Southern California is well-known for popular destinations like Disneyland, Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA), and the beaches. But most of those places will cost you an arm and a leg.
So what can you do when you are on a budget? Believe it or not, there is plenty to do for free or almost free in the Southland. Here are a few of my favorite places.
Stroll through some rustic old towns, browsing mom-and-pop shops, and enjoying delicious local food at a classic dinner.
Walking and gazing are free, but there are a lot of temptations, so you may spend some cash if you are not careful.
Old towns to explore:
Bonita Avenue in San Dimas
Visit this town for its charming architecture, unique boutiques, dinners, and antique stores.
Just look at or buy some collectibles like vintage dolls, midcentury furniture, oversized tiki drinking bowls, or fondue pots from the 1980s.
My favorite places are A Few Nice Things, The Little Back House, and It's About Time Antiques and Collectibles.
You can also grab a bite at Pozzetto Italian Dining, Casa del Rey Mexican, Roady's, Little Tokyo Restaurant, Sweet Savory Cafe & Bakery, and Butter Cafe & Bakery.
San Dimas is also home to Rubel Castle and Raging Waters Waterpark.
Olvera Street in DTLA
In downtown LA, Olvera Street (Calle Olvera) is a short walk from Union Station and offers a glimpse of old LA and LA's Mexican Heritage.
This historic district was first established in 1781 and was the center of Los Angeles during Spanish and Mexican rule. It is home to many historic buildings and statues.
At Olvera Street, you can stroll along a narrow street and enjoy shopping at the colorful street vendors or grab a bite of authentic Mexican food.
During a recent visit, I had lunch at El Paseo Inn and enjoyed tasty enchiladas while watching people from their patio overlooking Olvera street.
A Plaza at the center of this district hosts many events throughout the year. For a listing of events, go here http://elpueblo.lacity.org/SightsSounds/Events/index.html.
Read more about Olvera St and a walk through Los Angeles here
Old Town Monrovia
I fell in love with this quaint little town and enjoyed many strolls along Myrtle Ave.
This unique downtown environment blends charm and classic American themes with modern-day conveniences.
Historic buildings fill Old Town's streets, where boutique shops sell everything from baseball cards to vintage concert t-shirts and beautiful home furnishings. Also, plenty of restaurants, cafes, and entertainment to satisfy every taste.
Many movies have been filmed here, so if you're a movie buff, you must stop here!
Some of the movies filmed here are Bird Box, the cult classic horror movie House, and Back to the Future!
This little town has a nice park in front of the library with a statue of Mark Twain on the bench to keep you company while you read.
Every Friday, they have the farmers market with food trucks and tons of stalls down Myrtle (the main drag).
Old Towne Orange
At the traffic roundabout on Chapman Avenue and Glassell Street, this historic district of Orange County offers a glimpse at how things looked back in the late 1800s.
The historic buildings are a treat, but the whole area has become pedestrian-friendly with various restaurants, shops, and antique stores.
A Christmas Tree is placed in the center of the circle during the holidays, and occasional carolers are present.
Some of my personal favorite places here are The Taco Stand, Taco Adobe, Bruxie's, Blaze, Felix, Wahoo's, Mead's Green Door Café, and The Pie Hole.
During the pandemic, a few streets were blocked to support small businesses and outdoor dining. I hope they continue to keep it for pedestrians only.
With 22 blocks designated as a National Register Historic District, Old Pasadena abounds with impeccably restored late 19th and early 20th-century architecture.
"Old Pas," as locals affectionately call it, offers open-air shopping plazas, hidden laneways, and a lively strip of retailers and restaurants along the main drag, Colorado Boulevard.
View the Shop Pasadena directory. https://www.visitpasadena.com/shopsmall/
Old Pasadena began as the center of a research hub where science and research institutions such as Caltech and Jet Propulsion Laboratory and companies such as Beckman Instruments and Aerojet were founded.
Some of my favorite restaurants are Café Santorini, Great Maple, Perle Restaurant, and Dos Besos – and for an old-fashioned burger joint, go to Jake's Trustworthy Burgers & Beer.
While in Pasadena, visit The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
Old Town San Diego
This State Park is a collection of protected historic buildings that were turned into a living museum of San Diego life in the 1800s.
While in Old Town, you can visit Spanish Adobe-style homes, buy souvenirs from stores or dine at one of the unique restaurants. Casa de Estudillo is especially interesting with its unique style and interior courtyard.
Tip: Many hotels have shuttles to Old Town. Ask your concierge for schedules and ensure you can return to the old town before the last one.
Five original adobe buildings are part of the complex, which includes shops, restaurants, and museums. Other historic buildings include a schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, San Diego's first newspaper office, a cigar and pipe store, houses and gardens, and a stable with a carriage collection.
There are also stores, with local artisans demonstrating their crafts.
There is no charge to enter the state park or museums.
Explore ethnic towns
Everywhere you go in the US, you can find enclaves celebrating an ethnicity or heritage – and Southern California is no exception.
Some are well-known, like Chinatown, Thai Town in Los Angeles, and Little Saigon in Westminster. And some are recent additions, like Little Arabia in Anaheim.
So walk around, explore the shops, and feast on world cuisines.
Little Saigon in Orange County, California, is home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam and is located approximately 45 miles (72 km) south of Los Angeles, California.
"Little Saigon" covers a large area of Westminster, and Garden Grove has over 4000+ different businesses.
If you love Vietnamese cuisine, then this is the place to be. Phở Restaurants that serve Vietnamese noodle soup are found everywhere, along with traditional Vietnamese dishes.
You can also find Vietnamese supermarkets, small Vietnamese delis, and bakeries.
My favorites are Van's Bakery, 85C Bakery Café, ABC Siêu Supermarket, The Vox Kitchen by Kei Concepts, SEN, and Tasty Pot.
Visiting ABC Siêu Supermarket is a great way to get introduced to Vietnamese food and culture.
The area around Brookhurst and Ball streets evolved into a haven for middle-eastern shops and restaurants. It does not have an official designation from the city planners yet, but it is a well-known destination if you are looking for some great Arabic and Mideterenean eats.
So what can you find in this district?
You can enjoy ethnic markets, restaurants, cafes, hookah lounges, clothing stores, hair salons, and much more.
My favorite restaurants are El Mahroosa Cafe, Alwadee Bakery & Restaurant, Zait & Zaatar, Olive Tree restaurant, and Zankou Chicken.
For ethnic groceries, visit Altayebat and Super King. Super King rivals major grocery stores with its ample space and huge selection.
Visit the Little Arabia website for a complete directory. https://www.littlearabiadistrict.com/
China Town, LA
Chinatown in Los Angeles is a great destination where you can experience a new culture without leaving the comfort of your home.
Make sure to dine at one of the local restaurants and try some authentic Chinese cuisine.
The area became a commercial center for Chinese and other Asian businesses in Central Los Angeles in 1938. It includes restaurants, shops, and art galleries but also has a residential neighborhood with a low-income, aging population of about 20,000 residents.
Chinatown is a 12-minute walk from Union Station, but you can also take the gold line to the Chinatown Metro Station.
The Chinese American Museum, Thien Hau Temple, and the West Plaza are must-see places.
While in Chinatown, try some ethnic food at Pearl River Deli, Jade Wok, Zen Mei Bistro, Majordomo, or Hop Woo BBQ Seafood Restaurant.
Venice Beach, California
I visited Venice, Italy, during my teen years and loved the canals and narrow alleyways between majestic historic buildings.
I was surprised to find out that California had its own Venice with canals and alleyways but with a totally different vibe.
Of course, walking on the beach promenade is fun, but go inland a few blocks, and you will be transported into a serene atmosphere with canals, bridges, boats, and ducks. This block of homes and canals is why the city is called Venice.
Walking along the canals is a feast for the eyes, with expensive homes kept in mint condition with beautiful gardens and fountains.
Heisler Park, Laguna Beach
Laguna Beach is a seaside resort city that is much more than a beach town. The city is nestled amongst rolling hills and valleys overlooking the shoreline with great beaches, shops, restaurants, and art galleries - giving it a distinct French Riviera allure.
One of the best ways to enjoy Laguna Beach is to walk through Heisler Park, down to Main Beach, and on to Arch Cove. This is a long walk, but you can always relax on the beach and enjoy the views.
This walk starts from the south end of "Heisler Park" on Cliff Dr. around High dr. or Maple St. Once you park, make your way to the footpath along the ocean cliffs.
The park itself is wonderful and worth a visit. It is clean and well-maintained, with good restrooms, picnic tables, and Barbeques. The park is also home to ample shade trees, cacti, sagebrush, palms, and flowers.
After enjoying the park, continue your stroll along the path that commands the best views of the ocean from any Southern California beach town. It is perched high up the bluffs, with several pathways leading to small secluded coves and beaches.
Santa Barbara is a coastal town sandwiched between the steep hills of Santa Ynez mountains and the pacific ocean.
