Santa Cruz is a cozy beach city that sits along California’s central coast, with gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Cruz Mountains. The laid-back energy of this area makes it a great place for families, and many of the vacation rentals in Santa Cruz are just a stone’s throw away from the beach. From relaxing on the beach to riding massive roller coasters on the boardwalk, there’s always something to do in this peaceful beach paradise. Check out this list of the top 9 things to do in Santa Cruz with kids for a fun jump-start on your activities.

1. Visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Have some good old-fashioned fun with the kids at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, home of the Giant Dipper roller coaster. The boardwalk also boasts a wide variety of shops and restaurants, and the tourist population is high, so there are plenty of people-watching opportunities. Ride the coaster if you dare, then head over to the Casino Arcade for some skee ball and video games.

2. Shop and Eat at the Santa Cruz Wharf

For a little souvenir hunting and a tasty lunch, spend the day with your family at the Santa Cruz Wharf. Here, you’ll find a handful of fun shops to peruse and delicious restaurants serving fresh seafood. Pop into Bonnie’s Gift Shop for a knick-knack or two, then grab lunch at Gilda’s, a popular waterfront spot that serves some of the best clam chowders in town.

3. Go Horseback Riding at Wilder Ranch

For a fun, recreational day spent in the company of beautiful animals, visit Wilder Ranch. Built in the 1800s as a dairy ranch, Wilder Ranch has walking trails, equestrian trails, historic buildings, and a thriving community of farm animals. The ranch conducts walking tours where you can learn about the activities of the early ranchers, as well as blacksmithing demonstrations. Start your day off horseback riding along the equestrian trails, then head to the front lawn to enjoy a family picnic.

4. Go Camping at New Brighton State Beach

If you want to spend some time with your kids away from your vacation rental and relaxing in nature, take a five-mile trip into neighboring Capitola and spend the night at New Brighton State Beach. Set up camp on the bluffs just steps away from Monterey Bay, and watch the sun set as you roast marshmallows over a campfire. The beach is an extremely popular camping area, so you may also make a few new friends during your camping adventure.

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5. Spend the Day at the Beach

Nothing beats a beach day, and Santa Cruz has some of the most beautiful beaches around. Spend the day at Santa Cruz Beach building sandcastles, swimming, or enjoying a family picnic, or visit Natural Bridges State Beach for some fun in the sun and fantastic views of the natural rock formations in the ocean. If you’ve got a dog tagging along on your vacation, Twin Lakes State Beach is dog-friendly. For a little adventure during your beach visit, sign up for a family kiteboarding lesson with Alex’s Kitesurf Lessons of Santa Cruz.

6. Go Whale Watching at Monterey Bay

Have a whale of a time at the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Exploration Center, where you can learn about marine life from the multiple indoor exhibits, then step outside and whale watch from Lighthouse Point. The center also features real-time marine life displays where visitors can view what’s happening beneath the water via large LCD video screens.

7. Check Out the Santa Cruz Lighthouse and Surfing Museum

If your kids are into surfing, the Santa Cruz Lighthouse and Surfing Museum is a must-see attraction. The museum overlooks Steamer Lane, a well-known surfing spot on the Pacific Ocean, and it houses surfboards and artifacts that date back to the early 1900s. The museum sits in a small building that’s connected to the Santa Cruz Lighthouse, a beloved landmark that was built in the late 1800s to meet the demands of harbor traffic.

8. Defy Gravity at the Mystery Spot

The Mystery Spot is a popular Santa Cruz landmark that defies gravity by optical illusion, a scientific mystery, or both, depending on how you perceive it. Discovered in 1941 by a man named George Prather, the Mystery Spot is something you have to see to believe. Balls roll uphill, people can bend over past their toes without losing balance, and compasses go berserk in this unique area that’s also referred to as a gravity hill. Whether real or imagined, visitors report that gravity is definitely a little wacky in this area, so it’s definitely worth the reasonable price of admission to check it out.

9. Visit the Seymour Marine Discovery Center

The Seymour Marine Discovery Center at the University of California Santa Cruz is a great place for your kids to learn about marine life while having a lot of fun. Visit the aquarium area and touch sea stars and sea urchins in the invertebrate pool, then head outside and check out the 87-foot gray whale skeleton. The Exhibit Hall offers different exhibits throughout the year, including marine artwork and hands-on scientific learning displays.

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