11 Kid-Friendly Activities in Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk:  Obviously this is top of the list for everyone, but be sure you don’t miss out on one of our favorites at the Boardwalk:  the miniature golf course. We play at least once a year, and the course takes you through a pirate ship and a psychedelic dark room. If your kids are old enough (and tall enough), don’t miss the thrilling Giant Dipper roller coaster, an old, fast wooden roller coaster.  If that’s too much of an adrenaline rush, check out the hand-carved carousel that’s been around since 1911. Finally, be sure to take your whole family on the Sky Glider, where you can get a great view of the boardwalk and the beach below. The best thing about the Boardwalk? It’s FREE! (Free to just walk around and people watch). But, be sure to bring money for all the deep fried food, rides, and carnival games as well.   

Wharf:  The wharf is a great place to stroll, people watch, eat, or shop.  The wharf was built in 1914 and is the longest pier on the West Coast at 2,745 feet  There are a tons of shops and restaurants, with fresh fish straight off the boats. Make sure you go out to the end of the wharf and we guarantee you will see, hear, and smell the barking sea lions lounging on the wooden structure down below. You can watch the fishing boats load or unload, or even book a boat tour.  Be sure to check out Marini’s Candy shop; we love their salt water taffy. The wharf is also a great place to grab a seafood dinner or some fish & chips.

Free Museum:   Right across from the Wharf is the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Exploration Center.  It is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It has some interactive displays and a great underwater environment for kids to explore.  There’s a couple old Chevy cars for kids to climb in, and learn about the downfalls of motor oil and other pollutants. There’s also a few areas where you can watch informational science videos. Finally, there is a touch pool with tidepool animals, and a kelp forest to look at.

Walk, Drive or Bike Along West Cliff Drive:  We recommend walking, as you can find great people-watching along this busy street, and wander down the path to gawk at surfers, mansions, and locals having a great time.  The views are scenic the whole way, and you can walk all the way to Natural Bridges, which is about 3 miles from the Wharf. Start at the Wharf and head up the hill. The first little beach is called Cowells Beach; this is where there are always surfing classes going on and beginning surfers taking to the waves.  Continue up the street to get a better view of the surfers and the surfer statue (usually decorated with various hats for holidays), and as you keep rounding corners you’ll have a great view of the Boardwalk behind you. The street has many trees and benches along the way, if you need a break. Next you’ll come to Steamer Lane and the Lighthouse Surf Museum, where the more advanced surfers are.  Below, on the other side, is a dog-friendly beach (Lighthouse State Beach where your dog can run leash-free) and a huge natural arch rock formation. Next you’ll run across Mitchell’s Cove Beach, another place where many locals let their dog run free. There’s a staircase leading down to the beach. Continue on and find a few more sculptures, many more mansions, and eventually Natural Bridges State Beach (see #5 below).  

Tide Pooling at Natural Bridges:  Natural Bridges State Beach is a great place for hiking, kite flying, watching surfers, swimming, nature walks and picnics.  But the best activity to do with kids there is to wander through the tide pools. On a good day you can usually see sea urchins, sea stars, hermit crabs, and kelp.  Check the tide times to make sure it is calm. You can also often see many birds, seals and otters, and sometimes even spot a whale in the distance.

Monarch Butterflies:  Also at Natural Bridges State Beach is a huge eucalyptus grove that provides a home for up to 150,000 monarch butterflies each year. (Sadly, in 2016 when we went, there were 8,000 that year). The butterflies migrate up to 2,000 miles to escape the cold weather in northwestern United States and Canada. You can usually catch the butterflies between late-November and early-December.  There are guided tours through the Grove at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. You can find free parking on the street nearby, or pay the $10/car fee to park in the lot right at the Visitor’s Center. There is a wooden path to take to the observation area. We loved visiting because they had magnified lenses you could look through to see all the masses of butterflies, bundled up together to keep warm from the cold.  

Pacific Avenue, Downtown Santa Cruz:  Once you’re tired of the beach and the Boardwalk, be sure to head to the downtown area.  The whole street is full of restaurants, stores, and street performers. There’s almost always something going on downtown, whether it be a parade or just a group of locals who declared it “bike around in leotards day” or “silent disco dance party time”.  Be sure to check out our Best of Santa Cruz Article to find out where to grab the best pizza, ice cream, cookies, etc.

