Southern California has many free and low-cost places to visit. The expense of taking a family to a major attraction can be in the hundreds of dollars. Here is a great list of Free Things to Do In Southern California that won’t put a dent in your family budget.
Point Dume is a wonderful place to visit any time of the year.and is one of Southern California’s most scenic coastal destinations. Point Dume is 18 miles north of Santa Monica.
Point Dume Nature Preserve is 32 acres of pristine oceanfront land which you can access from several hiking trails. Take the main trail to the summit or descend the steps to a secluded beach called Pirates Cove. Please stay on the trail this is a protected nature preserve with sensitive plants and animals. Keep a close watch on children there are many steep cliffs.
There is a viewing platform along the boardwalk trail just below the summit where you can sit and enjoy the million dollar view. Parking is at a premium, do not park on local streets, tickets are given out. Admission free, some free parking.
James and Rosemary Nix Nature Center is located in the center of Laguna Canyon just off Laguna Canyon road.Admission to the center and the miles of hiking trails is free. Inside the nature center are displays and exhibits about Laguna Canyon and the animals that live in it. Restrooms with changing tables, drinking fountains, picnic tables, free maps and nature-oriented merchandise are available on site.
One of the most popular hikes from the nature center is to Barbara’s Lake. This little lake next to Laguna Canyon road is the only natural lake in Orange County. The hike to the lake is about a two-mile round trip and may be a bit long for younger children.
Chinatown is located about two blocks from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Chinatown’s 16 square blocks are filled with small mom and pop shops, restaurants, and food stores.
You can find just about any item you are looking for plus a few items you might never have heard of. Old Chinatown Plaza is the oldest shopping mall in Chinatown and is a must see.
The old Chinese architecture buildings are really amazing and date back to the early 1900s. The best way to experience Chinatown LA is on foot. Park the car, head up Broadway and take a peek inside some of the stores. You can find everything from rugs, bamboo plants, bamboo umbrellas, water fountains, and turtles.
After all, the walking chances are you will work up an appetite. On just about every block, there is, at least, one Chinese restaurant. The hardest thing to do will be deciding where to eat. If you are not quite sure go ahead and ask one of the locals which are their favorite.
Leo Carrillo Historic Ranch located in Carlsbad California is a few miles inland from Legoland. The ranch is tucked in a valley and surrounded by homes but once you enter the wrought iron gate it’s like taking a trip back in time to early California.
Stop by the visitors center and pick up a guide before you go exploring. If you visit on the weekend there are free guided tours that are perfect for history buffs but may be too detailed for casual visitors.
Leo Carrillo Historic Ranch has several miles of hiking trails, adobe buildings, windmills and historic ranch buildings.
Free guided walking tours are offered on Saturday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. and on Sunday at noon and 2 p.m. The tours last 90 minutes and are very in depth. There is also a free movie you can watch at the visitor center before you head off and explore on your own.
The Getty Museum Center is a fun and educational place to spend the day. With its scenic hillside location, beautiful gardens, and spectacular architecture you won’t want to miss this free attraction. When you arrive, you are directed towards the multi-level parking garage.
After parking, you ride a monorail to the museum which sits on the top of the hill overlooking Los Angeles.
From the moment you step out of the monorail, you will be amazed by the gardens and the architecture of the Getty Centers buildings. Inside, the museum presents the Getty’s collection of Western art from the Middle Ages to the present against a backdrop of dramatic architecture.
The Getty Museum Center is one of the best free attractions in Southern California
Old Town San Diego is considered the “birthplace” of California. In 1968, the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation established Old Town State Historic Park. The historic buildings preserve how San Diego looked in the 1800s.z
Historic buildings include La Casa de Estudillo, La Casa de Bandini, La Casa de Pedrorena and the Mason Street School, San Diego’s first one-room schoolhouse.
Up the hill from Old Town is Heritage Park where several of San Diego’s most notable Victorian homes have been relocated and authentically restored to their original condition.
