10 things to do for free in Seattle

Seattle's bohemian nature lends itself to those looking to do something out of the ordinary on the cheap, writes Katherine Price

5 mins

1. Explore the market

Pike Place Market is an attraction in itself, regardless of whether you actually buy anything or not. Here you'll find some of the craziest characters in the city – and some of the nicest peach sellers. Merely to see what is on offer at the market is an experience, and most stalls will give you free samples if you ask nicely enough.

There's a pasta stand with hundreds of different types of pasta (including a very hot chilli pasta, which they'll give to you as a 'free sample' if you do happen to stand in front of their stall for too long without buying anything), and a stall selling everything you could possibly make with honey: beauty products, soaps, flavoured honey sticks...

The market itself has been going since 1907, is one of the oldest in the United States, and runs along the waterfront and the central business district. Just make sure you duck the fish being thrown over your heads.

2. Hear it from the horse's mouth

There's no better way to engage with books than to engage with their authors, and hear them being read by those who wrote them. Seattle is littered with book shops, many of which hold regular readings and signings due to the artsy, bohemian nature of the city.

The Elliott Bay Book Company is one of Seattle's most famous book stores, and holds readings and events on average ten times a week in a reading room; many of these events are free. Questions and signings generally follow the readings.

Located in the central business district on Capitol Hill, the store houses over 150,000 titles, and yet still manages to retain a relatively intimate, cosy bookstore atmosphere.

3. Get a new perspective

It's quite a trek to reach the pinnacle of the Water Tower in Volunteer Park; ideal for those seeking a challenge. But it offers a reward at the top in the form of one of the best views over Seattle. There's no admission fee; hence why the tower is often called 'the poor man's Space Needle', for those unwilling to part with their cash to observe the city skyline and keen to beat the queues. All it asks is your sweat and toil.

The tower has panoramic views through eight windows over the Puget Sound and Lake Washington as well as the city, built by the Water Department in 1906. There isn't a restaurant at the top, and it can be cold, as the tower is pretty subject to the elements, but there is a fantastic view. It's also a pretty romantic spot for a date.


4. Paddle out

Through the CastOFF! Free Public Sail & Steam Program, the Center for Wooden Boats offers free boats every Sunday for the maritime connoisseurs (or those who always wanted to be). Given on a first-come first-serve basis, sign-ups start at 10am, so you need to get there early. Queues on sunny days often start before the centre has even opened.

Sail across South Lake Union on either the 1977 Betsy D, the salmon fishing boat Admirable or the steam launch Puffin.The centre itself also charges no admission and houses over 100 vessels, many of which are rideable, encouraging visitors to really engage with the exhibits first-hand.

5. Get up close with the wildlife

Seattle has some great opportunities to observe the local wildlife, one of which is the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery, located alongside Icicle Creek. Leavenworth is a great place for picnics, walks and wildlife observation, especially fish (naturally). The hatchery aims to produce 2.5 million spring chinook salmon a year, while steelhead and kokanee salmon are also reared here.

Visitors are welcome to explore the hatchery, and tours can be booked for larger groups; normally staff are on hand as information points rather than tour guides. Salmon can be seen almost year-round. For those more interested in things that fly rather than those that swim, there is also a thriving bird population here, with over 100 species recorded in the area.

The Hiram M Chittenden Locks, or Ballard Locks, also offer prime fish viewing, the main attraction being the unique fish ladder viewing gallery. The Locks were opened by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1917 and built the ladder to correct the problem that the locks and dam blocked all salmon runs out from the Cedar River watershed.


6. Make the most of the museums

Although most Seattle museums charge an admission free, all the museums are free of charge on the first Thursday of every month. So take a day out of your trip to museum-hop around the city and see what's on offer.

Just south of downtown is the Museum of Flight. Described as “the foremost educational air and space museum in the world”, the museum acquires historically significant air and space artefacts in order to preserve and protect them. It also provides an interesting museum for aviation enthusiasts and a facility to educate the public about their significance and the very history of aviation.

Seattle Art Museum includes both the main Art Museum downtown, constructed in 1991, and the Asian Art Museum inside Volunteer Park. SAM, as locals affectionately call it, has had its home in several different locations, and even seen The Treasures of Tutankhamun. Today, it provides a place for visitors to enjoy the art across cultures from the past to the present, and explore the dynamic connections between the two.

7. Seek out street art

Seattle's grungy, hipster neighbourhood, Fremont, is spattered with art installations across the city. Under the 'Aurora bridge' in Fremont lies in wait an 18ft troll (you can't miss it) clutching a Volkswagen Beetle made of steel, wire and concrete.

Ever wanted a 16ft Lenin of your very own? In fact, that's just what one eccentric Washington resident decided when he saw the statue lying in a scrapyard. Lewis E Carpenter bought the statue in Seattle at a cost of $41,000, which he could only afford by mortgaging his own home. Lenin now overlooks the outdoor seating in front of Royal Grinders (which makes some of the best sandwiches in the district).

Wander east of the northern end of the Fremont bridge to see the tin man for real... Waiting for the Interurban – six aluminium figures and a dog stand beneath a mock bus shelter – they may fool you the first time they catch your eye. People often like to dress them up according to the seasons.


8. Take advantage of the city's parks

The city also offers walkers a numberless plethora of waterfront paths to meander. The Olympic Sculpture Park is the most prominent, just a short walk from Pike Place Market. The park is home to a 39ft, orange steel eagle and the Neukom Vivarium, an 80ft nurse log, displayed for the opportunity to see the decay of a fallen log and the life that springs from it.

Kerry Park offers panoramic views over the city, while the Woodland Park Rose Garden boasts over 290 varieties of rose. For keen wanderers Discovery Park is the city's largest public park and is the best place to spot wildlife, closely followed by Green Lake. Myrtle Edwards Park is great for a shoreside bike ride, and is especially ideal for bird watching.

9. Do something a little different...

Did you know that there are around 30 different styles of bonsai tree? Or that they are meant to represent a particular scene or mood? Most people don't; but then, most people haven't been to the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection.

It's a bit of a hike at 23 miles from the city, but it's free to enter and there are free tours, exhibiting over 60 different bonsai trees from six Pacific Rim nations. For a relaxing Zen-like experience in one of Seattle's lesser-known treasures walk through the outdoor exhibits, which are both tranquil and informative. Some specimens are hundreds of years old all the way from Japan.

10. Have a peek at antiques

Something that Seattle does very well is antique shops. With its artsy but well-off neighbourhoods, you're guaranteed to find some gems among the eccentric and strange items. Established in 1978 and specialising in 19th and 20th-century antiques is Seattle Antiques Market, downtown on the waterfront. It is a great stop for gifts, rather than the typical tourist tat you could get for friends and family back home. Here you're sure to find something original, something unique that is genuinely 'of the city'.

The market is over 6,000 sq ft, so you can guarantee a wide variety and a fascinating place to trawl. Although the market generally focuses on furniture, it has everything from cigarette lighters and wardrobes to vintage cameras and radios. But don't just stop at the market, because the city is littered with antique shops ripe for rummaging.

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