Top Things To Do In Santa Cruz

Our Must See List For Santa Cruz, California

We took our first trip out to northern California this past summer with our three kids in tow.  We spent a couple nights in Santa Cruz and loved every moment of it.  Planning a family trip is never easy.  I find that the more information you have going into the trip, the smoother the trip will be.  In this post we’ll share some of our favorite spots in Santa Cruz and some helpful hints to keep in mind while planning your next trip out to sunny California.

We originally only planned on staying in Santa Cruz for a night and ended up going back later in the week for an extra day.  We didn’t know how much we’d enjoy the scenery, surfing and boardwalk.

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Pay attention to where your hotel is located in proximity to other activities.  There are a few hotels that say they are located in Santa Cruz/Scotts Valley, but are actually located in Scotts Valley which is lovely, but a 15 minute drive to the boardwalk.

We didn’t realize how close downtown Santa Cruz was to the boardwalk and beach area.  It takes under 20 minutes to walk there and less than 10 minutes on a bike.

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The Santa Cruz Boardwalk

The Santa Cruz Boardwalk had so much for all different ages. It was clean, had clean restrooms and lots of different food options that were much better than the typical “carnival” food that we were imaging at the boardwalk.

While you’re planning your trip, look at what activities you’d like to cover and see if there are certain days those activities will work better than others.  We found ourselves on the boardwalk a few days after their summer discount night. – Sigh – The boardwalk had promotional nights on certain days of the week when discounted unlimited ride wristbands were available.  With three kiddos each wanting to ride multiple rides, hitting the boardwalk on the discount day would save us a lot of moola.  Since we were returning to Santa Cruz later in the week to surf, we scheduled the surfing lessons on the same day as the discounted ride ticket day.

The boardwalk has rides for all different ages.  Check out the ride height requirements and different family ride options here. 

Surfing At Cowell Beach

Our boys have surfed the east cost waves for years, but they were determined to get catch a few west coast waves while we were in California.  Cowell beach located right next to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk is a well known surfing spot.  Although they’re very familiar with surfing momma was nervous about the rocky west coast shoreline so we signed them up for lessons with Club Ed Surfing Lessons.  The have a trailer set up on the beach with boards, wetsuits ready to get you out on the water.  You can call and make a reservation.  They are very familiar with the conditions and will set you up with a lesson time that will best fit your level.

The water temperature was a chilly 58 degrees in August, but they did fine in their wetsuits.

There were tons of people shredding out there.  My daughter and i sat on the rocks watching the surfers while the tide rolled in at our feet.

The Dream Inn Hotel

We stayed at the iconic Dream Inn Hotel located on Cowell Beach right next to the boardwalk. There are plenty of great different places to stay in and around Santa Cruz, but we fell in love with the hip vintage surfing decor and wanted to take full advantage of what this boutique hotel had to offer.

Their lobby Verve coffee shop was open early each morning and served up some super yummy joe.

The Rooms at the Dream Inn are crisp, clean and welcoming.

I love the color combinations that remind you that you are definitely by the sea.

While the kiddos relaxed and watched tv, I checkout the amazing view.

The pool and hot tub were a hit with the kids.  Mommy enjoyed the yummy frozen beverages from the poolside bar and cafe.

And if you’re not up too late the night before, you can enjoy these beautiful morning skies from your room.

West Cliff Drive

One of my favorite parts of the trip was my early morning walk along West Cliff Drive.  After a long night at the boardwalk, everyone was getting a little extra sleep and I snuck out with my camera to grab some coffee and take in the breathtaking views.

I walked up West Cliff Drive toward Natural Bridges Park. It was just me, my coffee, a few locals walking their dogs and the surfers trying sneak in their first sets before the crowds.  It was such a peaceful walk with different beaches to walk down and explore and benches along the way to stop and take in the views.

I made my way to Natural Bridges State Park .  It’s about a 2.7 mile walk from the Dream Inn Hotel and Santa Cruz Boardwalk area.  I was thrilled to find one of the cool Jump Bikes available for rent at my turn around point.  If you’ve never rented a Jump Bike before, make sure you check them out and download the app prior to heading out to Santa Cruz just in case you want to hop on one and try it.  You just open the app, and look for bikes available in your area.  When you find one, you scan the QR code on the bike and it will unlock and you’re ready to go!

It made the trek back to the hotel a breeze!

If you have extra time, make sure to check out the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum located along West Cliff Drive.  We tried to go once during a busy weekend, but couldn’t find parking and moved on to plan B.  It looked really neat, especially if you have surfers in the group.

Downtown Santa Cruz

Downtown Santa Cruz is just a hop, skip and a jump away from Cowell Beach, West Cliff Drive and the Boardwalk. There are so many amazing restaurants, shopping and entertainment options available.

Pizza My Heart is a must stop for lunch or dinner when you’re in downtown Santa Cruz.  The line can get pretty long in the evening time, but you can call in your order ahead of time and pick it up at the store and dine in or take it with you.  They have a few different locations as well, if you are in route.

One thing I love about traveling is trying out different local coffee shops. Verve Coffee has a few locations in Santa Cruz and it’s quite delicious. Make sure to check it out if you’re in the area.

Roaring Camp Beach Train

The Roaring Camp Beach Train runs from Roaring Camp to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and back or vice versa. The Redwood Forrest Steam Train runs from Roaring Camp to Bear Mountain to see the beautiful Redwoods.  Both of these train rides require ticketed reservations.  Ticket prices are around $32-34 for 13+, $23-$26 for 2-12 year olds and under 2 is free.  I believe there is a $10 charge for parking at Roaring Camp as well.  There were sold out days during our stay so if you’re interested in booking the train rides, I would look into it.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time during our stay to ride the steam engines, but it’s definitely on our list for next time.

The steam engines have some open air cars so if you plan on riding, remember to pack a light jacket or sweatshirt.

Pleasure Point

We hope to come back and explore more of Santa Cruz and the surrounding areas.  On our next visit we definitely want to spend more time on East Cliff Drive and Pleasure Point as well. Pleasure Point is more of a residential beach town with lots of different restaurant options, shopping and another iconic surfing spot.

If you’re near Pleasure Point over the weekend, the Live Oak/Eastside Farmers Market happens every Sunday from 9- 1 in Pleasure Point on 15th and East Cliff Drive.  This would be a fun bike ride from the boardwalk, downtown Santa Cruz or a quick drive away.  For other farmers market dates and locations find them here.

We also want to add Marianne’s Ice Cream to our Santa Cruz favorites list.  We didn’t get a chance to visit on of  their brick and mortar locations, but the Dream Inn sold the Marianne’s ice cream sandwiches at the pool cafe and HOLY MOLY they were good. So definitely save room for dessert and make sure you stop at Marianne’s.

You’ll quickly find that you’ll never have enough time in one spot.  There’s so much to explore along the California coast.  Just take you time, schedule a few things, but give you and your family some built in wiggle room so you’re able to stay and enjoy one spot longer or try to sneak in a new quick adventure before continuing on.

Santa Cruz has so much to offer! We hope that you enjoy it as much as we did.

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