Things to do in Santa Cruz, CA

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Discover the Best Activities in Santa Cruz, CA

One of the few places where the 1960s catch phrase “do your own thing” still applies, Santa Cruz embraces sculpted surfers, aging hippies, free-thinking students, and same-sex couples. The atmosphere here is fun-loving but far from hedonistic, intellectual but nowhere near stuffy. Friendly and unpretentious, Santa Cruz offers a mix of Southern California’s surf culture and Northern California’s laid-back vibe. Pacific Ave. teems with independent bookstores, cool bars, trendy cafes, and pricey boutiques. Be careful about visiting on Saturday or Sunday, since the town’s population virtually doubles on summer weekends, clogging area highways as daytrippers make their way to and from the Bay Area.

Top Things to Do in Santa Cruz, CA

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Get to Know Santa Cruz, CA

Your one stop resource for where to go, what to see, and how to make the most of your stay.
Produced in partnership with Let's Go! Travel Guides.

Get Oriented

Santa Cruz is on the northern tip of Monterey Bay, 65 mi. south of San Francisco. Through west Santa Cruz, Route 1 becomes Mission Street. The University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) stretches inland from Mission St. Southeast of Mission St. lie the waterfront and the downtown. By the ocean, Beach Street runs roughly east-west. The narrow San Lorenzo River runs north-south, dividing the Boardwalk scene from the quiet residences of the affluent. Pacific Avenue is the main street downtown. Along with Cedar Street, Pacific Ave. carves out a nightlife niche accessible from the beach motels. Resident-traffic-only zones, one-way streets, and dead ends can make Santa Cruz frustrating to navigate.

See & Do

What to do in Santa Cruz

Transport yourself to the 1950s of the movies by strolling the Santa Cruz Boardwalk in the evening. Wander onto the Santa Cruz Wharf to explore the many souvenir shops, rental booths, and restaurants. Or better yet, visit the UC Santa Cruz’s gorgeous Arboretum, which contains over 45 colorful kinds of flowers. Another great destination would be the Mission Santa Cruz, founded by Father Serra’s successor, Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, in 1791. Its peaceful garden is a quiet place to relax for an afternoon.

Top Attractions in Santa Cruz

Need some recommendations about what sites to visit in Santa Cruz? Here are our top picks. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.

Eat & Drink

Santa Cruz offers an astounding number of budget eateries. The restaurant community goes out of its way to embrace vegans—tofu can be substituted for just about anything.

California’s trend-setting status extends beyond fashion and movies to fresh, natural foods. Home to acres of orange and avocado trees, California offers an array of often organic produce in everything from smoothies to salads. Grapes also grow plentifully in the numerously vineyards that line the fields of Napa Valley and central California, the United States’s prime wine country.

Customs & Etiquette

Table manners

In the US, good table manners means quiet eating. Loud chewing, talking with food in your mouth, or slurping are seen as rude, and burping or flatulence is not seen as complementary to the chef. Servers at sitdown restaurants usually expect to be tipped 15-20%.

Public behavior

Dress in the US tends to be more modest than in Europe. Toplessness, particularly in women, should be avoided. Many establishments will require a customer to wear a shirt and shoes. The most acceptable forms of public affection are hugging and holding hands; kissing in public will usually draw some glances. Although most cities are tolerant of homosexuality, gay or lesbian couples should be aware that they may receive unwanted attention for public displays of affection, especially in rural areas. Also, note that many American will say “see you later” without really intending to make future plans.


One of the most offensive gestures in the US is extending your middle finger at someone. Known as “giving someone the finger,” this gesture is considered not only rude, but obscene. On the other hand, a “thumbs up” gesture is a sign of approval and a widely recognized signal for hitchhiking, which Let’s Go does not recommend.

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