California is home to some of the Pacific Coast's most vibrant metropolises, including internationally-acclaimed cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. Many museums within the state's major cities offer free admission at select times throughout the month, including free-admission gems like the Getty Center, Griffith Observatory, and the museums and attractions of Old Sacramento State Historical Park.
Iconic natural areas such as the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve and the Coachella Valley National Wildlife Refuge offer hiking trails and opportunities for stunning natural photography, while unique beaches such as Fort Bragg's famed Glass Beach create one-of-a-kind oceanfront panoramas. Visitors can also walk across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the world's most-photographed bridge, at any time throughout the year for free.
1. Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve serves as the home of California's most consistently-blooming population of its official state flower, the lovely California poppy. The reserve, which is overseen by the California State Parks and Recreation Department, is open to the public for free throughout the typical spring wildflower blooming season, which generally stretches from mid-February to mid-May. In addition to the state flower, visitors can view significant plantings and populations of owl's clover, goldfields, coreopsis, lupine, and cream cups, which stretch through gorgeous elevations of nearly 3,000 feet within the beautiful Antelope Valley. ADA-accessible visitor trails offer opportunities for strolling for more than seven miles, while a seasonal interpretive center is home to an art gallery and wildflower-related museum exhibits. Browse our California weekend getaways guide for more ideas.
15101 Lancaster Rd, Lancaster, CA 93536, Phone: 661-724-1180
2. The Cable Car Museum
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The Cable Car Museum is a lovely free-admission nonprofit museum in San Francisco's Nob Hill neighborhood, showcasing the history and technology behind the city's fabled streetcar system. The museum, which is located atop the city's Washington-Mason cable car powerhouse and bar, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, presenting a significant collection of cable car historic photography and artifacts, along with three restored 19th-century cable cars. Cars on display include the Clay Street Hill Railway Grip Car No. 8, the only surviving car from the city's Clay Street Hill Railway, which was displayed at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair after its retirement. An observation deck offers a unique look at cable car powerhouse operations, letting visitors watch as cable lines are pulled and cars are transported into the building. More day trips from San Francisco
1201 Mason Street, San Francisco, CA, 94108, Phone: 415-474-1887
3. California State Capitol and Park
California State Capitol and Park is home to the legislative and executive branches of California's state government, housed within the beautiful Neoclassical-style California State Capitol Building, which was constructed in 1874 and designed to evoke the architecture of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. The building, which is designated as a California Historical Landmark today, is open to the public as a living history museum throughout the year, offering self-guided tours of its architectural elements and public interpretive exhibits on the state's history and government. Free documentary film showings take place throughout the year the building's state-of-the-art theater, located within its basement level. The building's 10-acre grounds are landscaped as Capitol Park, which showcases monuments and memorials dedicated to the state's veterans and pioneers.
