For an area that’s relatively small and geographically isolated, Santa Cruz has more than its fair share of museums. Though most of the museums are rather small—there’s nothing on the scale of the MOMA in San Francisco—you can find a museum in many of the cities and towns in the county. Whether you’re deep in the woods of Highway 9 or in downtown Santa Cruz, you won’t have to look far to find a local museum.
You can easily spend an entire day visiting the museums along the coastal and mountain towns in the county, many of them offering a glimpse into the historic past of the cities, towns, and neighborhoods where they sit. (Hint: the logging and lumber industry are a big part of the history in many areas, particularly San Lorenzo Valley.)
Of course Santa Cruz wouldn’t be what it is without the presence and influence of surf culture and you can learn about it at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum by Lighthouse Point. If you want to explore some of the mystery and local lore of the Santa Cruz Mountains, there’s even a Bigfoot Museum in Felton.
Whether you’re looking to learn more about the area in which we live, or just want to do something fun with family, Santa Cruz has no shortage of options when it comes to museums.
Considered by many to be the best and most popular museum in Santa Cruz, the Museum of Art and History is in the heart of downtown. The “MAH” is more than just a museum and place to look at art, it’s a local community space and the focal point of many downtown events. While the MAH is worth a visit any time, it might be at its best during First Friday when it becomes the busy downtown hub of the monthly countywide art walk event.
Beyond First Friday, the MAH also has exhibits and events that rotate throughout the year, as well as a rooftop sculpture gallery. Situated right next to the museum is the Abbott Square Market, which is a food and beverage court and has seating both inside and in the courtyard.
Right where the Seabright neighborhood meets the beach, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is a great place to learn about the ocean, its ecosystems, and the surrounding environment. The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History keeps a sharp focus on the environment, conservation, and educating guests about the importance of preserving these resources.
The museum has regular classes, exhibits, and workshops and since it’s located in the Seabright neighborhood, there’s plenty to do in the surrounding area. Whether you want to soak up some sun on the beach or grab a bite to eat on Seabright Ave., you won’t have to walk far from the museum to find what you’re looking for.
The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is inside of the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse on West Cliff Drive, which overlooks one of the most popular local beaches and one of the best surf spots. The museum itself is small, but affords the opportunity to watch surfers take on the waves at Steamer Lane or watch dogs frolic in the sand and surf at Its Beach. There’s also an open space preserve across from the lighthouse, all of which is collectively known as Lighthouse Field State Beach.
Not only is the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum situated in one of the most scenic parts of Santa Cruz, but it’s also a short bike ride or walk to Natural Bridges and the Santa Cruz Wharf, depending on which direction you take along the pedestrian/bike path.
Like much of the Pacific Northwest, Santa Cruz has long had its share Bigfoot sightings among the forested, mountains in the area, especially the San Lorenzo Valley. The Bigfoot Discovery Museum celebrates this local history as well as the bigger picture evidence for the existence of “Sasquatch.” Part of the mission of the museum is to champion environmental and conservation causes of the forested areas of the San Lorenzo Valley.
Visitors can enjoy learning about Bigfoot through exhibits, documentaries, and video displays, including the famous Patterson/Gimlin film that was among the earliest video evidence.
The Santa Cruz Children’s Museum of Discovery is in the Capitola Mall and provides learning focused displays and exhibits that are interactive and geared toward education. The museum has permanent and rotating displays, as well as a “mobile museum” that allows for some exhibits to be taken anywhere in the county. The museum is for younger children and has an area specifically for toddlers ages 2 and under, as well as programs for infants and toddlers.
The Seymour Marine Discovery Center, affiliated with UC Santa Cruz, has displays and educational exhibits that inform and educate guests about the impact that science and research have on ocean conservation efforts. Located on the Westside, the Marine Discovery Center is part of the Joseph M. Long Marine Lab, with both places falling under the umbrella of the UC Santa Cruz Institute of Marine Sciences.
Right next to the Santa Cruz Wharf, the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center features exhibits and interactive displays that teach visitors about the importance of preserving the natural marine environment, as well as the role that those efforts play in coastal conservation. The center has exhibits and field trips for guests of all ages, most of them centered around the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which is one of many protected marine areas in the United States.
Admission to the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center is always free.
A small museum next to Capitola City Hall, the Capitola Historical Museum has displays and changing exhibits around local themes and seasons, all of which relate to the local history of the city. Many of the displays feature classic photos and artifacts from local history and are designed to inform guests about the important landmarks and history of Capitola.
The Aptos History Museum is small by museum standards, but does offer a thorough peek into the local history, mainly through photos of historic places and events. One of the many things highlighted at the museum include the logging history of Aptos, specifically the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, which had been located above where Aptos Village currently sits.
The San Lorenzo Valley Museum, like many of the others on this list, has regular exhibits and annual events, many of which are geared toward the community. The SLV Museum in particular encourages education and conservation and even does some educational outreach within the community to encourage environmental stewardship.