The Spanish Colonial architecture, white buildings with courtyards, homes terraced on the hills overlooking the ocean, and the inviting sandy beaches gave Santa Barbara its nickname "The American Riviera".
Santa Barabra has a long shoreline with many beaches, a harbor, and a Wharf. You can walk through most of it easily, starting from Shoreline Park on the West end, through SB Harbor, passing through East Beach, and ending at the Andree Clark Bird Refuge.
Along the way, you can stop for a snack at the Harbor, Sterns Wharf, or the restaurants dotting Cabrillo street.
Right after the Wharf, you will find another unofficial bird sanctuary as you go east. Watching all birds gathering at Mission Creek – right at the beach is fun.
Parks and Recreation
Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park -- Carlsbad
This former ranch nestled inside a stunning 27-acre canyon is now a historic park that's been open to the public since 2003.
You'll enjoy walking trails, free self-guided tours of the grounds and buildings, and plenty of sightings of some pretty spectacular wildlife, including the colorful peacock.
While at the ranch, take a tour to see the inside of the Ranch House.
The ranch is a botanical gem and a photographer's paradise. Don't forget to watch the 13-minute video in the Visitor center.
Griffith Park and Observatory, Los Angeles
Griffith Park is a large municipal park at the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.
The park includes popular attractions such as the Los Angeles Zoo, the Autry Museum of the American West, the Griffith Observatory, and the Hollywood Sign.
The park appeared in many movies, making it among North America's most famous municipal parks.
It has been compared to Central Park in New York City and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, but it is much larger, less tamed, and more rugged than either.
Besides visiting the zoo and observatory, the park is popular with hikers, and one of the most popular trails is the one leading to the Hollywood Sign.
A visit to the Griffith Park Observatory is a must. The observatory offers a sweeping view of the Los Angeles skyline and surrounding areas.
And inside the observatory, take a trip to the stars at the planetarium.
Balboa Park -- San Diego
Balboa Park is a sprawling 1200-acre park full of open spaces, gardens, hiking trails, and lots of museums. The park is also home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
In 1915, the parklands were used to host the San Diego Panama-Pacific International Exposition which celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal and lasted for 2 years. Later many of the park's buildings were recommissioned as museums.
Interesting Facts: Kate Sessions is known locally as "the mother of Balboa Park". She designed a lot of the park's landscaping and spent years planting trees.
You can spend a day just walking around and exploring the history and architecture, picnicking in the green zones, riding a mini train, going on a carousel, or visiting the International Village. The park is home to so many Museums, you will need days to explore them all. Some of my favorites are "Air and Space", "Science Center", "Natural History" and "Museum of Art".
Go here to read more about the park and its attractions.
Cabrillo National Monument
At the tip of Point Loma Peninsula, the monument commemorates the explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who was the first to set foot on the west coast of North America.
This park has a museum, movie theater, tide-pool exploration, and a stunning view of San Diego harbor and downtown skyline from a high vantage point.
If you are interested in the tide pools, make sure to check the low tide schedule. See official website for more details.
Also, you will find the Point Loma Lighthouse at the highest point of the park. It was closed down in 1891 because it was always shrouded in fog due to its height, and a newer one was built at a lower elevation.
The park is also close to the "Maritime Museum of San Diego", so you can make a side trip to visit the museum.
North Lake Trail, Irvine
Try this 1.0-mile loop trail in Irvine, California. Considered an easy route, it takes an average of 19 min to complete.
This is a popular trail for paddle sports, road biking, and running, but you can still enjoy some solitude during quieter times of the day.
The trail is open year-round and is beautiful to visit anytime. Dogs are welcome but must be on a leash.
As you walk, admire the beautiful trees, landscaping, and wildlife, including geese, rabbits, turtles, and ducks.
A shopping center and movie theater are next to the lake. We usually park at the center before we make our way to the trail.
California Citrus State Historic Park – Riverside
Take a leisurely walk through citrus trees and visit the museum for some citrus industry history.
This Historic Park is an open-air museum in California's state park system, interpreting the citrus industry's historic cultural landscape.
The park's museum exhibits and interpretive features share the story of the citrus industry's role in the history and development of Southern California. They are told through the experiences of the diverse migrant and immigrant groups who made it all possible.
Great Park, Irvine
The Orange County Great Park offers a wide array of activities, including a 2.5-mile canyon and lake, miles of hiking and biking trails, a cultural terrace.
It also includes Orange County's largest sports park, a botanical garden, and a tethered helium observation balloon that will be an icon for the Great Park.
