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Harbor History Museum: Free and Awesome Hands-On Fun With Kids

Interactive, kid-friendly museum is free for another year

Nikki McCoy

Published on: February 26, 2023

Row boat at Harbor History Museum
Nikki McCoy

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 support from the City of Gig Harbor, the Harbor History Museum is still free to everyone.

old classroom at Harbor History Museum
Going old school. Credit: Nikki McCoy

Located about an hour’s drive from Seattle, 0 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 The Gourmet Burger Shop, nd 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 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 while supplies last) 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. 

kids’ activities at Harbor History Museum
Kids’ activities at the Harbor History Museum. Credit: Nikki McCoy

2. 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); and play the concertina, an accordion-style instrument that was popular in the 19th century. 

Harbor History lunch
Credit: Nikki McCoy

3. Explore a pioneer classroom. What was for lunch in 1901? Open tin lunch boxes 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. 

4. Meet a docent. Harbor History Museum staff and volunteers are well informed and provide lots of tips and tidbits during your visit.

Shenandoah ship
The Shenandoah. Courtesy Harbor History Museum

5. 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.

6. Weave a basket. There’s a lot we can learn from the indigenous people of the region. The entire museum site and adjacent 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.  

7. 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.

8. 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 ...

Where: The Harbor History Museum is located at 4121 Harborview Dr. in Gig Harbor. Parking is free in the parking lot and on the surrounding streets.

When: The museum’s winter hours, in effect now, are Wednesday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–4 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, thanks to a grant from the City of Gig Harbor.

Don’t miss: On display through mid-March is “Tinted Light: Edward Curtis’s Picture Opera” which features a local photographer’s century-old hand-tinted historical photos of Native Americans. An exhibit sure to delight young and old alike,“I Spy the Secret Museum,” opens April 1.

More fun around 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 tasty Thai spot and a gourmet burger shop, both across the street from the museum. Burgers, beer, seafood, kids’ baskets and real-ice-cream shakes are hits on the burger joint menu.

More fun around the South Sound:

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2018 and updated most recently for 2023.

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