In the land of splashy pool parties and Hollywood movie studios, swag reigns supreme — but you don’t have to be red carpet royalty to get things for free. Here, some tips and tricks for seeing LA's must-see spots – and maybe the stars — for a bargain.
Go for a hike
Nobody walks in LA, they say. But boy do they hike. Hit the trails with the actors, trainers, dog lovers and all-around beautiful (and fit) people at Runyon Canyon Park for a great workout and city vistas, or take the shorter trek from Trails Café in Griffith Park to the Griffith Observatory (a location in Rebel Without a Cause) and get a view of downtown. Check out TreePeople, a local nonprofit (working to make the city more sustainable) and its very own 45-acre park for a self-guided tour, or if you can spare $5, a moonlight hike or doggie walk. Crave a more urban adventure? Go for a stroll through some of LA’s ethnic enclaves, including Little Armenia, Little Ethiopia, Little Tokyo, Koreatown, Chinatown and Thai Town – you might even catch a street festival.
Check out the architecture
The city is known for its midcentury modern houses and striking landmark buildings by big-name architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry. Explore its architectural treasures on foot with Free LA Tours, which takes you to Gehry’s stainless steel Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Egyptian Revival splendor of the Los Angeles Country Library, the starkly modernist Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the Art Deco City Hall (which has a killer view from the 27th-floor observation deck) and the stately Bradbury Building, which was featured in The Artist, (500) Days of Summer and Blade Runner. For insight into LA’s great modernist tradition, stop by the Mak Center for Art and Architecture, in Rudolph M. Schindler's historic 1922 West Hollywood home – admission is free on Fridays from 4 to 6 p.m., on International Museum Day in May, and on September 10th, Rudolph's b-day. The Big Lebowski fans should waltz on over to Greystone Estate in Beverly Hills to tour the grounds of millionaire Lebowski's mansion.
See the stars (if you're lucky)
Star-struck? Follow the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard to the historic forecourt of the TCL Chinese Theater, or see the final resting place of A-listers like Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille and Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, or jazz stars Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles at the Inglewood Park Cemetery (about a half hour outside town). For prime celeb viewing, try the lobby of the Chateau Marmont, the rooftop of the Ace Hotel, the Tower Bar, the Brentwood Country Mart or Malibu Country Mart, or Saddle Ranch on Sunset Boulevard. If you don't happen to run into anyone serendipitously, keep an eye on upcoming star ceremonies – they're usually held twice a month and admission is always free.
Discover cool art
With a growing museum and gallery scene, LA has become a world class art town. The sprawling campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which also includes the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, alone would take a full day to explore. Luckily, the LACMA is free to the public on the second Tuesday oOther institutions with no entry fee include the Annenberg Space for Photography, the Hammer Museum, and the Getty Center or Getty Villa, which specializes in Greek and Roman antiquities. For less formal viewing, along with cheese cubes and white wine, check out the open studio days at the Brewery Artists Lofts and the monthly Downtown Art Walk the 2nd Thursday of each month. While you're in that part of LA, consider a trek to see the Watts Towers, a Gaudiesque sculptural work that ranks among the finest examples of folk art in the world. As for urban art, don't miss the Mural Mile of the San Fernando Valley where more than 50 murals join forces on a three mile stretch of Van Nuys. Artworks include takes on famous masterpieces, like The Girl with the Hoop Earring (we think you can figure out what that borrows from), and tributes to famous figures like Frida Kahlo.
Taste some local grub
If you’re looking to do some light grazing, hit one of the city’s 250-plus farmers markets, where there are always samples of local produce and goods. Our favorite is the wildly popular Grand Central Market, a downtown landmark that features Valerie Confections, McConnell's Fine Ice Cream and an awesome breakfast spot called Eggslut. You can also snack free of charge at the Honor Fraser Gallery, where artist Kenny Scharf has been known to turn vintage cars into donut buffets at his openings. Or check out the happy hour grub at some of LA's more colorful watering holes. The Scarlet Lady Saloon in Culver City has karaoke and complimentary hot dogs and nachos, and the Gold Room in Echo Park offers free tacos with a $4 PBR + tequila shot combo, plus happy hour specials that won't break the bank (we're talking $3 margs and $5 sangria).
Go for a drive
Everyone moans about traffic in LA, and it can be a beast, but driving can also be an unparalleled pleasure. Put the top down and twist through the hairpin turns on Mulholland Drive from Hollywood to Topanga State Park –it's great at night, as well as during the day – or motor up the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu to see the cliffs and boulders at Point Mugu.
