The Definitive Guide to San Francisco's Free Outdoor Concerts
Walking down a street in San Francisco this time of year, you’re apt to hear music. Or notice that they are screening a film in a nearby park. It wouldn’t be summer in San Francisco without outdoor concerts and plein air cinema.
Since these events are free to audiences, but not free to produce, if you see a “Donations Welcome” bucket at the entrance or a friendly volunteer asking for a few dollars, do give. You’ll gain a lot for many summers to come.
Visitors are encouraged to walk, bike or take public transit to all events. For regional transit information visit 511 within the nine San Francisco Bay Area counties. For information on public transit within San Francisco, visit 311.
There are hundreds of free concerts, performances and film screenings. The list that follows is leavened with a few indoor performances as well. Highlights include:
Stern Grove Festival
The Stern Grove Festival is a beloved San Francisco tradition that began in 1938. The longest running admission-free outdoor music festival in the U.S. opened its 78th anniversary season with The Doobie Brothers. The San Francisco Symphony and Ballet each performed in “nature’s music box” – Stern Grove, 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard. Other past headliners include Pacific Mambo Orchestra, Randy Newman, Amy Hanaiali’i, Tune-Yards, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Morris Day and The Time and Talib Kweli. Weekday Kids’ Days programs at Stern invite children to explore music and more; pre-registration is required for these free programs. A new program, Grove on the Road, brings the Stern Grove Festival experience into neighborhoods around the city.
Bay breezes, dazzling views and those precious pinnipeds are just part of the appeal of PIER 39. Throughout the summer, in fact 365 days a year, there are concerts at the entrance plaza. The fare ranges from Glenn Morgan on the hammered dulcimer to Caroline Dal teasing the piano keys through a round of boogie woogie. Check their online event schedule for details.
Union Square Live
Union Square Live presents entertainment on the main stage of Union Square through October. Live music, dance, movies, circus arts and other entertainment will run the gamut from mariachi to rock.
Yerba Buena Gardens Festival
The Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (YBGF) presents more than 100 free events annually. Festival highlights include Let’s Go Salsa@Jessie in nearby Jessie Square near the Contemporary Jewish Museum; the Children’s Garden Series, Poetry Tuesdays with Litquake and Thursday Lunchtime Concerts. Every weekend the festival has a curated lineup of musicians, dancers, poets and actors from around the world. Highlights from past summers include the Bay Area’s own Circus Bella; a July 4 Celebration with San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band; RAWdance’s “Through my fingers to the deep”; local bands Elephantine + Bells Atlas; Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, and Cuban-American saxophonist Yosvany Terry and French pianist Baptiste Trotignon present Ancestral Memories.
Golden Gate Park Band
Regular band concerts began in Golden Gate Park in 1882. For over 100 years, the Golden Gate Park Band performs every Sunday through October and the occasional holiday in the Spreckles Temple of Music, Music Concourse, Golden Gate Park. History comes alive at the many performances that feature music from specific nationalities and cultures; on these occasions there are dancers, singers, speakers in attendance who “enlighten and entertain,” according to the band’s website.
A new series at the Presidio Officers’ Club, 50 Moraga Ave., celebrates jazz, contemporary and classical music. These intimate house concerts are offered in partnership with San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music, producers of SFMusic Day in the fall. While you're at the Presidio, be sure to take a stroll through Crissy Field and enjoy the many hiking trails the Presidio has to offer.
CIty Hall Rotunda Dance Series
San Francisco’s City Hall is one of the most outstanding Beaux Arts structures in the U.S. Presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West, in partnership with San Francisco Grants for the Arts and San Francisco City Hall, this building is home to hundreds of events throughout the year. Past musical acts have included Los Lupeños de San José, Kaiwen You Chinese Dance and Mary Sano and Her Duncan Dancers.
People in Plazas
The perfect pick-me-up at lunchtime, the series presents more than 130 free concerts featuring local performers. For the most part, locations are in downtown plazas on or near San Francisco’s main stem, Market Street. Just listen for the beat! Musical styles range from Hawaiian to Bengali Jazz. Most performances begin at noon.
San Francisco Mime Troupe (SFMT)
That’s mime as in “the exaggeration of everyday life in story and song.” This group has a lot to say and they’ve been doing so since 1959. Winners of a special Tony Award in 1987 for Excellence in Regional Theater, the San Francisco Mime Troupe specializes in shows that “debunk the official story.” Shows begin in July in San Francisco and travel to parks (and a few indoor locations) all over California through September. Most performances are free; however, donations are welcomed.
Film Night in the Park
Park perks in the summer include fresh-air flicks. Every summer Film Night in the Park draws more than 15,000 filmgoers to parks throughout San Francisco and Marin County. Films are presented free of charge on a giant outdoor screen. Attendees are encouraged to picnic before screenings and discouraged from blocking views with chairs and bringing pets. All screenings begin at dusk or 8 p.m. This year’s flick picks run through September and are on view at parks in Union Square, Washington Square Park, and Dolores Park.
Shakespeare in the Park
After a circuit through Bay Area parks in Pleasanton, Cupertino and Redwood City, Shakespeare in the Park will perform a free Shakespeare production at the parade grounds, Presidio of San Francisco, and in the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, McLaren Park. This beloved favorite which is endowed with some of Shakespeare’s most beautifully poetic language, shares the story of doomed lovers who will always be remembered for their romantic devotion. One of the major free Shakespeare programs in the U.S., Free Shakespeare in the Park began in 1983.
Treat the family to an afternoon of music at Golden Gate Park, where the San Francisco Opera will perform at the annual Opera in the Park. Other free events include the annual Merola Opera’s Schwabacher summer concert, featuring singers from the Merola Opera Program at Yerba Buena Gardens. The annual San Francisco Opera in the Park concert will feature artists from the 2015 fall season as well as members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by Music Director Nicola Luisotti on Sept. 13 at 1:30 p.m. in Sharon Meadow.
Considered one of the biggest free neighborhood events of the year, Yerba Buena Night offers free arts and entertainment in the culture-rich center of downtown San Francisco. Located in Jessie Square, it is easily accessible by Muni and BART. In the weeks in prior enjoy events in Annie Alley adjacent to the California Historical Society and Third Thursday activities.