There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but this city’s got tons of free entertainment. Thanks to the abundance of outdoor spaces, free music, historical sites, and just general artsy shit we've got going on around here, you can absolutely have a fabulous weekend in Seattle for free, no sweat. That said, not every single item on this list is exactly free, but we figure you can offset the ones that cost money by doing the other ones first and saving up. It’s a numbers game, folks. Read on for the best affordable entertainment year-round in Seattle, or check out our weekly guides to cheap & easy events.
Before Amazon crushed most of them with its horrible fist around the turn of the century, Seattle famously had dozens and dozens of used bookstores—they were on every corner like Starbuckses. Beauty and the Books, The Globe Bookstore, Filippi Books and Record Shop, Balderdash, Puss ‘n’ Books… this town was lousy with ‘em. Of the precious scant survivors, Greenwood’s Couth Buzzard is the epitome of the grunge-era, pre-Amazonian PNW bookstore—with its tall stacks and hippie pedigree, its funky back-of-store coffee shop and very broken-in seating—and we’d pretty much do anything to keep it alive. In recent years, they’ve added events throughout the week to bring in shoppers, mostly live music, and the shows have a suggested donation of $10 but are free if you need them to be. There’s an open mic on Wednesdays, jazz on first Fridays, and a melange of folk, funk, Choro (Brazilian), classical guitar, rock, Irish trad, and miscellaneous other types of musical artists throughout the weekends. So, can we lure you out to the Buzzard with an evening of cheap music? And a coffee? Maybe you’ll buy a book while you’re there?
(Greenwood, donations welcome but technically free)
Obviously, everybody knows about Pike Place (NOT Pike’s Place—do not call it this or you have to leave) and that it’s a foodie spot of international renown. And yes, there’s scads of truly lovely fine-dining restaurants here. But there’s also a shitload of cheap AND delicious stuff to eat within the historical nooks and crannies of PPM, if you know where to look. From Chinese humbows at Mee Sum Pastry, fried chicken at Chicken Valley, and pesto-ricotta crumpets at the Crumpet Shop to hot-n-fresh mini-doughnuts at the Daily Dozen, cioppino at Jack’s Fish Spot (we know, that’s San Francisco food, but it’s dope as hell here) and the best Greek yogurt of your god-damned life at Ellenos, the Market is begging to be explored by hungry, broke people. That’s the preferred way to refer to Pike Place Market, by the way, if you want to localize your language. We just say the Market.
(Pike Place Market, prices vary)
Monster, the sister store to Ugly Baby in THE MARKET, hosts a couple of five-dollar events each month. A select couple are Monthly Murderino Craft Nights, for crafty fans of My Favorite Murder, and their Monthly Craft Social on the last Tuesday of the month. This is more of a coworking situation—bring your own project to work on and hang out with other creative people in Monster’s wacky arts space/gift shop. They have lots more art classes on their website (some of which cost more than five dollars). Don’t know about you, but we think any of these would make a perfect, low-key date night. And a crucial litmus test for how creatively weird—or not creatively weird—your date is.
(Ballard, $5 minimum, sometimes more)
The KC Water Taxi is a cheapass cruise, and taking it to dreamy Vashon Island only takes 22 minutes from Pier 50 on Alaskan Way! In comparison to the Washington State Ferries route from Colman Dock, it’ll run ya only $6.75, and you save a dollar off that if you use your ORCA card. It’s commuter hours only, so you’ll have to plan ahead a little, but it’s not hard to fill a day with sensory delights in Vashon, between all the great restaurants and pristine beaches within busing distance of the terminal. (We recommend Mediterranean classics from the Mustafa Syrian Kitchen food truck, or craft cocktails and meaty pub fare at the Ruby Brink Bar and Butcher.) If you want to take a li’l boat ride but are strapped for time, you can take the even-cheaper route from Pier 50 to West Seattle’s Seacrest Dock, which is faster and runs way more often. Once you’re at the dock, you can link up with the free DART shuttle to Alki. Or just get some kalua pork kimchi fried rice at Marination Ma Kai, right next to the ferry terminal, and then go back across the bay. A worthy quest all by itself.
A little draconian, but it is a raw and fascinating display of the theater of human nature to stand at the rail at the spectacularly beautiful Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Ballard and watch the boats go through the works. Or try to. If you’ve never done this, well, it's super stressful to go through the locks in a boat, and there are always boaters and families of boaters screaming at each other, trying to get the lines right. That is some fun Seattle shit. Bring a picnic lunch and eat it in the manicured English garden-looking gardens afterward or before. Also, you can go into that little cave to view the underwater salmon ladder and watch the (possibly similarly frustrated) fish trying to climb up the contraption into the canal. Sometimes there are beavers and seals out on the water, trying to catch fish right before God and everyone. It’s gorgeous natural chaos at the Locks, particularly when the weather's nice–don’t miss the parade.
