Nothing inspires a sigh of satisfaction on a family vacation quite like seeing that “free admission” sign. Across the Golden State, countless beaches and parks offer free or nearly free public access—like the free-access Point Reyes National Seashore—but a refreshingly large number of attractions and museums swing their doors open wide, too. Some of the biggest museums around the state are especially family-friendly, offering free admission for kids (such as SFOMA and Los Angeles’ LACMA) or even free admission for the whole family, including the Getty Center (you just have to pay for parking) and the Broad in L.A.
While the list of California’s great free attractions includes plenty of famous locations—like the observatory featured in more than one movie—there are also many seemingly hidden gems, such as a butterfly-filled sanctuary near Monterey and a hands-in aquarium right off an L.A. County beach. Check out our list of freebies that will especially appeal to kids.
Riding one of the iconic cable cars is a popular thing to do in San Francisco—but getting to explore them up close takes the experience to a whole other level. This free museum is a thrill for kids, as well as for grownups who have wondered how the historic cable car system really works.
Located in Nob Hill, the museum houses three cable cars from the 1870s, including the last remaining car from the Clay Street Hill Railroad. But it’s not just a look at the cable cars’ past. The museum is part of the Washington-Mason powerhouse and carbarn, which includes the giant mechanisms that power the current system’s cables.
Gearheads will love looking at the displayed tools, grips, track, cable, brakes, and more, as well as the displays detailing the history of the cable car. It’s no wonder, for starters, that cable cars first appeared in hilly San Francisco: their inventor came up with the idea for the steam-powered system after watching carriage horses struggle on a steep street. Check out the gift shop for an authentic cable-car bell, or visit in July for the annual Bell-Ringing Contest, first held in 1949, that now takes place at Union Square.
Another great stop: The SF Railway Museum (also free), across from the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero, which looks at the impact of both cable cars and traditional streetcars. You can even feel like a conductor and take the wheel of a full-size replica of a 1911 San Francisco streetcar.
With its noble columns and snappy cupola, all painted wedding-cake white, California’s State Capitol building looks like a mini replica of U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Take a free tour to learn about the 1869 building’s architecture and history, and to appreciate extensive restorations in the offices of the Secretary of State, Treasurer, and Governor. This is very much a working capitol building, and, if legislators are in session, ask about access to public galleries to watch bills being debated or votes being cast. Outside, stroll through the adjacent 40-acre Capitol Park, where you can admire trees from around the world, and visit the sweetly scented International World Peace Rose Garden. Take note of the Civil War Memorial Grove—in 1897, saplings from famous Civil War battlefields were planted here.
Tucked between Monterey and Carmel, the little town of Pacific Grove has the seaside scenery of its two popular neighbors, but a quiet-locals’-secret ambience with quaint walkable neighborhoods, charming inns, and a historic lighthouse. It also boasts, for about five months a year, an attractive seasonal community: thousands upon thousands of monarch butterflies, which flock to a migration sanctuary just a few blocks from the ocean. For nature-lovers and families, this free attraction is an easy-access marvel.
Unlike the monarchs that live east of the Rocky Mountains (which tend to winter in central Mexico), West Coast monarchs stick with the Golden State. While there are roughly 400 wintering sites for the butterflies along the California coastline, this eucalyptus-shaded sanctuary (monarchs seem to love the willowy trees) has been ranked in the top 6 of the state’s wintering spots.
If you visit between October and February, you’ll see the orange-and-black butterflies resting on the branches in massive clumps—you’ll think they’re orange leaves or blossoms. When the temperature is in the mid-50s or cooler, the butterflies stay surprisingly still. Just don’t touch them—there’s a city ordinance about it, with a hefty fine—but you can ask on-site docents for a closer look with their viewing scope. Afterward, walk along the rocky coast and preserved dunes at Asilomar State Beach.
This under-the-radar refuge ranks as one of the best wildlife experiences in the state—and as a nice bonus, it’s free. Five miles up the coast from Hearst Castle, up to 17,000 walrus-like elephant seals—the West Coast’s largest pinnipeds—pile up like bloated bratwursts on the narrow strip of rocky beach known as Piedras Blancas (white rocks), literally steps from cars whizzing along the highway.
If you’re an animal lover, get ready to spend hours in this land-based seal rookery, where the huge marine mammals breed, birth, molt, and rest. Giant bulls, some measuring 16 feet from tip to tail and tipping the scales at more than 4,000 pounds, inflate their trunk-like snouts to create a distinctive, roaring bellow that cuts through the sound of crashing surf. The smaller females soak up the sun, or tend to their pups.
Peak season is December through May. Smaller numbers of seals may be seen year-round. Helpful docents from Friends of the Elephant Seal are on-site to answer questions.
Insider’s tip: Four miles south on State 1 in San Simeon, Sebastian’s Cafe serves juicy burgers using beef from the nearby Hearst Ranch, and a tasting bar serves varietals from Hearst Ranch Winery.
Just steps away from the carnival rides, games and snack bars of the Santa Monica Pier—in fact, directly below Pacific Park’s carousel—sits this unassuming attraction that offers a fascinating window into the underwater community of this famous LA beach town.
Managed by an environmental non-profit group called Heal the Bay, the Heal the Bay Aquarium houses 100 local species—from charmingly cute sea hares to spooky moray eels—and invites guests to get hands-on through displays and daily educational programmes. Plus, it’s free for kids aged 12 and younger and only $5 for adults.
Join staff to collect sand crab data out on the beach. Take a look at (harmless) horn or swell sharks in an open-top tank, or check out the colourful mural to learn about water’s journey through the Santa Monica Mountains watershed. Children can stick their hands in the touch tanks to get acquainted with sea cucumbers, urchins and hermit crabs, or explore the simulated tide display that shows how anemones and juvenile fish have their own version of surfing.
