Affordable Santa Cruz Activities for Families

If you’re looking for a fun, yet budget-friendly vacation destination, Santa Cruz, California is home to a range of affordable attractions and things to do that won’t break the bank. Visit this casual beach town for a family-friendly vacation or romantic weekend getaway and enjoy plenty of fun for less money than you would expect. Here are my tops picks for affordable Santa Cruz activities!

affordable santa cruz activities

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

One of the most popular and recognizable attractions in Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk offers a full day of fun activities for just a little cash. Visitors can get their fill of people-watching, carnival-style food, and fun rides for all ages at this unique beachside attraction. Open March through December, admission to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is free. Discount ride tickets and all-day passes are available online.

If the price for the rides aren’t for you, there are many cheap food options and people-watching is fun and free!

Neptune’s Kingdom

Arcade-style fun is the top attraction at this family fun stop located at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Buy individual game tokens for as many games as your budget can handle and play everything from classic pinball and air hockey to the latest video games. Neptune’s Kingdom also offers laser tag and miniature golf for visitors ready to shell out a little bit more cash. Neptune’s Kingdom is open daily with varied hours.

Main Beach

For a day of totally free fun in Santa Cruz, set your sights on Main Beach. Located directly adjacent to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Main Beach is a wide stretch of sand featuring plenty of free beach fun, including swimming, surfing and sunbathing.

Visitors looking for a bit of exercise and friendly competition can find it at the sand volleyball courts located near the street. If you’re tired of the sand, be sure to take a walk along the Santa Cruz Wharf for food and souvenirs.

Simpkins Family Swim Center

Located on the East Side of Santa Cruz, this family-friendly swim center offers splashy summertime fun for all ages. With an 18-lane lap pool, a shallow-depth warm water pool, a kiddie splash pool, and a corkscrew water slide, Simpkins is a fun destination for water-loving visitors.

Admission is $4-$7 per person; children under age three enter free. Simpkins Family Swim Center offers daily recreational swim, lap swim, water aerobics, and swim lessons. Check the website for specific days and times.

Grab a Cone at Marianne’s Ice Cream

One of my very favorite affordable Santa Cruz activities is getting an ice cream cone! Established in 1958, this unassuming ice cream shop is an icon in the Santa Cruz community. Serving up more than 70 flavors of delicious, homemade ice cream and other dessert favorites, Marianne’s is a must for all serious Santa Cruz visitors.

A single scoop will set you back around three dollars at this cash-only establishment on Ocean Street. Marianne’s is open Mon-Thurs, 10am-11pm; Fri-Sat, 10am-midnight.

Visit Santa Cruz Museums

Art enthusiasts, nature lovers and surfers will enjoy the range of affordable museums located in Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History teaches visitors about local wildlife for just $4 for adults and free for children under age 18. Visitors can peruse contemporary art exhibits at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History for free on the first Friday of each month.

Surfing buffs can view displays of local surfing memorabilia and get an up-close view of the historic lighthouse at the admission-free Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.

Land of Medicine Buddha

Visitors looking to get a bit of exercise and experience the beauty of the Santa Cruz Mountains can explore the trails at this Buddhist retreat and conference center in Soquel. Trails at the center travel around the campus past several Buddhist monuments and up into the pristine Forest of Nisene Marks. Leashed dogs are allowed on all trails. Admission and parking is free at Land of Medicine Buddha.

Eat Lunch at The Crepe Place

Take a seat in a stunning outdoor garden for the free Monday Night Movie or listen to the latest local and national music acts at this Santa Cruz landmark restaurant and bar. Visitors can enjoy a delicious brunch, lunch or dinner for under $15 per person or imbibe a signature Bloody Mary, complete with homemade mixer and a garden of veggie garnishes, for around $7 each. Check The Crepe Place website for menus and concert calendars.

Pair your crepe with one of the delicious coffees from various spots nearby!

Explore the Seymour Center at Long Marine Lab

Get ready to make some ocean discoveries at this working marine laboratory that features an aquarium, touch tanks and a unique exhibit hall. Volunteer docents and marine lab staff are on hand to answer questions and offer information about marine life in the Monterey Bay. Open Tues-Sat, 10am-5pm; Sun, noon-5pm.

Admission to the Seymour Center is $6 for adults, $4 for seniors and children four and older. Free admission on the first Tuesday of each month.

cheap and affordable activities in santa cruz

Walk West Cliff Drive

Take a stroll along the cliffs from the Boardwalk to the lighthouse on West Cliff Drive for views of the Monterey Bay, the Santa Cruz Wharf and loads of surfers. The wide path makes for an easy walk, bike ride or run and it’s totally free for all to enjoy. If you don’t have a bike, you can rent one at one of the many bike shops located in Santa Cruz.

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