The seacoast city of Santa Cruz, with its ultra-liberal culture, redwood-clad university, and general sense of funky fun, prides itself on keeping things weird. The beach and the Boardwalk are its prime attractions. Hit the surf and soak up the sun!

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Photo © Ken Wolter/123rf.

What to See in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

The traditional carousel actually has a brass ring to grab.The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (400 Beach St., 831/423-5590, 11am-10pm Sun.-Thurs., 11am-11pm Fri.-Sat., ride hours vary by season, rides closed weekdays in winter, parking $15), or just “the Boardwalk” as it’s called by the locals, has a rare appeal that beckons to young children, teenagers, and adults of all ages.

The amusement park rambles along each side of the south end of the Boardwalk; entry is free, but you must buy either per-ride tickets ($3-6) or an unlimited-rides wristband ($33). The Great Dipper boasts a history as the oldest wooden roller coaster in the state, still giving riders a thrill after all this time. In summer, a log ride cools down guests hot from hours of tromping around. The Boardwalk also offers several toddler and little-kid rides.

At the other end of the Boardwalk, avid gamesters choose between the lure of prizes from the traditional midway games and the large arcade. Throw baseballs at things, try your arm at skeeball, or take a pass at classic or newer video games. The traditional carousel actually has a brass ring to grab.

After you’ve worn yourself out playing games and riding rides, you can take the stairs down to the broad, sandy beach below the Boardwalk. It’s a great place to flop down and sun yourself, or brave a dip in the cool Pacific surf. Granted, it gets crowded in the summertime.

Looking for something tasty to munch on or a drink to cool you off? You can definitely find it at the Boardwalk. An old-fashioned candy shop sells sweets to the sweet, while the snack stands offer corn dogs, burgers, fries, lemonade, and other generally unhealthy traditional carnival food.

The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. Photo © Jon Bilous/Dollar Photo Club.

The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. Photo © Jon Bilous/Dollar Photo Club.

Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

West of the Boardwalk, on Lighthouse Field State Beach, is the world’s first surfing museum. Housed in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (Lighthouse Point, West Cliff Dr., 831/420-6289, 10am-5pm Wed.-Mon. July 4-Labor Day, noon-4pm Thurs.-Mon. rest of the year) relates the history of surfing through a collection of surfboards from different times and other ephemera of surf culture.

Seymour Marine Discovery Center

“Ms. Blue,” one of the largest blue whale skeletons, rests across from Seymour Marine Discovery Center (100 Shaffer Rd., 831/459-3800, 10am-5pm Tues.-Sun., $8 adults, $6 children), where tours and exhibits let you dive into the latest ocean discoveries and where shark-petting is encouraged.

Santa Cruz Arts and Entertainment

An eclectic city of art and entertainment, Santa Cruz’s diversity gives it that uniquely captivating edge. Watch a Shakespearian production at the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen (UCSC Theater Arts Center, 1156 High St., 831/459-2159, $36-48 adults, $16 children under 18), an unforgettable venue set in a grove of massive redwoods beneath the starry sky.

Feel like a good movie and popcorn? Nickelodeon Theatre (210 Lincoln St., 831/426-7500, $10.50 general, $8 matinee) shows all the major blockbuster films, including a variety of foreign and indie productions. Don’t pass up the snack bar’s award-winning organic popcorn and locally made treats.

One of the oldest museums in the state of California, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History (1305 East Cliff Dr., 831/420-6115, 10am-5pm Tues.-Sat., $4 adults, free children under 18) is where Ohlone Native American artifacts are preserved and visitors can learn about local flora and fauna. In the heart of downtown, Museum of Art & History (705 Front St., 831/429-1964, 11am-5pm Tues.-Sun., $5 adults, $3 students and seniors) is a small facility with three floors of galleries, changing exhibits, and a gift shop.

Santa Cruz has a couple fantastic entertainment venues that feature class-act musicians. At Kuumbwa Jazz Center (320 Cedar St., 831/427-2227, $23 and up), local talent and internationally acclaimed jazz acts play to a packed house in a concert setting with food and drinks available. Moe’s Alley (1535 Commercial Way, 831/479-1854, up to $20) offers live performances from jazz and blues to reggae and salsa in a laid-back scene.

Events in Santa Cruz

The second-largest gathering of “Woodies” in the world, Woodies on the Wharf (late June, free), features over 200 vintage and classic station wagons, and celebrates these beauties with music, food, prizes, and good old fashioned fun.

It just wouldn’t be right if Santa Cruz wasn’t host to some of the most recognized surf contests, such as the O’Neill Coldwater Classic (Steamer Ln., late Oct., free), an event that draws international boarders to Steamer Ln., a popular surfing spot in the West Cliff. SCLU Longboard Invitational (free) rounds up nearly 200 longboarders from across the state each Memorial Day weekend to compete in the longest-running longboard surf contest. Hang out with the best surfers around, get some sun, and see who will win the title!

If it’s music and food you enjoy, the Mole & Mariachi Festival (144 School St., 831/429-1840, free) livens up downtown Santa Cruz with musical acts, local food, and family-friendly activities.

Every November is a celebration of sea glass, art, and ocean stewardship at Santa Cruz Sea Glass & Ocean Art Festival (400 Beach St., 831/332-7188, free). November also hosts the Santa Cruz Film Festival (Del Mar and Rio Theaters), which showcases a collection of independent films from all over the world.

Jump on board the Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Train (400 Beach St., 831/335-4484, 5pm-8pm late Fri.-Sat. Nov.-Dec., $28 adults, $22 children) and sip hot cider as you go a-caroling for holiday fun Victorian-style. The train departs from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

The premier way to see the best art in Santa Cruz, Open Studios Art Tour (831/475-9600 ext. 17) displays the works of more than 300 artists during the first three weekends in October. An events guide ($10) and the Open Studios Art Tour iTunes app ($5) are handy tools that provide a glimpse of an artist’s work and exhibit location.

Maps - Northern California 7e - Santa Cruz and Vicinity

Santa Cruz and Vicinity


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip.