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Free Things to Do Around and About San Diego

There's a lot to do in San Diego and it will cost you nothing.


Tough economic times make for some imaginative ways to entertain yourself or your family, especially to find things that cost, well, nothing. Luckily, we live in San Diego and we are blessed with a slew of natural attractions that we often take for granted. But we also have some not-so-known things available that are surprisingly free to do. So, here a few suggestions to help out your entertainment budget. And if you come across any other free things to do in San Diego, send me a line at sandiego@aboutguide.com

The Beaches

They are San Diego's greatest natural assets and San Diegans love their beaches. Sometimes we take them for granted that we forget that our miles of sandy shoreline are free every day of the year to enjoy. Whether it's for sunbathing, swimming, surfing, picnicking or people watching, our beaches provide entertainment to no end. There's surfing at Windansea, the boardwalk of Pacific and Mission beaches, Dog Beach at Ocean Beach, family friendly Coronado and La Jolla Shores, the grassy park areas of Mission Bay - San Diego's beaches are our most treasured natural resource. It's what makes San Diego what it is, and why we live here. And it's free for everyone to enjoy in a multitude of ways.

Balboa Park

OK, if San Diego's beaches are its greatest natural attraction, then Balboa Park comes a very close second. They jewel of public open space is cherished by anyone who appreciates its natural beauty as well as all the recreational and cultural activities offered within its vast acreage. Pack a lunch and head over to stroll along the picturesque El Prado museum row, or let the kids romp at the Pepper Grove play area, hike along the miles of Balboa Park trails, or enjoy free classical concerts at the outdoor Organ Pavilion. And don't forget Free Tuesdays, where museums open their doors for free every Tuesday each month (on a rotating basis). Recreation AND culture is for free in Balboa Park.

TNT at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

One common perception is that art is inaccessible to the general public. But the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego does something cool to open up art to the public. On the first Thursday of every month*, the MCASD hosts TNT (Thursday Night Thing), an ongoing program of intriguing events in MCASD's Downtown galleries. Beginning at 7 p.m., something different and interesting will be happening downtown — from slide jams, DJ lessons, and poetry readings to live bands, artists' talks, and video projections — TNT's eclectic events will be occasions to interact with the arts and artists in the San Diego region. (*Except for January, when TNT takes a winter break). It is free, but a $3 donation is suggested of non-members.

San Diego Public Libraries

Sometimes free things are right under our nose, in our immediate neighborhoods. And we forget sometimes that our local neighborhood library branch offers up numerous free events and activities on a weekly basis. Whether its storytelling for children, or book clubs, or lectures, or film screenings, the San Diego city and county libraries provide lots of activities to keep you occupied and interested. Oh yeah, and don't forget the stuff that we head to libraries for: books, CDs and DVDs - all for free to check out (unless you're late returning them).

Free Kids Birthday Parties at IKEA San Diego

Everyone who has shopped at the San Diego IKEA in Mission Valley knows how budget friendly it is when it comes to home furnishings, and it is one of those few retail stores that is extremely kid-friendly. So, even though it isn't readily known, it comes as no surprise that IKEA hosts free kids birthday parties on the first Tuesday of every month. The party is for all children turning 10 years old or younger during the selected attended party date. Each birthday child is allowed to invite two of their friends to the party. Event includes face painting, a magic show, soda, and cake. Plus, each birthday child will receive a gift from IKEA. Please call (619)283-6166, ext#1330 to reserve a place at the party. Pretty cool, huh?

Ray at Night Artwalk in North Park

To local art lovers, Ray Street in North Park is known as a vibrant hub of art galleries and studios. And on the second Saturday of every month, this narrow, one-way street off of University Avenue, just east of 30th Street becomes Ray at Night, a gallery art walk event drawing over 1,500 people. From 6 to 9 p.m., you’ll find a wide variety of artwork on display including paintings, sketches, sculptures, ceramics, blown glass, organic art and jewelry. There is often entertainment at the event – everything from jazz, blues and cultural music to poetry readings and performances by dance groups. Since it’s inception in 2001, Ray at Night has steadily grown to over two-dozen businesses participating. It's a great way to discover North Park.

Sea World Fireworks

The good thing about fireworks displays is that if you have a good vantage point, you can see them for free. And if you had down to Mission Bay from April through September, you can "ooh" and "ahh" at the Sea World fireworks display. Here is the 2009 fireworks schedule: April 4-19, 8:50 p.m.; April 25, 9 p.m.; April 26, 9:15 p.m.; May 2-17, weekends 9 p.m.; May 23-24, 9:50 p.m.; May 25, 8:50 p.m.; May 30-June 7, weekends 9:50 p.m.; June 13-July 2, 9:50 p.m.; July 3-5, 9:30 p.m. (30 minute holiday special); July 6-Aug. 16, 9:50 p.m.; Aug. 17-21, 8:50 p.m.; Aug. 22-23, 9:50 p.m.; Aug. 24-28, 8:50 p.m.; Aug. 29-30, 9:50 p.m.; Sept. 5-6, 9:50 p.m.; Sept. 7, 8:50 p.m.

Stargazing at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

Before the word became associated with following dubious celebrities, star gazing meant watching the celestial sky show. And one of the greatest thrills for a beginning backyard astronomer is to view the heavens through a telescope. At dusk on the first Wednesday of each month, following the monthly "Sky Tonight" planetarium show in the Space Theater, members of the SDAA set up telescopes on the north side of the Fleet Center building, by the large fountain in Balboa Park, for free public sky viewing. Though the sky is not as dark and clear as one might hope, viewers can enjoy a variety of sights, from the moon and planets to the brighter stars.

Old Town State Park Tours

Old Town State Park is one of San Diego's most popular attractions, and because it's a tourist stop, we forget that it is a genuine historical center and not something that has been fabricated. And though you can wander around on your own and discover early San Diego amid the retail storefronts, you can take part in free educational tours. Park aides lead these informative and friendly tours. No reservations necessary; just show up at the Old Town visitor’s center at the Robinson Rose building on the plaza. Tours are free.

Kids Eat Free Tuesdays at Pat & Oscar's

Pat & Oscar's is known locally for its simple, affordable and tasty family style food. On Tuesdays, the restaurant chain makes it even more budget friendly by letting kids eat free. On Tuesdays, diners at all of Pat & Oscar’s 19 Southern California locations will receive a free Just For Kids Meal with any adult purchase of $5 or more (limit one free Just For Kids meal per person and purchase). The three Just For Kids meals (Pasta, Pizza or Chicken) are accompanied by a variety of side dishes, including veggie sticks, trans-fat-free potato wedges and breadsticks. Just For Kids meals also include an activity book filled with games, puzzles, coloring programs and more.
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