Santa Cruz, California: Fun on the Boardwalk and Beyond

Oceanside fun, tasty eats, and California history converge in Santa Cruz.

Aerial view of the Giant Dipper coaster at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in California.
Since 1907 the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has been the place to go on the West Coast for summer fun.
Mindaugas Dulinskas / iStock

Despite its laid-back, unassuming image, Santa Cruz is home to a few major historic landmarks. Set along Monterey Bay, the town is the birthplace of mainland surfing, introduced in 1885 by three visiting Hawaiian princes who showed locals how to catch waves using redwood planks. This history is commemorated along West Cliff Drive at the Surfing Museum, with its iconic bronze statue of a surfer. The locale is also a great spot to see locals catching epic waves from the cliffs above.

Another thrilling landmark? The Giant Dipper, the crown jewel of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, California’s oldest continuously operating theme park. In 1987, the wooden roller coaster was officially designated a National Historic Landmark. This year, the beloved coaster turns 100, and fans can join the celebration with $1 rides every Wednesday and free commemorative souvenirs on select days. But a visit needn’t be limited to history and heritage. In recent years, Santa Cruz has witnessed a revitalized dining and arts scene that lends visitors plenty of contemporary diversions, too.

Riders put their hands in the air on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk's Giant Dipper in 1958.
Riders on the Giant Dipper in 1958.
Courtesy Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

The Giant Dipper Turns 100

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has filled Main Beach’s sandy shores with squeals of delight since 1907. Today, the seaside amusement park still bustles with classic midway games, spindles of wispy cotton candy, and twirling rides such as the grand Looff Carousel.

The park offers state-of-the-art thrills, too, but its most popular ride dates back to Calvin Coolidge’s time in the White House. Since its opening on May 17, 1924, the Giant Dipper has delighted more than 68 million riders with its 65-foot plunge, soaring ascents, and speeds up to 55 miles per hour. Envisioned by builder Alfred Looff as an all-in-one “earthquake, balloon ascension, and aeroplane drop,” the coaster was a notable departure from the attractions that preceded it, including the Looff carousel, which was hand carved by Alfred’s father, Charles Looff.


The scream-inducing ride, later dubbed a “tooth-loosener” and an “eye-popper” by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, was an instant hit at 15 cents a ride. Yet, the coaster nearly met its demise when the younger Looff made plans to disassemble it after failing to quickly recoup the $50,000 building expenses during the Great Depression. (It currently costs $500,000 just to paint the coaster.) Thankfully, the Boardwalk intervened and has kept the coaster running for generations to enjoy, its 50″ minimum height requirement serving as an aspirational milestone for local youth.

This summer, to celebrate the coaster’s centennial year, guests can take a spin on the Dipper for just a buck, every Wednesday from May 29 through August 7, 2024. (The regular ticket price is $8.) Plus, Saturday, August 17, is National Roller Coaster Day, and the first 100 riders will score a free souvenir cup.

The new Dream Wheel at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk on a clear blue day.
The new Dream Wheel at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Courtesy Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

New Rides at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

The Giant Dipper isn’t the only buzzworthy attraction in 2024. This summer, the Boardwalk will debut two new rides: One of them, the 65-foot Dream Wheel, offers a leisurely spin with sweeping views for four to six passengers aboard colorful, oversize gondolas; for an extra shot of adrenaline, choose Surge, which whirls thrill-seekers 360 degrees on a tilting circular platform. In addition, a few lesser-known attractions have undergone a refresh, including Ghost Blasters, a black light–illuminated experience where riders zap cartoonish spooks from a moving cart.

A hand holds out a mini frozen paloma libre from Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Westside.
Mini frozen paloma libre from Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Westside.
Jenn Day

Beyond the Boardwalk

Visitors can discover other sources of local pride besides the Dipper. In addition to an enviable landscape of coastal redwood groves and the city’s Monterey Bay shorefront, a burgeoning movement of artists and chefs is helping to redefine local culture and cuisine while staying true to Santa Cruz’s spirit. 

From the Boardwalk, stroll west along West Cliff Drive, an especially scenic promenade that meanders along Monterey Bay with stirring coastal vistas. The path eventually leads to Steamer Lane Supply, a take-away café set within Lighthouse Field State Park and across the street from the eatery’s namesake surf break. At outdoor picnic tables scattered amidst Monterey cypress trees, a convivial mix of visitors and locals, many with surfboards in tow, mingles over fresh fish tacos, grass-fed smashburgers, and watermelon-lemon-basil aguas frescas.

Situated three blocks from the mist-sprayed bluffs overlooking Monterey Bay, Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Westside is the delicious outgrowth of Sean Venus’s award-winning distillery, which produces small-batch spirits incorporating botanicals plucked from the Santa Cruz Mountains. The sleek and airy restaurant pairs Venus cocktails with refined comfort fare such as a grilled sausage board with dilly beans and pimento cheese.

Home/Work is a fetching boutique with locally designed home goods, art, and apparel such as Megan Sofia’s two-tone pottery and Mike Bencze’s illustrated prints of Santa Cruz landmarks including West Cliff and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The shop also designs its own line of hoodies and caps under the Mountain Sea Living label.

At the homey Penny Ice Creamery, ginger plum shortbread, Verve coffee, and other inventive flavors keep folks lined up out the door.

At neighboring Main and Cowell Beaches, sea lions bark under the wharf and surfers slice the waves. Swing by a game of beach volleyball, but stick around for sunset photo ops—and great views of the pier, as well.

There is no shortage of amazing accommodations in the Santa Cruz area, from ocean front hotels to cozy boutique lodging tucked in the hillsides. If you’re looking for a place to truly escape the hustle and bustle of the daily grind, however, book a weekend at the Chaminade Resort and Spa, just a short drive from the boardwalk and other local hot spots, but seemingly miles away. This family-friendly resort has it all: two kid-approved pools with cabanas available for rent, an on-site restaurant serving everything from wood-fired pizzas to lobster gnocchi, and a spa to rejuvenate the body and mind.