Seattle offers a number of free outdoor attractions, from the Olympic Sculpture Park and the Ballard Locks to Gas Works and Discovery parks.
And Seattle’s many attractions, including the iconic Space Needle, Chihuly Garden and Glass, and Pike Place Market brought in over 40 million visitors last year according to Visit Seattle, so it’s no wonder it has become one of the most expensive U.S. cities to visit.
But here’s the rub: It often rains in Seattle, and even if you’re committed to enjoying Seattle on a budget, you are not always going to want to be outside. Plus, why go to Seattle and not enjoy the attractions the city is so famous for? The trick is to find ways to do them more cheaply. Here’s how.
1. Explore Pike Place Market
Established in 1907, Pike Place Market is one of the oldest continuously running markets in the country. It grew to become a bustling and boisterous warren where even locals can get lost.
As orientation is difficult, many tourists rely on expensive market tours.
But there is a free option: the Seattle Free Walking Tours Market Experience. The hour-long tour covers the famous fish throwers, the Gum Wall, and the first Starbucks. Learn the market’s history, enjoy numerous tastings and locate famous eateries such as Pike Place Chowder (voted America’s best seafood chowder), Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, and Piroshky Bakery for divine Russian pastries.
Tours end at the market information center, where further help is on hand. Don’t miss the Crumpet Shop, a favorite with locals. It’s a 40-something-year-old institution serving organic crumpets with toppings such as wild smoked salmon, fresh pesto, blackberry preserves, and lemon curd. A barista coffee at hole-in-the-wall Ghost Espresso is a fine introduction to the local coffee-roasting scene.
2. Take A Cheap Brewery Tour
Not only coffee, but beer fuels Seattle. In a city with over 60 breweries it is fortuitous that Pike Brewing Company (established in 1989) is near the market and offers $10 brewery tours. These offer great insight into Seattle’s famous craft brewery scene, generous free samples, a memento glass, and an education in beer. Though I don’t consider myself a beer drinker, I was converted by this tour.
3. Stroll Or Bus Along The Waterfront
From Pike Place Market, steps lead down to the mile-long strip alongside Elliot Bay where you can walk out along historic piers, watch tour boats and cruise ships, and photograph the Seattle Great Wheel. Pier 56 has seafood offerings including $2 happy hour oysters at Elliott’s Oyster House from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Pre-plan where you will end up in the late afternoon, as Seattle has an extensive cheap happy hour scene that includes meals, drinks, and even attractions.
Another saver is the free tourist shuttle that runs along the waterfront in summer (extended through October this year). You can hop on and off at 15 stops that start at Pioneer Square and end in the Space Needle tourist precinct. Shuttles run every 10 to 20 minutes from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
4. Ride The Monorail
You may have seen Seattle’s famous monorail in the opening credits of Frasier.
The Space Needle and adjacent monorail were constructed for the 1962 World's Fair. The duo offered a vision of what the 21st-century future might look like. No wonder the ride feels Jetson-like futuristic.
Hovering a couple of stories above the ground, Seattle’s traffic is at your feet and you can peer into office windows as you whizz past. The last section cuts through the hooded canopy of the Frank Gehry-designed MoPOP Museum.
Departures are every ten minutes and trips take two minutes. Tickets are $3. Board at the Westlake Center (5th and Pine Street walkable from the market) and disembark at the Seattle Center (adjacent to the Space Needle). You’ll probably want to do the return journey just for fun.
5. Consider Buying A CityPASS
Seattle’s CityPASS offers discounted tickets to Seattle Aquarium, the Space Needle, Argosy Cruises Harbor Tour, either the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) or the Woodland Park Zoo, and the Chihuly Garden and Glass or the Pacific Science Center.
The overall discount is 47 percent and holders skip queues. Of course, this is only a great value if you were planning to visit these iconic Seattle attractions in the first place, so purchase wisely.
6. Marvel At Chihuly Garden And Glass
Chihuly Garden and Glass, which is situated in the shadow of the Space Needle, showcases artist Dale Chihuly’s iconic creations. With eight interior galleries and a stunning outdoor garden, most tourists are blown away by his work. And while you may well have seen glasswork before, these creations are of unrivaled magnitude, stunning colors, and sculptural significance.
