Containing the cities of Anaheim, Santa Ana, Irvine, and Huntington Beach, Orange County in California is the sixth most-populous county in the United States, home to over three million people (as of the 2010 census).
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. Fortunately, though, there are plenty of free things to do if you know where to look.
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's plenty of free things to do on your vacation to California. There are even a few free events hosted by Orange County cities and tourist destinations, especially in the summer.
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It can be expensive to park at the State beaches, but there are a number of places along the coast where you can park for free and enjoy the beach. San Clemente, in particular, 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.
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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. Of course, there are lots of tempting things to spend money on, but you can take a nice stroll and enjoy the ambiance for free.
Be sure to 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.
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Right along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) at Warner in Huntington Beach is the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a bird lover's paradise. Located on the opposite side of the road from the beach 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.
With a small, free parking lot at the corner of Warner and another smaller lot across from the beach parking, Bolsa Chica Wetlands is an absolutely free destination with easy access from the PCH. Additionally, there's a wildlife viewing bridge that crosses the wetlands, so you can immerse yourself in nature without having to get dirty.
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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.Continue to 5 of 35 below.
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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.
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Old Towne Orange is a square-mile historic district around the Orange Plaza Circle at the intersection of Chapman and Glassel 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.
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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.
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At the Fullerton Arboretum, you can wander around the largest botanical garden in Orange County, which stretches for over 26 acres and features a collection of 4,000 plant species from around the globe. Also be sure to 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.Continue to 9 of 35 below.
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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. If there are special events going on at the fairgrounds on weekends, you'll be directed to which entrance is free for the Orange County Swap Meet and Centennial Farm.
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Orange County has some great hiking trails. While some of them are easily accessible, like the El Moro Canyon Trail just off PCH 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.
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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 masses are 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 cancer sufferers and is open free of charge at the scheduled Mass times.
Please note that 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 taking communion.
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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 harbor is lined with light displays as part of IlluminOcean, which is also free.Continue to 13 of 35 below.
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The Old Courthouse Museum in Santa Ana 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 currently closed for construction so be sure to enter through the north and west entrances instead.
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During the summer, the Shipley Nature Center in Hunting 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, so be sure to check the website for the latest in free events coming to this beautiful park.
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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 movies around OC. 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.
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Along with the Sunset Cinema Movie Series, the OC Parks and Recreation Department is also hosting a free series of concerts throughout the summer at various parks throughout the county. Although artists for 2018 have not yet been announced, acts in 2017 included The Fenians, Matt Costa, The Federal Empire, Flashback Heart Attack, and the Hollywood Stones.Continue to 17 of 35 below.
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Although not part of the OC Parks' Sunset Cinema series, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa presents a free family-friendly film every Monday throughout the summer at the new Julianne and George Argyros Plaza. Movies start at dusk, and guests are encouraged to bring picnic dinners, blankets, and folding chairs but tables, BBQs, and large food setups are not allowed.
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For 34 years, Old Town Tustin has hosted an annual chili cook-off and street festival for residents, guests, and visitors alike. In 2018, the annual event is set to take place on Sunday, June 3 from 11:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Boasting itself as the "world's largest one-day Chili Cook-Off," the Tustin event features craft booths, non-profit food vendors, salsa competitions, live entertainment, a kids area, family-friendly contests, wine & beer booths, a family plaza, and even carnival attractions.
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Several times throughout the year, the Orange County Museum of Arts hosts a "free family day" where guests can take part in hands-on art projects, take a special family tour of the galleries, listen to some music performed by local youth groups, and witness area dance companies perform.Continue to 21 of 35 below.
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Each year, the Yorba Linda Public Library (YLPL) hosts an annual Family Funtime Magic Show performed by local magician Naathan Phan. Seating is free but offered on a first-come, first-served basis, which often fills up quickly. Be sure to arrive early to guaranteed a seat, but with various showtimes throughout the afternoon, you could always just wait around and explore Yorba Linda until the next performance. Be sure to check the events calendar on the YLPL website as they host a variety of other free events throughout the year.
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On the first Sunday of each month, the Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens hosts the "D. Yoder Family Sundays" event where parents and children can go on a docent-led tour that offers take-home coloring pages and fact sheets for the kids. Held between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., these monthly events coincide with themes for Casa Romantica's Casa Captivating programs for all ages.
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Catch a Show at Saddleback College's Summer of Theater
Located in Mission Viejo, Saddleback College hosts a series of family-friendly performances at the Upper Campus Quad throughout the month of July. Although some select shows will offer reserved seating for a low fee, most seating for performances is available for free on a first-come, first-served basis. There will also be food truck vendors on-site, but you can pack a picnic dinner if you want to have a truly free experience.
