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Best 38 Fun Things to Do in Seattle – Activities & Attractions on the Cheap

Laid out on a series of hills on Puget Sound’s eastern shore, Seattle is the biggest city in the Pacific Northwest. It anchors a metro region of 3.5 to 5 million people, depending on how you define it. Even if you’ve never been there, you’ve probably seen pictures of its iconic natural and man-made landmarks: Mount Rainier, the Space Needle, and Pike Place Market.

Seattle also has a bevy of lesser-known activities and attractions – more than enough to keep a frugal traveler occupied for a quick weekend, a leisurely week, or even longer. That’s in spite of Seattle’s reputation for sky-high home values and rents, a controversial issue attributable to a long-running tech boom that’s attracting highly educated newcomers, driving up already high-earning techies’ wages, and supporting a frenzied building boom in the city’s core neighborhoods.

Most Seattle visitors arrive at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac), about 12 miles south of downtown Seattle. Much smaller Boeing Field is closer to Seattle’s central business district but primarily handles freight and charter flights.

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, or aim to incorporate Seattle into a longer road trip throughout the western United States, it might be cheaper or more convenient to drive into Seattle. The closest major cities are Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia, both less than 200 miles away by car.

I’ve been to Seattle twice, in both cases for three nights. On each trip, I’ve made it my mission to explore as many neighborhoods and see as many sights as possible – including a number of those listed here – without exceeding my strict daily budget. This guide is the fruit of that labor.

Each section below covers a specific part of Seattle and its environs, or a particular class of attraction in and around the Puget Sound region. How many are on your Seattle to-do list?

Seattle Center: Sightseeing Central

Located just northwest of the downtown core, near the Puget Sound waterfront, Seattle Center is a compact, busy park and event space that contains many of the city’s top tourist attractions, including the iconic Space Needle. Aside from the major admission-only attractions, the Center’s public spaces can entertain for hours: there’s an extensive mural wall, skate park, food court, plenty of unstructured outdoor space, and a piece of the Berlin Wall.

1. Space Needle & Observation Deck

seattle space needle
A view of Seattle’s Space Needle observation tower

  • Adult admission: About $32 and up; Admission with Chihuly Garden and Glass ticket: $59
  • Hours: Monday through Thursday, 10am to 11pm; Friday and Saturday, 9am to 11:30pm; Sunday, 9am to 11pm (hours may vary by season)

Seattle’s most famous structure isn’t its tallest. Nor is it really a proper building. Built for the 1962 World’s Fair, the Space Needle is a 605-foot tower that’s little more than a white steel skeleton, an elevator core, a stunted spire, and a circular observation deck suspended more than 500 feet above the ground. But, since it’s removed from downtown Seattle’s skyscraper jumble, the Space Needle does provide tremendous 360-degree views of the city’s skyline, the Cascades, the Olympic Mountains, Mount Rainier, and the various bodies of water in between.

If you don’t want to pay for the view from the top of the Space Needle, head to the open area directly northwest of the Space Needle for great (though heavily angled) pictures of the structure from the bottom up.

Admission to the Space Needle observation deck is included in Seattle CityPASS, a five-attraction package deal that discounts its inclusions’ admission prices by nearly 50% when fully exploited. CityPASS includes three “mandatory” attractions: the Space Needle, Seattle Aquarium, and Argosy Cruises Harbor Tour. It also lets you choose from two of four optional inclusions: MoPOP or Woodland Park Zoo (but not both), and Chihuly Garden and Glass or Pacific Science Center (but not both). If you plan to visit most or all of the CityPASS inclusions, it’s definitely worth springing for.

Another Space Needle-inclusive package deal option: the Seattle Center Summer 4-Pack, which includes admission to Chihuly Garden and Glass, the Pacific Science Center, and round-trip fares on the Seattle Center Monorail.

2. MoPOP (Museum of Pop Culture)

  • Adult admission: $30 at the door, $28 online
  • Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm, Labor Day through Memorial Day weekend; daily, 10am to 7pm, Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend (hours may vary)

The Museum of Pop Culture, or MoPOP, is not your typical art museum. Think of it as a celebration of modern pop culture, with all its warts and quirks and idiosyncracies. Many exhibits rotate; recent examples include an exhaustive treatment of the ever-popular game Minecraft and an homage to Nirvana, the Seattle-based band that popularized grunge rock.

MoPOP is an optional CityPASS inclusion – the regular CityPASS includes the cost of either the MoPOP or Woodland Park Zoo, but not both.

3. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center

  • Admission: Free
  • Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 5pm

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center is just outside Seattle Center, roughly five minutes on foot from the Space Needle. It exists to convey in concrete, interactive terms the foundation’s multitudinous good works: education initiatives in the Seattle area, clean water projects in the developing world, and medical research across the globe.

