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The 20 Best Things to Do in Santa Cruz for First Timers

Santa Cruz Wharf

The city of Santa Cruz along the central coast of California combines the best of the northern and southern parts of the state. It has the relaxed beach town vibe of Southern California combined with the spectacular scenery of Northern California. Those who live there generally enjoy an outdoor lifestyle as there are so many things to see and do. If you are visiting this city, it is best to plan your trip in advance to make sure you get the most out of your visit. This will involve which are the most important sights, landmarks, activities, and attractions to include in your trip. Here are the 20 best things to do in Santa Cruz for first-timers.

Dolphin and Whale Tour

20. Dolphin and Whale Watching Tours

The waters surrounding California are home to some fascinating marine life, including dolphins and whales. One of the most popular activities for visitors to this city is to take a boat tour that focuses on dolphin and whale watching tours. If you visit during the summer months, you will see the small population of humpback whales. During the winter, the migration season means that you will see gray whales.

West Cliff

19. West Cliff Drive and the Surfing Museum

According to Time Out, you should go for a walk along West Cliff Drive, which is a three-mile-long multi-use pathway. This pathway goes along Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz Wharf, so you can fully appreciate the beaches, coves, and scenic overlooks. Along the way, you will come across the Surfing Museum, which is worth a visit as Santa Cruz was the first mainland destination to enjoy this water sport. The museum is housed in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse.

Museum of Natural History

18. Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

Although it is one of the smaller museums in Santa Cruz, it is still one that is worth visiting as the exhibitions are interesting. Inside this museum on East Cliff Drive, you will see stuffed animals and native Californian cultural artifacts that give you an insight into the natural history of the area. An element of this attraction that children will love is the touch-friendly tide pool. This contains some of the sea creatures that live in their natural habitat on the beach across the street. This is one of several Santa Cruz attractions that you can visit for free on the first Friday of every month.

Farmers Market

17. Santa Cruz Farmer’s Market

The Santa Cruz Farmer’s Market is a hive of activity, and it is a fantastic place to sample some of California’s finest produce. It is also a wonderful venue to watch the locals going about their day-to-day business.

16. U.C. Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden

Standing on an ancient marine terrace in the Santa Cruz Mountains that overlooks Monterey Bay, U.C. Santa Cruz Arboretum is used by students for scientific studies and visitors include nature lovers and avid gardeners. The site covers 145 acres, and botanical diversity is encouraged with areas that have different soil types, typography, and microclimates. The site is divided into different sections that represent geographical regions including California, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. These areas include plants that are endangered in their natural environment. Some of the features of the arboretum include a eucalyptus grove, an Australian rock garden, the Aroma Garden, a hummingbird trail, a research garden, the redwood grove, and much more. The picnic area at this attraction has spectacular coastal views, so don’t forget to pack a picnic and a camera.


15. Roaring Camp Railroad

If you want an activity that is a little different from the beaches, forests, and museums, then a great option is Roaring Camp Railroads, says The Culture Trip. The depot is located in Felton, where you can board one of the 19-century steam trains and take a ride back into Santa Cruz. There are several other train routes that you can take if you wish to venture into the area surrounding Santa Cruz. These include routes to Bear Mountain, San Lorenzo River Gorge, and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Mystery Spot

14. Mystery Spot

One of the most unusual attractions in Santa Cruz is Mystery Spot, which is located in a redwood forest. Visitors flock to Mystery Spot as it is impossible to believe the phenomenon of this area unless you experience it yourself. Mystery Spot is a circular area measuring 46 meters in diameter. For reasons unknown to scientists, the usual laws of gravity do not apply to this spot. It was discovered in 1939, and scientists have spent the years since attempting to explain the phenomena with no success. When visiting this spot, you will see that people and objects appear tilted even when they are upright.

13. Garden of Eden

Although the beaches along the coast of Santa Cruz are the most popular spots for swimming, these are often very busy as they are filled with both locals and tourists. An interesting spot to visit is the Garden of Eden, which is a beach-lined swimming hole in a secluded spot surrounded by redwood forest. The Garden of Eden is along the San Lorenzo River in the Henry Cowell Redwood State Park. It is one of the areas where the waters from the river collect into a deep pool. This is a beautiful and tranquil spot where you can take a dip and enjoy your surroundings.


12. Bigfoot Discovery Museum

Although there are many interesting museums to visit in Santa Cruz, one of the most unusual is the Bigfoot Discovery Museum. You will find this attraction along Highway 9, and it is dedicated to all things relating to the Sasquatch. There is a nostalgic collection of memorabilia relating to Bigfoot’s appearances in films along with a fun collection of toys. A large map is dotted with pins to mark sightings, and there are plaster casts of large footprints found in forests.

Big Basin Park

11. Big Basin State Park

Those who enjoy the outdoors should head for Big Basin State Park, which is the oldest state park in California and home to the largest continuous strand of ancient coastal redwood trees. Visitors can explore more than 80 miles of hiking trails, along which you will see spectacular waterfalls, stunning canyons, and diverse wildlife. The most adventurous of the hikes will take three days to complete as it starts at the Skyline and goes to the Sea Trail.

