Free or cheap things to do in Santa Cruz, California

The best part about visiting a beach town is that it is incredibly easy to stay on a budget! For Santa Cruz, California, the only required expenses are your accommodation, a rental car, food, and parking. 

Note: The following is a guest post by Dayna Brockbank.

A mural saying Welcome to Santa Cruz, California. It shows a surfer, a sun set, a solar system, an airplane, and below the surfer is an underwater scene: an octopus, a group of jellyfish, a scuba diver, a turtle, some seaweed and some fish. All very colorful and cheerful.
Photo courtesy of Dayna Brockbank.

There are plenty of free things to do in Santa Cruz and also quite a few cheap excursions (under $10 per person) so you can enjoy a full trip to this adorable California beach town without breaking the bank.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. If you click on one and make a purchase, I (Rachel) will get a small commission. This will not affect your price.

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How to Get Around Santa Cruz

Unfortunately for budget travelers, the USA is incredibly lacking in good public transportation and Santa Cruz is no different. (This is a huge pro for living abroad!)

Since the destinations around Santa Cruz are quite spread out and some are not accessible by public transport, you will most likely need to rent a car.

Even if you are on a budget, renting a car is still the best option when traveling anywhere in California. You will be able to see more and get to more places in a shorter period of time, which might save you money in accommodation. 

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Where to Stay in Santa Cruz

The best way to save money on accommodation in Santa Cruz is by staying a bit further away from the beach. 

Use the map below to choose an accommodation. Just zoom out to see places that are further from the center.

Parking in Santa Cruz

It costs $15 for all day parking at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Public Parking (400 Beach Street); however you will definitely want to get there early before it fills up. 

If it is full, there are parking lots a bit further away and some even have shuttles that will bus you to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk for free. One off-site parking lot is at the County Government Building: make sure to check out their website to get more information on the shuttle and when it is open. 

Free or cheap things to do in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

The Santa Cruz Boardwalk is a seaside amusement park that is completely free to visit. It has over 40 rides and two National Historic Landmarks: the 1942 Giant Dipper and 1911 Looff Carousel. 

Walking around the amusement park is free; however, if you want to go on the rides you will have to pay per ride.  

Looking down the boardwalk: a small kiosk straight ahead with an arched neon sign above it that reads "boardwalk". TO the right a small part of a roller coaster track is visible. Behind the kiosk in the center is a group of about 6 very tall narrow palm trees. Beyond that is a horizontal cable where seats dangle along its length.
Photo courtesy of Dayna Brockbank.

Santa Cruz Beach

You may recognize this beach and the boardwalk from the famous horror movie “Us”, but in real life this area is far from frightening. 

You can walk straight onto Santa Cruz Beach from the Boardwalk and relax on the beach. Since Santa Cruz is in the north of California, the water temperatures are a bit chilly, as well as the weather. 

However, you can choose to swim if you want to! If not, you can stroll down the beach and watch the waves crashing. 

Santa Cruz Wharf

The next stop is the Santa Cruz Wharf, which you can easily walk to from Santa Cruz Beach. The pier has vendors and restaurants and there is no cost to enter. 

One of the most unique things about the Wharf is that seals and sea lions love to hang out here and they are easily viewable from the pier!

View looking down onto a wooden-floored platform above the sea's surface: lots of seals lie close together covering most of the available space. They lie mostly on their backs as if they're sunning.
Photo courtesy of Dayna Brockbank.

This is also a great place to watch the local fisherman catching fish along the pier.

Cowell Beach

Cowell Beach is the beach right after Santa Cruz Wharf and is a beautiful stretch of beach to try surfing if you are a beginner or just people-watch as others learn! 

Have you ever wanted to take surfing lessons? Try it in Santa Cruz!

Walk up Cliff Drive 

If you’re really looking to save money, you can actually walk all the way from Cowell Beach to Natural Bridges State Beach in just under an hour each way. 

It’s a beautiful coastal walk along Cliff Drive, however if you aren’t up for the 5 mile round trip walk, then you could try renting a bike instead. 

