21 Best Free Things to Do in Santa Cruz
Discover the hidden gems of Santa Cruz without breaking the bank! After saving up for your dream getaway journey and choosing a strategically situated Beachnest vacation home rental, you might be seeking savvy tips to stretch your dollar further while delving into the wonders of the area.
Let us guide you through a treasure trove of affordable experiences that ensure your adventure in Santa Cruz is memorable and budget friendly. Fortunately, there is an abundance of free admission activities in Santa Cruz, so your family vacation doesn’t have to break the bank. Here are 21 fun things to do in Santa Cruz that cost you absolutely nothing!
1. Stroll the “World’s Best Seaside Amusement Park”
While it’s not free to ride, walking around the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk and pier area is a favorite pastime of tourists and locals alike. This is where the best people-watching of Santa Cruz can be found.
Bonus: If you’re hoping for some free concerts, just take a listen to the live music played by the many “buskers” or performers that mill about the municipal wharf during the daytime, hoping for tourist tips. Many of them are talented musicians. Or scout out where you can pop in for some local live music.
2. Take Advantage of “Free Friday”
On the first Friday of every month in Santa Cruz, local businesses drum up buzz around their stores by opening their doors to the public after hours for freebie giveaways. Sometimes, you’ll look at local art, sample tidbits of food, or even enjoy a free drink, depending on the establishment. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) even opens three floors up to the public. The perfect way to save some money on a Friday night.
A complete list of participating businesses can be found here.
3. Take a Free Walking Tour of the City’s Historic Sights
The City of Santa Cruz published a collection of self-guided tours through old-Victorian lined streets, the Insta-famous “door to nowhere’, “and the scenic neighborhoods of Beach Hill and Ocean View Avenue. This is a great way to get to know the city beyond its tourist sights.
They also have routes through Watsonville and Capitola.
4. Soak Up the Sun at Some of the Best Beaches in California
Surfing, lounging, sand castles, long romantic walks. There is so much free fun to be had on a beach day in Santa Cruz or Aptos. Favorite beaches include Main Beach, Capitola Beach, Cowell Beach, Rio del Mar Beach, La Selva Beach, Twin Lakes Beach, and Seabright Beach.
5. Pay a Visit to Natural Bridges State Park
While we’re talking about spectacular beaches, Natural Bridges State Beach is incredible. The long stretch of sand slips into the ocean with a smattering of picturesque natural rock arches in the surf. One of the best ways to spend a day here is to comb for marine life at low tide in the tide pools and then stick around for the cotton candy sunsets.
6. Hike Through the Towering Redwoods
California’s most famous trees. These towering giants are scattered throughout California’s coastline in major parks like Redwoods National Park, Sequoia National Park, and the nearby state parks of Big Basin Redwoods and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. But these parks all charge an entrance or parking fee to see the trees. Fortunately, DeLaveaga Park and Quail Hollow Ranch in Santa Cruz both have trails with Redwood forests that cost nothing to visit!
7. Hike in Santa Cruz Mountains
Coastal California’s relatively temperate climate makes it one of the best states for year-round hiking in the USA. Some of the best free places filled with hiking trails (not listed above) are in and around the Santa Cruz Mountains. Favorites include:
- Castle Rock State Park
- Land of the Medicine Buddha
- Nisene Marks State Park
- Wilder Ranch State Park
8. Try Out Some Water Sports
Particularly surfing, kayaking, SUP, or anything that gets you out and moving on the cool waters of the Pacific. Technically speaking, this might not be a totally free adventure as you’ll need equipment unless you plan ahead and bring it with you on your trip.
9. Free First Tuesday’s at the Botanical Gardens
The Arboretum at UC Santa Cruz seems to always have something in bloom. The grounds of the University of California are known for their beautiful natural scenery and walkability. Every first Tuesday of the month, the Arboretum waves its admission fee and lets the public enjoy the flora for free!
10. Window Shop in Downtown Santa Cruz
The main street of Santa Cruz is filled with quirky shops, unique, high-quality clothing, and eclectic souvenirs. Perfect for browsing. Even if you don’t have the intention to buy, it can be a great way to kill a few hours on a slow afternoon. Here’s a collection of our favorite shops in downtown Santa Cruz.
