Seattle on a Shoestring

As part of our Seattle Travel Giveaway, I am introducing the first in a three part series for Seattle on a Shoestring. This is a guide to dozens of free or extremely low-cost, fun things to do in the Emerald City. And don’t forget about your chance to win a 2-night stay at Hotel Max, along with an autographed copy of my book, The Insiders Guide to Seattle.

Although it can be easy to do so, you don’t have to spend a boatload of money when visiting Seattle. If you’re short on cash, don’t fret – there is an absolutely astounding amount of cool, fun things to do in this city without spending a penny! 

5th Avenue Theatre: Take advantage of the popular series, Spotlight Nights, which gives behind-the-scenes looks at upcoming shows put on by the 5th Avenue Theatre company. Artistic Director David Armstrong leads guest speakers and performers through song, dance, interviews and more.

Benaroya Hall: This gorgeous performance hall that is home to the Seattle Symphony offers free public tours, on Tuesdays and Fridays at noon and 1 pm at the Grand Lobby entrance. On select Mondays throughout the year, you can get a real treat – Joseph Adams, the resident organist on the 4,490 pipe Watjen Concert Organ, gives a free 30 minute concert starting at 12:30 pm, with tours both before the performance, at noon; and afterward.

Blitz Art Walk: This art walk is held in the creative Capitol Hill neighborhood, showcasing visual, literary, musical and performing arts. Held on the second Thursday of each month from 5-8 pm.

Burke Museum: Free admission all day on the first Thursday of every month, and the museum stays open until 8 pm.

City Hall Lunchtime Concerts: Throughout the year, Seattle City Hall becomes a concert hall on first and third Thursdays. Various free live music is presented at noon, from classical and orchestra performances to percussion, Latin grooves, rock bands, American and Celtic folk music, and children’s concerts. You can even get a card with a redemption code to download a limited-edition, digital music sampler featuring 12 Seattle bands.

Experience Music Project & Science Fiction Museum: During the winter season, EMP hosts All Access Nights when they offer free admission from 5-8 pm on the first Thursday of the month. Call (206) 770-2700 for the exact dates each year that this is offered.

First Thursday Art Walk: The first Thursday of every month is a terrific time to be in Seattle – particularly if you love art and/or you don’t want to spend a lot of money. From noon to 8 pm you can stroll artists booths and galleries throughout Pioneer Square, for free; many galleries offer complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres. You’ll notice in these freebie listings that many Seattle museums also get in on the First Thursday wagon with free admission.

Frye Art Museum: The area’s only art museum that is completely free all the time, the Frye showcases a collection of European and American art. Parking is also free at the downtown museum. Guided tours are available at 1 pm Wednesdays through Sundays, and the museum often has music concerts and other entertainment – all provided at no charge.

Live Theatre Week: Thinking of visiting Seattle in October? If so, take advantage of this fabulous yearly offering from the theatre community. Live Theatre Week features 50 free performances and more than 30 complimentary special events.

Paramount Theatre Tours: On the first Saturday of each month, free guided 90-minute tours of the grand, lovingly restored Paramount are offered to the public. Meet at the main entrance a few minutes before 10 am.

Seattle Art Museum: On the first Thursday of every month, you can enjoy free admission all day to the SAM downtown. First Fridays are free to seniors 62 and over, and second Fridays are teen nights, with free admission from 5-9 pm for ages 13-19.

Seattle Asian Art Museum: Free admission all day on the first Thursday of every month; on the second Thursday of each month, admission is free from 5-9 pm as part of the Blitz Capitol Hill art walk. First Fridays are free to seniors 62 and over, and first Saturdays are free for families, courtesy of Target.

Shakespeare in the Parks: The Seattle Shakespeare Company presents free Shakespeare in the Parks performances every July through August, at various parks around the city. It’s a great opportunity to take a blanket and picnic lunch, as well as your family and pets, and enjoy the outdoor theater.

Wing Luke Asian Museum: Admission is always free on the first Thursday of every month, at Seattle’s Asian-American history museum in the International District – which also makes for a great area to stroll around for free people-watching and entertainment.

Center for Wooden Boats: Every Sunday afternoon the center offers free boat rides on Lake Union. The rides take place at 2 and 3 pm, weather permitting, and you can make reservations in person as early as 10 am on the day of (no phone or prior reservations allowed). The best bet is to get down there as close to 10 am as possible, then tour the museum, do some wood carvings at the center, or have lunch in one of many nearby waterfront restaurants before your boat ride.

