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Originally published June 8, 2013 at 7:03 PM | Page modified June 10, 2013 at 9:48 AM

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Travel Wise / California culture on the cheap

Time your visit to days when San Francisco and other big-city museums offer free or discounted admission.

Special to The Seattle Times

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The lines were so long outside San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences on one of its free Sundays, I gave up on seeing the albino alligators and took a walk through Golden Gate Park instead.

There was less competition to view original drawings of Little Lulu and Beetle Bailey comic strips at the Cartoon Art Museum on a first Tuesday “Pay as you Wish’’ day. And there was no wait at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, also free that day.

Time your California vacation to the days when many museums waive admission charges and you’ll feast on the cultural equivalent of a free lunch.

Just be aware that, depending on the venue, the line might stretch around the block. Another caveat: Free entry usually applies only to a museum’s permanent collection; special exhibits often cost extra.

San Francisco

For those looking for culture on the cheap, the first week of each month is a good time to visit.

Many museums are free on first Tuesdays. Plan ahead by checking sf.funcheap.com and sanfrancisco.travel.

Bank of America and Merrill Lynch credit- and debit-cardholders get free admission on the first weekend to selected museums throughout California, including San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, the de Young Museum, Legion of Honor and the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland. For a full list, see museums.bankofamerica.com .

The Asian Art Museum waives admission charges on first Sundays, and the California Academy of Sciences, housing an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum, waives its regular $29.95 fee ($34.95 May 25-Sept. 2) on four Sundays throughout the year. The next ones are Sept. 29 and Dec. 8.

Warning: The museum’s average Sunday attendance doubles from 4,000 to more than 8,000 on free days. (Tip: Best time is after 2 p.m.).

Less crowded and a bargain are the academy’s weekly Thursday adults-only “NightLife’’ programs. Admission drops to $12 starting at 6 p.m. Local bands entertain while visitors wander through the exhibits, noshing and sipping gin and tonics until 10 p.m.

Los Angeles

Many Los Angeles museums are always free, including the Getty Center and California Science Center. Free on second Tuesdays and certain holidays is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) waives admission fees each Thursday from 5-8 p.m. at its Grand Avenue location. Plan to arrive early and take a free tour of the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall next door.

One of the best all-around free art happenings takes place on the streets of downtown L.A. People-watching is at its best during the Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk (downtownartwalk.org ) every second Thursday. More ideas at discoverlosangeles.com.

San Diego

Museums inside San Diego’s Balboa Park are free to local residents on various Tuesdays; Non-locals must pay, but the park sells a day pass that allows adults to visit up to five of 14 museums for $39 (balboapark.org ).

Both the downtown and La Jolla locations of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego are free on third Thursdays from 5 to 7 p.m. The collection includes 4,000 works created after 1950, including a stellar display of Pop art from the 1960s and ’70s.

The San Diego Children’s Museum grants free admission on second Sundays. More suggestions at sandiego.org.

Both the Springs and Palm Desert locations of the Palm Springs Art Museum are free Thursdays from 4 to 8 p.m. and on the second Sunday of each month. See visitpalmsprings.com.

Carol Pucci is a Seattle freelance writer. Contact her at travel@carolpucci.com. Web/blog: www.carolpucci.com. Twitter: @carolpucci.

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