The Great Park Balloon is open, and it is free. Take a ride up to 400 feet (depending on wind speed) and watch the empty land around you being transformed into a great park.
While you are at the top, gaze down to see a Historic Timeline that can only be viewed from above. Once you are done with your ride, you can walk through this 2600 ft timeline and relive 162 significant events.
The park is also home to a certified farmers' market, Soccer Stadium, soccer fields, sand volleyball courts, basketball courts, tennis courts, softball and baseball fields, a Kids playground, Reflecting ponds, and a viewing pier.
Laguna Lake Park
This beautiful lake and park are a launching pad for several Hikes. You can spend time around the lake admiring the ducks and swans, fishing, or enjoying a picnic.
The lake gets stocked with fish regularly, and you can witness adults and kids catching some fish. Dogs are welcome here but must be on a leash.
The trails connected to the lake are suitable for hiking, biking, and horse riding.
For a short and easy hike, you can just loop around the lake. One loop would be around ¾ a mile.
Several trails with varying lengths and difficulty start from the lake.
Descanso Gardens -- La Canada Flintridge
Tucked against the San Gabrial Mountains in Los Angeles County, this arboreal retreat from civilization is a treat for soar eyes.
The Gardens are spread out over 150 acres of hills, meadows, lakes, and streams.
The botanic collections are divided into distinct areas; some, like the Oak Forest, look like pristine woodland, while others, like the Camellia Collection and Rose Garden, are more landscaped.
The admission fee is about $15 for a single visit and around $80 for an annual membership. If you buy the single visit ticket and change your mind, you can apply the purchase fees toward a membership.
Angeles Crest Scenic Byway
The Angeles Crest Highway begins outside Burbank and is only minutes from downtown Los Angeles.
The 55-mile route goes through the San Gabriel Mountains to the mountain town of Wrightwood.
You can also visit the Mount Wilson Observatory for incredible stargazing because it sits above the hazy smog layer of Loos Angeles.
The gorgeous mountain road climbs to a high point of 7,901 feet at Dawson Saddle and offers multiple viewpoints overlooking the Mojave Desert and the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys.
The town of Wrightwood is an old alpine town with historic cabins, a ski resort, and a zip line adventure.
San Luis Obispo North Coast Highway
Just a few hours north of Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo is an idyllic town in the heavenly Los Osos Valley. This is where the San Luis Obispo North Coast Highway begins, traveling California's Shoreline Highway for the remainder of the route.
As you head south, the scenic byway passes through lovely Morro Bay, a north coast beach town that attracts vacationers with its miles of sandy shoreline, biologically diverse bay, and romantic waterfront promenade.
Ocean vistas, small towns, and state parks line the rest of the route. Buy tickets in advance to tour Hearst Castle if you're into majestic architecture or history.
The mansion's beautiful hillside grounds overlook the dramatic coastline, and you can choose from multiple tours of the home's 165 rooms.
Big Sur scenic drive
I drove through Big Sur many times and stayed at a campground once, and each time I go, I find there are so many more things I can see and do.
The drive through this winding and scenic road is stunning, with ocean views, a river, and a forest.
And along this beautiful highway, you can visit famous state and national parks, campgrounds, and resorts.
Some of the iconic places and views you can see or visit are Bixby Bridge, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur Campground & Cabins, and Ventana Big Sur Resort.
California Science Center
The science museum is a great place to spend the day learning and having fun with the whole family.
The museum has excellent fixed exhibits like Creative World and Ecosystems and special temporary exhibits like Journey to Space.
Special exhibits usually require a ticket you can purchase at the ticket booth.
Along with the exhibits, the museum has a large format IMAX theater that showcases films with scientific themes, and some are shown in amazing vivid 3D.
The best attraction at the museum nowadays is the Endeavour final resting place. You have to go through Ecosystems to get the Endeavour display. The first time I entered this hall, I was surprised at the spaceship's colossal size. It dwarfs the throngs of people gazing up at it.
Orange County Model Engineers, Costa Mesa
If you have kids in your life, or you just happen to be a kid at heart, Orange County Model Engineers is a great spot to take the kiddos out for a train ride. The best part? The 12-minute scenic train ride that takes you over bridges and through the park is free on the third Saturday and Sunday of every month.
Orange Empire Railway Museum -- Perris
Explore one of the largest locomotive collections on the west coast at the Orange Empire Railway Museum. Although admission to the grounds and building is free, there is a charge to ride the trains if you choose to add that to your itinerary. The museum is located at 2201 South A Street in Perris, CA.