I spent about 20 minutes breezing through the Visitor Center, though you could easily spend an hour here. It’s totally free, courtesy of the foundation’s multi-billion-dollar endowment.

4. Chihuly Garden and Glass

  • Regular admission: $32; Admission with Space Needle ticket: $59
  • Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 10am to 8pm; Friday and Saturday, 10am to 9pm (hours may vary)

Dwarfed by the looming Space Needle, Chihuly Garden and Glass is another unusual museum dedicated to the work of master glass artist Dale Chihuly, who grew up in nearby Tacoma. It’s technically a “long-term exhibition,” but there are no imminent plans to close, move, or significantly alter it. I didn’t have time to enter, but the suspended sculptures I could glimpse through the transparent greenhouse walls were breathtaking.

Chihuly Garden and Glass is an optional CityPASS inclusion – regular CityPASS admission includes either Chihuly Garden and Glass or Pacific Science Center admission, but not both. Special private events are fairly frequent here, so call ahead for availability.

5. Pacific Science Center

seattle's pacific science center
Pacific Science Center

  • Admission: Approximately $25 per adult, with supplemental admission for laser light and IMAX shows
  • Hours: Monday through Friday, 10am to 5pm; Saturday and Sunday (and holidays), 10am to 6pm (hours may vary by season)

Pacific Science Center is a family-friendly science museum with a state-of-the-art IMAX theater. Permanent exhibits include “Pollinator Garden” (all about bees, butterflies, and the like), the hands-on “Tinker Tank,” and “Dinosaurs: A Journey Through Time.” There’s also an extensive cast of rotating exhibits, recent examples of which include “The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes” and a feature devoted to ancient China’s famed terracotta warriors. If your evening schedule syncs up and you don’t have children in tow, consider attending one of the many free 21+ happy hour events, which typically start after 6pm, or evening laser shows set to trippy music.

Pacific Science Center is an optional CityPASS inclusion, paired with Chihuly Garden and Glass.

Historical Sights, Museums, and Tourist Attractions

Beyond Seattle Center, Seattle has plenty of historic landmarks and newer tourist attractions. High points include the following:

6. Sky View Observatory

  • Adult admission: Approximately $20
  • Hours: Daily, 8am to 11pm

Sky View Observatory is an observation deck on the 73rd floor of the Columbia Tower, Seattle’s somewhat anonymous-looking tallest building. At more than 300 feet higher than the Space Needle’s observation deck, it provides a truly unobstructed, panoramic view of Seattle and its environs. On a near-cloudless afternoon, I was dumbstruck by the snow-capped, utterly majestic Olympic Mountains, which rise to the city’s west, across Puget Sound. The one cloud in my view happened to block the upper slopes of Mount Rainier, but the glaciated, brilliant-white summit did just peek above its grayish top.

All in all, Sky View is definitely worth the price of admission on a clear day. But be warned: Between the amazing views and extensive explanatory content, it’s easy to lose track of time here – especially given that there’s a cafe on site with a small food menu, nonalcoholic beverages, local beer, and wine.

7. Museum of History & Industry

  • Adult admission: Approximately $22; Free on the first Thursday of every month
  • Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm; Summer hours subject to change

Set in beautiful Lake Union Park, right on the Lake Union waterfront, the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) is a comprehensive, prehistory-to-present look at the history of Seattle and the broader Puget Sound region. I spent roughly 90 minutes here and learned more about Seattle’s history than I could glean from an entire day of Internet research. The extensive exhibits on the culture and rhythms of the region’s original inhabitants, as well as the modern city’s early days as a port (and, briefly, gold rush boom town), were especially illuminating.

MOHAI hosts occasional traveling exhibitions, too. Check its website for the latest appearances. The bottom line here: If you’re at all interested in history, MOHAI is definitely worth a stop.

8. Seattle Great Wheel

  • Adult admission: $15 plus tax
  • Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11am to 10pm; Friday, 11am to 12am; Saturday, 10am to 12am; Sunday, 10am to 10pm (hours may vary by season)

Located on the Puget Sound waterfront, not too far from Seattle Center, the Seattle Great Wheel is not your average carnival Ferris wheel. The “largest observation wheel on the West Coast” stands 175 feet high and carries 42 enclosed eight-seat gondolas.

The ride provides a panoramic view of the Seattle area: the downtown skyline, the hills rolling across the northern half of the city, Puget Sound, and the Olympic Mountains beyond. The ride lasts 10 to 20 minutes, or three full revolutions – plenty of time to snap pictures. If your schedule aligns, visit after dark, when the lighted skyline glows in multi-hued glory.

