One of the most memorable trips we’ve taken with the kids is our road trip to Monterey and Santa Cruz, California. If you’ve never been, some of the top things to do in Santa Cruz CA include visiting The Mystery Spot, riding a pedicab on the Santa Cruz Wharf, enjoying the view at the Natural Bridges State Beach, and spending a full day at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. While there, make sure to grab ice cream topped with toasted marshmallow fluff and don’t leave without visiting a famous Santa Cruz bakery known for its delicious pastries. Check our full guide below.
SANTA CRUZ WEEKEND GETAWAY:
Located 1.5 hr south of San Francisco and 5.5 hr north of Los Angeles. Santa Cruz CA is one of the cities in the central California coast. It is easily accessible by car via Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz Mountains, or California’s scenic Highway 1.
The nearest airport to Santa Cruz CA is San Jose International Airport – 30 miles northeast of Santa Cruz. San Francisco International Airport is approximately 60 miles north of Santa Cruz.
A Los Angeles to Santa Cruz Road Trip can be taken via the scenic Pacific Coast Highway.
Santa Cruz CA weather falls in the mid-70s during the summer and in the mid-50s during the winter. Pretty cold for desert dwellers like us. Most of the rainfall occurs between November and April with occasional fog due to the changing Pacific currents which we experienced during our summer visit.
TOP THINGS TO DO IN SANTA CRUZ:
- Play at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk – Probably the most visited attraction in Santa Cruz CA, California’s oldest seaside amusement park is huge. Check out the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster and the Looff Carousel – two national historic landmarks. If you pack your beach gear, you can also enjoy Main Beach in front of it. Entrance to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk is free, you just have to get tickets for the rides. For parking, if you’re not planning to stay all day, try to do metered parking on 3rd st. versus the more expensive lot parking.
- Visit The Mystery Spot – Experience demonstrations that appear to defy gravity inside a wooden building (more like a shed) on the site. Here, you won’t be able to stand straight and may feel a little dizzy inside the small building. To this day, I’m really not sure if there’s a gravitational anomaly or if it’s all just an optical illusion but either way, I think it’s worth the visit as it really challenges your curiosity. The Mystery Spot is one of the most unique things to do in Santa Cruz CA or anywhere in the world.
Make sure to get tickets online before visiting, you won’t be able to get tickets on site.
- Stroll through or ride a pedicab at the Santa Cruz Wharf – Built in 1914, The Santa Cruz Wharf is known for fishing, boat tours, viewing sea lions, dining, nightlife and gift shops. The wharf is really long so I would suggest riding a pedicab to take you to the very end then walking on the way back to see the shops or if you don’t feel like walking at all then do a roundtrip ride. Our girls are a fan of pedicabs when they got to ride on a pedicab in Phoenix. I think we paid $10 for the one-way ride.
- Wonder at the Natural Bridges State Beach – come here to play in the sand, hit the waters or go on a tidepool exploration as little ones can check out tiny crabs, sea stars and sea anemones nestling in underwater crevices when the tide goes out. In wintertime, families can explore the park’s eucalyptus grove, thick with clusters of hibernating monarch butterflies. Natural Bridges State Beach is open from 8 AM to sunset. We didn’t swim as it was too cold for us but the view was amazing even if we’ve already seen 17 Mile Drive.
- Ride the Rolling Camp Railroads -Departing from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, travel through an 1875 tunnel, across a 1909 steel truss bridge past the scenic San Lorenzo River Gorge and through the iconic Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park before arriving at the Roaring Camp train depot in Felton. A roundtrip ride will take you 3 hours with an hour of that at the train depot. We didn’t get a chance to ride during our visit. Hopefully, on another trip.
Do try to purchase your tickets in advance.
- Ride the Free Santa Cruz Trolley – connecting the beach and downtown, the Free trolley runs on weekends from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend from noon to 8 PM. If you’re visiting Santa Cruz with kids then they’ll love a trolley ride around. Ride at the wharf and visit shops and restaurants in Downtown then go back to enjoy Main Beach or the Boardwalk again.
- Drive through the University of California Santa Cruz campus – it is one of 10 campuses in the University of California system. This 2000 acre campus primarily consists of a large, open meadow, locally known as the Great Meadow but to the north of the meadow lie most of the campus’ buildings, many of them among a beautiful, lush, must-see redwood groves. I’m not sure I can study here though, it’s too relaxing, I might doze off.
SANTA CRUZ CA RESTAURANTS:
- Dine al fresco at Pono Hawaiin Grill – Located in downtown, you can either drive or ride the free trolley if it’s available during your visit and stop by here for fresh, refreshing Hawaiin fare, al fresco dining, or inside dining with live music. The hubby and I each enjoyed our own Poke plate while the kids shared some chicken katsu.
- Try a Marshmallow Topped Ice Cream at Penny Ice Creamery – After lunch, drop by Penny Ice Creamery for ice cream, shakes, or floats. Their ice cream flavor varies by day and ingredients are sourced locally. I ordered a whiskey custard ice cream topped with toasted marshmallow fluff. One word – delicious!
- Order pastries from The Buttery Bakery – if you love bakeries and pastries, don’t leave town without visiting The Buttery Bakery. The Pecan Sandie is to die for. I wish I ordered a lot but I hesitated. Oh, regrets. They also serve food but we came here only for the pastries.
SANTA CRUZ ITINERARY:
Visit The Mystery Spot (booking tickets in advance is required), grab lunch at Pono then ice cream at Penny. Drive through UC Santa Cruz then visit Natural Bridges State Beach then check in to your hotel.
Go to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk before it opens for easy parking to ride your scheduled Rolling Camp Railroads trip. When you get back, hit the beach then go on the rides and games at the boardwalk. Then visit the wharf, grab a pedicab if you can. Before departing, stop by The Buttery Bakery, they close at 7 PM.
Note: check operating hours of attractions and get tickets in advance then adjust the itinerary accordingly. Summer & winter hours vary.
If you started your trip to Santa Cruz from the north like San Francisco, I would suggest continuing your trip down to Monterey & Carmel, CA. Check out the following posts to guide you. Since we started our trip from the south, after Santa Cruz, we explored San Jose and Gilroy before heading home.
- Monterey Getaway Guide
- Hotel in Historic Cannery Row
- Monterey Bay Aquarium Discount Tickets + Tips
- Fun Things to do in Monterey
- Part Beach & Part Lagoon in Carmel
- 17 Mile Drive: Tips & Must-See Attractions
- Hotel with an Indoor Pool in Chilly Monterey