Santa Cruz Travel Guide 2024

2024 Santa Cruz Visitors Guide

Santa Cruz is often valued for its location; tucked between the north and central coast of California, Santa Cruz has a mild climate, miles of sandy beaches, and a coastal redwood system that is hauntingly beautiful. But Santa Cruz offers family vacationers much more than just an ideal location, Santa Cruz is a family vacation paradise! From old-fashioned carnival games to surf lessons, a Santa Cruz family vacation combines a love for modern amusements with the best of the outdoors. In Santa Cruz there is never a choice between the city and the rural life: both are essential parts of a Santa Cruz family vacation. Every member of the family will love a Santa Cruz family vacation; your family will tell stories and remember anecdotes of your family vacation for years. You’ll find that smiles and laughter come naturally on a Santa Cruz family vacation.

Santa Cruz CA Guide

Attractions and Activities

Although the city has many charms that keep attracting tourists, there are two that draw the most crowds.  The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is not only a fun collection of rides and games located on a mile of sandy beach, but it is also a State Historic Landmark and home to the Giant Dipper – the oldest operating roller coaster in the US.  Santa Cruz’s Steamer Lane and Pleasure Pointbreaks produce some of the best waves for surfing in the world, drawing surfers from far and wide.


Santa Cruz offers an eclectic mix of dining options, with many restaurants serving fusion cuisine blending the exotic flavors of multiple cultures.  What makes the Santa Cruz culinary experience unique, however, is the prevalence of fresh seafood, vegetarian-friendly menus, sustainably harvested produce, and sumptuous local wine.

Some standout restaurants include local favorites 515, Bittersweet Bistro, Café Mare, Clouds, The Greek, Gabriella Café, Hoffman’s Bakery Café, Kawa Sushi & Roll, Real Thai, Ristorante Avanti and Walnut Avenue Café.


Downtown Santa Cruz is the place to go for shopping.  With over 200 unique shops to choose from, visitors can count on finding whatever they need…and perhaps a few items that they didn’t know they needed.  From art galleries to vintage clothing stores, from bookshops to hand-crafted jewelry stores – downtown Santa Cruz has it all.

Although it is difficult to single out just a few Santa Cruz shopping destinations, a couple of notable ones include Annieglass, Artisans Gallery, Bookshop Santa Cruz, Love Me 2 Times, the Pacific Garden Mall, and the Tibetan Nomad.

Santa Cruz Beaches

Visiting the Santa Cruz beaches is a major part of a Santa Cruz vacation. There are different kinds of beaches to explore on a Santa Cruz family vacation; some have coastal bluffs and rough water that make for a perfectly picturesque hike. Other beaches are tamer and better suited to families with young children. Both are worth visiting on a Santa Cruz family vacation.

Greyhound Rock Beach

Greyhound Rock Beach is a perfect example of Mother Nature’s wild side; with coastal access, tide pools, and nature trails, this beach is the perfect place for family vacationers to see the beautiful California coast in all its glory.

Main Beach

For fun beach time, Main Beach is the place for family vacationers to find a peaceful escape for an afternoon: this beach offers family vacationers beach volleyball, surfing lessons, and lots of swimming opportunities. In the summer, parents will like that there are lifeguards to help keep an eye on the little ones.

Natural Bridges State Beach

For family vacationers who want to have a dose of ecology on their Santa Cruz beach trip, then Natural Bridges State Beach is the home to beautiful monarch butterflies. There are also low tidepools teeming with marine life for families to explore.

Santa Cruz Harbor

There are other ocean activities for Santa Cruz family vacationers to enjoy as well; sailing and kayaking are popular, as is a visit to the Santa Cruz Harbor, which is a full-service marina that includes boat rentals, whale watching, restaurants, and a beach.

Santa Cruz Outdoor Adventures

Family vacationers will discover that the beautiful setting of Santa Cruz lends itself to lots of opportunities for the family to get out and explore the outdoors. The Seymour Marine Discovery Center is a great place for family vacationers to start: This museum has an aquarium, a touch tank, and the largest blue whale skeleton in the world; all in a location that offers breathtaking vistas.

