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The Best Things to Do in California on a Budget

best things to do in california

Ah, California. The land of stars, fame, sunshine, and Disney. It’s also the land of high sales tax, showy experiences, and glamorous prices.

How do you experience the best of what California has to offer without going broke? You’re in luck. California has a lot to offer, regardless of how deep your pockets are.

Here are my top recommendations for the best things to do in California on a budget.

Price: $8 per person and $5 for parking

I have been to The Mystery Spot more than most people should. What can I can I say? I love how cheesy, fun, and downright mysterious it is. 

Even though it’s not free, it will keep you entertained all afternoon.

Free!

The great thing about the Santa Monica Pier is that you can spend absolutely nothing and still have a great experience. As an iconic Los Angeles landmark, you’ll be entertained simply walking around for a few hours.

If you want to splurge, the Pier offers everything from rides, to games, to food. Given all of the choices, you won’t be disappointed spending a day here. And, if worst comes to worst, you have a beautiful ocean view to look at!

Take a Hike!

sequoia national park

Free!

California has some of the most stunning views around, so get out there and see them! So many places are completely free, while others only require small entrance fees (these fees usually go to our state parks, so there’s nothing bad about that!). 

You would have a great trip to California even if you did nothing but look at it. There’re enough beautiful spots to last you a few lifetimes.

Here are a few to get you started:

  • Lembert Dome, Yosemite National Park
  • Tokopah Falls Trail, Sequoia National Park
  • Lost Horse Mine, Joshua National Park
  • John Muir Trail
  • Pacific Crest Trail
  • Sea Lion Point Trail, Point Lobos
  • Elwodsen Trail, Big Sur
  • Cascade Falls, Tahoe
  • James Irvine, Prairie Creek Redwood National Park
  • Scenic Roadway, Carmel-by-the-Sea
  • San Clemente Coastal Trail, San Clemente
  • Trail of 100 Giants, Ponderosa
  • Golden Valley, Death Valley National Park
  • Murray Canyon Trail, Palm Springs
  • Lands End, San Francisco

That’s just a few of what must be thousands of hiking spots in California. If you’re looking for a few more, here are some good books to grab:

Walk Along Hollywood Boulevard

hollywood walk of fame things to do in california

Free!

Feel like a high-end star without paying high-end prices. There’s enough to take in simply walking along Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles to last you a number of days. Check out the Hollywood Walk of Fame, peek into the Hard Rock Cafe or Dolby Theatre, or simply sit on a bench and watch the crowds.

If you’re looking to splurge, Hollywood Boulevard doesn’t disappoint with the attractions it has to offer.

Check out Madame Tussauds, one of the most famous wax museums.

Go to the Hollywood Museum and see some of movie history’s greatest moments.

Jump on a double decker bus and get a tour of celebrity life.

Really, the options are endless.

Drive Along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH)

Free!

pacific coast highway day trip

The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) hugs the coast all the way from Southern California to the middle of Washington. If you want a beautiful way to see the West Coast, you’ve found it with the PCH.

Clocking in at over 20 hours, this isn’t a 1-day adventure. Of course, while the highway itself is free, if you want to drive the whole thing, you’ll need to account for accommodations and travel expenses.

The great thing about a road trip though is that you can completely customize it to your budget. Stay at luxury hotels, or pack a tent! Either way, you’ll have a stunning view.

The Golden Gate Bridge

$8 toll

If you’re anywhere near San Francisco, you just have to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. Not only is it an iconic landmark, it’s insanely humbling to drive over it. All of the photos don’t do justice to just how big and amazing it is. While $8 might seem steep, it’s worth it.

Walk Around Cannery Row in Monterey

cannery row monterey california
Credit: Evelyn Proimos

Free!

Cannery Row is a fun strip of stores and restaurants in Downtown Monterey. With the beach just steps away, you could easily spend a day exploring and enjoying the view. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is at the end of the street. While it’s incredible, it’s not budget-friendly. You’ll also be hard pressed to walk down Cannery Row without stopping in the Ghiradelli store for a sundae. 

So, while Cannery Row is technically free, have some money to spend on good food.

visit pebble beach 17 mile drive

$10.50 per car

17-mile drive is absolutely stunning. There’s a reason why some of the most expensive houses and iconic golf courses are within its gates. If you’re already planning a trip to Carmel or Monterey, the 17-mile Drive is definitely a great detour.

It may be on the pricer side, but it’s incredible views are well worth the fee.

Visit the Sutro Baths in San Francisco

sutro baths san francisco
Credit: simplethrill

Free!

Built in 1896, the Sutro Baths was a huge saltwater swimming pool until it burned down in 1966. Now, the ruins of the Sutro Baths serve as a great place for exploring and enjoying the ocean views.

Walk Around Old Sacramento

Credit: Ken Lund

Free!

Like Cannery Row, Old Sacramento is a fun row of shops and restaurants. Instead of the more touristy shops you see on Cannery Row though, the shops in Old Sac are a hoot. Check out novelty shops, costumes boutiques, and whole host of stores you haven’t seen elsewhere.

cornerstone sonoma

Free!

If you want to visit wine country, Cornerstone Sonoma is a fun stop.Not only do they have wine,  but they also have some beautiful gardens full of fun sculptures. Bring a picnic, grab a glass of wine, and enjoy all of the whismy the gardens have to offer.

visit the getty museum

Free! Parking is $15

While you have to pay for parking, even $15 is a steal given the gems you can see in the Getty Museum. Here are just a taste of what they have to offer:

  • Irises by Van Gogh
  • Rembrandt Laughing
  • Central Garden by Robert irwin
  • The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light by Monet
  • La Promenade by Renoir

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