Orange County Museum of the Arts
The Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) is a modern and contemporary art museum located on the Segerstrom Center for the Arts campus in Costa Mesa, California.
The museum's collection comprises more than 4,500 objects, concentrating on the art of California and the Pacific Rim from the early 20th century to the present.
Exhibits include traditional paintings, sculptures, and photography and new media in video, digital, and installation art.
Paid parking can be found in the surrounding garages, but if you happen to be at South Coast Plaza, you can easily walk across the pedestrian bridge to the museum.
The great outdoors
Sturtevant Falls -- San Gabriel Mountains
Sturtevant Falls Hiking Trail is located in the foothills above Arcadia and Pasadena in the heart of the Angeles National Forest.
This is only one of many hikes available in the Chantry Flats area, but it is my favorite hike because of the waterfall reward at the end.
The hike goes down a steep incline and runs along a creek with a tree-lined ridges. You will have to cross the creek several times before arriving at the clear pool and the waterfall.
The fall might be a trickle or a torrent depending on the season. But it is rewarding either way.
Joshua Tree National Park
The first time I saw Joshua Tree NP, I thought I had just crossed through the twilight zone and into another planet. The eerie landscape, rock formations, and the uncanny Joshua trees combine to transport me to a different state of mind.
This 800,000 acres park straddles the Mojave and Sonoran deserts in California. It is home to the most stunning rock piles, mountain ranges, desert views, and an unexpected oasis here and there.
The park was named after the most prevalent tree in the area. Mormons passing through the area called it Joshua Tree because it resembled their prophet, Joshua, praying to God.
Crystal Cove Trails
Crystal Cove state park is both a beach and a wilderness area with many hiking trails.
This 3-mile stretch of beach along the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the newest additions to the state park system.
Along with its pristine beaches, it covers 3000 acres of hills, canyons, and trails. It also includes primitive campgrounds that only backpackers can get to.
A new addition is the Moro campground, which has some facilities and sits between the beach and the hiking trails.
The park has about 17 miles of trails, so get a trail map online (map) or from the ranger stations before you start your hike.
There are now two parking areas available for hikers. One of them is at the Moro campground day-use area, and the other is outside the campground next to the main ranger station/visitors center.
I usually park at the campground because it also provides easy access to the beach area.
Santa Cruz Island -- Channel Islands National Park
It is hard to find a secluded area in Southern California to step away from civilization and commune with nature. But luckily for us, the Channel Islands are a short boat ride away with beautiful nature and great adventures.
The eight islands making up the Channel Islands are only a few miles away from the coast of Southern California, but they might as well be worlds away.
Those islands have never been connected to the mainland, so they have their own species of animals and plants.
Santa Cruz is the largest island in the archipelago off the coast of California. It is about 22 miles long with a coastline that has steep cliffs, gigantic sea caves, coves, and sandy beaches.
It is a haven for nature lovers with many hiking trails, camping, kayaking, and snorkeling.
This island is home to animal species that can't be found anywhere else in the world, like Santa Cruz Island Horse, the Island Scrub-Jay, and the Santa Cruz Island Fox. The fox is adorable and prevalent everywhere you go on the island.
The Fullerton Arboretum is a 26-acre botanical garden with a collection of world plants located on the California State University, Fullerton campus.
It is the largest botanical garden in Orange County, with over 4,000 plants. The Arboretum saves species that are extinct or near extinction and serves as a learning place for agricultural history.
The Arboretum was officially opened in 1979.
A centerpiece of the Arboretum is the Heritage House, built in 1894 as the home and office of Fullerton's pioneer physician, Dr. George C. Clark.
The Arboretum's garden paths meander through four collections: Cultivated, Woodlands, Mediterranean, and Desert Collections.
Highlights include Southern California native vegetation, Rare Fruit Grove, an organic vegetable garden, historic Citrus and Avocados, Channel Islands Garden, an extensive Cycad Collection, Conifer Collection, Palm Grove, Community Gardens, and a Children's Garden.
Millard Canyon Falls Trail
The area above Pasadena is full of canyons and waterfalls, and Millard Canyon offers a quick route to a nicely flowing waterfall.
Depending on where you park, you can choose between a 4-mile hike or a 2.5-mile hike.
The trail meanders along a creek, and you must cross the stream multiple times.
There is also some rock scrambling, which is unsuitable for the elderly or little children.
Older kids (5 and up) love crossing the stream or walking through it.
At one point, you will need to do a butt slide to continue down a break in the trail.
The waterfall at the end of the trail is well worth the trek. It has a strong flow most of the year, especially after winter rains and in the spring.