At once grungy and gourmet, lush and mod, the Emerald City has revitalized its best attractions while offering plenty for penny-pinchers. Pound the pavement through historic Pioneer Square, lively Pike Place Market, Seattle's compact downtown, and to its scenic waterfront—reveling in free gems along the way.
Free each first Thursday, the Seattle Art Museum's sleek downtown digs recently expanded in 2008 to make more room for its impressive collection of contemporary and modernist works and Native American, African, Asian, and Australian indigenous art. Seniors can also visit free on the first Friday of the month.
In Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill, the Seattle Asian Art Museum opens its doors free of charge each first Thursday and, for families, on first Saturdays as well. Its collection features thousands of paintings, pottery, sculptures, and textiles from China, Japan, India, Korea, and more.
Explore the Frye Art Museum's rotating selection of its large collection of 19th and 20th century German, French, and American paintings and sculptures, including a collection of paintings by Munich-based artists acquired by Charles Frye in the late 19th century. Admission is always free, as is parking, and complimentary tours are available Tuesday through Sunday at 1 p.m. and Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday at 11:30 a.m.
In renowned architect Steven Holl's 36,000-square-foot (3,345-square-meter) building, admire art, craft, and design by regional artists at nearby Bellevue Arts Museum's free first Fridays, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The Seattle Art Museum's waterfront Olympic Sculpture Park is a nine-acre (3.6-hectare) industrial-site-turned-green space. Dotted with contemporary works of art by artists such as Richard Serra, Alexander Calder, and Mark di Suvero, the park is set against a spectacular backdrop of Puget Sound and the Cascade Range with a 2,200-foot (671-meter) pedestrian path that leads to a beach. Open daily, free of charge.
Immerse yourself in the huge sound of the Seattle Symphony's 26-foot (eight-meter) tall, 4,490-pipe Watjen concert organ in Benaroya Hall at one of the symphony's free recitals, held Mondays at 12:30 p.m. on a bimonthly basis and performed by the symphony's resident organist Joseph Adam. Or, take a public tour of Benaroya Hall every Tuesday and Friday (and following Watjen concert organ recitals) at noon and 1 p.m. In the not-free-but-great-value department, a new initiative to attract more millennials now offers patrons between the ages of 21 and 30 tickets for $25.
Catch a lunchtime concert at City Hall every first and third Thursday. The series' Seattle-area performers range in genre from world music to big bands, folk, and jazz.
In July and August over the noon hour, join the downtown office lunch crowd for free public concerts—from classical to rock and jazz—in area parks and plazas. Buskers also perform at lunchtime at parks throughout the city, including Freeway Park and Pioneer Square.
Peruse Seattle's top art galleries for the month's new exhibits and artists at Pioneer Square's Gallery Walk. Held from noon till 8 p.m. the first Thursday of the month, except January. Start at Main Street and Occidental. Independent artists also display their wares in tents at Occidental Park.
While winding through downtown, take notice of pretty glass art displays that embellish several downtown galleries and buildings, such as the U.S. Bank Building at 5th and Pike, the Sheraton Hotel at 6th and Pike, and Benaroya Hall at 3rd and University.
Join the crowd gathered in front of rowdy fishmongers at 100-plus-year-old Pike Place Market. Tucked in every cranny of the market's nine acres (3.6 hectares) are authentic highlights, from Rachel the brass piggy bank—the market’s mascot—to the quirky Gum Wall in Post Alley. Visit on a weekday morning to avoid the masses.
Scour for funky flea market finds at the Fremont Sunday Market with more than 250 vendors from around the region selling fresh flowers, produce, crafts, and street food from raw oysters to pupusas. Held Sundays year-round starting at 10 a.m.
From the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks' (aka the Ballard Locks) public viewing window, cheer for salmon as they climb up the fish ladder and watch pleasure boats pass through the locks.
Roam the 74-acre (30-hectare) Seattle Center, site of the 1962 World's Fair and now home to the city's top attractions, including the Space Needle, Seattle Opera, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Intiman Theatre, Children's Museum, Children's Theater, Fun Forest Amusement Park, Pacific Science Center, and Experience Music Project.
