There’s no shortage of fun things to do in Orange County, but it’s always a bonus if you find something fun to do that’s also free. Here’s your new go-to list of free things to do in Orange County.
Have a Beach Day
Orange County is obviously known for its long stretches of sandy beaches and world famous waves. Bonus that you can often find free parking to make your trip to the beach even more affordable.
If you can’t find any available free street parking, many beach parking lots charge a nominal fee. However, some locations, like the lots operated by the State Park system, can charge up to $15 or more for the day. So if you want to keep your parking cost minimal, steer clear of those beaches. Here are a few where you can find free parking on an average day – keep in mind busy weekends will be more difficult.
Corona Del Mar – Little Corona Del Mar Beach and Corona Del Mar State Beach are located along the same stretch of Ocean Boulevard. There is street parking available along Ocean and other streets in the neighborhood and you can follow the trails down to the sand. If street parking isn’t available, you can park in the paid parking lot at Corona Del Mar State Beach for $3 – $5 per hour depending on the day and season.
Huntington Beach – Huntington City and State Beach has tons of paid parking lots along PCH, but there are also plenty of side streets and neighborhoods to scout for a free spot. You may end up with a lengthy walk to the sand so bring a wagon, but if a free spot is your goal, you’ll likely find one here. Another option is to head to Sunset Beach and Bolsa Chica at Warner and PCH. Parking is $15 at Bolsa Chica’s main State Beach parking area, but turn in behind Jack In The Box at Warner and search for a free spot in this long stretch of public parking, then enjoy your time at Sunset or Bolsa Chica, whichever one you decide to walk to.
Laguna Beach – There are several beaches in Laguna that are accessible via free parking. Main Beach is a popular spot with a grassy area, a playground, a boardwalk, and a sandy cove. Free parking can be located in the surrounding neighborhoods. There are many other beaches in Laguna that can be accessed via walkways down to the sand along Coast Highway like 1000 Steps Beach and if you can find a spot, the street parking along PCH is free. During busier times, park your car and walk to the trolley, which offers free rides and stops at most of the beach access points.
Seal Beach – Seal Beach is the Northernmost beach in Orange County and has been called “Mayberry By The Sea” for it’s quaint, hometown feel. Main Street is lined with shops and restaurants, spas, salons, and local favorite spots for sweet treats. There are paid parking lots on either side of the pier and down by the jetty. But there is also street parking available. The spots on and around Main Street are metered parking spots. The lots located near the fire station and City Hall are occasionally free.
Tide pools or rock pools are shallow pools of seawater that form on the rocky intertidal shore. In these various nooks and crannies live a vibrant sea life that can provide a close up encounter at low tide. They are like a tiny snow globe of sea and marine life up close and personal. In tide pools you get the unique opportunity to see sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, barnacles, and anemones, plus so many more creatures.
The somewhat creepy crawly Pacific octopus also calls the tide pool home with its bulbous head and changing colors. Tide pools are really fascinating and wondrous places to explore and Southern California has some of the most diverse and beautiful ones in the country.
It is almost like visiting a mini wild aquarium all for free!
At Crystal Cove State Beach located between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach there are four great tide pool areas. They are Reef Point, Rocky Bight, Pelican Point, and North End Treasure Cove. Some beautiful creatures you can encounter in these tide pools are the By-the-Wind Sailor with its vibrant blue hue, the long and spider looking Brittle Star, and the almost glowing Spanish Shawl, just to name a few.
In the area of Dana Point, there are long stretches of tide pools along the east end of Doheny beach up to the west end of Newport Beach. The first tide pool area to check out starts just behind the Ocean Institute in Dana Harbor nestled between large boulders which trap the waters at low tide. These boulders themselves have a whole ecosystem of marine life. They are covered with mussels and limpets, green seagrass, and squishy algae. The tide pools at Doheny Beach are well protected and even have a few benches along the shore in various areas to stop for a rest and enjoy the scenery.
Please take note before visiting any tide pool area: Tide pools can be very dangerous and unpredictable and should only be visited during calm waters. Check weather and tide conditions before venturing out to these spots to make sure you and your family stay safe. And always leave creatures, shells, and rocks where they are and pack out anything you may bring along such as snack wrappers or water bottles.
Explore a Nature Center or Preserve
In spite of the fact that Orange County is made up of big, busy cities, there are also several Nature Centers to sneak away from the hustle and enjoy a little quiet time in nature. Here are a few free locations to enjoy.
