We are fortunate enough to live fairly close to Santa Cruz in California and we love to go a few times a year for weekend trips.
Santa Cruz is such a unique place with delicious food, farms, family activities not to mention the beaches and Boardwalk.
Here are a few of our favorite things to do in Santa Cruz plus some places to eat and places to stay.
The Mystery Spot I am sure you have heard of. It is hard to explain this destination so I will tell you that you won’t find anything like this anywhere else. It is a spot where gravity just doesn’t seem to follow the same rules. You will go on a little hike through the mountains and stop and various spots and find balls that roll up instead of down and so on. It is something to check out if you can but note I did feel a little bit queasy in some parts of the tour.
The Boardwalk is really fun and we stroll through every trip but we have only purchased tickets for all the rides and such once in the past few years. It is fun to see- the Santa Cruz boardwalk feeds directly from the beach and has so many whimsical and fun little details. We tend to purchase tickets from Costco to save a little bit of money but you can walk right up to the Boardwalk without ride passes and still soak in the fun.
This is located just outside of Santa Cruz and is such a neat spot to visit. There are a few choices including Thomas themed train rides, Halloween and Christmas themes a beach train option and then just the regular old train into the mountains. We did the regular train ride without a special theme and you go on an old logging train into the mountains and back again. It was very pretty and the location where you catch the train, Roaring Camp, is adorable. There are a few quaint little shops around but mostly we just wandered and enjoyed the beautiful grounds. There is a lot of space to wander around so I would bring a picnic and plan to spend a few hours.
This is technically a state park but it feels like visiting a really cool old farm that happens to have trails all around. You will start at an old home and buildings owned by the Wilder family. There are Victorian homes to see, stables- basically a tiny glimpse into the lives of early farmers and ranchers in the Central Coast. We just wandered a bit when we visited and it was very quiet and peaceful. There are trails that lead to the beach that are just stunning, big open fields… My girls loved climbing the trees, petting horses and seeing the old buildings. Check the event schedule as they do really neat things like carriage rides in winter, harvest festivals and more…
Obviously you won’t want to miss the beach in Santa Cruz. We can spend the entire day there. Remember Santa Cruz can get very hot so bring the umbrellas and coolers and all that. Be sure to stop at the Santa Cruz wharf as there is often really neat sand sculptures on the beach and you’ll find tons of elephant seals that are fun to watch.
This is a spot you can drive along or walk along and it has really lovely views of the water. It is free for a short distance and if you want to keep driving you will need to pay a toll. We walked for awhile and enjoyed the beautiful ocean view and then stopped down to climb on rocks, collect shells and so on. Our kids loved this stop and apparently if you are there in late fall and winter, you might be lucky enough to see the monarch butterflies.
Downtown Santa Cruz
There are so many fun and cute little places to stop in the downtown area. Our favorites are the little Santa Cruz bookshop the Chefworks store and there are other cute little cupcake places etc.. You can grab your Penny Ice Creamery cone and just wander around.
We typically stay at the Beach Street Inn. It is literally across the street from the beach, very reasonably priced, clean and comfortable.
Recently the Dream Inn was highly recommended to us and that is just a block or two away from Beach Street. We found the actual room to be clean and the hotel lobby has a very cool retro feel to it with vintage bikes that can be rented. They are literally right on the beach and you can borrow umbrellas, chairs and such to take down with you. The pool area is awesome- the photo above is from our hotel room window overlooking the beach and pool. This is very nice as you have the comfort of the pool area and the gorgeous views of the beach. While I enjoyed the Dream Inn, I wouldn’t stay there again. It wasn’t as clean on the outside- hallways, exterior of the building, patios etc.. as I would have liked. Even my small children commented a few times on how dirty it was. (Just our experience. The hotel does consistently get excellent reviews.)
Oh my favorite the food! I will start with my two very favorite stops.
I ADORE this casual little beachfront cafe despite a lack of seating. We always, always stop at the Picnic Basket for delicious farm fresh, organic and rustic foods like hearty oats, seasonal salads, gourmet mac and cheese, delicious homemade pastries. I love it for breakfast for sure and for lunches. Note the seating is minimal and I wish they would power through the entire place with a super deep cleaning pressure washer but nonetheless for just the food, I love this place.
We probably can’t be friends anymore if you don’t make a stop at the Penny Ice Creamery. Actually we can because that means more for me! I love this ice cream shop- it is tiny and there are only a few flavors to choose from. It is all from scratch and the best thing I have ever had (ok maybe not the best thing but the angels were singing as I devoured my cone)– is the melted marshmallow fluff on top of the ice cream.
They make marshmallow fluff themselves and then plop it on your cone and take a blow torch thing and warm it so it is an ice cream S’More. Highly recommend this.
This is an experience that is very fun for the kids or a romantic spot for just Mom and Dad. You get to the restaurant by walking down a path or take this awesome cable car thing down. Inside the restaurant is really big and you can eat overlooking a river (I think it is a river.) You can see interior photos of the place here and there are trees and branches right inside the restaurant. It is sort of like putting a table in the middle of the forest and having dinner. The food was good and the price wasn’t too high.
That is my top recommendations for Santa Cruz. I’d love to hear any spots that you absolutely love! Please leave your favorites in the comments below.
Here are a few other articles you might enjoy: