Buying a home in Malibu might be out of your budget (mansions here routinely sell for over $10 million), but you don’t have to flash a lot of cash to enjoy the Malibu way of life, though you may have to pay for parking.

The beaches and the mountains are the most sought-after playgrounds on this gorgeous stretch of the California coast, and the free thrills they deliver are hard to beat. Then there are the free big-ticket museums and cultural institutions in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, but Malibu has plenty of free things to do to enrich a visit beyond surf and sun.

Here are our picks for the eight best free things to do and see in Malibu.

Introducing Coastal California

Bask on the beach

It would be impossible to come to Malibu and not visit the beach. Luckily, there’s a beach for every type of traveler. Zuma Beach is the place to go for all-day fun in the sun, while scenic El Matador State Beach is best for a quiet, reflective stop. Want to admire the beach without getting sand in your shoes? If you pull off the Pacific Coast Highway at Dan Blocker Beach, you can admire the ocean from a gated viewing deck with picnic tables.

While access to the beach is free, you will usually have to pay for parking at the beach lots. But if you’re savvy enough with parallel parking, you can often find free parking on both sides of the Pacific Coast Highway. From there, you can hoof it to the sands; just use extreme caution as this is a famously busy thoroughfare.

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Go tide-pooling

Exploring the tide pools along the Southern California coast is a fascinating activity for travelers of all ages, and Malibu has some great spots for finding sea critters. The best pools are at Leo Carillo State Beach, where low tide brings out a host of sea creatures such as crabs, mussels, urchins and sea stars. The beach also has small caves and rock formations for little adventurers to explore.

The key to tide-pooling here, however, is to time your trip with low tide as high tide can come in quickly, trapping beachgoers against the cliffs. You can check a tide forecast for the area online. And remember: don't remove any of the tide pool animals – these vulnerable creatures can perish quickly out of water. As with most Malibu beaches, you'll have to pay to park, but if you can find a free space on the Pacific Coast Highway you can walk down to the beach from there.

People walk in the gardens at the Getty Villa, Malibu
Exploring the grand gardens at Getty Villa is like being transported to the Med © Santiparp Wattanaporn / Shutterstock

Visit Getty Villa

On the border of Malibu and Pacific Palisades, the Getty Villa is the former home of oil baron J Paul Getty, which has served as an antiquities museum since the 1970s. Free to visit, it’s an extension of the larger Getty Center in Los Angeles, but focuses on the arts and cultures of ancient Greece, Rome and Etruria.

The villa itself was inspired by an ancient dwelling in Italy, and has its very own Italian-style herb and shrub garden which faces out over the Pacific Ocean. With the ancient artifacts on display, the ocean vistas and the often sunny weather, a visit here feels like a quick trip to the Mediterranean. Free entrance requires a timed ticket; parking is available for a fee.

Swing by Malibu Cars & Coffee

With a winding coastal highway that serves up eye-widening ocean views, Malibu is a favorite destination for scenic drives, whether in a car or on a motorcycle. So it's natural that some of that driving culture would spill over into town. Every second and fourth Sunday morning, the City of Malibu invites car enthusiasts to Malibu Bluffs Park to show off and admire a collection of classic, custom, and just plain cool cars, for free.

Starting early at 7am – hence the need for coffee – this popular car show is different from the informal car collectors’ gathering that happens across the way at Malibu Country Mart (where Jay Leno is a frequent attendee) but you may still spot a celebrity or two. Be sure to check the Malibu Cars and Coffee website for the latest dates and times.

A humpback whale breaches out of the water off the California coast
Whales are regular winter visitors to the coast around Malibu © Chase Dekker / Shutterstock

Go whale-watching

Although there are occasional whale sightings in summer, winter is still the best chance to see whales off Malibu’s coast. December is the start of whale-watching season in Southern California, and cetaceans can be spotted right through until April. For a wide-angle view of the ocean, head up to Point Dume, where whales can be seen both from the sand and from on top of the point. Malibu Bluffs Park also has a great lookout point for whales – don’t forget to bring your binoculars!

For a better idea of how the whale migration is progressing, visit the American Cetacean Society’s website before heading to the shore. Beginning on December 1, researchers tally up whale sightings from their base in Palos Verdes, about an hour and a half south of Malibu.

Frederick R Weisman Museum of Art

At Pepperdine University, the interesting Frederick R Weisman Museum of Art features exhibitions of both historical and contemporary art by well-known artists. This small, carefully curated space tends to focus on the art of California and the United States, showcasing everything from paintings to sculptures. Tickets are free but you'll need to book a timed entry slot. Parking is free on campus but there are some specific directions to follow (see the website for details).

A group of friends walking along Malibu Pier in the sunshine
Malibu Pier is a classic slice of the California seaside © Maciej Bledowski / Shutterstock

Malibu Pier

If you can find parking on the Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu Pier can be a great place to see a happening part of Malibu without spending much money. You can fish without a permit or bring a picnic and watch the surfers tackle the waves at Surfrider Beach, before walking over to the Adamson House, a historic home on the edge of the Malibu Lagoon that offers a peek at life in Malibu at the turn of the 20th century.

The house runs tours for $7 ($5 for kids and free for those under five) but you can stroll the perimeter of the house for free, taking in the views and gardens. The pier is also a fine spot to watch the sunset, especially on a warm summer evening. If you can, wake up early for sunrise instead – you'll be one of just a few people on the pier soaking up Malibu’s morning glory.

Malibu Creek State Park

There are plenty of hiking trails winding through the Santa Monica Mountains, but Malibu Creek State Park has the most to offer. Sometimes described as  “The Yosemite of Southern California,” the park was formerly owned by a movie studio, 20th Century Fox, until 1976. Today, the 4.75 mile (7.6km) Crags Road trail takes hikers to the former set of the hit television show, M*A*S*H, where a few old props such as vehicles and medic tents can still be seen.

Mountain biking, rock climbing, horseback riding and kayaking in a small lake are also popular activities in the park. There's a fee for parking, but it’s cheaper than parking by the beach — prices range from $3 for an hour to $12 for an all-day pass. 

You may also like:
A guide to Malibu’s most fun neighborhoods
There’s never a bad time to visit Malibu
The best beaches in Malibu are a California dream

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