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Thursday, April 6, 2023

30 Free Things to Do in Orange County, CA — Places to Go for Free!

By David ReeveOctober 25, 2022

You don’t have to spend a fortune to experience a rocking and memorable trip in Orange County.

While its real estate and attractions are a bit expensive, this SoCal destination is loaded with fun, costless activities.

From beaches to scenic trails, there’s no shortage of free things to do in Orange County, CA.

So, discover how you can enjoy a budget-friendly trip in the OC by checking out our tips below.

1. Orange County Beaches

Orange County, CA

The OC is home to an array of fantastic beaches, including Newport and San Clemente State. Not only do these beaches boast fine sands and majestic blue waters, but most of them are also complete with amenities.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

If you’re looking for free things to do in Orange County with kids this weekend, go to the beach.

The children won’t get enough of those clear blue waters and the sand, which they can run around on barefoot without hurting a toe.

You can enjoy your stay, too, on the shore, reading your favorite novel you never had the time to bury yourself in.

Expert Tip

If you decide to go to San Clemente State Beach, walk a bit towards the north, and you’ll get to the pier.

The pier is a magnificent venue for picture-taking, with the blue waters and the skyline behind you making for an Instagram-worthy shot.

2. Downtown Disney

1580 Disneyland Dr
Anaheim, CA 92802
(714) 781-4636

The area near the famous amusement park Disneyland is a tourist destination.

After all, you can find an eclectic mix of unique boutiques, one-of-a-kind eateries, and incredible live entertainment here, too.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

You don’t have to spend a dime to experience the magical atmosphere of Disneyland.

If you’re on a budget, just head to downtown Disneyland today, enjoy its vibe, and explore movie-themed shops like Star Wars.

You can watch talented musicians perform tonight or marvel at that beautiful fireworks display.

Expert Tip

Check out the Lego Store.

The kids can play with legos at no cost in the designated play area.

Take pictures with fire-breathing Maleficent and Belle of the Beauty and the Beast rendered in lego afterward.

3. Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

18000 CA-1
Huntington Beach, CA 92648
(714) 846-1114

Spanning 13,00 acres, this ecological reserve is home to mudflats and coastal environments.

What’s more, it shelters more than 200 avian species and other animals.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Take a stroll and marvel at the abundant flora, from the coast sunflowers to the bladderpods, prickly pears, and more.

You can also do some bird watching here, with the burrowing owls, ospreys, cormorants, and others found in this green oasis.

Expert Tip

Visit the place on the second Saturday of each month, when the property management holds free tours from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

This is one of the free things in Orange County you can take advantage of to appreciate nature better.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Huntington Surf Inn

4. Crystal Cove

8471 N. Coast Highway
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
(949) 494-3539

This park, located between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, spans 3936 acres.

It features 3.2 miles of the Pacific coastline, 400 acres of bluffs, and a marine conservation area.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Here’s free stuff in Orange County, CA tourists never miss: hiking.

The park offers 18 miles of hiking trails, each with a scenic view that will make your visual sense happy.

For instance, El Moro Canyon Loop takes you over 800 feet above the ridgeline, where you get incredible coastline views of the park.

Expert Tip

It’s best to hike to Crystal Cove since admission is at no cost for pedestrians.

If you bring a car with you, you will have to shell out some money for parking.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Marriott’s Newport Coast Villas

5. Doheny State Beach

25300 Dana Point Harbor Dr
Dana Point, CA 92629
(949) 496-6171

The first state beach in California encompasses 254 acres. And it’s one of the most popular spots for camping and beach trips, drawing more than 850,000 visitors annually.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Searching for things to do in Orange County with the kids?

Well, this place has a lot of free stuff to do with the family.

Enjoy a picnic on its fine powdery sands, build sandcastles with the kiddos, or both.

Just make sure you don’t bring a car to the park because you’ll have to pay a fee if you do.

Expert Tip

Take the time to visit Doheny Center by the beach entrance.

