Seattle on a Shoestring: Free & Affordable Activities, Rich With Delight

Footloose and fancy-free: Sometimes you just want to experience a city's indulgent riches without emptying your bank account. Thankfully, Seattle is a city where doing that is a feasible goal. Here, natural beauty abounds, so sometimes soaking up the city's finest points means simply heading up the region's steep hills (or toward the water....or into thick patches of forest...). Choosing from alfresco excursions can prove a challenge since there's such an abundance of options, but urban sites like Discovery and Gas Works parks are pretty much a guarantee. If you happen to have a bit more time to spare (and a car at your disposal), consider road tripping to Olympic National Park or Mt. Rainier, where the sites and hues prepared by Mother Nature will steal away your breath.

But Seattle also offers up culture for free, too, at spots like downtown's iconic Pike Place Market, the gathering space-cafe-music venue home of beloved radio station KEXP and the lounge at Hotel Sorrento Hotel. Certain venues typically come with a fee (like MOHAI), but if you stay on the ball and do your research, you can find certain days and times when free events are on offer, too. (Side note: if you're determined to see the city's most popular tourist site as well, like the Space Needle, for example, find deep discounts available through purchasing a CityPASS.)


Museum of History and Industry
Photo courtesy of Loren Javier

Although an entry fee is typically charged, guests can look into special days/times and events that offer free activities (like the first Thursday of every month, when all permanent exhibits can be accessed free of charge!). The Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) is the largest private heritage organization in Washington State, devoted to teaching and preserving the diverse history of Seattle, the Puget Sound region and the country. Start with the permanent exhibit, "True Northwest: The Seattle Journey," which traverses "the real Seattle story, from an age when Native American cultures first came into contact with Europeans to the region's transformation into a major global hub."

Magnuson Park

Magnuson Park is an urban, 350-acre park on Sand Point at Pontiac Bay, Lake Washington. This park, the second largest in Seattle, includes pieces of Seattle's military past (it's situated on a former Navy airfield). Today visitors enjoy boating, walking, kite flying and, last but not least, swimming. The beach here includes a tiny pebble shoreline, the perfect gateway to refreshing waters that average 67 degrees during summer months (from June until Labor Day). Grassy flats west of the beach provide perfect lounging territory, and guests can also find a children's wading pool, picnic shelters and tables (perfect for a BYO feast) nearby.

Chittenden Locks & Carl English Botanical Gardens

Originally built in 1911, these locks offer a fascinating lesson in technology from days gone by. Observe ships and sailing vessels as they enter the locks and, following a series of mechanical adjustments, depart into either the sound or the lake at a completely different water level. You can learn all about the locks' history in the visitor center; from March to November, guided tours are also offered. In addition, visitors may look through a viewing glass to see salmon run from fresh to salt water in season (June through October and March through April). Also, be sure not to miss the seven-acre Carl English Botanical Gardens, which present nearly 2,000 varieties of plant life.

Gas Works Park

On the north end of Lake Union, you'll find what may be the most unique park in the area. The 21-acre industrial area, formerly the site of a gas plant, was transformed in 1975 into a recreational complex (a worldwide first). You'll find that there's plenty to do in the park, including kayaking, sailing, picnicking and bicycling. From atop the park's 60-foot hill (which underwent renovations in late 2014), visitors find one of Seattle's best views, and the park is a favorite place to view the city's Fourth of July fireworks display. The 200-seat picnic shelter can be reserved for special occasions. Events often enliven this space, ranging from beer festivals and yoga classes to silent disco parties.

Golden Gardens

West of Ballard, visitors find one of Seattle's best gems: Golden Gardens beach. Located on Puget Sound, this popular public park offers extraordinary views of the water and the nearby Olympic Mountains. The park includes wetlands, beaches, hiking trails, as well as picnic and playground areas. The park is bisected by the BNSF Scenic Subdivision railway line. Golden Gardens offers strolls along a rugged coastline, hikes through forest trails, sunbathing on sandy beaches, fishing from a pier and a boat launch. In summer months, sandy volleyball courts fill with active folks, while the waters fill with swimmers, kite-surfers, kayakers, sailors and other nautically-inclined guests. The park is also home to an off-leash area for dogs in the upper northern portion of the park.