9. Woodland Park Zoo

  • Adult admission: Approximately $23
  • Hours: Daily, 9:30am to 6pm, May 1st through September 30th; Daily, 9:30am to 4pm, October 1st through April 30th (hours may vary)

Located a few miles north of downtown Seattle, Woodland Park Zoo is a progressive ecological park with expansive, natural, humane animal habitats. It has more than 1,000 individual animals, representing 300 species, from large mammals (including lions and wolves) to exotic birds and reptiles. If you visit in May, check the event schedule for Zoomazium, the zoo’s annual multi-day birthday bash.

Woodland Park Zoo is an optional CityPASS inclusion, paired with the EMP Museum.

10. Pike Place Market

pike place market seattle
Pike Place Market, photo by EQ Roy

  • Admission: Free
  • Hours: Variable (individual merchant hours may vary)

Pike Place Market is a nine-acre public market near downtown Seattle’s bustling waterfront that bills itself as one of the country’s oldest farmers’ markets. Though the selection of fresh fruits and greens is extensive, it’s not just local produce on display here – there’s also fresh-caught fish, local crafts, and specialty foods, as well as talented street performers and eat-in or take-out dining establishments.

It’s easy to get lost at Pike Place, so pull up a copy of the market map on your phone before arriving. It’s free to enter and explore, though you’ll certainly be tempted to buy something before you leave.

11. Seattle Art Museum

  • Adult admission: Approximately $30; On the first Thursday of every month, the permanent collection is free and special exhibitions are half-price
  • Hours: Wednesday and Friday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm; Thursday, 10am to 9pm

Located on the northwestern fringe of downtown Seattle, the Seattle Art Museum (or SAM) is Seattle’s preeminent classic and contemporary art museum. It boasts extensive collections of art from the Americas (including prehistoric peoples), Africa, the Mediterranean region (stretching back to the Greek period and beyond), Australia (including rare Aboriginal pieces), Islamic, and global contemporary. Temporary exhibitions featuring works from individual artists, specific countries, or particular schools abound, as well.

12. Asian Art Museum

  • Adult admission: Check AAM’s website for current pricing
  • Hours: Wednesday and Friday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm; Thursday, 10am to 9pm (hours may vary)

Located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood’s Volunteer Park, the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) – an affiliate of the Seattle Art Museum – is devoted to “art and ideas” from various Asian cultures, including Seattle’s populous Asian-American diaspora. The 1933 Art Deco building is stunning too – definitely worth a gaze, even if you don’t go inside. And the setting is hard to beat; more on Volunteer Park below.

13. Olympic Sculpture Park

  • Admission: Free
  • Hours: Dawn to dusk

Located on the waterfront west of Seattle Center, Olympic Sculpture Park is also affiliated with the Seattle Art Museum. Once you’ve seen all the contorted metal sculptures (some look like gigantic, elongated smokestacks, while others are smaller and humanoid), look up for stunning views of the city’s skyline and Puget Sound. It’s free to enter and explore the park during daylight hours.

14. Wing Luke Museum

  • Regular adult admission: Approximately $17, which includes 45-minute guided museum tour
  • Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm; First Thursday of every month, 10am to 8pm

The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian-American Experience (or simply, The Wing) explores the Asian-American cultural experience in all its forms, from shameful historical chapters (such as the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s), to pop culture domination (Bruce Lee, who briefly lived in Seattle and married a local), to bittersweet migrations (the plight of the Khmer people, many of whom fled a bloodthirsty Cambodian regime for the United States in the late 20th century). The Wing sponsors neighborhood tours, too; the ever-popular Chinatown Discovery Tour comes with an all-day museum pass.

15. Westlake Center

westlake center in seattle
Seattle’s Westlake Center shopping area, photo courtesy Seastock

  • Admission: Free
  • Hours: Varies

Located on the northern fringe of downtown Seattle, not far from Seattle Center and the up-and-coming South Lake Union district, Westlake Center isn’t a typical suburban shopping mall. It’s a high-end retail zone (tenants include Nordstrom and Zara) with an enclosed, multi-story nerve center and a sprawling, loosely related outdoor component that stretches in multiple directions on the surrounding streets. Frugal travelers can linger here to people-watch and appreciate the architecture – no spending required.

16. Puget Sound Ferries

  • Admission: Approximately $10 and up, depending on route and entry method
  • Hours: Varies

For most of the Seattle area’s history, stretching back to prehistoric times, local waterways were the primary means of transit. While that’s no longer the case, the region still has more commercial ferries than just about anywhere else in the continental United States. If you plan to travel to any of Puget Sound’s populated islands or peninsulas, you may well find yourself traveling by boat. Even though these ferries don’t move as fast as cars, there’s a major upshot to waterborne travel: stunning, panoramic views of open water, forested shorelines, city skylines, and towering mountains.

