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Fun on a Budget: 8 Free Fall Events in the Bay Area

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"Set it off" OTA Performance contest at the Back with a Vengeance Ball at Lake Merritt Amphitheater on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.  (Estefany Gonzalez )

Find more of KQED’s picks for the best Fall 2022 events here.

Gas prices. Sky-high inflation. The Millennial inability to stop buying lattes and avocado toast. (I kid!)

The year 2022 has been rough on wallets across the country, and our wallets also happen to be sitting (half-empty) in one of its most expensive regions. (San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose all made the list of top-10 most expensive American cities.)

What does that mean? It means we all need as much free stuff as possible. And luckily for us, there are a lot of great events coming up that won’t cost you a dime to attend. Movies, art, dance, live music, parties, theater—we’ve got you covered. Bay Area rents may break the bank, but there’s a wealth of fun things to do that won’t.

A Black dancer in open black shirt and tight black shorts, lays on a wooden platform, arms outstretched dramatically, with one leg kicked upwards and pointed out. Crowds watch on from the sidelines.
A performer strikes a pose at 2021’s Open To All Ball at Lake Merritt Amphitheater. (Estefany Gonzalez)

Hella Hyphy Ball

Lake Merritt Amphitheater, Oakland
Sept. 10, 1pm–7pm

Sponsored

The follow-up to 2021’s dazzling Open to All Ball is set to transform the shores of Lake Merritt once more into ballroom bliss. This year’s ball carries the same ethos as the last one: everyone—and they do mean absolutely everyone—is welcome. The 2022 theme, however, is brand new, and hella Oakland: hyphy. That will influence every category in this year’s contests, from performance soundtracks to the all-important runway fashions.

As usual, there are big prizes to be won, including $1,000 cash awards for categories including Realness, Face and Runway, and a $4,000 prize for the Tag Team performance. This year’s grand finale promises to be next-level thanks to the caveat that teams must include at least one hyphy move in their presentation. So … serve and turf?

A Black woman in black and white striped dress, sits on a stool with her feet up, laughing as she holds an acoustic guitar on her lap.
Meklit, an Ethiopia-born, Bay Area-dwelling singer, blends African and American blues, jazz and folk sounds with a constantly surprising level of grace and magnetism. And she’s on the Hardly Strictly lineup this year. (NPR)

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Sept. 30-Oct. 2

After a two-year absence from Golden Gate Park, Hardly Strictly is set for a triumphant return this October with a lineup that offers something for nearly every mood and taste.

Festival veterans like Emmylou Harris (in her 22nd HSB appearance!) and Buddy Miller (in his 17th!) will be present, accounted for and offering warm fuzzy feelings to fend off the fog. Marcus Mumford and Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison and Adrian Belew check the mainstream-appeal boxes. And local flavor comes in the form of Tré Burt (Sacramento),  Meklit (San Francisco), Brothers Comatose (North Bay) and A.J. Lee and Blue Summit (South Bay).

But as usual, HSB will also be serving up fantastic artists from around the country. So far, this year’s must-not-miss list includes: the heart-wrenching but always uplifting Allison Russell, the retro-soul stylings of Lucius and the bluegrass-rooted Afrofuturism of Jake Blount. In a lineup that has long been proud to stray beyond the confines of traditional bluegrass, Blount is a one-man example of why it’s so exciting to do just that.

A father and son walk hand-in-hand towards a group of parents and children playing with bubbles. Behind them, various stalls can be seen lining the street.
Noise Pop’s 20th Street Block Party will take place on Valencia St. this year. (Instagram/ @noisepop)

Noise Pop’s 20th Street Block Party

Valencia Street between 18th and 21st Streets, San Francisco
Oct. 15, 12pm-6pm

This family-friendly free-for-all will take over three whole blocks of Valencia Street to bring live music, food, local arts and crafts, and a whole lot of fun, to the Mission. The location may be slightly different in 2022, but the vibe will remain the same as the prior eight years: a love letter to the diversity and creativity of the Mission District.

Proceeds collected at this year’s community gathering will assist two great nonprofits in continuing their work in the neighborhood. 826 Valencia (a.k.a. the Pirate Supply Store) will use all donations to further their mission of making sure under-resourced kids get a tutoring boost so they can become great writers. And La Cocina will keep working toward equity in business ownership, providing mentorship and affordable kitchen space to female and BIPOC entrepreneurs.

Three South Asian women sitting in a row laughing.
Attendees taking in a show at Cupertino’s Diwali: Festival of Lights. (Cupertino Chamber of Commerce)

Diwali Festival of Lights

Memorial Park, Cupertino
Oct. 8, 11am-6pm

Sure, this festival is happening a full 15 days before Diwali’s five-day celebration even starts, but it’s never too soon to get excited about light triumphing over darkness.

