15 Free Things to Do in Modesto, CA

Free Things to Do in Modesto, CA
DenisTangneyJr / iStock.com

While this city in Stanislaus County near San Joaquin Valley, California, has less diverse natural attractions because of its dry climate, it has fantastic artificial attractions.

Explore Downtown Modesto’s gallery paintings and murals that elicit quirkiness and a child-like spirit.

Find yourself in awe of automobile displays and architectures that attract guests with a nostalgic vibe and elegance.

Alongside the old are modern buildings that give a refreshing and more youthful feeling around the city.

Start your journey with this list of free things to do in Modesto, California.

See England’s Architectural Influence on American Homes at McHenry Mansion

Outside  view of McHenry Mansion
Miguel Hermoso Cuesta, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The McHenry Mansion shows the High Victorian Italianate architecture, a relatively flash-in-the-pan style that spread from England to the United States of America.

It was initially inspired by the works of English architect Christopher Wren and the Renaissance in Italy, which the Americans altered into a simpler but still elegant look.

Less ornate than its European versions, the High Victorian Italianate style was prevalent in American homes from the 1850s to 1890s.

Its characteristics are a lack of sculpture-like and intricate decor on window frames and underneath the roof.

Dining Room at McHenry Mansion
Miguel Hermoso Cuesta, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The High Victorian Italianate style was preserved thanks to the Julio R. Gallo Foundation and the family of Robert and Matilda McHenry.

They owned the mansion, ran a bank, and owned several lots in Modesto, including a ranch.

The McHenry Mansion stands out with its clean, all-white paint facade and a large porch.

Before their home opened as a museum piece in 1983 in downtown Modesto, it served the community as an apartment house.

Most American homes were replaced by fancier-looking architecture as many people became wealthier after the Civil War and the rise of industrialization.

Learn Local History at McHenry Museum

A few steps from McHenry Mansion, the McHenry Museum shares slices of Modesto’s past.

It went from primarily a quiet, dry land into flourishing farmland and colorful social events venue.

The McHenry Museum shows the agricultural development in Modesto, from mostly planting wheat to diversifying into alfalfa, grapes, and nuts through the establishment of an irrigation system.

You can also see gold mining paraphernalia reminiscent of the Gold Rush in the 1840s when people from Europe, China, and other countries flocked to California in search of gold.

James Marshall, an American carpenter, was the first to spot gold along the American River in California.

Stop by the exhibit on American Graffiti which features a parade of colors in classic cars and drive-in restaurants, and the eponymous 1973 film from George Lucas.

This museum section evokes teenage party spirit, which filled the streets in the late 1950s or after World War II when the youth would show off economic prosperity and unwind by driving their cars around.

Oramil McHenry, son of banker and rancher Robert McHenry, took care of this property and initially visited it as a library.

Take Iconic Photos at George Lucas Plaza

Iconic movie director George Lucas is Modesto's most famous native son.

He awakened the audience’s sense of adventure with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and American Graffiti.

You can find the city's tribute to the director at George Lucas Plaza.

A bronze statue depicting a young man and a lady lounging atop the hood of a 1957 Chevrolet recreates a scene in American Graffiti.

It's a story about high school graduates who indulge in teenage life by cruising carefree in cars before they take on the challenges of adulthood.

The statue lies on a small, triangular park and is the first thing you’ll see upon exiting Needham Street, which forks out to Downey Avenue and 17th Street in Downtown Modesto.

The George Lucas Plaza invites you to rewatch Lucas’s classic films and take a peek into his creative mind.

Explore Vintage Cars at Graffiti USA Classic Car Museum

George Lucas’s film American Graffiti sparked the love of cars in many Americans and branded Modesto as one of the favorite places of car enthusiasts.

You can see this enthusiasm at the Graffiti USA Classic Car Museum.

In this 42,000-square-foot museum, you’ll see old cars and trucks in front of models of the old Downtown Modesto from the 1940s to 1960s.

The automobiles in bright, shiny colors sparkle with neon lights decorating the shops and restaurants in the recreated commercial area.

