These are some of the Seattle-Tacoma metro area’s best attractions. For any of these activities, you can easily spend an hour or two—and some the better part of a day. Best of all, they’re free and many are available year-around.
Ballard Locks, officially named Hiram M. Chittenden Locks connects the (fresh) waters of Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Salmon Bay to (salt water) Puget Sound. The locks prevent the mixing of sea water from Puget Sound with the fresh water, maintain water levels in Lake Washington and Lake Union, and allows commercial and recreational vessels to navigate the 20 foot difference in water level as they transverse the city. The entire complex includes two locks, a spillway, and a fish ladder for migration of salmon. In addition, there are beautiful gardens around the facility. A fish ladder is active with migrating salmon spring to fall.
Center for Wooden Boats on South Lake Union next to the Museum of History and Industry. Free activities include walking the docks, browsing exhibits, exploring boats, Sunday sail boat rides, and hands-on activities. You can also rent a boat or take a class.
Farmer’s Markets. Besides Pike Place Market, Seattle has several neighborhood farmers markets open year-round. Saturdays in the University District and Sundays in the Ballard, Capitol Hill, and West Seattle neighborhoods. Find seasonal produce, farm-raised meats and poultry, wild seafood, and locally produced foods including cheeses, pickles, jam, honey, baked goods, grains and flours, wine, beer, and spirts.
Griot’s Garage & Retail Store in Tacoma features leading-edge car care products and a rotating display of vintage autos and cool cars. You’ll likely see something new every time you visit. Every month on the First Saturday they host a Cruise-In Car Show with coffee and donuts. And cool cars, of course.
Pike Place Market between downtown Seattle and the waterfront offers many hours of exploration in the nine-acre historic district. There are photo opps with Rachel the Pig. You can take in stunning views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. Or stroll through eateries and shops featuring snacks, practical wares, collectibles and souvenirs. Here are some of our favorite locales:
Puyallup Fish Hatchery (36 miles S of Seattle) sits on 80 acres and welcomes visitors year-round during daylight hours. The Educational Center is open on Saturdays from 10 am to 2 pm and staffed by volunteers from the Puyallup Historical Hatchery Foundation. Each October, the hatchery hosts a Salmon Homecoming to welcome the salmon returning to Clarks Creek with music, tours, and games for all ages. The rest of the year, you are invited to walk the trails and enjoy the beautiful sylvan setting of this historic treasure.
Seattle Center (map) is a 74-acre urban park and event center north of downtown. Outdoors, enjoy year-around gardens, artwork, festivals, the International Fountain with synchronized music, plus seasonal fitness programs, movies, and concerts. Indoors, enjoy cultural festivals, family programs, fitness classes, and the Armory food court. A self-guided tour brochure includes more than 25 points of interest and fascinating facts. Tour brochures are available at the Armory Information Center or via download (PDF).
Seattle Public Central Library glass and steel structure was designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Inside, the library features underground parking and a collection capacity of 1.45 million books on 11 floors, and a four-level “Books Spiral” with most of the nonfiction collection in a continuous loop. The library offers a range of services, a large computer lab, interesting community events in the 275-seat auditorium, and open spaces for reading and study. Free self-guided tours detailing the architecture and services are available in print, audio, or by cell phone.
Seattle Waterfront from Pioneer Square to Belltown is undergoing a multi-year transformation from 2017-2024 that includes replacing the Elliott Bay sea wall (completed 2017), building a new underground tunnel (opened February 2019), and removal of the aging Alaska Way viaduct concrete roadway (scheduled for completion mid-summer 2019). Additional projects include bridges and walkways to connect the waterfront to downtown, plus new surface streets, environmental upgrades, public art, parks, and opens spaces. Two ways to experience the progress include the Pike Place MarketFront for an overhead view of the progress, or closer to the action with a stroll along the west side of Alaskan Way from Pier 66 to Pier 50 featuring a variety of interesting shops, eateries, and public spaces along the way.
Snoqualmie Falls (30 miles E of Seattle) at 268-feet is one of Washington state’s most popular scenic attractions. It’s more spectacular in winter and spring when there has been abundant rain and/or snow melt, although a visit is more pleasant when winds are calm and it’s not raining (too hard). There’s a two-acre park and a short trail to the lower observation deck, plus gift shop and swanky Salish Lodge hotel, spa, and restaurant. Free parking and free viewing area are open from dawn until dusk. Check their website for weather conditions before you head out.
Starbuck’s Roastery & Tasting Room in Seattle on Capitol Hill features the rarest coffees and exacting preparations for the coffee aficionado in an ever-evolving menu of coffee, flights, cocktails, and food. There is no guided tour, so plan on exploring on your own. The Roastery has exclusive coffee offerings and merchandise items available only in the store. Weekday early mornings is the quietest time. The rush starts late morning, and the space can stay busy until close.
Tacoma Glass Museum Chihuly Bridge of Glass is a 500-foot-long pedestrian overpass that links the Museum to downtown Tacoma. Crossing over to Pacific Avenue, continue to the U.S. District Courthouse in the historic Union Station building featuring several more Chihuly sculptures. The Tacoma Glass Museum is free every 3rd Thursday in the evening. The courthouse is a federal facility, so only open weekdays, closed federal holidays, and requires government issued I.D. to enter—they’re happy to direct you towards Chihuly’s works.
Uwajimaya Grocery Store in Seattle’s Chinatown is a unique shopping experience with a focus on Asian produce, meats, and vast selection of seafood, plus sauces, noodles and rice, vinegars and sake, deli and catering offerings, beer and wine, cookware, gifts, and a Pacific Rim food court. Need thinly sliced meats for shabu-shabu or hotpot? Check. Looking for fish sauce or mirin? Check check. How about a ginger grater? Easy-peasy. Founder Fujimatsu Moriguchi named his business Uwajima-ya, after the town of Uwajima where he learned his trade and adding ”ya”, which simply means “store” in Japanese. Fifteen of his descendants are involved in the business today. Take a self-guided stroll through the aisles to explore products from every corner of the globe—some you may find familiar and others exotic new experiences you might want to try.
Free museums. The Seattle-Tacoma metro area has dozens of museums, including 20 that are free to visit every day, and many more on free museums days during the month:
Free Tours include guided tours, self-guided tours, and walking tours at a variety of interesting places around the Puget Sound region:
Glassblowing Studios. Seattle is a world-class glassblowing center. There are many studios and galleries you can visit to buy gifts or take classes. Five glass studios regularly open their doors to visitors where you can watch artists at work in this ancient and beautiful art:
Independent bookstores and author events. Seattle is ranked as one of the most literate cities in the country. It may come as no surprise that we have over 20 independent bookstores. Any of them make a great outing. Get recommendations for your next great read, attend author events, buy gifts, or just browse the shelves.
Puget Sound’s Lighthouses are mostly non-working operations. The grounds can be visited any time of year, but various tours and programs to go inside are mostly open summer only. They are a fascinating part of Northwest maritime history: