Traditional wooden houses that you can see on your Santa Cruz day trip
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Fun Things To Do on a Santa Cruz Day Trip, California

By on 30/11/2019

Whether you are exploring California on a road trip or staying in the San Francisco Bay Area, you will not want to skip Santa Cruz. It’s the birthplace of mainland surfing in the US, so a day trip to Santa Cruz will have you soak up the chilled vibe that oozes from this seaside town. From family fun and wildlife encounters, to a stunning coastline and delicious food, there are plenty of fun things to do on your Santa Cruz day trip.

Disclosure: A big thank you to Visit Santa Cruz, who hosted me on this trip. As always, all views are my own. This post may contain affiliate links that earn me a small commission but come at no extra cost to you. This helps with the costs of running my blog so I can keep my content free for you. Thanks as always for your support!

Santa Cruz day trip – Fun things to do

With over 300 days of sunshing a year, American and international visitors come to Santa Cruz to enjoy this quintessential Californian seaside town.

Palm trees along a beach esplanade

Santa Cruz serves as the gateway to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and with the relaxed atmosphere associated with surfing culture, the vintage charm of classic arcades and the boho chic personality of downtown, there is something for everyone here. 

There are so many fun things to do in Santa Cruz that a day trip is not really enough. But here is a selection of the top things to do on your Santa Cruz day trip if you only have one day. 

Meet the sea lions at Santa Cruz Wharf

Built in 1914, Santa Cruz Wharf is the longest wooden pier in the US at over 800 metres (0.5 mile) long. The walkway is lined with seafood eateries, local gift shops and information panels about the local history and nature.

Five sea lions resting on a floating platform

Walk to the end of the pier for fantastic views of Monterey Bay, but stop along the way to look out for the resident lion seals. You will most likely smell them or hear them before you see them, so keep all your senses on alert!

Sea lion resting on a floating platform, something you have to witness on your Santa Cruz day trip

Four sea lions resting on a floating platform

Jump on a vintage ride at the Beach Boardwalk

A legendary site and a must place to go on your Santa Cruz day trip, the Beach Boardwalk is a classic seaside amusement park that’s well known for its history and its great rides. Two of those rides have been declared National Historic Landmarks. The Giant Dipper is a hair-raising wooden roller coaster that’s been running for over 90 years, and the Looff Carousel, with its 73 hand-carved horses, was built in 1911.

Wooden roller coaster with a red train going through

A lot of people visit the Beach Boardwalk just for the food, so you don’t necessarily have to be a thrill seeker to enjoy it. Some fun treats you can find here are Surf City Grill’s deep fried artichokes, Hot Dog on a Stick’s corn dogs and Marini’s Candies’ chocolate covered bacon.

Entrance to the amusement park with an act with the words Boardwalk and palm trees behind it

The rides are open everyday between April and August and during weekends only between September and March. However, Neptune’s Kingdom, Casino Arcade, Laser Tag and Boardwalk Bowl are open every day throughout the year.

Cruise along West Cliff Drive

West Cliff Drive is a scenic 3-mile long walking path that follows the coastal road of the same name. The views of Monterey Bay are truly spectacular. It starts at Santa Cruz Wharf following the Pacific Ocean all the way to Natural Bridges State Beach, going through several points of interest such as Lighthouse Point and the Surfing Museum.

Waves crushing on to the cliffs with houses on top of the cliffs

House on the edge of the coast with two large tree outside and the ocean below it

You could easily walk the length of West Cliff Drive. It’s a gentle levelled walk which takes around one hour, although if you are like me stopping to take photos of the beautiful coastline, 1.5-2 hours is probably more realistic. Walk all the way to Natural Bridges State Beach and then get an Uber back. You can get £3/~$4 off from your first ride on this link.

Man sitting on a bench under a tree overlooking the bay and the coastline

Saying this, I did end up driving, as with only one day in Santa Cruz I wanted to make the most of my time. There are a lot of parking spots along the Drive so I did stop at every turn to enjoy the views, which meant it ended up taking me just as long!

Another alternative would be to do a bike ride with an organised tour.

Discover the surfing heritage at the Surfing Museum

Located in Lighthouse Point, along West Cliff Drive, the Surfing Museum houses photographs, surfboards and other interesting displays that go back 100 years covering the surfing history of Santa Cruz.

As mentioned, Santa Cruz is the birthplace of mainland surfing in the USA, when in 1885 members of the Hawaiian royal family visited the area and rode the waves on surfboards made out of the local redwood trees.