According to Washington State Ferries, most routes traverse narrow passages along Puget Sound. From Seattle itself, you can reach Bremerton (home to a major naval yard) and the semi-rural community of Bainbridge Island (approximately $10 per person for walk-ons and vehicle passengers, upwards of $15 per vehicle driver). Other companies operate longer routes out of Seattle, including to the Canadian city of Victoria, on Vancouver Island.

Urban Parks and Outdoor Areas

Virtually every Seattle neighborhood, even in the gritty core, has at least one notable park or playground. The city and surrounding region are dotted with larger green spaces, beaches, and wilderness preserves too. These are some of the most popular. Unless otherwise noted, all are free to enter. Hours may vary; observe all posted signs and use caution after dark.

17. Gas Works Park

  • Hours: Daily, 6am to 10pm

21-acre Gas Works Park is an unpleasantly named green space with a dirty history (it was once a coal gasification facility), a convenient location, and a great view. Perched on a peninsula on Lake Union’s north shore, this repurposed space is one of Seattle’s most popular green spaces – though rusted reminders of its industrial past remain. On nice days, much of the Seattle skyline is visible across the water, as are the heavily developed hills of the Queen Anne (right) and Capitol Hill (left) neighborhoods.

18. Discovery Park

  • Hours: Daily, 4am to 11:30pm

Discovery Park is a larger, wilder, less centrally located green space on a picturesque Puget Sound peninsula, a few miles northwest of Gas Works Park. The park’s 530-plus acres are partially forested, with winding trails and parkways for quiet contemplation. The place is expansive enough to attract serious wildlife – bears, seals, and coyotes all make regular appearances. Open areas offer excellent views of Puget Sound. It’s a bit of a hike to get here on public transit, but well worth the trip.

19. Golden Gardens Park

  • Hours: Daily, 4am to 11:30pm

A few miles north of Discovery Park, 88-acre Golden Gardens Park is a steep, narrow strip of forest and sand that curves for more than a mile along Puget Sound. It’s a great place to take in views of Puget Sound and the Olympics, meet up with local friends for an evening gathering, or hang out in solitude on a quiet afternoon. There’s also a nice off-leash dog park here.

20. Washington Park Arboretum and Seattle Japanese Garden

seattle japanese garden
Seattle Japanese Garden in the fall

  • Washington Park Arboretum hours: Dawn to dusk
  • Seattle Japanese Garden hours: Variable throughout the year, but generally Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm

Located south of the University of Washington, near the Lake Washington shore, this quiet, 230-acre space features dozens of rare shrubs and trees – some native, many nonnative – that thrive in Puget Sound’s forgiving climate. Visit the rhododendron groves in spring for a truly vibrant floral display.

Tucked into the arboretum grounds, the Japanese garden is meticulously cared for in traditional style. There’s not as much bright color here, but the painstaking horticulture is something to behold.

The Japanese garden charges $8 at the gate. The arboretum is free to enter and explore. If you’re a fan of gardening, or you simply like to walk in colorful, cultivated environments, make time for a stop at this beautiful nature complex.

21. Volunteer Park

  • Hours: Daily, 6am to 10pm

Located on the north end of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, 48-acre Volunteer Park is a compact hilltop expanse with very good views of downtown Seattle, the Space Needle, Puget Sound, and the Olympics – particularly from the top of the historic brick water tower, which is open to the public. Extant since 1876, it was renamed (from City Park) in 1901 to honor the volunteers who served in the brutal Spanish-American War.

If you visit in spring, spend some time on its winding, heavily flowered peripheral paths. On warm days, the broad, well-tended lawns are great for stretching out with a good book. Immediately to the north is Lakeview Cemetery, where Bruce Lee is buried (plot #276).

22. Interlaken Park

  • Hours: Daily, 4am to 11:30pm

52-acre Interlaken Park is a few hundred yards northeast of, but considerably lower in elevation than, Volunteer Park. It’s wilder and more rugged – a great, centrally located place to enjoy a reflective moment in a dark Pacific Northwest forest. Though it’s not incredibly exclusive, the surrounding neighborhoods are definitely upscale – so if you like ogling nice houses, take 30 minutes or so to walk around just outside the park’s confines.

23. Seward Park

  • Hours: Daily, 6am to 10pm

A few miles southeast of downtown Seattle, 300-acre Seward Park occupies the entirety of Bailey Peninsula, a thumb-shaped projection jutting out into Lake Washington. Easy to moderate trails and walkways – several miles in all, including a 2.4-mile perimeter loop – cut through the park’s dense forest. Seward Park includes one of the last true old-growth forest tracts in the city of Seattle, and its shoreline offers great views of nearby Mercer Island (though not, alas, downtown Seattle or the Olympics).

