Photo: Ivanova Ksenia/Shutterstock

12 Totally Free Things to Do in California

California Insider Guides Budget Travel
by Julia Kitlinski-Hong May 16, 2017

California is not cheap, but that does not mean you need to spend your money to ensure that you will have a good time. Here is a round up of our favorite things to do in California that let you explore the wonders of the Golden State without spending a cent.

Editor’s note: These spots are all taken directly from travelstoke®, a new app from Matador that connects you with fellow travelers and locals, and helps you build trip itineraries with spots that integrate seamlessly into Google Maps and Uber. Download the app to add any of the spots below directly to your future trips.

1. Drive up the PCH

 Manhattan Beach PierManhattan Beach, United StatesLooking down Manhattan Beach in LA with my drone. Great place to just relax and enjoy the ocean views!

The Pacific Coastal Highway is most likely the most iconic road in California. PCH hugs the coastline and has stunning views of the Pacific Ocean at every turn. Jump in your vehicle – convertible preferred – in Malibu and zip along the highway with the dazzling sea on one side and million-dollar homes nestled into the rugged mountains on the other. Head towards Los Angeles. You’ll go through Redondo Beach, Hermosa and Manhattan Beach, all worthy stops in their own right. Take time to admire the spectacular views of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, then finish up the last highway stretch to San Pedro.

2. Watch TV live (Los Angeles)

From The Ellen DeGeneres Show to Jimmy Kimmel Live!, watching a live taping of a popular TV show is a fascinating free experience. Depending on which show you want to see, it can be quite difficult to obtain the free tickets. To find out the details on a particular show, head over to their website and follow the specific instructions to request the tickets. If there are open spots available, you will feel like you won an Emmy.

3. Go sailing on the Berkeley Marina

 Berkeley MarinaBerkeley, United StatesGreat for going on a free sailboat ride with Cal Sailing Club.

The non-profit organization, Cal Sailing Club’s is volunteer-run and takes guests on introductory sailboat rides every month during their Open House. Children must be at least 5-years-old and accompanied by an adult. Open house hours are 1-4 p.m. Pro tip: get there early, since spots fill up fast.

4. Take a walking tour (San Francisco)

 Japanese Tea GardenSan Francisco, United StatesBeautiful gardens in the middle of Golden Gate Park.

San Francisco is a great pedestrian city and there’s no better way to get to know it than a walking tour by San Francisco City Guides. You’ll love learning the lore of the Japanese Tea Garden and listening to tales of the stately Pacific Heights mansions. The guides themselves are engaging, knowledgeable volunteers who spill San Francisco’s secrets and keep you highly entertained throughout the tour. Pro tip: at the end of your tour ask your guide for restaurant recommendations nearby, since they know the area more than well.

5. Hike in Griffith Park (Los Angeles)

 Griffith ObservatoryLos Angeles, United StatesAbsolutely stunning views of the cityscape and the surrounding mountains. The ideal spot for your obligatory Hollywood sign viewing, while the observatory itself adds to the atmosphere with its classical architecture. Free, lots of hiking tras, and not far from downtown! #astrology #science #free #hiking #photography #landscape #cityscape #cityview #touristspots

There is nothing more magical, day or night, than seeing Los Angeles from above. The Griffith Observatory is set high on a hill and a great place to throw down a blanket, lie down and stargaze. There are also plenty of trails to hike, with no shortage of stunning vista points. Make sure to look over to you’re the massive Hollywood sign.

6. Tour the State Capitol Building (Sacramento)

 California State Capitol MuseumSacramento, United StatesLearn about California’s political past in this beautiful building.

A visit to Sacramento is not complete without stopping by the historic Capitol Building and the museum within it. Wander through replica rooms of government offices from the early 20th century and learn about how the state’s early government was conducted. Sign up for one of their free tours and find out more about the politics of the Golden State. Tours run every hour from 9 to 4 p.m. and allow you access into parts of the Capitol Building which are usually off limits to the public.

7. Experience Timken Museum of Art (San Diego)

The Tinken Museum of Art is the only museum in Balboa that is completely free. A visit is a great opportunity to enjoy world-class European and American masterpieces. The museum building is a modern architectural beauty that features a spacious entryway and is framed by nearby palms. Tours are offered for those who want to learn more about the history behind the art. Closed on Mondays.

8. Tour a fortune cookie factory (San Francisco)

 Golden Gate Fortune Cookie FactorySan Francisco, United StatesLearn how fortune cookies are made in this historic place.

Golden Gate Fortune Cookies is tucked away in a Chinatown alleyway and allows visitors to get a glimpse into how fortune cookies are made. You’ll view workers making batches of fragrant cookies and you’ll get to sample them hot off the press. There are plenty of treats to buy on your way out: fortune cookies in various flavors, almond cookies, and flattened fortune cookies. If you want to be the master of your own fate, you can create a personalized message that they will slip into a fortune cookie for you. Make sure to bring cash.

9. Enjoy lakeside botanical gardens (Oakland)

Lake Merritt is a popular waterfront destination, but the gardens at Lake Merritt are lesser known – and do not cost anything to enter. Wander around seven acres of Japanese tea gardens, edible gardens, pollinator gardens and a sensory garden where you can touch and smell the plants to your heart’s delight. Do check out the exceptional Bonsai Garden next door.

10. Learn about how craft beer is brewed (Chico)

 Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.Chico, United StatesTour one of California’s iconic craft breweries.

Craft beer breweries in California are plentiful, but Sierra Nevada stands out from the rest. Learn how this well-known beer is crafted to perfection in their free Brewhouse Tour. Hold and smell some aromatic hops, watch the process of packaging the beer in their packing facility and, as a grand finale, try samples of some of their best brews. Reservations recommended. You can make them on-line.

11. Admire the buildings and artifacts of one of California’s legendary families (Los Angeles)

The Getty family is the stuff of California legends and The Getty Center is no exception. The stunning collection of buildings high above Los Angeles have plenty of exceptional art, well-manicured grounds and stunning views both day and night. Entrance is free, but parking is $15 ($10 if you come after 3 p.m.). For an imaginary trip to ancient Greece and Rome, visit The Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades. A visit is also free, but the charges for parking are the same.

12. Watch a movie poolside (San Diego)

 Pearl HotelSan Diego, United StatesRetro hotel where you can watch a film by the pool.

Head over to The Pearl Hotel to enjoy a classic California movie projected on a screen next to a vintage pool. Selections include well-loved flicks like The Graduate and Sixteen Candles. Food and drinks are served throughout the night. Make sure to bring a suit, since guests can use the pool if they purchase a drink or are staying at the hotel. Movies are weekly and start at 8:00 p.m. Reservations recommended.

Discover Matador