Environmental Nature Center – 1601 E 16th St, Newport Beach
Located in Newport Beach, this nature center is free to park and free to enter and accepts donations. Check out the live animals inside and the interpretive signboards, and head out to stroll the trails that meander through native plants, coastal redwoods, and other habitats. This is a great spot for families with younger children.
Oak Canyon Nature Center – 6700 E Walnut Canyon Rd, Anaheim
Oak Canyon Nature Center is tucked away in Anaheim and features a great nature center with interpretive displays, animals, books, and hands-on activities. Outside, there are miles of delightful trails to explore ranging from sunny, ridgetop trails to shady, streamside paths.
Peter & Mary Muth Interpretive Center – 2301 University Dr, Newport Beach
Located in the Upper Newport Back Bay, Peter & Mary Muth is a fantastic nature center with lots of informative displays and a back room with animals, books, and hands-on educational activities. Outside, explore the trails and look for animals in their natural habitats around the Back Bay.
Shipley Nature Center – 17851 Goldenwest St, Huntington Beach
Shipley Nature Center is tucked into a corner of Huntington Beach’s Central Park, near the Senior Center. Shipley has an indoor area with interpretive displays and hand-on opportunities. Outside, stroll the trails to enjoy a redwood forest, a butterfly garden, and views of Blackbird Pond.
Turtle Rock Nature Center – 1 Sunnyhill, Irvine
Turtle Rock Nature Center in Irvine offers an indoor area with hands-on activities for kids, and easy trails to explore that feature a pond, a labyrinth, and a native plant garden. There is also a playground for kids to enjoy, a large grassy area, and additional hiking trails for those who wish to take a longer hike.
Nature Lovers Bonus:
Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve – 18000 CA-1, Huntington Beach
A small bungalow in the parking lot houses a variety of interpretive displays and live animals, then take time to explore the trails through the wetlands that protect many species of migrating birds. Keep an eye out for herons, egrets, pelicans, snakes, rabbits, and coyotes. Stay tuned! A new interpretive center is being built here!
Fullerton Arboretum – 1900 Associated Rd, Fullerton
There is a small nature center on site here, but it’s not the major draw for The Fullerton Arboretum, located on the campus of Cal State Fullerton. Instead, the fact that this beautiful gem offers trails through a variety of terrain and habitats is the reason why you will return to this destination again and again. The flowing stream that starts with a waterfall at the entrance flows through a grassy meadow area and into a lush redwood forest. Also explore the children’s garden, the desert collection, the woodlands collection and more. The Arboretum is larger than expected and a great place to spend time.
See A Movie In The Park
During the Spring and Summer months, Orange County communities offer a variety of movie in the park events. From animated family favorites like Zootopia, Trolls, and Ralph Breaks the Internet, to popular classics like Grease and The Neverending Story, outdoor movie events offer something for everyone. See our complete list of Outdoor Movies In The Park to find one near you.
Attend A Concert In The Park
Just like movies in the park, Orange County has a plethora of concerts in the park (and other areas) all year long, but the majority of the outdoor concerts take place during the spring and summer. These concerts feature a variety of musical genres, and everything from popular mainstream bands like Big Bad Voo Doo Daddy and Lit, to cover bands like Aeromyth and Hard Day’s Night. See our full list of Summer Concert Series’ to find a concert near you.
In addition to free movies and concerts there are many other free events throughout the year. Free events include Lunar New Year, Easter, 4th of July, Halloween, and Winter Holiday events, plus many more events such as city run festivals.
Ride the Great Park Balloon
Soar 400 feet above Orange County and observe a 360° view that spans 40 miles on a clear day. Parking and admission to the balloon are free, first come, first served basis.
Explore A Downtown District
Orange County has many downtown areas that are popular spots for shopping, dining, entertainment, and more. Many host regular community events like art walks, farmers markets, and seasonal celebrations. Downtown Huntington Beach is the home of the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing and many other annual events, and Seal Beach hosts many fun community events from car shows and movies and concerts on the green, to the popular Christmas Parade and other seasonal celebrations.
Old Town Orange takes visitors a step back in time with some of the oldest buildings in the county, many antique and vintage stores, and a historic fountain. Old Town Orange is also home to the International Street Fair. Other downtown areas in OC like Fullerton and Santa Ana, have undergone or are currently experiencing a revitalization, providing even more opportunities for Orange County residents to enjoy all that a downtown community has to offer. For more information, see our list of some of the best Downtowns in Orange County.
