10 Beachy Free Things to do in Orange County, California
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The best list of free things to do in Orange County, California, written by a local.
Orange County, California has been the glamorous backdrop for popular television shows like Real Housewives, Laguna Beach and The O.C (among others), leaving the impression that it may be too pricey and posh to have an affordable visit or vacation. However, as an Orange County native and mama of three, I am perpetually on a budget and can assure you that it is way more laidback and affordable than its reputation would suggest.
With lively beaches, tranquil nature reserves and happening city centers, it is easy to find fun activities that are free in Orange County, California and won’t break the bank. So put your wallet away because here is my list of the top free things to do in Orange County. And since I run a family travel blog, all of these free activities also happen to be very family friendly!
10 Free Activities in Orange County, CA
Enjoy Marine Life and the Art Scene in Laguna Beach
Laguna Beach is known for being a beachside bubble of affluence, but there is a real down-to-earth and affordable side to this swanky Orange County beach town. Visit on the weekends and take the free trolley all over town – no need to drive around looking for elusive beach parking.
Laguna Beach takes ocean conservation seriously and visiting the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, which rescues, rehabilitates and releases marine mammals, is free to the public! Another popular marine life attraction is the lively tide pools and coy ponds, which are perfect activities if you are planning a visit to Laguna Beach with kids.
In addition, Laguna Beach has a thriving art scene with galleries galore. Visit on the first Thursday of the month to participate in the free art walk from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm and enjoy complimentary wine & hors d’ oeuvres. Also on the first Thursday of the month, the Laguna Art Museum offers free admission from 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm.
Visit Bolsa Chica Conservancy in Huntington Beach
On the first Saturday for the month from 9:00 am to 10:30 am, the Bolsa Chica Conservancy offers free tours. Tours start off with an on-site presentation telling the history of Bolsa Chica. Then proceed to meet up with a guide who will walk guest through the ecological reserve while learning about history, birds, endangered species, ecology, and restoration.
Every Saturday at noon is Animal Feeding Day when the public can view the feeding of the various marine life and reptiles as well as learn about eating habits and the biology of the animals.
Enjoy a day at Dana Point Harbor
Spend the day walking along Dana Point Harbor viewing the docked yachts and sailboats, and wandering into quaint shops and restaurants. You might even catch some live music!
For a really amazing sight, walk down to Ocean Institute to check out the three tall ships that are docked. If you are visiting during the holidays don’t miss the IlluminOcean displays along the dock. Just hanging out in Dana Point Harbor is one of our favorite free things to do in Orange County, and we could spend a whole day soaking in the relaxing seaside vibe.
For kids, there is also a free sports fishing clinic held on the Dana Wharf every Sunday from 12:00 pm to 12:30 pm. The clinic teaches kids hands-on fishing techniques from experts. After the clinic, there is an option to go on an actual fishing trip. Kids under 12 are free with a paying adult.
Photo by Sergei Gussev / CC-BY
Oak Canyon Nature Center
Nestled within Anaheim Hills, Oak Canyon Nature Center allows visitors to explore local nature and wildlife. With a tranquil stream and four miles of hiking trails, it is the perfect city break. Visitors can feel free to explore the relaxing grounds or check out the John J. Collier Interpretive Center that contains live animal and regional natural history exhibits.
There are also a number of free programs to enjoy, like the Nature at Night walks, held every Wednesday during the summer, and the Discover Nature Family Program. Although entering and participating in the programs has free admission, donations are encouraged to maintain the nature center.
Photo by Pamla J. Eisenberg / CC-BY
Get balanced with Yoga at the CAMP
In Orange County, keeping the mind, body, and spirit healthy is very important and hanging out at The CAMP in Costa Mesa is a great place to start. Focusing on health and creativity, The CAMP is an eco-friendly collection of shops and restaurants that hosts live bands, educational events, and free yoga sessions!
Several times a month various local studios offer free yoga sessions at the CAMP’s Tree House, which is a grass open-air area perfect for finding balance.