Examine a Blackbird spy plane up-close or board the original Air Force One at one of the world's preeminent flight museums, Seattle's Museum of Flight, free from 5 to 9 p.m. the first Thursday of the month.
Downtown Seattle, while compact enough to wander by foot, is easily traversed by bus as well—especially from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. when all downtown buses are free.
See major attractions in Seattle at about half the price with our partner, CityPass, which includes Traveler's picks for bars, restaurants, shopping, and neighborhoods.
Snap a quirky photo in front of the 18-foot-tall (5.5-meter), one-eyed stone Freemont troll who lurks beneath the George Washington Memorial Bridge (known by locals as the Aurora Bridge) at N. 36th Street in Fremont. The troll squashes an ill-fated automobile in his left hand.
In historic Pioneer Square, seek natural refuge in the shady courtyard of Waterfall Garden Park (S. Main St. and Second Ave. S.), with a waterfall cascading 22 feet (6.7 meters) over granite boulders into a tranquil Japanese pool below.
Admire the refurbished Paramount Theatre's ornate décor, restored with painstaking attention to detail and a fresh coat of gold paint. The first Saturday of each month, free 90-minute tours leave from the main entrance at 10 a.m.
Explore the University of Washington with free 90-minute campus tours led by UW undergrads. See Husky Stadium, Gothic buildings, the Drumheller Fountain, and come springtime, cherry trees blooming around campus. You can even sit in on a class.
Since opening in 1952, the Museum of History and Industry has been a treasure trove of Pacific Northwest history, chronicling more than 150 years of Seattle history. First Thursdays are free and have extended hours (10 a.m. to 8 p.m.).
Discover the natural splendor of the Pacific Rim at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, free first Thursdays and with extended hours (10 a.m. to 8 p.m.). The museum is considered the Northwest's premier repository of cultural and natural history artifacts, with highlights like a resident spider expert (to curate its collection of 150,000 arachnids) and Northwest Coast totem poles at the entrance.
Channel the frenzy of the 1897 gold rush at Washington's outpost of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Pioneer Square Historic District, where you can learn Seattle's role in the stampede to the Yukon gold fields.
Navigate thousands of Coast Guard memorabilia—from an 1860s lighthouse service clock to the Coast Guard flag used on the first shuttle flight—at the free Coast Guard Museum on Pier 36. Visitors are sometimes welcome on the three icebreakers docked nearby.
Each week, literature-rich Seattle is host to scores of readings at bookshops like The Mountaineers, Elliott Bay Book Co., University Book Store, and the Richard Hugo House; check listings in local publications like The Stranger and the Seattle Weekly.
Amble through Seattle's Chinatown-International District, located east of 5th Avenue and home to a high concentration of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, Laotian, and Cambodian Americans living in one dynamic neighborhood.
Celebrate ethnic and folk traditions with arts, crafts, music, food, and performers at the free annual Northwest Folklife Festival held Memorial Day weekend on the grounds of the Seattle Center.
Ride the 35-minute ferry trip (roundtrip fare is $8 for adults; car fares from $27.30) across Puget Sound—keep your eyes peeled for whales along the way—to Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery, an indie operation that's the only Seattle-area winery to grow all its own grapes on location. Open Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.
Fifteen miles (24 kilometers) northeast of Seattle, Chateau Ste. Michelle's wine tour teaches about the Columbia Valley grape-growing region and concludes with a wine sampling, free of charge.
Northeast of Seattle in Woodinville, Redhook Brewery's tour includes a brewery walk with information on Redhook's history and processes, 3-4 beer samples, and a souvenir tasting glass for $5.
In Pike Place Market, Vital Tea Leaf offers free tastings of high-end tea in a traditional Chinese-style teahouse.
Take a free self-guided cell phone or docent-led tour of the mod Seattle Central Library, one of only six major works in the U.S. designed by Rem Koolhaas, or download an audio tour and map from the library's website for a self-guided tour. A full calendar of readings by renowned authors, kid story times, and teen programming is available online.
