30 Fun Things To Do in Santa Cruz with Kids
Maybe it's because it's so far off the beaten path (aka the 101 and 5 freeways), but Santa Cruz always seems like a blind spot for Southern Californians. But our neighbors in the San Francisco Bay Area have known for decades that this funky coastal city is a great year-round destination for families. Growing up, my Bay Area-raised wife would spend long summer weekends enjoying the many miles of beaches around the city. However, there's so much more to Santa Cruz than the beach.
To help you plan your first (or next!) Santa Cruz vacation, here is our list of 30 things to do in Santa Cruz with kids, including Santa Cruz restaurants kids will love and family-friendly Santa Cruz hotels. While you're there, check off a few of the items on our list of 100 things to do in California with kids!
Be sure to check with the venue for its COVID guidelines and requirements before heading out. Many places now require guests to show either proof of vaccination or a negative test; some venues are closing at the last minute due to the latest COVID surge.
Things to do in Santa Cruz with Kids
This Mystery Spot turns physics on its head. Photo courtesy of the Mystery Spot, Facebook
1. Trip Out at the Mystery Spot
One of the first things to check out when you're in Santa Cruz is the legendary Mystery Spot. Maybe you've seen the black-and-yellow bumper stickers around town and wondered, "What the heck is a mystery spot?" Located up in the mountains and surrounded by towering redwoods, this unique destination turns physics on its head. The gravitational anomaly causes marbles to roll uphill and visitors to stand at a 45-degree angle with ease.
2. Hike from the Redwoods to the Sea at Wilder Ranch
Adults and kids will love the natural diversity at Wilder Ranch State Park. Located just west of the city along the Pacific Coast Highway, you can head north from the ranch into redwood groves, then cross back over the highway and spend time walking along seaside cliffs. Once you've found the perfect cove, head down to the beach for a picnic.
3. Go Shopping on Pacific Avenue
Pacific Avenue is the main drag in Downtown Santa Cruz, lined with restaurants, boutiques, galleries, and other funky shops. Take a break from the beach and stroll the tree-lined commercial street before you grab some lunch.
Get up close and personal with all sorts of marine life at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center.Photo courtesy of the center
4. Explore the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
This interactive museum dedicated to marine life Is back open to the public since October 2021 after being forced to close due to COVID. There are indoor and outdoor exhibits, including touch pools, photo displays, and whale skeletons.
5. Learn at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History
Kids love natural history museums, and Santa Cruz's is no exception. This museum is located near the Seabright district and features exhibits that display shells, artifacts, minerals, insects, and animals. There are also exhibits dedicated to ethnography, history, and fine arts.
6. Get Your Thrills at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
The Santa Cruz boardwalk is the most well-known destination in the city—it was even featured in movies like Harold and Maude, Lost Boys, and Us. Transport yourself back to the mid-century at this retro beach boardwalk, riding the vintage roller coasters like the classic Big Dipper. If coasters aren't your thing, there's plenty to do like a massive arcade, a bowling alley, laser tag, and mini golf. There's a concert series in the summer, and in the winter it becomes a "Winter Wonderland."
Marvel at the towering redwoods at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Photo courtesy of the park's Facebook page
7. Walk Among Giants at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Among the must-see natural attractions in the Santa Cruz area is the magnificent Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The easy, stroller-friendly trails wind through a 40-acre park that features several old-growth redwood groves, as well as some second-growth forests (because unfortunately much of the redwood groves were cleared around the turn of the 20th century and have been slowly growing back since).
8. Take a Bike Ride or Stroll Along West Cliff Drive
On your way to the Surfing Museum, take some time to enjoy the natural beauty of West Santa Cruz. West Cliff Drive hugs the coast just south of a beautiful residential neighborhood and features a bike and walking path that's separated from the street. Another great walking and biking path can be found to the east along the San Lorenzo Riverwalk.
9. Zip Around on a Redwood Canopy Tour at Mt. Hermon
If the trails at Henry Cowell aren't exhilarating enough for you, then the Redwood Canopy Tour at Mt. Hermon might be more your speed. This zip line tour allows you to soar through the trees high above the forest floor.
Spot seals in the wild at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. Photo courtesy of the Wharf's Facebook page
10. Have Lunch at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf
As a lunchtime alternative to Pacific Avenue, head out to the Municipal Wharf just west of the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Several restaurants line the pier and unsurprisingly, many serve up fresh seafood. The fare ranges from touristy and inexpensive to more upscale, so there's something for everyone.
11. Hang Ten at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
Surf culture is king in Santa Cruz, and the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum celebrates the city's history with the sport. Located along the scenic West Cliff Drive, walk over to this museum for spectacular views of the Monterey Bay and learn a little bit about the pioneers of surfing.
12. Find Butterflies at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden
One of Santa Cruz's best-known institutions is UC Santa Cruz, home of the Banana Slugs. On this hillside campus is the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden, which features a California Garden, an Australia Garden, a Butterfly Garden, and more!
Ride the Redwood Forest Train and learn the story of Roaring Camp. Photo courtesy of Roaring Camp Railroad
13. Take a Ride on the Roaring Camp Train
This railroad offers two train rides, the Redwood Forest Steam Train and the Santa Cruz Beach Train. The Redwood Forest train is a 75-minute trip that travels through the forests, up the mountains to the town of Felton as the conductor narrates the story of Roaring Camp. The Beach Train, which returns in spring 2022, is a three-hour trip through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, along the San Lorenzo River, and down to the Beach Boardwalk. Kids 12 and under can join the Kids Club to earn fun prizes.
14. Relax at San Lorenzo Park
Sometimes you just need to kick back while your kids enjoy playing at the park. If you need a bit of a break from all of your programming, head to the visitor-favorite San Lorenzo Park, which is located east of the San Lorenzo River along the riverwalk.