Neary Lagoon

For family vacationers who enjoy wildlife viewing, Neary Lagoon, a wildlife refuge area, is a great place to visit. A bonus for families is the small play structure. Neary Lagoon also has trails for family vacationers to hike around.


A spot that may initially appeal more to the adults than the children on a Santa Cruz family vacation is the Arboretum at UCSC. Take your children to this anyway; this is a world-famous public garden that is not to be missed and the kids will enjoy the wide variety of plants from as far away as Australia.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

For Santa Cruz family vacationers who want to discover the coastal redwoods that have become such an iconic part of the area, Big Basin Redwoods State Park is a great destination. With 2,000-year-old redwoods and over 80 miles of trails, this will be a highlight on your Santa Cruz family vacation.

Mystery Spot

The Mystery Spot is another great outdoor attraction on a Santa Cruz family vacation; this gravitational anomaly startles and challenges traditional perceptions of gravity and is an awesome place to take pictures.

Santa Cruz Family Activities

Santa Cruz is the perfect destination for a family vacation because of the breadth of family activities it offers to family vacationers. For an educational experience loaded with fun, family vacationers should head over to nearby Watsonville and visit the Agricultural History Project Museum. This museum includes exhibits and equipment that showcase the rich agricultural history of the area and includes specific activities that the children on the Santa Cruz family vacation will enjoy.

Santa Cruz Mission
Santa Cruz Mission

Another great place to take a family on a Santa Cruz family vacation is the Aptos Farmers Market at local Cabrillo College. This farmers market is the largest in the area and has over 80 vendors. This is a lively event that everyone will enjoy on the Santa Cruz family vacation; live music and delicious food is the norm. The Roaring Camp Railroads is another family-friendly attraction that will please family members of all ages. This 1880s steam train will take your family through the redwoods and beaches of Santa Cruz. Kids are notorious train lovers, and this one will not disappoint!

The Santa Cruz Mission

Mission La Exaltacion de La Santa Cruz, the 12th Franciscan mission, was consecrated by Father Fermin Lasuen in August 1791. In 1793 the adobe church was built where the Holy Cross Catholic Church is now located. The mission was damaged by several earthquakes and finally collapsed in 1857. Plaza Park is located at the center of the mission complex which contained 32 buildings at the time of its secularization in 1834; the last building remains on School Street.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is the premier activity on a Santa Cruz family vacation. Old-fashioned and charming with its long wooden sidewalks, Ferris wheels, and carnival games, kids and adults alike will find the corners of their mouths turned upwards as they take off on the exciting roller coasters and try sweet, gooey delicacies. The parents on a Santa Cruz family vacation will love that admission to the boardwalk is free, and that there is a sandy beach just below the boardwalk that beckons for sunbathing and frolicking in the water. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a great place for families to have a meal on their family vacation; noisy kids are never a problem at the wide variety of eateries. Local favorites include Surf City Grill, whose specialty is fried artichokes, and Fishermans Galley, which has wine margaritas for moms and dads.

Downtown Santa Cruz

Downtown Santa Cruz is a fun and exciting place for families to head to on a Santa Cruz family vacation. Historic and a little bit kitschy, everyone in the family will love downtown Santa Cruz. For a little culture, the Santa Cruz Symphony performs at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, but there are plenty of cool things for family vacationers to explore just out on the streets. Street performers abound and interesting museums dot the area. For family vacationers who want to catch a movie, the Nickelodeon and Del Mar Theatres are historic theaters that show current movies. Zachary’s Restaurant is a downtown restaurant that is popular with family vacationers because of its laid-back atmosphere and affordable menu (and delicious food!). Another popular restaurant to try on your Santa Cruz family vacation is the Walnut Avenue Café; you might find yourself waiting in line for a table, but the food is definitely worth the wait! For a laid-back dining experience in downtown Santa Cruz, Zoccolis Delicatessen is the place for family vacationers to go: cozy and humble, the sandwiches and other homemade foods that come from here are perfect for beachside picnics.

Santa Cruz is ideal for a family vacation. Both affordable and fun, Santa Cruz will thrill every member of the family with its wealth of varied activities; from beachcombing to hiking to riding roller coasters, a Santa Cruz family vacation offers it all!