This is going to be a bit of a combo post, hitting on experiences from a few recent trips to Santa Cruz, most recently this past weekend.
Santa Cruz is a pretty strange little place. It is kind of like Berkeley level hippy but combined with beach town vibes. I get the impression that the people who live there very much love that about it and embrace it whole-heartedly.
We stayed on both of these trips at an awesome little AirBnB in Aptos (a town directly south of Santa Cruz) that had an epic breakfast. You can check out the listing here.
Speaking of food, it was definitely a highlight. No trip to Santa Cruz is complete now without a trip to May's Sushi Bar & Grill, which has the freshest tasting all you can eat sushi I have ever had in the Bay Area (and I have visited quite a few). Following May's, you have to go to Marianne's for some ice cream. They have an overwhelming amount of flavors. My faves include Mexican chocolate and horchata.
Okay, now the actual things that there are to do:
1. Hike the redwoods. Newsflash - tourists always go to Muir Woods when they go to SF to see redwoods, but the best kept secret is that the best redwood forests are actually east of Santa Cruz. I'm talking Big Basin State Park and The Forest of Nisene Marks. Both are filled with incredible redwoods and 1/4 of the crowds.
2. Mystery Spot: While you are in the redwoods, a must in Santa Cruz is a visit to the Mystery Spot. If you drive around the Bay Area, you probably have noticed the Mystery Spot bumper stickers on lots of cars. Now you can find out why. The Mystery Spot requires reservations online in advance and costs $8. Parking costs $5. You sign up to go on a tour at a certain interval throughout the day, and on the tour they take you to the... mysteries! I mentioned Santa Cruz was kind of weird before - and this place proves it. The whole point of this experience requires buying in with your imagination to the theories of magical magnetic forces in the forest... or are they real? We'll never know...Anyway, it is worth checking out at least once.
3. The Boardwalk: This is usually the main attraction in Santa Cruz. In the summer the boardwalk activities are in full swing, but it is fun any time of year just to walk down the boardwalk or pier and admire the sea lions and sea otters that hang out there, or watch the surfers. You can also walk/drive along the coast on East Sea Cliff Dr. and check out the Santa Cruz Breakwater Lighthouse. This place was beautiful even in the rain.
4. The Patagonia Outlet: Patagonia is expensive, and the only outlet in the Bay Area is in Santa Cruz. Driving down the eastern shore of Maryland as a kid was always associated with going to the beach and shopping at the outlets simulatenously, so maybe that is why this place has a special spot in my heart.
5. Monterey: If it is raining in Santa Cruz, you should head south to Monterey Bay. You can check out the famous Aquarium, or channel your inner Steinbeck and walk along Cannery Row, which is a lot like Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco with tourist chachkies.
6. Seasonal Activities: There are a lot of nice farms in and around Santa Cruz. We checked out Swanton's Organic Berry Farm in the summer for some amazing strawberries, and Crystal Bay Farm in the fall for some pumpkins and other gourds.