13 Great Free Things to Do in Orange County, California

San Clemente Beach, California
Lemanieh / Getty Images

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 13

Go to the Beach

Huntington Beach California Aerial

Art Wager / Getty Images

With famous beaches like Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Dana Point, and San Clemente State Beach, Orange County is one of the best destinations in the Los Angeles area for a day spent by the ocean.

While it can be expensive to park at some of California's beaches, there are some places along the coast where parking is either free or extremely cheap. Parking at San Clemente, for example, is $1.50 an hour, while free parking can be found near Seal Beach and Sunset Beach at the northern end of the county.

02 of 13

Explore the Bolsa Chica Wetlands

Bolsa Chica Wetlands
Kayte Deioma
18000 CA-1, Huntington Beach, CA 92648, USA
Phone +1 714-846-1114

Right along the Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach is the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, one of the largest saltwater marshes in Southern California. With 321 local bird species having been spotted here—including the endangered Belding's Savannah sparrow and the California brown pelican—this 1,449-acre nature reserve is an ideal destination for beachgoers who want to explore a bit of wilderness. During your visit, there are some 5 miles of trails that you can hike, as well as an interpretive center where you can learn about wetland ecology and habitat restoration.

Bolsa Chica Wetlands is an entirely free destination with easy access from the highway. Plan your visit for the second Saturday of the month, when there is a free public tour from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

03 of 13

Gallery Hop in Laguna Beach

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 Sawdust Art Festival, Art-A-Fair, and Festival of Arts. While the festivals do cost money, Laguna Beach's more than 100 art galleries and open artist studios are free to visit. Most of the galleries are open all year long, but the studios may be closed in the summer while the artists are participating in the festivals.

04 of 13

Visit 'The Muck'

Muckenthaler Cultural Center
Traveler100 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
1201 W Malvern Ave, Fullerton, CA 92833-2429, USA
Phone +1 714-738-6595

The Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton is a non-profit cultural center and art gallery on an old estate. While there is a small admission fee to see the indoor gallery, entry to the grounds, outdoor Sculpture Garden, and Sunset Garden is free to the public. The Muck also has a calendar full of public programs throughout the year, some of which—including the annual Spring Family Arts Night, Dia de Los Muertos Fiesta, and Holiday Festival—are free to attend. Check the calendar to see what's on during your visit.

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05 of 13

Explore Old Towne Orange

Old Towne Orange Historic District
Ken Lund / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
186 N Atchison St, Orange, CA 92866-1301, USA
Phone +1 714-639-7829

A one-square-mile historic district in the city of Orange, Old Towne Orange is California's largest National Register District. Dubbed "The Antique Capital of California," the neighborhood is lined with more than 40 antique and vintage shops that are great for window shopping, even if you're not buying. Go on a self-guided walking tour of Orange's downtown to learn about the city's history, starting with the 1871 Plaza Square. There are also several events throughout the year that are free to attend, including the Orange International Street Fair and the Concerts in the Park series, held at the Hart Park Bandshell every summer.

06 of 13

Visit the Bowers Museum

Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, CA

Kayte Deioma

2002 N Main St, Santa Ana, CA 92706-2731, USA
Phone +1 714-567-3600

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. Located in Santa Ana, it offers free admission to local residents every Sunday. If you have little ones, plan your trip around one of the Free Family Festivals, which take place on the first Sunday of the month. While each event is themed (e.g. the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival is celebrated in April while November honors Día de Los Muertos), you can always expect face painting, live performances, and arts and crafts.

07 of 13

Explore the Fullerton Arboretum

A resident in arboretum.
YoungkKwon / Getty Images
1900 Associated Rd, Fullerton, CA 92831, USA
Phone +1 657-278-3407

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 minimum donation of $5 is suggested to contribute to upkeep.

