California might be the home of Hollywood superstars and Silicon Valley billionaires, but the “Golden State” still offers a wide range of free activities that kids will enjoy!
In this article, you’ll find 24 free activities that you and your family should consider on your next family vacation to California.
- Here Are 24 Free Things to Do with Kids in California
- 1. Exposition Park
- 2. Griffith Park & Observatory
- 3. Mission Trails Regional Park
- 4. Sacramento Museum Day
- 5. The Timken Museum of Art
- 6. The Last Bookstore
- 7. The Palace of Fine Arts
- 8. Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
- 9. Hollywood Walk Of Fame
- 10. Fort Bragg Glass Beach
- 11. Taylor Guitars
- 12. The Getty Center
- 13. Lake Merritt
- 14. Monarch Grove Sanctuary
- 15. Coit Memorial Tower
- 16. Big Morongo Canyon Preserve
- 17. The Golden Gate Bridge
- 18. Pacific Marine Mammal Center
- 19. Coachella Valley National Wildlife Refuge
- 20. Piedras Blancas
- 21. The Palm Springs Art Museum
- 22. California State Capitol and Park
- 23. Heal The Bay Aquarium
- 24. The Cable Car Museum
- Final Thoughts
Here Are 24 Free Things to Do with Kids in California
1. Exposition Park
Exposition Park is one of those rare attractions that can amaze and educate at the same time.
Home to an assortment of playing fields and open spaces, Exposition Park is perfect for children who hate being cooped up inside the house.
The park also houses the world-famous Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the biggest natural history museum in the western United States.
The museum covers 4.5 billion years of evolutionary history. With nearly 35 million artifacts and specimens, the Natural History Museum will inspire and delight every family member.
And don’t forget to check out the Becoming Los Angeles exhibit – which is a 14,000-square-foot artistic masterpiece that allows you to see and experience the history of Los Angeles.
Exposition Park is also the location of the California Science Center, which is home to the Space Shuttle, Endeavour.
Looking for other family fun in the Los Angeles area? Check out our guide to the best beaches near Los Angeles for families to really make the most of your visit.
2. Griffith Park & Observatory
The Griffith Observatory first opened in 1935 – and so far, over 7 million people have peered through its 12-inch refracting telescope. Consequently, the Griffith Observatory is the most-visited public observatory in the world.
The observatory is also home to the Astronomers Monument, which honors the work of the greatest astronomers of all time, including Hipparchus, Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and William Herschel.
Located in Los Angeles, the Griffith Observatory offers a breath-taking vantage point to see the iconic Hollywood Sign.
If you’re looking for amazing accommodation in the Los Angeles area, check out our guide to the best hotels in Los Angeles for families.
3. Mission Trails Regional Park
Located in San Diego, the Mission Trails Regional Park is the largest municipally-owned park in California (it is also the sixth-largest municipal park in America).
With 5,800-acres of open space, the park is an endless source of joy for outdoor enthusiasts. The park is also a fitness and exercise destination for the residents of southern California – because it offers over 65 miles of hiking trails and trails for mountain biking.
The most popular trail is the Cowles Mountain trail, which at its peak, provides you with a 360-degree panoramic vista of San Diego County.
The park is also home to the:
- Old Mission Dam – This dam was originally built to irrigate the farmlands of Mission San Diego de Alcalá (which was a Franciscan mission that Junípero Serra founded in 1769);
- Lake Murray – A reservoir that provides water to the residents of San Diego. The lake has a surface area of roughly 168 acres – and periodically has bass and trout.
The park has facilities for those who enjoy camping, rock climbing, and horseriding. Also, the park has free admission.
The park has a 14,000 square-foot visitors’ center, which contains a gallery and a 93-seat theater (equipped with a Blu-ray projection system).
4. Sacramento Museum Day
Sacramento Museum Day is a family-friendly event that encourages residents and visitors to visit 26 attractions within Sacramento – including the :
- Sacramento History Museum;
- California State Railroad Museum;
- Aerospace Museum of California;
- Sacramento Zoo;
- Old Sacramento State Historic Park.
Visitors with ‘Museum Day’ flyers can use the city’s transportation for free to travel to the various attractions.
The entire event is a fast-paced experience for the senses that the whole family will remember.
5. The Timken Museum of Art
This destination is definitely for anyone who loves classical European art.
The Timken Museum of Art houses works from the French masters – including Boucher, Corot, Clouet, and Fragonard.
You can also sample sublime masterpieces from artistic virtuosos like Murillo, Copley, and Bierstadt.
Significant works on display include:
- Parable of the Sower (1557, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)
- The Return of the Prodigal Son (1654-1655, by Guercino)
- A Girl Receiving a Letter (1658, by Gabriël Metsu)
The museum is located in San Diego (in Balboa Park) and offers free admission to all visitors.