24. Warren G. Magnuson Park

  • Hours: Daily, 4am to 11:30pm

Warren G. Magnuson is a 350-acre expanse on the shore of Lake Washington, approximately three miles northwest of the University of Washington campus. It’s mostly open space and athletic fields, but it offers sweeping views of Lake Washington and a great off-leash area for dog owners.

25. Union Bay Natural Area

union bay natural area sunrise
Sunrise at Union Bay Natural Area

  • Hours: Dawn to dusk

50-acre Union Bay Natural Area is a low-lying, mostly marshy area at the southern fringe of the University of Washington campus. A few trails crisscross this teeming, ecologically sensitive reserve, and clear days offer nice views of Lake Washington, Seattle’s Eastside suburbs, and the Cascade foothills beyond. If you’re into bird-watching or nature photography, Union Bay is among Seattle’s best spots.

26. Puget Park

  • Hours: Daily, 4am to 11:30pm

Perched on a ridgeline in West Seattle, 159-acre Puget Park forms the northern terminus of the West Duwamish Greenway, an extended area of undeveloped forest land running through Seattle’s southwestern quadrant. Like Volunteer Park, Puget Park offers great views of downtown Seattle, as well as the city’s port and main industrial area – an awe-inspiring, if not particularly green, spread.

Notable Neighborhoods and Local Attractions

Though many of Seattle’s highest-profile attractions are found in or adjacent to its downtown core, it’s certainly worth getting out of the concrete canyons and exploring the city’s farther-flung neighborhoods. Surprises abound in these lower-key areas, and accommodations (both hotels and short-term rentals) are almost always cheaper than in the heart of downtown.

27. Chinatown-International District

Located on the southeastern edge of downtown Seattle, Chinatown-International District (CID) is the historic heart of Seattle’s Asian immigrant communities. Though rapidly gentrifying, it retains a distinctive multicultural flair to this day.

Authentic, affordable eateries abound here – but for a quick, cheap bite, check out centrally located Uwajimaya, one of my favorite spots to grab lunch in Seattle. Uwajimaya is a small Asian supermarket chain with a huge selection of prepared foods (including fresh sushi) and more than a dozen food court stalls. It’s foodie heaven.

If you arrive by light rail from the airport, as I did, CID is a great first stop. It takes me no more than 30 minutes to get lunch, explore the neighborhood, and get back on the train heading north.

28. Capitol Hill

Long a hub for Seattle’s LGBT community, Capitol Hill is rapidly becoming a hot-spot for young professionals thanks to its excellent transit, tremendous views, proximity to downtown, ample greenery, and rich supply of historic housing.

I like to stay on the neighborhood’s northern fringes, near Volunteer Park. With coffee shops and affordable eateries galore, it’s hard to beat the location, and transit service is more than sufficient to put the city at your fingertips without getting in a car. Even if you’re not staying in the area, come by for a quiet coffee shop interlude or an evening drink at one of the many low-key bars.

29. University District

Located on the north shore of Lake Union, adjacent to the University of Washington’s main campus, University District is a hip neighborhood that’s – unsurprisingly – popular with college students. Spend an afternoon admiring the architecture and green space on the university’s sprawling campus, then venture into the district’s dense, walkable commercial heart for a show at Neptune Theater or a bite at an independently owned restaurant. University District has lots of affordable hotels and Airbnb houses, so it’s likely to be high on your list of home-base neighborhoods.

30. South Lake Union

south lake union seattle night
A view of the South Lake Union neighborhood at night

Until the 2000s, South Lake Union was a shabby dead zone between downtown Seattle, Lake Union, and more established neighborhoods such as Queen Anne and Capitol Hill. These days, it’s in the midst of a frenzied building boom, thanks to massive investments from a variety of deep-pocketed patrons.

Amazon moved thousands of workers in from the suburbs in the early 2010s. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan, Inc., invested millions in a 21st century life sciences hub here. And a number of medical research institutions, including Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, have either moved into or expanded existing facilities in SLU since the start of this century.

Look out for Amazon’s bizarre biospheres – angular domes with self-contained ecosystems featuring hundreds of rare plant species – on the neighborhood’s fringes. I missed an opportunity to snap pictures of them, but GeekWire had a scoop on the early phases of their construction.

31. Queen Anne

Queen Anne is a densely populated district on the western shore of Lake Union, opposite Capitol Hill. Though the neighborhood itself is quite affluent, Kerry Park is a must-visit for frugal travelers – at 450 feet above sea level, it’s one of the city’s highest points, and boasts stunning views of Mount Rainier, the Olympics, and downtown Seattle.

Other highlights include:

  • 14th Avenue West, which contains some of Seattle’s oldest preserved homes.
  • Queen Anne Boulevard, an early-20th century thoroughfare with architecturally significant retaining walls and streetlights.
  • The district farmers’ market, held June through October.

