Such a Deal
By Virginia Butterfield
Additional research by Kara Edwards
Most things cost money. Not a lot, but something: $2 ... $5. But we decided to be firm. Free is free. No money. Nada. And we still turned up a host of interesting ways to spend your time and keep money in your pocket. Many of the freebies were found outdoors—which is okay in a place like San Diego, where outdoors is where you want to be when you’re looking for something to do.
San Diego County has 70 miles of beaches, all open to the public. Swimming spots come in all varieties, from bustling beaches (like Mission Beach) crowded with volleyball games and Frisbee enthusiasts to quieter beaches (North County coves) where a chair and a good book are all you need for a relaxing afternoon.
Looking for tidepools is another matter. The three we recommend are in Point Loma, La Jolla and Cardiff. Locate a tide schedule so you can visit at low tide. The Point Loma tidepools are just short of Cabrillo Point (where you would have had to pay a parking fee). You’ll see people strolling among the tidepools, heads lowered, stooping now and then to study a pool full of sea creatures.
Cardiff offers a very private beach (parking costs can be averted by finding a spot on Highway 101) with immense cliffs and glorious pools extending out into the ocean. It’s also a great spot for watching the surfers. You’re so close, sunlight flashes through the waves, setting up good photo opportunities. La Jolla Cove is famous for its tidepools and gets the lion’s share of attention.
Aside from coastal haunts, the best place in San Diego for freebies is Balboa Park. The Timken Museum (next to the Botanical Gardens), containing valuable woks by old masters, is always free. The other park museums are free on rotating Tuesdays.
First Tuesday: San Diego Natural History Museum, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, San Diego Model Railroad Museum.
Second Tuesday: Museum of San Diego History.
Third Tuesday: San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Museum of Man, Mingei International Museum of Folk Art.
Fourth Tuesday: San Diego Aerospace Museum, San Diego Automotive Museum, House of Pacific Relations, Cottages and Hall of Nations films.
One caveat: When the museums have big shows, like the Museum of Art’s recent Monet exhibit or the Museum of Natural History’s upcoming “Diamonds” show, don’t expect to be admitted free. You can tour the rest of the museum, but not the $10 and $15 special exhibits.
Another caveat: On the fifth Tuesday, if you’re unlucky enough to be there when the month holds a fifth Tuesday, all bets are off. Normal museum admission prices are in effect.
Other museums around town offer similar free days. In La Jolla, the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (454-3541), is free on the first Sunday and first Tuesday; the downtown branch offers the same deal (and this includes the Museum of Photographic Arts, which is sharing downtown quarters with MCA this year during MOPA’s expansion).
People argue a lot about parking in Balboa Park. It’s true, you can circle the park forever on a Sunday and find no available parking. The lots are probably full (behind the Alcazar Garden, the Organ Pavilion, the History Museum, the Aerospace Museum), and the outlying streets are jammed. But don’t give up. Cross over Park Boulevard and leave your car in the old Naval Hospital parking lot, then take the complimentary tram back. The tram runs every eight minutes (four minutes in summer) and circles the park, stopping at all the attractions. It even stops at food stations (they’re not free, naturally).
But the finest bonuses in the park are the tours. Free tours. On Saturday mornings at 10, gather at the Botanical Gardens and spend an hour or two with a guide and about 20 to 30 other eager people. The guides are great. They know every detail of the historical buildings and every palm and ficus tree on the nature walks. These are called “Offshoot” tours and are led by volunteers. Ranger tours, conducted by members of the park staff, meet at l p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays at the House of Hospitality and are equally packed with detail.
There are eight gardens in Balboa Park, and seven are free: Palm Canyon, Alcazar, the Botanical Building, Desert Garden (1,000 plants, across Park Boulevard), the Rose Garden (also across Park), the Zoro Garden (where butterflies hang out) and Gulch Canyon, sprayed with wildflowers. Only the Japanese Friendship Garden charges admission.
The other seven are self-guided, but you can pick up descriptions at the visitors center, which is centrally located in the Casa de Balboa. The Rose Garden is radically pruned in the early part of the year but is beautiful starting in March. Just off El Prado, the butterfly garden contains chrysalises hanging on stone walls or plants, and the colorful butterflies themselves when they emerge from their cocoons.
Seaport Village offers hours of strolling and relaxed fun, but parking is $2. However, it’s not impossible to park on neighboring streets in front of fancy condos. Thousands of visitors stroll the boardwalk each weekend, gazing longingly at the yachts moored at the Marriott Marina and looking across the bay at enormous aircraft carriers. Clowns perform in regular free shows, and if you can avoid paying for balloons, face-painting and snacks, it’s a day of unparalleled thrifty fun.
Old Town is another such locale, full of Mexican lore, free flamenco dancing and opportunities to stroll through shops. Once again, parking can be tricky, and we can’t guarantee you’ll pass up the edibles. But you can wander free through the historic buildings in Old Town State Historic Park, among them the blacksmith shop, the Seeley Stables, the Stewart House, the Estudillo House and the oldest schoolhouse in San Diego. They’re open every day (except the Estudillo House, closed on Mondays).