Despite the launch of computer-aided and sleek, minimalist cars in the modern world, old cars never fail to attract everyone with their irreplaceable charm.

You can find this fancy garage on N 9th Street near the United States Postal Service.

Take a Relaxing Stroll at the Gallo Center for the Arts

Exterior view of Gallo Center for the Arts
OsotedeMonte, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Walking has a lot of health benefits, especially around places with fascinating architecture and greenery.

They include having more energy, a positive mood, and deeper creative thinking.

You can get them at the Gallo Center for the Arts, which is magnificently inviting with its dome facade mostly made up of multiple tall, arched windows and glass double doors.

Trees with light green and mahogany colored leaves, landscaped bushes, benches, and lamp posts dot the entrance of the arts center, providing shade and a refreshing breeze.

At night, the place shines elegantly with warm yellow lights emanating from its walls and lamp posts and spreading over surrounding trees and bushes.

The Gallo Center for the Arts is also an excellent setting for a romantic stroll.

You can find this place beside Stanislaus County Superior Court.

Catch Concerts at Graceada Park

Everybody loves parks because they always have a space if you want to hang out alone or with others.

One of the best things you can do in a group at Graceada Park is watch the Modesto Band of Stanislaus County, more fondly called Mo Band.

Professor W.W. Higgins formed the band in 1919 with only eleven young boys.

The group later grew to 130 musician volunteers, including women.

Rich and harmonious sounds emanate from the Mancini Music Bowl, an amphitheater named after the band’s conductor and world-renowned clarinet player Frank Mancini.

Head toward Needham Street across Downtown Modesto to see the Mo Band play for free every summer and on six consecutive Thursdays at night starting mid-June.

Spend the day at the Graceada Park!

Ride a Bike at Virginia Corridor Trailway

The Virginia Corridor Trailway is a four-mile linear park, excellent for leisurely bike rides with its flat terrain and paved road, which is wide enough to fit three bikes.

It stretches alongside the old Tidewater Southern Railway line from Needham Avenue to Bangs Avenue.

Some parts have two lanes separated by an island.

The ride can take you about an hour to complete this route.

Along the way, you’ll see dog owners who also frequent this place to get some air and exercise.

Because only a few trees shade the Virginia Corridor Trailway, it’s a great place to get suntan and lots of Vitamin D.

The bright sunlight will also give you an energy boost throughout the day.

They say you only need food, water, clothing, and shelter.

But what makes life more enjoyable is art.

You’ll find plenty of art at the Mistlin Gallery, where cancer patients and survivors learn how to paint and share their artworks with the public.

The Central California Art Association founded the gallery in 1952 to help artists of any age and style show their pieces, which may be abstract, impressionist or fantastical.

Any topic is welcome.

Likewise, the gallery administrators get creative by launching contests on the best painting of anything you can think of under the sun, such as pets, riding bicycles, or dragons.

Enliven and please your senses with the gallery’s mosaic sculptures and invited musicians to play country and classical music.

You can enjoy various artworks at the Mistlin Gallery near Stanislaus County Superior Court in Downtown Modesto.

Take a Photo under the Modesto Arch

View of Modesto Arch
Matt Gush / Shutterstock.com

The humble-looking Modesto Arch, first used in 1912, welcomes visitors into a commercial strip along 9th Street, where you’ll find several restaurants and the Gallo Center for the Arts.

It’s made of metal in red-orange paint and has a basic design similar to the extended hand of a crane lined with LED bulbs and a placard in the middle that says: Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health.

These short welcome remarks sum up the history and culture of Modesto.

The land was once interlaced with railroads and enveloped by mountain ranges.

Later, it prospered with irrigation systems to water farms, parks, and houses in a community that delights in going around the city by foot, bike or in a car.

Beyond an arch display, those four words might also be great advice on how one should look at life.

Pose for a photo before passing the Modesto Arch!

Have a Picnic at Freedom Park

The vast Freedom Park invites you to roll out your picnic mats or blankets, and lounge on the expansive lawn areas.

