No one ever said having kids was cheap! But since the best things in life are free, having a blast with young kids in LA doesn’t have to break the bank. From seeing spaceships to tiptoeing through tidepools, keep reading to discover the top ten things to do in Los Angeles with young kids that won’t send you scurrying to the ATM.

1. Explore the California Science Center

Where else can you see a space shuttle and a shark tank, not to mention play in one of three kids only Discovery Rooms, explore rotating science exhibits and watch as baby chicks hatch? And all for free? Rainy days (we could use a few more of those!), hot days, vacation days, or just “I’m bored” days, the Science Center is here for you. For just a few bucks ($6.75/kids-$8.95/adults) you can round the day off with a spectacular 3D IMAX show. Also free at Exposition Park: the California African American Museum, and the expansive seven acre Rose Garden, where kiddos can smell the 16,000+ roses, play by the fountain or take a picnic break. Plan on spending the whole day.

700 Exposition Park Dr.
Exposition Park, near USC


photo: Meghan Rose

2. Head Down to Travel Town

This free outdoor transportation museum is a family favorite with little fans of Thomas. With steam locomotives to scramble over, a train to ride around the park (just $2.75), and train tables to play on (FYI, it’s BYO-Trains), this is an outing that is worthy of a weekly visit. Check their events calendar for passenger car tours and Thomas the Train days, as well as other great activities. And if you’re here on a Sunday, don’t forget to go next door to LA Live Steamers, for another train ride. Tip: The gift shop is a perfect place to shop for a train themed birthday party, and you can even hold that party at Travel Town.

5200 Zoo Dr.
Griffith Park

3. Meet Wildlife at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium

Start your Aquarium visit with the sea stars in the simulated “tide pool touch tank” then spend your time winding through the thirty-eight aquaria. Don’t miss out on the favorite aquatic babies exhibit and let the little ones learn a little something at the research station. Be sure to look up and meet the giant whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling. The museum is free for all but they do suggest a donation to help keep this wonderful community resource going. Parking is free and easy on the street or you can pay $1 to park it right out front. The aquarium hosts loads of kid friendly activities and events, including the fabulous spring time grunion runs—a So Cal tradition.

The museum is free, but they request donations if you can afford it. We have several other amazing local aquariums, many of which are also free! Learn about them, here.

3720 Stephen M. White Dr.
San Pedro

4. Interact with Art at LACMA

Right in our home town is a world class museum that wants you to bring your kids so much that they created a fabulous program: with a free LACMA NexGen membership, kids get in free and they can each bring an adult with them. Pretty amazing deal, especially when you realize that at LACMA there are art exhibits that appeal to kids (mummies and rad modern art sculptures: art in an elevator, a giant suspended rock and of course, every kids favorite, Metropolis II), there is also a painting studio in the Boone Gallery, and story times and tours several times a week. Did we mention that the tar pits are literally the museum’s back yard? Bring a change of play clothes and you can let them poke and play in the patches of tar that bubble up. If you can’t find street parking (it’s tough on weekends) you can always park in the underground lot and take a ride up on the glass elevator—just like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

5900 Wilshire Blvd.
Miracle Mile

5. Explore Historic Olvera Street

This is where it all began. El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (or the Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels) is the name of the Spanish pueblo founded in 1781—and well over 200 years later it is now Los Angeles. El Pueblo is part of the Olvera Street area where shopping, strolling and history mix. Wander through the outdoor marketplace filled with stands selling Mexican and be sure to stop at a Mexican restaurants or stand to enjoy a churro (tastes like a donut) or horchata (a sweet creamy drink most kids love!). Once you and the kids have had your fill of good stuff to eat and tried on a few sombreros, take a walk through the village and give the kids a peek at what life was like back in the 1840’s by touring The Avila Adobe, the oldest house in Los Angeles or check out the Firehouse Museum, which houses old-fashioned firefighting equipment. Be sure to check and see if there are any events coming up–Olvera Street really celebrates in style!

125 Paseo de la Plaza

6. See Stars at the Griffith Observatory

Spend a day at the Griffith Observatory, poking through the exhibits, figuring out your weight on Jupiter, looking through the telescopes, having lunch in the cafeteria and gazing out from the terrace, where you can see the whole city below. If the kiddos need a break, there are beautiful hiking trails behind the Observatory with breathtaking views of the Hollywood sign. Free public star parties are held monthly, where kids can meet professional and amateur astronomers. And don’t forget about the Planetarium! There are currently 3 live shows scheduled every 60-90 minutes daily, for just $3-$7 (it’s the only thing at the Observatory with a fee, and kids under 5 may attend the first show of the day). If you want to avoid the parking lot, which fills up fast on weekends, hike up from Ferndell. Then when you hike back, reward yourself with coffee and PIE.

2800 E. Observatory Rd.
Griffith Park

photo: Meghan Rose

7. Meet the Rangers at a Nature Center

Mom, what kind of bird is that? Dad, how tall can a pine tree grow? Sometimes you get stumped by all the great questions kids ask. (We’re city parents! We know how to find a shortcut that circumnavigates the 405 at rush hour. We can’t know everything…) Find a Ranger at one of the city’s fantastic nature centers and let them do the talking. These are two of our favorites:

Sooky Goldman Nature Center at Franklin Canyon
Kids can get up close and personal with a mountain lion (much tamer in its stuffed state), or play who’s who with animal bones and (ew factor alert) mock animal scat. Mom and Dad can “bone up” in the impressive library. There’s even a chart listing hourly animal sightings- think TMZ for birds n’ beasts. Rangers here lead hikes, campfire programs and more.

2600 Franklin Canyon Dr.
Beverly Hills

Audubon Center at Debs Park
This eco-friendly facility has plenty of nature-based activities, clean bathrooms, and a lending library with field guides, binoculars, strollers, art supplies, even backpacks (all free). Be sure to check out the center’s two mascots: Rex, a California kingsnake, and Fluffy, a Pacific gopher snake. The center also hosts a summer film series, nature walks for families, and arts and crafts programs—all free (and bilingual). The outside space is very kid friendly for playing, while parents commune with nature (which means, rest—blessed, blessed rest).

4700 North Griffin Ave.
Mt. Washington

photo: LeTania Kirkland

8. Find the Free Day

The Science Center is always free (that's why it's #1 on our list!), but there are loads of other museums for kids that have monthly free days. Our faves for kids are Kidspace, which is free on the evening of the first Tuesday of every month and the Skirball's Noah's Ark, which is free every Thursday. You can also visit the NHM, Arboretum, Descanso Gardens, Page Museum, PAM, CAFAM and more all without spending a dime. You just gotta know when to go!

Here's our list of the top ten free days at LA area museums.

9. Bring Your Bookworm to the Central Library

A far cry from the tiny “kiddie corners” that some libraries offer, the massive and beautiful Los Angeles Public Library’s Central branch has its own Children’s Literature Department. Young readers can browse special collections including the Mother Goose collection and the International Picture Book collection while admiring murals depicting early California history. The Children’s Literature Department hosts a slew of activities for children, including story times, puppet shows, and music. It’s never too early to instill a love of books and a sense of wonder for public libraries. Plus, you’re downtown, so you can make a day of it and hit Grand Park, Grand Central Market and a grand place to get books you can keep forever: The Last Bookstore.

630 W 5th St.
Downtown LA

10. Tiptoe Through The Tide Pools

Any rocky beach at low tide will do, but when we want to spend the whole day exploring the marine life on our beautiful beaches, we always head to the Terranea Sea Cave. A short hike from the beautiful resort will lead you to Terranea’s rocky beach. Continue to the far end of the beach and climb over the rocky outcropping (little ones will need a helping hand here) to reach the cave. You’ll need to keep an eye on the tide (check the tide charts here) in order to go in and explore the cave, and take a look at the differences between the tide pools inside and outside the cave. Gorgeous views, a sandy beach and marine science explorations – that’s what SoCal parenting is all about!

Other great tidepool spots: El Matador State Beach in Malibu, Point Fermin State Marine Park in San Pedro and Malibu Lagoon State Beach in Malibu.

6610 Palos Verdes Drive South
Rancho Palos Verdes

Did we miss a (free) family favorite? Tell us below in the comments!

—Meghan Rose



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