Fireside Room (Hotel Sorrento)
Photo courtesy of Andrew Giammarco

Inside Hotel Sorrento, a grand social room awaits. "Swathed in ochre mahogany paneling, furnished in eclectic midcentury-modern, outfitted with a baby grand piano and encircling a wide, octagonal central column, the Fireside Room is a throwback to more elegant times." During the day, guests gather in this luxe office space; evenings bring craft beers and ciders at the bespoke Fireside Bar, as well as live music performances every Friday and Saturday night. Free events draw loyal fans, like Silent Reading parties the first Wednesday of every month. At 6 p.m. the Fireside Room goes quiet and fills with people reading side by side. (By 7 p.m., you can't get a seat.)

Situated on Magnolia Bluff overlooking Puget Sound, this expansive urban park--the largest in Seattle --offers two miles of beach trails and nine miles of winding footpaths. Ostensibly a bluff-top reserve, Discovery Park protects a remarkable urban wilderness and is a great place for nature-watching. The Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, which features art and cultural exhibits, is also located at the park, as is a marine reserve. An 1881 lighthouse, the oldest in the area, can also be found here. Offering breathtaking views of both the Cascade and the Olympic mountain ranges, the park's remote site includes protected tidal beaches as well as open meadow lands, dramatic sea cliffs, forest groves, active sand dunes, thickets and streams.

Pike Place Market
Photo courtesy of Magic in the Market/Richmond Public Relations

Sights, smells and sounds have always made Pike Place a head-spinning whirlwind for first-time visitors. (Newest bonus: Two summers ago revealed the results of the site's $74 million MarketFront expansion project.) Yet most things here haven't changed. Fishmongers near the main entrance still entice buyers with loud hawking and dexterous salmon-throwing antics, the briny smell of fresh seafood filling the air. Countering that attraction are the rows of vibrantly colorful flower stalls, which emit pleasing aromas. Farm-fresh produce lines the aisles, and local artisans display their art and wares unique to the Northwest. Restaurants, breweries and specialty shops selling everything from antiques to movie ephemera fill the multi-level maze. To help visitors find their way, the Market Foundation offers tours on Saturdays during summer months. Once you have your bearings, pick out a favorite spot and enjoy some of the best people-watching around.

Olympic Sculpture Park
Photo courtesy of SAM-Olympic Sculpture Park

Stroll through the grounds, and admire the fascinating large-scale works on display at this nine-acre green space. Extensive landscaping enhances the park's beauty, and a walkway, extending from the beach to Belltown, provides views of the Puget Sound and of downtown landmarks. Among the pieces on view, find "Eye Benches I, II, III" by Louise Bourgeois, a series of functional carved-granite benches that take the form of giant eyeballs. Also, find work from the height of famed sculptor Alexander Calder's career— "The Eagle" (1971), a huge, abstract steel sculpture that's bright orange. Free, 60-minute public tours are offered; times and topics vary by season, so check the website ahead of time.

KEXP 90.3 SEATTLE venue
Photo courtesy of Melissa Wax/KEXP

To build the vision for its "New Home" venue in Seattle Center, KEXP reached out to peers like musicians, teachers, business leaders, politicians and heads of arts organizations. The beloved radio station says, "They encouraged us to remain authentic while continuing to innovate, to keep building community, to engage more music lovers and artists, and provide the public greater access to 'music that matters.'" The venue features flexible indoor and outdoor spaces to accommodate live performances and events, spaces for musicians to recharge, a bustling coffee counter and up-to-date equipment for the best possible programming. Members of the public enjoy the spacious community gathering space; KEXP offers 4,500-plus square feet for performances, dance parties, classes, lectures and more. Another highlight? A visible DJ booth. Every Friday in August, discover KEXP's "Concerts at the Mural," an annual, all-ages series presented in partnership with Seattle Center (held at the nearby Mural Amphitheater).


Meet Corinne Whiting

Corinne hails from the other Washington, where she caught the travel bug early on. Corinne studied abroad in Strasbourg, France (undergrad) and in Edinburgh, Scotland (graduate school). She's...  More About Corinne