Santa Cruz Bike Repair is just up the road from the Wharf and you can rent a bike to ride along the coast for just $8 an hour or $25 for the whole day.

Streamer Lane & Lighthouse Point

On the walk or ride along Cliff Drive, Streamer Lane and Lighthouse Point are two stops that you won’t want to miss. 

Streamer Lane is a major surfing spot just off the cliffside, which makes it an awesome place to watch surfers. 

Just after that is Lighthouse Point which has free entry and is also a beautiful photo spot with the ocean stretching out behind the Lighthouse.

The rest of the ride or walk down Cliff Drive has plenty of coves and viewpoints where you can stop and enjoy the ocean breeze and sea views. Keep your eyes peeled for whales and sea life as well, especially during the winter months in California!

Natural Bridges State Beach

Natural Bridges State Beach is famous for exactly that: its natural bridges! This huge stretch of beach (65 acres) used to have two naturally occurring arches that went into the ocean, but one of them collapsed so only one arch remains. 

A view from a beach onto the sea, white foam from a wave along the sea's edge. Not far out to sea is a chunk of rock shaped like an arch.
Photo courtesy of Dayna Brockbank.

There are also tide pools along the beach where you can observe marine life. However, be careful not to touch anything and don’t take anything home with you.

Also, in case you decided to skip the walk or bike ride to this beach, you can pay $10 for all day parking or you can park for free for 20 minutes at a time. You can just move your car every 20 minutes if you want to stay longer and save money. 

Cliff Drive Vista Viewpoint

After you get back to your car, you can head to another amazing viewpoint of Santa Cruz Beach and the Boardwalk at the Cliff Drive Vista Viewpoint. 

All along this area there are incredible views of Santa Cruz and this is definitely a viewpoint you won’t want to miss. 

The Mystery Spot

The Mystery Spot is a tourist attraction in the woods a little outside of Santa Cruz. It is an optical illusion gravity house that plays tricks on your mind and can be a lot of fun if you’ve never done it before. It’s a great budget excursion in Santa Cruz. 

Inside a building in the Mystery Spot: the walls, floor and ceiling are all wood, but the people all seem to lean to the right, as if gravity isn't pulling them down but slightly to the left.
Photo courtesy of Dayna Brockbank.

Mystery Spot: 465 Mystery Spot Road, Santa Cruz. Open Monday-Friday 10:00-16:00, Saturday-Sunday 10:00-17:00. Admission $8 per person. Parking is $5. To visit on a weekend, it’s best to book ahead through their website.

Bigfoot Discovery Museum

While you are out in the woods, why not head out a little further and visit the Bigfoot Museum? This small museum is free to enter, but relies on donations to stay open. 

It is quite a quirky place to visit and if you engage the man who runs it he will tell you some pretty interesting stories about his experiences with Bigfoot!

Bigfoot Discovery Museum: 5497 Highway 9, Felton, CA. Open Wednesday-Monday 11:00-18:00. Closed on Tuesdays. Free admission. Website.

And a foodie tip: Taqueria Santa Cruz

For some insanely delicious Mexican food on a budget, Taqueria Santa Cruz is the best place to go. Definitely try the carne asada burrito or the shrimp tacos.

This restaurant doesn’t have many reviews and is a bit of a local hidden gem, but you definitely won’t regret grabbing some cheap Mexican food here. 

Taqueria Santa Cruz has two locations in Santa Cruz: 2215 Mission Street and 1002 Soquel Avenue. Open daily 9:00-23:45. Website.

A view of a large pier: it crosses the photo horizontally, from a view below it, so the pilings holding it up are visible. In the foreground, waves on a beach.
Photo courtesy of Dayna Brockbank.

About the author: Dayna Brockbank is a budget-crazy travel blogger at Happily Ever Travels. She has lived in 8 countries, has gotten lost in every single one, and somehow still has miraculously never broken a bone even after scootering around Southeast Asia for 2 years. She speaks 3 languages and is a bit obsessed with Duolingo.

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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments! Read more...

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