For families traveling on a budget, California offers plenty of ways to dream big for free. The Golden State is home to an abundance of no-cost experiences, ranging from kid-friendly museums and beach amusement parks to art activities and wildlife viewing.
Here are Visit California’s top ten picks for free family fun, in no particular order and including additional honorable mentions:
1. Night at the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum
Every third Thursday each month, families enter the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum for free from 5 to 8 p.m. and enjoy three-floors of hands-on exhibits, programs and an outside playscape for kids ages 1-10. A new kinetic sandbox recently debuted at the museum as well, featuring a landscape where kids can control rivers and build peaks tall enough to get covered in snow.
2. Pacific Park at Santa Monica Pier
Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier’s over-water amusement park, is Los Angeles’ only free-admission amusement park. Noted as California’s top attraction in a recent Yahoo! Travel’s “Best Amusement Park in Every State” roundup, Pacific Park boasts 14 midway games and 12 rides including the Pacific Wheel, the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel. From atop the Ferris wheel visitors can take in panoramic views of the coastline from more than 185 feet above the Santa Monica Pier, while nighttime beachgoers can enjoy the 85-foot-high computer-generated light show created by the Ferris wheel’s 160,000 energy-efficient LED lights. Access to the two-acre park, including lounging on the beach, is entirely free and ticket prices start as low as $1 for games and $4 for rides.
3. Kids’ Art Studio at Laguna Art Museum
Create works of art with your family for free every third Sunday at Laguna Art Museum from 2 to 4 p.m. The hands-on art program, inspired by one of the exhibits each month, is designed for all ages and supervised by members of the Laguna Art Museum Arts Council. All materials are provided. The museum also offers free admission on the first Thursday of every month from 5 to 9 p.m.
4. Family Fun at The Presidio of San Francisco
Families can discover free and enriching activities at The Presidio of San Francisco, a 1,500-acre national park playground for entertainment, education and exploration. Start at the Presidio Visitor Center, where staff will answer questions and offer free maps and brochures. Then hike or ride a bike along the Golden Gate Promenade at Crissy Field, which features dramatically beautiful views of the San Francisco Bay. Check out Fort Point beneath the Golden Gate Bridge for additional vistas, or head down to Baker Beach or Marshall Beach for beach activities. The historic Officers’ Club features free public programs ranging from live music, dance, astronomy lectures and star-gazing parties to art hikes, family film nights, archaeology digs and creative family crafts.
5. Free Family Attractions at Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows offers free outdoor activities and spectacular vistas for families seeking fresh mountain air and fun. Located at 8,200 feet in the Sierra Nevada, Squaw Valley’s High Camp offers a variety of options including free admission to the Olympic Museum and free activities including tennis, disc golf, hiking, slack lines, croquet, ladder toss, geo-caching and bag toss. July through August, Squaw Valley hosts a Free Outdoor Summer Movie Series where families and friends can snuggle up under the stars while enjoying new releases and family classics on the big screen in the Events Plaza in The Village. Visitors can also take a free yoga class every Wednesday in the summer on First Street in The Village. The Yoga Squaw’d class features special guest appearances from well-known yoga instructors and includes the use of yoga mats.
6. Gold-Rush Fun at Old Sacramento State Historic Park
The 28-acre Old Sacramento State Historic Park invites families to step back in time to California’s notorious Gold-Rush era. This national landmark features approximately 50 buildings that have been restored to their 1850s to 1870s glory, as well as wooden sidewalks, horse-drawn carriages, old-fashioned candy shops and a Mississippi-style riverboat – now a hotel. Don’t miss the one-room 1800s Old Sacramento Schoolhouse, the Huntington Hopkins Hardware Store Museum and the Wells Fargo Museum.
7. Whale Watching on Mendocino’s Coast
One of the most storied places to view whales in the wild is Mendocino’s coast, located in Northern California’s redwoods and wine country. Each summer and fall visitors can spot Blue Whales, Humpback Whales and Minke Whales from free oceanside vantage points such as Mendocino Headlands State Park, Point Arena Lighthouse, Mendocino Bay Overlook and Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail. In the winter and spring California Gray Whales appear as they make their way down from their Alaskan feeding grounds to breed in Baja, Mexico. Many can be spotted with the naked eye spouting, breaching and diving as they make their epic journey south. Whales are such stars here that the county offers several whale-themed events in March, from free whale festivals in Mendocino, Little River and Fort Bragg to guided walks and talks.
8. Visit Denmark for Free in California’s Dutch Town of Solvang
California’s Dutch town of Solvang offers families the opportunity to explore Denmark without leaving the state. The historic town of Solvang’s Danish Village boasts eye-catching, authentic architecture and mouth-watering bakeries, as well as a free museum celebrating one of the most beloved authors in children’s literature. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum – the only museum in the U.S. devoted to the Danish author known as “Father of the Fairytale” – offers complimentary admission every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Families can also marvel at miniature horses at Discover Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch, a fascinating breeding facility for 34-inch-and-under horses that welcomes visitors Monday-Saturday for free viewing from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. All public parks around Solvang offer free admission and are open daily from sunrise to sunset, including Hans Christian Andersen Park, a woodsy green space with picnic areas, tennis courts, a playground and free skate park for boarders.
9. California Surf Museum, San Diego County
Hang 10 at the California Surf Museum, which turned 30 this year and houses a permanent collection of historic boards, photographs and videos on Highway 101 in Oceanside. Families can enjoy free admission on the first Tuesday of every month, exploring colorful and educational displays on the sport of surfing and the legends who braved the waters over generations. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.
10. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Families can take advantage of free admission every day at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, often ranked among the best seaside parks in North America and offering sweeping views of Monterey Bay. Over a century old, visitors can soak up some history as well as rays on the beach. Every summer, guests can catch a free magic show by The Surfing Magician and other entertainers along the Boardwalk. The Boardwalk’s popular Free Friday Night Bands on the Beach concert series features top bands from the 1980s and 1990s like The Tubes, Smash Mouth and Blue Oyster Cult. On Wednesday nights, check out Free Movies on the Beach, where every summer the “The Lost Boys” plays, which filmed right at the Boardwalk.
• Jelly Belly Factory Tour, Fairfield
Located halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento, the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield offers the ultimate fix for fans of the Original Gourmet Jelly Bean®. Visitors can take a FREE factory tour and smell the aroma of chocolate, peach, cinnamon, pineapple, or whatever flavor is being cooked up that day. During the walking tour families can experience a real working factory where more than 150 different sweet treats are made. They’ll learn the secrets of how the legendary Jelly Belly is created, and discover why it takes more than a week to make a single bean. After the tour visitors can stop by the Jelly Belly Café for a bite to eat, including a Jelly Belly shaped hamburger or pizza.
• Chitactac-Adams Park, Gilroy
Learn about local Native American history at the free Chitactac-Adams Park, located in Gilroy about 40 minutes south of San Jose. Tucked away in oak-studded foothills, the 4.3-acre park offers fascinating petroglyphs and bedrock mortars left behind by the Ohlone Indians, who made their homes along Uvas Creek for 3,000 years. Today, interactive exhibits along a self-guided walking trail include a full-size reproduction of an Ohlone village with a tule house, acorn granary and lean-to shelter.
By California Travel & Tourism Commission
The California Travel & Tourism Commission is a non-profit organization with a mission to develop and maintain marketing programs – in partnership with the state’s travel industry – that keep California top-of-mind as a premier travel destination. Learn more here: www.visitcalifornia.com