BEST things to do in Santa Cruz with Kids: Weekend Guide + Itinerary (2024)

Looking for the best things to do in Santa Cruz with kids? I just took my sons there and have all the details about what to do while you’re there, the best places to stay, and where to eat – I also included a 3 day itinerary for you! 

Santa Cruz is a charming, old-fashioned beach town. I love it because it has a laid back, no frills, hippie type of vibe.

It’s so different from all of the other California beach towns, almost like you’re going back into time.

I loved seeing my older son’s expression as we got there (the younger one is happy seeing anything, really).

The huge palm trees on the way in, the boardwalk roller coasters, the wide beach with big waves, the boats in the harbor, the lighthouse, even the seagulls.

It’s such a magical place for kids, and an overly family friendly town. There’s SO much to do there!

So, if you’re heading to the Bay Area and want to visit a surfer’s paradise, you must Santa Cruz!

So read over the best things to do in my ultimate guide to Santa Cruz below!

Key Takeaways

  • Santa Cruz is a laid-back California beach town with plenty to do for everyone in the family. It’s compact and easy to get around; most people get around by bike. 
  • A few of the best things to do in Santa Cruz are to visit the many beaches, go to the Beach Boardwalk, ride bikes on West Cliff bike path, and play at the Santa Cruz Children’s Museum. 
  • Santa Cruz offers all types of accommodations, but the most famous is The Dream Inn.  

And if want to head over to neighboring Capitola,
check out my full Capitola guide! 

Want to know the best place to stay in Santa Cruz?

We stayed at the Dream Inn and loved it. It has a fun, retro vibe. It’s the only hotel in Santa Cruz that is actually on the beach, plus there’s a fabulous outdoor area, a coffee shop on-site, and a big patio in every room. Plus the location is perfect!

✅ Check prices and book the Dream Inn here! 

Table of Contents

Best Things to Do in Santa Cruz

1. Beaches

Santa Cruz has many different beaches with different vibes. My two favorites are Main Beach and Twin Lakes Beach. 

Main Beach is where all the action is. This is the beach that the beach boardwalk is on. It’s also within walking distance of the wharf. Completely family friendly, there are all kinds of food options, volleyball nets, big public bathrooms, showers, bike racks, and water fountains available.

Twin Lakes Beach is another popular area, Twin Lakes beach is This is also one of the only beaches that allows bonfires, so you’ll usually see a couple happening in the cooler morning or evening hours.  

one of the best things to do in santa cruz with kids is visit the beach!
one of the best baby sun safety tips is to cover baby's skin

2. Beach Boardwalk

The biggest draw to Santa Cruz is the legendary Beach Boardwalk—this place is like right out of a movie.

Rides like huge roller coasters to baby approved carousels, all types of games, a variety of foods from funnel cakes to craft beers, the casino arcade, mini golf, bowling, all with perfect beach views.

To top it off, during summer there are nightly family events.

Firework shows, yes. Live music, yes. Drive-in movies, yes. Should you go there, yes!  

one of the best things to do in santa cruz with kids is visit the beach boardwalk!

3. Wharf

Another old school classic is the Santa Cruz Wharf.

Wear comfy shoes because it stretches for half a mile—it’s the longest wooden pier in the country!

It’s within walking distance of the boardwalk and there are plenty of restaurants, beach ware and souvenir shops, and beautiful views of beaches and open sea for as long as you can see (there are telescopes too!)

While you’re strolling you can make friends with the sea lions that like to chill there, and sometimes you can even spot whales or dolphins.  

santa-cruz-with-kids
santa-cruz-with-kids

4. Ride bikes on West Cliff Bike Path

A bike is a must to get around Santa Cruz, it’s how you can really discover the town.

And the most popular bike (and walking) path is West Cliff Drive.

It’s a wide path, very easy to navigate, and almost all flat.

It starts at the wharf and goes about three miles where you’ll rider past cliff views, Steamer Lane (where you can watch the gnarly surfers), the famous surfer statue, an open grassy area to run around, Its Beach, Mitchell’s Cove Beach (which is the best spot to stop for some beach fun!), then end at Natural Bridges Beach.