Are you looking to book a trip to the San Diego area? We’ve put together a guide to the best family hotels in San Diego to help you find the perfect place to stay.
6. The Last Bookstore
Located in Los Angeles, The Last Bookstore is California’s largest store for new and used books.
The store occupies 22,000 square feet and contains more than 25,000 unique book volumes. You can even browse through an expansive collection of vinyl records and graphic novels.
The store offers free admission and other free things – like open book readings, author signings, and lectures.
7. The Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is a large park with lagoons, plants, and wildlife. But the most dominant features of this tourist site are the lagoon-enclosing open rotunda and the neighboring domed exhibition center.
The Palace of Fine Arts has been featured in the following movies:
- Time After Time (starring Malcolm McDowell and David Warner)
- The Room (written, directed, and starring Tommy Wiseau)
- Twisted (starring Samuel L. Jackson and Andy Garcia)
The site is part of the 49-Mile Scenic Drive, which is a scenic road tour that showcases the key attractions of San Francisco.
The Palace of Fine Arts is located in San Francisco and offers free admission.
Why not have a look through our guide to the best family hotels in San Francisco to find the best accommodation for your trip?
8. Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
The Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve is a 1,800-acre state-protected reserve 60 miles north of Los Angeles.
The reserve is known for its consistent blooming of the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), which became the official flower of California in 1903. The blooming session of the bright orange California poppy occurs between mid-February and mid-May.
The Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve has an elevation of 2,600-3,000 feet above sea level. Consequently, the reserve is the home of many interesting species of wildflowers, including the lupine (Lupinus bicolor), Bigelow coreopsis (Coreopsis bigelovii), and exserted Indian paintbrush (Castilleja exserta).
The reserve has free admission and is open between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm. Car parking is $10 for the day, and with eight miles of looping hiking trails, the area is also perfect for hikers or runners.
9. Hollywood Walk Of Fame
The world-famous Hollywood Walk of Fame is located in Central Los Angeles – along 15 blocks of Hollywood Boulevard and three blocks of Vine Street. It attracts 10 million visitors every year.
The historic landmark consists of over 2,700 marbled and starred concrete slabs that celebrate the work of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.
If you plan to walk the entire length of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, then give yourself 3-5 hours. However, it’s best not to rush the experience. Take your time, check out the trendy bars and restaurants – and engage in a bit of celebrity spotting.
The original idea for the Hollywood Walk of Fame was first conceived in 1953 by E.M Stuart, who was a volunteer president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.
At the time, Stuart expressed the idea of a walkway that would “maintain the glory of a community whose name means glamour and excitement in the four corners of the world”.
Are you hoping to find other family activities in Hollywood? Take a look at our handy guide exploring the best things to do in Hollywood with kids.
10. Fort Bragg Glass Beach
Glass Beach is located next to MacKerricher State Park, near Fort Bragg.
Glass Beach is unique because the beach pebbles are made of glass. This is because, in the 1960s, the beach was a dumping site for garbage. Eventually, local authorities cleaned up the site. But over two decades, the constant pounding of ocean waves rounded off the large glass pieces on the beach.
During the summer, the glass pebbles of Glass Beach attract around 1,500 visitors every day. So if you plan to visit this unique attraction, please do not take any of the glass pebbles home with you.
Also, don’t forget to visit MacKerricher State Park, where staff members organize outdoor trips for hiking or whale-watching. There are also facilities for camping, fishing (on Lake Cleone), cycling and horse riding.
11. Taylor Guitars
Since 1975, Taylor Guitars has been a pioneer in the production of guitars. Their guitars have been played by the likes of Alan Jackson and Dave Matthews.
If you are a music lover – then Taylor Guitars has a treat for you!
Every weekday at 1:00 pm, visitors can receive a guided tour of the production factory (located in El Cajon, San Diego County; 19 miles east of San Diego Zoo). Learn about every step of the guitar-making process.
All you need to do is turn up 15 minutes before the commencement of the tour. And for every visitor, Taylor Guitars is offering free admission.
12. The Getty Center
Located in Los Angeles, the Getty Center is a $1.3 billion center that attracts 1.8 million visitors per year.
The center’s original campus in Brentwood contains a collection of European and Western artwork, some of which can be traced back to the Middle Ages.
The center’s newer campus in Malibu contains a collection of precious treasures from the ancient world, focusing on the empires of Rome, Etruria, and Greece.
The Getty Center is also home to the exquisite painting, Irises, by Vincent van Gogh.
Furthermore, exploring the art center is another one of those exciting free things you can do in California.
The Getting Center has an underground car park with over 1,200 parking spaces. The cost of a parking space is $20 per car or motorcycle.
