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.
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. In the Capitol Museum, check out the collection of cool flags—including those carried by California soldiers during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I, as well as artwork by former legislators and government staffers. Kids can download puzzles and colouring sheets that feature fun Golden State facts. (Quick: Which city is the Raisin Capital of the world?)
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.
With towers soaring 746 feet/227 metres into the sky, its span arcing across the mouth of San Francisco Bay, and all of it painted bright red-orange, the Golden Gate Bridge is, quite simply, amazing.
It’s pretty easy (and free) to walk across the bridge itself, or to explore the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center, which offers a colourful look at the bridge’s history, as well as the original 12-foot/3-metre stainless-steel 'test tower' used in 1933.
You’ll learn, for starters, why a bridge called the 'Golden Gate' is in fact orange. It is generally accepted that the mouth of San Francisco Bay, the narrow strait that the bridge spans, was named Chrysopylae (Greek for 'Golden Gate') by early explorer John C. Fremont. Captain Fremont thought the strait looked like a strait in Istanbul named Chrysoceras, or 'Golden Horn.' So it makes sense that the bridge is named after the expanse of water that it crosses. But what about that crimson colour? Call it an unexpected surprise. When the steel for the bridge was first installed in place, it was only covered with red primer. A consulting engineer liked it, suggested the colour be kept, and helped develop the bridge’s final paint colour.
'The Golden Gate Bridge is, quite simply, amazing.'
Technically, that colour is ‘International Orange’, but whatever it is, it’s an eye-grabber, whether you’re driving, walking or pedalling across the 1.7-mile span. Note that it can be a bit nippy and windy on the bridge, especially when the fog slips in (especially common in summer), so dress in layers and bring a hat or flip up a hood to keep your head warm. Bike rental companies abound (two favourites are Blazing Saddles and San Francisco Bicycle Rentals); most bikes come equipped with detailed route maps showing you where to ride from San Francisco across the bridge to idyllic towns, such as Sausalito and Tiburon, in neighbouring Marin County. (For extra fun, catch a local ferry to get back to the city.)
There’s a nice gift shop and a café at the south (city) end, and paths let you wind down to historic Fort Point, completed in 1861 as a military outpost to protect the gate before there was a bridge. Look up for a remarkable view of the bridge’s underbelly, a spectacular network of massive girders, enormous columns, and impressive cables.
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.
Tucked between Monterey and Carmel, the little town of Pacific Grove has the seaside scenery of its two popular neighbours, but a small-town ambience with quaint walkable neighbourhoods, 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—at first glance, you may 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 scopes. 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, right below Pacific Park’s carousel—sits this unassuming attraction that offers a fascinating window into the underwater community of this famous L.A. beach town.
Managed by an environmental nonprofit group called Heal the Bay, the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium houses 100 local species—from charmingly cute sea hares to spooky moray eels—and invites guests to get hands-on through exhibits and daily educational programs. Plus, it’s free for kids age 12 and younger and only $5 for adults.
Tag along, for instance, with staffers to collect sand crab data out on the beach. Look at (harmless) horn or swell sharks in an open-top tank, or check out a colorful mural to learn about water’s journey through the Santa Monica Mountains watershed. Kids can stick their hands in the touch tanks to get acquainted with sea cucumbers, urchins, and hermit crabs, or explore the simulated tide exhibit that shows how anemones and juvenile fish do their own version of surfing.
Check the website for daily activities, such as the Microscopic Safari, during which kids get to 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 greens-loving cartoon sailor, Popeye.
With green spaces and gardens, museums, and assorted playing fields, Exposition Park is a place for playing, learning, and being entertained.
Most of its museums and attractions are free. A quick stroll takes you to the impressive California Science Center, with hands-on exhibits and a dramatic centerpiece—the space shuttle Endeavour, which completed 25 space missions, including ones to the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station. (Keep in mind that you often need timed reservations to see the shuttle on weekends.) Or, check out paintings, sculpture, photography, and video exhibits at the excellent California African American Museum.
Visit the park anytime between April and December, and you can stop and smell the roses for free—roughly 16,000 of them—at the adjacent Exposition Park Rose Garden.
Dino-fans, meanwhile, flock to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles Count (which offers Free Tuesdays about a dozen times a year) 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.
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 (even one that’s wheelchair-accessible) through the stream and marsh habitats. Along the way, you may 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 Laguna Beach marine mammal rescue center—the first of its kind in the state of California.
In fact, the center was founded before the federal government passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. The center’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 center 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, on the north end 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 center’s web site to see the current list of residents, which are given names like Whiskers, Avocado, and Syrah). Check out the before-and-after photos of the center’s many success stories, then stand by the pools to watch the seals and sea lions that are feeling better—and are almost ready to head back to the wild—bark and play with each other.
Along the center’s edge, you might see the center’s non-marine critters in the butterfly garden of cassia, California fuchsia, and white yarrow. While admission to the center is always free, any purchases from the stuffed-animal-stocked gift shop help support the center’s efforts.