Get some exercise, LA-Style
When it comes to outdoor activities, Los Angeles has it all: dozens of parks with free tennis courts, including the ocean breeze–cooled Rustic Canyon Recreation Center in Pacific Palisades; bike paths in the Valley, along Ballona Creek from Culver City to the Pacific Ocean; and skater- and jogger-clogged boardwalks. For free yoga, try the daily session in the grass at the Fuller Avenue entrance of Runyon Canyon Park, or a lunchtime sun salutation in downtown’s Grand Park. Or do your Downward Facing Dog indoors at a pay-what-you-can session at Yogala in Echo Park. If you’re seeking something a bit more brave, try free archery lessons on Saturdays at Roving Archers in Pasadena.
Listen to live music
LA rocks, but the city that spawned hairspray metal and NWA also has plenty of shows that swing and sway — and you don’t have to pay to see them. The Hammer Museum, Getty Center and Farmers Market showcase local talents like the Shoe and Hundred Waters, while the Santa Monica Pier has Twilight Concerts. In Pasadena the Levitt Pavilion has 50 concerts, including jazz and Latin music, on tap each summer. Blues brothers can get a fix at the Burbank Moose Lodge's Monday night jam sessions with the Pete Anderson Band. Want bragging rights for the next big rock thing? Check out the schedule of free shows at Amoeba Music, as well as no-cover-Monday shows at the uber-hip Echo in Echo Park and the Satellite in Silver Lake, and more rootsy fare most nights at Villains Tavern downtown. Even if you're not a fan of Mexican folk music, it's worth checking out the scene at Mariachi Plaza, in Boyle Heights, where costumed mariachi bands show off their chops.
Catch a show
LA has hundreds of theaters, and in summer there are the Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival and Shakespeare by the Sea. For literary types, Hammer Readings series hosts blue chip authors, and Book Soup on the Sunset Strip has an almost daily schedule of Q&As and signings. Music, dance and spoken word all converge in Grand Performances at the California Plaza, down the street from MOCA. In a town filled with aspiring performers, open mike nights are everywhere, but the most beloved is the twice-monthly Tuesday Night Café set under the stars in a courtyard in Little Tokyo. For laughs, check out LA’s free improv venues all over town — and take the stage if you dare.
Join the party
Just because you’re not part of the movie premiere and red carpet brigade doesn’t mean you can’t party in style. Among the best free blowouts in LA are West Hollywood’s Halloween Carnaval and One City One Pride LGTBQ; the Christmas Posadas, Blessing of the Animals and Cinco de Mayo at El Pueblo de Los Angeles; and the One City One Pride LGTBQ Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. For those looking for more of a rave scene, the Satellite in Silver Lake hosts a "Dance Yourself Clean" EDM party – with music inspired by bands like Haim, CHVRCHES, and St. Lucia – every Saturday, and if you're in before 10 p.m., admission is free.
Drink a glass or two
The California State Assembly may soon legalize the already widespread practice of offering a complimentary glass of wine or beer to customers at barber shops and beauty salons, like Evolutions in Pasadena. Until then, take a tour and get a free tasting at Los Angeles's oldest vintner, the San Antonio Winery, just north of downtown. You can consume all the white wine you want at the frequent Friday night art openings in Culver City and at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. Look out for events at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, where guests are served cocktails in high-end furniture showrooms.
Watch a flick
If you want to see a Hollywood hit for free, head to North Hollywood for the summer movie series, hosted in local parks. You can also enjoy alfresco films along with local grub and drinks at no charge on the third Monday of the month at Alcove in Los Feliz. Or get a little sand between your toes at Moonlight Movies on the Beach in Long Beach. To see yet-to-be-released flicks, look for the folks handing out tickets to test screenings outside the AMC 16 Theater in Burbank. It’s also possible to score free tickets to a TV taping, be it a sitcom – like 2 Broke Girls or The Big Bang Theory – or live late-night show like The Late Late Show with James Corden or Jimmy Kimmel Live! If you're visiting and know your travel dates ahead of time, just be sure to get tickets early.
Bring the fam
If your kids are crazy for dinosaurs, swing by the La Brea Tar Pits, the Ice Age excavation site full of fossils that still bubbles with natural asphalt. At Griffith Park, the largest municipal park with urban wilderness in the U.S., families can explore the trains at Travel Town and the remains of the Old Los Angeles Zoo, which is near the Griffith Park carousel. For budding brainiacs, head to Exposition Park, where the California Science Center offers free admission for its permanent galleries 362 days a year. Cough up $2 and you can book a viewing of NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour.