14 Budget-Friendly SoCal Destinations For Your Next Trip

Southern California is nothing short of cinematic. Miles and miles of golden beaches lure you with warm Pacific waters, surfing-friendly waves, and breathtaking panoramas. The desert is whispering your name, enticing you with a genuine adventure. Then there are towering mountains, crystal-clear lakes, and winery-filled valleys. The urban side is represented by the world-known megalopolis of LA, many historic small cities, and some of the most picturesque beach towns in the U.S. It's always a pleasure to be in SoCal, and you don't have to spend a fortune visiting this part of California. There are plenty of wallet-friendly places to check out.

By taking into account visitor opinions from Tripadvisor and Google, combining them with our knowledge of living and traveling around SoCal, and making a thorough price check, we've collected the best destinations you can visit without breaking the bank. The abundance of natural sights, the accessibility of the ocean, many under-the-radar cheaper towns, and the diversity of LA's offerings allow you to fully enjoy the SoCal while spending less in the process.


Ventura is a top-ranked, budget-friendly town in California that has lots to offer. First, there are more than 2,900 free parking spots around town. Essentially, that means that you can forget about the stress of searching for a spot and save money. What you want to come here for is, with no doubt, the Pacific Ocean. Ventura has fantastic beaches that stretch for miles. Surfing and kitesurfing are popular activities here, and there's a beautiful wooden pier with awesome views. Scenic Harbor Boulevard is also perfect for long walks.

As for the affordable attractions, don't miss the Ventura Botanical Gardens. Children under 18 have free admission, adults pay only $7, and Friday is a free day for all. Perched above town, the gardens offer a breathtaking panorama of the coast and palm tree-dotted Downtown Ventura. Harmon Canyon is another must-visit spot for nature lovers, with 2,123 acres of territory, stunning panoramas, and no entry fee. If you're a surfer, Surfers Point at Seaside Park features some of the best swells in California.

Big Bear Lake

Gentle peaks of the San Bernardino Mountains surround the seven-mile-long Big Bear Lake, the ultimate outdoor playground of SoCal. While holidays and weekends may get quite hectic (and expensive), coming here off-season and outside of the busy dates will save you money and give a peace of mind. Big Bear is a year-round destination that lures you with skiing and snowboarding in winter, countless scenic hiking trails during the summer, romantic fall foliage in autumn, and laid-back water enjoyment in spring. 

Castle Rock Trail is an essential hike for gorgeous vistas of the water and the mountains, Boulder Bay Park gets you up close to the lake with its boulder islands, and the Alpine Pedal Path is a relaxing walk where you're likely to spot bald eagles. All of these trails are free.

During winter, Big Bear Snow Play is a top family-friendly option, with a rate of $45 ($30 for a small child) for a whole day of snow tubing. If you're into skiing, Big Bear Mountain Resort is a perfect option, offering 87 runs over three mountains. The best tip for saving on daily passes here is to book online, well in advance, and to avoid weekends when the prices peak and the lines to the lifts grow. You can get a daily lift pass for as low as $99, and that's a great deal considering the proposition of winter fun here.


There are surf towns, and then there's Oceanside. Not only does this San Diego County gem have ideal waves to conquer, but it also boasts a dedicated Surf Museum ($7 admission fee) that celebrates the sport. O'side (as the locals call it) is a very cozy and laid-back town where the beach sands and the promenade pavement intertwine. It's an affordable destination, too, as both Harbor Beach and the Oceanside Pier area offer free parking, and you can have a fantastic time on the beach without spending a penny. 

After the beach, head to Sea Lion Island to spot the cute marine mammals that inhabit the Californian coast, or check out Buena Vista Lagoon to see more SoCal flora and fauna up close — both without a price tag. For a more urban kind of exploration, view the many colorful murals of Oceanside's cultural district. There's even a special map to guide you through the urban gallery. Every Thursday, the town also hosts a Farmers Market, where you can browse through a variety of local products and sample cheap organic bites.


Oxnard is one of the best California beach towns you've never heard of. Located in Ventura County, just 60 miles off LAX, it's packed with budget-friendly attractions, gorgeous ocean vistas, countless wave-riding opportunities, and ... tacos. Why tacos? Well, according to its tourist board, Oxnard has the most tacos per capita north of the Mexican border. Taco trucks dot the streets of the town and offer a very budget-friendly and filling way to sample local cuisine. It's usually around $2 per taco or $8 per quesadilla or burrito.

Oxnard State Beach Park and Silver Strand are two spectacular stretches of the Pacific. The coastline is ideal for swimming, walking, picnicking, surfing, and kite surfing. The town is the access point to the magnificent Channel Islands National Park, a UNESCO biosphere reserve off the Californian coast. Island Packers are the only ones authorized to do boat tours, so check out their offers to find a cruise for you. It's not the most affordable option, as round trips start from $63, but it's worth it. Or, for $10, you can visit the Murphy Auto Museum to see a great collection of vintage cars.

