15 Great Free Things to Do in Orange County

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.

  • 01 of 15
    Relaxing at the Beach in Dana Point
    Relaxing at the Beach in Dana Point. Kayte Deioma

    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.

  • 02 of 15
    The LEGO Store at Downtown Disney
    The LEGO Store at Downtown Disney in Anaheim. Kayte Deioma

    While the Disney theme parks may cost a fortune, Downtown Disney allows guests to park for free for three hours to walk around the shops and enjoy seasonal entertainment without spending a dime. There are lots of tempting things to spend money on, but you can still take a pleasant stroll and enjoy the ambiance for free.

    Stop by the LEGO store where you can see life-sized LEGO characters from your favorite Disney films and the outdoor stage where free seasonal concerts are held throughout the year.

  • 03 of 15
    Bolsa Chica Wetlands
    Kayte Deioma

    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.

  • 04 of 15
    Bronze Work by Elaine Cohen at the Festival of Arts
    Bronze Work by Elaine Cohen at the Festival of Arts. Kayte Deioma

    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.

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  • 05 of 15
    Muckenthaler Cultural Center
    Traveler100 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton is a non-profit cultural center on an old estate that has free art exhibits and a calendar full of mostly-free public programs. Free events and attractions for 2018 include the H2OMG! Watercolor Gone Wild exhibit, the Spring Family Arts Night, the Summer Solstice Festival, the Day of the Dead Festival, the Holiday Festival, and the Fall Arts Student Showcase.

  • 06 of 15
    Old Towne Orange Historic District
    Ken Lund / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

    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, the Old Towne Orange Tweetup at the Streamliner Lounge, and the Orchard Walk's Oktoberfest.

  • 07 of 15
    Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, CA
    Photo © 2008 Kayte Deioma, licensed to About.com

    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, California art, and the Pacific Islands collection.

  • 08 of 15
    Windmills of your mind
    YoungkKwon / Getty Images

    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.

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  • 09 of 15
    Centennial Farm at the OC Fair and Events Center
    Kayte Deioma

    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.

  • 10 of 15
    Hiking El Moro Canyon Trail at Crystal Cove State Park in Orange County
    Hiking El Moro Canyon Trail at Crystal Cove State Park in Orange County. Kayte Deioma

    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.

  • 11 of 15
    Mission San Juan Capistrano
    Sandra Leidholdt/Getty Images

    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.

  • 12 of 15
    The Pilgrim Tall Ship in Dana Point, CA
    The Pilgrim Tall Ship in Dana Point, CA. Kayte Deioma

    There are three tall ships in Dana Point, two of which are 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.

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  • 13 of 15
    Old Courthouse Museum in Santa Ana, CA
    Photo © 2015 Kayte Deioma, licensed to About.com

    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.

    This landmark granite-and-sandstone building is currently undergoing renovations on its south façade, so the south entry and lawn are now closed for construction. Enter through the north and west entrances instead.

  • 14 of 15
    Shipley Nature Center
    jcookfisher / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    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. The center also hosts a variety of "Cool Summer Nights" events throughout the season. Check the website for the latest in free events coming to this beautiful park.

  • 15 of 15
    Salt Creek Beach, Dana Point, CA movie
    Movie night at Salt Creek Beach, Dana Point, CA. Courtesy of Orange County Parks

    Although dates and movies for the 2018 season have yet to be announced, each summer the Orange County Parks and Recreation Department hosts a full lineup of free outdoor films around Orange County. In 2017 films included "Moana," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the "LEGO Batman Movie," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and "The Sandlot" on dates from June 3 through August 18.

    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. Artists for 2018 haven't been announced, but acts in 2017 included The Fenians, Matt Costa, The Federal Empire, Flashback Heart Attack, and the Hollywood Stones.