You can see a mounted display of mammals and birds, a tide pool, and five ocean environment tanks with critters found in the area, all at no cost.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort & Club

6. Art Galleries in Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach, CA 92651-92652

Laguna Beach is famous for its over 100 galleries and studios displaying work across different art media, from sculptures to paintings.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Walk along the streets of Laguna Beach, and you’ll understand why it’s an art colony.

Galleries and studios line up the streets, all showcasing beautiful works by talented established and up-and-coming artists.

Make sure you visit the Laguna Art Museum, the city’s first gallery that opened in 1918, with its artworks on display that showcase local history.

Expert Tip

Visit Laguna Beach in the summer to attend the Sawdust Art and Craft Festival.

The popular event showcases Laguna Beach artistry, featuring the creations of over 100 artists displayed in a village with sawdust-covered paths.

Just make sure you check the festival website for the schedule of days when non-Orange County residents can attend at no cost.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Surf and Sand Resort

7. Muckenthaler Cultural Center

1201 W Malvern Ave
Fullerton, CA 92833
(714) 738-6595

This 18-room mansion built in 1925 serves as a venue for over 100 events, including art gallery exhibits, lectures, and film events.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

The house is beautiful, with its Spanish Colonial Revival Style architecture that makes it stand out in the area.

The gardens are one of the free attractions that deserve a visit in Orange County, too.

They’re home to gorgeous flowers and eight beautiful sculptures, including artist Bret Price’s Happenstance.

Expert Tip

Drop by the place in December.

The Muckenthaler hosts its yearly Holiday Festival that month with complimentary art workshops and other family-friendly activities amid live music.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Holiday Inn Express Fullerton-Anaheim, an IHG Hotel

8. Old Towne Orange

300 E Chapman Ave
Orange, CA 92866

This charming one-square-mile historic district is home to a 1937 plaza fountain and over 1300 homes, many dating as early as the 1800s.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

If you don’t know what to do upon arrival in Orange County, head straight to Old Towne Orange.

See for yourself what happens when you merge history and modernity.

Picture Old West saloon-like structures lining up one after the other on the streets with modern cars parked right in front.

It’s a visual treat.

Expert Tip

Don’t forget to check out Old Towne Orange’s over 40 antique shops.

With a surplus of vintage furniture, clothes, and old radios, you’ll know why Old Towne Orange is the “antique capital” of California.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Holiday Inn Express & Suites Santa Ana – Orange County, an IHG Hotel

9. Tour Segerstrom Center for the Arts

600 Town Center Dr
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 556-2787

This event venue is home to theaters, the Argyros Plaza, and a 14-acre multidisciplinary campus.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

This center is one of the fascinating free places to go in Orange County, with its gorgeous architecture that you’ll notice even from afar.

The structure is an Instagram-worthy architectural masterpiece, from the monumental arched entrance to the majestic dome-like ceiling.

Expert Tip

Although walk-in guests are welcome, it’s still best to enlist for the complimentary tour on the center’s website.

This is to ensure that you and your companions get a slot, especially since touring the center is one of the popular free activities in Orange County.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Renaissance Newport Beach Hotel

10. Orange County hikes

Orange County, CA

Orange County is home to trails such as East Ridge View and Holy Jim Falls.

The trails are perfect for hiking, jogging, and spectacular views of nature.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Take a stroll along your chosen trail for your daily exercise that helps get your heart pumping.

You get that added benefit of panoramic views of nature, whichever trail you choose.

For instance, the East Ridge View Trail gives you amazing views of Peter Canyon and its vicinity.

Meanwhile, Holy Jim Falls’ final destination is a spectacular body of water.

Expert Tip

Make sure you have comfortable footwear and bring lots of water.

The trails here will take you at least an hour to complete.

In some, you don’t get water access until you reach your final destination or return to your starting point.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Residence Inn by Marriott Tustin Orange County

11. Sherman Library and Gardens

2647 East Coast Hwy
Corona Del Mar, CA 92625
(949) 673-2261

Built in 1955, this popular tourist spot stretches for 2.2 acres, and houses over 100 palm species, a koi pond, and a conservatory.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Titillate your visual sense in this gorgeous place, with its 130 unique varieties of begonias, fuchsias, and other seasonal favorites.