1315 10th St B-27, Sacramento, CA 95814, Phone: 916-324-0333
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4. Coachella Valley National Wildlife Refuge
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Coachella Valley National Wildlife Refuge stretches for over 3,700 acres throughout California's Coachella Valley, just east of the city of Palm Springs. The lovely protected area preserves the critically-endangered habitat of the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard, which only thrives within the refuge's dune system and nearby Indio Hills Palms State Reserve. Though most of its lands are closed to the public to protect the threatened species' habitat, several hiking trails are open for walkers, bikers, and horseback riders, including its Moon Country, Hidden Palms, Willis Palms, Pushawalla Palms, and McCallum trails. The spectacular Thousand Palm Oasis, fed by water seeping from the San Andreas Fault, can be viewed from several trails and makes for great nature photography. The picturesque Paul Wilhelm Grove is home to the park's nature center, which showcases exhibits on the rare lizard species. Things to Do in Coachella Valley
29200 Thousand Palms Canyon Road, Thousand Palms, CA, 92276, Phone: 760-343-1234
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5. Coit Memorial Tower
Coit Memorial Tower is a gorgeous Art Deco-style monument located within San Francisco's Pioneer Park, constructed between 1932 and 1933 by architects Arthur Brown, Jr. and Henry Howard. The monument is dedicated to the fallen firefighters of San Francisco throughout its five major historical fires since the city's establishment. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2008, offering stunning panoramic views of the city's skyline and the nearby San Francisco Bay. Visitors can ascend the tower for free throughout business hours each day and view its stunning American Realism fresco murals, which were created by a team of 27 modern artists and depict significant scenes in San Francisco's sociopolitical history. Guided tours of the tower are offered on select days throughout the year. Things to Do in San Francisco
1 Telegraph Hill Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94133, (website link)
6. Fort Bragg Glass Beach
Fort Bragg Glass Beach is a unique 38-acre beach in Mendocino County within lovely MacKerricher State Park, located near the city of Fort Bragg. The famed beach is known for its sand-polished glass fields instead of traditional sand beachfront, which were created from ocean garbage deposits allowed by the city in the mid-20th century. The beachfront region was owned by the Union Lumber Company at the time and was known colloquially as The Dumps by area residents, who used the beach's nearby cliffs as a trash dumping point. After its public closure in the 1960s, the area was cleaned as part of local cleanup initiatives and reopened to the public in 2002 by the California State Park system. Though visitors are discouraged from taking glass pieces from the beach, they are free to explore its unique colorful trinkets and forage for washed-up treasure of other kinds. Things to Do in Fort Bragg
24100 Mackerricher Park Rd, Fort Bragg, CA 95437, Phone: 707-937-5804
7. The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the world's most iconic modern bridges, known for its gorgeous Art Deco design elements and signature bright orange coloring. The unique bridge, which stretches across the Golden Gate Strait between the city of San Francisco and neighboring Marin County, was constructed in 1937 and designed by the architectural team of Joseph Strauss, Charles Ellis, Leon Solomon Moisseiff, and Irving Morrow. It is believed to be the most-photographed bridge in the world, featured in many films and television series throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. More than 10 million annual visitors cross the bridge, which offers vehicle and pedestrian lanes. A free-admission visitor center is open to the public every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, showcasing exhibits on the bridge's construction and history. Free guided tours are offered each Thursday and Sunday, led by docents from the San Francisco City Guides nonprofit organization.
San Francisco, CA, Phone: 415-921-5858
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8. Griffith Observatory
Griffith Observatory is the most-visited public astronomical observatory in the world, located within Los Angeles' Griffith Park and open to the public for free each day during the afternoon and evening hours. The observatory, which was originally constructed in 1935 by park founder Griffith J. Griffith, was the United States' first devoted public science institution at its opening. Since its opening, it has attracted more than 81 million visitors. Visitors can use its public telescopes for astronomical observation on clear evenings or peruse its free-admission public exhibitions, which include the renowned "Big Picture," the world's largest astronomically-correct image of outer space. It also offers one of the city's best vantage spots for viewing Los Angeles' famed Hollywood sign. Periodic public programming includes astronomy-themed lectures and star viewing parties.
2800 East Observatory Road, Los Angeles, CA 90027, Phone: 213-473-0800
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9. Affordable Attractions in California: Jelly Belly Factory Tours
Jelly Belly Factory Tours offer a free look inside the operations of Fairfield's Jelly Belly Factory, the home of the world's largest jelly bean company. The company, which was founded by Gustav Goelitz in 1898, produces over 50 unique varieties of jelly bean flavors today, ranging from conventional favorites like cherry and lime to alcoholic cocktail flavors and pop culture-inspired concoctions like Harry Potter-flavored beans. Visitors can embark on self-guided tours of the company's Fairfield factory each day throughout the morning and afternoon hours, with the exception of major national holidays, and observe factory operations on high-definition video. Interactive exhibits are also showcased along the quarter-mile self-guided tour route, which is perched high atop the factory floor.
