Containing the cities of Anaheim, Santa Ana, Irvine, and Huntington Beach, California's Orange County in California is the sixth most-populous county in the United States, home to more than three million people.
With attractions like Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, and a plethora of beaches, this county is a popular tourist destination, but it can be rather expensive to visit and live in Orange County.
But luckily, from a day spent on the beach or browsing art galleries in Laguna Beach to checking out an area museum or exploring Old Town Orange, there are plenty of free things to do, for residents and visitors, alike.
It can be expensive to park at the state beaches, but there are some places along the coast where you can park for free and enjoy the beach. San Clemente is known for its free beach parking, but you can also find some free parking near the beach in Seal Beach and Sunset Beach at the northern end of the county.
With famous beaches like Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Dana Point, and San Clemente, Orange County is one of the best destinations in the Los Angeles for a day spent by the ocean.
Right along the Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach is the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a bird lover's paradise. With a trail that runs along the inside of the wetlands away from the road, this nature reserve is an ideal destination for beachgoers who want to explore a bit of wilderness, too.
Bolsa Chica Wetlands is an entirely free destination with easy access from the highway. Additionally, there's a wildlife viewing bridge that crosses the wetlands, so you can immerse yourself in nature without having to get dirty.
Laguna Beach is an arts community that hosts three summer-long arts festivals every year. The festivals are not free, but they also have the highest concentration of art galleries and open artist studios that are free to visit. Most of the galleries are open all year long, but artist studios may be closed in the summer while artists are participating in the festivals.
The Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton is a non-profit cultural center and art gallery on an old estate. Admission is free to the public Tuesday-Sunday from 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. The Muck has free art exhibits throughout the year and a calendar full of free public programs, including an annual Spring Family Arts Night, Dia de los Muertos Fiesta, and Holiday Festival.
Old Towne Orange is a square-mile historic district around the Orange Plaza Circle in the city of Orange. The area around the circle is lined with antique and vintage shops that are great for window shopping, even if you're not buying. But there's also a whole series of events each summer that are free to attend including the Taste of Orange Festival and the Orchard Walk Oktoberfest.
The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana hosts a free family festival on the first Sunday of the month, and admission to the museum is free every Sunday for Santa Ana residents. Routinely voted as the number one museum in all of Orange County, there is plenty to see at the Bowers Museum including exhibits on the First Californians, California's missions and ranchos and California art.
Explore the Fullerton Arboretum
At the Fullerton Arboretum, you can wander around the largest botanical garden in Orange County, which stretches over 26 acres and features a collection of 4,000 plant species from around the globe. Check out the Heritage House from 1894, the visitors' center, the Children's Garden, Nature Center, and the OC Agricultural and Nikkei Heritage Museum while you're there. Though the garden is free to enter, a donation of $5 is suggested to contribute to upkeep.
Centennial Farm is a 3-acre working farm at the Orange County Fair and Events Center. During the Orange County Fair, you can only visit Centennial Farm with fair admission, but the rest of the year, you can visit the pigs, chickens, cattle, goats, and permanent crop exhibits for free. Weekday mornings are reserved for school groups, but anyone can visit afternoons and weekends.
Orange County has some great hiking trails. While some of them are easily accessible, like the El Moro Canyon Trail at the north end of Laguna Beach, others are more challenging to get to, like the Holy Jim Falls trail that requires a painstaking drive down a five-mile dirt road to reach the easy trail to the falls.
No matter which option you decide to take, you're sure to enjoy the rich nature of southern California if you explore the Orange County Regional Trail System.
Mission San Juan Capistrano, first established in 1775, is one of the early California Missions along El Camino Real. There is a fee to visit the San Juan Capistrano Mission, but Sunday mass is held in the Mission Basilica and early morning weekday masses are celebrated daily in both the Serra Chapel and in the Basilica. Additionally, a special prayer room within the Serra Chapel is dedicated to Saint Peregrine, the patron saint of those living with cancer and is open free of charge at the scheduled Mass times.
As this is a religious service, walking around and taking pictures is considered inappropriate. You don't have to be Catholic to sit in on the service, but non-Catholics should refrain from receiving communion.
There are two tall ships in Dana Point, one of which is docked at the Ocean Institute at the north end of Dana Point Harbor. It costs nothing to park and get out to admire these tall ships and take a walk along the harbor, and during the Christmas holidays, the dock is lined with light displays as part of IlluminOcean, which is also free.
The Old Courthouse Museum in Santa Ana is the oldest courthouse in Southern California, built in 1901, and is always free to visit. Inside the museum, you'll find the Orange County Archives, the library of the Pacific Coast Archaeological Society, and the Orange County History Center.
During the summer, the Shipley Nature Center in Huntington Beach hosts its annual free open house, which includes attractions like maypole dancing, a butterfly house, live music, and vendors from around the area. Check the website for the latest in free events coming to this beautiful park.
Each summer the Orange County Parks and Recreation Department hosts a full lineup of free outdoor films around Orange County. Along with the Sunset Cinema Movie Series, the Orange County Parks and Recreation Department also hosts a free series of concerts throughout the summer at various parks throughout the county. Past acts have included The Fenians, Matt Costa, The Federal Empire, Flashback Heart Attack, and the Hollywood Stones.