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



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.)


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(*Note: Enjoy day trips from Seattle only at times when it's wise to do so.) Some of Washington's most magnificent scenery can be found within this national forest's expansive boundaries. The rugged--and at times harsh--landscape encompasses the Cascade Mountains as well as an active volcano in the form of Mt. Baker. Beginning in mid-September, the forest's flora slowly change from bright greens to reds and oranges, providing an attractive contrast to the area's coverage of conifers. Huckleberry, mountain ash, and heather offer a patchwork of warm colors, often reflected in the forest's many lakes. Since the forest is so extensive, a driving tour is an ideal way to see as much fall foliage as possible in a relatively short time. Try the Mt. Baker Highway or the North Cascades Highway for some unforgettable views.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Day trips from Seattle (at times when it's wise to do so) include Mt. Baker, where some of Washington's most magnificent scenery can be found.

Corinne's expert tip: For science buffs: Mount Baker, also known as Koma Kulshan or simply Kulshan, is an active glaciated andesitic stratovolcano. (For outdoors lovers: Check out the skiing here in snowy months!)

Read more about Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest →




(*Note: Enjoy day trips only at times when it's advisable to do so.) This slumbering volcano is the second-tallest mountain in the continental United States after California's Mt. Whitney. Because of its northern locale and more extreme weather,, Washington State's prime peak is used by many mountaineering groups to train for ascents of the world's most challenging climbs. In warmer months, flocks of climber queue up to challenge the summit's less strenuous routes, and throughout the year a variety of activities are available to extreme athletes and vacationing families alike. Hundreds of miles of hiking trails wind through dense past placid lakes and frothing waterfalls. The scenic Wonderland Trail encircles the entire park, catering to long-range backpackers. There are plenty of short, spectacular day trips, as well, whether hiking in summer of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in winter. Lodging is available on the mountain at the historic inn at Paradise.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Day trips (at times when it's wise to do so) include Mount Rainier National Park, a prime locale for awe-inspiring hiking, skiing and wildflower viewing.

Corinne's expert tip: One of the tallest peaks in the United States, Mt. Rainier is a training destination for international climbing parties, but during mild seasons on basic routes the trek is accessible to climbers of most skill levels.

Read more about Mount Rainier National Park →




(Note: To maintain space from other walkers and joggers here, go at off hours or keep to less secluded grassy areas.) This local park accommodates a host of joggers, in-line skaters and sunbathers that exercise and bask along the greenbelt that circles Green Lake, the park's picturesque centerpiece. A favorite of locals, the park's plentiful green space and open water in the midst of an urban landscape creates a true oasis. The park also serves as a natural preserve for hundreds of species of trees and plants, as well as for numerous birds and waterfowl. Seattleites also make good use of the expansive athletic fields or visit the park for boating, picnics, and swimming. Make sure to visit Green Lake Small Craft Center, which is located at the southwest corner of the park and offers rowing, canoeing, kayaking, and sailing classes.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: This local park accommodates a host of joggers and cyclists exercising, plus those relaxing along the greenbelt that circles Green Lake. (Visit during unpopulated hours.)

John's expert tip: The 2.8-mile path around the lake provides a perfect recreational spot for runners, bikers, skaters, and walkers, but hardcore athletes often test their abilities on the unpaved 3.2-mile, outer-loop track.

Read more about Green Lake Park →


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Olympic Sculpture Park
Photo courtesy of SAM-Olympic Sculpture Park


(*While SAM's three venues are closed, see art via their blog and by accessing an online video series.) Once open 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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Once it reopens, the free Olympic Sculpture Park brings alfresco art to a stunning, waterfront setting. In the meantime, connect to Seattle Art Museum online.

