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Visit Your Favorite Local Family-Friendly Museums for Free

With a little planning, you can visit almost any kid-friendly Puget Sound–area museum for free

Author Elisa Murray
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Published on: August 27, 2021

girl looking at a museum display with artifacts behind a glass panel

Museums and kids: Sometimes they mix, sometimes they don’t. For instance, I have fond memories of taking my then 3-year-old to a blockbuster Gauguin exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. He was more interested in the escalators, stairs and cars hanging from the ceiling (remember those?), but with a little coaxing, we did a fun walk-through of the special exhibit with no major issues. 

On the other hand, I have not-so-fond memories of leaving the zoo (of all places!) carrying an inconsolable toddler and a fistful of unused, expensive tickets. 

That’s why free museum days are such a gift. You don’t have to worry about squeezing your money’s worth out of your admission and can just take off when something goes awry. Many museums around Puget Sound offer monthly (or bimonthly) free days, often with family programs happening on those very same days. And some wonderful museums — hello, Frye Art Museum and The Center for Wooden Boats — are always free. Some offer incredible deals for kids — note The Museum of Flight’s Connections program.

Read on for top strategies for saving on museum visits, as well as a list of discounts organized by museum. Before planning your visit, please check the museum’s website for current hours, operating status and COVID-19 protocols.

Top strategies for seeing museums (and zoos and aquariums!) around Seattle for free

Seattle Public Library museum passes

You have to plan a month ahead to snag the hottest tickets from Seattle Public Library’s (SPL) pass program, but it’s worth it. Mark your calendar for 9 p.m., exactly 30 days ahead — that’s when new passes become available. Then, log in to SPL’s museum pass webpage and you can choose a four-pack (sometimes two) of passes to top museums, including the Burke Museum, Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP), The Museum of Flight, Seattle Aquarium and others. Of course, you can always log in at other times as well to see what’s available, but the hottest passes go very quickly. Fine print: You can reserve one pass to the same museum once every 30 days.

KCLS museum passes

King County Library System’s (KCLS) museum pass program isn’t as extensive as SPL’s, but the timing complements it nicely: Log in to your KCLS membership (don’t forget, Seattle residents can get a KCLS card, too) two weeks ahead of time at 2 p.m. to reserve a pass that’s good for two people. Museums include: Bellevue Arts Museum, The Museum of Flight, MoPOP, Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), Seattle Aquarium and the Washington State History Museum. 

South Sound library museum pass programs 

Pierce County Library System and Tacoma Public Library have similar museum pass programs, which cover six museums (including Tacoma Art Museum, Museum of Glass and the Washington State History Museum), but you have to pick up passes at a library location. 

Free museum days

Many Seattle-area museums offer free admission on first Thursdays, and several Tacoma museums offer free admission on third Thursdays (usually in the evening; check hours). See more detail in the section on individual museums (below).  

Free museums

A number of excellent museums in the area don’t charge admission, including the Gates Foundation Discovery Center (temporarily closed), Frye Art Museum, the Seattle unit of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Pioneer Square, the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor, and the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center in West Seattle. Donations, of course, are always welcome.

Bank of America Museums on Us

If you have a Bank of America debit or credit card, you are eligible for one free admission to five local museums (Bellevue Arts Museum, Northwest African American Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum and the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience) on the first weekend of every month, through its Museums on Us program. 

More museum discounts

Other discount programs include Museums for All (for EBT cardholders) and Blue Star Museums (for families with active-duty service members). Local residents also sometimes get deals (King County residents pay less at Chihuly Garden and Glass, for example); and reduced admission to area museums are often available through AAA membership discounts or to Microsoft Prime Passport holders. 

Bundled attractions

Planning a whirlwind tour? Seattle CityPASS offers a discount ticket to five of the city’s top attractions, including Seattle Aquarium, Woodland Park Zoo, MoPOP, Argosy Cruises, Chihuly Garden and Glass, and the Space Needle. 

Become a member

Zoos and aquariums can be relied upon for offering memberships to families with young kids, but under-the-radar gems with a lower-cost annual membership include The Museum of Flight and MOHAI. Just make sure you’d visit the attraction often enough to justify the cost of membership. 

Reciprocal memberships

These memberships can also be part of your membership calculation. For example, Pacific Science Center has reciprocal memberships with more than 350 museums and science centers worldwide

TeenTix

This amazing nonprofit allows teenagers ages 13–19 to get $5 day-of-show tickets at more than 70 Seattle-area arts venues. 