Rio Del Mar Beach:  This beach is a great place to take kids because there is a ton to do. You can walk either way down the seemingly endless beach, chase seagulls, watch in the distance for whales, and even scour the beach for sea glass.  Our favorite thing to do is to head right when you get to the beach and walk all the way down to see the old, sunken cement ship. The S. S. Palo Alto was a 435-foot long, 7,500-ton oil tanker built for use during World War I; however, the ship was never finished.  It ended up in Santa Cruz, was renovated, and then used as party central. However, that didn’t last long before the corporation which owned the ship went bankrupt. You used to be able to climb aboard, but since the storms in 2016-2017 battered the ship and the pier, it is now indefinitely closed. You can still wander along the beach and see the stern upended, and it’s only a matter of time before the whole thing goes under.

Capitola Beach:  a great beach for kids, as the waves are generally very mild. It’s a perfect place for young folks who’d like to learn to surf. There’s bathrooms and showers nearby, and the beginners can usually stand up in the water for a ways out, making it a great place to try to catch a wave for the first time.  The town of Capitola is fun to walk around, with various stores and restaurants right near by.  You can grab a slice of Pizza My Heart and eat it at the beach, or a scoop of Marianne’s ice cream from one of the nearby stores.  There’s tons of cute little shops to wander through if you want to buy souvenirs or beach wear.

Roaring Camp Train Ride:  This tourist railroad starts from Roaring Camp depot and runs up steep grades through redwood forests to the top of nearby Bear Mountain, a distance of 3.25 miles.  Several of the steam engines date from the 1890’s.  Kids can ride the train for $23, and adults for $32.  The 75 minute train ride is a bit pricey for us, but if you have a child who loves engines and trains, this might be the activity for you.  You can also take the train from Roaring Camp to the Beach Boardwalk and back.

Nisene Marks Hike:  Finally, if you enjoy hiking, you’re sure to find a trail that you’ll love at Nisene Marks State Park.  The hikes in this park range from easy to moderate, and there are plenty you can do with kids in tow.  We recommend Old Growth Loop, which is about a mile and a half. It leads up to a remote waterfall and the canyon has a ton of variety and redwoods.  

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Food, Fun, and Some of Our Favorites of Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz is the perfect destination.  You can mix your love of the beach with your love of hiking in the redwood trees, and there’s almost always something going on in the funky downtown.  Santa Cruz is a place where all unique souls can be who they are, and where there’s always something fun to do around every corner. Whether you’re into long walks on the beach in the California sun, surfing, chasing waterfalls, or just people-watching at the Boardwalk, Santa Cruz is the place for it all.

First Friday:  If you’re ever in Santa Cruz on the first Friday of the month, be sure to make your way downtown to see work from local artists and to visit the many cute shops along Pacific Avenue.  Many of the cute boutiques keep their doors open later, and some even serve small snacks and a signature cocktail for the night. Be sure to swing by the Pacific Wave for a free slice of Pleasure Pizza and a beer (tip your bartender!).  We also enjoy Stripe Men and Women’s stores, which have all kinds of hipster trinkets and usually a delicious cocktail. The Museum of Art & History (MAH) usually has a live band playing and the upstairs art exhibits are open and free to the public.  Plus, if you just wander up and down the street, you never know what you’re going to find. There’s always a parade of some sort–whether is bikers or furries. There’s sometimes a silent disco going on at the corner Pacific and Cooper. There’s always live music somewhere on Pacific Avenue.  It’s never hard to find something interesting going on as you walk around downtown Santa Cruz. There’s a whole website dedicated to First Friday, and you can sign up for their email list to get reminders and see which stores and artists are participating each month. Website: https://firstfridaysantacruz.com/

Best Burrito:  Taqueria Los Pericos

Just on the outskirts of downtown, you will find a hole-in-the-wall Mexican food joint that is dishing up amazing carnitas.  No seriously, get the carnitas– it’s the best we’ve ever had. Soft and juicy on the inside, crispy on the outside… You’ll know you’re at the right spot because you’ll see the line extending down the street.  You order at the counter and then can grab chips and salsa from the salsa bar. There are just a handful of tables, but you can usually find a place for a quick bite. The food comes out fast and hot, and tastes like a joy-gasm in your mouth.  We recommend the Perico burrito (with carnitas!): meat, cheese, onions, whole beans, slices of fresh avocado, and tomatillo sauce. The one thing we always try when we go to a new Mexican place is the carnitas, and Los Pericos crunchy, crispy carnitas is still the best we’ve ever had. Come at us, bro.

Best Ice Cream: This one’s a tie between Marianne’s and Penny Ice Creamery.

Penny Ice Creamery makes their ice cream from locally farmed and organic ingredients.  The flavor list is always changing with the seasons, and the ice cream is made in-house from scratch.  Located in Downtown Santa Cruz, you can stroll by and see day’s flavor’s on the chalkboard outside. There’s usually 6-10 flavors, and they always let you sample as many as you’d like.  Even though there will probably be a line when you visit, it moves quickly and their great customer service and amazing ice cream is worth the wait. No matter which flavor you choose, it is essential that you add the toasted marshmallow to the top.  The marshmallow fluff is their signature and they torch it like a campfired creme brulee topping–highly recommended.

