From meeting new people to experiencing new sights, sounds, and smells – is there anything more exciting or rejuvenating than a break from the day-to-day mundanity? Traveling is an excellent way to immerse yourself in a new culture, setting, or way-of-life, but the best part is this: you don’t have to venture far from home to enjoy what this world has to offer.
Whether your journey takes you across your own city, to an unexplored part of your state, or even to the other side of the world, there’s no doubt you will still learn a lot about your surroundings – and yourself – along the way.
While the culture an hour away from your home might not be drastically different from what you’re used to, you can still gain a deepened sense of appreciation for where you’ve laid your roots. Plus, traveling locally has a lot of benefits:
More cost-effective. Local travel is certainly a budget-friendly way to explore! Many activities and parks are free or have a low cost of entry. For day trips, you can also pack your own meals to save.
Eco-friendly way to travel. Travel is hard on the environment, but putzing around your area is more sustainable than air travel.
Quick trips. Getting out locally means you can do it more often! Long weekend trips are a lot easier to take when the destination is a short drive away.
Easy to plan. Preparing your itinerary for a local getaway will likely save you some time and stress.
More convenient. Especially if you have little ones, sticking close to home may be much more convenient than far-off destinations. If you forget something, have an emergency, or need to cut the trip short, being closeby definitely has its benefits.
Imagine an artsy, intriguing city with all the outdoor scenery of northern California in its backyard — a place with enough to do and explore to keep you busy, but where life goes at a much slower pace than it does in, say, San Francisco or L.A. A place where you can see the mountains and the ocean in just a short drive either way, and where wine-tasting is a normal evening pastime.
The place you’re imagining might just be Santa Cruz. And fortunately, we’ve written this guide to help you explore and enjoy this unique city.
*Note: Some of the suggestions may not be doable due to coronavirus closures, but keep this list handy for when things start opening back up more! Be sure to check individual pages for specific operation details.
Anyone who’s called Santa Cruz home for even a short amount of time can tell you that one of the coolest things about this city is its proximity to the great outdoors. There are miles of wilderness separating this artsy town from the major Bay Area cities that are its northerly neighbors. Here are just a few of the state and national parks in the Santa Cruz, CA area.
Part state park, part BLM-owned land, Coast Dairies is a series of undeveloped beaches stretching approximately seven miles of coastline and more than 7,000 acres of land. It derives its name from the fact that it was acquired by the California government from the Coast Dairies Ranch Company, which was purchased by the Trust for Public Land in order to save it from becoming developed for high-end housing.
With more than 40 miles of hiking trails and over 10,200 acres of land all told, The Forest of Nisene Marks is sprawling and enchanting — what the California State Parks Service calls “a forest in a perpetual state of becoming.”
The Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is tucked into the wild and wonderful Santa Cruz Mountains and includes, among other things, a famous 40-acre grove of its namesake trees. Visitors can also enjoy the grasslands, sandhills, and river areas that compose the four distinct ecosystems that can be found in this majestic landscape.
A mere four miles from Santa Cruz, New Brighton State Beach is a popular place for city dwellers to sneak away to the coast, and also offers over 100 RV-friendly campsites. Common activities include hiking, fishing, and swimming, and it’s a great place to get a peek at some local wildlife.
Here’s one state park you don’t have to leave town to see! The Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park preserves the oldest building in the county, and also offers visitors the chance to learn more about the town’s origin as a religious center. Picnic tables and grassy areas are also available for enjoying the outdoors, as well as a gift shop.
Another oceanside state park that used to be a dairy ranch, Wilder Ranch State Park offers sweeping views, hiking trails, and also the opportunity to visit the restored ranch buildings that today serve as museums.
You don’t necessarily have to drive out to one of the many (many) state parks in the greater Santa Cruz area — even close to home, there are plenty of amazing opportunities for getting outside. Here are some of the best hiking trails in and around Santa Cruz.
Nestled into the above-mentioned Wilder Ranch State Park, Old Landing Cove Trail meanders about two-and-a-half miles and sees only 85 feet of elevation gain, making it an approachable journey even for those at the beginning of their hiking career. Along with its cliff-strewn seaside views, this trail is also known for its beautiful wildflowers.
One of the best-known trails in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Redwoods Reborn - Fall Creek is an eight-and-a-half mile loop that offers some incredible views of the trees that make this place so famous. Visitors mention it’s easy to get turned around on this epic trail, so we highly recommend bringing along a GPS, or at least a compass.