New Burke Museum Paleo Gallery credit Dennis Wise
New Burke Museum Paleo Gallery | Credit: Dennis Wise

How to save on Seattle museums

The Museum of Flight, Georgetown

This ever-expanding air-and-space museum offers many draws for kids and adults, such as the Aviation Pavilion, flight simulators, a space shuttle trainer exhibit and more. It offers a free family membership to students via its Connections program; kids enrolled in camps and clubs at the museum are eligible to join. Passes are also available through SPL and KCLS pass programs. 

Henry Art Gallery, University District

The only Seattle-area museum exclusively focused on contemporary art, the Henry is surprisingly kid-friendly, with intriguing exhibits and family activities, such as its free ArtVenture workshop program. Henry Art Gallery admission is free through Oct. 1, 2021. 

Burke Museum, University District

The new Burke Museum is a wonderland of dino skeletons, fossils, creature exhibits, hands-on fun and opportunities to see scientists in action. Not surprisingly, the admission price rose significantly when the museum reopened ($14–$22, children 3 and younger free). But the Burke is still free for all visitors on First Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (reserve tickets online), for EBT or SNAP cardholders and for Husky cardholders; passes are available through SPL’s museum pass program. 

National Nordic Museum, Ballard

HQ for Seattle’s Scandinavian heritage is the National Nordic Museum, which is located in a gorgeous space in Ballard. Admission is free the first Thursday of the month, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (though there may be an additional cost for special exhibitions); and passes are available through SPL.  

Seattle Art Museum (SAM), downtown Seattle

The museum has several free family spaces where you can take a break and make art. In addition, the region’s premier art museum is always free for kids ages 14 and younger. SAM offers free admission to its collections on the first Thursday of the month, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (though there’s still a fee for special exhibits); and passes are available through SPL and KCLS. 

Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM), Capitol Hill

Located in an art deco building in lovely Volunteer Park, the Seattle Asian Art Museum features Asian art exhibits for all ages to explore. SAAM is free on the last Friday of the month (with fun family activities and story times for kids ages 3–12).

Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, Chinatown-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 that began its days as a hotel that housed new Asian immigrants. The Wing is free on First Thursdays, 10 a.m.–8 p.m. Passes are available through SPL. 

Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), Central District

Closed until further notice at press time, NAAM is currently offering virtual programming to explore the music, crafts, literature and history of African Americans. This pioneering museum is housed in the century-old Colman School building, just a block away from another Seattle treasure, Seattle Children’s PlayGarden. Once the museum is reopened to the public, admission is free on First Thursdays, and passes are typically available through both the SPL and KCLS museum pass programs.

Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), South Lake Union

Kids can hammer railway ties, watch a vintage TV and view Puget Sound through a periscope — these are among the many hands-on history activities at this surprisingly kid-friendly museum. Head there on the last Saturday of the month for Maker Days fun. MOHAI is always free for kids ages 14 and younger, and free for everyone on First Thursdays, 10 a.m.–8 p.m. (for special exhibits, there may be a reduced admission cost). Passes are available through KCLS. 

The Center for Wooden Boats (CWB), South Lake Union

Located right next to MOHAI, The Center for Wooden Boats’ beautiful new home offers an opportunity to walk the docks, sail pond boats and explore beautiful crafted wooden boats. Admission is always free, and at present, visitors can enjoy free one-hour rowboat rentals through its Public Peapod Program every day during business hours. 

Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center, West Seattle

Learn about the history of the Duwamish Tribe, Indigenous residents of the Seattle area, and visit this traditional longhouse, which sits proudly near the mouth of the Duwamish River. Admission to the Duwamish Longhouse is always free. 

Frye Art Museum, First Hill

Always free, the Frye Art Museum is a small museum with a wonderful founding collection; a peaceful, immaculate space; and temporary exhibitions of contemporary art that can be fun to explore with kids. 

Olympic Sculpture Park, downtown Seattle 

Seattle Art Museum’s wonderful sculpture park — its signature piece is Alexander Calder’s gigantic “The Eagle” — offers 9 acres of outdoor sculptures and incredible views. Olympic Sculpture Park is always free. 

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical 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 interactive museum tells this gripping story through plenty of hands-on exhibits and Junior Ranger activities. The Klondike is always free and is presently operating Friday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

How to save on Eastside museums

Bellevue Arts Museum, Bellevue

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. Free First Fridays were still discontinued at press time, but BAM admission is free for kids younger than 6. Passes are available through KCLS. The museum is presently open Friday–Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m.

