One of the things I’m grateful for about living in the San Francisco Bay Area is how close it is to Santa Cruz, where you can ogle surfers, butterflies, and passing whales. If you’re ever able, I encourage you to check out Santa Cruz with kids; here are my top must-see spots…
1. Santa Cruz Boardwalk and Beach. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is extremely family-friendly. I really appreciate that there is no smoking allowed, and the security staff politely, but firmly, enforces it. There are rides for young kids through adults. The minimum height for most of the rides is 34″ tall. Even if your child is shorter than that, there is at least the carousel. If you can come back a few times, I highly recommend buying the 50 pack of ride tickets because they never, ever expire. The food is of course a bit pricey, but at least it’s all kid-friendly. We usually hit the boardwalk, eat lunch, then head out onto the sand to build sand castles. The water is too cold to swim in without a wetsuit, but it’s quite nice to dip your feet in on a warm day.
2. Seymour Marine Discovery Center. Don’t miss the Marine Discovery Center tour (free with admission) which includes two whale skeletons, the center’s resident dolphins and seal, and a beautiful ocean view. On a clear day, you can see Monterey. While you’re waiting for your tour to start, you can check out the exhibit hall, which includes historic photos of the area, an invertebrate pool where you can touch starfish, hermit crabs, and sea urchins, a shark pool where you can touch swell sharks, and aquariums filled with eels, sharks, and jellyfish. My kids’ favorite thing at the center were the sculptures of an elephant seal family out front. Visitors are welcome to sit, climb, and lie down on the sculptures, which get nice and warm in the sun. Be warned, it can be quite windy, so bring layers.
3. Natural Bridges State Beach is my favorite beach in Santa Cruz. Between mid-October through January, as many as 100,000 monarch butterflies congregate in the park’s Monarch Grove. When I first saw the butterflies, I couldn’t tell what I was looking at because they form huge, long clusters. There’s a visitor’s center that highlights local natural history and sells butterfly-themed books and shirts. A few times I’ve been there, they also had monarch butterfly chrysalides for kids to see up close.
The beach is clean, usually warm, and has a small lake that feeds into the ocean. My kids can spend hours building sand castles and canals there. Just a short, easy climb up some rocks and around a corner, there are tide pools full of small crabs, snails, mussels, and sea anemones.
4. San Lorenzo Park and Laurel Park have great play areas for young and slightly older kids. San Lorenzo Park also has a duck pond. Laurel Park has a laundromat with a cafe just across the street in case you forget to dry your kids’ swimsuits the day before, like we did.
5. Be sure to check out the children’s section in Bookshop Santa Cruz, an independently-owned bookstore. There’s a preschool story time on Wednesday mornings, a wide variety of educational toys, and a comfy nook to hang out in while you read to your kids.
6. Need some sweets? Downtown Santa Cruz is centered around Pacific Ave; be sure to pick up some cookies from the Pacific Cookie Company (I highly recommend their Mint Condition and Dark Chocolate Cranberry cookies) It feels like every other store sold ice cream, but I highly recommend the Penny Ice Creamery and the Mission Hill Creamery. If like me, you need to get your last ice cream fix in minutes before you get onto the freeway, you should stop at Marianne’s Ice Cream. Be warned, my husband had the apple pie there, and it was really, really bad, I’d recommend sticking with their ice cream.
7. You can catch the train from the boardwalk and head up into the redwoods to Roaring Camp Railroads and see a beautiful view of the San Lorenzo River. If your kids are into Thomas the Tank Engine, check out “A Day Out with Thomas”, which includes riding in a car pulled by Thomas himself, meeting with Sir Topham Hatt, and tables set up with model trains for kids to play with.
8. Family-friendly Restaurants. Eating well isn’t usually cheap, and you do better for paying a bit more. I want to eat everything at Kelly’s French Bakery. A great all-vegetarian restaurant is the Saturn Cafe. Be sure to check out Mobo Sushi where you can “Roll Your Own” sushi.
9. Places to Stay. If we’d gone with another family, I would have tried to rent a house, but two basic hotels we stay at and liked are the Best Western Plus All Suites and the Continental Inn on Ocean St. They’re not fancy, but they’re comfortable, have good breakfasts, and are located within walking distance of both downtown and the beach.
10. Come defy gravity at the Mystery Spot. Take the 45-minute tour to watch a ball appear to roll uphill and see inexplicable perspectives where a very tall person can appear significantly shorter than a short person. The hill is a bit steep, so younger kids might need to be carried or firmly pushed. Unfortunately, strollers are not allowed on the tour. There are also hiking trails, a canteen that’s open on weekends and holidays, and beautiful gardens.
Got more Santa Cruz tips? Leave them in the comments!