If you’re familiar with coastal California at all, you probably don’t need to hear any more than the fact that Santa Cruz is located on Monterey Bay to know that it’s going to be an excellent spot for a vacation. The area’s natural beauty lends itself to a great variety of outdoor activities, and the proximity to world-famous wine- and food-producing regions means you’ll eat and drink well when you’re doing enjoying nature.
Santa Cruz is easy to reach even from far away, because it’s close enough to several Bay Area airports that you have your pick of the best airfare deals. The closest airport to Santa Cruz is San Jose Airport (SJC), but you should also check flights to San Francisco (SFO) as well as Oakland Airport (OAK) for comparison purposes. It’s easiest to get around to area attractions if you rent a car, but for Santa Cruz itself you’ll be able to walk around to pretty much everything you want to do and see – even the beach is only 20 minutes walking distance from downtown.
Here are some of the top things to do in and around Santa Cruz.
Enjoy the Outdoors
There’s so much natural beauty in this part of California that it’s hard to focus on just one aspect, but if you’re forced to do so then you could do much worse than to zero in on the redwoods. Two state parks near Santa Cruz let you get up close and personal with these grand trees – Big Basin Redwoods State Park is California’s oldest state park, and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park features 15 miles of trails ideal for hiking or biking.
Speaking of hiking and biking, those are only two of the recreational activities you can enjoy outdoors in and around Santa Cruz. There’s road cycling in addition to the mountain biking, golf courses in the area, and kayaking opportunities. For a Californian twist on outdoorsy, check out the Delaveaga Frisbee Golf Course or the clothing-optional Kiva Retreat House (talk about getting in touch with nature).
Head for the Beach
Yes, we could have included beach-related activities and attractions under the more general “outdoors” category above, but that wouldn’t give appropriate emphasis to how integral the beach is to Santa Cruz. As mentioned above, the beach is a 20 minute walk from downtown Santa Cruz, and you can enjoy all the usual activities there – including surfing and stand-up paddleboarding, which are really popular in this area. Don’t worry if you’re a newbie, you can take lessons in both.
To enjoy the water without actually getting in it, check out the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (documents surfing in Santa Cruz since 1930, and housed in an historic lighthouse), the Seymour Marine Discovery Center (aquarium displays, dolphin observation area, and guided tours), and the Monterey Bay Aquarium (in Monterey about 35-40 miles south, a world-famous aquarium).
Of course, no visit to the beach in Santa Cruz would be complete without some time spent at the old-fashioned boardwalk amusement park – the Beach Boardwalk. Entertaining all ages since 1907, it’s the oldest remaining amusement park in California.
Sample Local Goodies
There are more than 70 wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, which means you’ve got plenty of options for an entire vacation’s worth of wine tasting without going too far. Of course, if you want to explore further then you can plan longer excursions to Napa and Sonoma Valleys – but in any case, if you plan on sampling liberally then it’s probably a good idea to sign up for a guided tour so that you can avoid both navigating and driving.
You don’t have to be a hard-core foodie to appreciate the color and festive ambience of a local farmer’s market – and since there are farmer’s markets going on year-round throughout Santa Cruz there’s no reason not to swing through. The biggest market day in the city is Wednesday, when the market takes over part of downtown, but you can find a farmer’s market somewhere in the area every day of the week.
And if you prefer to see food when it’s fully prepared, there are so many great restaurants in the Santa Cruz area that you’d be hard-pressed to find and enjoy all of them during a brief trip.
Soak Up the Culture
Santa Cruz itself is a small city, but the downtown area is excellent for leisurely strolling punctuated by browsing through the small, local shops and snacking in the cafes and restaurants. Between the laid-back surf culture, the Santa Cruz branch of the University of California, and the kind of relaxed atmosphere that pervades this part of California, Santa Cruz makes for an ideal spot to kick back.
Downtown Santa Cruz has several art galleries to check out, and more than its fair share of independent bookstores (that’s a good thing). In the summer, UC Santa Cruz hosts Shakespeare Santa Cruz, and the Santa Cruz Film Festival takes place each May.
When you need a dose of silly to counter-act all that culture, swing by the Mystery Spot, a so-called “gravitational anomaly” that packs enough kitsch into 150 feet to satisfy anyone’s tastes.