Los Angeles

While LA may have the largest concentration of glitz, glamor, mansions, luxury, and celebrities in the world, it's also a very diverse and multifaceted megacity that has lots of affordable things to do. You just need some advanced planning and insight. Some of the most iconic attractions like the Griffith Observatory, the Getty Center, the California Science Center, and Greystone Mansion and Park are completely free to visit. 

For a cheaper commute without busy traffic, switch to the metro. You can purchase 1-day and 7-day passes through the TAP card ($7 and $25, respectively) that offer unlimited rides across the whole network. Book in advance to save on accommodation and compare various hotel options. Don't forget to also browse Airbnb for more choices. Los Angeles is a city of neighborhoods and it has some of the most exciting urban districts in the world. Sun-filled Venice Beach and Santa Monica Pier are still unrivaled when it comes to access to the ocean and the quaint atmosphere. 

Remember, spots like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Lake Shrine, LA Central Library, and The Broad are awesome and completely free places you can visit in Los Angeles. Street food is your best pick for cheap eats under $15. Try $2.50 tacos at Mariscos Jalisco and Leo's Taco Truck, feast on $5 bahn mi at My Dung, and taste the $8 noodle bowls at Marugame Udon.


Temecula is a California destination ideal for couples who love the outdoors. A more affordable and relaxed alternative to Napa Valley, this Riverside County gem is famous for its picturesque vineyards, numerous wineries, scenic Old Town, and plenty of hiking valley trails. What awaits you in Temecula is Tuscany-like scenery with rolling hills, perpetual sunshine, and an inspired atmosphere.

Here, you can sip award-winning local wines, and with more than 50 wineries in the Valley, you've got plenty of choices of places to visit that won't break the bank. Some of the best under $25 wine-tasting offers are at Doffo Wines, Oak Mountain Winery, and Danza del Sol. Weekdays are generally cheaper, and you'll need to book your tasting in advance to secure a spot. If you plan to visit more than three wineries, you can save money by purchasing a Priority Wine Pass (a 3-day one will cost you $39.99).


A day trip to the San Jacinto Mountains is never a bad idea, and Idyllwild is where you go for a budget-friendly break filled with pine trees, hiking trails, fresh air, and gorgeous nature views. This Inland Empire mountain outpost is still very much a hidden gem of Southern California, and you can expect few crowds and cheaper dining establishments with a cozy mountainside flair. 

The community is nestled right in the heart of Mount San Jacinto State Park with a designated trail that allows you to reach the eponymous peak. During warmer months, camping is a great way to have an overnight stay, as a permit tent fee only costs $25 per night. The challenging Deer Springs Trail, dog-friendly Devil's Slide Trail, and easy Ernie Maxwell Scenic Trail are some of the top hiking highlights of the area.

Idyllwild is also a mountain town uniquely connected to the arts. The small town is home to the respected, 1946-founded Idyllwild Arts Academy, numerous galleries dot its streets, and Idyllwild Art in the Park takes place yearly in spring and summer. In other words, this mountain destination is a very inspiring place for many.

Twentynine Palms

You can't get a full picture of Southern California without its desert side. Twentynine Palms is how you embrace the desert life. Fortunately, it's also a very affordable place to visit that offers a wide array of exciting things to do. The town is also a gateway to the sublime Joshua Tree National Park. With plenty of accommodation choices for under $100, Twentynine Palms is your perfect pick for a comfortable and cheap base for desert exploration. Public art is great here, too. Be sure to visit 29 Palms Oasis of Murals, The Glass Outhouse Art Gallery full of recycled art, and the Old Schoolhouse Museum, which depicts the history of the community (all of the sights are free to visit).

When the sun goes down, a starry night show is on full display in Twentynine Palms. Sky's The Limit Observatory and Nature Center has monthly stargazing programs and a free campus that doubles as a superb dark sky-watching spot. Be sure to check out their website for events and reserve your visit to the observatory beforehand. For an iconic SoCal national park experience, head to Joshua Tree ($15 for a pedestrian/bike pass and $30 for a vehicle pass).


Julian is a gold mine for an under-the-radar Californian Wild West-like experience. Also, it has an actual gold mine to visit, which dates back to the gold rush of the 19th century. You can take an entertaining tour underground at the Eagle Mining Co., which offers an immersion experience into the mining history of yesteryear ($15 for adults and $8 for children). However, all roads lead to Main Street in Julian, which looks like a set for a period movie, with its wooden storefronts and a photogenic row of houses. 

Apart from being a charming historic mountain town, Julian is also among the best destinations in California to have an apple pie. Apple trees are an essential part of the local economy, and they grow abundantly on the hills surrounding the town. Julian Pie Company and Mom's Pie House are rivaling pie-supplying cafes, allowing you to judge the tastiest bite of freshly baked pastry. A slice will cost you around $5, depending on the topping, and it's a must-have culinary revelation to have when visiting Julian.

Buena Park

A visit to a theme park in California is far from the most budget-friendly experience. Thankfully, there's Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park. It's officially the cheapest amusement park in the state, according to the Home To Go theme park index, with an average of $155.59 for an experience that includes nearby accommodation and parking. In comparison, just a day pass to Universal Park Hollywood would cost you $109, and Disneyland's pass starts from $104. In other words, Knott's Berry Farm is a bargain that budget-conscious families will enjoy.

