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21 Free Things to do in Southern California
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21 Free Things to do in Southern California

From piers to downtowns, SoCal offers plenty of pastime adventures to enjoy without needing to rely too much on your credit card.

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7 min read

May 25, 2021

From the beaches and piers to parks and downtowns, SoCal offers plenty of pastime adventures to enjoy without relying on your credit card. Ditch the pricey restaurants and theme parks and challenge yourself to compile a full trip itinerary of exclusively free things to do in Southern California.

Take advantage of the beautiful scenery, cool landmarks, unique cultural attractions, and awesome SoCal perks. Have yourself the best budget-friendly trip, starting with these 21 ideas.

Free Things to Do in San Diego

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park commemorates the city's early days, showcasing historic buildings from 1820 to 1870.

1. Spend a Day at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park 

Old Town San Diego has museums and historical landmarks galore. A definite top thing to do in San Diego, this historic district features several essential attractions and landmarks that makes every trip to San Diego worthwhile.

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2. Swim at Coronado Beach 

There’s nothing quite like spending a relaxing day by the beach, and Coronado is one of the most beautiful places in SoCal to do so. Soak in the sun, take a dip in the calm waters, and admire the spectacular views along this sandy stretch. Whether you're bringing your date or your pup, Coronado Beach is a spot your itinerary can’t do without. 

Sunset Cliffs is a unique coastal environment that features expansive ocean views, dramatic cliffs and caves, and a fascinating intertidal area.

3. Watch the Sunset at Sunset Cliffs

Another awesome dog-friendly spot in San Diego is none other than Sunset Cliffs. And as expected, the best time to visit this scenic spot is during sunset. Enjoy a beautiful picnic with your S.O. while gorgeous orange hues light up the sky and waves crash in the background. We’re swooning just thinking about this romantic thing to do in SoCal.

4. Walk Down the San Diego Embarcadero

Adjacent to Downtown San Diego, the Embarcadero is a one-stop-shop for many San Diego essentials. Seaport Village is the place for seafood and souvenir shops—the same goes for the Headquarters at Seaport. The Marina has great ocean views and sprawling grassy lawns. These are all free things to do in San Diego you can’t miss out on.

Free Things to Do in Orange County

There's a good reason why Huntington Beach reigns as the official Surf City. Consistent swells make this 10-mile coast a must-see for surfers.

5. Surf at Huntington Beach 

The SoCal paradise of Orange County is home to the iconic Huntington Beach, aka Surf City U.S.A. Known for playing an integral part in shaping California’s surf culture, this top surfing spot is a must for outdoor enthusiasts.

6. Stroll Around Old Towne Orange 

Hit up Old Towne Orange to enjoy a leisurely stroll, admire century-old buildings, and get a taste of classic O.C. As one of the largest registered Historic Districts in California, this free thing to do in Orange County can’t be missed. Visit during September and you’ll get a chance to see the popular Orange Street Fair in action.

7. Hike the Crystal Cove Perimeter Loop

The Crystal Cove Perimeter Loop is a hike for serious explorers. Over nine miles in length and with serious elevation gain, this hike will satisfy all your cravings for a backcountry adventure. Traipse through ridges and valleys, see the Santiago and Modjeska Peaks, and enjoy the most beautiful views of the Pacific as the perfect reward on your free O.C. adventure.

The Old Orange County Courthouse is now a museum and has been used as a filming location for various movies and television shows.

8. Check Out the Old Orange County Courthouse 

Learn about the history of the O.C. and significant events throughout its history at the Old Orange County Courthouse. Offering free admission to visitors, the Romanesque Revival structure is SoCal’s oldest court building and one of the best free things to do in Orange County.

9. Plan a Picnic at Irvine Regional Park

The 160-acre locale is the county’s first regional park and a beautiful place to plan a romantic afternoon date. There’s a $3 to $5 parking fee if you visit by vehicle, but it’s money well spent. Activities to enjoy at the park include biking, paddle boating, a train ride, pony rides, and more.

Free Things to Do in Los Angeles

Explore the universe for free in the heart of Los Angeles by paying a visit to the magnificent Griffith Observatory and Park.

10. Check out Griffith Observatory and Park 

Visiting Griffith Observatory is one of the top free things to do in L.A. year-round. Go at night to watch the twinkling skies above with a telescope and the beautiful city of Los Angeles below. While you can never get enough of the stars, Griffith Park is also fun to explore at nighttime. (May we suggest a midnight stroll?)

