The most important thing you should know about Santa Cruz is that it probably isn't what you think (no matter what that is). Its reputation as a beach town and surfing magnet is well known, but it's also home to one of the country's best Shakespeare festivals, a renowned contemporary music festival and plenty of other interesting things to do.
You can plan your Santa Cruz, California day trip or weekend getaway in a jiffy using the resources below.
Why Should You Go? Will You Like Santa Cruz?
- Get a Preview: Take a look at our Santa Cruz Pictures
- Santa Cruz offers a wide range of activities for people of varied interests. Visitors flock there to enjoy the Boardwalk's amusements or play on the beach. Others may enjoy a performance at Shakespeare Santa Cruz (which stages "regular" plays in addition to the bard's works), browsing through local art galleries or checking into the widely varied music scene.
Best Time to Go to Santa CruzLike most of the California coast, Santa Cruz weather tends to be gloomy in June and July, when marine layer clouds can hover over the beach all day long. That doesn't stop people from packing the place in hopes of seeing a ray of sun, but in fact, the weather is better in spring and fall - and the place is less crowded. If you want to go in summer, try to visit on a weekday if you can.
Don't MissBy far the most iconic Santa Cruz sight is the 100-year-old Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It's the best remaining California beachside amusement park and well worth a visit. Don't miss the Giant Dipper, their 1924-vintage wooden roller coaster.
5 More Great Things to Do in Santa Cruz, California
- Sailboating: If you don't own a sailboat, you can let someone else be the skipper while you enjoy the ride on the Chardonnay II.
- Go to the Beach: Whether you want to explore the naturist lifestyle or would rather keep your clothes on, Santa Cruz has some of California's best beaches.
- West Cliff Drive: It's a pretty drive, but even better as a walk. Follow the street west from downtown, park wherever you find a place and stroll along the cliffside, stopping at the Surfing Museum, watching kayakers and enjoying the views.
- Local Artisans: There's no better time to explore the works of area artisans than during October's Open Studios, but any time of year, you can see their creations at local art galleries.
- Elephant Seals and Monarch Butterflies: Winter is animal season in Santa Cruz. At Ano Nuevo State Park, you can get a rare chance to see male elephant seals fighting for dominance while the females care for newborn pups. In town, monarch butterflies fill the trees near Natural Bridges State Beach.
Annual Events You Should Know AboutThe annual Shakespeare Santa Cruz season runs from mid July through Labor Day weekend. See our guide to annual events for more ideas.
Tips for Visiting Santa Cruz, California
- In summer, if you're going to Santa Cruz on Hwy 17, get an early start to avoid traffic jams
- The weather is just as nice in mid May and mid September as it is while the kids are out of school for summer break, but the crowds are thinner. Hotel rates may be lower, too.
- We know it's popular, but the Mystery Spot is a bit of old-fashioned visual trickery and not something everyone would enjoy.
Best BitesThe Sunday brunch at Capitola's Shadowbrook is a longtime area favorite, but we find the place a bit claustrophobic for our taste. Gayle's Bakery (also in Capitola) is a good spot for a pastry and coffee.
Where to StayCheck our Santa Cruz lodging guide for tips on finding a place to stay, or if you're pitching a tent instead, check out the local campgrounds.
Getting To Santa Cruz, CaliforniaDriving? Santa Cruz, California is between Monterey and San Francisco on the California coast, 32 miles from San Jose, 73 from San Francisco, 157 from Fresno and 147 from Sacramento. You can get there on Hwy 17 from San Jose or on Hwy 1.
Flying? The nearest airport is in San Jose (SJC). Check airfares.
By Train: You have to drive to Felton to do it, but the Roaring Camp Railroad makes a couple of trips a day from there to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and the trip itself is fun, too.