Old Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz County is filled with opportunities to stimulate the senses, but there are also lots of opportunities for learning to balance it all out. For those who prefer a little mind candy on their vacation, there is no shortage of museums in Santa Cruz. Whether you want to know more about local history, marine life, surfing, or Bigfoot, there is a lot to discover at one of the area’s museums—and many of them are free.

Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

With rotating exhibits every few months, and a permanent exhibit that showcases the people, plants, animals, and history of the Santa Cruz region, there is a lot to discover at the Museum of Natural History. Admission is free on the first Friday of every month. Throughout the summer, a different local artist will be featured as part of the area’s larger First Friday Art Tour. The museum is perhaps best known for the life-sized Grey Whale sculpture that sits out front, across from Seabright Beach.

Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

A museum that is uniquely Santa Cruz in its mission to build community through art and history is conveniently located in the heart of downtown. The MAH seeks to create an inviting and engaging experience that is relevant to all people in Santa Cruz County by including highly participatory exhibits that encourage viewers to dive deeper into the human experience. Abbott Square, which opens in June of 2017, is an outdoor extension of MAH that will feature performers, restaurants, and community gatherings.

Monterey Bay Sanctuary Exploration Center

Located directly across from the Wharf, visitors to the Sanctuary Exploration center can learn about watersheds and their role in water quality through interactive, interpretive exhibits. Exhibits are designed to encourage people to be curious, take pride in their sanctuary and help ensure their lasting protection. Best of all? It’s free!

Bigfoot Discovery Museum

You may enter the Bigfoot Discovery Museum a healthy skeptic, but after meeting the founder, Michael Rugg, a lifelong Felton resident and 1968 Stanford University graduate who has been studying and collecting everything related to Bigfoot his whole life, you will leave with a newfound respect for the search for the Pacific Coast Bigfoot.

Featuring a mix of educational displays of local history and physical evidence and pop culture artifacts, the Bigfoot Discovery Project invites visitors to learn and imagine as they wade through a lifetime of research and collection. The collection is broken down into three categories: Mythical Bigfoot (legends and tales); Biological Bigfoot (physical and witness evidence of the creature’s continuing existence); and Paranormal Bigfoot (the strangest category, involving UFOs, invisibility and other dimensions).

RELATED: Hunting for Bigfoot in the Santa Cruz Mountains, 2012

Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

Steamer Lane is home to one of the most famous surfing spots in the world and the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum located in the Mark Abbot Memorial Lighthouse. The museum features photographs, surfboards, and other surf-related artifacts tracing over 100 years of surfing history in Santa Cruz, and it is a must see for any surf lover. Open 12pm to 4pm Thursday though Monday.

Capitola Historical Museum

For a look at beach life in Capitola over the ages, check out the Capitola Historical Museum. The museum features changing exhibits on the history and art of the area. The museum is small, but provides carefully curated exhibits that give a sense of the place. Historic walking tour guides are available at the museum and landmarks are labeled throughout the village.