11. Explore the Getty Center’s impressive Collection 

The Getty Center is impressive in more than one way. The free art gallery has an extensive collection of European and American art to admire, beautiful gardens to explore, and one of the most unique architectural buildings in L.A. Overall, when it comes to free things to do in Los Angeles, paying a visit to the Getty Center is a must.

All of the Venice Canals have names: Aldebaren Canal, Altair Canal, Cabrillo Canal, Coral Canal, Grand Canal, Lion Canal, and Venus Canal.

12. Go for an evening stroll at the Venice Canals

Escape to the Mediterranean Coast by heading to the beautiful Venice Canals. After spending a day by the beach, this unique spot is the perfect place to wrap up the day. Other free things to do in Venice include walking along the boardwalk, checking out Muscle Beach, and exploring Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

13. Visit the Hollywood Forever Cemetery 

The Hollywood Forever Cemetery is where many industry legends rest. Located on the same block as Paramount Pictures, this cemetery is one of the oldest in L.A. and the only one in Hollywood. Participate in the outdoor community events hosted by the cemetery, such as live music and summer movie screenings, for fun free things to do in Hollywood.

The 160-acre Runyon Canyon Park is home to the Rock Mandala, a piece of public artwork created in 2008 by resident and director Robert Wilson.

14. Hike the trails at Runyon Canyon Park

No itinerary of free things to do in Southern California is complete without a hike or two. One of the most popular hiking destinations in the city, Runyon Canyon Park offers great loop hikes with unbeatable views. Hike the 2.7-mile Runyon Canyon Trail and you’ll have the Santa Monica Mountains and Hollywood Hills keeping you company.

Free Things to Do in Ventura

Formerly known as the Ventura Wharf and the San Buenaventura Wharf, the Ventura Pier is the oldest of its kind in the Golden State.

15. Take a Walk on the Ventura Pier

This historic pier is popular among walkers, joggers, and bikers, and that’s partly due to the killer views. You’ll see the City of Ventura, Channel Islands National Park, Surfers Point, Santa Barbara Channel, and Topatopa Mountains from the pier. Talk about a strategic location.

Founded on March 31, 1782, Mission Basilica San Buenaventura is the last to be established by the head of the Franciscan missions in California.

16. Visit Mission Basilica San Buenaventura

Visiting the local missions is one of the top free things to do in Southern California. Not only do you get an exclusive sneak peek of California’s Spanish history, but you also see beautiful and historic structures that aren’t as common as they used to be.

17. Smell the Flowers at the Ventura Botanical Gardens

Every Friday is a free day at the Ventura Botanical Gardens. Here, you’ll see local plant species such as ceanothus, lemonade berry, California pepper trees, and California oak, as well as endangered species like the Chilean wine palm. While the admission is free on Fridays, consider making a small donation to help the park become even more of a magical place.

Free Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Hendry's Beach is secluded by towering cliffs and a curving coastline, and is just a 10-minute drive along the coast from Downtown Santa Barbara.

18. Hit up Hendry’s Beach With your Pup 

Officially called the Arroyo Burro Beach Park, this beach is the go-to place to let your dog run along the coast leash-free. Enjoy beachcombing, bodyboarding, hiking, sunbathing, swimming, and more free things to do along the coast. Hendry’s Beach also has all the amenities you need—dog wash, showers, picnic tables, barbecue grills—to make your visit as comfortable as possible.

19. Explore Stearns Wharf 

Built in 1872, Stearns Wharf is one of the oldest operating wooden piers in California. You’ll find souvenir shops, food stands, and restaurants along the pier—it’s also a great spot for people-watching. The best part about this free thing to do in Southern California is watching the local surfers and fishermen in action at the very end of the pier. Stay a while, you might just catch a glimpse of a frolicking dolphin or two.

Santa Barbara's Moreton Bay Fig Tree is believed to be the largest Ficus macrophylla in the United States, with a total height of 80 feet in 1997.

20. See the Historic Moreton Bay Fig Tree

Believed to be the largest fig tree in the United States, this natural landmark is a sight to see on your getaway to Santa Barbara. Legend has it that an Australian seaman visiting the city in 1876 gave a seedling of a fig tree to a local girl who planted it at 201 State Street, which is where the tree is found today.

21. Escape to Thousand Steps Beach 

Looking to escape to a breathtaking secluded beach? Head to Thousand Steps Beach in East Mesa to witness a piece of heaven on earth. Going down to the beach requires a long (but easy) hike. Make sure to visit at low tide for excellent tide pooling opportunities.

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