KidsQuest Children’s Museum, Bellevue

KidsQuest Children’s Museum’s spacious and joy-filled home in downtown Bellevue stars huge windows, beautifully designed hands-on exhibits and an adventurous, two-story ropes-and-ladders atrium climber. KidsQuest doesn’t routinely offer discounts, but its Museums for All admission rate is $3 (with proof of participation in the following programs: EBT, CHIP, Provider One or WIC), and children younger than 1 enter for free.

How to save on South Sound museums

Tacoma Art Museum (TAM), Tacoma

The kid-friendly features of Tacoma Art Museum include a wing dedicated to Western art (the Haub Family Collection) and a large art studio on the first floor that has free entry during museum hours. TAM also has an impressive collection of outdoor sculptures. Admission is free every Thursday night, 5–8 p.m. Youths 18 and younger enter for free. Passes are available through Pierce County Library System and Tacoma Public Library museum pass programs. 

Children’s Museum of Tacoma, Tacoma

Just a block from the Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma’s kids’ museum has a warm and modern home, creative play spaces and an attractive pricing policy — pay what you can on any day the museum is open to the public (members enjoy additional members-only play sessions). A recently opened second location of the Children’s Museum, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, is the first children’s museum in the world to be located on a U.S. military installation. (A valid base access pass is required to visit.)

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 it. Admission is free every third Thursday, 5–8 p.m. Passes are available through Pierce County Library System and Tacoma Public Library museum pass programs.

Washington State History Museum, Tacoma

This welcoming museum offers interactive exhibits about Washington history, as well as an enormous model railroad layout that delights train aficionados of all ages. Admission is free on Third Thursdays, 3–8 p.m. Passes are available through Pierce County Library System and Tacoma Public Library museum pass programs.

Hands On Children’s Museum, Olympia

Located on Olympia’s East Bay, in a stunning space that makes it the biggest children’s museum in the Puget Sound area, Hands On features eight galleries of interactive fun, an Outdoor Discovery Center and more. In the summer, make a play stop at the unique reclaimed-water stream just outside the museum on the East Bay Public Plaza. Committed to being accessible to all children and their families, regardless of their ability to pay, Hands On offers a number of free- and reduced-admission programs; check the website for more details.

White River Valley Museum, Auburn

Though small, the White River Valley Museum is known for its innovative and interactive exhibits showcasing our regional heritage. Located in the heart of Auburn’s Les Gove Park, the museum is just one of the many fun things to do on the campus. Check out the all-abilities playground, the summer spray park and the library. On summer weekends, nearby Mary Olson Farm showcases historic family farm life in the area. Thanks to a grant, admission to the museum is free for all for the remainder of 2021.

How to save on North Sound and Kitsap County museums

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 even a small-scale wildlife clinic. During reduced hours of operation, timed ticketing is required. Admission for children younger than 1 is free; and a free Sensory Time is offered 9–11 a.m. on the third Sunday of each month for families with children ages 1–12 who want a less crowded, quieter experience. EBT cardholders enter for $3.

Children’s Museum of Skagit County, Burlington

Reopened in its spacious (15,400 square feet!) new location at The Shops at Burlington outlet mall in 2019, this beloved children’s museum makes good on its founding mission to furnish an interactive environment that engages children and their families in STEAM learning activities. Favorite features of the reimagined and expanded museum include climbing structures, the train exhibit, dedicated art and music rooms, a state-of-the-art semi-truck cab and sensory areas. Admission is kept low for visitors, and kids younger than 1 are always admitted free. 

Kids Discovery Museum (KiDiMu), Bainbridge Island

KiDiMu, located just a short walk from the ferry terminal on Bainbridge Island, is a must-play stop for tots, from its Pirate Tree House to the giant Lite-Brite. Booked playtime is Friday–Sunday, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. KiDiMu offers discount codes for Museums for All, military/first responders and Northwest Association of Youth Museums (NWAYM) programs.

Puget Sound Navy Museum, Bremerton

Just off the Bremerton ferry dock, this free museum boasts interesting exhibits about Bremerton’s illustrious naval history and naval intelligence. 

Bug & Reptile Museum, Bremerton

Skinks, boas and tarantulas — oh my! Located about 2 miles from the Navy Museum, this winner of a tiny museum, also free, lets kids explore the world of bugs and reptiles through hands-on exhibits. Don’t miss the 8-foot-long ant farm. 

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