With the cost of plane tickets at ridiculous highs, we are looking harder at drivable destinations like Santa Cruz. A few years ago, my family chose this beach town for Spring Break, redirecting our airfare funds toward splurgey lodging, and I highly recommend our five-day getaway. We left our house around 9 am the first morning and we were dipping our toes in the water by 11 am. No shuttle buses or security lines.
The Dream Inn is a modern hotel, situated right on the beach with a hip, LA-style pool area. A toddler pool offers non-swimmers a place to splash around. The poolside food is quite good and makes for a flexible outdoor lunch solution. We stayed in a suite that had a queen-sized bed in the living room area, where we slept, enabling us to close off the bedroom during naptime. We still had a large space to play on the floor with our older child and could watch tv when they both slept at night in the bedroom.
We spent our time on the boardwalk, at the beach, in the pool, and in the downtown area. Here’s what you’ll want to know for an easy trip to Santa Cruz with kids.
The Santa Cruz Boardwalk is only a little COVID-y. With outdoor food options, outdoor games, and outdoor rides, it only feels overwhelming at peak times when the crowd is thick. Many of the rides are appropriate for little ones, like Boardwalk Racers, a pedal car attraction and Wave Rider, an oversized slide. Want to stay into the evening? Firepits can be reserved for your party, with add-ons like smores. Learn more here >
Parking is challenging. You need to get change (dollar coins) from a machine to use the meters in the surrounding area or pay for a lot. Arrive before noon for the least amount of stress, and know that the rides open at noon.
Walk straight off the boardwalk onto the beach. The sand is soft and there is a fair amount of shallow area for water play. If you plan to combine beach and boardwalk in one day, consider sending one parent back to the car to drop off or pick up towels so that you aren’t toting them around the boardwalk all day.
Downtown Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is not super spread out, but the distance between most lodging, the boardwalk, and the downtown requires driving. Pacific Avenue, the main drag is packed with casual restaurants and stores. You’ll definitely find a place that suits your family.
For a bit fancier, a vegetarian Sri Lankan restaurant we’ve enjoyed, sits a block off the main street: a spot with a patio called Malabar. Depending on how old your kids are, and how picky they are, I’d suggest you check out the menu to see if you can risk it. It’s possible that our kids ate only mango and rice for dinner. But we enjoyed ourselves.
The Taco Bar in The Palomar restaurant is super casual and has a full bar. The kids menu is perfect for my family.
For lunch, we have enjoyed the Hula Grill’s parklet. The menu truly has something for everyone.
Activities besides the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
- Roaring Camp Railroads sends you into the redwood forest on a train. Reserve tickets for a ride because capacity is limited.
- The adventurous or folks with teens should consider hiking to the Garden of Eden, a natural swimming hole off the beaten path, about 20 minutes north of downtown Santa Cruz. This short hike is inside Henry Cowell State Park. Consider camping here!
- The Mystery Spot is a highly entertaining and worthwhile (tourist trap) outing. We loved it and talked about it for a long time afterward. Read more >
- Kayaking around the Santa Cruz pier. We loved doing this because you can see the beach from a special angle. It requires fitness and outdoor confidence, so not for the tiniest kids.
- Monarch butterfly viewing. Check before you go. If it’s the season for Monarchs to colonize, it’s a really cool thing to see. Learn more here >
Where to Stay in Santa Cruz
- The aforementioned splurgy Dream Inn offers a pool and instant access to the sand. I usually find good prices on Booking.com. Click here to compare rates >
- We have camped at the Santa Cruz RV Park. It’s definitely car camping with no quiet or privacy, but loads of kids riding their bikes and scooters around, a play structure, and easy hot showers.
- There are hundreds of VRBOs within a block or two of the beach. Click here to start browsing >
- A bit south of Santa Cruz there are miles of beautiful sandy beaches with houses right along them. These are not right up against a town like Santa Cruz, but the views are really spectacular and the beaches are uncrowded. Highly recommend. We’ve stayed in this one and it was lovely.