A short walk down San Diego Avenue is the Whaley House, an officially designated haunted house, the Little Adobe Chapel on Conde Street, the first Church in Old Town San Diego and El Campo Santo on San Diego Avenue, and 1850 Catholic Cemetery.
Mission San Luis Rey “King of the Missions” is located a few miles inland from Oceanside California. The mission is slowly being surrounded by housing tracts and shopping malls, however, the grounds are big enough to block out most of its urban neighbors. The church was built in 1811 and is the third church on this location.
Mission San Luis is a National Historic Landmark, for its pristine example of a Spanish Mission Church complex. Admission to the grounds of the mission is free. There is a small charge to see the museum and mission cemetery.
On the grounds, you will find the lavanderia or open air laundry area. The shallow valley in front of the mission was ideal as both a bathing site and a place to wash clothes. The ruins of the lavanderia have been excavated and preserved for all to view.
California Citrus State Historical Park preserves how the Inland Empire and much of Southern California used to look like. At one time, there were thousands of acres of orange groves planted across the southland.
The smell of orange blossoms filled the air there was a sea of green orange trees stretching into the horizon. Today the tree haves been replaced by housing tracts and shopping malls and the few remaining farmers are replacing oranges with more profitable crops.
A visit to the California Citrus State Historical Park is a refreshing look at the way it used to be in Southern California. The park has almost 400 acres, with about 200 acres planted with orange trees.
Fort MacArthur Museum preserves former U.S. Army base in San Pedro, California. The museum located at the site of coastal defense battery Osgood-Farley. Inside you will find displays exhibits on the history of Fort MacArthur and its role in defending the port of Los Angeles.
The massive guns are gone, but the concrete gun emplacements are still visible with Battery Osgood-Farley being the best preserved.
Nearby is the Korean Friendship Bell, a huge bronze bell housed in a stone pavilion. The bell was presented by the Republic of Korea to the American people to celebrate the bicentennial of the United States, to honor American veterans of the Korean War.
Solvang Danish Village is located in the Santa Ynez Valley inland from Santa Barbara, California. This quaint town was founded in 1911 by a group of Danish educators. Today the town mainly caters to the tourist crowd who arrive by car and bus.
The city of Solvang home to danish bakeries, restaurants, and merchants offering a little bit of Denmark in California.
Many of the buildings are built Danish style including a life-size windmill. Solvang means “Sunny Field” in Danish, however, these days most of the fields in the Santa Ynez Valley are planted with grape vines.
Griffith Park Observatory is one of Los Angeles most visited destinations. Admission and parking are free to this wonderful landmark. The views of Hollywood and Los Angeles are priceless ( on a clear day).
Just behind the Observatory is the Hollywood sign. First-time visitors always take a family picture with the sign in the background.
Inside the restored building are three levels of state of the art hands-on exhibits and displays. You and your kids will be amazed at how nice this place is and the best part it’s absolutely free.
Whitewater is an amazing place to visit. You drive up a dusty desert canyon and arrive at a tree-lined oasis full of beautiful lakes adjacent to a massive rock cliff. There are several shady picnic areas along with miles of trails.
Over the years, Whitewater has been a hunting lodge and trout farm and hatchery. The trout are still there but you can no longer fish for them which explains why they are so big. The lakes at the preserve are kept full by the year round Whitewater river that runs adjacent to the visitors center.
Goat Hill Junction is probably the best free place to take kids in Southern California. Rides are given on every third weekend of the month at Fairview Park in the city of Costa Mesa. The trains and tracks are operated by the Orange County Model Engineers.
There are several miles of track covering the northern section of the park. With little trains going clickety-clack over and under bridges Goathill Junction is every child’s dream. Parents can hop on the trains with their children and have just as much fun as they do.
Rides on the miniature trains are free although they train club gladly accepts donations. The train layout is impressive and has taken hundreds of hours to complete and everyone can ride for free.
Paramount Ranch is located in the Santa Monica Mountains. Admission and parking are free. As soon as you cross the bridge over Medea Creek and into the park you will know you have arrived at somewhere special.
