Mention “Seattle” and what’s likely to come to mind are coffee, microbrews, and weather. But look a little closer at the local’s city, and you’ll find a place appreciated for the arts and green space. Defined and inspired by its waterways, evergreen forests, seven hills, and mountains on either side, the Emerald City is a place that begs to be explored by land and sea. It may have a reputation for having the most literate population in the US, but the city is just as unpretentious as it is metropolitan. It has a reputation for its weather, but Seattleites will tell you that it’s not really as rainy as you might expect. Just the same, it’s a city that’s not as expensive as you might expect–Seattle can be a budget destination after all.
You can fly into the Seattle-Tacoma Airport (SEA) on a number of major airlines, including American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, and United, but you’re most likely to find a deal on Alaska Airlines/Horizon or Southwest.
Amtrak trains offer another option–they’ll drop you off at King Street Station in the International district.
Rather than take a taxi from the airport, get dropped off downtown by the Gray Line Downtown Airporter, which departs every 30 minutes (between 5:30 a.m.–11 p.m.). You’ll only pay $11 one-way, or $18 round-trip. Those with a more adventuresome spirit (and a slimmer wallet) can catch the Metro bus ($1.50 off-peak/$2.25 peak hours)–near door 6 of the baggage-claim area.
Once you reach downtown, you’ll definitely want to make friends with the bus. Sure, you could hoof it, but why bother when buses are free within the Free-Ride Area, anytime from 6:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m.
Where to Stay:
The only hostel downtown is Green Tortoise, but what a great location it has–right across from Pike Place Market. Their recent relocation has made a huge improvement in facilities and cleanliness, and they offer free breakfast daily (with waffles and eggs), and free dinner three times a week. Dorms come in at $25–36, and rooms are $77–90. Check out their current special: save $4 on the fourth night in a dorm room.
For another reasonable option, head to the College Inn Seattle in the University district. The historic building that dates back to the 1909 Alaska-Yukon Exposition is big on atmosphere. You may have to share a bathroom, but that’s what brings the rates down to $55–90.
What to See:
Here’s a newsflash: there’s more than one viewing tower in town. Everyone knows about the Space Needle ($16), but for half the price you can get a tip-top view of the city from Smith Tower ($7.50). The view from the 35th floor observation deck may showcase more of downtown than the Queen Anne district, but the price is right. Check the calendar in advance to make sure that it’s open.
Spend a weekend morning browsing one of the area’s farmer’s markets–especially the University (year-round on Saturdays) and Fremont districts (year-round on Sundays), where music and crafts are as much of the experience as the fruit-sampling. And of course, there’s the most famous market in town: Pike Place–theatrics and tourists aside, it’s a lively place to find everything from produce and seafood to flowers and crafts.
Pick a day of the week, and you’re likely to find an art walk. Tour the different neighborhoods while you tour the art:
First Thursday: Pioneer Square
First Friday: Fremont
Second Tuesday: Capitol Hill
Second Thursday: West Seattle
Second Friday: Belltown
Second Saturday: Ballard
Third Thursday: Upper Queen Anne
Local museums also help you save a few dollars, but you have to know when to find their free days. The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) is free on the first Thursday of the month (and to seniors aged 62+ on the first Friday, and to teens aged 13–19 from 5:00–9:00 p.m. on the second Friday). The Seattle Asian Art Museum is free on the first Thursday of the month (and to seniors aged 62+ on the first Friday, and to families on the first Saturday). The first Thursday of the month (5:00-8:00 p.m.) is the best time to visit the Gehry-designed Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum. Frye Art Museum is always free–every day.
Grunge may be dead–even here in its birthplace–but Seattle still loves its music; and it shows in the music festivals–several of which are amazingly free. Northwest Folklife Festival, which will celebrate its 100 anniversary in 2009, runs every Memorial Day weekend and showcases ethnic, folk, and traditional arts. If you’re in town in June, you’ll want to join the Fremont Fair, which rings in the Summer Solstice with a parade, crafts, music, and food. The popular Bumbershoot–every Labor Day weekend–may not be free, but $80 is well worth the range of bands that you can take in with the 3-day pass.
Fresh air is free and boating options are abundant in outdoorsy Seattle. The easiest way out on the water is by taking a ferry to Bainbridge Island ($6.70 round-trip), where a front-row view of the city skyline is guaranteed. Bring your bike with you for an extra dollar, or rent one on the island. Or else, propel yourself on the water. Combine a trip to the Washington Park Arboretum or Gas Works Park with a kayak rental through Agua Verde Paddle Club (single $15/1 hr; $25/2 hrs; double $18/$30) or a canoe/rowboat rental through UW Waterfront Activities Center ($7.50/hr; closed November–January). For a free alternative, set sail on a classic wooden boat through the Center for Wooden Boats–half-hour rides are free from 2:00 p.m.–3:00 p.m. every Sunday.