Small red brick lighthouse with the US flag outside

The museum is housed within the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, a cute little building overlooking Steamer Lane, the famous surfing spot.

The museum is open everyday, except from Wednesday, from 10am to 5pm in the summer, and from 12pm to 4pm in the winter, when it’s closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Watch local surfers ride the waves 

No Santa Cruz day trip would be complete without watching local surfers catch some waves. 

Two surfers in the sea, one jumping over a wave

During your walk or drive along West Cliff Drive, as you stop to visit the Surfing Museum, you will see a lot of local surfers catching waves at Steamer Lane, just off Lighthouse Point. It was at Steamer Lane that local legend Jack O’Neill developed the modern surfing wetsuit back in the 50s and 60s. 

One surfer surfing a wave

Another great spot to watch surfers is Pleasure Point, at the end of East Cliff Drive. This is the filming location of the 2012 film Chasing Mavericks, which tells the true story of a local surfer.

Witness butterfly magic at Natural Bridges State Beach

Located at the end of West Cliff Drive, Natural Bridges State Beach is one of the most photographed beach icons in California. The natural arch on a huge rock located just off the shore gives the park its name. 

The park is famous for being a great vantage point from which to observe marine wildlife such as birds, whales, seals and otters.

Sea view with a rocky arch with birds on top and the coast line in the background

If you find yourself in here between mid-October and mid-January, this is one of the top places to visit in Santa Cruz. Thousands of Monarch butterflies migrate every year to Monarch Grove, a natural preserve within Natural Bridges State Beach. There is a butterfly migration exhibit where you can learn about the migration, and hiking trails where you can witness the butterfly magic yourself.

A large group of orange winged butterflies on a tree branch

Wine and sail on a racing yacht

As the quintessential California seaside town, a trip out to sea could not be missed on a day trip to Santa Cruz. It just gives you another perspective to appreciate both the town and Monterey Bay. And if you can add a bit of excitement by doing it from a racing yacht that’s even better.

Five people on a racing yacht tilting as it goes at speed

Local sailing company, Chardonnay Sailing Charters offers charters out to sea with lots of different themes – from Champagne Brunch, to Taste of Santa Cruz Charters. I went on their Tuesday “BYO” Special Charter, where you can bring your own food and drink onboard and enjoy it while you sail.

But hang on tight! These racing yachts are slick and get up to some speed. But then that’s part of the fun, right?

Shop for succulents at Dig Gardens

Everyone loves succulents, so why not buy some to take home as souvenirs? Dig Gardens is not your traditional garden store. It specialises in low maintenance and drought-tolerant plants for those of us who lead busy lives and love travelling. 

Plants that require regular watering or care always end up dying on me, so getting some plants that require very little attention sounded like a great idea. Especially when the garden store looks as good as Dig Gardens does.

And there’s more to this cute shop than just plants. You can indulge in some serious shopping here for pillows, kitchenware, jewellery… buy that extra suitcase to take it all home!

If you have more than one day in Santa Cruz

If you have more time and would like to explore Santa Cruz in more depth, here are a few ideas for other things to do in addition to the ones recommended.

Explore colourful Capitola

Capitola is very close to Santa Cruz, and it’s definitely worth a visit while you are in Santa Cruz. However, there is so much to do that you could easily take a day trip to Capitola in its own right.

The oldest seaside resort on the Pacific Coast, Capitola started its life as ‘Camp Capitola’ in 1876 and over time it grew into “Capitola by the Sea,” a holiday spot with a 160-room hotel.

A group of brightly coloured houses lined up along the beach

The iconic and colourful Venetian Court is a thing of beauty, and you can admire it and take photos from the beach side. You can enjoy the quiet but beautiful Capitola Wharf, go wine tasting and you can ride a funicular for dinner. 

Take a photo at Davenport Pier

It may not look it, but Davenport Pier is one of the most instagrammable spots in Santa Cruz. But I should really clarify that there is no pier left, only some of the concrete pillars remain after it was destroyed by a storm. Now it’s very popular with photographers, wanting to capture the eeriness of its decay and a bit of magic added by a swing.

Three concrete pillar remains from an old pier going into the sea from a beach

And at Shark Fin Cove

A bit further down the coast is Shark Fin Cove, named after the shark fin shaped rock just off the coast. It’s one of the most beautiful beaches in California and if you can visit at the end of the day, you may witness the most beautiful sunset you’ve ever seen.