32. Ballard

Ballard is a large neighborhood in Seattle’s northwestern quadrant. Originally an independent city, Ballard was (and, to some extent, remains) the hub of Seattle’s historic Nordic immigrant population. For more on that, check out the National Nordic Museum (approximately $15 per adult) on 67th Street, or simply admire the distinctive northern European architecture in the Ballard Avenue Historic District.

Need a place to crash? Central Ballard’s huge medical complex attracts affordable, name-brand hotels, and Airbnb listings abound in the district’s residential periphery, so this is definitely a good place to look for a bed.

33. West Seattle

Due to its geographic isolation from Seattle’s core neighborhoods, visitors rarely make it out to West Seattle. That’s a shame, because this sprawling district is among the city’s most interesting and picturesque.

Highlights include:

  • The Junction, a hopping business district with lots of independently owned shops and restaurants.
  • High Point, a massive (1,600-plus housing units) New Urbanist neighborhood that combines cutting-edge sustainable practices, such as natural storm water filtration and drought-tolerant landscaping, with relatively affordable (by Seattle standards) housing. Fittingly, High Point contains the highest point in Seattle, with panoramic views to match.
  • Alki Beach Park, a surprisingly under-utilized urban beach with a small lighthouse and great views of the Olympics.

Outdoor Day Trips and Excursions

Seattle is surrounded by ample water (salty and fresh), dense forests, and towering mountains. If you have time, devote at least one day of your trip to exploring the immense natural bounty at the city’s doorstep. These places are all within an easy drive or ferry ride of central Seattle.

34. Olympic National Park

lake crescent at olympic national park in washington state
Lake Crescent at Olympic National Park

  • Park entry: $15 per person for walk- or bike-ins; $30 per vehicle; Camping passes start at $15 per night (all entry prices are subject to change)

Olympic National Park is a vast, minimally developed forest and mountain preserve on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, across Puget Sound from the Seattle area. Its highlights include the continental United States’ only proper rainforest, the glaciated high peaks of the Olympics (which reach nearly 8,000 feet above sea level and receive hundreds of inches of snow each year), and wild, rocky saltwater shorelines. It’s possible to hit Olympic in a day trip, but consider camping at least one night to break up the drive.

35. Mount Rainier National Park

  • Park entry: $15 per person for walk- or bike-ins; $30 per vehicle; Camping passes start at $15 per night (all entry prices are subject to change)

Though it looks a lot closer, Mount Rainier – the Cascades’ tallest peak, at 14,411 feet – is nearly 60 miles southeast of downtown Seattle. Its upper reaches are permanently caked in ice and snow, its middle elevations sport beautiful alpine meadows and spruce groves, and its lower slopes house dense, teeming forests.

Hiking trails abound on Mount Rainier and surrounding lesser peaks, but you’ll want to avoid venturing too far past the treeline without proper climbing equipment. Also, Mount Rainier is an active volcano, so pay attention to all warnings and advisories issued by public authorities.

36. North Bend Area

  • Admission: Free

The community of North Bend is located approximately 30 miles southeast of Seattle, just off Interstate 90. It sits at the western foot of the Cascades, so it’s a popular destination for Seattleites searching for moderate to strenuous hiking routes.

Mount Si, which observant visitors of a certain age may recognize as the imposing monolith from the opening credits of the cult TV show “Twin Peaks,” towers over the town. Though strenuous, it’s one of the Seattle area’s most popular day hikes.

A few miles across Interstate 90 is Rattlesnake Ledge, a scenic overlook with stunning views of the high Cascades. The route up is slightly less challenging than Mount Si, though by no means a cakewalk. The trail extends a long way past the ledge along a forested ridgeline with occasional lookouts.

37. Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park

  • Admission: Free

Once a logging ground, and later an Army air-defense site, Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park is now a near-pristine 3,100-acre woodland park roughly 15 miles east of downtown Seattle. With miles of hiking trails winding through dense old-growth forest, teeming wetlands, and open meadows, this place is a nature lover’s dream. It’s also great for amateur photographers – the Seattle skyline and distant Olympic peaks are visible from the highest points.

38. Bainbridge Island

bainbridge island washington
Homes along the coast of Bainbridge Island

  • Admission: Free (not including bike rental costs)

Bainbridge Island is a picturesque, semi-rural island community right across Puget Sound from central Seattle. Bainbridge’s relatively straight (though by no means flat) country roads are great for biking, and occasional views of Seattle and the Olympics make the effort well worth your while.

Rent a bicycle from Bike Barn (summer only) from $75 per day, or from Classic Cycle (year-round) from $35 per day. Check out Classic Cycle’s free bike museum if you have time.