Hiram M. Chittenden Locks: The complex of water locks where salmon migrate and boats move between Puget Sound and connecting lakes is a great place to spend a pretty day, absolutely free. You can even get a free guided tour from the visitor center between March 1 and November 30. The adjacent botanical gardens are beautiful and have no admission charges; you might even be lucky enough in summer months to catch a free concert in the park.

Fountains at Seattle Center: Seattle Center is the large, general area that includes the Space Needle, Experience Music Project, Pacific Science Center, Children’s Museum and numerous theaters. While all of the museums and rides do charge admission, the 74-acre campus is free to wander around and presents many free events throughout the year. It’s a very interesting part of the city to people watch and perhaps enjoy an outdoor lunch. The International Fountain is cool and popular, and for families, it’s a place where a lot of children run through the dancing water. Other fountains include the Encircled Stream, Fountain of Creation and Fountain of the Northwest. There are also lots of free events held here include movie screenings, fitness classes, Bite of Seattle Festival in July, the Concerts at the Mural summer series, and many others with no admission charge.

International Fountain at Seattle Center

Maritime Event Center: Admission is always free to this interactive, high-tech nautical museum of maritime history in the Pacific Northwest. Opening days and hours are limited, so be sure to check the website first.

Coast Guard Museum: Interesting collection of Coast Guard memorabilia, uniforms and guns, with Arctic icebreaker ships usually moored nearby. A slice of Seattle maritime history and the important role the Coast Guard plays in it. Open on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays from 9 am to 3 pm.

Pike Place Market: Free entertainment doesn’t get much better than this. Start at the pig – the large bronze swine sculpture that sits at the main entrance to the market, just down from First Avenue and Pike. This is where the famous Pike Place Fish company is located, those crazy guys who throw whole fish to each other as the customers order them. It’s usually thronged with gawkers, and the vendors sometimes get a little put out when there are too many onlookers and no buyers, which just adds to the entertainment value, naturally. You can spend hours walking around here, and could almost make a meal off the dozens of samples that many of the market stalls offer, while street performers entertain. Great, cheap fun any day of the week.

Farmers Markets: Seattle has a thriving community of farmers, flea and open-air markets. At last count there were more than a dozen, including the huge and extremely popular Fremont Sunday Market; but loosely organized grassroots markets spring up all the time as well. There is no admission fee for any of the markets. Great places to stroll and be entertained, as well as grab some great food, for not much money.

Fremont Public Art Sculptures: Fremont is a uniquely weird neighborhood with a distinct personality all its own; it’s no wonder that it draws a lot of artists and other creatives. The area is home to three of the most beloved, offbeat public sculptures in the city. The Fremont Troll lives under the Aurora Avenue Bridge at N. 36th Street; it is a large concrete troll crushing an actual VW Beetle. Visitors climb the troll and graffiti him, and he makes for a great photo opp. Just around the corner, at N. 34th and Fremont Avenue, is the “Waiting for the Interurban” statue. Six cast aluminum figures, including a dog, wait at the bus stop located there, for a bus that never comes. The figures are routinely costumed and adorned by locals. And at 600 N. 36th you’ll find one of the city’s more controversial landmarks – a 16-foot-tall bronze statue of Lenin. Yes, dictator Vladimir Lenin of the former USSR. It arrived in Seattle via Czechoslovakia, where it was found tumbled in a city dump after the fall of communism in 1989. Seattleite Lewis Carpenter mortgaged his house to buy and transport the statue to Seattle, where it has been displayed – and been the subject of constant dispute – ever since.

King County Metro Transit and Sound Transit: In the Ride Free Area consisting of most all downtown Seattle, the bus service in Seattle is free. You can hop on and off as often or as far as you like within this zone, all completely fare-free.

Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center: Experience the culture, history and artifacts of Seattle’s first people. This Native American cultural center is open Monday-Saturday, with free admission.

Kubota Garden: This tranquil public garden was founded in 1927 by Japanese immigrant Fujitaro Kubota, and today is owned by the city. Its stunning 20 acres of urban refuge feature streams, waterfalls, ponds, hills, rock outcroppings and incredible plant collection. When the property was targeted by developers around 1980, it was declared a Historical Landmark for protection.

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park: Located in Pioneer Square, this museum preserves the story of the 1897-98 stampede to the Yukon gold fields and Seattle’s role in this event. Free admission all the time, to everyone. And between June 15 and September 2, they offer a free guided walking tour of historic Pioneer Square. The tours leave each day at 2 pm and last 60-90 minutes; reservations are not needed, but the tour is limited to 25 participants.