Speaking of Downtown…
You can go to Downtown Disney for minimal cost (parking only). Here you can get a taste of that infamous Disney magic without the wallet-breaking cost of visiting Disneyland proper.
Parking for visitors is $10 in the Simba Parking Lot. Throughout the year there is seasonal music and decorations that Disney puts on such as an Easter Egg Hunt or Christmas Caroling.
Fun year long activities include building your own LEGO race car on the track right outside of The LEGO Store, see talented artists showcase their paintings and more at the WonderGround Gallery, or simply window shop all the cute dresses, epic Star Wars gear and more in the various Disney theme shops along Downtown Disney.
Go Window Shopping
One of the most popular pastimes in Orange County is shopping, and there’s no shortage of places for that. A much more affordable activity is window shopping. You don’t have to spend money to have a good time, and there are many unique destinations that offer a multitude of entertainment, shops to peruse, galleries to browse, and nightlife to enjoy.
Some of the unique shopping destinations worth checking out are The LAB Anti-Mall in Costa Mesa, The Irvine Spectrum, Fashion Island in Newport Beach, Anaheim Packing District, SOCO and the OC Mix, Bella Terra in Huntington Beach, and Downtown Disney. See our list of Shopping Centers in Orange County for more.
Spend The Day At A Splash Pad
It’s warm enough for water play most of the year, but the majority of the Orange County Splash Pads are only open from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Still there are a few places that are on year round, and others that extend through the hottest months of September and October.
Some splash pads are large, accommodating crowds and providing a variety of play features for splashing and spraying, while others are small and limited to minimal features like small ground sprayers or a single fountain. See our full list of Splash Pads in Orange County to find one near you.
In the state of California it’s free to fish off any public pier, anybody under the age of 16 does not require a fishing license, plus there are two free fishing days for everybody each year. Irvine Lake is also the only place where nobody needs a fishing license to fish.
You don’t have to charter a boat to drop in a line. You can fish from most Orange County piers, and from most beaches. However, check with the lifeguards on duty for closures.
There are also several parks that are open for fishing including Central Park in Huntington Beach and Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley. Mile Square park is a regional park that requires an entry fee, but there is street parking around the perimeter of the park if you don’t mind a moderate walk to the lake with your gear. Keep in mind that anyone 16 or older will need a fishing license.
For more information, see our page Fishing In Orange County.
Museums are my most favorite way to spend the day exploring on those rare rainy days in Southern California. Although, I admit, it maybe isn’t the first thought you have when thinking about kid-friendly activities, I have found my own children really enjoying the artwork and history displayed in our museum adventures.
The Orange County Museum of Art is free until 2032 and focuses on modern art and contemporary art from California and the Pacific Rim. The $93 million museum boasts 53,000 square feet of art and exhibits.
The Irvine Museum is a free experience nestled right on the University of California, Irvine campus. The main collections and changing exhibitions focus on California art from various genres and mediums. Here, focus is on mostly local artists whose work is inspired by the environment that originally made California a “Golden Land”. The Irvine Museum is a wonderful way to introduce young eyes to California history through art.
Chapman College is another place worth visiting. The Hilbert Museum of California Art offers free admission. Visitors can view California-focused artwork in a variety of mediums by California artists. While you’re on campus, head over to the (free) Leatherby Libraries to see the collection of images, artifacts and more in the California’s Gold Exhibit and Huell Howser Archives.
The Old Courthouse Museum is the oldest Southern California court building. The courthouse is now a historic landmark that is open to the public for free Monday through Friday. Built in 1901, the 30,000-square foot building has been carefully restored to its original splendor as a busy courthouse back in the day. The Old Courthouse Museum is also home to the Orange County Archives, and the library of the Pacific Coast Archaeological Society if you fancy some historical reading. All in all this is a unique place for kids to explore and the best part is it is all for free.
The Balboa Island Museum in Newport Beach is a free museum that shares local history and culture. The museum is small and includes a nice gift shop, and has an interactive zone for children. A visit to this museum gives you the opportunity to explore the island and the Balboa Fun Zone.
For The Birds
The Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary is a bird watchers paradise as it is home to over 85 species of fine feathered friends. Opened in 1929 by local couple Benjamin and Dorothy Tucker; this gem in the Santa Ana Mountains, got its start as a second home for the Long Beach couple. After moving to the 12 acre plot of land they fell in love with the local hummingbird population and began plans to build a sanctuary for the birds. This famed ‘bird porch’ grew into a wonderful “Bird Preserve”, christened by the San Fernando Valley Chapter of the Audubon Society.