11. Walk or Bike the Iconic West Cliff Drive
The famous West Cliff Drive winds past parks and scenic vistas along the coast. This is an absolute must-visit in Santa Cruz. Freebie or not! It’s best done with coffee from a local cafe in hand and plenty of time to leisurely stroll and enjoy the numerous statues and sights along the way.
12. Watch the Best Local Surfer’s Take on Steamer Lane
You’ll eventually reach Lighthouse Point and Streamers Lane as you stroll West Cliff Drive. This local surf spot is perfectly situated with a spectator’s perch to the waves below. And if you get bored of watching pro surfers wipe out in the waves, you can wander over to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, which is located inside the lighthouse overlooking the Pacific. There’s no fee to visit!
This also happens to be one of the best sunset vistas looking toward the Santa Cruz Harbor. If you’re lucky, it’s possible to spot some whales here without paying for a whale-watching tour!
13. Check out a few of the Other Admission Free Museums
Interested in the natural history of Santa Cruz? Or perhaps the marine life brimming within the bay? Some of the 100% free Santa Cruz museums include:
- Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center
- San Lorenzo Valley Historical Museum
- Capitola Museum
- Aptos History Museum
- The Seymour Marine Discovery Center (open for free on select days of the year)
14. Hit a Santa Cruz Farmers Market Any Day of the Week
California has the best farmer’s markets. It’s warm (mostly) and sunny (nearly always) year-round. The Santa Cruz area just so happens to have a farmer’s market just about every single day of the week. Use them for free samples and free restrooms while you’re out exploring.
15. Watch for Local Wildlife
At the end of the Santa Cruz Wharf, you’ll often find the resident sea lions bobbing in the surf. Or you can take a free guided nature walk through the wetlands of Watsonville to spot an array of local birds. Just stop in at the visitor center to get their tour schedule. Other wildlife to spot around the Santa Cruz area include otters, starfish, red-tailed hawks, banana slugs, pelicans, shore crabs, and more.
16. Experience Monarch Butterfly Grove
During the months of October to January, spectators are in for a rare treat as thousands of Monarchs descend on the town of Santa Cruz as they make their way south in a great migration. This can be a fun wildlife experience for the whole family. This is yet another excuse to visit the Natural Bridges State Beach at its Monarch Butterfly Grove!
17. Twilight Concerts and Movie Nights on the Sand
During the warmer summer months, the City of Santa Cruz hosts numerous outdoor community events, including live music, concerts, and full-fledged movie nights on the beach. The best part about these events is that they are almost always free for the whole community. This includes travelers and those visiting the Santa Cruz area!
18. Watch the Wednesday Night Sailboat Races
You can watch the local sailing community put on a casual regatta in the bay from March through October at the Wednesday Night Sailboat Races. Every Wednesday evening, sails unfurl and seem nearly as numerous as surfboards along the shores of Santa Cruz. It can be a fun, family-friendly activity for a weekday night.
19. Attend Some Local Art Events
The Spring Art Market, First Friday Art Tour, and Arts and Wine Festival all take place in the temperate Spring and Summer months of Santa Cruz. While not typical tourist attractions, it’s a great way to spend an afternoon and get to know the people who call Santa Cruz home. Check out the official events website of Santa Cruz for exact dates and details.
20. Consider the Bigfoot Discovery Museum in Felton
This small free “museum” is an interesting attraction. The Bigfoot Discovery Museum is closed on Tuesday, but totally free to visit the other days of the week. While you’re out there, consider paying the $8 to visit the Mystery Spot if you’re into quirky American roadside attractions.
21. Take A Scenic Drive Up Highway 101
If you’re willing to venture a little further outside the city limits, Highway 101 is America’s most scenic road trip destination. Along it, you’ll be treated to countless stunning viewpoints and roadside attractions all the way to San Francisco. Gas isn’t free, but I promise that if you have your own car, this is well worth it.
Santa Cruz is a Fantastic Destination for All Budgets
Make Santa Cruz your next vacation destination because of our lovely seaside vacation rentals for the whole family! There are plenty of free and fabulous community events and natural spaces to keep you busy and fully entertained on your next getaway. Skip the golf course and more spendy Roaring Camp railroad rides and savor the local life instead!