From the brain-bending Mystery Spot, to the Santa Cruz Diner to the classic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, there's so much to do in this coastal redwood-forested wonderland. But, if you only have a weekend, here are a few of the best places to find your flow in Santa Cruz.
The Mystery Spot is a classic, retro roadside attraction that'll entertain and mystify kids and curious adults alike. The building seems to defy the very laws of physics, and the $6 entrance fee is worth it for the wacky pictures you'll get to take here! Don't leave without grabbing one of their iconic bumper stickers (which are free after the tour); it's the perfect proof that you've experienced the strangeness that is The Mystery Spot.
Lighthouse Field State Beach is a great place to get a feel for Santa Cruz. The beach is lovely and clean during low tide, and makes for a great place to watch the waves crash against the coast during high tide. The lighthouse, for which the park is named, houses a totally rad surf museum, and it's a great spot for people to watch experienced surfers catch waves at Steamer Lane. Sea lions and monarch butterflies love to hang out here, too!
For a sandier beach experience, head to the Main Beach. Play volleyball, try your hand at surfing, or just go for a walk down the shore. This is also where you'll find the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, with its roller coasters and carnival-like atmosphere. If you've worked up an appetite swimming and building sand castles, grab a hot dog, stroll down the boardwalk, and soak up the California coastal vibes.
Classic attractions, like the vintage Giant Dipper roller coaster, mini golf, retro carousel, and the arcade, plus laser tag, the water slide, and various thrill rides will keep kids and adults alike entertained. During the summer, they feature events like free live music on Friday nights and movies on the beach on Wednesday nights as well. Snag an all-day rides or rides+attractions wristbands for the family, because everyone is gonna want to stay until they've tried everything at least once!
While you can see the Santa Cruz Boardwalk from Seabright State Beach, Seabright is infinitely less crowded. This beach is great for stand-up paddleboarding and fishing as well as swimming, but the coolest part is that you can build a bonfire here at night. The fire rings are first come, first serve, so get here early with your hot dogs and s'mores fixings!
The Santa Cruz Diner is an experience all its own. Bringing East Coast seaside town vibes to California, this cozy restaurant happens to have a menu that features literally everything; you can enjoy a side of pho with your country fried steak. The late-night hours, friendly service and dessert case featuring pie and cake add to the experience.
If you're looking to satisfy a sweet tooth, then a trip to Marianne's Ice Cream is a must. Now with an Aptos, CA location, they've been serving up huge scoops of old-fashioned, homemade ice cream from the old-school red building since the 1940s, and it's a local institution. From vanilla and chocolate to lavender, horchata, and green tea, they can have up to 70 flavors available at once! Sample a few to choose one you like (and definitely ask to try their 10-20 flavor, which is caramel, chocolate, and Oreos.)
Cafe Brasil is one of the best brunch spots in Santa Cruz. Featuring classic breakfast dishes with a twist (like banana pancakes) and authentic Brazilian cuisine, as well as tons of tropical fruit bowls, juices and smoothies, a meal here will fill you up but leave you feeling healthy and ready to take on the day!
The Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park preserves the site of a Spanish settlement founded all the way back in 1791. A half-sized replica of the first church building stands here for guests to explore, and there's one original building to visit as well, a dormitory for Native American residents of the mission. Plus, the park offers a patio and gardens where you can relax and soak in views of the city.
The Court of Mysteries is one of Santa Cruz's most legendary homes; and when I say "legendary", I'm talking about urban legends. The stories, some of which are true, involve Middle Eastern mysticism, WWII weapons tech, and love lost.
It was built by Kenneth Claire Kitchens with the help of his brother, Raymond, stoneworkers who helped build many houses in Santa Cruz in the 1930's and 1940's. As the tales go, Kenneth worked on it only at night, hauling bricks to the site in the trunk of his Cadillac. Some say he was merely building his dream home, others say he designed the grand house to impress a woman who wouldn't have him. Either way, the design is unlike anything else in the area, allegedly modeled after yogi temples and adorned with obelisks, minarets, windows that align with the sun and moon, a tomb-like well house and a weird pyramid symbol. The brothers also allegedly had an anti-submarine machine on their property to ward off attacks from the Japanese during WWII, which was a fear for residents of Santa Cruz.
Kitchens eventually abandoned the mansion, and it was turned into a Greek Orthodox Church. It was recently sold in March of 2016, and before that it always seemed to be on the edge of being torn down, although maybe part of its magic is that it remains standing to this day. Either way, drive past and ponder its mysteries (from the road, of course, since this is still a private home) while you still have a chance!
One of Santa Cruz's most iconic views is Natural Bridges State Beach. The massive sea arch is a one-of-a-kind natural wonder, and the tide pools filled with starfish, urchins, shells, and more, as well as the chance to see migrating whales and adorable sea otters, make a trip here an enchanting experience.
Two days might not seem like a lot of time, but it's enough to get a taste of Santa Cruz's beachside beauty, distinctive California culture, and quirky attractions. No matter what you do during your trip, a weekend in Santa Cruz will definitely leave you wanting more!
Santa Cruz is a classic California beach town, birthplace of U.S. surfing and home to a seaside amusement park. With 14 state parks and beaches, redwood forests, wildlife viewing, boutique wineries and microbreweries, farm-to-table fare, and a vintage steam train, there’s something for everyone.