1 Jelly Belly Lane, Fairfield, CA 94533, Phone: 707-428-2838
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10. Lake Merritt
Lake Merritt was the United States' first designated wildlife refuge at its founding in 1870, located just east of Oakland's downtown district within city parkland area. The tidal lagoon, which has been listed as a National Historic Landmark since 1963, is one of the city's most popular walking and jogging spots, home to a public track circling its 3.4-mile perimeter shoreline. Several artificial islands within the lake's center serve as bird and wildlife refuges, home to Canada geese, great and snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons, and American coots. The Rotary Nature Center offers interpretive exhibits and programming, while a boating center offers rental sailboats and canoes. Lovely 10-acre amusement park Children's Fairyland, opened in 1950, served as a major inspiration for Walt Disney in creating Anaheim's Disneyland.
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11. Free Attractions in California: Mission Trails Regional Park
Mission Trails Regional Park is a gorgeous 5,800-acre open space preserve in San Diego, offering more than 65 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails open to the public throughout the year. The park, which was established in 1974, is one of the largest municipal parks in the United States and the largest in the state of California, known as a popular fitness destination for Southern California residents. Rugged natural terrain sets the backdrop for rock climbing, camping, and equestrian riding throughout the year in the shadow of majestic 1,600-foot Cowles Mountain, which offers 360-degrees views of the city's skyline at its summit. Picturesque Lake Murray is stocked with trout and bass for anglers and is known as a prime day fishing destination in the San Diego area. The free-admission Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor and Interpretive Center is home to an art gallery, interpretive exhibits, and a public library. Things to Do in San Diego
1 Father Junipero Serra Trail, San Diego, CA 92119, Phone: 619-668-3281
12. Old Sacramento State Historic Park
Old Sacramento State Historic Park is a lovely 28-acre National Historic Landmark district preserving eight blocks of buildings and businesses connected to the 19th-century history of the city of Sacramento, spanning all the way back to the city's boom following the 1848 California Gold Rush. Today, the district is known as one of the city's top tourist attractions, drawing over five million visitors each year to its free-admission attractions. A number of family-friendly museums are showcased throughout the district, including the California Automobile Museum, the Sacramento History Museum, and the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum, which all offer free admission on select days throughout the month. The Old Sacramento Historical Foundation offers guided walking tours of the district throughout the year, showcasing its stunning Spanish architecture. Each year, the district hosts annual special events such as the vibrant Gold Rush Days Festival. Things to do in Sacramento
1014 2nd Street, Suite 200, Sacramento, CA 95814, Phone: 916-970-5226
13. The Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is one of the few remaining structures from the 1915 Panama-pacific Exposition, located within San Francisco's Marina District at its original construction site. During the exhibition, the palace served as an art exhibit gallery, designed by architect Bernard Maybeck in the style of ancient classical structures like France's Château at the Promenade du Peyrou. Following the exhibition, it was scheduled to be demolished by saved by the Palace Preservation League. It was reconstructed in 1964 in its entirety to create a more permanent structure and seismically retrofit in 2010 by the City of San Francisco. Today, it hosts rotating art exhibitions throughout the year and is known as a favorite location for wedding party photography. Its gorgeous interior and facade have been showcased major feature films such as Vertigo, My Name is Khan, and The Room and served as a major inspiration for the city of Naboo in the Star Wars franchise.