13. Lake Merritt
Lake Merritt is an expansive tidal lagoon located 14 miles east of San Francisco. It is a popular walking and running location because it has a 3.4-mile perimeter shoreline.
The artificial islands within the lake serve as the home for many unique birds like the Canada Goose and American Coot.
Lake Merritt has a boating center where you can rent canoes and sailboats. The site also has Children’s Fairyland, which is a 10-acre amusement park for young children.
The park is also the location of the Open Storybook Puppet Theater, which is the oldest puppet theater in America.
Lake Merritt also has a 7.5-acre garden that contains seven themed gardens. Every October, the gardens host the Autumn Lights Festival.
Why not take a look at our guide to the best beaches near San Fransisco for families to see what else you can do here?
14. Monarch Grove Sanctuary
The Monarch Grove Sanctuary looks after monarch butterflies that are migrating to Pacific Grove (110 miles south of San Francisco). This involves monarch butterflies clustering around various trees of the sanctuary. It is a fantastic sight to behold.
The entire migration process is so impressive that Pacific Grove has the nickname “Butterfly Town, U.S.A”.
Monarch butterflies arrive at the sanctuary in late October and then leave in early March.
The Monarch Grove Sanctuary is staffed by volunteers. So even though admission is free of charge – a donation would be greatly appreciated.
15. Coit Memorial Tower
The Coit Memorial Tower pays tribute to the firefighters who lost their lives during the five major fires that have occurred since the establishment of San Francisco.
Located in the Telegraph Hill region of San Francisco, the tower offers impressive panoramic views of the city. Also, the tower provides a stunning vista of San Franciso Bay.
The Coit Memorial Tower has a height of 210-feet – and in January 2008, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
16. Big Morongo Canyon Preserve
The Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is 110 miles west of Los Angeles and 145 miles north of San Diego.
The preserve is a desert oasis that gives you a chance to see a wide range of animals living in their natural habitat. These include raccoons, cottontail rabbits, bobcats, and even bighorn sheep. Also, over 247 species of birds have been recorded at the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.
The preserve is perfect for hiking. There are hiking trails that are less than a mile (like the Mesquite and Marsh trails) – and the Canyon trail offers a round-trip of roughly 10 miles.
17. The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is probably the most photographed bridge in the world. The bridge attracts over 10 million visitors every year with its jaw-dropping size, delightful orange color, and splendid art deco design features.
The bridge was designed by Irving Morrow. Construction took place between January 1933 and April 1937.
The Golden Gate Bridge connects San Francisco with Marin County. It carries part of U.S. Route 101 (US 101) and State Route 1 (SR 1). The bridge has also been designated part of U.S. Bicycle Route 95 (USBR 95).
A visitors’ centre will teach you about the bridge’s history, construction, and style.
It is free to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. However, if you would like to drive across the bridge in a standard car, you will need to pay a toll fee of around $9.
18. Pacific Marine Mammal Center
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center was set up in 1975 to help marine mammals (like sea lions, whales, and dolphins) who are sick, ill, or injured.
The center gives you a chance to see how volunteers care for marine mammals who are unwell.
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center has a visitors’ yard that features a gift shop, interactive displays, and marine mammal artifacts. The center is located on Laguna Beach in southern Orange County, 60 miles southeast of Santa Monica.
Have a read through our guide to the best things to do in Laguna Beach with kids for more family fun ideas in the area.
19. Coachella Valley National Wildlife Refuge
The Coachella Valley National Wildlife Refuge is a 3,709-acre protected area reserve set up to look after the Coachella Valley Fringe-Toed Lizard.
Even though most of the reserve is not open to the public – there is still plenty of space for visitors who enjoy walking, biking, running, or horseback riding.
The refuge is located in Riverside County (75 miles west of Santa Monica) and is managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
The refuge offers the following trails to visitors: Moon Country, Hidden Palms, Willis Palms, Pushawalla Palms, and McCallum.
20. Piedras Blancas
“Piedras Blancas” means “white rocks”, and it is the rookery location for up to 17,000 elephant seals.
At Piedra Blancas, you get to witness the mating rituals, societal interactions, and behavioral nuances of enormous elephants seals – many of which weigh more than 4,000 lbs!
The peak season for this incredible wildlife site runs from December to May. Outside of this period – you will still see elephant seals, but in fewer numbers.
A team of around 100 docents oversee and look after Piedras Blancas. The docents are from the fantastic non-profit organization, Friends of the Elephant Seal. The charity is based in San Simeon – 8 miles south of Piedra Blanca. The charity also has a visitors’ center that contains educational exhibits and a gift shop.
