10 Beachy Free Things to do in Orange County, California
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This is 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 in the USA, I am perpetually on a budget and can assure you that it is way more laidback and affordable than its reputation would suggest. Though there are loads of awesome things to do in California, Orange County should definitely be on your bucket list.
With lively beaches, tranquil nature reserves, and happening city centers, it is easy to find fun free things to do in Orange County, California that won’t break the bank.
So put your wallet away because here is my list of the top free stuff 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!
So let’s jump in! Here are the best 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 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm.
Visit Bolsa Chica Conservancy in Huntington Beach
Need some free things to do in Huntington Beach? On the first Saturday of 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 guests 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 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.
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 which contains live animals 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.
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 in Orange County!
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 free admission on select days, making this one of the best free things to do in Newport Beach.
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 a 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 best free things to do in Santa Ana, CA and you won’t want to miss them!
NOTE: The Orange Country Museum of Art is currently closed for renovation and expansion. It is expected to reopen on October 8, 2022. Once it is reopened, admission will be completely free for a decade!
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 to three to five hours, but only with validation from spending money at Downtown Disney. Not exactly free, but definitely one of the best cheap things to do in Orange County!
READ: The Best Road Trips from San Francisco – a Huge Guide!
Anaheim Packing District
Before Anaheim was a bustling urban area, it was a major citrus grower. As a 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, and 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.
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 passes 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, RVs, manufactured homes to tour, and a host of special events. For instance, there is an antique flea market on some weekends as well as seasonal events.
It is a 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.
The marketplace is one of my favorite things to do for free in Orange County.
Disclaimer: Please note that the Orange County Marketplace appears to have paused its events indefinitely due to the pandemic. So until there is further notice, the Orange Couty Marketplace won’t be occurring!
Go Back to a Simpler Time in Old Towne Orange
This historic district is the original plaza of the city of Orange. Encircled by 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, you’re good to go. This is one of the most fun free things to do in Orange County at night.
BEST CHEAP PLACES TO STAY IN THE OC
This is the ultimate list of the best cheap hotels in Orange County. If you’re visiting The OC from out of town on a budget, these are the cheapest and best places to stay!
Laguna Hills Lodge-Irvine Spectrum
This stunning lodge is set amongst the most spectacular gardens. A Mediterranean oasis in the heart of California’s Laguna Hills! All rooms are equipped with everything you need, like coffee makers and bar fridges. There’s an outdoor pool, and free breakfast, and is set in one of the top-rated locations in Laguna Hills, all for a very good price.
Hotel Pepper Tree Boutique Kitchen Studios in Anaheim
Just minutes from Disneyland, this gorgeous boutique hotel is like a home away from home. Complete with a small kitchen (save more money when you don’t have to eat out), comfortable bedding and private balconies, you’ll never want to leave! That’s not all though, each room features rustic Mexican tiles and handcrafted furniture from Guadalajara. The property also has a heated pool, barbecues and an on-site restaurant. This is easily the best value hotel in Orange County!
Holiday Inn Anaheim Resort Area
Got kids? This is the perfect place! Just off the Santa Ana Freeway sits this lovely hotel, complete with a swimming pool with a whirlpool tub, free breakfast, and high-speed internet. Family rooms come with a bunk bed, air conditioning, a refrigerator, and video games to keep the kids amused. Gusts loved how clean it was and how close it is to Disneyland.
What free attractions in Orange County will you visit?
There are so many fun free things to do in OC 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 attractions in Orange County.
Orange County Tours
Free Things To Do Orange County FAQs
One of the best things about Orange County is the number of free museums it has. Some of the ones you mustn’t miss are the Old Courthouse Museum, Orange County Museum of Art, Laguna Art Museum, and the Children’s Museum in La Habra (especially if you are traveling with children). Though some of them are not always free, if you get the chance to visit them for free, definitely do not hesitate.
Orange County is one of the most expensive areas in Southern California. From transportation to food to accommodation, prepare to spend a fortune on your Orange County trip. Luckily, visitors can take advantage of some of the free or cheap things to do in Orange County to alleviate some of the strain on their wallets.
For animal lovers and outdoors enthusiasts you mustn’t miss Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, a place where you can explore the hiking trails, check out the natural history museum, and see the bird observation deck! It is completely free of charge to enter! Alternatively, you can check out the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, but free tours only happen once a month!
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Know of any other fun things to do in Orange County for free? Comment Below.
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