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With performances at Point Fermin Park in San Pedro, Hesse Park in Rancho Palos Verdes, Valley Park in Hermosa Beach, and Cesar Chavez Park in Long Beach (among others), there's plenty of opportunities for you and your family to experience a classic theatrical production free of charge on your trip to Orange County.
Shakespeare by the Sea is an annual non-profit series of productions partially funded by donations and fundraising campaigns hosted throughout the year. Be sure to check the official website closer to summer when dates and locations will be announced for the 2018 season.Continue to 25 of 35 below.
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Happening in 2018 from July 21 through July 22, the San Clemente Ocean Festival celebrates its 43rd annual event of the "Greatest Show on Surf."
Featuring a series of competitions including the Dory boat races, SUP Surfing Championships, a 5K beach run, and a one-mile ocean swim as well as a slew of family and youth events like the Kid's Dolphin Dash, a Fishing Derby, and the "Groms Rule" Surf Contest, this free event makes for a perfect weekend getaway for the whole family.
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Every first Thursday, the city of Laguna Beach hosts a monthly art event called the First Thursdays Art Walk from 6 to 9 p.m.
Geared more toward adults—but also featuring some exciting kids' engagement events and hands-on art projects—the monthly art event supports local artists and galleries through contributions of different businesses, residents, and even visitors themselves.
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With four dates in 2018—February 10, May 12, August 18, and November 17—there's plenty of opportunities to catch this free quarterly event in Downtown Anaheim's Arts District. The Art Crawl Experience, or simply "ACE," is an outdoor festival that showcases local artists' work in public places and features street artisans, pop-up galleries, and tours of the brick-and-mortar galleries as well. During the event, guests are encouraged to stroll amongst the permanent art fixtures, dine at the gourmet food trucks (for a price), and even catch some local performances.
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Go Roller Skating in Lake Forest
Free to all residents of Lake Forest (though a year-long membership fee for non-residents is only $15), the Etnies Skatepark of Lake Forest is a massive 62,000-square feet skateboard facility that's become a destination spot for skateboarders worldwide. The park also offers a host of special events throughout the summer, so be sure to check the website for more details closer to your trip.Continue to 29 of 35 below.
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Discover Hidden Fossils in Laguna Hills
Throughout the year, the Laguna Hills Community Center and Sports Complex offer free admission to the fossil exhibit, sports complex, and prehistoric playground on-site. Featuring softball, baseball, and soccer fields, a skate park, roller hockey rink, snack bar, and picnic shelter, this recreation center makes for a perfect day outdoors—especially if you're traveling with kids.
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Located in the city of Irvine, Orange County Great Parks is home to a permanent outdoor classroom called the Farm + Food Lab. Here, visitors of all ages learn about gardening, organic horticulture, and eco-friendly power sources as well as visit the weekly farmer's market on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission and parking are both free, so there's no reason not to stop by this exciting new attraction.
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Located at Fountain Valley's Mile Square Regional Park, the annual Monarch Butterfly Day takes place on February 3, 2018. OC Parks invites visitors of all ages to get an up-close look at these majestic bugs, assist in planting monarch-attracting flowers and plants, and listen as experts provide educational information and answer questions about the monarch butterfly.
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Que Sera in Long Beach offers up free comedy shows every first and third Wednesday of the month, featuring local as well as Hollywood entertainers who have appeared on such shows as "The Tonight Show" and even their own specials on Comedy Central. Even better, this unique venue offers free pizza with the show! Be sure to reserve your free tickets in advance as this popular event fills up quickly.Continue to 33 of 35 below.
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Although the drinks aren't free, performing your favorite song for some of your closest friends won't cost you a dime at Open Mic Night at the Rush Bar and Grill in Lake Forest every Wednesday night starting at 7 p.m. You might not be the best singer (or maybe you are), but a night of karaoke is a great low-pressure way to spend the evening in Orange County.
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Again, the drinks aren't free but the trivia is at several bars around Orange County (including Rush Bar and Grill on Tuesdays). If you have a lot of general interest facts on deck, be sure to stop by Trivia Night Tuesday at Bruery Terreux Tasting Room in Anaheim, which features prizes for the best teams, which could include covering your bar tab for the night or gift cards to use later!
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If you're traveling to Orange County for a weekend getaway, one of the best things to do to save some money might just be staying in your hotel, especially if you spent a bit of money on getting nice accommodations with great views of the ocean or city. Many hotel amenities like pool access, gym access, and even spas come with the price of renting a room, so don't let that already-spent go to waste if something else on this list doesn't tickle your interests.