Check the website for daily activities, such as the Microscopic Safari, during which children can look through scopes to see the tiniest Santa Monica denizens.
For another fun local freebie, take one of the pier’s guided walking tours, which shares fun stories about the pier over the years, including the Santa Monica origins of that spinach-loving cartoon sailor, Popeye.
The largest municipal park in Los Angeles, Griffith Park protects 4,210 acres/1,704 hectares of mountains and canyons at the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s a remarkable stretch of rough, hilly wilderness in the heart of such an enormous urban area. Choose from more than 50 miles/80 kilometres of trails lacing the chaparral-studded slopes, including one to the top of 1,625-foot/495-metre Mount Hollywood, the park’s highest point. Unpaved roads also provide access for mountain bikers and trail rides; guided rides out of Sunset Ranch include great views of the Hollywood sign.
Griffith Park has a more refined side, too. Learn about the American West at the Autry National Center. Leading musicians love to play at the open-air Greek Theatre. Kids can get close-up looks at koalas and Komodo dragons at Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens. And high on a slope overlooking Los Angeles, the landmark Art Deco-era Griffith Observatory presents mind-expanding planetarium shows throughout the year, plus films and special events in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater, and hosted telescope parties (check the calendar for details).
When you’re in Tinseltown, posing with a sidewalk star along the Hollywood Walk of Fame is practically a rite of passage—and it’s also one of the city’s most beloved free attractions.
Honouring luminaries in motion pictures, television, radio, live theatre, and recording since 1960, the famous sidewalk includes both sides of Hollywood Boulevard from Gower to La Brea, plus both sides of Vine Street from Yucca to Sunset. The handsome terrazzo-and-brass stars (each costs about $30,000 to install and maintain) are unveiled at free public ceremonies, which are often attended by honorees and their celebrity entourages—a great way to see stars if that’s one of your Hollywood goals (and isn’t it everyone’s?).
And don’t think this is about honouring has-beens or where-are-they-nows: Getting a star is still considered an honour, with an impressive roster of recent honourees (Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, James Franco, Kevin Spacey, to name a few). Want to find a particular star? Use the Walk of Fame’s online Star Search tool to send you to the location for your dream photo op. While you’re there, you’re a short walk from such big Hollywood Boulevard attractions as TCL Chinese Theatre, El Capitan Theatre, and Madame Tussauds Hollywood.
With green spaces and gardens, museums, and assorted playing fields, Exposition Park is a place for playing, learning, and being entertained. Dino-fans flock to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County to see the impressive collection of prehistoric creatures, especially a remarkable trio of complete T. rex skeletons of various ages and sizes. Other notable sites include the Becoming L.A. permanent exhibit, a 14,000-square-foot/1,300-square-meter masterpiece that tells the history of the city in six expansive sections. Learn about Spanish padres during the Mission Era in the 1700s, to Mexican ranchos, on to water wars, the Great Depression, and Tinseltown.
A quick stroll takes you to the impressive California Science Center, with hands-on exhibits and a dramatic centerpiece—the space shuttle Endeavour. See more displays and artwork at the excellent California African American Museum.
If you need to give your brain a break from checking out all this cool stuff, stroll through the adjacent Rose Garden (open April through December, with blooms from nearly 16,000 rose bushes scenting the air.
This easy-access desert oasis offers the chance to explore a diverse landscape and see a lot of desert critters up close. Set between Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park in the Little San Bernardino Mountains—in a valley that links the Mojave and Colorado deserts—this 147-acre reserve is part of the Big Morongo Canyon. Its elevation ranges from 600 to 3,000 feet, which results in a wide array of flora and fauna.
Hike one of the trails, which range in length from less than a half mile to 11 miles round-trip, and include some boardwalk paths (one that’s wheelchair-accessible) through the stream and marsh habitats. You might easily spot a variety of rabbits, kangaroo rats, coyote, mule deer, and possibly even bobcats and bighorn sheep. Kids who like creepy-crawlies should keep an eye out for whiptail and side-blotched lizards, Gilbert’s skink, and California tree frogs.
Look up, and you can see why the preserve has been designated an Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy. Especially during spring and fall migration, you can see representatives of some 240 species, including such rare birds as Vermilion Flycatchers and Least Bell’s Vireo. Indeed, fall, winter, and spring are the prime times to visit, when the average temperatures range between the 60s and about 80.
Sea lions and seals are on the mend at this marine mammal rescue centre—the first of its kind in the state of California.
In fact, it was founded before the federal government’s Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. The centre’s rescue efforts date back to 1971, when Jim Stauffer, a Newport Beach lifeguard, discovered an ailing sea lion on the beach and nursed it back to health at home. After that, local lifeguards started contacting Stauffer whenever they found an injured seal or sea lion.
Today, the centre is housed in a building at the foot of Laguna Canyon Hills, alongside a waterway that leads to the ocean. Inside, you can see the seals and sea lions that have been rescued between Seal Beach, south of Long Beach, and San Onofre, just north of San Diego County. They are recovering from any number of maladies—from dehydration to shark bites, fish hook injuries to respiratory infections (check the centre’s web site to see the current list of residents, which are given names like Whiskers, Avocado, and Syrah). You can also spend time by the pool, watching seals and sea lions that are feeling better—and are almost ready to head back to the wild—play in the sunshine.
Stroll along the banks of the waterway, and you’ll see other, non-marine critters in a butterfly garden stocked with cassia, California fuchsia, and white yarrow.