Summer evening entry to Chihuly Garden and Glass is significantly cheaper and less crowded.
The diffuse light of the golden hour is the perfect time to photograph the magical garden.
No need for selfies. Roving staff photographers are happy to take photos. You can email the free professional photos to yourself and others using a self-service kiosk. It’s a great, non-traditional means of sending a postcard.
7. Embrace Views Of The Space Needle
Failing to see the Space Needle in Seattle would be like visiting Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower.
But should you queue up for one of the exoskeleton elevators that climb the sides like flies up a wall? Especially considering that tickets cost over $35 for the 43-second ride to the top?
The observation area provides panoramic views, but ironically, the best sights in town are of the Space Needle, which you can’t see when you are perched on top of it.
There are better views -- and ones that do encompass the Space Needle.
The Sky View Observatory on the 73rd floor of the Columbia Center offers 360-degree views of Mount Rainier, Elliott Bay, the Olympic Mountains, the Seattle metropolis, and, of course, the Space Needle. Tickets are $22.
The Seattle Great Wheel, the tallest Ferris wheel on the West Coast, offers riders three rotations’ worth of panoramic views from an enclosed gondola. Tickets cost $15.
Seattle’s first skyscraper, Smith Tower, was built in 1914 and offers both history and views. Ride up in an original manual elevator with a human operator, then step out into a vintage speakeasy-style bar surrounded by an observation deck on an open terrace. Happy hour tickets (available from 4 to 6 p.m.) are $12 rather than the customary $20, and you can enjoy cheap drink and food options.
A summer pop-up cider bar on the 22nd floor has outside seating around fire pits and startlingly beautiful views of Seattle’s twinkling lights -- and of aircraft heading to Sea-Tac Airport. Entry is $10 and includes a $5 food or drink credit.
Of course, locals know where to take their visitors for the best views, and often opt to see the city from the water rather than land. The 15-minute King County Water Taxi ride to West Seattle costs only a few dollars and provides incredible views of the Space Needle, the city skyline, and Mount Rainier. Once you move away from the shore, you can photograph Seattle’s iconic places all in one frame.
8. Enjoy Free Cultural Attractions
It is hard to keep up with Seattle’s many free attractions so it is worth noting this regularly updated list, and the fact that the following cultural attractions are always free.
The Seattle Public Library on 4th Avenue is an architectural wonder. Rods of steel criss-cross extensive glass, offering remarkable views of the sky. Also available to sweeten your visit: Chocolati Cafe, an on-site chocolate shop.
The Frye Art Museum offers world-class, free exhibitions. The Frye has featured the art of Andy Warhol, Isamu Noguchi, and Jim Woodring, to name a few.
The Seattle Theater Group offers free tours of the historic Paramount, Moore, and Neptune theaters. See grandiose architecture, hear snippets of theatrical and musical history, and perhaps even get a peek backstage.
9. Research Accommodation Options Carefully
Downtown Seattle hotels are expensive and quoted prices rarely include state taxes or parking fees.
Prices are high because demand continues to outpace supply, and the busiest period is between May and September when the Alaska cruise season pushes occupancy rates sky high.
Consider visiting in February, during Seattle’s Museum Month, when some hotels offer deals such as half-off admission rates to popular museums.
While most attractions are downtown, consider staying in cheaper, adjacent neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, and Eastlake. The University District, while five miles out, is also a decent option as it offers frequent downtown bus service.
Airbnbs are the cheapest option but tend to book out quickly, so if you want to go that route, find one months in advance.
10. Move Around Seattle On The Cheap
The rail from Sea-Tac to downtown takes 31 minutes and only costs a few dollars. After that, Ubers in Seattle are well priced compared to some American cities. My Airbnb was off 16th Avenue in South Seattle, and most attractions were an $8 Uber ride away.
If driving, know that Seattle roads are congested. Car parking is available along the waterfront at $3 an hour with two-hour limits. Some nearby garages match this price for four hours. Sunday parking is free, but time restrictions apply.
Another option is to leave your vehicle at one of the Park and Rides and travel in by bus. Public transport is cheap and offers a chance to meet some of Seattle’s locals.
Still trying to decide what to do? Locals reveal Seattle’s four most overrated attractions, and what to do instead.