Seacliff Beach

10. Seacliff State Beach

The most notable feature of Seacliff State Beach is the concrete boat. It is a quixotic freighter that was made from concrete that is now used as a fishing pier. Due to the unusual nature of the pier, it is an interesting place to visit. It is also an excellent place to enjoy views of the coast and the ocean.


9. Sanctuary Exploration Center

The Sanctuary Exploration Center is described by Lonely Planet as being an educational museum that offers an interactive multimedia experience. It is located near the beach boardwalk and is operated by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. This attraction aims to teach visitors about the marine treasures of the bay, high-tech underwater exploration, watershed conservation, and scientific research.

8. Santa Cruz Wharf

Santa Cruz Wharf is the longest pier on the west coast, and you will find it between Main Beach and Cowell Beach. Walk along the pier enjoying the views before sampling the good from Santa Cruz’s favorite candy shop, Marini’s. There are several activities that you can enjoy from the pier, such as watching the sea lions, embarking on a boat tour, renting a kayak, and shopping at the fish market.

7. Downtown Santa Cruz

While in this city, you should spend some time in the downtown area. It is a lovely area with tree-lined streets, and it is where you will find some of the best shops in the city. Downtown Santa Cruz is also where you should head if you plan to dine out as there are many excellent cafes, coffee shops, bistros, and restaurants. Furthermore, the downtown area is central to the city’s music scene, so there are often performances on the street and in various venues in the city.

Museum of Art

6. Museum of Art & History

Located in downtown Santa Cruz in the McPherson Center on Front Street, the Museum of Art and History is one of the best venues to visit for art enthusiasts. This attraction has a rotating display of work by contemporary Californian artists. There are also exhibits that look at local history. This attraction has been renovated to include a courtyard that has cafes and restaurants. If possible, try to visit the museum on the first Friday of the month as entry is free on this day.

Main Beach

5. Main Beach

Everyone living in Santa Cruz has their personal favorite beach, but the most popular option for visitors is Main Beach says US News . There are plenty of amenities along the beach, including restrooms, lifeguards, places to eat, amusement parks, and shops. Out of season when it is less busy, it is a nice place to take a stroll. This is a free activity and a good option if you have children in your party.

Natural Bridges

4. Natural Bridges State Beach

There are several beaches along the coast of Santa Cruz, and each has something different to offer. However, Planetware recommends spending time at Natural Bridges State Beach. This beach is considered an iconic landmark of the city because of the remarkable sea arch that was formed from mudstone cliff fractures. There is a small, protected beach that is known as an excellent spot for whale spotting and bird watching. It is also a nice place to simply take a stroll or relax in the California sunshine. Children will love exploring the tide pools as this will keep them entertained for hours. The stunning park that runs along the beach is filled with wildflowers that are the perfect environment for monarch butterflies.


3. Seymour Marine Discovery Center

One of the most popular attractions in Santa Cru is Seymour Marine Discovery Center, which is located close to Natural Bridges State Park and is operated by U.C. Santa Cruz. This attraction boasts an aquarium, a touch pool, and a shark pool. Visitors can go to the Exhibit Hall, where they are educated about the importance of conservation and about oceanic research topics. It is also possible to take a tour of the Joseph M. Long Laboratory. This is a fun and educational attraction that will suit people of all ages.

Santa Cruz Mission

2. Santa Cruz Mission

Part of the state historic park and located on Mission Hill, Santa Cruz Mission is a landmark of historical and religious significance. It was founded in 1791 by the Spanish Franciscan Christian missionaries. Sadly, many of the original buildings were destroyed in an earthquake in 1857. Now, there is just one of the buildings from the original mission remaining. The original buildings have been replaced by replicas that were constructed in 1931. Within the church, there are many of the original wooden crosses, tabernacle doors, and paintings. Elsewhere in the Santa Cruz Mission Historic State Park, there are exhibits relating to the Ohlone, Costanoans, Yokuts, and California Indians.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

1. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

According to Lonely Planet, the best thing to do in Santa Cruz for first-timers is to visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The boardwalk was established in 1907, and it is home to the oldest beachfront amusement park along the West Coast. Some of the vintage rides include the Giant Dipper roller coaster and the 1911 Looff Carousel. Visitors can enjoy all the fun of the seaside and take in the spectacular coastal views. If you are only passing through Santa Cruz and have limited time to visit the attractions, then this is the one that you should not miss.

Liz Flynn

Written by Liz Flynn

Liz Flynn has worked as a full-time writer since 2010 after leaving a career in education. She finds almost all topics she writes about interesting, but her favorite subjects are travel and food. Liz loves the process of researching information, learning new things, and putting into words what others who share her interests might like to read. Although she spends most of her time writing, she also enjoys spending time with her husband and four children, watching films, cooking, dining out, reading, motorsports, gaming, and walking along the beach next to her house with her dog.

Read more posts by Liz Flynn

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