You don’t need to pay a premium for fun on California’s Central Coast. Find plenty of free and affordable options all along the Central Coast—Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura regions deliver delights and surprises that are easy on the wallet.
Affordable Fun on California’s Central Coast
From north to south, here are just a few of the budget-friendly things to do along California’s Central Coast.
Santa Cruz County
Santa Cruz County is a treasure trove of free and affordable things to do. Free walking tours bring to life history in Capitola, Boulder Creek, and Watsonville; and art and architecture in Santa Cruz. (Pick up a tour brochure at any Santa Cruz County visitor center.) Love wildlife? Take a free guided nature walk of the Wetlands of Watsonville, scan the horizon for wildlife at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, or—if you’re visiting between December and early spring—head to the cliffs above Davenport to watch for California Gray Whales migrating along this stretch of the Pacific. Enjoy hikes in the redwoods or beach time—many Santa Cruz County parks are admission-free, and some state parks only charge a parking fee. Check out admission-free museums including the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center, Agricultural History Project, San Lorenzo Valley Historical Museum, Capitola Museum, and the Aptos History Museum. And for a sweet—and free—way to end the day, visit the Martinelli’s Company Store in Watsonville, where kids and grownups alike can sidle up to the bar for a refreshing complimentary juice tasting.
San Luis Obispo
Fun, playful, and quirky—that’s the name of the game when it comes to affordable fun in San Luis Obispo. Families can make a full day out by combining a trip to the SLO Railroad Museum—which charges just a few dollars—and the SLO Children’s Museum, a hands-on experiential space full of exhibits and activities for kids 10 and under that costs less than $10 per person. Visitors will also find free admission at attractions including the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, and the History Center of San Luis Obispo County. Getting outdoors is another affordable option; find over 40 miles of hiking trails within 10 minutes of downtown. As you’re strolling downtown, don’t miss SLO’s most unusual—and totally free—tourist attraction: Bubblegum Alley. Add your own contribution to the 70-foot long alley festooned with thousands of pieces of colorful chewed gum. Evenings bring more opportunities for affordable fun. Art After Dark is a free, self-guided tour of galleries and non-traditional art venues held the first Friday of the month downtown. And the six-block-long Thursday evening farmers’ market feels like a party but costs only as much as you choose to spend on farm-fresh produce and hot, local food.
San Luis Obispo’s Atascadero offers up small-town charm, natural beauty, and wine-country experiences, all at an affordable price point. Discover the history of the town on a free docent-led tour of Historic City Hall. Families shouldn’t miss the Central Coast’s only zoo, the Charles Paddock Zoo, which offers affordable family fun—adult tickets are $7 and children’s tickets just $5. The zoo is home to hundreds of species from around the world, and the zoo works with global programs to preserve animals and their habitats. Throw in some unbeatable California nature at no extra cost—do as the locals do and take an easy and scenic hike on the Jim Green Trail, a 1.7-mile pet-friendly path lined with oak trees and views.
Santa Barbara County
Santa Barbara County offers just the sort of unique things to do that keep a California Central Coast road trip lively. Hop aboard Santa Maria’s ultra-affordable Santa Maria Wine Trolley. From late May through mid-October, $10 (advance purchase) will get you easy access to six wineries and tasting rooms. In Buellton, you can feed an ostrich or an emu at OstrichLand USA. Get up close to these massive birds for $5 per adult or $2 per kid 12 and under. Low-cost museums include the Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum ($6 per person; kids under two are free) and the Wildling Museum of Art & Nature (adults are $5; kids are free).
The relaxed Conejo Valley, in the California Central Coast’s Ventura region, offers unforgettable sightseeing and an unbeatable price point. Discover the world through its flora at Gardens of the World, a beloved—and free—4.5-acre landmark featuring gardens representing England, France, Italy, Japan, and, you guessed it, California. Discover 150 years of California history at the Reyes Adobe Historical Site. Explore furnished rooms, outdoor displays, and a barn-turned-museum, all for a suggested donation of $1 to $3 per person. The Chumash Indian Museum shares and preserves the traditions of the local native people through exhibits, events, and educational programs. Admission fees are just $3 to $5. The Stagecoach Inn Museum is a California Historical Landmark and museum, where for the $2 to $5 cost of admission, you can visit replicas of the local school, carriage house and blacksmith shop, and different styles of traditional houses. And movie and TV buffs shouldn’t miss the fun and free chance to visit the backdrop of such shows as The Mentalist, West World, and Dr. Quinn at Paramount Ranch, which offers scenic hikes with a Hollywood twist.