As a result of the booming tech industry, Seattle has become a city filled with luxury shopping destinations, high-end restaurants and bars, and popular sports and entertainment facilities, all adding to an increase in visitors and the expenses associated with each visit.
While many of the major museums and attractions in Seattle offer discount pricing schemes and the occasional free admission evening, most are on the more costly side on a regular basis. We promise, though, that there are still ways to get a sense of the city and the Pacific Northwest in general without breaking the bank.
Geographically positioned between two large bodies of water and two mountain ranges, it should come as no surprise that many of the free things to do in Seattle involve the outdoors. There are also plenty of indoor destinations around town to retreat to on rainy days, all boasting their own beauty and interesting histories.
From parks to public artworks, from market places to lesser-known museums, you’ll fall in love with Seattle while visiting all these spots without even spending a dime.
Best free things to do in Seattle
No visit to Seattle is complete without a stop at the longest continuously operating farmers’ market in the U.S. On any day of the week, you can wander the stalls and halls of Pike Place Market, experiencing the sights, smells and sounds that make it unique without ever pulling out your wallet—although you’ll probably want to do just that after sampling all the fresh fare available, from apple slices to smoked salmon. When the crowds get too overwhelming, move over to the open-air plaza and viewing deck at MarketFront, where you’ll be treated to expansive views of Elliott Bay and the Olympic mountains.
Get your fill of nature without leaving the city limits. At Seattle’s largest city park in the Magnolia neighborhood, you can amble through the 534 acres of forest, meadows, beaches and bluffs on a range of designated trails. Be sure to visit West Point Lighthouse at the most western point of the city. On a clear day, you’ll enjoy magnificent views of both the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges, and plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife on land and in the sound.
You may be tempted to head indoors on a blustery Seattle day, but consider a visit to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) campus instead. There, you’ll find a range of public artworks, including “A Sound Garden,” the most popular piece on premise. Made up of 12 steel towers with wind-operated organ pipes, this art installation inspired Soundgarden when picking a band name. On a breezy day, you can listen to the eerie howls and whistles of the pipes as you overlook Lake Washington. Although it is free to the public on weekdays during business hours, note that you’ll need a photo ID to get onto the NOAA campus.
Commonly referred to as Ballard Locks, the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks are a favorite (free) attraction northwest of downtown, connecting Puget Sound to Lake Union and Lake Washington. Watch the boats pass through and be sure to visit the fish ladder, best experienced in warmer months when salmon swim from saltwater to freshwater to get back to spawning grounds. Since you’re in the area, you’ll want to stroll down Ballard Avenue as well, one of the city’s hippest shopping areas, or lounge on the beach at nearby Golden Gardens.
Pay tribute to one of Seattle’s rock legends at the Jimi Hendrix Park in Central District. The park is shaped like a guitar, with a timeline of Hendrix’s life in the “frets” along the neck of the “guitar.” Lyrics to Hendrix’s Angel and Little Wing are engraved around the edge of the park. It won’t take you long to walk around, so plan to combine the stroll with a visit to the adjacent Northwest African American Museum, which offers free admission on the first Thursday of every month. (For those looking for the statue of Jimi Hendrix, you’ll have to go to Capitol Hill to see it—but that’s free, too!)
Learn about Seattle’s maritime history by exploring restored boats and walking the docks at this lakeside museum. There is no admission cost and, on Sundays, you can even sail for free. Come early for the best choice in classic boats and set sail on Lake Union, taking in views of the Space Needle, Gas Works Park and even the house from Sleepless in Seattle.
Sure, the views from the Space Needle and other skyscraper observation decks around Seattle are great, but they can be expensive and often require advance planning. A visit to Gas Works Park, at the north end of Lake Union, is free and can be enjoyed on a whim. The large green space on the site of the former Seattle Gas Light Company gasification plant is the ideal setting to set up a picnic to be enjoyed while watching boats, sea planes and kites all set against the backdrop of the Seattle skyline.
Visiting a public library may not rank high on your standard sightseeing list but, when in Seattle, it should. Marvel at the architecture of this stunning 11-story glass and steel structure in the heart of the city. Escape the hustle and bustle to peruse the impressive collection, wander the books spiral and relax for a bit in one of the many light-filled open spaces. Don’t miss the striking Red Hall on the fourth floor. With innovative design and impressive views of the city, the Seattle Public Library isn’t just for bibliophiles.
It may surprise you to know that the city is home to some excellent beaches but, alas, it’s true. The best one? Alki Beach, in West Seattle. Great for people-watching, wildlife-spotting and beachcombing, hanging out on Alki Beach is one of the best ways to spend an afternoon at any time of the year. Stick around into the evening and start a bonfire in one of the fire rings, available for free on a first-come-first-served basis. When you’re sitting by the fire, enjoying a spectacular sunset over the Olympics, you’ll find it hard to believe downtown Seattle is just across the water.
Enjoy the local flora and the lush green spaces at the Washington Park Arboretum, which is jointly maintained by the University of Washington and City of Seattle. The 230-acre park on the shores of Lake Washington is the ideal antidote to the tourist traps around town, and boasts a vibrant array of plant life that can’t be found anywhere else in the northwest. The entire park is easily accessible by flat walking paths and is perfect for all ages and activity cravings.
Originally built for the 1962 World’s Fair (Century 21 Exposition), Seattle Center is a gathering space that encompasses many of the most iconic (and pricey) local attractions, such as the Space Needle and the Museum of Pop Culture. There are free, lesser known attractions here as well: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center and the A/NT Gallery, a volunteer-run, non-juried art gallery showcasing work by emerging artists. Consult the Seattle Center calendar for free events held here throughout the year.
If you blink, you’ll miss this museum in Pioneer Square. Although it’s a small space, it holds a big history. In the late 1890s, when gold was found in Canada, the majority of stampeders heading to the gold fields passed through Seattle. The museum tells the story of how this led to a boom in business in the Emerald City. Watch the film and tour the interactive exhibits in the former Cadillac Hotel, where many of the stampeders would have hung their hats temporarily back in the gold rush days. During the summer months, park rangers give free tours of the surrounding historic district but, year round, you can take the self-guided walking tour to immerse yourself in the rich history of Seattle’s oldest neighborhood.