Learn Like a Local in San Francisco

cooking demonstration copyright Coqui the Chef via Creative Commons

Every traveler's got a favorite go-to souvenir: postcards from each city they visit. Cheesy, "wish you were here" T-shirts. But what if, instead of buying a physical reminder of each trip, you could take home a new experience, a new skill, and new memories to last a lifetime?  

In San Francisco, it's easier than you might think to make a learning experience into a souvenir. From drop-in classes in everything from art to dance, to beer-fueled lectures on philosophy and math, and even opportunities to play mad scientist with a cocktail in hand, here are a few of our favorite ways to get your learn on with the locals.

Dance it out

Can't cut a rug to save your life? Not a problem. SF's loaded with dance venues you can stop by for a quick intro to everything from salsa, to hip hop, to belly dancing, all for about the cost of a movie ticket.

Bop over to the Verdi Club on Tuesday nights from 9:00-9:30 for a beginner's lesson in swing dance, followed by live music. The $20 cost of your intro class also gets you a chance to practice your new skills, with hours of live rhythm & blues from the 1930s, '40s, and 50s by local band Stompy Jones after the lesson's over. 

Over in the Mission District, get cultural at Dance Mission, where drop-in classes on everything from hip hop to Cuban folkloric, West African, Haitian, and samba dancing will run you just $13.

For something really exotic, shake it out at Fat Chance Belly Dance. Whether you're a total beginner or an experienced belly dancer, there's a drop-in class here for you. Classes are just $15, so you can work up a sweat without putting a dent in your wallet.

Get Artistic

Paint Brushes copyright Nina Matthews Photography via Creative CommonsEven if you can barely draw a stick figure, San Francisco has ample opportunities for you to improve your art skills on a dime. The 23rd Street Drawing Studio, in the city's Noe Valley neighborhood, offers regular sessions during which you can observe and sketch a live model. At three hours each, drop-in classes are $25 with instruction; those who are already versed in the art of drawing figures can nab a spot for just $17. These classes fill up fast, so be sure to reserve your seat in advance online!

If paint's more your medium, try a class with Wine and Canvas, where $35 gets you everything you need to create a masterpiece: canvas, paint, brushes, and expert instruction from a local artist. Events are held at restaurants and bars around the Bay Area, so if you need a little encouragement to get your creative juices flowing, you can always order some liquid courage from the bar. 

In San Francisco, we pride ourselves on making great food an art form, too. Beef up your culinary chops by watching the experts at work at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market, where different chefs hold live cooking demonstrations each week. Learn about food from around the world with top-notch chefs from around the Bay Area, then scoop up farm-fresh ingredients on-site to recreate your favorite dishes back at your hostel.

Exercise Your Brain

Left-brain thinkers, never fear: San Francisco may be known for its creative types, but we've got plenty of ways to give your brain an academic work out, too. Start off with a visit to the awesomely named SF Nerd Nite, whose motto, "Be there and be square," pretty much sums up the scene. The third Wednesday of each month, $8 gets you admission to the event's latest bar-turned-lecture hall.  Inside, listen to lectures and discussions from experts in the worlds of physics, meteorology, mathematics, philosophy, and more. Geek out with your fellow knowledge-seekers over beers and discussion topics like "Climbing Space Mountain: Walt Disney and the Space Race" and "Can You Hear the Shape of a Drum?"

Exploratorium after dark copyright Matt Baume via Creative CommonsTwo of the city's favorite museums also offer after-hours experiences where cocktails meet science. The California Academy of Science's popular Thursday "Nightlife" series lets you explore the unique museum that's part aquarium, part planetarium, and part natural history museum, all while sipping a frosty beverage and listening to DJs spinning. Each week the event takes on a new theme, ranging from biotechnology to sharks, and brings in experts from that field to answer all your burning questions. Best of all, the event makes it easy to do both your brain and your travel budget a favor: at just $12, Nightlife tickets are about one-third the price of regular admission to the museum, so you'll have enough money left for a drink at the cash bar.

The concept's similar over at the Exploratorium After Dark on the first Thursday night of each month. Billing itself as an "intellectual playground for adults," After Dark mixes music, technology, and world-famous, hands-on science exhibits to put your brain into overdrive, even as you relax with a cocktail. At $15, or about half the price of daylight-hours admission, an evening at Nightlife is also a steal.

For more ways to get artsy and intellectual on a budget in SF, check out our guides to literary hotspots, epic-scale art, and getting cultured without going broke.

Photos by Coqui the Chef, Nina Matthews Photography, and Matt Baume via Creative Commons.

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