The colony of elephant seals that use Piedra Blanca can be traced to the birth of its first pup in 1992. Today, the colony has over 25,000 elephant seals. The reason for this astonishing growth rate is because elephant seals prefer to mate on the same beaches of their birth.
21. The Palm Springs Art Museum
The Palm Springs Art Museum has three areas of focus: art (including glass art, contemporary art, and sculptural art), natural science, and performing art.
The museum is the permanent home of an art collection that contains 12,000 objects of fine art, photography, Mesoamerican art, Native American art, and art from other cultures.
The museum also houses the work of notable landscape artists such as Carl Oscar Borg, John James Audubon, and Thomas Hill.
The Palm Springs Art Museum has a natural science collection of 12,000 specimens. The collection contains ceramics, tools, minerals, and fossils.
The museum has an intimate 437-seat theater, named after Walter Hubert Annenberg (American businessman, investor – and US Ambassador to the UK between 1969 and 1974).
Admission is always free for children under the age of 18. For adults, admission is free on Thursdays, between 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm (due to funding from the City of Palm Springs).
22. California State Capitol and Park
The California State Capitol is home to the executive and legislative branches of California’s state government. The building has a neoclassical style and was designed to resemble the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.
The building was designed by Reuben S. Clark and constructed in 1874.
When you arrive at the California State Capitol building, why not take a tour to learn about its history, architecture, and functionality? You can visit a state-of-the-art theater that routinely shows video documentaries about the California State Capitol.
Make sure you take in the splendor of the California Senate Chamber, which has been decorated in red (this is in reference to the red seats of the UK Houses of Lords).
On the other side of the building, there is the California Assembly, which has been decorated in green (in reference to the green seats of the UK House of Commons).
If legislators are in session (either in the Assembly or Senate), you can access the public galleries to watch laws being debated and important votes being cast.
Outside the building, you can walk through the 40-acre Capitol Park – which has trees from across the globe. You can even visit the aromatic International World Peace Rose Garden.
And don’t forget to visit the State of California Capitol Museum – where you can view stunning portraits of influential political thinkers such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan.
23. Heal The Bay Aquarium
Next to the busy carnival rides and snack bars of Santa Monica Pier, there is an unassuming tourist attraction that works to protect the marine ecosystem of the local region.
Heal The Bay is a non-profit environmental group that aims to protect the waters of Santa Monica Bay and southern California. The group owns and operates an impressive aquarium that contains roughly 100 local species of marine wildlife. Staff members also run daily educational sessions concerning the creatures they look after.
Entry into the aquarium is free for children under the age of 12.
Heal The Bay also runs beach cleanup initiatives such as Coastal Cleanup Day, Suit On The Sand, and Adopt-a-Beach.
Love aquariums? Our guide to the best aquariums in California can help you find your next trip.
Or maybe you’re thinking of staying in Santa Monica? Take a look at our brilliant guide to the best Santa Monica family hotels to help plan your visit.
24. The Cable Car Museum
The Cable Car Museum is a wonderful treat for all gearheads!
The museum has an observation deck that allows you to see all the movements and mechanics of powering a cable car.
The museum also has cable cars from the Sutter Street Railway and Clay Street Hill Railroad, both of which were in operation during the 1870s.
The Cable Car Museum has free admission – and it has a gift shop where you can even buy an authentic cable car bell.
If you choose to visit the museum in July, you can participate in the annual Bell-Ringing Contest. The contest first took place in 1949. It is now held in Union Square.
Is it safe to swim in Lake Merritt?
It is not safe to swim in Lake Merritt. This is because the water has low levels of dissolved oxygen, which fosters the growth of anaerobic bacteria (i.e. bacteria that don’t need oxygen), and might be harmful to humans.
Do you need to book ahead to visit Heal the Bay Aquarium?
Heal the Bay advises visitors to book ahead for aquarium visits.
When is the best time of year to visit Big Morongo Canyon Preserve?
You can visit the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve at any time of the year – but try to avoid the summer (due to the high temperatures).
Can I bring food or drinks to the Griffith Observatory?
No, you cannot. However, you can purchase food and drink at the observatory’s cafe.
It has been said that California is the land of hopes and dreams. But California can also be the home of new sensations and fond memories, provided you know where to look.
If you would like to learn more about vacationing in California, take a look at our blog exploring the cost of a California family vacation.
Want to plan a big day out ahead of your family vacation? Or maybe you live in California and need inspiration for your next day out with the kids? Our list of attractions and fun things to do in California with kids should come in handy!
More about our TFVG Author
Caitlin is one of The Family Vacation Guide's long standing contributors. She enjoys taking vacation to busy, vibrant cities and has stretched her traveling legs out towards Europe in recent months, enjoying new experiences in Barcelona in Spain, and Nice in France.