Marianne’s is a classic, a must have ice cream cone.  With over 100 flavors made from local ingredients, there is sure to be something that everyone will enjoy.  The ice cream is creamy and flavorful. Some of our favorites include their Macapuno, Cantaloupe (seasonal), or their Horchata.  One of their best sellers is the 1020, which has Oreo cookies and caramel. The best local hack? Skip the line and just buy a couple pints to go.  There are three locations in town, and also many stores and restaurants that carry the Marianne’s brand.

Best Cookie: The Pacific Cookie Company is the place to get your next sweet treat. Crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, these cookies are pretty unforgettable.  There are 13 flavors to choose from, and we like them all. Our favorites have to be the lemon drop, the ginger spice, peanut butter chocolate chip, and dark chocolate cranberry.  You can also add a scoop of Marianne’s ice cream on top of your cookie, or go wild and make an ice cream sandwich with two cookies. They also have gluten free cookies from Mariposa Bakery, one of my sister’s favorite gluten free bakeries in the Bay Area.  While you can grab one during your stroll downtown, the real hack is to go to the factory out on Portero Street to grab a bag of them. When you walk in the door, they have a shelf full of cookie bins, you help yourself and put the money in the cash box on the counter.  They are about a third of the price of the ones downtown, and the same great cookies. Only catch? They are closed on weekends.

Best Pizza: This one’s a tie between Pleasure Pizza and Pizza My Heart.  

Pleasure Pizza is a great place to grab a slice.  They usually have about 6-10 options to try, and they heat it up for you right then.  They also have FREE BACON Thursday, where you can add crispy bacon to any slice. The slices are huge, making it a great deal for the cost.  

Pizza My Heart is a must-visit for any first-timers to Santa Cruz.  For about $7, you can get a slice of pizza and a souvenir t-shirt.  We like the Slice of the Day topping choices, and always try to swing by on a Saturday for their salty and sweet Figgy Piggy pizza:  figs, bacon, feta cheese, and fresh sage.

Best Donuts: Dunlap’s Donuts is the place to go.  On the weekends, they have their “special” donuts, which include all kinds of toppings piled high on their raised donuts.  Sometimes they have filled donuts, but they mostly just have some creative creations–like the cookie butter donut with a whole cookie on top, the S’mores donut with toasted marshmallow, Hershey’s chocolate squares and graham crackers crumbles on top, and the donut cut in half and filled with fresh, sweet strawberries.  Be sure to go early to catch all the local men sitting around to get their donut and coffee fix in the morning. (I love old people!)

Best Coffee: This one’s a tie between Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company and The Abbey.  

Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company is right downtown.  It’s a great place to grab whole coffee beans to take home and brew. They have a wide selection of beans from all over the world. The vibe of the place is nice and chill, and it’s always full of people (even though there is a Starbucks that is literally right across the street).

The Abbey is a great hangout spot where you can sip coffee and hang with the locals. The place is always full of students working away on their various devices. They have local art on display and often have live bands.  Our go-to drink here is the “Honey Badger”, which is a honey and cinnamon latte–or ask for it as a chai (even better!). We love to go here to use the free wifi and catch up on blogging or plan our next adventure.

Best Hot Chocolate: Chocolate Restaurant is a fun place to go for a date night.  They have 10 kinds of hot chocolate to choose from, ranging from white chocolate to dark chocolate.  They also add fun ingredients like cinnamon, cardamom, chipotle chili, or honey–depending on how you like your chocolate.  The restaurant is surrounded by large plants and flowers, making it a nice secluded and romantic spot to grab a drink. When you walk by, the lingering aroma will be calling you in to grab a cup.

Best Breakfast Burrito: The Point Market on East Cliff Drive is clearly a local joint serving up tons of to-go burritos for the nearby surfers.  This tiny market is cash only, but they have a full menu of breakfast, lunch and dinner options. There is a cute outdoor patio and also nearby picnic tables overlooking the ocean and the surfers down below.  There are about 15 choices of breakfast burritos. The “Barrel” is a classic one, with bacon, eggs, cheese, potatoes and avocado– add a bit of hot sauce and you’ve got yourself a delicious meal. They also have omelettes, burgers, savory burritos for lunch, and tacos.  It’s definitely a quick and easy meal, and worth stopping by if you’re wandering around East Cliff to see the surfers or the beautiful coastal cliffs.

