California Road Trip: Things to do in Santa Cruz

things to do in Santa Cruz on a road trip

Today we’ll be sharing our tips for the best things to do in Santa Cruz on your family California Road Trip!

Santa Cruz is one of my favourite California towns – a colourful, vintage-tinged celebration of everything beach, surf and skate related. We headed down there after spending three days in San Francisco.

Our Victorian rental cottage (found on VRBO) turned out to be just a few steps from the beach, so we dumped our bags and immediately grabbed swimsuits, boogie boards and blankets and headed to Seabright Beach, at the bottom of the street. If you’re renting a holiday home in Santa Cruz, the best thing to do is look around Seabright – there are a series of residential streets here with Victorian homes and many of them are rentals.

Seabright is the state beach that’s just a 10-minute walk from Santa Cruz main beach (in front of the boardwalk) but it’s worlds away – it’s much quieter with more space, although there are lifeguards and bathrooms. If you arrive in the late afternoon you can claim one of the fire pits and set your own barbecue for dinner.

santa cruz beach house

The next morning, we set up on the beach for a couple of hours and we spotted a school of dolphins playing just off the shore, followed by a whale, then some seals. The dolphins stuck around all morning, playing and diving, popping up out of the water to look at the swimmers. The beach has to be my number one thing to do in Santa Cruz. That water’s cold, though!

santa cruz seabright beach

After a picnic lunch, we took the 10-minute walk over the bridge (there’s also a cliff-walk) to Main Beach and the world-famous Boardwalk.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk is a lot of fun and definitely one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz. There are some really cool vintage rides, like the 100-year-old Giant Dipper, and the cable car over the boardwalk, but there are plenty of thrill rides too, to keep Flea happy. Unlimited rides are $32 but on Wed/Thu if you buy a can of Pepsi you can exchange it for a token that gives you $20 off. Bargain!

Rollercoasters aside, I just love walking the Boardwalk – there are a ridiculous number of crazy stalls, carnival games and food stands (deep fried cheesecake anyone?) and I have a soft spot for the vintage arcades – Flea and I spent a really fun hour or so playing Pac Man and Donkey Kong for 25 cents a turn.

During the summer, the Boardwalk often has entertainment in the evenings – on Fridays there are free live bands, and on Wednesdays there’s a free movie on the beach. Settle yourself with a blanket and a bucket of popcorn and enjoy! I’ve got to say, sitting under a blanket, toes in the sand, watching my favourite movie (Ferris Bueller) with my favourite person? It was of my favourite nights ever, at the end of one of my favourite days ever.

Santa Cruz has a lovely vintage charm and some of the local attractions fit perfectly into that slightly old school kitsch vibe. Don’t miss checking out The Mystery Spot if you’ve got a spare afternoon – it’s billed as a ‘gravitational anomaly’ but basically it’s a building packed with visual illusions that will really entertain kids and makes for some fun photos!

things to do in santa cruz

Of course you don’t go to Santa Cruz unless you’re going to surf – we invested in lessons with the Santa Cruz Surf School who offer lessons at Pleasure Point, a 10 minute drive from Seabright. The beach here offers regular waves that are ideal for beginners. A two-hour lesson with a dedicated instructor costs around $100 including wetsuit hire and a surfboard.

The school is great for Flea because, unlike other schools we’ve tried, they give kids proper boards, which are heavier and more stable than foam boards – making it easier for Flea to stand up. After an hour or so, Flea was standing up and riding waves all the way to the beach – she was SO excited, and her instructor Shane was just fantastic.

After three days, I drove out of Santa Cruz with a sleepy Flea in the back seat of the car, headed to our next adventure – a cabin in the woods in Big Sur, where Flea is planning to try out her new Swiss Army knife, and I’m expecting to be eaten alive by bugs – wish us luck!


We hope you enjoyed our tips for things to do in Santa Cruz on your California road trip. Don’t miss our other posts:

California Road Trip with Kids itinerary

What to do in Santa Barbara 

What to do in San Diego 

What to do in San Francisco 

What to do in Big Sur 

What to do at the Grand Canyon


5 thoughts on “California Road Trip: Things to do in Santa Cruz”

  1. Sounds like you are having such a good time! I have never been to San Fran but after reading your post I will definitely have to make a trip.
    Watching a movie on the beach sounds amazing, such a fun date idea too.
    I love old arcade games, Pacman used to be my favourite I still play it occasionally.
    This sounds like the perfect vacation spot.

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