Santa Cruz is the quintessential Californian seaside town that offers the perfect blend of natural beauty, beaches, and vibrant culture. From the soaring cliffs and ocean views of West Cliff Drive to sea-life centers and a waterfront amusement park, there are plenty of exciting things to do right at the doorstep of your Santa Cruz vacation rental. Whether you’re looking for classic tourist spots, whale-watching tours, or off-the-beaten-path attractions such as Pigeon Point Lighthouse, here are 15 fun attractions to enjoy during your next beach vacation.
1. Ride the Roaring Camp Railroad
This family-friendly Santa Cruz attraction gives you the chance to board a 19th-century steam locomotive for a scenic ride leaving from Felton or the beach boardwalk. Take the Redwood Forest Steam Train to travel through breathtaking groves of California redwoods to the summit of Bear Mountain, or hop on the Santa Cruz Beach Train for views of the coastline.
2. Experience the Mystery Spot
A classic tourist attraction that’s popular with kids, the Mystery Spot lies in an area of the Redwoods where the laws of gravity seem to take a turn for the stranger. Here, objects tilt without falling and balls roll uphill. After exploring the fun visual illusions, feel free to hike the trail leading through the redwoods.
3. Take Surf Lessons
Adventure Out offers beginner surf lessons so you can start catching waves for a more exciting beach experience. An experienced instructor teaches you the basics in a calmer area before you progress to the bigger waves, making it a fun experience for vacationers of all ages.
4. Visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
Located on an old lighthouse overlooking the Pacific, this small museum displays surf photos, displays, and old surfboards for a fun history lesson. Before heading back to your vacation rental for a barbecue, stop outside the museum to watch the surfers catching waves in the ocean below.
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5. Check Out the Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Learn about the sea otters, seals, and other local sea life that you can spot from your Santa Cruz vacation rental while touring this marine center located close to Natural Bridges State Park. Kids love touching the sea anemones and hermit crabs in the touch pool, and vacationers of all ages enjoy learning about the behavior of elephant seals and viewing the specimens in the shark pool.
6. Walk Through the UCSC Arboretum
After a day of hiking or sunbathing on the beach, stop by this 145-acre arboretum with views of Monterrey Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Stroll through everything from redwood groves to an Australian rock garden to wind down before returning to your vacation home.
7. See a Movie at the Nickelodeon Theatre
If you’re looking for something to do on a rainy day or a cool evening, stop by this theater to watch a screening of a lesser known, indie, or international film. Be sure to grab some hot popcorn with real butter along with a bottle of lemonade or some hot tea.
8. Head to Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Stop by this beautiful lighthouse just north of Santa Cruz for breathtaking cliff views and great photo opportunities. Check out the museum and souvenir shop before driving further along the coast or returning to your rental for some relaxation.
9. Embark on a Whale-Watching Cruise
Book your yacht tour with Stagnaro, the oldest company in Monterey Bay, to see dolphins, porpoises, and humpback whales. Other common sea life sightings include otters, seals, and sea lions, and you might even glimpse a gray whale if you’re visiting from December to April.
10. Go Sailing
Looking for a unique way to enjoy the Pacific coastline? Book a private charter or embark on a daily cruise with California Classic Sail. Enjoy the rare opportunity to sail out on a wooden vessel designed more than 100 years ago.
11. Visit MJA Vineyards
You can’t travel to California wine country without visiting a vineyard. MJA is a local favorite offering laid-back ambiance and hand-crafted pinots and cabernets. Stop by on a Friday or Saturday afternoon to enjoy live music.
12. Rent a Few Kayaks
See seals, sea otters, and sea birds up close while enjoying a breezy day in Santa Cruz while paddling a kayak from Venture Quest. You can also take a guided tour or rent stand-up paddle boards for a change of pace.
13. Enjoy the Rides at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
After a day of playing at the beach in front of your vacation home, stop by the boardwalk built in 1907 for some old-fashioned seaside carnival rides. Enjoy the views from the Ferris wheel, or ride the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster that has been thrilling visitors since 1924.
14. See the Santa Cruz Mission
Tour this old Spanish mission founded in 1791 to see the reconstructed church and rare, remaining living quarters while learning about the early days of Christianity in California. Afterwards, explore the park area to view exhibits detailing the Native American peoples of California.
15. Explore the Sanctuary Exploration Center
A family friendly facility detailing the conservation and sea life of Monterey Bay, the Sanctuary Exploration Center offers fun interactive exhibits for kids as well as a touch pool and a kelp forest. Be sure to check out the mini theater to see images of local sea life.
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