Take Advantage of Social Deals in Seattle

Before you land in Seattle, check Groupon and Living Social for social coupons and time-sensitive daily deals in the city. I personally prefer Groupon, as it’s a bigger operation and offers more relevant deals (in my experience), but I’ve had luck with Living Social too. Both apps are free, so there’s no downside to downloading them if you don’t already use them in your hometown.

If you’re doing some last-minute activity planning on your desktop or laptop, check out Groupon’s Seattle page. With so many listed vendors and activities, Groupon’s local pages double as itinerary-builders.

Social coupons aren’t just for saving money. They’re especially popular with independent, locally owned small businesses. In other words, social coupons make it easier – and cheaper – to support local businesses when you travel.

One more item for your consideration: push notifications. Many folks aren’t fans of push notifications, but I’d encourage skeptics to make exceptions when they’re on the road. Push notifications from well-reviewed merchants offering deep discounts to regular price are layups for frugal travelers. I’m especially fond of food-related push notifications, since I’m much more likely to eat at restaurants when I’m on the road. If you’re an adventurous type, build your dining plans around the most convenient local deals – you might just discover a taste you never knew you had.

When to Visit and What to Bring

It’s not wrong to say that it rains often in Seattle, but it is inaccurate to say that it rains all the time, or that the weather never changes. Seattle’s rainy season runs from late fall through early spring, with November, December, and January all averaging more than five inches of rain. Winter temperatures linger in the 40s and 50s, so snow is rare. However, most years see a dusting or two during the winter, or at least a hard freeze that brings the threat of frozen precipitation. Of course, the climate is very different in the nearby Cascades, parts of which receive hundreds of inches of snow per year.

In Seattle, precipitation drops off as the weather warms: Monthly rainfall totals stay under two inches from May through September. During the summer, bright, sunny, dry weather is the norm, and temperatures rarely stay above 90 degrees for extended periods of time. Temperatures in the 70s and low 80s are more common.

Another benefit to visiting in the summer is that the days are longer. Seattle is actually the northernmost major city in the continental United States – besting Minneapolis and Boston, both of which are often assumed to be more northerly on account of their colder winters. At the summer solstice, Seattle receives a full 16 hours of daylight, with twilight for nearly an hour before and after sunset. If you prefer to get your sightseeing done when the sun is shining, you’ll have plenty of time.

Here’s a quick look at what to bring on your Seattle trip:

  • Rain Gear. If you visit during the rainier season, a rain coat or poncho, umbrella, and water-resistant shoes or boots are all crucial. Even in summer, it’s not a bad idea to pack weather gear, as you don’t want to be caught unprepared in a passing shower.
  • Sturdy Footwear and Other Hiking/Walking Gear. It’s a tall order to do all of your Seattle sightseeing on foot, but you should expect to walk a great deal while you’re here. Bring sturdy, closed-toed shoes with appropriate traction. If you plan a longer hike outside the city, bring hiking boots, water bottles, sun and eye protection, and whatever else you need to be comfortable on the trail.
  • Comfortable Outerwear. Seattle’s evenings and early mornings can be chilly, even in summer. In the cooler months, the wind blowing off Puget Sound can be downright raw. Bring comfortable outerwear, such as a zip-up fleece or light jacket, during the summer. In winter, moderately heavy jackets, hats, and scarves are recommended.

How to Get Around Seattle and the Puget Sound Region

Personal Vehicles and Rental Cars

Seattle itself is a compact city. Many of its top attractions lie in the downtown core or within a handful of close-in neighborhoods, meaning they’re easy to access by on foot, bike, or public transportation. In some parts of town, a car is actually a hindrance, as street parking is scarce and garage parking is expensive (when available).

That said, a car is definitely required to reach the beautiful preserves and natural areas that make Seattle’s hinterland so appealing. Virtually every major car rental agency has a branch at SeaTac International Airport, so if you’re arriving by air, renting a car shouldn’t be a problem.

Highway and Bridge Tolls
Toll roads and bridges are not common in Puget Sound. According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, the region has four toll facilities:

  1. Highway 520 Bridge: Spans Lake Washington, connecting the northern half of the city of Seattle with Bellevue and other Eastside suburbs.
  2. Tacoma Narrows Bridge: Spans the Tacoma Narrows (part of the Puget Sound), connecting Tacoma with the Olympic Peninsula.
  3. Interstate 405 Express Lanes: Connecting Bellevue with Lynnwood in the eastern and northern suburbs – perfect for avoiding Eastside rush hour traffic.
  4. Highway 167 High Occupancy Lanes: Connecting Renton with Auburn in the southern suburbs – useful for rush hour carpools.

