Editor's note: This article was originally published pre-pandemic, so not all of the information presented for families will apply now, but the museum is back open and well worth a visit!
In a world that's moving at an almost alarming speed toward the future, it’s important to slow down and be in the present — and sometimes, in the past.
At the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor, I found my family could do both. As one of the most interactive and kid-friendly museums we’ve been to, this was a place where my sons could involve themselves in the present moment with games, hands-on features and noise-makers, while at the same time exploring the rich and varied past of south Puget Sound.
And best of all? Thanks to the renewal of a grant from the city of Gig Harbor, the Harbor History Museum is free to everyone for a third year — through the end of 2020.
Located about an hour's drive from Seattle, 40 minutes from Olympia or just 10 minutes from Tacoma, charming Gig Harbor is teeming with fun, inexpensive and kid-friendly things to do.
Gig Harbor is also full of friendly people, beautiful views of the historic waterfront and fun shopping. We hit the local bookstore, enjoyed a tasty lunch at Kelly’s (free meals for kids on Tuesdays!) and climbed 100 stairs to take in the view, all within walking distance of the museum.
Best of the museum
My family really enjoyed the museum. With input from my 8-year-old and 12-year-old, I compiled my list of the 10 best things to do at the Harbor History Museum.
1. Grab a gallery game pack. This game is designed for kids ages 4–11 and the see-through backpacks (available at the front desk) are filled with fun games and challenges to highlight all the gems of the museum. Use a magnifying glass to hunt for clues, learn how to tie a seaman’s knot and play a bingo game finding particular items among the museum’s 29,000 artifacts and images.
2. Row a boat. An educational video accompanies this interactive exhibit. Kids can practice their rowing skills while learning about the rowboat’s role in the Harbor Peninsula’s history.
3. Raise a sail. This activity was suggested to us by the friendly receptionist. In the outdoor gallery, kids can grab some rope and hoist a sail, bringing The Kaitlyn to all her glory.
4. Make some noise. With so many options to learn through sound, this was one of my kids’ favorite features. Twist knobs to hear the sounds of island roosters (rooster racing is a historic pastime on the Harbor); listen to Twulshootseed, a dialect of Lushootseed, which is part of the larger Salish language group; and play the concertina, an accordion-style instrument that was popular in the 19th century.
5. Explore a pioneer classroom. What’s for lunch in 1901? Open tin lunchboxes for a glimpse at what a child might have eaten in the early 20th century. Sit at an antique desk and imagine life as a pioneer school child.
6. Meet a docent. Harbor History Museum staff and volunteers are well informed and provide lots of tips and tidbits during your visit.
7. Visit a vintage fishing vessel. The Shenandoah has been a resident of the museum since 2010 when the museum opened in its current building. The vessel is being lovingly restored for its 100th birthday — coming up in 2025.
8. Weave a basket. The indigenous people of the region have a lot to teach us. The entire museum site and next-door Austin Estuary Park were once inhabited by a Native American encampment. Basket-weaving is one way to learn more about the lifestyle of the Puyallup Tribe. At this exhibit, kids can weave the past into their knowledge.
9. Attend an event or special program. Kids, start hunting now for the roundest rock you can find and you may earn a prize in the annual round rock contest taking place in summer. And watch for upcoming special events, many of them family-friendly, on the website. The museum also offers field trips for school groups.
10. Browse the gift shop. The Museum Mercantile, inspired by small stores that once served residents of the Gig Harbor Peninsula, has sections for hardware, housewares, kids and more. Tip: The locally-made scone mix would be a good take-home souvenir.
If you go...
When: The museum's winter hours, in effect now, are Wednesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Watch for summer hours coming later this spring. Call 253-858-6722 if you’d like to schedule a group tour.
Cost: Admission is free throughout 2020 thanks to an extension of a grant from the city of Gig Harbor.
Donkey Creek Park is directly across the street from the museum if the kids get the zoomies, or if you want to plan ahead for a picnic.
Stretch your legs climbing to the top of these stairs.
Meal stops include a gourmet burger shop and teriyaki joint across the street from the museum, or Kelly’s Café, a short drive (or hearty walk) from the museum. Espresso, beer and ice cream, as well as popular diner items are all on the menu.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2018 and updated for 2020.