Corinne's expert tip: (*While SAM's three venues are closed, see art via their blog and by accessing this video series: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLDFX-IVwOcY_pMVLCy78mxFJCI0c3EyZ4&utm_source=SAM+Contact+List&utm_campaign=028870b923-stay_home_sam_2020_03_19&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_9ef423bd02-028870b923-161974149). Although it's mostly an outdoor experience, the sculpture park features the PACCAR Pavilion, where the Seattle Art Museum operates the SAM Shop at Olympic Sculpture Park and Landscapes Café offers a range of specialty coffees and beverages.

Read more about Olympic Sculpture Park →


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Space yourself out among other humans (and dogs) at Magnuson Park, 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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Magnuson Park, a 350-acre park on Sand Point at Pontiac Bay, Lake Washington, is a favorite spot for Seattle families and dog owners.

Corinne's expert tip: Dog lovers unite! The Magnuson off-leash area contains 8.6 acres and is the only one inside city limits with water access (Lake Washington's freshwater shoreline).

Read more about Magnuson Park →


Gas Works Park


(*Space yourself out for fantastic cityscape views, if you come here at a crowded time.) 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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Gas Works Park is a unique, beautiful urban space that offers grassy knolls for wandering and picnicking. Space yourself out for fantastic cityscape views.

Corinne's expert tip: The extensive urban Burke-Gilman Trail runs past Gas Works parking lot and follows the Burlington-Northern Railroad 12.5 miles north to Kirkland Log Boom Park. Events often enliven this space from beer festivals and yoga classes to summer happenings like silent disco parties.

Read more about Gas Works Park →


KEXP 90.3 SEATTLE venue
Photo courtesy of Melissa Wax/KEXP


(*Even when this space is closed, you can feel connected to/healed by music by tuning into 90.3 FM.) 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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Tune into 90.3 FM, or, when it's open, visit KEXP's dazzling downtown complex featuring live performances, a coffee shop, plus and an ultra-friendly, community vibe.

Corinne's expert tip: (*Even when this space is closed, you can feel connected to/healed by music by tuning into 90.3 FM.) At all other times, find the schedule for free, live, in-studio sessions at www.kexp.org/events/instudio. Simply visit the info desk on the day of the performance to get a spot in the queue.

Read more about KEXP 90.3 SEATTLE venue →




(*Although this destination offers plenty of space when you find its less populated areas, great views can also be enjoyed from the comfort of one's car.) 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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: One of Seattle's best features, Golden Gardens is located on Puget Sound. The beach offers extraordinary Olympic Mountains views (even from the parking lot).

Corinne's expert tip: Although bonfires are permitted here, they must be built inside official fire pits (which fill quickly on summer evenings). Pick up picnic provisions from Red Mill Burgers or Un Bien (for fabulous Caribbean sandwiches; their hours vary, depending on the season!).

Read more about Golden Gardens →


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


(At present, support Market businesses that offer delivery, takeout or shipping options.) Typically, the sights, smells and sounds have always made Pike Place a head-spinning whirlwind for first-time visitors. (Newest bonus: A couple 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 and aromatic flower stalls. Farm-fresh produce lines the aisles, and local artisans display their art and wares unique to the Northwest. Restaurants, breweries and specialty shops offer countless reasons to stay. 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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Historic Pike Place Market is perhaps THE essential Seattle attraction. At present, support Market businesses that offer delivery, takeout or shipping options.

Corinne's expert tip: (*For the time being, support Market businesses that offer delivery, takeout or shipping options.) Check out Market expansion highlights, like 30,000 square feet of open public space that offer dazzling panoramas of Mount Rainier, the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound. Discover artisan vendors that are newer to this new site, too–like honest Biscuits, Little Fish, indi chocolate and Old Stove Brewing Co. (with a bustling tasting room that features prime water views).

Read more about Pike Place Market →




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.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Magnificent Discovery Park offers a great outdoorsy option within city limits. Go for a trail walk or run, then wander the lovely stretch of beach.

Corinne's expert tip: The park can be reached by car or public bus. Access park entrances via the East and South parking lots; the East Parking Lot is closest to the Visitor Center if you prefer to grab a map before heading out to explore.

Read more about Discovery Park →


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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

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