You don’t have to break your budget to enjoy the Golden State’s vibrant destination cities.
California’s top cities aren’t known for being budget friendly, but if you look hard enough, it’s amazing how many free activities and attractions are available. With a little planning, you can learn to swing dance in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, discover Lake Tahoe history, and sample an array of international cuisines in San Diego's Balboa Park—all without spending a dime. Here's a sampling of free things to do in San Diego, San Francisco, Napa, Lake Tahoe, and Monterey:
Whether it's spotting snowy egrets in the marshlands of Crissy Field or snapping selfies with LucasFilm's beloved outdoor Yoda Fountain, there's plenty to do on a budget in the Presidio. Along with hiking trails, scenic overlooks, and one of the city's most popular beaches, San Francisco's former military base turned national park is also home to Fort Point National Historic Site. The massive mid-19th-century seaside fortification just beneath the Golden Gate Bridge offers free entry and 30-minute guided tours (schedule varies daily; check with staff on arrival.) Near the Main Post, the Presidio Officers' Club is a museum and cultural center combo that celebrates Presidio history with free exhibits, jazz nights, and ongoing archaeology digs. A free PresidioGo shuttle runs throughout the park, seven days a week.
Become well versed in downtown art deco masterpieces, the Haight-Ashbury's hippie culture, and even Hitchcock filming locations with San Francisco City Guides’ free excursions. The library-sponsored non-profit now hosts approximately 30 different tours each month, including its newest: tales of mayhem and murder at Nob Hill's Fairmont Hotel. Tours run 1.5–2 hours, and reservations are not required; just show up at the specified time and place and be prepared to walk.
Ride a bike, learn to swing dance, or partake in the 6th Avenue roller disco during Sundays in Golden Gate Park. Each week, the park's John F. Kennedy Drive is closed to vehicles from Kezar Drive to Park Presidio Boulevard, transforming this 1.4-mile stretch into a sea of outdoor enthusiasts. If you're lucky, a hodgepodge of jazz musicians will be performing in a tunnel near the Conservatory of Flowers, taking advantage of its supreme acoustics to put on an unforgettable show.
Relish in the modern works on display at the world-class Hess Art Collection, a 13,000-square-foot gallery space located on the property of Napa's historic Hess Winery. Vintner Donald Hess has been collecting pieces of contemporary art since 1966, and keeps a portion of them here for public viewing. A downloadable audio tour offers insight into the artists—which include Francis Bacon, Leopoldo Maler, and musician-turned-painter Robilee Frederick—and their distinctive works. As of February 1, 2018, the museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Spend a day enjoying the wonders of Lake Berryessa, Napa County’s largest lake. Along with swimming in the summer months, this 20,000-acre man-made reservoir is also a great spot for kayaking and paddleboarding. Rentals are available onsite, or BYO equipment for some extra-affordable adventure. Located in the Vaca Mountains, the lake is also home to several short hiking trails that extend along the oak-covered shoreline and through neighboring hills.
Wander among the various sculptures of Napa Art Walk, a downtown outdoor display of juried pieces that rotate biennially. The current exhibit, Shifting Perspective, which runs through April 2019, features the works of 10 Western U.S.–based artists that range from abstract to eco-friendly, such as the colorful Treasures from the Sea, constructed mostly from recycled bicycle parts. Download the Otocast app from iTunes or Google Play to learn more about each piece, often in the artist's own voice.
Lake Tahoe, CA
Bask in the sparkling blue-green waters of Emerald Bay State Park, located along Lake Tahoe's western shore. Spend the day snorkeling or diving among its many sunken boats and barges, or bring your own kayak and paddle over to tiny Fannette Island—home to the reputed ghost of a retired sea captain as well as the “Tea House” ruins built in the late 1920s by wealthy philanthropist Lora J. Knight. Back on the mainland at the park’s Scandinavian-style Vikingsholm mansion (also built by Knight), there's a trailhead to access Tahoe's beloved 12-mile Rubicon Trail—which winds along shoreline cliffs and through pine- and fir-filled forests. (Vikingsholm is open for tours during summer months for a fee.)
Delve into local history on a Mountain Town Walking Tour in Tahoe City or Truckee. The 1.5-hour excursions provide details on Tahoe's colorful past as well as its many unique characters. Learn about the golden era of steamboats while strolling along Tahoe City's waterfront, discover interesting tidbits about the majestic mountain lake, or hear legendary tales of lumber mills and railway barons while meandering through downtown Truckee. Tours are available June through September, but the season may be extended depending on the weather. Visit the website for more details.
Sled, tube, snowshoe, or cross-country ski at Tahoe Meadows (also known as Mt. Rose Meadows), Nevada's high-elevation winter wonderland. This alpine expanse, near the crest of Mt. Rose Highway about 7 miles north of Incline Village, gives way to a frenzy of wildflowers during warmer months, when iced-over waters transform into rushing, bridge-covered streams. For a hike that’s easy and accessible, try the 1.3-mile Tahoe Meadows Interpretive Loop Trail. It's actually part of the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail, a long-distance trek that encompasses the entire basin.
Search for starfish, sea anemones, and the occasional octopus in the prolific tide pools found along many Monterey beaches, including downtown's San Carlos Beach. Located at Cannery Row's west end, this stretch of picnic-worthy sand backs up to the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. Following the former tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the paved rail-to-trail runs 18 miles from Castroville to Pacific Grove, offering prime coastal views.
Discover Old Monterey's Spanish and sardine history along the Path of History, a self-guided two-mile-long walking trail that incorporates 55 historic sites throughout the city's downtown, including various adobes, the old Southern Pacific Train Station, and the one-time abode of Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson.
Witness a natural phenomenon, as thousands of Monarch butterflies who've followed their ancestral flight path to Pacific Grove's Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary bed down for the winter (October through February) in the branches of eucalyptus, cypress, and pine trees. Docents are on hand daily noon to 3 p.m. (weather permitting) with viewing scopes and interesting facts about these incredible creatures.
Explore Mission Trails Regional Park: 7,220 acres of rolling hills, scenic canyons, and a reservoir ideal for kayaking. The park boasts 60 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, including one up to the peak of Cowles Mountain—the city of San Diego's highest point. Don't miss the Visitor and Interpretive Center, which provides details on the area's flora and fauna, as well as its indigenous Kumeyaay people.
Embark on a trip around the world at Balboa Park's House of Pacific Relations (HPR), a mix of historic 1935 Exposition cottages and newer structures representing nearly three-dozen different countries, including Argentina, Israel, Italy, and China. Learn more about each country’s cultures and traditions during regular open houses each weekend. A selection of house members also hosts Sunday afternoon lawn performances and demonstrations featuring everything from Irish folk dancing to Peruvian cuisine, depending on the month.
Take in some of San Diego's top attractions and most scenic views—including its fantastic skyline—on 59-Mile Scenic Drive, a marked route that winds through the city center and along the coast with plenty of possible stops en route. Watch windsurfers tackle the waters of Mission Bay Aquatic Park, peruse downtown's vibrant Gaslamp Quarter, or visit the Hotel del Coronado, San Diego's fabled Victorian beach resort.
More Affordable Activities in California and Elsewhere:
This article was published in January 2018. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.