The first thing you see is a real old west ghost town complete with a saloon and old train depot.
You can walk around the old west town, but the buildings are closed to the public. During the week, you might even catch a film crew and work making and commercial or movie. Along with the authentic town, there are miles of trails to explore, one of them leading to the site where the Mash TV show was filmed.
Bolsa Chica Wetlands located adjacent to Pacific Coast Highway in the city of Huntington Beach from Warner Avenue to Seal Beach. The wetlands sit on 1,200 acres of prime oceanfront land that used to covered with oil wells. There are still active oil wells in the area but eventually, they will all be removed.
Almost 200 species of birds can be seen in wetlands depending on the time of year. As you walk along the trails it’s not uncommon to see birds feeding in one of the shallow tidal pools. Fish can also be seen swimming in the tidal areas
Hiking at Bolsa Chica Wetlands is divided into two areas upper mesa and the lower wetlands causeway. The mesa trail offers spectacular vistas of Bolsa Chica State Beach and on a clear day, you can see the Queen Mary in Long Beach.
Little Saigon has the largest concentration of Vietnamese shopping in the world outside of Vietnam. The main business district of Little Saigon is located in a section bordered by Bolsa, Westminster, Magnolia, and Brookhurst Avenues. Most of the restaurants and shops are located within, these boundaries.
A good starting point is the Asian Garden Mall which houses the biggest jewelry market in Orange County. Little Saigon features a wide variety of Vietnamese shops, restaurants, and boutiques. Enjoy the flavor of Vietnam in Southern California.
Treasure Island Park in Laguna Beach is, well a treasure. This has got to be one of the most beautiful ocean front parks in the state of California. Locals would love to keep this place hidden but its open to the public for free and anyone can go.
The park is situated in front of the Montage Resort, one of the swankiest hotels in Southern California. Most people can not afford to stay at the Montage, however, anyone can take a stroll around the park and enjoy the million dollar view of the pacific ocean.
Throughout the park are artworks, paved paths and numerous benches with unbelievable views of the Laguna coast. There are steps down to Aliso Creek Beach where you can explore tide pools or gawk at the expensive homes along the bluff.
You might be thinking why would I ever want to go and visit a cemetery. Hollywood Forever is like no other and is the final resting place of many famous early Hollywood stars. Hollywood Forever is also listed on the National Register of Historic Sites.
The cemetery is a fairly popular tourist attraction and holds events throughout the year including movie showings and the popular Dia de Los Muertos festival. For a fee, you can take a guided tour (reservations required) or you can take a self-guided tour and roam around on your own.
Parking is free depending on what is going on that day. If you do park inside you can move your car around to different area as the cemetery is quite large. Hundreds of famous early Hollywood stars are buried here.
Sunnylands is located in the desert community of Rancho Mirage about a 30-minute drive from Palm Springs, California. The 200-acre estate was the former retreat of world leaders and famous celebrities who were guests of billionaires Walter and Leonore Annenberg.
Admission to the 17,000 square foot visitor center and the estate gardens is free along with parking. A more detailed tour that must be booked in advance is $35.00 per person.
The visitor center displays some of the art from the Sunnylands Collection along with exhibits and displays about the famous guests who stayed and worked at the estate. you can also take a walk through the garden along a one-mile trail.
Orange Empire Railway Museum has a huge collection of trains, trolleys, and railroad equipment.
Admission to the grounds of the museum is free except on special event days. Visitors can wander around the expansive museum and enjoy a collection of rolling stock gives a look back on Southern California’s railroad history.
If you want to ride on a train or trolley there is a modest ticket fee that lets visitors ride as many times as they like. Orange Empire Railway Museum is a perfect destination for families on a tight budget.
Cabrillo Marine Aquarium admission is free. While not anywhere near the size of Aquarium of the Pacific Cabrillo Marine Aquarium has a respectable collection of sea creatures on display.
Directly across the street from the aquarium is inner and outer Cabrillo beaches. Cabrillo Beach Coastal Park has a walkway down to some interesting tide pools if you can time your visit to a low tide.