Los Angeles is famed for its so-called ‘sunshine tax’. Whether it’s on meals out, after-school activities or just the weekly grocery shop that makes your eyes water at the amount you just spent on a bag of carrots, a loaf of bread and the all-essential sunscreen (and that’s before tax…), money doesn’t seem to stretch quite as far as most people’s dreams do in LA.
Still, if you are willing to look for it, there is a huge amount of family fun to be had in Los Angeles for little or no cost. Even less if you pack your own picnic! Here are some tips and ideas of days out and activities in the Los Angeles and surrounding area that won’t have you groaning in horror when you look in your wallet at the end of the day.
- Free LA Museums and Attractions
- Free Entry Days
- Head to the Beach
- Free Events
- Visit a Nature Center
- Take a Hike
- Every Kid Outdoors Scheme for 4th Graders
- Ski for Less
Free LA Museums and Attractions
Some of the best stuff to do in LA for families is completely free all of the time. There are too many museums for me to list here but below are some starting ideas focused on the outdoors, science and nature. Also, remember to look out for the SoCal Museums Free-For-All Day, usually in February, when you can access many museums across the area without any usual entry fees.
California Science Center, Central Los Angeles
The California Science Center is well worth a visit. Whether you kids are into space (go and see Endeavour) or habitats, chemical reactions or marine life, I challenge any kid to be bored in this vast interactive museum. Entry is totally free (though you’ll need to pay for parking or a train/bus ticket), leaving you to save your spare dollars to splurge on a film at the massive 3D IMAX theatre after your visit.
Griffith Observatory, Central Los Angeles
Griffith Observatory not only offers stunning views of Los Angeles and some movie location magic but is also home to a museum covering space and physics related topics. Amongst the more advanced exhibits kids will love watching the Tesla Coil demonstrations, exploring the seasons, moon cycles and day/night through the moving overhead models, making the seismograph jump and checking out real meteorites. Free star parties are regularly hosted here when the kids can examine the night sky through telescopes, including sometimes the chance to peer through the giant instruments housed on the roof. If you must spend money, make it on the planetarium shows. Kids under 5 are permitted at the first show of each day.
The Getty Center, The Westside
With both artwork and gardens to explore free of charge, not to mention a host of family-friendly events and some brilliant views over LA, The Getty Center is a great family day out without having to break the bank. Parking is $20 but you can also get there via the Metro bus 734/234 service.
Travel Town, Central LA
If you’ve got a train enthusiast in the family then Travel Town in Griffith Park is a great place to take them. You can wander amongst (and climb on some) old engines for free or spend some pocket money on a ride on the miniature railway.
Free Entry Days
If you want to take the kids somewhere but the entry price tag is holding you back, don’t forget to check whether they offer a free entry day programme. Some places do this monthly, other annually or during certain promotions. Make sure to set your calendar reminder for ticket release dates as they disappear fast.
The Autry Museum of the American West, Central LA
Discover and celebrate the culture and history of the American West, from cowboys to the gold rush, local fauna to Native American culture and everything along the way. Kids will enjoy creating their own film in the Imagined West studio, learning how to pan for gold and finding out all about Griffith Park through hands-on exhibits. Visit the Autry Museum of the American West for free on the second Tuesday of every month.
The Huntington, San Gabriel Valley
The world famous Huntington Library & Botanical Gardens is a beautiful spot to while away a day. Kids will particularly love the sensory magic of the Children’s Garden and the steamy air and hands-on learning in the conservatory. Admission is free on the first Thursday of every month with an advance reservation.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, The Verdugos
For scientifically-minded and space loving families with older kids (they recommend from 3rd grade / ~ age 8+), you can book free weekly tours of JPL online or visit on the annual open house event, usually in early summer. Visitors get an overview of the work that takes place at the center as well as getting to see behind the scenes at the von Karman Visitor Center, the Space Flight Operations Facility, and the Spacecraft Assembly Facility. Tours book up fast so consider joining the mailing list for a heads-up on ticket releases.
Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, San Gabriel Valley
Less formal and less busy than The Huntington, Los Angeles County Arboretum will delight children with its many resident peacocks and acres of land to explore. Entry is free on the third Tuesday of every month for a morning of afternoon visit with an advance reservation.
Discovery Cube, San Fernando Valley
Get hands-on with science and get the kids up-to-speed on all things environmental at the Discovery Cube. Have fun on the climbing wall, practice sorting recycling and smart shopping in a really fun way, learn about where LA’s water comes from and find out more about neighbouring Hancock Dam. Select free entry days are run periodically for Los Angeles residents with valid DWP statement and matching ID – check the Discovery Cube website for upcoming dates.
Kidspace Museum, The Verdugos
Packed with indoor and outdoor fun for curiously-minded kids, Kidspace is a gem for families with kids between 1 and 10 years old. Just bring extra clothes for the water/mud play! Free entry to Kidspace is offered on the first Tuesday of the month, 4-8pm. Entry is first come, first served and visitor number restrictions apply, so get there early to beat the queues.
La Brea Tar Pits, Central Los Angeles
In the midst of urban Los Angeles lies ever-emerging evidence of Los Angeles prehistoric past. Fossils of mammoths, saber-tooth cats and even the humble jumping spider have all been found in the asphalt seeps located in Hancock Park. Visiting Hancock Park where you can see (and smell) the pits and observe some of the current extraction sites, is free at all times. The informative and interactive on-site museum however is well worth a visit. Free admission to La Brea Tar Pits Museum is offered on the first Tuesday of the month (except July & August). If you’re an LA County resident then you can enjoy free visits on weekdays between 3-5pm with valid ID and utility bill.
The Natural History Museum, Central Los Angeles
Visiting the dinosaur fossils in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is a right of passage for any dino-loving LA kid. There’s a ton of other exhibits and garden space to explore and a hands-on exploratory nature zone that will open kids’ eyes to a whole new wild outlook on Los Angeles. Free admission is offered on the first Tuesday of the month (excluding July & August) as well as every Tuesday in September. Residents of LA County can visit for free on weekdays, 3-5pm with a valid ID and utility bill.
Descanso Gardens, The Verdugos
Descanso Gardens offers peace, beauty and plenty of natural space for kids to explore. There’s even a miniature train running Tuesdays, Fridays and at the weekend. Visit for free on the third Tuesday of the month with an advanced reservation. Tickets are released three weeks ahead of each event.
Head to the beach
With mile upon mile of sandy beaches, heading to spend a day playing in the surf and sand is an obvious choice. Parking can be the unexpected cost at some of the more popular beaches but with some research you can usually find a public transport link (Santa Monica is great for accessing via public transport) or local beach shuttle or head to the less popular but no less lovely stretches where there is often free street parking, such as Playa del Rey. Come early and armed with your BBQ supplies to one of the beaches with grills or fire pit (Dockweiler Beach) and enjoy dinner out and a great view for no additional cost.
There is always something going on in Los Angeles. Street fairs, Halloween decorations or Christmas lights, cultural events, festivals, fun runs and outdoor movie showings – just take your pick. Lots of them are free to enjoy. Check out free local papers and magazines to find out what’s on. The Discover Los Angeles events page and the weekly events column in the LA Times Sunday Travel supplement are handy starting points.
Some of our favourite free events so far include local farmer markets ( admittedly expect some expenditure on delicious fruit and food), CycLAvia events (grab your bikes, scooters or running shoes and take advantage on closed LA streets with loads of family fun along the route), the famous Rose Parade in Pasadena on New Year’s Day and, a little further afield, the Swallows Parade in historic San Juan Capistrano which marks the traditional return of the swallows to the ancient Mission there.
Visit a Nature Center
For some reason, LA sells itself very short when it comes to its wildlife. Los Angeles is home to black bears, hummingbirds, coyotes, whales, dolphins, pelicans, mountain lion, mass butterfly migrations and red-tailed hawks, just to name a few. Whilst many places have entire tourist industries based around just one of these species, most guides to Los Angeles would have you believe the city nature scene extends no further than watching out for rattlesnakes and black widow spiders!
Despite this, there are several excellent nature centers where you can take the kids to discover more about the wildlife that shares their urban landscape, as well as those that inhabit the mountains,forests and ocean surrounding LA. Best of all, most of them are totally free to visit, although all welcome donations which are put towards continuing their excellent work.
Eaton Canyon Nature Center, San Gabriel Valley
As well as being home to some family friendly nature trails and hiking, Eaton Canyon also has a small but interesting nature center. Inside come nose-to-nose with some of the species that call Eaton Canyon home and learn more about this important habitat. Story time, crafts and family nature walks run every Saturday free of charge, although donations are gratefully received for these volunteer led events. For a small donation you can also attend the regular family-friendly, nature orientated events, including the fun moon walks in the summer months.
Audubon Center at Debs Park, Central Los Angeles
It comes as quite a surprise that this unlikely area of parkland perched on the edge of Down Town LA could be home to such a large amount of bird life. The Audobon Center based in the park gives an insight into local wildlife, has fun nature trails for kids with some hands on activities along the way and even offers binoculars and bird watching kits for kids to borrow on hikes in the park. School-aged kids may enjoy joining the free bird walks held by the center every 2nd and 3rd Saturday of the month, 8 – 9.30 am. Check out the trails also for some fantastic skyline views of Down Town LA.
Roundhouse Aquarium at Manhattan Beach Pier, South Bay
Small is beautiful at the Roundhouse Aquarium. Kids will enjoy the exhibits of moon jellyfish, small sharks and touch tanks. There’s also an activity area with books and puzzles and some great information on marine conservation. Free but donations gratefully received.
Point Vicente Interpretive Center, Palos Verdes
Save on the cost of a whale watching boat trip with a visit to Point Vicente. The Point Vicente Interpretive Center is free to visit and learn about the whales and marine life that frequents the area. You can then pop outside and watch for whales from the patio or take a short, family-friendly cliff-top stroll whilst scanning the horizon for whales and dolphins. Come from December until April for the best chance of sightings during the gray whale migration.
Take a Hike
Hitting the trail on a family hike is one of our favourite activities in the Baby Routes household and one that incurs minimal to no cost. Check out the ever extending Californian walks section on this site for family friendly walk inspiration.
You can access many miles of trails around Los Angeles for free. Some, such as those in the Angeles National Forest, may charge for parking whilst others, such as those at Griffith Park, allow you to park for free.
For kids who need a little extra entertainment, download the free Agents of Discovery app for an augmented reality missions to earn real-life badges at certain natural spaces across LA. Geocaching is also a really fun activity (think a giant treasure hunt). Again, you need to download an app, with the free version being perfectly fine to get started on.
If you want to explore further afield then the National Parks offer free entry on several days each year (see their website for a full list) for those big adventures to places like Joshua Tree, Death Valley, or Yosemite.
Every Kid Outdoors Scheme for 4th Graders
Every Kid Outdoors offers 4th Graders and their families (all children under 16 and up to three adults) free entry to hundreds of parks, historic sites, waters and recreational areas. This extends to free parking where there is a vehicle admittance charge. You will require a physical pass which you can apply for on the Every Kid Outdoors website.
Ski for Less
If you’re keen to try out winter sports but the expense is putting you off, then there are a couple of ways to make it cheaper. 5th Graders can ski for free (holiday periods excluded & requires accompanying, paying adult) at Mountain High, Wrightwood, whilst kids under 4 ski for free at Big Bear. Mountain High, Big Bear and Snow Valley resorts all offer free skiing on your birthday. Unfortunately these offers don’t seem to extend to rentals, so check with friends for spare kit or on rental prices before you go. You can often pick up cheaper rental deals in LA or a local sports store than at the resort.
Love snow but not interested in skiing? Check for fresh snow then borrow a toboggan and head to mountains for some free winter fun! Just be sure to start early on weekends, check if you need snow chains for the car and make sure you know about any parking restrictions and fees before you leave your car.