6 Awesome and Totally FREE Things to Do in Santa Cruz
By Lee DeGraw January 16, 2017 Published on BayArea.com
As an L.A. transplant who’s lived in Santa Cruz for almost three years, it definitely took me a while to get used to the slow(er) pace of this quirky coastal town. At first, I had zero chill when it came to accepting that many places close at 9 p.m., there are next to no drive-thrus, and the multitude of commercial chains (that I was never a huge fan of anyway, but had gotten used to down South) were pretty much non-existent in my new community. However, once I began getting comfortable and started noticing all that this lovely area has to offer, I began exploring every inch of it. From the sweeping coastal views to endless hiking trails beneath towering redwoods to the many charming local festivals and farmers’ markets, here’s my guide to the fun, festive, and, most importantly, FREE activities awaiting you in Santa Cruz County:
HIKE, HIKE, HIKE There are so many choices when it comes to rad hiking spots in Santa Cruz. My favorite spots are Henry Cowell State Park, Wilder Ranch, Nisene Marks State Park, Castle Rock State Park, and Land of the Medicine Buddha. Pro tip: Yes, some of these places will charge you a fee to park there (which goes to conservation, so it’s a great cause), but it can be easily avoided by parking along a main road rather than in the designated lot and walking to the entrance.
FIRST FRIDAY The first Friday evening of each month, downtown Santa Cruz shops and businesses keep their doors open to the public past their usual closing time. Each of them offers something a little different and almost always free. Be it live music, art exhibits, tasty bites, or even free BOOZE! I know, right!? The Museum of Art & History (MAH) also offers free admission on three floors of its exhibitions on first Fridays. Pro tip: Make sure to show up early though because places get packed meaning parking can really suck. After all, you’re not the only person that adores free shit.
ADMISSION-FREE MUSEUMS Santa Cruz County actually has quite a hefty number of museums for a not-so-big area. Luckily for us, many of them require no admission fee. The freebies include the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center, San Lorenzo Valley Historical Museum, Capitola Museum, and the Aptos History Museum. Both the Seymour Marine Discovery Center and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History do offer free admission a few days out of the year. Pro tip: Be sure and check the hours of operation before visiting any of the above museums. Many of them have funky visiting hours.
FREE MUSIC In the summer, you can enjoy free concerts on the beach and at a few parks around town. In the winter, however, we penny pinchers get our free music fix by simply strolling down Pacific Avenue. Fuh real! You’ll find traveling musicians performing along this street — don’t forget, many are struggling artists so drop a small donation into their open instrument case. Pro tip: In Santa Cruz, people call these sidewalk performers “buskers” and the act of performing is called “busking.” In town, the term is completely non-offensive and meant merely as a way to describe the type of performer. TIDE-POOLING The coastal waters of Santa Cruz are rich in marine life. Some of the top spots to tide pool in the area are Natural Bridges State Beach, Wilder Ranch, Pleasure Point, Santa Maria Beach, and Davenport Landing. Whichever spot you choose, please be sure to respect the habitats and not disturb the delicate ecosystem you are lucky enough to observe. Pro tip: Check the tides before embarking on your adventure. Low tide is what you’re aiming for and ensures you’ll see the most tide pool creatures.
FARMERS’ MARKET SAMPLES Ok, I’m not trying to be a total turd by suggesting this one. My hope is that you will eventually purchase some of the incredible organic, fresh produce that’s for sale, but this girl also understands the strong pull of the free sample. I mean Costco, amiright?? Nearly every stand at the farmers’ market has samples on deck just waiting to be nibbled on. So walk around, taste a few (or ALL) and then maybe buy a squash or something. Pro tip: Santa Cruz County has farmers’ markets almost every day of the week, hallelujah! Find a complete listing of them here.