I’ve lived in Seattle for a year and a half, and here are the 9 best cheap or free things to do when you visit

A weekend in Seattle doesn't have to be expensive.

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A weekend in Seattle doesn’t have to be expensive.
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Liz Knueven/Business Insider

  • I’ve lived in Seattle for a year and a half, and while it’s anything but affordable, there’s still lots to do here on a traveler’s budget.
  • From sampling fresh local seafood during happy hour at a sushi kitchen, to taking a bus to a nearby trailhead during the summer for less than $3, there’s lots to do on the cheap if you know where to look.
  • Here are my favorite local spots I’d recommend to any traveler on a budget.
  • Read more personal finance coverage.

Anyone who’s lived in Seattle for any length of time knows that it’s not a cheap city to live in. But, if you’re just here to check it out for the weekend, you certainly won’t have to break the bank to see what it’s all about.

I’ve lived here for about a year and a half, and during that time, I’ve done all the touristy things, either by accident or with friends who come to visit. But, I have to say that my favorite ways to see this city aren’t on the tour guides’ lists, and they won’t cost you much, either.

From taking advantage of happy hours to visiting a high-up coffee shop with a view, there’s so much to do without having to pay for an expensive tour. From Fremont and Ballard to Belltown and International District, this city has no shortage of vibrancy. But for the full experience, you’ll also want to get out of the city, and there are plenty of affordable ways to do so.

Here’s how I’d recommend spending a weekend in Seattle on the cheap.


Start a day off wandering through Pike Place Market, and get some affordable eats

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The sign on top of the market.
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Liz Knueven/Business Insider

Opened in 1907 as a produce market, Pike Place has since expanded to include lots of local fish, crafts, baked goods, and so much more.

Grab yourself a few snacks in the market. You can find lots of things from donuts and coffee to gyros, dumplings and more. Skip the expensive waterfront restaurants and pick up snacks from some of the local vendors as you walk. Pike Place Bakery has some great donuts for a morning treat.

If you’re lucky enough to go on a weekday morning, you’ll see fewer crowds and have an all-around better experience.


And, stop by the gum wall while you’re there

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A Seattle institution since the 1990s, the gum wall started as something of an accident, but the trend of sticking gum to the walls took off and hasn’t stopped since.

The gum wall can be hard to find, but look look for a brick ramp down where Pike Street crosses First Avenue near the market entrance.

Follow that down, and you’ll see the gum wall (or more accurately, gum walls) in all their glory. Take a picture, and maybe add your own piece to the wall.


If you’re still around the market during lunch, drop into Japonessa for great sushi and a good deal

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You might as well get two rolls since they’re this cheap.
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Liz Knueven/Business Insider

At sushi kitchen Japonessa, happy hour is a great time to get some very affordable rolls, which I’d say are some of my favorites in Seattle. Their happy hour is rather generous, and runs from opening until early evening – go later in the evening and you’ll pay quite a bit more. It’s a great way to get a taste of some of the city’s fresh seafood without paying for one of the more touristy waterfront restaurants.

During happy hour, most rolls are under $10. Go anytime before 6:30 p.m. for the deal, or before 8 p.m. at the bar.


Then, get out of downtown on the light rail to visit Gas Works Park

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Gas Works is ideal for any hour of the day (as long as it’s not raining).
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Anthony Ricci/Shutterstock.com

Up north, across Lake Union, life slows down a little bit. Take a break from the hustle-and-bustle of the city’s booming tech and finance scene and head for Gas Works Park, a local favorite for picnicking, dog walking, and a great view.

Take the light rail for $2.50 at the kiosk in the station, and catch the train from downtown north towards University of Washington for a 15-minute ride.

From there, you can snag one of Seattle’s many Jump rental bikes, which you can unlock through the Uber app for $0.15 per minute. Ride to Gas Works Park on the Burke-Gilman bike trail and walking path. You’ll end up right near this park after a one-mile ride or walk.


Walk along South Lake Union and check out the city’s many floating home and boat communities

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Houseboats on Lake Union, Seattle, Washington.
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cdrin/Shutterstock.com

While you’re up here, it’s worth taking a minute to admire some of Seattle’s most unique homes in the marinas.

Here, floating homes can be more expensive than homes on land, and there’s no shortage of houseboats, yachts, and other boats that people use as their primary residence. They’re neat to see, and are often visible from the trail which follows the water.

Keep heading towards Fremont on the Burke-Gilman trail. From Fremont, it will take about 15 to 20 minutes to get to the city center and will cost $2.75 (you’ll need cash if you didn’t get an ORCA reloadable card).


Head towards the city center to get close to the Space Needle — but don’t go up

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The view from the top of the Space Needle’s glass floor.
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Liz Knueven/Business Insider

The Space Needle is pretty iconic, but going up it can be expensive, with ticket prices over $30 per person.

Don’t get me wrong – the Space Needle is pretty neat. If you decide to splurge and go up it, check out the recently installed glass floors and look down on everything below.

But, seeing the Space Needle up close from the ground can be just as good. Wander the streets of Belltown to get a feel for a day in the Seattle life, and look for the views of the Space Needle as you walk along 4th or 5th Avenue.

Hopefully, you already got a view of the skyline from Gas Works Park. But, if you’re still wanting a view from the top, go somewhere where you can get a just-as-good view for much less …


For a cheaper view of the city from above, head back downtown to Columbia Tower and visit the Starbucks on the 40th floor

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The tallest dark tower is Columbia Tower.
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Liz Knueven/Business Insider

This Starbucks in the sky has some pretty good views of the city. Located on the 40th floor of Columbia Tower, there’s plenty to see from here. A coffee with a view sounds much better than a $30 view with crowds, doesn’t it?

I’d suggest visiting around noon or in the early afternoon for the best views, as the clouds tend to linger here. On a clear day, you might catch a glimpse of one of the mountain ranges that border the city.


End your night underground, but don’t do it with an expensive tour

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The purple glass skylights that lit parts of the underground tunnels before electricity.
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Liz Knueven/Business Insider

Seattle’s city streets used to sit quite a bit below where they do now. And some of those original streets, rooms, and alleyways still exist under the new infrastructure.

Most people take one of the city’s underground tours to see them. But, with tickets generally over $20 per person, there are far more affordable ways to see what’s going on beneath the streets.

There are a few local watering holes and nightlife venues near Occidental Square that are mainstays on many of the underground tour routes. If you want to see what an underground space looks like and see how they’re used today, visit one on your own.

The Comedy Underground is one of them, with comedy shows in an original underground structure. Purchase tickets in advance online for a $10 show, and skip the tour groups.


Go for a hike to appreciate how beautiful the Pacific Northwest is — that’s really what Seattle’s all about

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Liz Knueven/Business Insider

Judging by the intensely thick weekend traffic on I-5 almost every Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, I’ve come to find that most Seattle-ites feel the same: The best part of Seattle is being outside of it. If you can get out of the city, it’s a great way to spend a day on the cheap and see all that this stunning and unique region has to offer.

In the summer, King County Metro runs a trailhead program, which will take you directly to some of the most popular local trails for $2.75, including Mt. Si, Issaquah Alps, and Cougar Mountain. Or, take an Amtrak rain for about $25 each way out to Leavenworth in the Cascades.

If you have some more room in your budget, you can also rent a car (pack your camping gear!) and visit one of the many parks near the city, including Olympic National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, and many national forests.

The best part of life in the Pacific Northwest is the nature here. And that’s not something the downtown does justice.