Beyond honoring the holiday itself, Cupertino’s Festival of Lights is a celebration of all things Desi. The plethora of colorful dance displays—a journey through classical Bharatanatyam to modern Bhangra—are worth the journey alone. But the spicy and aromatic street food on hand also satisfies rumbling stomachs, the stalls have plenty to keep dedicated shoppers busy and the Rangoli art displays are just mesmerizing. Plus, there’s even a Kids Zone that usually includes some pretty ridiculous physical challenges. (If you’ve ever wanted to stick your child in a giant hamster ball, this is the place to do it.)

To cap it all, there’s even free parking. Just head to De Anza College’s A and B lots.

A grid of 12 squares showing different styles of paintings and crafts.
A tiny portion of the artists showing at San Francisco Open Studios. (Courtesy of SFOS)

San Francisco / East Bay Open Studios

Locations TBD. (Check SFOS and EBOS websites for directories.)
San Francisco: Oct. 23-Nov. 13
East Bay: Nov. 5-13

Whether you approach them as casual neighborhood strolls or regimented exercises complete with maps and schedules, the Open Studios events on both sides of the Bay are worthy of your attention. Taking place across four weekends in San Francisco and two in the East Bay, Open Studios is a chance to get to know the artists in your area, support them and see some truly great work. (There’s usually a surprising amount of free cookies involved too…)

Wandering between home studios, artist collective spaces, back yards and garages doesn’t just feel like a treasure hunt—it also offers a glimpse into how Bay Area artists live and survive. It’s inspiring to witness not just the eclectic array of talent on display, but the resourcefulness of many of our local creators. And if you can’t make it out to meet them in person, the SFOS website offers virtual tours of selected artists’ studios.

While the Open Studios events themselves are free, don’t expect to come home empty-handed.

A woman in her twenties with black hair, wearing midriff-baring punky clothes, throws her arms above her head and sticks her tongue out in a rebellious gesture.
Livia Gomes Demarchi as Beatrice in San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s 40th Anniversary production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ (Jay Yamada)

Shakespeare in the Park

Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, MacLaren Park, San Francisco
Sept. 3-11, 2pm

Much Ado About Nothing can be quite the challenging prospect for modern audiences—particularly the women watching. After all, it’s difficult to glean much enjoyment from watching female characters getting treated terribly by the men in their midst for 160 minutes, only to have everything wrapped up in a neat little bow in the end.

This year’s production by the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival however, promises to be a more palatable take on a dated classic. With a distinctly ’90s aesthetic, a run time of just 90 minutes (no intermission) and modernized versions of familiar characters, this Much Ado promises something a little different from more traditional productions. Think: Beatrice in lip-liner and a dog collar, a grunge rendition of “Sigh No More” and Benedick out participating in protest marches. No, really.

If you missed this Much Ado About Nothing in Cupertino and Redwood City and can’t make it to McLaren Park either, don’t worry. A version of the production will be made available online at a later date, complete with closed captions.

Dancers - three female, one male - wearing traditional Mexican clothes smile as they perform on a small stage.
Dancers performing the Jarabe Tapatío at the Solano Avenue Stroll. (Courtesy of Solano Avenue Stroll)

Solano Avenue Stroll

Solano Avenue, Albany and Berkeley
Sept. 11, 10am-5pm

Finally! The Stroll is back after a two-year absence, and it promises to be just as huge as it always was. It will still occupy an entire, fully pedestrianized mile of Solano Avenue in a colorful celebration of both Albany and Berkeley that starts with an opening ceremony and mini-parade. The day-long celebration fills the street with music, dancing and scores of local businesses, artists and makers selling their wares—including, of course, enough food booths to feed the thousands of people who usually attend.

Because of its scale, the Solano Avenue Stroll can be a little overwhelming at peak times, but it’s worth getting there early so you can take your time with it all. A free shuttle from North Berkeley BART will get you there without parking hassles.

Many people gather on the slanted lawn in front of a large screen surrounded on all sides with trees.
Sundown Cinema at Jerry Garcia Amphitheater at McLaren Park. (Instagram/ @dothebay)

Sundown Cinema

Alamo Square, Crane Cove, Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, San Francisco
Sept. 9-Oct.21, 5pm

The Bay Area is awash with unique little movie theaters; we are truly blessed in this regard. But for a few weeks every fall, big screens pop up around San Francisco that give even our cutest theaters a run for their money. (If you’ve ever watched a movie in Alamo Square Park with the sun setting behind the Painted Ladies, you already know what’s up.)

Sponsored

This rest of this season’s Sundown Cinema will feature Raiders of the Lost Ark at Alamo Square (Sept. 9),  Shang Chi & The Legend of the Ten Rings at Crane Cove (Sept. 30) and Addams Family Values at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater (Oct. 21). Perfect for family picnics, date night and people who love wearing their Patagonias to chilly park excursions.

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