SANTA MONICA, CA - JULY 09: Musician Dam-Funk performs onstage at the Santa Monica Pier on July 9, 2015 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Musician Dam-Funk performs onstage at the Twilight Concert Series at Santa Monica Pier on July 9, 2015 in Santa Monica, California. (Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

While Los Angeles is famous for its large entertainment venues, many travelers don’t have it in their budget to spend the money on an epic evening at a stadium show. So, how can travelers take in the entertainment culture of Los Angeles without breaking the bank?

“Summertime is really the season when Los Angeles shows off,” says Jamie Foley, vice president of global communications at the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board. “So many parks offer free music and film screenings during the summer, so it’s a great season to take advantage of all the options.”

So pack a picnic and make your way to the parks, plazas, street corners and train stations to check out some of these (mostly) free festivals around town.

[Read: The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles.]

Grand Performances at California Plaza

On most Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings over the past 30 summers, the giant concrete plaza between brutalist contemporary skyscrapers in downtown Los Angeles transforms into a crowded open-air music venue where entry is free and dancing is inevitable.

Listeners unpack their picnics on amphitheater seating or around a small moat that separates the stage from the audience and, as the sky goes dark, absorb the tunes. The lineup of Grand Performances features mostly world music, with headliners from places like Armenia and Brazil just as common as video performance installations from Malaysia and political poetry readings from Latin America. More than almost any other event in Los Angeles, Grand Performances truly offers a slice of the world.

Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival

If you thought New York City had the market cornered on Shakespeare in the park, think again. Every summer, the Independent Shakespeare Co. partners with Griffith Park, the city's largest, to sponsor free performances of the Bard of Avon's plays on the grounds of the old zoo. Close to 50,000 people attended performances of the two plays chosen last summer, and the event keeps growing. Each show has a four- to six-week run, with two or three performances each weekend. Show up early for the family-friendly workshops before the performances.

Twilight Concert Series at Santa Monica Pier

Most tourists make it to the iconic Santa Monica Pier during their trip, but during the summer, the pier is so much more than kiddie coasters and fresh fish. On 10 Thursday nights from July through September, indie and alternative bands take the stage, playing to crowds on the beach as the sun dips below the horizon. “It’s a really unique, amazing and free experience,” says Casey Duggan, former Viceroy Santa Monica head concierge and current head concierge at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead in Atlanta. The Viceroy hotel is just a few blocks away from the pier. Concert veterans know to arrive early to stake out a great spot.

KCRW Summer Nights at various locations

Santa Monica public radio station KCRW promotes new and independent music, both on and off the air. Part of the station’s live schedule includes Summer Nights – weekly events featuring live bands, DJ sets and cultural workshops in Chinatown, UCLA’s Hammer Museum, Annenberg Space for Photography and Pasadena’s One Colorado plaza. All events are free and open to the public, with partitioned beer gardens, food trucks and multiple performance stages.

[Read: 8 Parks to Visit in Los Angeles.]

Bergamot Station

Housed in a former trolley depot, Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station is now an artistic community made up of studios and shops. Events vary throughout the summer, but there's usually something special going on, whether it’s an art show opening or a band performance. “It’s a haven for art, culture, exhibits, food pop-ups, music and bands,” Duggan says. “They’re doing some great things, and it’s completely free.”

Cinespia at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Join throngs of Angelenos visiting the final resting place of Hollywood’s dearly departed after dark at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. During the summer, the cemetery hosts the Cinespia film series. During the winter, you can see Cinespia’s curated lineup of crowd favorites at various vintage movie palaces downtown. Movies at Hollywood Forever are projected on the side of a giant mausoleum while seasoned picnickers spread out across the lawn. It may be summertime, but extra blankets are strongly advised – the lawn gets damp and cold (and spooky!) after dark. This is a ticketed event, but it will only set you back about $16.

Happenings at Union Station

Even if you’re not traveling by train, a visit to the 1939 landmark Union Station is essential. Year-round “Happenings” in the station make the experience even more special. During the summer, a Saturday evening concert series of up-and-coming bands is a great way to jam out. Through the rest of the year, station events include film screenings, pop-up art installations, dance presentations and workshops. Check unionstationla.com/happenings, or just stop by to see what’s going on.

[Read: 8 Great Places to Shop in Los Angeles.]

Levitt Pavilion concerts

Every summer, the Levitt Pavilions for the Performing Arts at LA's MacArthur Park and Pasadena’s Memorial Park each host a free 50-night concert series. The venues, part of a loose network of amphitheaters of the same name across the country that aim to increase access to the arts, draw diverse crowds with their lineup of world music, emerging artists and local acts. Once again, picnicking and lawn chairs are viewing essentials.

To experience more of what Los Angeles has to offer, check out the U.S. News Travel guide.

Tags: travel, music, Los Angeles


Emily Manthei is a freelance travel and real estate writer for U.S. News and an international short filmmaker. She has contributed travel, lifestyle and film review pieces to USA Today, SF Gate, eHow, Trip101, Los Angeles Downtown News, Entertainment Voice and brand new parenting site Opeeqo. Her screenwriting and filmmaking have taken her on documentary and narrative projects in Romania, El Salvador, Bangladesh and London, to name just a few. She currently splits her time between Berlin and Los Angeles. Find more of her work on her website or on Twitter.

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