Griffith Park Observatory overlooks Los Angeles (Flickr: Pedro Szekely)
List 26 September

10 things to do for free in LA

Home to mega-celebrities and boulevards heaving with the world's big brands, Los Angeles also has a thriving artistic, culinary and cultural scene that you can enjoy for free – if you know where to look

1. Spend time with real stars

You can pay through the nose for a bus tour around millionaires’ mansions, instead appreciate the world's best stars at the Griffith Park Observatory. Packed with exhibitions and sparkly displays this fun, educational escape is free for walk-in visitors.

When your star-gazing appetite is sated, come back to earth by simply enjoying the views over Los Angeles from the observatory’s expansive windows. The impressive building is located on a hill at the park’s highest point, so as well as cinematic views of the City of Angels you can gaze out over the Pacific Ocean and beyond.

2. Shop with the celebs

To see how the other half live (well, the richest 1%) head to the internationally-renowned shopping district of Melrose Avenue. Packed with an impressive number of paparazzi per square metre, it’s where block-busting actors head to spend small fortunes as you sip non-fat lattes.

Turn your celeb radar on and people-watch until your heart’s content as hipsters, starlets, wannabes and Hollywood’s high rollers mingle. Keep your camera phone to hand and remember the Ray Bans to protect your eyes from the glints and flashes of  photographers’ lenses (and the star's whiter than white teeth).

Made famous by films and television series like Melrose Place, feel like a film extra with a stroll around the avenue’s chic shops, jazz cafés and stretches of street art.

3. Sundowners on Sunset

Sunset Boulevard is the enduring epitome of Hollywood glamour. Its name is immortalised in song lyrics and its street scenes captured in countless films, including Billy Wilder’s eponymous and Oscar-winning classic from 1950.

Sunset, as local Angelenos call it, is in western LA County. It begins downtown in Figueroa Street and rolls for 35km out to the Pacific Coast Highway, roughly following the path of an old 1780s cattle trail. If those herders could see it now...

The Boulevard is home to musical and arty types who swarm around the hip hideouts, bars and eateries of Silver Lake. Join them for a sundowner. It also passes near Echo Park, Hollywood, Beverly Hills and the Fresh Prince’s Bel Air. Borrow a bike, take a picnic and create your own Sunset experience – for free.

4. Gravitate to the graffiti

New York’s got 5pointz, Bristol’s got Banksy and LA too has its own wonder walls. Depicting the city’s past, present and future hopes, its vibrant murals are brilliant photography fodder so charge your batteries and head on out.

Make www.muralconservancy.org your first stop. It’s choc-full of info on the history and cultural relevance of the art and artists and gives details of (paid) bike tours of the area's best murals. Their unusual talk series is free too – look out for evenings with intellectual property lawyers on the rights of graffiti artists and muralists.

5. Lazy days at LACMA

With a staggering 150,000 individual works of art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) offers a veritable feast of free-ness for the under-funded traveller.

If in town on a Friday from April to November, pop in at 6pm for a free two-hour jazz session. Unwind after a hard day’s art appreciation to the lilting notes of Southern California’s finest performers.

Check in advance (www.lacma.org) to see what other open access events you can squeeze in. Themes covered are broad and sometimes specialist, from classical piano recitals to demonstrations of Korean lacquering techniques.

Though this architecturally striking building is as spiky as the palms that surround it, hitting LACMA needn’t hurt your wallet in the slightest.

6. Settle down to a free film

LA overflows with so many free films, it’s a wonder anyone pays to go to the cinema at all. Here’s how to find them.

Public libraries are an untapped font of films with recent releases often screening at 2pm or 5pm. Expect titles from Salmon Fishing in the Yemen to Snow White and the Huntsman plus child, teen and family friendly screenings.

For outdoor starlit screenings, try the Film Center in Echo Park (park... park... etc). Its green-energy mobile cinema and film school provide affordable access to film and education for the local community and visitors alike. See echoparkfilmcenter.org.

If visiting LA in June, catch free showings of award-winning documentaries and ambitious debuts at the city's Film Festival. Featuring panel sessions on film-making and special screenings of cinematic classics, no tickets are required.

7. Complimentary chips in Chinatown

OK so you might have to feign (or develop) an appreciation for aesthetics for this one but your efforts will be handsomely repaid in complimentary calories. Chinatown stages quarterly Art Nights tours, where welcome drinks and snacks abound. These self-guided tours are huge draws for visitors and art aficionados alike. Dozens of galleries  participate, with artists on hand to satisfy any curiosities. Wander around Chung King Road as the night streets burst to life beneath Chinese lanterns.

Boutiques and art studios rub shoulders with galleries, retro clubs and sensitively restored buildings. To see if the next event coincides with your trip, check out www.chinatownla.com or simply turn up for the free cultural entertainment in Central Plaza.

8. Farmers’ markets

Self-confessed food-a-holic? Try some tasty tidbits directly from the producers that made them at the Original Farmers’ Market, a perennial LA favourite (www.farmersmarketla.com).

A legend in its own lifetime – it began in 1934 – its stalls heave with fresh produce and pyramids of wicked cakes alongside deliciously authentic ethnic cuisine. Go to buy, to try or just to browse its one-of-a-kind stalls, jewellery and vintage toys.

Located north-west of downtown in Hollywood, this colourful local institution will delight with its colloquial chat and quirky characters. It also stages themed cultural extravaganzas. Look out for Mardi Gras (February 2013), St Patrick’s Day (March 2013) or the Summer Music Series.

9. Behind the scenes at the museums

Los Angeles houses an incredible 300+ museums and galleries. The great news for owners of shallow pockets is that entrance to many is absolutely free. The challenge concerns decision-making not economics. Which to visit first?

Must-sees include the unparalleled collections at The Getty, the LACMA (mentioned above) and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Green-fingers and picnic lovers should seek out The Huntington Library’s serene botanic gardens, and farmers’ market fans should drop by the Autry National Centre on a Saturday morning.

UCLA’s futuristic Hammer Museum will appeal to pursuants of the avant-garde. For its polar opposite, marvel at the handmade objets d’art at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art. Whatever your artistic appetite, LA has a cultural centre just waiting to sate it. Gratis.

10. Music without the money, honey

Music festivals are rife in LA, from epic multi-day summer affairs to one-off concerts. Every genre gets a look in so connoisseurs of rock, pop, classical, jazz, blues and everything in-between (and nowhere near) have something to get excited about.

Hollywood’s huge Universal CityWalk complex (www.citywalkhollywood.com) hosts regular open air gigs from international and break-through artists. The Original Farmers’ Market lays on a free summer series, Santa Monica pier’s Twilight Dance Series showcases different music styles every week, and the Hammer’s ‘Also I Like To Rock’ series transforms the museum courtyard into a unique nocturnal venue.

A useful website to help you fill your aural calendar is discoverlosangeles.com. So Los Angeles, as Abba sing: “Thank you for the music, for giving it to me.”

These free things to do in have been sourced with help from the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board. Find out more about LA here: www.discoverlosangeles.com