You’ll get the best views in town from this path!   

one of the best things to do in santa cruz with kids is ride a bike along west cliff drive!
santa-cruz-with-kids

5. Downtown Santa Cruz

I love how charming and still trendy Downtown Santa Cruz is.

It’s full of restaurants, shops, bars, music venues, a movie theater, even street performers!

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History and various art galleries are also there.

The charming aspect of it is that unlike many outdoor shopping malls, Downtown Santa Cruz is full of local shops, bookstores, and family-owned restaurants.

Some of the cool events are Wednesday Farmer’s Markets, First Fridays (when the area turns into a art gallery with live music and wine), the Greek Festival in May, Pride in June, and the Chocolate Festival in January (yum!) 

downtown santa cruz

6. Roaring Camp Railroad

If your kid in any way likes trains, this is the thing to do. Seriously, this is IT.

A real deal steam train ride through the Redwood Forest and up to the summit of Bear Mountain. It’s a little over an hour, and it departs from Felton so you’ll need a car for this excursion. 

The little town in Felton is adorable, like an old timey western town. There are a couple of spots to eat and get some snacks. My kids loved it there. 

There are a couple of rides a day and adults are $33pp while children over 2 are $24 each.

Reserve your tickets prior here. 

roaring camp railroad is one of the best thing to do in santa cruz with kids

7. Santa Cruz Children’s Museum

Technically in Capitola, but close enough.

In the Capitola Mall (which is random, but at least parking is easy), it’s a little over a mile from the center of town but WELL worth the drive.

There are multiple rooms jam packed with a range of hands-on activities. A play pizza shop, train area, rock climbing wall, a playhouse with a garden, musical instrument area, kinetic sand box, a race car track…the list goes on. There’s also a gated baby area too.

This place is incredible and definitely a must see! An added bonus is that there are a ton of different dining options next door including a Starbucks if you want to go early when it opens.

Check it out here.  

capitola childrens museum is a must see when in capitola with kids

8. Playgrounds

Ocean View Park: A good sized neighborhood park with multiple play structures, swings, slides, a half basketball court, and amazing views of the ocean and Boardwalk. My kids loved it here, they didn’t want to leave!

Riverside Gardens Park: Within walking distance of the Boardwalk, Riverside Gardens is a small park with a community garden. There’s a playground, picnic tables, and plenty of grass to run around on. This is more suited for toddlers. 

ocean view park is one of the best things to do in santa cruz

9. Seymour Marine Discovery Center

A small aquarium right on the water, this is a real treat for toddlers. Just the whale skeleton at the entrance will get them excited!

Inside, there are about 20 tanks with different types of species from Monterey Bay and touch tanks for sharks, sea stars, and hermit crabs. There are also tours and special exhibits to sign up for. 

We walked outside to view the ocean and there were more whale skeletons plus employees teaching everyone about whale teeth! My kids had such a great time there! 

Check out more info here.

marine center

Best Places to Eat in Santa Cruz

I haven’t been to a restaurant I didn’t like in Santa Cruz, but here’s a list of THE places to eat. I have been to each and can vouch for how good they are! 

Breakfast: Zachary’s

Café: Linda’s

American: Crow’s Nest, Ideal Bar & Grill

Seafood: Riva’s Fish house

Burgers: Betty’s Burgers

Mediterranean: Laili 

Sample Itinerary for Santa Cruz

Day 1: Get to Santa Cruz.

  • Drive to the Harbor and put your name down at Crow’s Nest.
  • While you wait for your table, get your feet in the sand on Harbor Beach and walk over to the Lighthouse for some great pictures.
 

Day 2: Ride your bike to the Boardwalk

  • Go downtown and get breakfast at Zachary’s.
  • Head over to the bike rental shop and ride the West Cliff bike path. Make stops for plenty of pictures, and cool off at Natural Bridges Beach.
  • Hit the Beach Boardwalk for the rest of the day.
 

Day 3: Take a train in the forest

  • Walk the wharf and get breakfast and do some shopping.
  • Get in the car and head over to the Roaring Camp railroad.
  • Then, head home! 

Best Places to Stay in Santa Cruz

There are all types of places you can stay in Santa Cruz—from bed and breakfasts to beachfront hotels. Note that there aren’t the high rises and luxury resorts you’re used to around big beach areas.

