10 free things to do in Washington state

Seattle, Washington, USA - October 2018: Architectural views of the Seattle Public Library.; Shutterstock ID 1901529775; your: Ann Douglas Lott; gl: 65050; netsuite: Editorial; full: Free things to do in Washington state
The Seattle Public Library is an architectural marvel that offers free programming such as readings and classes © Stephanie Braconnier / Shutterstock

Washington state encompasses such a large and varied terrain that, depending on your travel plans, your budget could either be rock-bottom or luxury—or a combination of both.

If you’re sticking to outdoor activities, cooking your own food, hiking in national parks and staying in campgrounds, you can do that on the super-cheap. Your biggest costs will be transportation (rental car and fuel), park passes, food and camping fees.

Spending more time in large cities, of course, means spending more. Seattle isn’t cheap; hotels and restaurants here can be pricey relative to the rest of the US, and the big tourist attractions often have an equally big price tag attached. 

One tip for those looking to check off a lot of major attractions in Washington’s big city: get the Seattle City Pass. It’ll save you money on admission prices to the Space Needle and other sights.

Whichever way you prefer to travel, there are plenty of fun things to do around Washington state that won’t cost you a thing.

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View of the Space Needle from Alexander Calder's Eagle
View of the Space Needle from Alexander Calder's Eagle © Kerochan / Shutterstock

Explore art and nature at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle

One of the best ways to get an appreciation for Seattle’s layout is to stroll through this outdoor sculpture park at the water’s edge. On a sunny day, you can watch sailboats flitting across Elliott Bay as the buildings of downtown gather in formation up the hills behind you. Tucked between the city and the bay is this 9-acre landscaped park whose zigzag path is dotted with eye-catching sculptures, from Alexander Calder’s landmark red Eagle to Richard Serra’s wave-like Wake. The park is open daily from dawn to dusk and makes a great place for a picnic lunch on your way to or from visiting the Seattle Art Museum.

While you’re here, another great source of free entertainment is walking pier-to-pier along the Seattle waterfront. You can visit classic tourist draws like Pike Place Market and the (super-gross yet mysteriously compelling) Gum Wall, take a selfie in front of the Great Wheel, and then park yourself on a bench for some excellent people-watching.

Check out the fish and ships at Ballard Locks

It sounds weird, but Ballard Locks is one of Seattle’s more enthralling attractions. Opened in 1917, the locks move boat traffic between the freshwater lakes Washington and Union and the saltwater Puget Sound. During peak times, visitors might see Bering Sea fishing boats lining up next to kayaks to wait their turn. The locks are a massive feat of engineering and have made a huge impact on the surrounding cityscape, rerouting entire rivers. From a visitor’s point of view, they are just oddly fascinating to watch.  

A key piece of the locks system is the fish ladder, built to allow migratory fish a way of navigating from the salt water back up to their freshwater spawning grounds without being trapped in the locks. You can see them in action from the Fish Ladder Viewing Gallery; peak season lasts from July through mid-August. 

Tour the Grand Coulee Dam

This Columbia River dam near Spokane, Washington, might make you feel like a tiny speck in the universe—both because of its sheer scale, at nearly a mile across, and the impressive engineering achievement it represents. It’s bigger than the Great Pyramid at Giza, its reservoir reaches almost all the way to Canada. The dam took nearly a decade to build and was completed in 1942, just in time to contribute its electrical power toward the aluminum-making efforts required by World War II.

In short, it’s kind of a big deal. You can learn a lot about what it took to build the dam and how it works at the visitor center, but a one-hour guided tour of the John W. Keys III Pump-Generating Plant (offered May–October) is more up close and personal. A laser-light show retelling the dam's history runs nightly from June through September. 

If you’re not afraid of large, enthusiastic crowds, visit the dam on July 4th for a gigantic fireworks display.

Visit the Frye Art Museum

The Frye is one of the best-kept secrets in Seattle. Or, more accurately, the museum is well-known, but the fact that it’s always free to visit is something that surprises even locals. The permanent collection holds its own, but the programming and temporary exhibits are the real draws here. Curators and other experts hold talks on specific artists, and the museum offers guided tours on various themes, such as abstraction or animals in art. Longer programs include lecture series on the relationship between aging and creativity. The museum has even hosted drop-in mindfulness meditation sessions. Schedules vary, but it’s worth checking out what’s going on there during your stay. 

Picnic amid industrial ruins at Gas Works Park

Put on your best steampunk outfit and stage a perfect picnic at Seattle’s Gas Works Park, where the polished industrial backdrop is sure to spark the imagination. The park's Great Mound has a great view of Seattle, and you can try your hand at telling the time using the giant sundial. If you need to stretch your legs, the Burke-Gilman Trail passes right through the park, which is ideal for a jog or a bike ride. It’s also a great place to fly a kite. (No swimming, though: Lake Union near the park still contains some hazardous sediment left over from the power station.) 

Spokane Falls flow right through downtown
Spokane Falls flow right through downtown © Kasey Schmitt / Shutterstock

Get misted at Spokane Falls

If you’re visiting Spokane in the summer months, don’t miss the chance to stand on a pedestrian bridge and cool off by the impressive waterfalls. The Upper and Lower Spokane Falls are right downtown, and when the water is high, they are roaringly impressive. They’re pretty scenic at any time of year and are easy to reach via paved footpaths. Head to the Monroe Street Bridge and the Howard Street Bridge for optimal viewing spots. 

Visit the state capitol building in Olympia

It’s not always easy to work up a lot of enthusiasm for visiting government buildings on your holidays. Still, in the fun little city of Olympia, Washington's capitol is more appealing than most. The building itself is beautifully designed and set in a sprawling parklike complex that offers postcard views of a lake with the Olympic Mountains in the background. It’s pleasant just to stroll the meandering path around the capitol grounds, but you can also peek inside on a free guided tour, which additionally gets you into the neighboring State Supreme Court and the gardens in the Capitol Conservatory. 

The bridge of glass in Tacoma, Washington
The pedestrian bridge at the Museum of Glass is 500 ft long © Chamomile Olya / Shutterstock

Walk a bridge of glass in Tacoma

If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Tacoma, Washington, glass artist Dale Chihuly, this is an excellent way to get a sense of what he’s all about before investing in a visit to a museum for a bigger dose of his work (which you definitely should also do). The Chihuly Bridge of Glass is a pedestrian walkway over Interstate 705 in Tacoma. In addition to the artwork that decorates the bridge, it has an excellent view of the city’s Union Station and the funky glass cone section of the Museum of Glass (the “Hot Shop”). 

Park ranger talking to tourists in Mt St Helens, Washington
A park ranger at Mt St Helens National Monument gives a talk about the history and geography of the area © 4nadia / Getty Images

Listen to a ranger talk

True, national parks do typically require an admission fee. But once you’re there, you can add a lot of value to your visit by attending a presentation from one of the park rangers. Topics can range from identifying local flora and fauna to exploring tide pools to guided hikes or forest walks. Check schedules online for Olympic National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, North Cascades National Park or Mt St Helens National Monument – or, depending on your interests and where your trip takes you, all of the above. 

Tour the Seattle Public Library

It might at first sound more like summer school than summer vacation, but bear with us: the Seattle Public Library building is not your typical quiet zone. Architecturally, the building is a marvel, with a surprising, origami-like appearance. The interior is equally fun, with brightly colored escalators and stylish furniture. No one will shush you for taking a selfie or three. The library also hosts author readings and other events that are typically free and worth checking out. 

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