First of all, Seattle has a Canadian-themed bar, FYI, and it actually existed long before we had an NHL team, if you can believe it. Well! The Angry Beaver’s pretty much consecrated itself to the Kraken since, and understandably, but it also has a surprisingly kiiiiiller jazz nite on Sundays. You guys know in The Talented Mr. Ripley, where Matt Damon and Jude Law are babyfaced jazzers in the dark, neon-lit basement bar somewhere in Naples, and there are 17 horn players and it’s just like wheeeee-oooo, everybody’s snappin’ and swingin’ beboppin’ and people are wearing ties for some reason, and it’s like a churning fucking Wave Machine of '50s-era Hot Jazz? It’s like that at this sports bar, when drummer Max Holmberg and his 200 Trio are holding court. A straight-up movie scene for sure. The Beav may be proudly Canadian, but on Sunday nights at 9, one might say…tu vuò fà l'Americano.
(Greenwood, Sundays at 9 pm, free but you should buy a drink)
This is even cooler than it sounds, and it sounds pretty cool. The nonprofit Seattle Theater Group owns the Paramount, the Moore, and the Neptune, a triumvirate of historic architectural masterpieces, and they’re open to the public three Saturdays of the month. You and your smart friends (and probably some strangers) get a little docent who will take you around the huge building and spend 90 minutes narrating each stained-glass window and lavish green room and velveteen hidey-hole. It’s like being inside of a documentary—just a marvelous little treat. First Saturday of the month at 10 a.m. is the tour of the Paramount at Eighth and Pike; the second Saturday is at the Moore at Second and Lenora, and the third Saturday is at the Neptune at 45th and Brooklyn. They’re all at 10 a.m., so you gotta get up early, but that’s fine—then you get more Saturday.
(Various locations, free)
One doesn't plan to attend a Festál; a Festál is something that organically occurs to a Seattleite. You’re at the Center for some other reason, and there's some event going on in the Center House—excuse us, the Armory—and there’s a buncha little kids in traditional dress, some dancers in headdresses, and whoa, the music is actually really good, even though you’re not sure what kind it is? And holyshit, that food smells good, better get some of whatever’s cookin’. Et voilá, you’ve found yourself in á Festál, and quite pleased to be there. This series of 24 PBS-flavored arts events runs on weekends from February through November, and they celebrate a different culture each time, from the Italian Festival to the Seattle Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival, from Dia de Muertos to the Spirit of Africa. They’re all fascinating and totally free (well, minus the food), with live music and dance, films, art installations, and more. It’s always good wholesome fun to find yourself in a Festál, just to be in a space with multiple artsy things happening all around you, and to tacitly participate in it simply by existing in that space. Note: You CAN plan to go to a Festál intentionally, and it will still work.
(Seattle Center, free)
They should call it the Free, knumsayin’? Perched on First Hill, the resplendent Frye Art Museum has been shinin’ over Seattle since 1952, and it’s the city’s only free art museum, incredibly. After his and his wife’s death, local meatpacking scion Charles Frye’s personal fine art collection was gifted in perpetuity to the city of Seattle, so it belongs to us all and you should go enjoy it. Per Jen Graves in the Stranger in 2007, the Fryes had a taste for “the dark, the dramatic, and the psychological" in contrast to "the genteel” Henry Art Gallery across town, and…they also seemed to have a thing about moody paintings of cows and sheep? In addition to the permanent collection, you also have access to whichever exhibitions happen to be happening. Plus they have a very charming museum gift store. We just love a museum gift store.
(First Hill, free)
Did you know there’s a new (-ish) repertory movie house in Columbia City? The Beacon opened in 2019, right before the pandemic did, and so you may have not had a chance to check it out. They’re doing things kinda in the style of the U District’s Grand Illusion, running mostly older films in their dear little 48-seat theater, and at $12.50, tickets are a buck or three cheaper than you’ll find at an AMC joint. You can bring your own drinks and snax, too. That’ll save you 20 bucks right there. Also, it’s cute here, and you’re supporting two local film nerds who are here to build community, not a corporation. To give you a taste, as of this writing, upcoming shows include Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and a Chris Marker sci-fi/documentary double feature of La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (1983).
(Beacon Hill, $12.50)
In 1900, the Parental School for Boys and Girls opened on Queen Anne Hill, meant to care for orphans and wayward youth. It was quickly ap-parent that combining the whole pool of messed-up kids was a bad idea, and the girls were moved first to Mercer Island and then to this site near Seward Park, which was christened The Martha Washington School for Girls—and is sometimes styled as “The Martha Washington School for Insane Girls” by historians. It’s a sad story—the girls were mistreated and some died under mysterious circumstances—and the building was closed in 1971. Today, the ~10-acre site is a lovely waterfront park known for its huge green lawn, splendid Oregon white oaks, mountain views, and swimming/hand-carry boating access to Lake Washington. And also for its status as one of the most haunted places in Seattle. Not that we believe in that stuff.
(Rainier Valley, free)
More cheap & easy events worth checking out:
FOOD & DRINK
Third Place Books Book Clubs - online:
Radical Romance Like Add to a List (second Mondays); Booze & Lasers Like Add to a List (third Mondays); In Translation Like Add to a List (third Tuesdays); Queer Lit Like Add to a List (last Wednesdays); Social Justice Syllabus Like Add to a List (last Thursdays)