Extending two miles along the Pacific coastline, West Cliff Drive is paved and relatively flat, making it an accessible option for those pushing strollers or using wheelchairs. This path is also beloved by cyclists, roller skaters, runners, and dog-walkers, and is an incredible place to catch a coastal California sunset.
Another option tucked into Wilder Ranch State Park, Wilder Ridge, Baldwin, Ohlone Bluff and Old Cove Landing Trail makes use of the interconnected network of trails in this area to create a lengthy, but moderate, venture. Stretching just over 10 miles all told and seeing less than a thousand feet of elevation gain, no part of this hike feels like a serious climb, but altogether, it’s definitely a great workout… not to mention the views.
An easy loop that measures a little over four miles from start to finish, the Natural Bridges to Lighthouse Field Loop is a moderately-trafficked option at Natural Bridges State Beach — which, as its name implies, offers stunning natural stone bridges for visitors to see and experience. The trail gains a little over 100 feet in elevation, making it a great place for a brisk walk that won’t leave you too drained.
All the adventuring you have to do in Santa Cruz is sure to work up an appetite! Good thing it’s a great town for eating. Here are some of the best restaurants in Santa Cruz, whether you’re craving Indian, Mexican, Italian, or something else entirely.
Traditional Sicilian fare served alongside regional wines in a warm atmosphere by an even warmer staff — what more could you want from your dining experience? Lillian’s Italian Kitchen is considered not only one of the best Italian restaurants in Santa Cruz, but one of the best restaurants in Santa Cruz, period. You’ll learn why when you visit.
Whether you’re looking to host a semi-formal dinner or just to kick back with some tacos and tequila on the patio, El Palomar has you covered. Technically not one, but three great Mexican restaurants under one roof, this joint is a local favorite for a reason.
Plant-based doesn’t have to mean boring! Cafe Gratitude specializes in vegetarian, vegan, and raw dishes that are still satisfying for both your body and your taste buds. From hot dishes like black bean burgers to macrobiotic bowls and freshly-squeezed juices, this place is a plantivore’s paradise you’ll be thankful you found.
Since 1988, Mobo Sushi has been serving sushi so good, they claim it’s “mind altering” — but don’t worry, everything’s totally legal! From specialty rolls to classics to sashimi and everything in between, this is the happening place for those looking for some fine Asian fare.
Whether you order off the a la carte menu or partake in its generous buffet, Mumbai Delights is the perfect place to indulge in some scrumptious and satisfying Indian food. Serving up a variety of vegetarian options as well as classics like curry, tandoori and biryani, you’re sure to find something to suit your palate here.
The great outdoors and the great dining are just the tip of the Santa Cruz iceberg. Here are some of the best places to explore and top things to do in Santa Cruz.
Bringing the kids along for the journey? Good deal. Here are some of the top things to do in Santa Cruz for those with kids.
Most parents know that the promise of ice cream is an easy way to settle a cantankerous afternoon — and if you’re gonna do it, you may as well do it right. The Penny Ice Creamery is the only ice cream shop in Santa Cruz making completely from-scratch ice cream in house, and offers a unique range of flavors that includes classics as well as more adventurous fare. Everyone in the family is sure to leave wearing a smile.
Hosted by UC Santa Cruz, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center is a great place to get the whole family excited about the great outdoors — particularly the array of sea life that calls coastal California home. Open from Tuesday through Sunday and every day in July and August, there are plenty of opportunities to check out what’s going on under the sea.
Clearly there’s no shortage of things to do in Santa Cruz during the daytime — but there’s lots to get into after hours, too! Here are some of our favorite evening activities in town.
It may not be quite as well-known as its northerly neighbor, Napa, but the Santa Cruz AVA is a prestigious wine region — and there are plenty of incredible tasting rooms offering you the opportunity to have a sip (or six). Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard is one popular option, but there are more than half a dozen to choose from.
There’s nothing quite like catching a flick for date night — and if you’re looking for things for couples to do in Santa Cruz, we’ll direct you toward Del Mar Theatre, an art-deco style cinema that screens both indie films and big-budget flicks accompanied by beer and wine. Cheers!
It’s true: you don’t have to go broke to find fun in Santa Cruz! Here are some cheap options for things to explore in town.