Last Resort Fire Department Museum: Also in Pioneer Square, the Last Resort houses the largest collection of antique motorized fire apparatus in the Pacific Northwest. While it’s not for everyone, there are some pretty cool old fire trucks here and it’s worth a stroll. Open on Wednesdays and Thursdays only from 11-3 (in the winter, Wednesday only); free admission.

Olympic Sculpture Park: This nine-acre former industrial site that was turned into a green art space makes for a great stroll dotted with contemporary sculptures by Alexander Calder, Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero. Best of all, it’s open daily to the public, with no admission fees.

Seattle Public Library: One of the most dramatic buildings in Seattle, the central library is one of only four major works in the U.S. designed by Rem Koolhaas. One-hour tours are first-come, first-serve and limited to 20 participants. Library tours are Mondays at 11 am, and architecture tours are Fridays at noon. You can also download a podcast for your own self-guided tour. Once you’re at the library, many free readings and events are held all the time, for both adults and children, so be sure to check out the calendar. The Pacific Northwest Ballet also gives free preview performances on select Tuesdays.

UW Botanic Gardens & Washington Park Arboretum: This international hub for plant science and ecosystem research contains over 10,000 specimens. It’s a hidden gem on the shores of Lake Washington; it seems that most locals don’t even know about this incredible collection of plants that can’t be found anywhere else. An information desk is at the Graham Visitors Center, and trails meander throughout the gardens. It’s also a great place for bird watching. Free guided tours are offered from January through November; the only charge is for the separate Japanese Garden at the south end of the Arboretum.

Volunteer Park Conservatory: This spectacular Victorian-style greenhouse at the north end of Volunteer Park was modeled after London’s Crystal Palace. View and smell the dazzling collection of bromeliads, palms, ferns, trees, cacti and seasonal display plants. Many are very rare, and very old. The conservatory also takes in and displays confiscated or quarantined orchids, cycads and other plants seized by U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents. Admission is free, although donations are appreciated. For the best free view in Seattle, climb the Volunteer Park water tower.

Woodland Park Zoo Rose Garden: Free of charge since opening in 1924, the rose garden at the park boasts 280 varieties of roses in one of the best growing habitats in the world.

How to win the Seattle Travel Giveaway:

  1. Buy How to Travel for Free. For every purchase of the book either as a pdf download, or softcover print version, you will be put into the contest with 10 Entries.
  2. Link to Us. Do you have a website or blog? Link to this post or our Home Page, and you’ll receive an entry. Be sure and notify us of your link!
  3. Make a Comment. Write a comment on this post (and future ones for this contest) and you’ll receive an entry.
  4. Share on Social Media. Tweet, Facebook or Digg this post or our Home Page, and you’ll receive an entry. Be sure to reference us so that we know you’ve linked to us – here’s how:

The contest will end at midnight, Monday February 28. Drawings will be done completely at random from the total entries at that time; the Grand Prize winner will receive a gift certificate for a free 2-night stay at Hotel Max (good for one year) and autographed copy of The Insiders Guide to Seattle; and four runners-up will also receive The Insiders Guide to Seattle. Good luck!

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About Shelley Seale

I'm Shelley, a journeyer and learner of the world, freelance journalist and author, yoga chick and dog lover. I pound the keyboard from home barefoot every day, and while my boss is demanding she also occasionally lets me have the early afternoon cocktail. I think not going into an office or collecting corporate paychecks are very good ideas, though not always profitable. I have written for National Geographic, USA Today, The Guardian, Texas Monthly and CNN, among others. Neither the New York Times nor Johnny Depp have answered my letters yet. I love yoga, indie movies, wine, and books, though not necessarily in that order. I believe in karma. Mean people suck. If I could have any dream job I would like to be a superhero. I have performed a catch on the flying trapeze, boarded down a live volcano and was once robbed by a monkey in Nepal. But, I don't know how to whistle. My mantra is "travel with a purpose."
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4 Responses to Seattle on a Shoestring

  1. Sandy Seale says:

    I am loving this site. Always fun to see whats coming next & all the good tips & ideas. Its always good to save when traveling; gives you more money for future travels :)

    Like this

  2. HiTripper says:

    Glad to have found this site, have heard great things about Hotel Max, looking forward to a stay there!

    Like this

  3. Dawnene Harper says:

    This is so awesome. Seattle is a great city and I would love to go back, it has been many years since I’ve visited. Thanks for sharing all this wonderful information.

    Like this

  4. Pingback: Last Day of Seattle Giveaway – Enter Now! | How To Travel For Free (or pretty damn near it!)

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