Breathe fresh air while listening to music, chatting with your friends or family, or simply letting your mind wander.

If you want some privacy, you can set up a tent and get some quiet as kids might play gleefully in the nearby playground and basketball court.

The park is dotted with flowering trees in yellow, white, and red, bushes, and pines.

A water fountain also fills the air with its relaxing alternating whoosh and sprinkling sound.

A pond adds to the serenity and cool temperature of the place.

Visit Sharon Avenue and spend quality time with your family and friends at Freedom Park.

Tour Modesto Junior College

Performing Arts Center at Modesto Junior College
Ryanx7, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Established a century ago, Modesto Junior College combines traditional and modern architectures, seen in its 63 buildings and facilities.

On the one hand, the Student Services Building is modern with its wide, slanting all-glass canopy at the entrance.

It was made interesting by its grid design, with sleek, sharp lines and shapes echoing in the building.

On the other hand, the Great Valley Museum has a more traditional-looking facade with mostly box frames, except for the planetarium area.

Many exhibits are worth exploring, such as plant and animal specimens and space elements.

You can take a look at the other buildings and facilities in East Campus and West Campus on foot or by bike, passing through several parks, sports facilities, and art halls.

You can find Modesto Junior College on W. Morris Avenue in north Modesto.

Play Disc Golf at East La Loma Park

Sharpen your hand and eye coordination at the 27-hole disc golf course at East La Loma Park.

Instead of a small ball and a hole in the ground, you will throw a disc and land it on a metal pole with a head that looks like a basketball net with a round tray underneath, which catches your disc.

Giant oak and smaller trees serve as the players’ obstacles and shade for other visitors.

This park also has a children’s playground for younger visitors.

Fill your weekend with fun and stimulating activities around the one-mile East La Loma Park on Edgebrook Drive.

Take a Hike in Dry Creek Regional Park

Pass by oak trees and eucalyptus trees as you hike the 4.7-mile trail at the Dry Creek Regional Park.

The dry and a bit sandy trail is easy on the knees as the terrain gently rolls alongside the creek’s dark green water.

A few footbridges make the ambiance more scenic and exciting, along with some underpasses.

Feel the serenity around the Dry Creek Regional Park with the tickling sound of birds chirping.

At some point, the swoosh of mountain bikers also enjoying the trail will infuse you with a dose of energy to keep you moving and finish the route.

Collect Photos in Downtown Modesto

Street view of Downtown Modesto
Matt Gush / Shutterstock.com

Go for a walk and take photos of over 100 artworks along the streets of Downtown Modesto.

You’ll find contemporary, caricature-like, and splashes of bright colors on the walls depicting a wide range of topics.

These artworks portray people, animals, cars, tourist attractions in Modesto, Star Wars characters, word art, and rural and urban life.

Some murals are products of the DoMo program, which invites painters worldwide to share their creativity on the city streets.

Initially, the program was launched as a competition; now, it’s simply a social gathering of artists mixing deliberate and carefree strokes into art.

You can download a mural itinerary to start your mural walk and get you excited with art explosions on the walls of every corner in Downtown Modesto.

Let your child-like spirit dictate your poses and camera angles.

Try Crafts at Modesto Certified Farmers’ Market

Have an educational and artistic day with your kids at the Modesto Certified Farmers' Market on 16th Street near Graceada Park.

The market organizers hold kids’ craft activities for free every month.

The Modesto Certified Farmers’ Market was created in 1979 by former Mayor Peggy Mensinger to bring fresh produce to the community faster and at more affordable prices.

Moreover, the market has evolved into a welcoming place where people can meet new friends, learn together, and even catch live performances.

Besides collecting family-bonding memories, your kids might learn how to eat healthier when you visit this market.

Final Thoughts

Modesto prides itself on creating a strong community where families and people with specific interests can share activities.

You can easily find yourself mingling with locals and collecting memories of cars, murals, building architecture, kid’s crafts, and live performances.

You can also quickly find a more private space in the city’s several parks where natural sceneries and sounds take center stage.

Plan your trip today and discover the free things to do in Modesto, California!

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