There’s something transportive about an old-school beach boardwalk and all the familiar trappings — the smells of warm funnel cake, the gleeful screams of thrill riders, the clanging bells of carnival games. And the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, located 15 minutes from downtown Santa Cruz, is well worth a trip. Packed onto the mile-long stretch of sunbathed, free-to-access boardwalk are hundreds of games, rides, and sights for the whole family that are big on that certain type of old-timey Americana.
The can’t-miss rides at the amusement park include the Giant Dipper roller coaster and the Looff Carousel, both of which are National Historic Landmarks. The Dipper, which debuted in 1924 and costs $8 per ride, is the fourth oldest roller coaster in the country and offers spectacular views of the surrounding area. (Riders must be at least 50-inches tall to enjoy the twists, turns, and tremors of the wooden coaster.) The Looff Carousel, built in 1911, is a hand-carved merry-go-round that features three antique band organs and 73 unique horses. It’s also one of only a few in the country to feature a working ring dispenser. Riders can grab steel rings that descend and attempt to throw them into a clown’s mouth. Toss one in and the reward is bells ringing and lights flashing. Anyone under 36″ can ride with a chaperone.
Plenty more classic attractions await on the boardwalk. Bumper cars, a log flume, a swinging pirate ship, and a sky glider that takes riders ski-lift style up and over the scene for incredible views are just a few of the notables. There’s also the casino arcade, which features more than 300 games, a bowling alley, and Buccaneer’s Bay, a pirate-themed, two-story mini-golf course that has a variety of fun moving parts and funky animatronics.
The wafting smells of such carnival fare as churros, funnel cake, and deep-fried twinkies will be hard to ignore and likely hard to resist as food kiosks abound with too many overindulgent choices. But if you prefer a more balanced meal — and a break from all the excitement and sounds — your best bet is to leave the boardwalk.
One suggestion: Hit up Las Palmas Taco Bar, a family-owned taqueria that’s a quick walk from the boardwalk. They’ve been serving up great tacos, burritos, and quesadillas since 1955. You should also head 15 minutes to downtown Santa Cruz where plenty of options await. Be sure to get a sugar buzz (and some saltwater taffy) at Marini’s Candies Downtown or grab a burger and a beer at Oceans.
Just off the boardwalk is Main beach, where you can go to soak up the sun, build sandcastles, or catch some waves. Whatever you do, make sure to stroll the Santa Cruz Wharf where there are several restaurants and insta-worthy ocean views. Chances are, you’ll hear the barks of sea lions before you reach a floating deck where you and the kids can glimpse the animals lying in the sun or swimming. If you’re feeling adventurous — and want something more than Americana — definitely check out the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot, a gravitational anomaly located in the redwoods just outside the city.
Admission to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk is free for all visitors. All games and attractions have an independent fee. You can also opt for a wristband that grants access to all rides and begin at $30.