3601 Lyon St, San Francisco, CA 94123, (website link)
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14. The Palm Springs Art Museum
The Palm Springs Art Museum is a regional arts and sciences institution servicing the Palm Springs and Coachella Valley communities, founded in 1938 in downtown Palm Springs. The museum, which is open to the public for free each Thursday evening and second Sunday of the month, showcases a permanent collection of more than 24,000 objects, including fine art, photography, and indigenous cultural artifacts. Significant collections of glass art, Mesoamerican and Native American folk art, and natural science objects are showcased throughout the year in permanent exhibits, along with landscape works by artists such as John James Audubon, Leon Gaspard, and Frederic Remington. Internationally-renowned performers are showcased at the intimate 437-seat Annenberg Theater, typically for a ticketed upcharge. Things to Do in Palm Springs
101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs, CA, 92262, Phone: 760-322-4800
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15. Sacramento Museum Day
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Sacramento Museum Day is the city's most prominent family-friendly free-admission event, encouraging area residents and visitors to explore 26 museums throughout the city each year. The event, which is sponsored by several area community organizations, invites visitors to explore sites such as the Sacramento History Museum, the California State Railroad Museum, and the Aerospace Museum of California. Other attractions, such as the city's Fairytale Town and Sacramento Zoo, offer reduced admission rates as part of the event. Many attractions within the city's Old Sacramento State Historic Park are open to the public for free during the event, including regularly ticketed attractions. Visitors with printed Museum Day flyers are also invited to ride for free all day on the city's public transit systems, making transportation between museum locations easy.
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16. Taylor Guitars
Taylor Guitars are one of the leading manufacturers of acoustic guitars in the United States, specializing in semi-hollow electric and traditional acoustic guitar production. The company, which was founded in 1975 by Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug, is known for its patented bolt-on New Technology guitar neck, which is used by musical artists such as Jason Mraz, Dave Matthews, Jewel, and Alan Jackson. Free guided tours of the company's El Cajon production factory are offered each Monday through Friday at 1:00pm, with the exception of major national holidays (please confirm before you go). Visitors can reserve spots for tours for free by checking in at the company's receptionist desk 10 to 15 minutes prior to the start of each tour. All tours lead participants through the steps of guitar construction, from wood selection through final assembly, showcasing how raw materials are turned into a finished instrument.
1980 Gillespie Way, El Cajon, CA 92020, Phone: 619-258-1207
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17. The Getty Center
The Getty Center is a lovely free-admission art museum in Los Angeles' Malibu and Brentwood neighborhoods, stretching across two museum campus buildings. The museum was originally constructed by famed industrialist J. Paul Getty, opened to the public in 1974 within its original historic building, which was constructed to mimic the famed Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. Today, both of its buildings attract a combined two million annual visitors and are recognized to hold one of the world's most acclaimed fine arts displays between them. The original Brentwood campus is known for its collections of Western and European artwork spanning from the Middle Ages through the present day. The museum's newer Malibu campus holds significant collections of artifacts from the ancient world, with a focus on the empires of Greece, Rome, and Etruria.
1200 Getty Center Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90049, Phone: 310-440-7300
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18. The Last Bookstore
The Last Bookstore is California's largest new and used bookstore, named for an ironic pun offering commentary on the decline of physical booksellers following the rise of ebooks and online publishers such as Amazon's Kindle store. The bookstore, which was opened in 2005 by Josh Spencer, has received major acclaim from national press sources such as LA Weekly and independent record stations KROQ and KCRW. Visitors can explore its uniquely laid-out 22,000-square-foot location within Los Angeles' Spring Arts Tower and peruse more than 25,000 unique volumes, including significant rare book and art book collections. Massive collections of vinyl records and graphic novels are also sold, along with art and crafting supplies. Free-admission public special events throughout the year include book readings and author lectures and signings.
453 S Spring St, Los Angeles, CA 90013, Phone: 213-488-0599
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19. The Timken Museum of Art
© The Timken Museum of Art
The Timken Museum of Art is the only free-admission museum within San Diego's lovely Balboa Park, opened to the public in 1965 as a means of displaying the private art collections of Amy and Ann Putnam. The museum, which is located next to the San Diego Museum of Art along El Prado Boulevard, is open to the public for free Tuesdays through Sundays throughout the morning and afternoon hours. It displays a stunning collection of European master paintings, featuring renowned works by internationally-accliamed artists such as Rembrandt, François Clouet, Girolamo Savoldo, and Jacques-Louis David. American artists on display throughout its exhibits include 20th-century luminaries such as Albert Bierstadt and John Singleton Copley.
1500 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, Phone: 619-239-5548
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