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Budget-friendly travel doesn’t have to mean giving up the finer things in life. From a 17th century masterpiece to a sci-fi hybrid of technology and art, San Diego has plenty of places to engage your mind and stretch your dollar.
Besides the ocean and sunshine, Balboa Park is one of the region’s most popular attractions, beloved by residents and visitors alike. The natural beauty is heightened by the park’s signature events, many of which are completely free. Every weekend the House of Pacific Relations, a consortium of 34 cottages representing different countries, opens up to share art, food and cultural dialogue. Free special events include the Fiesta Botanica, Make Music Day, Parkeology, Balboa Park After Dark and December Nights. And seven days a week, the brightly-colored cobblestones of Spanish Village will lure you in to watch artists at work.
With weather that’s nearly perfect year-round, it’s no surprise that visitors can find a free festival or artwalk event almost every weekend. There’s the Mission Federal ArtWalk, which fills 17 blocks in the Little Italy neighborhood; the Sun & Sea Festival in Imperial Beach, where shovels, buckets and trowels produce an amazing array of sand sculptures; the funky Art Around Adams in Normal Heights, and the music + beer + art + craft + food festival that is North Park’s San Diego County Credit Union Festival of Arts. Monthly gallery crawls include Ray at Night in North Park and Friday Night Liberty at Point Loma’s ARTS DISTRICT Liberty Station.
Others to explore: Solana Beach’s Fiesta del Sol, Escondido’s Grand Avenue Festival, Oceanside’s Days of Art, and Liberty Station’s Latin American Art Festival.
San Diego’s unpretentious vibe extends to the local galleries. Show up at the opening reception in designer heels or flip-flops; you’ll be welcomed either way. Favorites are the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla (don’t miss their annual juried exhibition of local talent), Quint Gallery’s experimental warehouse in the Bay Ho neighborhood where A-list artists are given room to play, La Jolla Historical Society, San Diego Central Library, William D. Cannon Art Gallery in Carlsbad, Bread & Salt and La Bodega Gallery in Barrio Logan, and Sparks Gallery in the Gaslamp Quarter.
Street art is free to begin with, but it’s even better when you know the story behind the pictures. The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library offers walking tours of the Murals of La Jolla, led by project curator Lynda Forsha. Hanging out with one of San Diego’s most knowledgeable art insiders is a gift in itself. Tours take place on the last Wednesday of every month, and reservations are recommended.
Imagine yourself dancing salsa under the stars, or swing dancing on a rooftop terrace with the city skyline for a backdrop. Don’t know a razz m'tazz from a rock step? No problem – friendly volunteers are ready to help. Salsa sessions take place at the Headquarters at Seaport Village, and the swing dancing is held under the Central Library’s iconic dome. If dancing’s not your thing but music is, you’ll find free concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park, Coronado’s Ferry Landing, Point Loma Park, Del Mar’s Powerhouse Park, and the ARTS DISTRICT Liberty Station. Between October and March, San Diego Opera performs “Opera on the Concourse” at noon in front of San Diego Civic Theatre.
One of the best ways to spend a relaxing afternoon is sprawling on the grass in the San Diego Museum of Art’s sculpture garden, watching George Warren Rickey’s kinetic “Two Lines Oblique” as it sways in the breeze. Look for works by Joan Miró, Auguste Rodin and Louise Nevelson in the plaza in front of the museum, part of the “Art of the Open Air” exhibition on view through February 2018.
Queen Califia’s Magical Circle, located in Escondido, is the only American sculpture garden created by artist Niki de Saint Phalle. San Diego County is a hotspot for Saint Phalle’s art, as she lived in La Jolla for the last eight years of her life.
The abuelito of open-air art, Chicano Park, features more than 80 murals and sculptures, blending history and cultural pride with bold graphics and brilliant colors.
The acclaimed Stuart Collection turns the campus of the University of California San Diego into one big sculpture park. Don’t miss the opportunity to tour Do Ho Suh’s vertiginous “Fallen Star” for free on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The newest addition, John Luther Adams’ musical “Wind Garden,” is embedded in a eucalyptus grove just west of the La Jolla Playhouse. It will be formally unveiled later in 2017 but you can sneak a listen now. Pack your walking shoes if you want to hit all 19 pieces in the collection. You’ll log more than three miles on your pedometer in the process!
They’re a little bit trickier to find and parking can be a challenge, but adventurous art-goers will enjoy the rewards offered by San Diego’s university and community college galleries. Expect a mind-boggling intersection of art, science and tech at the UC San Diego Gallery@CalIT2, short for the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. San Diego State University’s Downtown Gallery is conveniently located on West Broadway near the downtown waterfront, but the campus also maintains four galleries within the School of Art + Design. Others worth seeking out are the University of San Diego, City College, Mesa College and Grossmont College.
For hilarious, soul-baring, deeply real and occasionally raunchy stories about life in SoCal, look to the literary and performing arts group So Say We All, particularly their VAMP series (Visual/Audio Monologue Performance). Topics range from what it means to be a military vet in today’s world, to roommate horrors, to “putting the fun in funeral.” Most events are free or $5 suggested donation. Looking for something more kid-friendly? The San Diego Shakespeare Society holds informal readings and discussion, accompanied by tea, scones and jam, on the third Sunday of every month at the Central Library.
The Timken Museum earned its reputation as a “jewel box of fine art,” thanks to an exquisite collection of European and American masterpieces and Russian icons, presented under natural light in a striking midcentury modern building. Key pieces include Francisco de Zurbarán’s “Saint Francis in Meditation,” John Singleton Copley’s “Portrait of Margaret Kemble Gage,” and Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Saint Bartholomew.”
Other free museums around town are the Coronado Museum of History and Art, and the New Americans Museum in Point Loma. In Balboa Park, the Museum of Photographic Arts and the San Diego History Center have “pay what you wish” policies, while the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego offers free admission and tours during their monthly Downtown at Sundown event.
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