It’s no secret that Orange County real estate is expensive, so when it’s time to have some fun, you want to take it easy on your wallet. Good thing there are tons of free things to do in Orange County and places to enjoy that don’t cost a dime.
Check out our list of 21 free things and attractions you should check out if you’re bored and broke at home. Adventure awaits!
1. Go to the beach
There are so many beaches along Pacific Coast Highway to go to in Orange County and you really can’t go wrong. Nab some street parking so you don’t have to pay in the lot, bring a towel and a friend and enjoy what makes SoCal the best place to be. Also, San Clemente and Seal Beach near Sunset Beach offers free beach parking.
If you’re in the mood for surfing or beach volleyball Huntington is a great choice. If you want to stop by bars on your way in from the waves then Newport Beach is calling to you. Or if you’re in a creative mood head down to Laguna for some sand, sun, and art galleries (#6 on our list!).
2. Explore Downtown Disney
If you don’t have the dough to make it into the park, enjoy the Disney atmosphere at Downtown Disney. Parking is free for the first three hours and you can enjoy musicians and other seasonal entertainment. Plus you can play and create with the Legos outside of the Lego store!
3. Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, aka the Wetlands, is located in Huntington Beach, Surf City USA and operated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The area is just across the road from the beach with a trail that runs along the inside of the wetlands to the road. It’s a great place to bird-watch and observe their natural habitat.
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4. Crystal Cove & 5. Doheny
If you’re in the mood for the beach and want to get up close and personal with some sea creatures then you’ve got to check out the tide pools. Crystal Cove State Park located between Newport and Laguna Beach, and Doheny Beach in Dana Point are the best tide pools to check out in Orange County.
6. Art Galleries in Laguna Beach
Not all of the artist studios will be open during summer if artists are participating in the art festivals, but there are tons of galleries free and open to the public in the arts community in Laguna Beach. Start strolling the streets and see what catches your eye.
7. Muckenthaler Cultural Center
Previously the mansion of a wealthy Fullerton family – Walter and Adella Muckenthaler – The Muckenthaler Cultural Center is now a museum with free exhibits, performances and educational programs. Known and loved as “The Muck”, the museum has beautiful grounds and gardens so it’s become a popular wedding venue. It’s a great free museum to enjoy local art, some lush grounds and the gorgeous vintage mansion. For more museums in Orange County, check out our post about all 40 of them.
8. Enjoy Old Towne Orange
Old Towne Orange in the heart of Orange County is the perfect place for a free and easy stroll. There are tons of antique, collectible and specialty shops in the area to explore and a gorgeous plaza to enjoy at it’s center. Plus you can check out all of the beautifully preserved Old Towne Orange real estate surrounding the plaza. Homeowners take great pride in upgrading and maintaining their vintage homes with classic craftsman and Victorian styles which makes the neighborhood a great place for a charming old school real estate tour!
9. Tour Segerstrom Center for the Arts
Segerstrom Center for the Arts offers free docent-led tours Wednesdays and Saturdays. Check out the award-winning home for the performing arts in Orange County in a whole new light as you browse the magnificent lobbies, main stage and behind the scene secret spots. Tours are an hour and on Saturdays you can get a tour of the Concert Hall as well.
10. Take a Hike
We may not have a lot of wilderness here in Orange County but there are still plenty of places to do some hiking which is free and healthy for you – bonus points! If you need some ideas on where to start, check out the best 8 hikes in Orange County. If you’re a beginner we suggest Crystal Cove and if you’re a pro check out Holy Jim or Black Star.
11. Sherman Library and Gardens
Sherman Library & Gardens is a 2.2 acre Corona del Mar horticultural retreat. It may not be big but it’s definitely beautiful. Entrance into the Sherman Library and Gardens is free on Mondays and $3 on other days but kids 12 and under are always free.
12. Old Courthouse Museum
Admission to the Old Courthouse Museum is always free and it’s a landmark so you might as well check it out if you have a free afternoon. Located in Downtown Santa Ana, it’s a Southern California’s oldest court building and now holds an exhibition gallery of permanent and rotating exhibits on local history.
13. Check out a park
There are tons of parks all across Orange County that are totally free. Find a park near you or take a look at some of these top OC parks according to Yelp:
- Santiago Park Nature
- Citrus Ranch Park
- Jeffrey open space trail
- Dinosaur Park Laguna Hills
- Balboa Island Pier Playgound
- Top of the World in Laguna
14. Fullerton Arboretum
Entrance and parking are free at the Fullerton Arboretum open daily 8AM to 4:30PM. The grounds include a woodlands collection, desert collection, Mediterranean collection, community garden, children’s garden and the Heritage house which as been converted into a museum. The Arboretum is a beautiful spot to sit and read or explore. There is a suggested donation of $5, but you can save the donation for your next payday.
15. Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary
Located in Modjeska Canyon right off of Santiago Canyon Road you’ll find the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary. There you can explore native habitats along nature trails and learn more about California’s plants and animals. It’s also one of the best bird-watching sites in Orange County so don’t forget your camera! There are exhibits and hands-on activities for kids and inspiring wildlife for everyone to enjoy.
16. ExplorOcean Science Saturdays & Sundays
All ages are always free at ExplorOcean in Newport Beach. The educational center offers fun, interactive hands-on activities on Saturdays and Sundays at the Back Bay. Each month there’s a new theme based on one of the Ocean Literacy Principles so there’s reasons to come back again and again to learn more.
17. Art Walk
Several cities in Orange County do art walks each month, which is totally free, and an amazing fun way to experience local art, dance, and culture. Each month and each art walk features new artists, different exhibits and something new and exciting to enjoy.
18. Dana Warf Sportfishing Kid’s fishing
Dana Wharf Sportfishing invites all children to come to their dockside fishing clinic and learn hands on techniques on fishing from the experts. The clinic is totally free and it’s a great fun way to start a day on the beach. After the clinic there’s also a fishing trip from 12:45 – 5:15PM. Kids are still free but adult tickets are $46.
19. Newport Back Bay Science Center
Newport Beach’s Back Bay Science Center is located next to the Newport Dunes and it teaches you about the back bay through interactive exhibits, and lots of skeletons to examine. Although the facility is not a visitors center, they are open to the public on Sundays from 10 AM until 2 PM for their Community Day.
20. Bolsa Chica Conservancy Interpretive Center
Parking and entrance are free at the Bolsa Chica Conservatory. The center is 1,400 square feet and hosts several exhibits throughout the year on marine life species native to the California Coast, wetland ecology and more. It’s a fun and informative way to spend the day with the family in Orange County!
21. The Noguchi Garden
The Noguchi garden is actually a hidden sculpture garden by South Coast plaza. The garden has art, a small river, benches, trees, and a calm ambiance which makes it the perfect spot to sit and read or meditate. It’s not a full-day activity but it’s a great hidden gem to enjoy. It’s also aptly named the “California Scenario” because it embraces the stark deserts, trickles of water, jutting rocks, and peaceful forests that are so common to California.
When to Visit Orange County
The beautiful thing about Orange County, CA is that it’s always a good time to visit. With nearly perfect weather 365, Southern California is a four-season destination. From world-class shopping and beaches to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and more, there’s always something beautiful to see and experience in Orange County. Plus Los Angeles and San Diego are both just about an hour car ride away.
During the summer you catch the U.S. Surf Open in Huntington Beach or an art festival in Laguna Beach. In the fall tourism decreases and the weather is still great at the beaches so you can enjoy a stroll on the sand any time. In the winter you can enjoy the holidays the Southern California way with a Holiday Boat Parade in Newport Beach or Huntington Harbor. And in the spring you can visit the Orange County Great Park, go hiking, visit an outdoor mall, like Fashion Island, or simply enjoy a stroll down Huntington Beach pier.
What to Pack for Orange County
Don’t forget your bathing suit and remember, light layers are your friend! Nearly any day of the year it’s likely to be 72 degrees and sunny in Southern California so your fashion options are nearly endless. No matter what time of the year you visit, pack for a beach day.
You can’t go wrong with a casual-chic wardrobe for a laidback but stylish vibe. Keep it light, comfortable, and trendy. Flip flops are the shoe of choice among locals, specifically Rainbows whose headquarters are located right here in San Clemente. And don’t forget to bring a light jacket just in case you end up by the coast on a chilly evening.
Getting To and Around Orange County
If you’re visiting Orange County, you will definitely want to have your own car. Public transportation is limited so if you’re flying in, make sure to rent a car so you can enjoy your trip to the fullest.
More Things To Do In Orange County
- The LAB Anit Mall in Costa Mesa is a great place to enjoy the trend atmosphere the City of the Arts is known for. There are plenty of breweries in the area and it’s not located across from The Camp, another collection of boutiques, eateries, and intimate spaces to hang out.
- Dine rooftop and drink in the ocean views at Laguna Beach’s Rooftop Lounge or any other rooftop eatery in the city like Mozambique or Skyloft. It’s a must!
- The Anaheim Packing District is another exciting place to grab a bit to eat, filled with foodie favorites for every pallet. From fusion cuisine to dessert and a hidden speakeasy, the Packing District is located just down the street from Disneyland. Other similar food hall experiences have been popping up around town including SteelCraft in Long Beach and Garden Grove, 4th Street Market in Santa Ana, and Lot 579 in Huntington Beach.
- Whale watching tours in Dana Point harbor or Newport Beach are another iconic Orange County experience. The best time to go whale watching in Southern California is roughly May through November. You might even catch some live music while you’re hanging out at the harbor!
- Balboa peninsula is another fun day trip to enjoy.
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