Visit a local museum without paying a cent? You just have to know when to go! Many museums around the Sound offer monthly (or bimonthly) free days, often with family programs on those very same days. And some wonderful museums (hello, Frye Museum and Center for Wooden Boats) are always free. Some offer incredible deals for kids — witness Museum of Flight's new Connections program.
The advantage for families: You don’t have to worry about getting your money’s worth out of your admission, and can just take off when the kids get antsy.
Seattle museums with free or reduced-admission days
Museum of Flight, Georgetown. This always-expanding air-and-space museum offers many draws for kids: For starters, tour its new Aviation Pavilion, which doubled the museum's exhibit space, or check out Above and Beyond, a hands-on exhbit that lets kids try flying like a bird and designing their own aircraft. You can take a spin in a two-seat flight simulator, tour a real Concorde and check out the Space Shuttle Trainer exhibit.
Deals: The Museum of Flight is also free on first Thursdays from 5–9 p.m. The Museum also offers a free membership to students via its Connections program, but it's currently on hiatus. Check back.
Tips: Nearby, check out the up-and-coming industrial-arty hood of Georgetown.
Henry Art Gallery, University District. Henry Art Gallery, the only Seattle-area museum exclusively focused on contemporary art, features exhibits (often interactive installations that are fun for kids to explore), as well as lectures, public education and events. Family activities include a free ArtVenture workshop every second Sunday. Do not miss James Turrell's permanent installation, titled Skyspace, a meditative space that changes according to the light.
Deals: Henry Art Gallery is free every Sunday for all ages from 11 a.m.–4 p.m.; it's also free on first Thursdays from 11 a.m.–9 p.m.
Tips: Combine with a trip to the university's other museum, the Burke, or a walk around campus, especially wonderful in spring when cherry trees are in full bloom.
Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, University District. Wander through a hands-on exhibit that traces Washington state’s past natural history, stand in a volcano, check out the dino exhibit and explore fossils. Many weekends feature family-fun activities, such as Archaeology Day in March.
Deals: Free on first Thursday from 10 a.m.–8 p.m.
Tips: Combine with a trip to the awesome University Bookstore, with story times, great book deals and art supplies galore.
Seattle Art Museum, downtown. The region's premier museum is always free for kids ages 12 and under and features family fun events, from art workshops to Community Nights, on select Thursdays and weekends.
Deals: Free on First Thursdays, 10 a.m.–9 p.m. (though there's still a fee for special exhibits). Children ages 12 and under are always free.
Tips: The museum has several family spaces to take a break and make art, including the Chase Open Studio (located along the staircase between First Avenue and University Street).
Seattle Asian Art Museum, Capitol Hill. This museum, the former home of Seattle Art Museum, is located in an Art Deco building in lovely Volunteer Park, with Asian art exhibits for all ages to explore.
Note: SAAM is currently undergoing an extensive renovation, though it is running activities at other locales.
Tips: On a clear day, follow with a climb up the Volunteer Park water tower, where kids will love the vertigo and the views. The playground is also wonderful.
Wing Luke Asian Museum, International District. The nation’s only museum dedicated to the Asian Pacific American experience, the Wing Luke Museum is housed in a historic, multilevel building in the International District that began its days as a hotel where new Asian immigrants stayed. Of special interest is the Wing's series of Do You Know Bruce? exhibits, about pioneering movie star Bruce Lee.
Deals: Free on first Thursdays, 10 a.m.–8 p.m., with discounted rates for tours.
Tips: The International District is loaded with other fun and educational activities for families, from Seattle Pinball Museum to Uwajimaya and the new Seattle Streetcar route.
Northwest African American Museum, Central District. Explore music, crafts, literature and history of African Americans in the Northwest at this pioneering museum in the heart of Seattle's Central District, located in the century-old Colman School building. Stop by for monthly Family Day, storytelling and other special programs.
Deals: Free on first Thursdays, 11 a.m.–7 p.m.
Tips: NAAM is located just a block away from another Seattle treasure, Seattle Children's Playgarden, a free public park, with gardens and a treehouse, designed for kids of all abilities.
Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), South Lake Union. Since its move to a fab new location in South Lake Union, MOHAI has become one of the hottest family destinations in Seattle, with hands-on, interactive history exhibits, monthly Maker Days and more.
Deals: MOHAI is always free for kids ages 14 and under, and is free to everyone on Free first Thursdays, 10 a.m.–8 p.m. (though for special exhibits, there may still be a reduced-admission cost).
Center for Wooden Boats, South Lake Union. Walking the docks, exploring beautifully crafted wooden boats or going on a Sunday public sail at the Center for Wooden Boats will thrill young water lovers. This free museum on the shore of Lake Union is a nautical treasure trove.
Deals: Open daily, free, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Tips: Every Sunday, Center for Wooden Boats also offers free "Cast Off" boat rides for visitors (sign up early).
Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center, West Seattle. Learn about the history of the Duwamish Tribe, native residents of the Seattle area, and visit this traditional longhouse sitting proudly near the mouth of the Duwamish river.
Deals: Always free, the museum is open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Tips: Just across the street from the Longhouse is Herring's House Park, an unlikely park that tells the story of the salmon journey through plaques.
Frye Art Museum, First Hill. Frye Art Museum is a small museum with a wonderful founding collection of 19th and 20th century art and a peaceful, immaculate space. Increasingly, it also showcases innovative works of contemporary art that can be fun to explore with kids.