There are a lot more 2-and 3-star inns and hotels.

Here are a few family-friendly options for hotels around the Boardwalk area:

Luxury

I LOVE THE Dream Inn. It has a fun, retro vibe. It’s the only hotel in Santa Cruz that is actually on the beach and ALL rooms have a beach view.

It has a fabulous outdoor area too, with a heated pool, hot tub, food and drink service, and fire pit. It also has a small coffee shop in the lobby for coffee, pastries, and breakfast items.

There are no options for suites with separate rooms, but every room has a big, furnished patio for you to escape to after the kids go to sleep. Cribs or pack-and-plays are offered at no extra charge.

✅ Check prices and book your stay at the Dream Inn here!

Mid-Range

Beach Street Inn‘s fun and bright design gives it an old time California feel. Across the street from the boardwalk and the wharf, it is in the prime location.

In addition to standard rooms, there are many options for 1- or 2-bedroom suites with kitchens. The outdoor area features a heated pool, hot tub, and fire pit. They also have free washer and dryers available!

✅ Check prices and book your stay at Beach Street Inn here!

Value

The brightly decorated Carousel Beach Inn is steps away from the beach boardwalk. A complimentary continental breakfast is served daily and a fridge and microwave are in every room. Only standard rooms are offered, but each has a private patio.

✅ Check prices and book your stay at the Carousel Beach Inn here!

Getting Around Santa Cruz

Walk or Bike:

If you stay near the Wharf or the Boardwalk (which I recommend), you can easily get around by walking or biking. It’s very common to see a lot of people biking around town. I even overheard a local say to someone that “biking is a part of our DNA.”

Car:

If you want to explore the whole area or check out neighboring cities, then rent a car. Check for rental cars here.  

How to Get to Santa Cruz

SJC: The closest airport to Santa Cruz is San Jose International Airport, it’s a little over 30 miles away and about 45 minutes without traffic. SJC is a small-ish, easily manageable airport.

SFO: San Francisco International Airport is roughly 60 miles north of Santa Cruz and about an hour away without traffic. SFO is a beast of an airport. You’ll most likely find more direct options for flights at a cheaper price, but you’ll have to deal with the craziness.

OAK: Oakland International Airport is about 65 miles away from Santa Cruz. Unless you’re starting your trip in the Bay Area and then heading to Santa Cruz, I wouldn’t recommend flying into Oakland for a Santa Cruz trip. But if you’re staying in the Bay first, I prefer it because it’s smaller than SFO.

⚠️ First time flying?  
Read over my expert tips for flying with kids here.
If you’re traveling with teeny tiny ones, read my tips for flying with newborns here

Wrapping up: Best Things to Do in Santa Cruz with Kids

There you have it! Everything you need to know for your trip to Santa Cruz.

Whether you want to chill on the beach, visit downtown, or explore the town on a bike, there are plenty of things to do in Santa Cruz to make your trip memorable and exciting.

Enjoy!

MEET BESA

Your Go-To Girl for Beach Travel

Hi! I’m Besa. I’ve always been a travel-loving beach bum… and then I had kids. Two boys, born 19 months apart. But I didn’t let that stop me. I still travel, even with a couple little boys in tow – and I want to help other parents like you do the same!

I’ll be sharing all my travel tips, beach hacks, and guides for some of my favorite family vacation beach spots.

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Why Trust Beaches and Babies?

Besa has been a frequent traveler for almost 20 years, and the last five years of her travels have included her two toddler boys, 19 months apart.
Years of flying and beach bumming with her kids has given her plenty of hard-earned experience in the travel world.

Need Help Booking Your Trip?
Use My Favorite Resources!

FLIGHTS
Kayak searches hundreds of travel sites for the lowest prices plus the flexible calendar tells you which days are the cheapest to fly.

LODGING
booking.com is easy to use and gives options for all types of lodging. When I know I want a big rental house, I use VRBO.

RENTAL CARS
rentalcars.com scans multiple agencies at your destination to give you the best price.

ACTIVITIES
Viator lets you search for a specific activity at your destination or scroll all available.

Read over my full list of the best sites to book with on my Resources page.