08 of 13

Visit Farm Animals at Centennial Farm

Centennial Farm at the OC Fair and Events Center
Kayte Deioma
88 Fair Dr, Costa Mesa, CA 92626, USA
Phone +1 714-708-1619

Centennial Farm is a three-acre working farm at the Orange County Fair and Events Center. During the OC Fair, which takes place from mid-July to mid-August, you can only visit Centennial Farm with fair admission—but throughout 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 is welcome on afternoons and weekends. Time your visit for one of the Discovery Days, when you can take a self-guided tour of the facilities and pet chicks, watch a milking demonstration, and plant veggie seeds; admission is free, but donations are appreciated.

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09 of 13

Go Hiking at Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve

Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve hiking trail
LagunaticPhoto / Getty Images

Orange County boasts great hiking trails, many of which are free (or require a small parking fee). For a peaceful retreat, check out the 10.5-mile Back Bay Loop Trail, located in the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve. Home to rare and endangered species like the Light Footed Clapper Rail and Peregrine Falcone, the 135-acre estuary is ideal for bird watching, while the surrounding bluffs and marshlands aren't short of beauty. If you're pressed for time, a 2.8-mile loop section of the trail, which starts at the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center, will give you a lovely overview of the preserve.

10 of 13

Attend Mass at Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano
Sandra Leidholdt/Getty Images
26801 Old Mission Rd, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675-2601, USA
Phone +1 949-234-1300

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, 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.

11 of 13

Dive Into History at the Old Orange County Courthouse

Old Courthouse Museum in Santa Ana, CA

Kayte Deioma

211 W Santa Ana Blvd, Santa Ana, CA 92701-7554, USA
Phone +1 714-973-6605

The Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana is the oldest courthouse in Southern California, built in 1901 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside the 30,000-square-foot building, you'll find the Orange County Archives, the library of the Pacific Coast Archaeological Society, and the Orange County History Center. There are both temporary and permanent exhibits that provide insight into the region's history, plus interpretive programs. Explore on your own, or sign up for one of OC Parks' free tours of the courthouse; it's open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

12 of 13

Go to an Event at the Shipley Nature Center

Monarch Butterfly and Verbena Rigida
SusanGaryPhotography / Getty Images
17851 Goldenwest St, Huntington Beach, CA 92647, USA
Phone +1 714-842-4772

Located in Huntington Beach, the 18-acre Shipley Nature Center is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Here, you will find 4,000 feet of trails winding through redwoods and coast live oaks, five gardens designed by landscape architect Guy Stivers, and an interpretive center. In the summer, the nature center opens from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., inviting visitors to participate in performances, presentations, and activities like scavenger hunts. Admission is free, but there is a suggested donation of $3 a person.

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13 of 13

Catch a Sunset Cinema Movie or Summer Concert

Salt Creek Beach, Dana Point, CA movie
Courtesy of Orange County Parks

Each summer the Orange County Parks and Recreation Department hosts the OC Parks Sunset Cinema series, a full lineup of free outdoor films that are held at various regional parks around the area. Also held at the local parks is the annual free OC Parks Summer Concert Series. Past acts have included The Fenians, Matt Costa, The Federal Empire, Flashback Heart Attack, and the Hollywood Stones. If you're feeling hungry, there are food trucks and beer and wine gardens where you can purchase snacks and drinks. Everyone of all ages is welcome to attend.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is there to do in Orange County for free?

    There are plenty of things you can do in Orange County for free. If you want to spend time outdoors, you can go to the beach, hike, or explore the Shipley Nature Center. Meanwhile, art lovers can go gallery hopping or visit The Muck, and history buffs will want to check out the Old Orange County Courthouse.

  • What is there to do in Irvine for free?

    In Irvine, you can go birdwatching at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, hike the 4.6-mile Bommer Canyon Trail, and wander around the University of California Irvine campus.

  • Is the OC Balloon free?

    Yes, the Great Park Balloon is free to ride! Since it's available on a first-come, first-saved basis, you'll want to get there early—it's not uncommon to wait up to three hours.

Article Sources
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  1. World Population Review. "US County Populations 2022." Accessed December 5, 2022.

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13 Great Free Things to Do in Orange County, California