Nothing inspires a sigh of satisfaction on a family vacation quite like seeing that “free admission” sign. Across the Golden State, countless beaches and parks offer free or nearly free public access—like the free-access Point Reyes National Seashore—but a refreshingly large number of attractions and museums swing their doors open wide, too. Some of the biggest museums around the state are especially family-friendly, offering free admission for kids (such as SFOMA in San Francisco and LACMA in Los Angeles) or even free admission for the whole family, including the Getty Center (you just have to pay for parking) and The Broad in L.A.
While the list of California’s great free attractions includes plenty of famous locations—like the observatory featured in more than one movie—there are also many seemingly hidden gems, such as a butterfly-filled sanctuary near Monterey and a hands-in aquarium right off an L.A. County beach. Check out our list of freebies, listed north to south, that will especially appeal to kids.
With its noble columns and snappy cupola, all painted wedding-cake white, California’s State Capitol building looks like a mini replica of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Take a free tour to learn about the 1869 building’s architecture and history. In the Capitol Museum, check out the collection of cool flags—including those carried by California soldiers during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I, as well as artwork by former legislators and government staffers. Kids can download puzzles and coloring sheets that feature fun Golden State facts. (Quick: Which city is the Raisin Capital of the world?)
This is very much a working capitol building, and, if legislators are in session, ask about access to public galleries to watch bills being debated or votes being cast. Outside, stroll through the adjacent 40-acre Capitol Park, where you can admire trees from around the world, and visit the sweetly scented International World Peace Rose Garden. Take note of the Civil War Memorial Grove—in 1897, saplings from famous Civil War battlefields were planted here.
Golden Gate Bridge
With towers soaring 746 feet/227 meters into the sky, its span arcing across the mouth of San Francisco Bay, and all of it painted bright red-orange, the Golden Gate Bridge is, quite simply, amazing.
It’s pretty easy (and free) to walk across the bridge itself, or to explore the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center, which offers a colorful look at the bridge’s history, as well as the original 12-foot stainless-steel “test tower” used in 1933.
You’ll learn, for starters, why a bridge called “Golden Gate” is in fact orange. It’s generally accepted that the mouth of San Francisco Bay—the narrow strait that the bridge spans, was named Chrysopylae (Greek for “Golden Gate”) by early explorer John C. Fremont. (Captain Fremont thought the strait looked like a strait in Istanbul named Chrysoceras, or “Golden Horn.”) So it makes sense that the bridge is named after the expanse of water that it crosses. But what about that crimson color? Call it an unexpected surprise. When the steel for the bridge was first installed in place, it was only covered with red primer. A consulting engineer liked it, suggested the color be kept, and helped develop the bridge’s final paint color.
Technically, that color is “International Orange,” but whatever it is, it’s an eye-grabber, whether you’re driving, walking, or pedaling across the 1.7-mile/2.7-kilometer span. Note that it can be a bit nippy and windy on the span, especially when the fog slips in (especially common in summer), so dress in layers, and bring a hat or flip up a hood to keep your head warm. Bike rental companies abound (two favorites are Blazing Saddlesand San Francisco Bicycle Rentals); most bikes come equipped with detailed route maps showing you where to ride from San Francisco across the bridge to idyllic towns, such as Sausalito and Tiburon, in neighboring Marin County. (For extra fun, catch a local ferry to get back to the city.)
There’s a nice gift shop and a café at the south (city) end, and paths let you wind down to historic Fort Point, completed in 1861 as a military outpost to protect the gate before there was a bridge. Look up for a remarkable view of the bridge’s underbelly, a spectacular network of massive girders, enormous columns, and impressive cables.
Monarch Grove Sanctuary
Tucked between Monterey and Carmel, the little town of Pacific Grove has the seaside scenery of its two popular neighbors, but a small-town ambience with quaint walkable neighborhoods, charming inns, and a historic lighthouse. It also boasts, for about five months a year, an attractive seasonal community: thousands upon thousands of monarch butterflies, which flock to a migration sanctuary just a few blocks from the ocean. For nature-lovers and families, this free attraction is an easy-access marvel.
Unlike the monarchs that live east of the Rocky Mountains (which tend to winter in central Mexico), West Coast monarchs stick with the Golden State. While there are roughly 400 wintering sites for the butterflies along the California coastline, this eucalyptus-shaded sanctuary (monarchs seem to love the willowy trees) has been ranked in the top 6 of the state’s wintering spots.
If you visit between October and February, you’ll see the orange-and-black butterflies resting on the branches in massive clumps—at first glance, you may think they’re orange leaves or blossoms. When the temperature is in the mid-50s or cooler, the butterflies stay surprisingly still. Just don’t touch them—there’s a city ordinance about it, with a hefty fine—but you can ask on-site docents for a closer look with their viewing scopes. Afterward, walk along the rocky coast and preserved dunes at Asilomar State Beach.
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