Meet in front of Seeley’s barn at 10:30 a.m. or at 2 p.m. for free walking tours of Old Town (220-5422). And if you’re in the Gaslamp Quarter, there are gratis walking tours of downtown at 1 p.m. on Saturdays (235-2222).
Hiking and bike riding are great all over the county, but for hiking we recommend Mission Trails Regional Park, a huge area just south of Highway 52 in East County (582-7800); for mountain biking, Rose Canyon, also south of Highway 52 (but closer to I-5).
LAWN BOWLINGLet’s assume you want to acquire some unusual skills in your spare time. For free, of course. Start again in Balboa Park. Here you can learn lawn bowling on Fridays, when the Lawn Bowling Club meets. They’ll teach beginners the fundamentals—and at first, you don’t even have to wear white. Of course, the idea is that you’ll get better and become a regular member, so don’t expect to be a free beginner forever. The lawn-bowling group hopes to offer wheelchair-friendly lessons in the future, but first they have to provide a bathroom. That takes money; it will come about eventually.
You can learn fly-fishing at Lake Murray on Sunday mornings from 9 till noon. Go to the lower parking lot where the concession stand is. They only have eight or 10 outfits to loan out, so if you don’t bring your own gear, get there early (486-4832).
How about laying tile or installing cabinets? Home Depot has do-it-yourself clinics four times a day on Saturday and Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. There is no charge. You can learn lighting, plumbing, composting, repairing your roof. Then, from October to January, there’s “Monday night no football” at 7 p.m., when non-fans can learn how to hang wallpaper or install flooring.
One definite advantage to all these classes: You can use their tools and decide if you can handle the job before you buy a lot of product and try it yourself. The classes are held in each store, so contact your local Home Depot. Kids’ classes are twice a month for children ages 5 to 12. It’s great to see kids making wooden birdhouses—for free.
Here’s another skill—photography. And an even more specialized skill—underwater photography. Everybody’s welcome at 7:30 p.m. meetings on the fourth Thursday of every month, held by the Underwater Photographic Society in Sumner Auditorium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. All present (even visitors) show their photographs of sharks or kelp or whatever, and the shots are studied by the group. Competition is held among three different categories: novices, amateurs and advanced. The photographs are screened for comment in a nonthreatening way, and the second half of every meeting features a speaker of some renown. Then, one of the best freebies of all: You can actually get underwater training in photography at a pool in Pacific Beach. Bring your camera. Web site: www.personal.isat.com/sdups.
To learn nature photography, the Sierra Club Photographic Section (437-8079) meets at the Tierrasanta Recreation Center at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of the month. There’s a featured speaker at every meeting, and all skill levels are welcome.
Looking for free ways to spend your time is not an exercise in idleness. It’s true, you hope to fill a few hours with entertaining opportunities. But some of these really challenge the mind. Take stargazing. Did you know the San Diego Astronomy Association (645-8940) sets up telescopes at the fountain in front of the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater at 7:30 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month, weather permitting?
And at the observatory at Mount Laguna in the Cleveland National Forest (594-6182), you can study the sky through the 21-inch telescope Friday and Saturday nights, Memorial Day through Labor Day. At 6,100 feet, it’s a great viewing site close to the city (45 miles east on Highway 8, then north on Sunrise Highway); yet the marine layer sits over the city lights and muffles their brightness.
At Palomar Observatory in North County, operated by the folks from Cal Tech in Pasadena, you can access their museum and look through the telescope during the day, but not at night. Still, it’s a great place to get a general education in astronomy, 9-4 daily (760-742-2119).
Have you ever wondered what the Supercomputer is all about? There was a big splash when San Diego got it—but what the heck is it? The San Diego Supercomputer Center at UCSD offers public tours every Friday. The 45-minute walk includes a visit to the Supercomputer room and visualization lab. Free tours, free parking (534-5000 for reservations).
While you’re thinking of UCSD, take a tour of the campus at 2 p.m. on the second, fourth or fifth Sunday of each month. A mini-bus tour is available at 2 p.m. the first and third Sundays, with wheelchair accessibility on request (call 534-5000). Parking is free on weekends.
Have you seen the Stuart Collection of outdoor sculpture at UCSD? There’s Terry Allen’s Trees, including a talking tree and a musical tree. You’ll be dazzled by Niki de Saint Phalle’s Sun God, a giant sculpture covered in bright tiles. (Her work is, at present, featured on the lawn of the Mingei Museum.) Don’t overlook the stone architectural forms the students have dubbed “Stonehenge,” by Richard Fleischner. Or Elizabeth Murray’s 12-foot Red Shoe hidden in a eucalyptus grove.
The university’s Department of Theatre and Dance offers free previews of its drama productions at the Mandell Weiss theaters on campus. The no-charge evening is usually the Tuesday before opening night (822-3152); there is a fee for parking.
At USD, the famous Catholic university featuring Spanish colonial architecture, a guided walk around the grounds will tell you more about early California architecture than you ever thought you needed to know. The campus is beautiful and the tours are free, held on the third Saturday of each month. Reservations are required (260-4659).
