Keeping the bottom line low on a rainy weekend in the Emerald City

Seattle on the Cheap

by Sheila G. Miller

Seattle’s known for a lot of things—tons of rain, great music, coffee. It’s also got a reputation for being an expensive place to live and play. But visitors can find deals. We set out on a weekend of keeping costs down. 

Soak in Seattle Culture

Playing tourist in Seattle starts with an iconic spot—the Space Needle. The landmark, built in 1962 over a period of eight months for the World’s Fair, just got a $100 million facelift that is a must-see. On the observation deck, 11-foot tilting glass walls with glass benches now allow for better views. Downstairs, part of the flooring is now clear as well, allowing visitors to challenge their fear of heights (I lost this challenge—there’s video of me laugh-sobbing to prove it). The Space Needle’s ticket prices went up along with the renovation—adults pay between $27.50 (early birds) and $37.50. 

If you combine your Space Needle visit with stops at other Seattle Center locations, you can get a deal. Chihuly Garden and Glass, just steps away and well worth a visit, is $26 on its own. When you add the Space Needle, the tickets cost $49. Or pick up a See It All: Seattle Center 4-pack and add the monorail and the Pacific Science Center. That’ll cost you $78, a savings of 25 percent—plus you can skip lines. Finally, there’s the CityPASS, which is $89 for an adult and gets you into the Space Needle, the Seattle Aquarium, onto an Argosy Cruises Harbor Tour, and then two options—either the Museum of Pop Culture or the Woodland Park Zoo, and the Chihuly Garden and Glass or the Pacific Science Center. 

If you’d prefer your views of the city to include the Space Needle, you’re in luck. The Columbia Center offers the Sky View Observatory on the seventy-third floor, 1,000 feet in the air, and tickets are only $20 when purchased online.

And note that, if you’re a Seattle Library card holder, you can reserve one pass per week to one of fifteen attractions in the area, including the Woodland Park Zoo and the Seattle Aquarium. Each of the library’s passes has at least two adult tickets, but some have four or more tickets. If you’re not a library card holder, you can also count on the city’s museums to offer free days. 

For example, the Imagine Children’s Museum is free the third Friday of each month from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., and offers half-price admission on Thursday afternoons. Other spots, like the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and the Seattle Art Museum are free on the first Thursday of each month. 

Or go to the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center, the Klondike Gold Rush Museum, or the Loghouse Museum, all of which have a ton of historical information and exhibits and are always free.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center is free and open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. The center has a variety of exhibits that show what the foundation is doing around the world, as well as how people live and why we should be optimistic about the future. Among those exhibits, a chance to “make a difference now” by doing a project that benefits people in need. 

If you plan ahead, you can check out another well-known Seattle business—Amazon’s new facility, The Spheres. This architectural marvel is a collaborative workspace set in two huge glass domes, and inside are more than 40,000 plants from around the world, as well as water features and garden aquariums. The building is open to the public on the first and third Saturdays of each month with a visitor center called Understory at the base of the building. In order to visit you’ll have to register for a free entry time on the facility’s website,

Exploring Outdoors

That’s a lot of culture. You can also get outside—grab a raincoat and start at Pike Place Market, where you can wander the stalls of fresh fish, handmade art and bundles of flowers all without paying a dime. You might be inspired to pick up a few foods for lunch, but if you can resist the temptation and fill up on samples, you’ll be ahead of the game. 

Then head to Olympic Sculpture Park, which is free and open to the public every day of the year, sunrise to sunset. It’s managed by the Seattle Art Museum and has more than a dozen huge art works in a park by the water. 

Or head to South Lake Union and check out the Center for Wooden Boats, a free museum that offers hands-on learning opportunities about boats and the water. You will have to pay to rent a boat, but the exhibits and exploring the boats is always free. 

Finally, you can also do a free professionally led tour of the Chittenden Locks in the Ballard section of the city. From May through September the tours take place multiple times daily, but are less frequent in the winter. You’ll see fish climbing the ladder and the locks opening and closing for boats, and learn about the history of the area. Bonus—there’s a botanical garden on site as well. 

You may not want to pony up the money to take a boat tour in Seattle, which generally start at $30 and up. Instead, try a ferry ride from Seattle to Bremerton or Bainbridge Island. Passenger tickets are $8.50. 

When you’ve had enough of the sightseeing, kick back and play some games at Add-A-Ball, a 21-plus spot with the largest collection of coin-operated, vintage arcade machines in the city. Or try the Seattle Pinball Museum, where for $15 you can camp out and play old pinball games as long as you like (show up with a friend or two and pay $20 for multiple adults). 

After all that cheap culture, you’re going to be hungry. This city has tons of options, including some excellent happy hours that make the spendy spots a little more reasonable. 

For happy hours at the fancy restaurants, try out Lecosho, a downtown, dark-wood spot. Happy hour has a full menu with treats like bolognese and spaetzle, as well as wine for $5 and tap beers for $4. Get oysters for cheap during happy hour at The Walrus and The Carpenter, the adorable oyster bar in Ballard. Or try Lower Queen Anne’s Toulouse Petit’s happy hours—yes, plural. One runs 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., the other 10 p.m. to midnight, and both offer more than fifty plates between $5 and $11, as well as less expensive beer, wine and cocktails. 

If you’re looking for food that’s good and doesn’t have a time limit on its reasonable price, the city is your proverbial oyster. There are dumplings in Chinatown (try Ping’s for the real deal), reasonably priced sushi (Kisaku in Green Lake is a typical neighborhood sushi place where you can eat well for a reasonable amount), and sandwiches everywhere (Mean Sandwich, anyone?). Or head into the University District for college eats—you know there are always deals when college kids get involved.