While visiting the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary you can stop and sit watching the hummingbirds at the bird observation area. Or pop in for a self guided tour of the nature center. Both of the walking paths around the park are shaded with many benches to relax on. Kids of all ages will enjoy this unique up close and personal retreat with wildlife.
For more feathered fun visit the San Joaquin Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine. The sanctuary includes multiple trails through ponds and marshes and is a birdwatchers dream. There is an Audubon House that, when open to the public, that has education programs and lots of information for budding birdwatchers.
Go To A Skatepark
Orange County has a variety of skateparks with rails, ramps, pools, and street courses. Skate for free at the indoor Vans Skatepark at the Outlets in Orange, or the Vans Off The Wall outdoor park in Huntington Beach. There are also many local parks with skate courses ranging in size from a small area with limited room, to huge courses that offer full street courses with pools and vert ramps. See our list of Skateparks In Orange County to find a skatepark to check out.
Take A Walk On The Pier
Orange County has multiple piers for enjoying a stroll. Take in the salty air and the views of Catalina Island. Watch the surfers and keep an eye out for dolphins splashing in the waves. Where can you find the Orange County Piers? Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Balboa, and San Clemente.
Go To An Art Walk Event
Many communities in Orange County have monthly or annual Art Walk events, where local artists can display their work and crafters sell their goods. These events usually include live entertainment, food for purchase, and free entry. See our list of Orange County Art Walks to find one near you.
Free Hiking or Horseriding Guided Tours at the Preserves
Orange County has seven protected preserves. Visitors ca experience and enjoy the natural landscape by hiking or riding horses (horse not included) on these free guided tours.
Orange County Preserves
- Bobcat Ridge Preserve
- Eagle Ridge Preserve
- Live Oak Creek Preserve
- Pacific Horizon Preserve
- Silverado Chaparral Preserve
- Trabuco Rose Preserve
- Wren’s View Preserve
Free Country Line Dancing Lessons
The Ranch Saloon and other country bars in Southern California offer free county line dancing lessons. Unfortunately the drinks are not for free.
Free Library Benefits
The library is full of free benefits besides just checking out books. There is free music, free movies, free hotspots, free public computers, free eLibrary, free arts and crafts, free events and programs from babies, tots, and teens to seniors, and much more.
Free Kids Workshops, Arts & Crafts And More
Many retailers offer free event, workshops and arts and crafts projects for kids. Here are a few.
- Apple: Kids can learn to do more with their Apple devices including photography, photo editing, music making, coding, art and design.
- Disney Store: Visit a local store for monthly free artistic events.
- Home Depot: Every month Home Depot hosts an in-store free kids workshop.
- Lowe’s: Lowes does the same with free kids workshops.
- LEGO Stores: LEGO posts a calendar each month with events and activities for kids.
Free Train Rides
Every third Saturday and Sunday of each month the Orange County Model Engineers offer free train rides in Costa Mesa. A typical trip takes between 12-15 minutes and covers two park loops or approximately 1.25 miles. Bridges and terrain variations are just part of the scenery, as is the back end of the Costa Mesa Golf Course, a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains, and the lower part of the City of Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach. Plus, there is wildlife all around. Especially for bird lovers.
Free Geocaching Outdoor Treasure-hunting Game
Mission Viejo has a free treasure hunting game where participants use the free geocaching app to find containers called geocaches, sign a logbook and write about their experience online.
Watch the Disneyland Fireworks without a Ticket
Watching the fireworks show from outside of the park is a different experience, but it’s still fun, and there are plenty of places that offer truly magical views.
From free tacos to free coffee there is a whole calendar of National Food Days and freebie days to enjoy throughout the year.
Get There for Free
Many cities around OC offer free shuttles and trolleys to help you avoid traffic and parking while saving some money. Here is our list of free trolleys and shuttles in the OC.
Save with a Free Flu Shot
While a flu shot is probably not on your bucket list of things to do in Orange County it is recommended for most people. Here is a list of places to get free flu shots that will at least be pain free from a cost standpoint.
More Ways to Save
Check out Goldstar Tickets for discounted tickets to events, concerts and more.
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Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would not be a forever home for all of them, they adopted their daughter buckets and are legal guardians to their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus