Living in LA may not be cheap as some other parts of the country but that doesn’t mean having fun has to break the bank either. From aquariums to art museums, there are so many exciting ways to explore and play that won’t cost you a dime. Here are our favorite things to do with kids that are free or practically free.
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: LACMA NexGen membership where kids get in free along with one adult. It's a pretty amazing deal, especially when you realize that at LACMA, there are art exhibits that appeal to kids like rad modern art sculptures, a giant suspended rock and of course, every kid (and grown-up kids’) favorite, Metropolis II. There is also a painting studio in the Boone Gallery where your inspired little artists can create watercolor masterpieces and listen to story time.
5900 Wilshire Blvd.
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, hot days, vacation days, or just “I’m bored” days, the California Science Center is here for you. And for just a few extra bucks ($6.75 for kids; $8.95 for adults) you can round the day off with a spectacular 3D IMAX show. Right now, you can catch Volcanoes 3D: The Fires of Creation and Superpower Dogs 3D opens Mar. 16.
Also free at Exposition Park: the California African American Museum, and the expansive seven acre Rose Garden, where kiddos can smell the 16,000 plus roses, play by the fountain or take a picnic break. Plan on spending the whole day.
700 Exposition Park Dr.
Exposition Park, near USC
While you can't go wrong with any of these tide pools in and around LA, when we want to spend the whole day exploring marine life on our beaches (for free), we 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 destination. Gorgeous views, a sandy beach, and marine science explorations —that’s what SoCal living is all about.
Inside Tip: Before you go, check the tide charts to maximize exploration in the cave and out.
6610 Palos Verdes Dr. South
Rancho Palos Verdes
Every mini engineer and trainspotter will have a blast exploring this outdoor transportation museum dedicated to all things trains. You can climb around on real steam locomotives, check out wagons and other antique vehicles in the barn and even go for a ride on a mini train that circles the park for just $3.
Pack some snacks and grab a seat on the lawn where you can wave at the train as it drives past. And if you’re here on a Sun., don’t forget to go next door to LA Live Steamers, for another train ride.
Don't miss their docent-led tours on the second Sat. of the month. and of course, National Train Day on May 11th! Check their events calendar for more great activities.
Insider Tip: You can throw birthday parties at Travel Town or hit the gift shop for an awesome gift for a train-themed birthday party or just because.
5200 Zoo Dr.
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 per hour 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.
Check out these other noteworthy Los Angeles aquariums, many of which are also free!
3720 Stephen M. White Dr.
San Pedro, CA
La Brea Tar Pits
Next door to LACMA are the famous La Brea Tar Pits. While the Page Museum at the center will cost you an entrance fee (unless you visit on the first Tues. of the month when admission is free), there is plenty to explore around the tar pits and gardens that surround the museum.
Check out Ice Age plant life in the Pleistocene Garden, roll down the grassy hills and learn all about being a paleontologist with a peek inside Pit 91 and Project 23, which are still actively being excavated. No visit would be complete without snapping a selfie with those perpetually stuck elephants in the bubbling tar pit.
5801 Wilshire Blvd.
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. 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 three 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 can only attend the first show of the day).
If the kiddos need a break, there are beautiful hiking trails behind the Observatory with breathtaking views of the Hollywood sign.
If you want to avoid the parking lot, which fills up fast on weekends, hike one of our favorite trails, Ferndell. Then when you hike back, reward yourself with coffee and pie.
2800 E. Observatory Rd.
Located in the same area as the Santa Monica Pier and the Promenade, this 6.2 acre park is a little and big kid playground paradise with discovery areas, climbing structures, rolling slides, a splash pad (when the weather is nice) and beautifully landscaped walking trails.
Parents will love the shaded picnic areas, free wi-fi, and the various cafes and restaurants surrounding the green space in case a case of the hangries appear. Don't forget to visit the overlook to take in the view of the Pacific Ocean and that pier of course.
1615 Ocean Ave.
Museum Free Day
The Science Center is always free, 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 Tues. of every month and the Skirball's Noah's Ark, which is free every Thurs.
Here's our list of the top ten free days at LA area museums.
LA's Central Library
If you have a budding bookworm at home then a visit to your local library is always treat and LA is full of some really special kids collections. Come for the books and stay for the free story time at dozens of Los Angeles Public Library branches, but the coolest by far is the Central Library downtown which houses a massive children’s literature department and hosts story times, puppet shows, and music.
Our other favorite spots are the Santa Monica Main Library and Beverly Hills Library, both of which have awesome collections and kids activities.
Bonus Tip: Your LA County Library card is also your ticket to more exciting freebies through the Discover & Go program. Login online here and you can reserve free family passes to dozens of museums and attractions across the city, like The Autry Museum and the Natural History Museum.
630 W 5th St.
Santa Monica Library
Beverly Hills Library
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—Meghan Rose & Shahrzad Warkentin
Feature image: Shahrzad Warkentin