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Growing up in a small Northern California cowtown, my senses were instantly heightened during our family trips to coastal getaways. One place in particular, Santa Cruz, was by far my happy place and a great place to take kids. Those trips evoke memories of toes in the sand, ice cream cone in hand, and the warm sun on my face. While our family time in Santa Cruz County typically centered around the well-known Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which is a very popular place, I later realized there was so much more to see and do. Going back to Santa Cruz with my kids, I found Santa Cruz wasn’t just a day trip. Oh no — Santa Cruz is the perfect place for an easy weekend getaway from both the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas!
My kids do enjoy the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, but our itinerary has expanded as we’ve discovered more and more fun things to do in Santa Cruz. We’ve come to appreciate the natural beauty of its state parks, its rich culture, and delectable eats. Here are our favorite places to visit in Santa Cruz, the best Santa Cruz activities that your family will enjoy.
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Santa Cruz Boardwalk
A trip to Santa Cruz has never felt complete without an afternoon spent at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I love that it’s not as enormous or chaotic as a major amusement park. Plus, it has the old-world charm of a country fair. We’ll typically start at the Casino Arcade, where my kids will play several rounds of air hockey and skeeball. If they’re up for it, we’ll also spend time at Neptune’s Kingdom. My kids love to challenge my husband and me to a game of mini-golf (because they know they’ll typically win). They’ve got an incredible magic shop at Neptune’s Kingdom, too!
Rides. So many rides! Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has a fantastic selection, from your classic Swing Set to the infamous Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster. To appease my adrenaline-seeking children, I’ll ride a couple of spinny rides like the Typhoon and Fireball (typically with my eyes closed). My family also loves to ride the popular attraction, Sky Glider, which gives incredible ocean views, plus the beach, and boardwalk. If you have younger kiddos, you don’t need to worry. The Boardwalk has a bunch of kiddie rides!
The Mystery Spot
Prepare to throw everything you were taught about the laws of physics out the window. The Mystery Spot is a remarkable gravity hill that momentarily transports you to another world. In fact, my kids say it makes them feel like they’re in outer space! There’s a wooden room here that’s built at an angle, making everything look like it’s slanted. When you walk in, you’ll notice that you’re no longer standing straight. I know this sounds impossible, but you’ll just have to see for yourself!
The guides make it a fun and interactive experience. One of our favorite things is watching them roll a ball uphill. It’s absolutely mind-boggling, yet we can’t get enough of this place that temporarily allows us to escape reality.
Natural Bridges State Beach
Even before the pandemic, we’ve always been wary of crowds. Especially when it comes to beaches. The main beach next to the boardwalk is usually swamped, so we like to spend our time at Natural Bridges State Beach instead. What I love about this beach is the arched rock bridge that reminds me of the one in Cabo.
We typically pack lunches, find a picnic area and spend a few hours here. The kids like to build sandcastles and go bodyboarding, and my hubby and I like to take turns walking along the cliffs to look at the beachside houses. (And wishing we lived in one!) In the colder months, between October and January, we also come to watch the monarch butterflies. They migrate from even chillier climates, and my kids love to try and get them to land on their fingers (with some success, I should add!).
Downtown Santa Cruz
You won’t have to worry about pollution or traffic in this downtown area. Downtown Santa Cruz is a lively and jubilant place to soak in the culture of this beachy city. It’s not unusual to hear live music at free concerts or to see San Francisco-style painted men strolling around. They host regular special events and there’s even a farmers market each Wednesday, which is a neat way to check out the local produce and handicrafts.
There are a ton of specialty stores here. We’re a house of bookworms so we always stop at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Of course, my kids won’t let us leave without stocking up on their favorite gummy candies at It’s Sugar. (And I’ll be honest, I end up grabbing a few for the road… can’t resist!) Be sure to check out Paper Vision, too. They have one-of-a-kind cards and toys, so if there’s any place to buy a unique souvenir, this store is it.
The food in Downtown Santa Cruz is spectacular. Though we aren’t strictly plant-based, we get excited to try new vegan spots, and Veg on the Edge impressed us all. They’ve got a West African-inspired menu with a heavenly plantain curry that even my picky eaters dug into. When we’re in a more omnivorous mood, we pop into Hula’s Island Grill. The fish tacos and seafood sandwiches are filling and flavorful. And of course… Dessert. While downtown has tons of options, we find Mission Hill Coffee & Creamery to have the best ice cream flavors. They’re all house-made, and insanely fresh.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
No trip to Santa Cruz feels complete without a visit to see the big trees in the redwood forest. We love coming to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and doing the Loop Trail. It’s an easy, 0.9-mile hike that gives us a chance to admire the redwoods and snap a few family selfies. They have several other hikes here which are perfect for older kids if you’re looking for something a bit more challenging or want to see more of the park. We are yet to do one of them but are hoping to check out the Cape Horn Loop next spring.