Each year, USD’s “Walk on Water” attracts engineering-minded types who combine curiosity about “powered buoyancy shoes” with a sense of humor. Engineering students are invited to cross USD’s Olympic-size pool in shoes they invent—made of plastic foam, cardboard or plastic pop bottles, for instance—without falling in the pool. The teams are from colleges, universities and high schools; spectators are welcome (260-4627).
San Diego’s red trolleys are free once a year: New Year’s Eve. It’s the night for free rides; many cab companies offer the same service, and some towing companies will even tow your car so you don’t have to go back and get it the next day. In the same spirit, most convenience stores offer free coffee that night.
For North County residents and visitors, Escondido is a great place to find free entertainment. Grape Day Park, adjacent to the California Center for the Arts, is a treasure house of free displays; there’s a fully furnished Victorian house, a blacksmith shop and the old train station with a museum outlining the history of Escondido. Exhibits are open Thursday through Saturday, 1-4 p.m. (760-741-4691).
For many years, September’s Grape Day Festival parade was second only to the Rose Parade, it was claimed. The city has recently opened a new Wilderness Area for hikers on the old Daley Ranch. And there’s always the battlefield at San Pasqual, not far from the Wild Animal Park. It’s open Thursday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a reenactment of the Mexican-American war battle once a year in December (220-5430). Free, free, free.
The Weisman Collection (paintings from Los Angeles) is free on first Wednesdays at the California Center for the Arts Museum (760-839-4138). The Escondido Culture Crawl is a yearly event guiding art lovers to galleries all over the city.
Whatever happened to the chance to tour a milk factory and get a free ice cream when you leave? It’s alive and well at the Hollandia Dairy in San Marcos (622 East Mission Road). Tours are arranged Monday through Friday mornings, but places must be reserved. Hollandia has 1,000 cows in the fields, a milk barn, a maternity ward and cow showers. Ask for JoAnne (760-744-3222).
And of course, there are free winery tours. Orfila Winery (760-738-6500) has a guided tour at 2 every afternoon. You’ll walk past their crush pads, the bottling line, the fermentation tanks and the vineyards themselves. It’s on San Pasqual Road. Nearby Deerpark and Ferrara have self-conducted tours, and there are dozens of wineries in Temecula, 15 miles away.
The tour of Callaway Golf is well worth the time, even if you’re not a golfer. It takes about an hour, and you’ll see how golf clubs are made. It’s much more complicated than you may think (760-931-1771).
Unfortunately, some of our biggest attractions—the Wild Animal Park and SeaWorld—don’t have free days, but did you know the zoo has one free day a year, on the anniversary of the birth of the Zoological Society? It’s the first Monday in October. All of October is free to kids 11 and under (234-3153).
Cox Communications sponsors the free Sunset Cinema Film Festival in San Diego during the summer. Floating barges bring film favorites to waterfront parks around the county (263-9251).
Free music seems to fill the air in parks and shopping malls. Concerts by the Sea in La Jolla (645-8115) are on Sunday afternoons in Scripps Park. Chula Vista sponsors pop concerts in Memorial Bowl on summer Sundays at 4 p.m. (691-5140); the Chula Vista Center offers jazz concerts at 2 on Saturdays during the summer (422-7500). Coronado has Music in the Park every Sunday from June till September at 6 p.m. in Spreckels Park.
SDSU’s Smith Hall is the Wednesday noon venue for multiple concerts, both music and dance—but it’s not easy to know ahead of time who will be playing. Tuesday through Thursday evenings include a good showing of university talent at 7 p.m. (594-6020).
Organ recitals are every Sunday afternoon at 2 in the Spreckels Pavilion in Balboa Park, and many San Diegans sit on the grass or occupy the seats in the pavilion to listen (702-8138).
The San Diego Opera (232-7636) offers hour-long free programs at midday in the Community Concourse Plaza. Artists in current productions sing numbers from Così fan tutti, Hansel and Gretel, A Masked Ball. They’re not in costume, and the selections are sometimes very informal, including pop tunes. But it’s a great brown-bag event for office workers looking for a place to lunch. Unfortunately, the season is short; the remaining dates are March 11, April 15 and May 6. If it rains or is unseasonably chilly, find your way into the Beverly Sills Salon of the Civic Theatre.
Want to learn to dance? We found many places for very little money ... $2 and $3 ... but remember our resolution? Even $2 disqualifies. We found two places to learn country dancing absolutely free. At In Cahoots, a Mission Valley nightclub, the amateur hoofing starts every evening at 6 p.m. The cover charge comes on at 8 p.m., but if you’re already inside, you don’t have to pay. Now that’s a deal (291-8635). And Leo’s Little Bit of Country in San Marcos offers complimentary lessons Thursdays from 7 to 8:30—but get there before 7, when the $3 cover charge goes into effect (760-744-4120).
So ... if you can’t find something to do for no money in San Diego, you’re not trying. The city is full of opportunity, and people who are already gung-ho about their hobbies and their surroundings are just waiting for you to join them. We hope you’ll take advantage of all the free things that are offered in this great city—and keep those dollars in your pocket.
Photographs by Stephen Simpson