Free Days at Orange County Museums
Orange County has a surprising number of museums and although the museums aren’t typically free, there are several that offer admission on select days for free.
The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, which explores culture through the arts, is free to local residents on Sunday, but free to all the public is the Family Festival held on the first Sunday of the month. Also in Santa Ana is the popular Discovery Cube OC, which gives free admission to Bank of America cardholders on the first Sunday of the month. However, Santa Ana locals get four free admissions per address on the first Tuesday of the month.
In La Habra, The Children’s Museum offers free admission on one Sunday each month, but space is limited and it is based on first come, first serve. Lastly, the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach offers free admission every Friday as well as free parking. Museums are one of the free activities in Orange County that you don’t want to miss.
Photo by Stuart Seeger / CC-BY
Getting a Disney Fix at Downtown Disney
A day at Disneyland will cost a family a small fortune, but Disney lovers can still get their Disney fix with a stroll through Downtown Disney in Anaheim. Downtown Disney, which connects both Disney parks to various restaurants, hotels, and shops, is alive with live music and Disney magic.
Although there is plenty there that one could spend their money on, the attraction is basically free to explore. Visitors can enjoy multiple different live performances all along Downtown Disney as well as in the lobby of many of the hotels. You can even view the Disneyland firework show from certain locations in Downtown Disney.
Although parking isn’t technically free, visitors can receive free parking for up three to five hours, but only with validation from spending money at Downtown Disney. So yeah, not exactly free but much cheaper than Disneyland!
Photo by Jack Miller / CC-BY
Anaheim Packing District
Before Anaheim was a bustling urban area, it was a major citrus grower. As homage to its farming roots, the Packing District has given new life to a historic area with the opening of the Packing House and Farmers Park.
The Packing House, one of the remaining historical citrus packing warehouses from 1919, has been converted into an exciting 2-story marketplace bursting with exciting food and drink vendors. It is a lively atmosphere, with live music on the weekends, perfect for spending the day.
The Farmers Park holds yoga sessions, gardening classes and is just a fun place to hang out. Both are free to enter and enjoy, what you spend on eats is up to you.
Photo by Mike Alcoran / CC-BY
Orange County Marketplace
When the Orange County Fair is not going on, the Costa Mesa fairgrounds become the site for the Orange County Marketplace every weekend.
Technically, it costs $2 to enter, but they hand out free pass all the time. They also hand them out like crazy once you enter, so go once and you’ll likely never have to pay to enter again.
In addition to the various shop vendors that frequent the marketplace, there is an awesome farmers’ market, live music, food trucks, RV’s and manufactured homes to tour and a host of special events. For instance, there is an antique flea market some weekends as well as seasonal events. It is a fun way to spend the day and it is near Newport Beach, which is a perfect place to head after the marketplace closes to catch dinner and the sunset.
Go back to a simpler time in Old Towne Orange
This historic district is the original plaza of the city of Orange. Encircled with original buildings, Old Towne Orange has the second largest concentration of historic structures in the state and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
One square-mile around, the center of it all is the showcase fountain, perfect for taking shareable photos as well as a relaxing timeout. Surrounding the fountain are loads of antique shops, independent and international eateries, and lively bars. A highlight is having an old-fashioned lunch at Orange County’s oldest operating soda fountain.
Visit at the end of summer to catch the very popular Orange International Street Fair. Hundreds of local businesses flock to these historic streets to showcase their food and goods. It is free to the public, however finding close parking will cost you. If you don’t mind parking far or taking an Uber it, you’re good to go.
Photo by Evan Wohrman / CC-BY
That’s a Wrap!
There is so much to see and do in Orange County that it can be easy to inadvertently spend a lot of money.
With that in mind, it is nice to have a stash of activities at the ready to give your wallet a break. Whether it is just a day laying out on one of our many beautiful beaches, taking a stroll through nature reserves, or exploring our yummy food marketplaces, you don’t have to be rich to have a good time in the OC.
Take it from a local mama and enjoy some of my top picks for free things to do in Orange County.
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