If you go, don’t miss next door’s, Roaring Camp Railroads, which is an actual vintage train station with the option to ride on a historic steam train, from the 1890s, up to Bear Mountain, as conductors narrate the history of Roaring Camp, the railroad, and the redwood forests. OR your family could also get the coolest ride on the west coast to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk by instead taking the Santa Cruz Beach Train. Departing from the Santa Cruz Mountains, the train takes passengers through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, down the scenic San Lorenzo River Gorge, across a 1909 steel truss bridge, and through an 1875 tunnel before arriving at the Boardwalk. My kids love riding under the canopy of redwoods and hearing the train whistle cut through the forest. You have to make reservations beforehand because tickets go fast!
Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
What’s unique about the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is that it’s located inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. It’s pretty small, so it’s a quick stop between activities. Inside, you’ll find old photos and surfboards that recount the history of the sport from 1885 to the present. My kids have both tried their hand at surfing, so they loved learning more about its origins. Whether you’re a veteran surfer or just enjoy watching the sport, there’s a lot to learn here.
Santa Cruz is the perfect place for an easy weekend getaway from both the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas!
I always feel the need to pinch myself when we come to Capitola because it feels so darn dreamy. I’m not sure if it’s the pastel-colored buildings, the swarm of surfers during golden hour, or the background noise of seagulls that makes it one of the most beautiful places!
Capitola Beach is about fifteen minutes from Santa Cruz and I’d recommend spending half a day here to take it all in. It’s home to the first-ever Pizza My Heart, an almost literal hole-in-the-wall where you can grab a quick slice. We’ve rented bikes in Capitola and have ridden through the town, but you can also rent surfboards or paddleboards if you want to get out on the water. As the sun begins to descend, we go to Esplanade Park to watch the sky change colors and to spot the surfers catch some last waves. We’ll typically grab dinner and have a little picnic. Oh, and don’t forget to walk to the Venetian Court before dark. This is a great photo spot, so have your camera ready!
Other Santa Cruz (and Surrounding Areas) Attractions for Families
Just when we thought we’d seen it all, we came across another fun activity. We make it a point to visit at least one new place each time we return to the Santa Cruz area. One of our new favorites is the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. I’ve heard it’s one of the best places in the world to see marine life, and I couldn’t agree more. There are tide pools, where my kids make a game of seeing who can count the most sea anemones and sea stars (formerly known as starfish, lol). We’ve been lucky enough to catch sight of sea otters and sea lions here, too! Seymour Marine Discovery Center is another wonderful place to observe and learn about marine life. Run by UC Santa Cruz, it’s a collection of interactive exhibits, species native to the area, with tide pools and whale skeletons for kids to see.
When we’re in the mood for something more active, we head to Wilder Ranch State Park. With more than 35 miles of trail, you can adventure into the Santa Cruz Mountains or walk along the coastal bluffs. They have a few fascinating historical buildings here, as well as several hikes. If you can’t make it to Henry Cowell, this is another beautiful spot to walk amongst the redwoods, especially since California’s oldest National Park in the area, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, was destroyed in the CZU Lightening Fire.
On our last visit, we spent a late afternoon at Santa Cruz Wharf. I’d highly recommend coming here for a meal, as they’ve got delicious options. They’ve got kayak and SUP rentals here, too, which would be a great way to look at sea lions up close!
When You Go
Santa Cruz is 340 miles north of downtown LA by car (about a 5 hour and 45-minute drive via the I-5 N and US-101 N). It’s 75 miles south of San Francisco (roughly 1.5 hours via I-280 S and CA-17 S). If you choose to fly, the closest airport is Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport, 33 miles away and about a 40-minute drive to Santa Cruz. Direct flights from LAX take an hour and 30 minutes and can be found through Delta and Alaska Airlines.
Where To Stay
Whether you want to stay close to the ocean or further inland, Santa Cruz has plenty of hotel options. Do keep in mind that the area can get pricey, especially during the summer months, so book well in advance to avoid rate surges.
For a stay on the lower end of the price range, go to Aqua Breeze Inn. There are several shops and dining options nearby, and the rooms have a beachy theme. For something in the middle range, stay at Holiday Inn Express & Suites Santa Cruz. It’s a bit further inland, but a nice choice if you want to stay away from the crowds. If you want to go all-in, Seascape Beach Resort is where you should unwind. It’s got a private beach and a golf course and is located in the quaint seaside town of Aptos. To save money, we’ve also booked Airbnbs in San Jose in the past. Feel free to use the interactive map below to see the locations and current prices of the hotels or houses where you’d like to stay on the dates you want to go there.
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