With the humble beginnings of a roadside berry stand along the California State Route 39 in 1920, Knott's has managed to become one of the most beloved and visited theme parks in the U.S. Spanning 160 acres of territory, Knott's Berry Farm features four themed areas, more than 46 attractions that include nine roller coasters, and a full-fledged Ghost Town. Daily tickets start from $59.99. 

Buying passes online and well in advance helps you save money on a visit. Come on weekdays to avoid crowds, get to the entrance in the early morning for shorter lines, and enjoy a budget- and family-friendly Californian theme park experience without spending a fortune.

Long Beach

LA neighbor, Long Beach is neither a small beach town nor a noisy, resort-filled oceanside city. And that's the whole point. This Los Angeles County destination is a middle ground between surfside pleasures and vibrant city life. Its proximity to the City of Angels and lots of cool free things to do make Long Beach a perfect day trip idea. 

Eleven miles of golden sands are more than enough for an amazing time by the water, and Junipero Beach is your best pick for a calm, wide, and family-friendly stretch with a laid-back feel. While here, check out the RMS Queen Mary, a gargantuan British ocean liner-turned-into-luxurious hotel. Long Beach Shoreline Marina offers a great (and free) vantage point to see the vessel at no cost.

ShoreLine Aquatic Park is an ideal picnicking area by the harbor, and the park's Lions Lighthouse offers a great photo op. Or, head off the beaten path to explore the East Village Arts District. Located in the eastern part of the downtown, it's a galleries-filled neighborhood with murals and mosaics. For more eye candy, take a trip south to Naples Island, an uber-picturesque area crisscrossed with Venice-like canals that make an ideal background for Instagram photos.


North of Santa Barbara in Santa Ynez Valley, Solvang is an anomaly of sorts. Sure, it's a Danish village in the Sunshine State, an eccentric homage to Danish heritage. But, in the case of Solvang, the link to the culture a few thousand miles apart is accentuated in a Hollywood-style exaggeration. 

Upon entering downtown, you'll be greeted by cute, half-timbered houses, red brick clocktowers, and an abundance of traditional Danish-style bakeries. The town will be a treat for your wallet, too. The local Elverhoj Museum of History & Art and Hans Christian Andersen Museum are free, and top attractions like the Little Mermaid Fountain come at no charge.

The culinary proposition of the town includes quaint bakeries and cafes, so it's easy to have a decent snack, coffee, and cookie trio for under $15 per person. You may also recognize the landscapes in and around Solvang. The town was a filming location for the 2004 Alexander Payne's Oscar-winning drama "Sideways." For a little nature exploration, head to the free Nojoqui Falls Park and its 100-foot cascading waterfalls.

Dana Point

Sure, the presence of Waldorf Astoria, Marriott, and Ritz-Carlton resorts doesn't quite scream "budget-friendly," but Dana Point has an affordable side, too. The resorts are here thanks to the stunning location, where the cliffs meet the blue of the Pacific, and regardless, this scenery is completely free for you to enjoy. 

Dana Point is also known as a surfers' mecca with Doheny State Beach, Dana Strands, and Salt Creek Beach offering first-class wave-riding opportunities. There are also 11 miles of scenic coastal trails perfect for solo meditative walks, romantic hand-in-hand strolls, or family exploration. Art aficionados will also enjoy more than 26 colorful murals and cool statues scattered around the downtown.

For some semi-wild escapes, head to the gorgeous Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area, which boasts 150 species of plants and animals native to coastal Southern California. Also, every Saturday a Farmers Market is organized at La Plaza Park where you can buy moderately priced, local organic products.

Laguna Beach

There's hardly a dreamier Southern Californian beach town destination than Laguna Beach. Think palm tree-dotted bluffs, hidden coves, perfect sandy beaches with scattered rocks, and magnificent tidal pools with sea anemones. You'd be surprised, but when the natural part of a town is so rich, a budget-friendly experience is very easy to organize. 

There's no need to spend a fortune here; all the natural attractions are free and accessible. A pleasant surprise for budget-conscious travelers is a complimentary trolley service that covers the whole town's coast and runs every 20 to 30 minutes. Moreover, the city offers a free parking lot at Laguna Canyon Road in Irvine with a trolley connection to the beaches.

As for the natural attractions, Heisler Park is among California's most spectacular town parks and an ultimate must-visit. Right beneath it is the gorgeous Main Beach, a golden sands stretch perfect for wave-watching, kayaking, dog walking, and swimming. Laguna Beach is also a superb art destination with more than 40 galleries and the Laguna Art Museum, which doesn't charge an admission fee. For the unforgettable SoCal sunset, go straight to Crescent Bay Beach. It's the ideal location for watching the big Californian sun go down.

Our ranking methodology

The entries are chosen after a thorough research of Tripadvisor and Google reviews, suggestions from the official tourist boards, visitor accessibility of the natural sights, and the amount and quality of the free things that each destination offers to travelers. Also, the article is based on the writer's experience visiting these places first-hand.