Toll rates vary by road, day, time of day, and payment method. The best tolling option for visitors is a Short Term Account, which costs a bit more than the Good to Go! commuter option, but doesn’t require as much red tape to set up. If you plan to use tolls while in the area, talk to your rental car agency about setting up a Short Term Account, a type of tolling account administered by the Washington Department of Transportation. Also, be sure to ask if your agency tacks on flat or per-toll processing fees.

Street Parking
In downtown Seattle and commercial areas of outlying neighborhoods, street parking is not free. Hourly rates generally range from $1 to $4 (higher in core neighborhoods during periods of peak demand, lower in outlying areas during periods of lower demand). Check with the Seattle Department of Transportation for current rates, time limits, and other important information.

You can use the city’s PayByPhone app to pay with your credit card in just a few clicks, add time without returning to the meter, and receive paperless receipts – great if your employer is reimbursing you for parking or you’re writing it off as a business expense. If you plan to use a major garage, check the city’s ePark website for real-time space availability information, or just look for the big signs outside each garage.

seattle monorail
Seattle Monorail in Westlake

Urban Public Transportation

By U.S. standards, Seattle has very good public transportation. In fact, with reasonable advance planning, you can probably complete the bulk of your sightseeing in Seattle’s core neighborhoods without ever getting in a private vehicle.

Seattle’s two major authorities are Sound Transit, which focuses on express bus, light rail, and commuter rail throughout King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties; and King County Metro Transit, which primarily operates regular bus, rapid bus, and water taxi service in Seattle and surrounding King County suburbs. The City of Seattle also operates an independent streetcar system called Seattle Streetcar, which has two operating lines (First Hill and South Lake Union). And, though it’s rather gimmicky, the Seattle Monorail (less than $3 per ride) is useful for travel between Westlake Center and Seattle Center.

Seattle’s LINK light rail line connects the Angle Lake area (just south of Sea-Tac airport) with central Seattle, as far north as the University of Washington. A separate line in Tacoma will eventually connect northward.

Virtually every commercial street has a bus line, with frequencies ranging from as little as 5 minutes to 15 minutes during peak hours, and 10 to 30 minutes during off-peak hours. Most bus lines radiate toward downtown Seattle or major business areas (such as the University of Washington), but it’s possible to reach most neighborhoods and attractions with one or two transfers.

If you plan to use transit extensively in Seattle, purchase an ORCA card at the airport transit station (or wherever your first ride begins). ORCA cards function as system-wide passes, facilitating seamless fare payment with every Seattle-area transit option save the monorail. ORCA cards cost $5, but the small expense is well worth the convenience. Once you have your card in hand, you can load as much as $300 on it at once. Fares are debited on a per-use basis.

Single-use bus, light rail, and streetcar fares range from $2 to upwards of $4, depending on distance traveled and time of day. Payment protocols differ by transit mode; you pay light rail and streetcar fares before you board, and bus fares after you board.


Seattle’s local bikesharing system consists of three private networks: Jump, Lime, and Lyft. Pricing, conditions of use, and availability vary by vendor, so check the Seattle Department of Transportation’s bikesharing portal for up-to-date information. Generally speaking, you’ll find a greater concentration of bikes in close-in Seattle neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, South Lake Union, and the University of Washington area, as well as the Financial District and other parts of the commercial core. Bear in mind that Seattle is very hilly, so cycling routes that appear doable on paper can turn out to be quite challenging and take much longer than anticipated.

Ridesharing and Taxis

Seattle has ample ridesharing and taxi coverage. Both Uber and Lyft operate here, with excellent coverage – even in farther-flung neighborhoods and suburbs, you’re rarely more than a few minutes from an available ride.

Uber’s coverage area includes most of the Puget Sound region, from well south of Tacoma to well north of Marysville. Lyft’s coverage area is comparable; on my most recent visit, I found rides well beyond the suburban fringe. Fees for both services vary by demand (busier times mean higher prices), distance driven, traffic conditions, and ride quality.

Seattle’s taxis are generally more expensive than its rideshare operators, though the difference is less noticeable on popular routes. For instance, according to Seattle Yellow Cab, local taxis charge a flat $40 for trips from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to downtown Seattle.

Final Word

Many visitors like Seattle so much that they choose to stay for good. According to Census data parsed by The Seattle Times, just 38% of Seattle residents were born in Washington State. Lots more are coming, and fast. According to the Seattle Planning Department, the city added nearly 100,000 residents between 1990 and 2010, when the headcount sat at approximately 609,000. Since then, growth has accelerated: In 2018, the Census-estimated population was approximately 744,000. If you enjoy your trip to Seattle enough to think about putting down roots here, you might want to beat the rush.

Have you ever been to Seattle? What’s your favorite budget-friendly activity?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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