In the heart of the International District, the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience is the only pan-Asian Pacific American museum in the country and the first Smithsonian affiliate in the region, with artifacts, photographs, archives, and oral histories revealing the culture of the Asian Pacific American community. The museum waives its admission fee each first Thursday of the month.
Freeway Park, a five-acre (two-hectare) city park that sits in downtown Seattle over Interstate 5, has great views of downtown buildings, a walking loop, free Wi-Fi, and free music and theater performances in the summer.
The interactive KidsQuest Children's Museum is $1 from 5 to 8 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month in nearby Bellevue's Factoria Mall. Climb the giant indoor tree house to enjoy a tea party, hit the knot board to learn how to tie a square knot, or tinker with tools in the museum's hands-on garage.
The University of Washington Botanic Gardens' Elisabeth C. Miller Library offers free family programs one Saturday a month September through June, geared for children ages three to eight, with stories and activities that celebrate little tykes' green thumbs, from harvest-time apples to May flowers.
Nestled on Magnolia Bluff, Discovery Park, Seattle's largest city park, overlooks Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains with 534 acres (216 hectares) of tidal beaches, open meadows, sea cliffs, forest groves, active sand dunes, thickets, and streams. Check out Native American art and handicrafts at the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.
With a prime Capitol Hill locale, climbing the popular water tower at Volunteer Park offers the "best free panoramic view in Seattle," as voted by readers of Seattle Weekly.
Sundays, boat rides are free at the Center for Wooden Boats, a free hands-on museum that explains maritime traditions and aims to preserve the art of handcrafted wooden boats, located on Lake Union just north of downtown.
Explore Washington Park Arboretum's 230 acres (93 hectares) of 10,000 native plants in this internationally recognized woody plant collection, featuring sorbus, maple, hollies, oaks, conifers, and camellias. Free tours are available every Sunday at 1 p.m. (January-November).
For a quintessential photo op, head to Kerry Park, a small grassy strip on Upper Queen Anne. The views of the Space Needle, downtown Seattle, and Elliott Bay are only rivaled by the sometimes-sightings of Mount Rainier looming above.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Hit Myrtle Edwards Park's running and biking trails, which wind 1.25 miles (two kilometers) north of the waterfront with impressive views of Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, and the skyline.
One of Seattle's most popular urban parks, Green Lake has two paths for walkers, bicyclers, strollers, and skaters: the 2.8-mile (4.4-kilometer) paved path that circles the lake and a less-crowded, 3.2-mile (2.15-kilometer) unpaved path on the park's perimeter. Or, sunbathe or swim on the two lakefront beaches.
The Northwest Ultimate Association hosts free pick-up games of Ultimate Frisbee at parks around Seattle. Check their online listings for details.
Stop to smell (some of) the 280 rose varieties while strolling the grass pathways at the Woodland Park Zoo's Rose Garden, free of charge since opening in 1924. Seattle's moderate climate boasts one of the world's finest rose-growing habitats and is one of 24 All-America Rose Selections Test Gardens in the country. Gardeners: Note the free rose-pruning demonstration on the last Sunday in February.
A 45-minute drive southeast from Seattle, Rattlesnake Ridge's four-mile (6.4-kilometer), moderate-level trail affords hikers sweeping views.
Founded in 1927 by a Japanese immigrant, 20-acre (eight-hectare) Kubota Garden has since achieved landmark status and continues as a tranquil retreat in Rainier Beach.
Theater companies across the region celebrate the local theater scene with backstage tours, free kids workshops, and more than 50 free performances during Seattle's annual "Arts Crush," held each October.
Catch lunchtime preview seminars of Pacific Northwest Ballet performances some Tuesdays at the Central Seattle Public Library.
Wooden O Theatre Productions, a free Shakespeare company, performs modern takes on classics outdoors at various parks around Seattle during the summer.
5th Avenue Theatre's producing artistic director hosts free, educational Spotlight Nights (every couple of months) featuring guest speakers and performers who intertwine song, dance, interviews, video clips, and more at these popular behind-the-scenes previews of upcoming shows.