, and legend of 16th century Scotland, featuring entertainment, music, arts, crafts, activities, games, food, ale, and more.
  • Japanese Cultural Fair (June) – Learn more about the diverse arts, craft, music, food, and culture of Japan in this popular, long-running festival.
  • Santa Cruz 4th of July (July) – Features a world-class fireworks show at Skypark.
  • Santa Cruz Shakespeare (July and August) – Catch Shakespeare performances in The Grove at DeLaveaga Park.
  • Watsonville Strawberry Festival (August) – Downtown Watsonville celebration with food, carnival rides, entertainment and tasty strawberry treats.
  • Aloha Outrigger Races and Polynesian Festival (August) – Start with outrigger canoe racing, followed by the Polynesian Festival (shave ice, face painting, printmaking and dance performances).
  • Wings Over Watsonville (September) – Celebrate Labor Day Weekend at Wings Over Watsonville Fly-In.
  • Capitola Art and Wine Festival (September) – Combines art, wine, music & food in Capitola Village.
  • Santa Cruz County Fair (September) – This fair features games, rides, displays, and livestock.
  • Oktoberfest (October) – Free event featuring beer, food, music, cash prizes, silent and live auctions.
  • O’Neill Coldwater Classic (October) – This surf competition at Steamer’s Lane in Santa Cruz blends adventure, exploration, surf, and competition.
  • Lighted Boat Parade (December) – Features 50 beautifully decorated power and sailboats parading through the Santa Cruz Harbor.
  • Holiday Lights Train (December) – Ride vintage train cars adorned with thousands of colorful lights, drink hot-spiced cider, listen to musical entertainment, and enjoy a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus.

HOW TO GET AROUND SANTA CRUZ, CA

If you’re staying in the downtown area, you’ll be within walking distance to a lot of restaurants, stores and attractions, including the beach and boardwalk.

However, to explore other neighborhoods within the city and explore Santa Cruz’s surrounding region (such as the Highway 1 attractions, Capitola, and the Santa Cruz mountains), you’ll need a car.

Rideshare services like Uber/Lyft are also readily available. You can also rent bikes to get around short distances.

If you plan on just staying within Santa Cruz, there is a Santa Cruz Trolley that offers cheap rides between the boardwalk and downtown. It runs on weekends starting from Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day Weekend.

Bikes in Capitola, CA - San Francisco To Santa Cruz Road Trip - TravelswithElle

SANTA CRUZ, CA: ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST

Aside from the normal clothing and toiletries you’d pack for any regular trip, here are the things I’d recommend you not leave home without for your trip to Santa Cruz, CA:

  • Packing Cubes | Start packing the smart way. The key to smart packing is going to be compartmentalization, aka your packing cubes. This set comes in a bunch of different sizes, so you can create a separate compartment for undies and socks, one for clothing, one for toiletries, and one for anything else you may want to organize. By using packing cubes, it’s so much easier to pull out only what you need, rather than dig through all of your luggage to find that one thing you’re looking for.
  • Travel Daypack | I’m a huge fan of the Fjallraven Kanken Mini Backpack. It stylish and has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
  • Walking Shoes | One pair of closed-toed shoes (walking shoes or running shoes) is always crucial for any trip. These ones that I’ve been traveling around with are super light and breathable. I can even walk 15+ miles in them before getting sore feet.
    • For women: Adidas Cloudfoam runners are classic-looking and ultra-comfortable.
    • For men: ON Running Shoes have risen in popularity, and for good reason! They are comfortable as heck, my boyfriend loves his pair.
  • Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
  • Travel Adapter | If you’re traveling from abroad, a universal travel adapter is a necessity. This 5-in-1 travel adapter is perfect for travel use with cell phones, laptops & other devices anywhere in the world.
  • Umbrella | An umbrella, particularly a wind-proof umbrella, is crucial when traveling to destinations with varying/unpredictable weather. If you have an umbrella with you, then it means the rain can’t stop you from enjoying your trip and exploring the outdoors.
  • Portable Cooler | Coolers are a must for any trip where picnics and beaches are on the itinerary. Not only will you be able to keep beverages cold and refreshing, but you will also be able to keep perishables fresh. A portable hard cooler will allow you to pack picnic lunches, bring cheese and jams, and more. If you’re looking for the best cooler technology out there, the Yeti Portable Cooler is top of the line, with ColdCell Insulation that offers superior cold-holding compared to other soft coolers.
  • Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
  • Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
  • Adventure Sandals | Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose summer sandals. If you’re planning on spending some time on the beach or doing hikes with river crossings, you should definitely consider getting adventure sandals — they’re comfortable for long-distance walking, safe for submerging in water, and super durable.
  • Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any outdoor adventure on the coast. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a puffier windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
  • Puffy Jacket | You’re going to need layers in Santa Cruz, which tends to get breezy in certain areas. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of outdoor adventuring!
  • Hiking Daypack | Only required if you plan on hiking. I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
  • Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key for any outdoor destination. Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun. As a bonus, bandanas and Buffs can be used as headbands to keep hair and sweat off of your face. Soak your bandana or Buff then put it on your head, face, or neck for a quick cool down.
  • Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need when you’re hopping from the beach to a car or need to dry your feet off. This one here is a great option.
  • Hand Sanitizer Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
  • Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
  • Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing to all the great breweries and eateries… the last thing you want is to be stranded with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
  • Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
  • Sunscreen
  • Beach Towel
  • Picnic Supplies

And that’s it for this Santa Cruz, CA travel guide. Did we miss anything on our list of things to do in Santa Cruz? Let us know in the comments, we’re always looking to discover new activities in Santa Cruz, CA!

Want more California coast travel tips? Read More:

San Francisco to Santa Cruz Road Trip: 15 Best Stops On Highway 1

34+ Best Things To Do In Monterey Bay, CA

Big Sur Road Trip: 2-Day Itinerary Of The 23 Best Things To Do In Big Sur, CA

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