Best Vegan Food / Cheap Street Eats: Charlie Hong Kong is a place where you can feel like you’re in Southeast Asia, without having to take the 18 hour flight.  Their vegan-based menu is organic, sustainable, and locally sourced. You can get a huge bowl of noodles or rice for $7, and it’s enough to share.  They do offer a few dishes with chicken and pork, but most bowls are packed full of veggies. You can substitute brown rice for only .75 cents, making this place a great spot for a healthy lunch or dinner.  This place has been a staple in Santa Cruz for the past 20+ years, and it’s open every day from 11am-11pm. Charlie Hong Kong makes you feel as if you are in Asia, sitting out on the tiny patio with the community seating.  It’s a great value, and a much healthier alternative to grabbing a quick bite of fast food.

Best Place for a Beer:This one’s a tie between Sante Adairius Santa Cruz Portal, Pour Taproom, and Santa Cruz Aleworks.  

Sante Adairius Santa Cruz Portal is a great brewery with a fun tasting room and delicious beers.  The brewery has a laid back vibe, with wooden tables and board games everywhere.  They have food to snack on while you sample their many beers. They crush sours!

Pour Taproom is a fun place to spend the evening.  Upon entering, you get a wristband that lets you control which beers you’d like to try.  Then you take your beer glass over to the wall of beer choices and swipe away. You can choose between a taster, a flight, and a full pour of beer.  There are 70 different taps to choose from. Once you’ve had your fill for the evening, you take your bracelet back to the front and pay for what you’ve had.  It’s a fun way to be in charge of your own beer tasting, and to get to try many different beers and ciders.

Santa Cruz Aleworks is a great place to go after a hike.  They offer flights, so you can try all their different beers and get a taste of the local flavor.  It’s a hole-in-the-wall, and often full of mountain bikers. They have four great beers on tap, and they are known for their sandwiches. Happy hour is from 3-6 Monday through Friday, and they offer $4 beers during that time.

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Three Best Sunset Spots in Santa Cruz, California

1. West Cliff Drive:  Find a place to park and walk along West Cliff Drive at sunset.  The views are great around every corner, and you can get some good shots with dramatic cliffs, surfers, and lighthouses in the background.  There are tons of little wooden benches around the area too, so if you get there early enough you can camp out for the whole show.

2. Twin Lakes Beach by Walton Lighthouse:  Great views of the lighthouse and harbor, along with the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in the distance.  You can walk along the beach toward the pier for a nice sunset stroll. We love this spot any time of year.  In the summer, it’s full of great people watching. In the winter, you get to see the waves crashing against the locks and up onto the sidewalk around the lighthouse.  

3. San Lorenzo River Mouth:  You can walk out onto the cliff to see the sunset here.  On one side you have the Walton Lighthouse, and on the other you have the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.  We love this spot because we almost always see either sea lions playing where the river and ocean meet, or usually can spot a whale out in the distance on a good day.  

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Five Best Beaches in Santa Cruz

1. Bonny Doon Beach: a long beach with high cliffs on one side and dunes all around. It’s north of Santa Cruz, and there’s parking right along Highway 1 and Bonny Doon Road (get there early). A quick walk across the railroad tracks and down to the nearby beach where you can spend the day in the sun. This is a great beach for sunbathing, and there is a section that is clothing-option, marked off by a few rocks and a dune on the far right side of the beach. Viewer discretion advised.

2. Davenport: an interesting beach with something to look at, always. At certain times of the year, you can find sea glass while walking along the beach. There are cliffs and rock formations with water dripping down from the cracks. Shallow caves are found throughout the base of the cliffs. Tide pools can be found along the southern side of the beach. There is a large parking lot along Highway 1, across from the town of Davenport. Several trails lead the way down to the beach–it is steep in some parts but definitely manageable.

3. Shark Fin Cove: in between Bonny Doon Beach and Davenport Beach is Shark Fin Cove. This small beach has a shark-tooth-shaped rock, and you’ll always find photographers shooting the cove and the rock at sunrise and sunset. There is parking along the highway, and a short, steep trail will take you down to the beach.

4. Twin Lakes State Beach: a peaceful place for a long walk on the beach. There’s always a game of beach volleyball going on, and a few restaurants nearby to grab coffee, food or a cocktail. When the tide is low, you can walk for quite a ways, but be warned, if it comes up, you can be trapped on the other side. We have had many walks back with soaking shoes, socks and even pants, attempting to outrun the tide!

5. Capitola Beach: a great beach for kids, as the waves are generally very mild. The town of Capitola is fun to walk around, with various stores and restaurants right near by. You can grab a slice of Pizza My Heart and eat it at the beach, or a scoop of Marianne’s ice cream from one of the nearby stores. There’s tons of cute little shops to wander through if you want to buy souvenirs or beach wear.

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