Things To Do in Santa Cruz, California with Kids

Spring is coming. This is about the time of year many families start replacing trips to the snow with trips to the beach. If you’re ready to reach into the closet for flip flops instead of ski boots, think about a family vacation in Santa Cruz. There’s plenty of great things to do with kids of all ages in Santa Cruz, but its location sets it apart from other Northern California beachside areas.

Natural Bridges Beach, Santa Cruz, CA
Natural Bridges State Beach

It’s only about a two hour drive from San Francisco, and just 40 minutes from San Jose, which makes it incredibly simple and fun to combine a city trip with a stint at the beach. Having two large airports to choose from also adds wonderful flight flexibility for traveling families.

Get Sandy

If your family loves the beach, you could spend you entire time in Santa Cruz checking out different beaches. Some are quiet and calm for the younger set, while others a little more exciting for the sometimes hard to impress teen crowd. The best known beach is the one attached to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Being able to go back and forth from surf and sand, to rides and attractions is a huge perk.

Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

School age kids and the older teen set might want to add surfing lessons to the vacation itinerary after a stop at Lighthouse Field State Beach. Just off the point, popular surf spot Steamer Lane attracts surfers and just as many if not more watchers. When you see the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, park the car and head toward the water to enjoy the show. It’s worth popping in the one room Santa Cruz Surfing Museum inside the lighthouse, open Thursday through Sunday, 12 to 4 pm.

Natural Bridges State Beach is the calm, relaxing beach on my go-to list. The sandstone arch makes for a picture perfect backdrop and there always seems to be plenty of wildlife like snowy egrets and pelicans out enjoying the beach too.

Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Ms. Blue, Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Meet Ms. Blue

At 87 feet long, Ms. Blue is the world’s largest displayed whale skeleton, so you can’t miss her when you arrive at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at Long Marine Laboratory. Once you get inside the working marine laboratory, you’ll find an assortment of aquarium exhibits and touch tanks. Wander outback on Shipwreck Deck to see the mast of the La Feliz, shipwrecked in 1924 on the rocks in front of the Seymour Marine Discovery Center.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Exploration Center
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center

Explore a Little

Just steps away from the Santa Cruz Wharf is the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center. Less than a year old, it’s all about the nation’s largest marine sanctuary, the Monterey Bay. Exhibits are hands on and eye catching. Plan on spending an hour or so in the center, then venture on to the wharf to meet some boisterous sea lions.

Perfect Pick-Me-Up

If you need a little pick me up in the form of a sugar rush, stop by The Picnic Basket for a scoop or two of incredible ice cream from the Penny Ice Creamery. Made from scratch in small batches, the flavors change with the season and feature locally farmed and organic ingredients. I highly recommend the Sour Cream Ginger Snap and Chocolate Sorbet.

Hotel Paradox Lobby
Hotel Paradox lobby, elegantly woodsy

Exhausted yet? Kid-Friendly Hotel in Santa Cruz

Head straight for the new The Hotel Paradox to recharge the entire family. It’s not your typically beach town hotel and you know you’ve found something new and fabulous when you enter the lobby. The main hotel building is like an urban forest. The front desk is a notched eucalyptus tree trunk from Sonoma. White squirrel statuettes pop up here and there throughout the hotel. Tree trunks and branches are utilized throughout for functional purposes and fun design.

The elegant, woodsy theme continues in spacious guest rooms. A family of four is a tight fit for most hotel rooms, but at the The Hotel Paradox you’ll find there’s actually room to spread out. Small touches like sliding bathroom doors as opposed to doors that swing out, make the space more comfortable for families and all of their, well, stuff. The room design and layout also allows for natural light to stream in during the day.

The Hotel Paradox doesn’t offer any special programs or services for kids per se, but families are welcome here. The heated pool, oversize hot tub and fire pit are the perfect way to end a busy day of touring the Santa Cruz sights. Even in prime winter, the pool is kept warm enough to make a splash without shivering. Parents of tweens and teens will appreciate that you can actually see the pool area from many of the rooms, making it easier to give older kids a little bit of freedom to lounge poolside.

There’s an onsite restaurant, but Hotel Paradox’s location makes a quick run downtown for snacks or meals a quick and easy task or an excuse to go on another vacation adventure.

Starting rates for The Hotel Paradox are $185.00 per night (see our full kid-friendly review of The Hotel Paradox). The Ciao Bambino booking service can help you get the best room and rate. If you’d like our help, check out our Connect with a Family Travel Advisor page.

Dana’s trip was hosted by the Santa Cruz County Conference & Visitors Council, but as always her thoughts and opinions are her own.

Start a Discussion

  • Great list — thanks for sharing! The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is definitely a must and is fun for kids of all ages. They even have free outdoor concerts and movies in the summer right on the beach.

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