Seattle skyline from Kerry Park

9 Free Things To Do in Seattle

Naomi Tomky

Naomi Tomky

November 29, 2023

6 min read

Table of Contents

The absolute best thing to do in Seattle never costs anything: stare at the impressive array of mountains and seemingly endless stretches of water that surround the city. Once you catch Mount Rainier—the tallest mountain in Washington and most glaciated peak in the lower 48—through a plane window or survey the skyline at sunset from Kerry Park, it’s easy to see why.

Seattle tends to be an expensive place to stay and eat, but it also happens to offer a ton of inexpensive activities. The city’s love of music shines with free concerts like downtown’s Summer Sounds, and its health-mindedness comes alive with exercise classes like the ones offered by Summer at SAM (make sure to check the seasonal schedule for both ahead of time). Seattleites are often the butt of the joke for their inability to commit to plans; lucky for you, some of the best things in the city require little-to-no planning—and absolutely no money. 

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Best free things to do in Seattle

Set sail from The Center for Wooden Boats

The Center for Wooden Boats on Lake Union in Seattle

This living museum, perched on the shore of South Lake Union, teaches workshops on wooden boatbuilding and displays exhibits about the process and craft. Its campus also includes an education center, boathouse, and many boats along its dock, which anyone can rent for an hourly fee—or for free.

The museum is free, and as part of the nonprofit's mission to make boating accessible to all, it also offers free one-hour rowboat rentals during operating hours. Reservations to row the small boats around the lake need to be made online a few weeks ahead and tend to fill up. One Sunday each month—typically near the end of the month—volunteers also take visitors out on the Center’s impressive collection of boats (steamboats, schooners, and more) for a free spin around the lake; check the website for details on upcoming boat rides.

Wander the Olympic Sculpture Park

The Olympic Sculpture Park and Space Needle in Seattle

An old industrial site at the north end of downtown received the world’s most incredible glow-up in 2007 when the Seattle Art Museum converted the site into a nine-acre outdoor art gallery. A wide path zigzags down the sloping public park to the Elliott Bay waterfront, leading visitors past sculptures by world-class artists like Alexander Calder, known for his large mobiles and static "stabiles," and Jaume Plensa, the world-renowned contemporary portrait artist with a knack for sculpting giant heads coming out of the ground. The museum offers a free self-guided smartphone tour on its website and runs free hour-long tours most Saturdays. Throughout the year, and particularly in summer, the museum also hosts free cultural events at the park, such as concerts, lectures, and exercise classes.

Visit two historic parks in Pioneer Square

A waterfall in Waterfall Garden in Seattle

All three of Washington’s national parks—Mount Rainier, North Cascades, and Olympic—sit about two hours from Seattle and charge entrance fees; however, the outpost of Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, located in Skagway, Alaska, is right in the center of Seattle’s Pioneer Square, and it’s completely free to visit. Recreations of a miner’s cabin and general store from the Klondike Gold Rush era at the end of the 19th century fill two floors of the historic Cadillac Hotel. The building, built in 1899, once housed people passing through Seattle on their way north; it now holds relics from their lives and exhibits focusing on their journeys.

If you’re hungry, grab food from a nearby restaurant and take it one block north to another important site, one of the best places for a picnic in Seattle. Waterfall Garden, an oasis of calm amid the city, marks the place where a young entrepreneur started the American Messenger Service, which later became UPS.

Go to the Frye Art Museum

A quick walk or streetcar ride from downtown, the free Frye Art Museum exhibits modern and contemporary art from its elegant First Hill home. Founded with a personal collection of 19th- and 20th-century European oil paintings, it has since expanded to include more recent works, additional mediums, like woodcuts and carved jewelry, and a global selection, sourced from local Indigenous, Asian, and African artists. At 1pm each Saturday and Sunday, it runs free tours of the current exhibits.

Across town, another major contemporary art museum, the Henry Art Gallery, is also technically free, though it does suggest donations.

Play music, see art, or surf the web at the library

The Red Floor at Central Library in Seattle

Seattle’s 11-story, Rem Koolhaas-designed Central Library stands out on the skyline with its boxy glass and steel architecture, and the facility inside stands out for its excellent services. Light-filled public spaces welcome anyone to use the wifi, computers, printers, and phone-charging stations, making it a useful stop for visitors; the tourist information center on the third floor comes in handy as well.  

Bibliophiles should wander the winding book spiral up four floors filled with non-fiction books, while audiophiles can book an hour in the private music rooms to jam on a digital piano. The art on display includes a George Tsutakawa fountain and the immersive Red Floor, featuring 13 different shades of the color on the walls, ceiling, floors, and stairs. The library offers printable-, smartphone-, and audio-guided tours of the building on its website. The only things that cost money are the chocolate and coffee shop on the third floor and the nearby gift stand featuring local art, cards, and trinkets.

Stop and smell the flowers in Washington Park Arboretum

Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle

This joint operation by the city of Seattle and the University of Washington Botanic Gardens covers 230 acres of land along the shore of Lake Washington (just south of the university) with a captivating, all-season display of flowers, trees, and plants. A series of trails—including the aptly named Azalea Way—wind through the collection of oaks, maples, rhododendrons, and more; there are also boardwalks leading through marshes and over the wetlands to small islands. Seasonal maps (online and at the visitor's center) help you find the most exciting parts of the park at any time, and the trail map includes a mini-plant identification guide. Google Maps has all of the different species marked, and the park offers materials for a self-guided forest bathing session, helping people destress through immersion in nature.

A 3.5-acre Japanese garden within the park (open March to November) charges $10 to visit serene grounds designed for meditative strolls around the pond. For $15 more, you can attend the weekly tea ceremony (Saturdays and some Fridays and Mondays).

Eat African or Indigenous-influenced cuisine at Wa Na Wari

The effort by Wa Na Wari to support Black art and belonging in the historically red-lined Central District is one of the most moving and beautiful developments in the city. The artist-led group rents a fifth-generation Black-owned home in the neighborhood, helping to keep the house in the family, and uses it as a gallery space for local artists, among other things. It also runs a garden in the backyard for food justice, trains oral historians, and partners with a city program to offer free meals on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; the meals are made by local BIPOC chefs cooking African Diasporic cuisine and food using ingredients found in Indigenous cuisine. The chefs use local produce and proteins to make dishes like berbere-spice chicken, vegan chili, and wild rice.

Entrance to the gallery and the meals are both free, but a donation is requested to support the programs and continue the fight against gentrification. 

Going Picks for best free things to do in Seattle

Tour the Ballard Locks

Ballard Locks in Seattle

The Army Corps of Engineers built the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in 1917 to regulate the flow of saltwater from Shilshole Bay as it meets the freshwater of the Lake Washington Shipping Canal. Commercial fisherman, yachters, and tour boats alike wait as the system levels the water, a complex and fascinating process, before continuing their journey in or out of the canal. Entrance is free to the Ballard complex, about a 15-minute drive north of downtown, and even those who don’t count nautical engineering among their interests will find plenty to enjoy.

Visitors can enter the site through the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden, and at the far end of the complex, underwater windows allow visitors to watch up-close as salmon navigate the fish ladder to bypass the locks—particularly mesmerizing for small children. While the locks are well known (and well loved), the coolest part is rarely discussed: Rangers offer fascinating free tours of the facility multiple times each day, explaining the history of the locks and how they work; the tour schedule changes seasonally, so call ahead to confirm when they’re running.

Attend a free public lecture at the University of Washington

Buildings and cherry blossoms at the University of Washington in Seattle

A little-known benefit of sharing the city with a major public university comes in the enormous quantity of top experts sharing their insights on every topic, free, on any given day. Faculty panels, author talks, and workshops feature topics like Indigenous storytelling and speakers such as Questlove—a musician, record producer, and filmmaker, among his other titles. 

To attend the events, you just have to register for a seat. Attending a talk also gives you the opportunity to walk around the beautiful campus: Look through the rose garden to Mount Rainier from Drumheller Fountain, admire the early-spring cherry blossoms snowing pink on the quad, and pop into the century-old Collegiate Gothic-style Suzzallo Library, affectionately nicknamed the “Cathedral of Books.”

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Other Seattle guides

Naomi Tomky

Naomi Tomky

Freelance Writer

Award-winning Seattle-based writer Naomi Tomky explores the world with a hungry eye, digging into the intersection of food, culture, and travel for AFAR, Saveur, Travel + Leisure, and more. Find her on the shelves of your local bookstore as the author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook.

Published November 29, 2023

Last updated December 21, 2023

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