Santa Cruz Beach Attractions

You’ll have to drive through the mountains to reach the sunny beachside oasis of Santa Cruz, but it’s well worth the trip. If you’re coming here for sand, sun and fun, you’re in luck - Santa Cruz attractions are plentiful on and near the beach.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

santa cruz things to do

Whether you’re driving in from Highway 17 or Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll know you’re close to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk as the highway narrows into a palm-dotted street with a motel on every block. The boardwalk is probably the most-visited site in Santa Cruz - and rightly so. Founded in 1907, it’s California’s oldest amusement park. Paying a visit here is also like visiting an amusement park museum, as many of the rides have been around for 50 years. This lends a cozy, vintage feel to the place.

Ride the new spinning Undertow roller coaster or the Wooden Giant Dipper coaster, established in 1924. Kids will love the historic Looff Carousel from 1911, and you can’t miss seeing Santa Cruz from above by taking a slow ride on the Sky Glider, an open-air gondola ride.

The boardwalk also features mini-golf, a very large arcade, laser tag, free Friday night concerts and Wednesday night movies on the beach all summer and the best in fried festival foods.

Santa Cruz Wharf

The Santa Cruz Wharf is a half-mile stretch of land and boardwalk that juts into Monterey Bay. It starts at the intersection of Cliff Drive and Pacific Avenue, adjacent to the boardwalk. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary has a visitor center near the wharf where you can learn about protection efforts for whales, sea lions and other marine life in the Monterey Bay, and kids can touch and explore tiny marine animals in a shallow hands-on tidepool.

There’s also plenty to do for everyone on the busy wharf. During your walk, keep an eye out for sea lions, sea otters and other marine creatures. Visit several of the shops on the wharf, like the locally famous Marini’s Candies and Gilbert’s Gift Shop for locally made jewelry and much more. You also cannot visit the wharf without enjoying some freshly caught seafood and taking in the views at wharf restaurants like Gilda’s and Miramar. Check out the lively Stagnaro Brothers Fish Market, where many of the restaurants purchase their fresh fare.

Beaches and Beach Activities

Santa Cruz offers several fabulous beaches where you can relax, sightsee or explore. The 65-acre Natural Bridges State Beach is one of the most beautiful. It’s located between Delaware Avenue and the Bay in the eastern part of the city. Come here to lounge on the beach and see the famous natural rock arch. At low tide, you can walk through the arch and you’ll find tide pools filled with colorful sea anemones, tiny crabs and sea stars.

Between mid-October and mid-February, Natural Bridges serves as a haven for monarch butterflies - 100,000 of them migrate here each year to feed on the milkweed. Take a walk or a guided tour to look for eggs, chrysalides, [apparently the plural for chrysalis? who knew] caterpillars and butterflies.

Take a walk on Seabright Beach, just east of the boardwalk and San Lorenzo River, and visit the beautiful Walton Lighthouse.

Another popular beach is Pleasure Point. You can relax on the beach, take a walk on the beachside cliff path or watch the surfers take on the excellent waves in the turquoise bay.

If you’re up for an adventure of your own, rent a Kayak from Kayak Connection on Lake Avenue, or take stand up paddling (SUP) lessons from Covewater. You can also take a private charter on a beautiful sailing vessel in the Santa Cruz Harbor. There’s no better backdrop than Santa Cruz for spending time in the beautiful Monterey Bay waters.

By Nicole Martinez