With wide brick walkways and bubbling fountains, the place is a visual masterpiece.

It’s free fun in Orange County for tourists and photographers.

Expert Tip

Children under 3 can enter without tickets.

Adults have to pay a minimal fee for admission.

Even then, don’t worry because touring the gardens is still one of the cheap things to do in Orange County.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Balboa Bay Resort

12. Old Courthouse Museum

211 W Santa Ana Blvd
Santa Ana, CA 92701
(714) 973-6605

Located in Southern California’s oldest court building, the museum showcases local and regional history through old photographs and artifacts.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

In the mood for a little history lesson?

Why not pay a visit to the Old Courthouse, which is home to the museum?

With captivating pictures and relics of the olden days, you’ll feel like you traveled back in time at this courthouse.

Expert Tip

A selfie with the Old Courthouse facade is mandatory.

The granite and sandstone building in the Romanesque Revival style dedicated way back in 1901 is stunning.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: ALO Hotel by Ayres

13. Orange County Parks

Orange County, CA

Orange County is home to 23 parks, including Santiago Oaks and Balboa Island Pier Playground, with beautiful flora, fauna, and amenities.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Head to a park of your choosing and soak in the beautiful sights and sounds Orange County has to offer.

Whether it’s a picnic on the grass or reading a book on a bench, you’ll have the ultimate relaxing experience you’ll love.

Expert Tip

Before you go to your preferred park, check out the Orange County government website.

The site sends alerts of emergency park closures and other announcements like ongoing construction work.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Sonesta Irvine

14. Fullerton Arboretum

1900 Associated Rd
Fullerton, CA 92831
(657) 278-3407

This 26-acre garden was first opened to the public in 1979.

It’s home to a wide variety of plants from all over the world and a laboratory for agricultural research.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Enjoy nature at its finest in this place, with the beautiful expanse of green and other colors you’ll find everywhere you look.

With the beautiful blue skies keeping you company while you explore the gardens, you’re in for a memorable nature experience.

Expert Tip

Make your visit coincide with the Summer Stroll event, with complimentary refreshments and live music in the background.

Check out the garden’s website for when that takes place.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Chase Suites Brea

15. Art Walk

Orange County, CA

Orange County is a popular artists’ haven.

It hosts art walks that allow the public to enjoy artistic masterpieces in open galleries.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Go to any place in the region, and you’ll find its version of an art walk, one of the free events in Orange County you should attend.

In Anaheim, for instance, film showings are a plus in the Art Crawl Experience held every quarter.

Meanwhile, you can get complimentary trolley services in the Laguna Beach Artwalk held every Thursday of the month.

Expert Tip

Make sure you check out the organizer’s website or Facebook page for any important announcements on the event.

Art Crawl Experience organizers typically announce a theme, just in case you want to unleash your creativity and dress up for the event.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Staybridge Suites Irvine – John Wayne Airport, an IHG Hotel

16. Back Bay Science Center

600 Shellmaker Rd
Newport Beach, CA 92660
(949) 640-9959

This research center offers educational programs on estuarine ecology and watershed preservation.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Tour the fantastic facility through the loop trail, and marvel at the amazing views of the water and the vast array of plants here.

You can also teach the children the value of caring for the ocean with the center’s hands-on activities.

Expert Tip

Head to the center on a Sunday, from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.

That’s Community Day for the center, which means the tour and activities are complimentary.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Newport Beach Marriott Bayview

17. Bolsa Chica Conservancy Interpretive Center

3842 Warner Ave
Huntington Beach, CA 92649
(714) 846-1114

This center occupies over 1,400 acres of land.

It’s home to saltwater aquariums that display species native to Bolsa Chica and the southern California coast.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Feast your eyes on some beautiful marine creatures that thrive in the Bolsa Chica habitat.

You can even check out the small creatures that can’t be seen with the naked eye through the center’s microscope.

Expert Tip

If you’re visiting the center on a Saturday or Sunday, walk or bike to the reserve.