A beachside amusement park that gives Coney Island a run for its money, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a must-do for anyone in town — and thanks to the discounts and seasonal passes, it doesn’t have to be exorbitantly expensive to go. What’s more, you can pick and choose your activities as your budget and time allow, perhaps visiting only for mini golf or laser tag, and then going back a different day to hit the rides!
What better way to get familiar with this area of California than to see its blooms on well-manicured display? The UCSC Arboretum charges only $5 for adults and $2 for children in admissions, and includes an Australian Garden and South African garden as well as its collection of California natives.
Yep — some of the coolest things to do in Santa Cruz are 100% free. Here are our favorites.
Like many other towns, Santa Cruz holds a monthly art walk event on each first Friday, when many shops and boutiques stay open after hours, offer light hors d'oeuvres and sometimes even host live entertainment. Wandering is 100% free — though we can’t guarantee you won’t find something you want to buy!
If there’s one thing coastal California is known for, it’s surfing — and if you want to learn more about the history of this unique sport, you’re in luck. The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is tucked inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse and is totally free to enter, and traces more than 100 years of surfing history.
Want to get a truly hands-on, up-close-and-personal experience of California coastal wildlife? Wander along the washes near Natural Bridges State Park, Wilder Ranch, Pleasure Point, Santa Maria Beach and the Davenport Landing, and take a look into the many tidepools that teem with colorful and unique critters. Just be sure to respect the habitats and avoid disturbing these delicate ecosystems — and check the tides before you go to ensure the pools will be visible and accessible. (You’re looking for low tide!)
In need of some rejuvenation? Or just plain relaxation? Luckily, there are plenty of great day spas in Santa Cruz offering up indulgent services.
Offering hot tubs, saunas, massages — and, of course, a range of delicious and restorative teas — the Tea House Spa is a unique oasis in Santa Cruz, perfect for post-adventure relaxation. You can share tubs and saunas with groups, so consider inviting a friend or two… or a significant other. ;)
Need some beautifying alongside your relaxing? Faust Salon & Spa offers hair and nail care as well as waxing services to ensure you’ll walk out looking as good as you feel. The studio is also available to help you celebrate your special event or wedding.
California has a reputation for its beaches — but a “beach body” isn’t the best part about getting in shape. It’s the strength and confidence you’ll feel!
Here are some of the best gyms and yoga studios for those looking to get their sweat on in Santa Cruz.
A straightforward gym that foregoes the frills in favor of the hard work that’ll get you where you want to go, Santa Cruz Strength is the kind of community gym where being part of the group is part of the process. Specializing in powerlifting, strongman, and Olympic weightlifting as well as strength and conditioning, you’ll certainly feel yourself growing stronger as you attend.
Ready to get grounded and gritty? Santa Cruz Yoga offers a wide range of classes suited to yogis of all fitness and interest levels, as well as teacher training for those ready to take their game to the next level. The professional and empathetic teachers will help gently guide you through your practice, no matter where on your journey you may be.
It’s true: there’s enough to keep you busy in Santa Cruz for literally years. But there are also some incredible sights to see in the nearby surrounding areas! Here are some of the best day trips to take when you’re calling Santa Cruz home base.
Okay, honestly: if you haven’t made it out to Big Sur yet, we’re not sure what you’re waiting for. But on your way, be sure to check out the cute little seaside communities at the north end of the stretch, famous for their beautiful dog beaches, quaint avenues filled with shopping opportunities, and, yes, being a favorite playground of none other than Clint Eastwood. You’ll certainly understand why once you arrive!
Preserving more than 87,000 acres of hills and mountains in the famed Diablo Range, Henry W. Coe State Park is just a little more than an hour’s drive from downtown Santa Cruz — and a perfect respite for anyone looking for even more outdoor adventure opportunities. In fact, it’s the largest state park in all of the California system, which is vast. Definitely worth a day trip… or even a long weekend.
Although perhaps best known as a tech hub, San Jose makes for a fine getaway — and certainly offers a juxtaposition from relatively sleepy Santa Cruz. With its shimmering skyline and abundance of technology-themed attractions, it’s a great place to spend a weekend when you want a taste of the fast-paced lifestyle you probably went to Santa Cruz to get away from.
As a final reminder, some of these activities may need to wait until businesses fully reopen from coronavirus closures. However, there is still much to see and experience in Santa Cruz that you can enjoy today! What are your favorite spots in Santa Cruz? Send them our way to [email protected] or by tagging us on Instagram @rvshare and using the hashtag #rvsharelocal.