15. Find Local Culture at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History
Also known as the MAH, this museum is located along Pacific Avenue in the downtown area. The museum includes works by local artists that portray the history and culture of Santa Cruz. Be sure to visit the rooftop sculpture garden for some fresh air, beautiful vistas, and gorgeous sculptures.
The Best Family Beaches in Santa Cruz
16. Santa Cruz Beach
Of course one of the biggest draws of Santa Cruz is its miles and miles of beaches. If you're looking to stay close to the city, then Santa Cruz Beach is the right choice for you. This beach is the most touristy because it's right next to the Santa Cruz boardwalk and the Municipal Wharf. While it's probably the most crowded, the benefit is that you're just a short walk from the hotels and restaurants.
Seabright Beach is within walking distance of various shops and restaurants. Photo courtesy of Seabright Beach, Facebook
17. Seabright Beach
Seabright Beach, right across the San Lorenzo River from Santa Cruz Beach, is another relatively busy beach near the city's downtown. The beach is sandy and pleasant, a little less crowded than Santa Cruz Beach, and just a couple of blocks from restaurants and shops at Seabright Avenue and Murray Street.
18. New Brighton Beach
Another more natural and secluded beach is Brighton Beach near Soquel Cove. This beach is great for families looking for peace and quiet and the perfect place to camp if you prefer pitching a tent to staying in a hotel. The beach is just a short drive from Capitola, which has lodging, food, and shops.
19. Cowell Beach
Cowell Beach is in pretty much the same place as Santa Cruz Beach, just west of the Municipal Pier. This beach is a little more secluded than the other city-adjacent beaches, and a perfect choice for anyone staying at the Dream Inn.
Natural Bridges State Beach offers a quiet beach experience away from busy Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of the beach
While the namesake bridges have mostly eroded into the sea, Natural Bridges State Beach is very private and away from the hustle and bustle of Santa Cruz and Seabright beaches. Pair a trip to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center with a stop at Natural Bridges. The nearby Monarch Trails is a great place to spot clusters of butterflies during the fall through the late winter.
21. Capitola Beach
Capitola Beach is quieter than the main Santa Cruz beaches but is not far from the cute village of Capitola. Soquel Creek ends right at the beach's sandy spit, creating a calm baby-friendly beach on one side and a more typical beach on the other.
Santa Cruz Restaurants Kids Will Love
22. Santa Cruz Diner
Looking for that All-American diner that serves just about everything? Santa Cruz Diner is your spot—the place is Guy Fieri-endorsed, after all! The menu features typical diner fare plus items with an Asian flare like pho, curry, and chicken teriyaki, setting it apart from the typical diner. Plus, there are lots of options for vegetarians and vegans.
If you're hitting the beach in Capitola or at New Brighton, head down to the end of the pier for a bite at the Wharf House. The restaurant has incredible views of the bay and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The menu offers plenty of seafood as expected, but there are also burgers, pastas, sandwiches, and more.
Makai Island Kitchen serves up Asian Fusion on the Municipal Wharf. Photo courtesy of makaisantacruz.com
For a pier-dining experience in the city of Santa Cruz, there are several choices on the Municipal Wharf. If you're looking for very family-friendly, Gilda's features diner food and a kids' menu. If you're more interested in seafood, there's Stagnaro Bros. and the Riva Fish House. Other options include Mexican at Olitas or Asian fusion at Makai Island Kitchen.
The retro Betty Burgers is the place to go if you're craving meat. Photo courtesy of Betty Burgers, Facebook
25. Betty Burgers
This retro joint on Seabright Avenue serves up hot grilled burgers like the Smokin' Betty (roasted balsamic onions, smoked cheddar cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayo), Texas Two Step (onion rings, bacon, cheddar, and Betty's homemade BBQ sauce, and the Mad Max (fresh guacamole, pepper jack cheese, and mild chipotle sauce). There are other locations in Aptos and on the Eastside, plus the "Eat Inn" downtown.
Great Santa Cruz Hotels and Other Lodging for Families
The Santa Cruz / Monterey Bay KOA offers a variety of lodging options for families. Photo courtesy of koa.com
Located about 20 minutes outside the city, close to Watsonville, is the Santa Cruz / Monterey Bay KOA. For lodging, choose from a variety of cabins, or go even fancier with a retro Airstream rental. You can also choose to stay in your own RV or camp in your own tent. The campground offers endless fun for kids, including mini golf, a giant bounce pad, a small arcade, and a rock-climbing wall.
We stayed in the Dream Inn for one of our recent Santa Cruz vacations, and it absolutely lives up to its name. The views of the ocean are spectacular, and during the summer you can do a little people-watching from your balcony before hitting the beach. The water is no more than 10 minutes from your room, with the Santa Cruz boardwalk about 20 minutes away.
The colorful Capitola Venetian Hotel is located right on the sand. Photo courtesy of californiabeaches.com
The colorful Capitola Venetian Hotel is located right next to the water and the city's wharf. The historical structure was built in the 1920s and has a distinct Mediterranean style. The city of Capitola has a cute seaside downtown that's great for strolling, plus all the sites and sounds of Santa Cruz are a five-minute drive away.
If proximity to the Santa Cruz boardwalk and Santa Cruz Beach is most important to your family, the Beach Street Inn and Suites are only two blocks away. The hotel has a heated pool and hot tub, an on-site cafe, laundry and dry-cleaning service, and more.
The brand-new Hyatt Place is the modern choice for accommodations. It's across the San Lorenzo River from the downtown district and is a convenient drive from all of the attractions on this list. Hyatt Place offers a heated pool, a fitness center, free breakfast, and other amenities.