The two parking lots for the park fill up quickly, especially during the weekends.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: The Pacific Inn

18. The Noguchi Garden

611 Anton Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(855) 886-5400

This hidden gem in Costa Mesa occupies 1.6 acres of land filled with gorgeous plants and sculptures representing a different region in California.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Get the physical and mental recharge you need in this place, with its serene ambiance that makes it the ideal spot to meditate.

You can even bring a book and read it here.

Expert Tip

Visit this place on a sunny day.

The sun’s rays make the sculpture garden look even more beautiful.

They make the shadows appear, serving as added artistic elements.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Hyatt Regency John Wayne Airport Newport Beach

19. Bowers Museum

2002 N Main St
Santa Ana, CA 92706
(714) 567-3600

This museum first opened its doors in 1936.

It shows exhibits of Orange County and the fine arts of the indigenous people of the Pacific and the Americas.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Have fun with the children as you participate in family-friendly activities organized every first Sunday of the month by the museum.

From face painting to decorating a paper lantern or creating a foil dragon, you’re all in for a fun afternoon and the perfect bonding.

Expert Tip

Drop by the museum’s shop.

A visit to the museum’s shop isn’t just a shopping experience.

It’s a cultural experience, with fabulous finds that reflect different ways of life here.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Sheraton Garden Grove-Anaheim South

20. Centennial Farm

88 Fair Dr
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 708-1619

This three-acre farm at the OC Fair and Event Center is home to vegetable gardens, livestock, and the Millenium Barn.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Take the children here to interact with the goats, pigs, and other farm animals in an actual barn setting.

You can also learn about planting crops and rare fruit trees as you explore the beautiful garden nearby.

Expert Tip

Visit the farm on Discovery Days.

You can participate in added activities such as radish seed planting.

You can find a schedule of the barn’s Discovery Days on its website.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Crowne Plaza Costa Mesa Orange County, an IHG Hotel

21. Mission San Juan Capistrano

26801 Ortega Hwy
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
(949) 234-1300

Built in 1775, this is one of the early missions in El Camino Real, serving as a monument to California’s multicultural history.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

You can marvel in silence at the church’s beauty inside, with the centerpiece altar and religious relics you can’t miss.

Just don’t take pictures.

Mass is a holy occasion for Catholics, and you must be respectful.

Expert Tip

Take a look at the church’s calendar of activities before you go on your tour.

You want your visit to coincide with the church’s complimentary events, such as its native American basket-weaving sessions.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa

22. Spirit of Dana Point

24200 Dana Point Harbor Dr
Dana Point, CA 92629
(949) 496-2274

The coastal town in Orange County is home to the Spirit of Dana Point, a replica of a 1770s privateer schooner used in the American Revolution.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

The Spirit of Dana Point is a visual delight, with its two masts, three sails, and a 5,000-square-foot sail area.

You’re in for a picture-perfect scene with the beautiful waters in the background and the gorgeous skies above.

Expert Tip

Check out Dana Point Harbor in September.

That’s when the town holds its Tall Ships festival, which sees vast vessels descending into the harbor for the public to board and enjoy.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Best Western Plus Marina Shores Hotel

23. Shipley Nature Center

17851 Goldenwest St
Huntington Beach, CA 92647
(714) 842-4772

This nature preserve encompasses 18 acres of flora and fauna.

It also hosts events that revolve around a wide array of topics, such as gardening and astronomy.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Don’t pass up on the complimentary admission offered by the center.

After all, you can experience nature at its finest here.

If you attend an event, you can learn many new things, have a fantastic time, and meet new friends simultaneously.

Expert Tip

Make sure you swing by the Shipley Nature Center Gift Shop.

There are unique finds here, such as animal finger puppets, nature guides, and other unique gift ideas.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Kimpton Shorebreak Huntington Beach Resort, an IHG Hotel

24. Summer Concerts and Sunset Cinemas

Orange County, CA

The Orange County government hosts complimentary movie showings and concerts in its 25 parks every summer.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

What better way to spend the day with the children than watch a movie in the open air?

If you’re with friends, sing and dance to the music performed by your favorite artists in La Palma or Westminster for a day well-spent.