Deals: The Frye is free and open Tuesday–Sunday.
Tips: Check out the Small Frye storytime for kids (an art/storytelling event) the first Friday of the month from 10:30–11:45 a.m. Also, free parking for the Frye is available in a lot directly across the street from the museum entrance.
Olympic Sculpture Park, downtown. Seattle Art Museum's wonderful sculpture park — the signature piece is Anthony Calder's giant The Eagle — offers nine acres of outdoor sculptures with incredible views.
Deals: Olympic Sculpture Park is always free, and open dawn to dusk.
Tips: On a rainy day, duck inside the greenhouse at the corner of Elliott and Broad to see Neukom Vivarium, a 60-foot long “nurse log” exhibit. In the summer, Olympic Sculpture Park offers free fun on Thursday evenings and Saturdays.
Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, Pioneer Square. The gold was in the Yukon, but thousands of hopeful prospectors got there in 1897 by way of Seattle. Located in the heart of Pioneer Square, this free museum tells this gripping story, via plenty of hands-on exhibits.
Deals: Klondike is always free and open Tuesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Tips: Look for special events at the Klondike National Historic Park in 2016 in honor of the National Park Service's centennial.
Eastside museums with free days
Bellevue Arts Museum: Housed in a building designed by celebrated architect Steven Holl, Bellevue Arts Museum is kid-friendly by nature, with intimate spaces and engaging art, craft and design exhibits. A good way to introduce kids to the museum is to bring them to one of BAM's affordable Get Crafty workshops on Saturdays.
Deals: Free on first Fridays from 11 a.m.–8. Students are also free every second Wednesday, if they bring this coupon.
Tips: Get the wiggles out after a museum visit at Bellevue Downtown Park, just a block away, with a pond, paths and playground.
South Sound museums with free days
Tacoma Art Museum: In 2014, Tacoma Art Museum went through an impressive expansion, including adding a wing dedicated to western art (the Haub Collection) and a large art studio on the first floor with free entry that's open during museum hours.
Deals: Free on third Thursdays from 5–8 p.m. Also, TAM has an intriguing new partnership with Children's Museum of Tacoma (which is pay as you can), where visitors to CMT can get free family passes to visit TAM.
Tips: TAM also has an impressive set of outdoor sculptures that kids will enjoy exploring.
Children’s Museum of Tacoma: Tacoma's kids' museum has a warm and modern home, creative playspaces, and an attractive pricing policy — pay as you can on any day.
Deals: Children's Museum of Tacoma is by donation and open Wednesday–Sunday; special play days for children with special needs are on Tuesdays, 10–11:30 a.m.
Tip: As the Children's Museum of Tacoma, along with many other Tacoma museums, is just off I-5, this makes a great, quick play break during a road trip.
Museum of Glass, Tacoma. Tacoma's Chihuly jewel offers many programs; don't forget to stop by the Hot Shop to see the fiery art of glassmaking in action. Marvel at the stunning Chihuly pedestrian bridge as you walk over.
Deals: Free on third Thursdays from 5–8 p.m.
Tips: Check out the Kids Design Glass program, where children 12 years and under can submit glass art designs; each month, a design is selected to be made in MOG’s Hot Shop.
Washington State History Museum, Tacoma. This family-friendly museum offers interactive exhibits on Washington history, as well as an enormous model railroad layout that kids will enjoy watching.
Deals: Free on third Thursdays from 2–8 p.m.
Tips: Pick up a copy of Museo, a scavenger-hunt game, at the front desk when you enter the museum.
White River Valley Museum, Auburn. The history of South King County is on display at this small museum tucked into Auburn’s Les Gove Park.
Deals: White River Valley Museum is always cheap ($2–$5) but also free every first Thursday, from noon- 8 p.m., and third Sundays, noon–4 p.m.
Tips: Les Gove Park is also home to a popular playground and spray park (open in the summer).
Hands On Children’s Museum, Olympia. Located in a stunning space on Olympia's East Bay that makes it the biggest children's museum in the Puget Sound area, Hands On features eight galleries of hands-on fun, an Outdoor Discovery Center and more.
Deals: Free on First Fridays 5–9 p.m.
Tips: In the summer, make a play stop at the unique reclaimed-water stream just outside the museum on the East Bay Public Plaza, where kids can play in the water and climb on the stepping stones.
North Sound/Kitsap museums with free days
Imagine Children’s Museum, Everett. A wonderful children's museum in the heart of Everett, Imagine Children's Museum has a fun outdoor area on the roof, a terrific art studio and a small-scale wildlife clinic, where your future vet can care for “wild” stuffed animals.
Deals: Half-price admission on Thursdays, 3–5 p.m. or 5:30–9 p.m. Free on the third Friday of every month 5:30–9 p.m.
Tips: Combine with a trip to another Everett gem, such as Forest Park or Jetty Island (open in the summer).
Kids Discovery Museum, Bainbridge Island. KiDiMu, located just a short walk from the ferry terminal on Bainbridge Island, invites children and their families to explore art, science, and culture. Popular exhibits include Our Town, Science Hall, Totally TOT, and the Pirate Tree House.
Deals: Free first Thursdays, 10 a.m.–4 p.
Note: This article was originally written in 2012 and most recently updated in March 2017.