Beach with a rock just off the shore in the shape of a shark fin

Roaring Camp Railroads

Nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains, you can find the town of Roaring Camp, a logging town replica from the 1880s. It has a covered bridge, a period opera house, and a classic general store. 

Its 3 ft narrow-gauge railroad from long gone logging times takes through through the redwood forests to the top of Bear Mountain. These steam locomotive takes visitors on a 75 minute ride through redwood country, while the conductor shares stories and information about the region and the railroads. It’s a fun day out for both families and adults.

Tickets for the train rides cost $32 for an adult or $23 for a child. It can get pretty busy, so avoid disappointment by booking the train ticket in advance.

Steam railway going over a wooden trestle bridge through the woods

Other ideas for things to do in Santa Cruz

Where to eat in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz has a vibrant foodie scene, and you could even argue that discovering the best places to eat is a must do on your Santa Cruz day trip. So let me help you with that. Here are some of the best places to eat I found during my time in Santa Cruz.

Charlie Hong Kong

A green, red and yellow shack on a street corner with a palm tree outside

Opened in 1998 on a bustling street corner, Charlie Hong Kong came to be with a vision to create a neighbourhood eatery that offers healthy, tasty and great value food. This understated venue serves South East Asian street food made with locally grown organic produce.

I had the green curry chicken rice bowl, which was very generous, and it was so good I finished it all!

Address: Charlie Hong Kong, 1141 Soquel Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95062

Snap Tacos

A plate of tacos with pork belly, fish, lime and a green sauce

If like me, you are a tacos lover, then don’t miss Snap Tacos. Snap Tacos brings that Mexican festive vibe to life, together with their imaginative menu of fusion tacos, using fresh, local and sustainable ingredients.

Try their Baja style fish tacos and their Magical Animal (ginger glazed pork belly with homemade kimchi). Finger licking good!

Address: Snap Tacos, 1108 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz, CA, 95060

Abbott Square Market

Four metal stools lined up agains a bar next to a wall decorated with a sign reading Abbott Square Market

Located in the heart of Santa Cruz, Abbott Square Market is a venue that brings together a number of local businesses. Here you can choose to eat delicious oysters, lobster rolls and clam chowders from All Aboard, or poke bowls that combine Hawaiian and Asian flavours from Poke It. There is also a pizzeria, an innovative veggie restaurant and a couple of choices for drinks and coffee.

Address: Abbott Square Market, 725 Front Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Penny Ice Creamery

Hand holding an ice cream cone covered in toasted marshmallow with a wall in the background reading Penny Ice Creamery

If you enjoy good quality ice cream, head to the Penny Ice Creamery. This is the only ice cream in Santa Cruz made completely from scratch using organic locally sourced ingredients. A true from-farm-to-table ice cream.

Their toasted marshmallow topping has become legendary, so make sure you don’t miss out on it! 

There are two Penny Ice Creameries, one in Downtown and one in Pleasure Point.

Addresses: Penny Ice Creamery
Downtown Santa Cruz – 913 Cedar Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Pleasure Point – 820 41st Avenue, Santa Cruz, CA 95062

Jack O’Neill

Grey building next to the beach and palm trees

I didn’t get to eat at Jack O’Neill, but everyone I spoke to locally recommended stopping here for sunset. And if you have already eaten at one of my previous recommendations, why not just get a signature cocktail and enjoy the sunset view over Cowell Beach and Santa Cruz Wharf.

How to get around Santa Cruz

Hiring a car is definitely the best option to get around Santa Cruz, whether you are visiting on a day trip or staying longer. California is prime road trip country after all. 

White jeep parked outside a grey wooden house, to make the most of your Santa Cruz day trip

I had a Jeep Wrangler that I picked up at Hertz in San Jose airport, but it’s also available at San Francisco airport. It was part of Hertz American Collection and it was great fun to drive around such an iconic American car – a legendary car for that legendary California road trip!

You can book your own iconic American car here.

Woman sitting on the bonnet of a jeep looking out to sea

Planning your trip to Santa Cruz

Ready for your Santa Cruz adventure? Use this travel toolkit

Do you have any questions about going on a Santa Cruz day trip?
Let me know in the comments!

Check out my other California articles


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HI, I'M TERESA!

Hi! I’m Teresa, a London-based traveller on a mission to explore the world through deeper travel and more meaningful local experiences. I’m a lover of adventure, the outdoors and everything food related, and I’m always looking for ways to make a positive impact through responsible and sustainable travel. I’d love to inspire you to do the same, so come along for the ride!

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