Expert Tip

The Orange County government has a schedule of these concerts and movie showings on its website.

Check that, so you’ll know where to go to listen to your favorite artist or watch a specific movie.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Holiday Inn Santa Ana-Orange County Airport, an IHG Hotel

25. Great Park Balloon

8000 Great Park Blvd
Irvine, CA 92618
(949) 724-6247

This huge orange hot-air balloon in Irvine can soar 400 feet above the ground, giving panoramic views of the city.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Riding this hot-air balloon comes at no cost, which means it’s too good an opportunity to miss.

Imagine floating across the skies way up high, with the gentle breeze blowing through your hair.

It’s a one-of-a-kind experience!

Expert Tip

Get there at least an hour before the first session at 10 a.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

The flight list gets full quickly (no surprise there).

Recommended Hotel Nearby: DoubleTree by Hilton Irvine Spectrum

26. Downtown Districts

Orange County, CA

Orange County takes pride in the eclectic nature of its central districts.

It’s home to historic hubs and bustling dining and shopping areas at the same time.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Feel the bustling vibe in the commercial center of your choice, with locals and visitors alike scouring the area for good deals.

Marvel at the beautiful structures while you’re at it, whether they’re historic shops in Santa Ana or more modern buildings like in Buena Park.

Expert Tip

Many of these commercial centers host complimentary events throughout the year.

Check out the website of the place you chose so that you can time your visit correctly.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Hyatt House Irvine/John Wayne Airport

27. Window Shopping

Orange County, CA

The region is home to many malls, such as the LAB Anti-Mall in Costa Mesa and Bella Terra in Huntington Beach, which is perfect for looking around.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

You can hit two birds with one stone when window shopping: get that routine exercise and have fun simultaneously.

The best part is, you’re not shelling a dime for doing all that.

Expert Tip

Bringing your canine friend with you?

Go to Fashion Island in Huntington Beach, the unofficial dog mall in Orange County.

Your pet might have many more furry friends after your window shopping.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Courtyard by Marriott Santa Ana Orange County

28. Splash Pads

Orange County, CA

Orange County splash pads, or recreation areas for water play, typically open from Memorial to Labor Days.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

If you don’t have the bucks to get to a water park, take the children to a splash pad typically found in public nature sites.

You can find some, however, in unique places, like the one in Brea, which you’ll see in a townhome area.

Expert Tip

Don’t allow your kids to stand directly on the jets.

Health authorities have said this is one way to spread germs in a splash pad.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: DoubleTree by Hilton Santa Ana – Orange County Airport

29. The Irvine Museum

18881 Von Karman Ave Suite 100
Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 476-8400

Established in 1992, this museum features exhibits of artists inspired by the environment.

The museum is on the University of California Irvine campus.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

Delight your visual sense with the museum’s over 1300 works, including California Impressionism and Plein-air paintings, from 1890 to 1930.

With drawings, sketches, paintings, and more from seminal artists such as Elanor Colburn and Jessie Arms Botke, expect an incredible experience.

Expert Tip

Park adjacent to the main entry of Airport Tower.

Make sure you retrieve your ticket from there and get museum staff to validate it before leaving so you can avail of the complimentary parking.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: AC Hotel by Marriott Irvine

30. California’s Gold Exhibit

1 University Drive
Orange, CA 92866
(714) 532-7780

This exhibit on the Chapman University campus showcases the work of TV personality Huell Howser.

Howser is famous for his show California Gold, centered around the state’s beauty.

Why We Recommend This Free Activity

This is one of the free things to do in Orange County, CA, that you can’t miss.

Marvel at the pictures of California’s natural gems captured through Howser’s camera here.

You can also check out an episode of Howser’s show, and you’re a California convert (if you aren’t already one).

Expert Tip

It’s best just to walk to get to the exhibit.

The building that houses it doesn’t have allocated parking slots for visitors.

Recommended Hotel Nearby: Ayres Hotel Orange

Map of Free Things to Do in Orange County, CA

List of image sources

30 Things to Do in Orange County for Free in 2023


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