|San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences|
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 buffet line might stretch around the block. Another caveat: Free entry usually applies only to a museum's permanent collection; special exhibits often cost extra. My Travel Wise column in the Seattle Times this week has all the details.
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 these links.
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. Click here for a full list.
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 $29.95 fee on four Sundays throughout the year. The next ones are June 2 and September 29.
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 and noshing until 10 p.m.
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 every second Thursday.
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.
Both the downtown and La Jolla locations of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego are free on third Thursdays from 5 p.m.- 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.
Both the Palm Springs and Palm Desert locations of the Palm Springs Art Museum are free Thursdays from 4 p.m.-8 p.m. and on the second Sunday of each month.