When people visit the Seattle area, many of them head straight to downtown Seattle to check out the attractions. While it’s fun to explore the Space Needle and other popular tourist draws, Tacoma is a city that’s underrated in my opinion. Only about 30 miles south of Seattle, there are plenty of cheap and free things to do in Tacoma.
While you can easily visit Tacoma for the day, I’ve taken several overnight trips from Seattle here to make the most of my time in the city. There really isn’t one best time to visit Tacoma, as there’s plenty to do when it’s warm in the summer as well as indoors in the winter.
This guide will show you affordable places to stay in Tacoma as well as a list of cheap things to do in Tacoma and free things to do in Tacoma. You’ll find plenty of free activities in Tacoma to fill your time.
Where to Stay in Tacoma
If you’ll be staying for a few days to explore Tacoma (and I recommend it), here are a few Tacoma hotel options to consider.
Courtyard by Marriott – This hotel is an ideal mid-range option because it’s a step up from most standard hotels. It comes with a salon, a day spa, and a café and it even includes breakfast. The service is also great, especially if you’re on business. (rates start at $149 per night; book your room on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
Hotel Murano – Staying at Hotel Murano is always a treat. It has a fantastic location, and its immediate surroundings are some of the finest in Tacoma. You really can’t go wrong here especially if you’re fond of glass art. The rooms are modern and the beds are plush (always a plus in my book!). (rates start at $107 per night; book your room on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
Free Things to Do in Tacoma
If you don’t want to spend any money, there are many free things to do in Tacoma. Here are some of the ones I recommend, whether you’re spending a day in Tacoma or a weekend in Tacoma.
Visit a Bridge Made of Glass
This Bridge of Glass was originally a gift to Tacoma. It was created by Austin-based architect Arthur Andersson who worked closely with famous local artist Dale Chihuly. As the name implies, this bridge is filled with glass artworks and is one of the best free activities in Tacoma.
There are thousands of different bits and pieces of glass sculpted to make several art forms on the bridge. Pieces like the Crystal Towers and the Venetian Wall are the most popular but each one is definitely beautiful.
Seeing the Bridge of Glass is one of the best free things to do in Tacoma, especially on a sunny day. This is also the perfect place to stop on a Seattle to Portland road trip.
Explore a Vast Park
Point Defiance Park is one of the most popular sites in Tacoma. It is a 702-acre park with plenty of different attractions. Festivals are a regular occurrence and this park has a lot of visitors focused solely on hiking.
Other attractions include the Japanese gardens, a history museum, the boathouse marina, zoo, and aquarium. It’s one of the most popular free things to do in Tacoma for a reason.
The park is open from sunrise to sunset, which means hours depend on the season. There is no entry fee except for some of its attractions like the zoo and aquarium. For those, the ticket prices start at $10.
Let Your Kids Get Out Their Energy
The Tacoma Children’s Museum has provided children a space to be creative since the 1980s. It’s a great spot to visit as a family because there are dedicated spaces where kids can play and learn at the same time. It has different areas – each with a different theme and with its own learning curve.
Entry to this family-friendly activity is technically free, as it is based on donations. This museum is one of the most ideal free things to do in Tacoma as a family. It’s open every day of the week from 10 am to 5 pm.
See a Famous Filming Location
Tacoma has always attracted Hollywood talent. That’s most apparent with Stadium High School. It’s a public high school that was originally constructed in the late 19th century.
Plenty of movies have been shot on location here, or at least a couple of popular scenes. 10 Things I Hate About You and Rose Red are two of many. Seeing this school from up close is one of the best free things to do in Tacoma, especially for movie buffs. The school is also a popular Instagram spot.
View Art in a Hotel Lobby
One of the most popular Tacoma activities is one that’s very unique. There’s a stunning collection of different artworks in the Hotel Murano’s lobby, which includes Chihuly pieces. These include rare Chihuly drawings and vases, but there are also glass artworks by various artists on display.
Each floor in the hotel has different artists’ work on display and the check-in desk is fantastic. As far as free things to do in Tacoma go, this is definitely a must-see.
Go to a Park With a View
There are plenty of free attractions in Tacoma, but few are as old and iconic as Fireman’s Park. It’s been part of the city since the 1890s and is the spot of two public art installations. Simply strolling through the park is one of those Tacoma activities that evoke a sense of history.
Its size and shape have evolved throughout the years. However, it is still the home to the world’s largest totem pole. You can also bring your dog here if you’re on a pet-friendly vacation.
Relax at a Conservatory
Located in Wright Park, Seymour Botanical Conservatory is filled with hundreds of different species of flowers and plants. Here you’ll find both exotic and seasonal plants alike.
The conservatory itself is a historic building. Its glass design along with its dome
David and Marsha Karpeles are two real estate magnates that have the world’s largest private collection of manuscripts. Many of those manuscripts are on display at several locations around the states – one of those is in Tacoma at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum.
The goal of these museums is to promote cultural literacy and because of that, they’ve made admission free of charge. Exploring old manuscripts like the Bill of Rights, some of Charles Dickens’ works, and many others can easily be one of the most fun things to do in Tacoma. There’s a lot to see and discover here. It’s open from 10 am to 4 pm.
Cheap Things to Do in Tacoma
Similar to all the cheap things to do in Seattle, there are also tons of inexpensive things to do in Tacoma. While they’re not completely free, there are many cheap things to do in Tacoma during your visit. You can easily spend an engaging day in the city for less than $20 if you want.
Check Out Glass Artwork
Visiting the Museum of Glass has been one of the most popular Tacoma activities ever since it opened in 2002. It was designed by Canadian designer, Arthur Erickson, and its unique conical shape has become iconic. It’s the best place to visit if you’re a person that enjoys glass art.
The highlight of this museum is the narrated glassblowing demonstrations that take place in a large amphitheater. Enjoying its shows is one of the best cheap things to do in Tacoma. The museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm, and tickets are reasonably priced at $20.
Visit Point Ruston
This city within a city feels slightly magical. It’s indistinguishable from the rest of Tacoma but it’s actually a city of its own. The idea behind Point Ruston is to make it a place where a community will want to form. This is why it has a lovely promenade, shops, and restaurants with their own distinct feel.
Visiting Point Ruston is one of the best cheap things to do in Tacoma. While it’s technically one of the free activities in Tacoma, you’ll likely want to spend some money in its restaurants and shops.
The Tacoma Art Museum is home to an extensive collection. It houses the largest collection of Dale Chihuly art but it also has plenty of works by European artists. However, its focus is on Northwestern art which includes the largest collection of jewelry in the region.
Here you’ll also find works by Pissarro and Renoir, but also Frederic Remington and Georgia O’Keeffe. Exploring the museum’s magnificent pieces is one of the finest cheap things to do in Tacoma. The museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm, and entry is $15.
Visit a Boat Museum
Tacoma has a long history of boat building. It is considered to be the town’s local heritage. The Foss Waterway Seaport is a museum that’s dedicated exactly to that. It gives incredible insight into how boats were built and used, which include commercial vessels from the 20th century.
The museum is housed in an old wheat warehouse. Visiting it is one of the greatest cheap things to do in Tacoma, especially if you want to see how those boats were built for yourself. There’s a workshop where you can ask questions while a boat is being constructed. The museum is open from 10 am to 4 pm, and entry is $10.
Explore a Nature Reserve
Tacoma Nature Center is one of the best cheap things to do in Tacoma, as the nature center is a nature reserve. Its 71 acres is basically wetlands filled with all sorts of creatures and critters.
Here you’ll find red foxes, cottontail rabbits, mallards, geese, and many other fascinating animals living in natural environments. The center even has a lake. It’s also a great family spot because there’s a play area for children that has a treehouse. There are gift shops, nature programs, and even summer day camps. It’s open from 9 am to 4 pm.
See Hundreds of Cars
A Tacoma businessman by the name of Harold LeMay used to have the largest private collection of cars in the world. At the time of his
America’s Car Museum now has 350 of LeMay’s cars on display. They’re all from different eras and manufacturers. Here you’ll find some of his Lotus and Ferrari race cars but also other models like a 1966 Ford Mustang and a 1929 Cadillac.
There is even a Formula 1 racing simulator for those that want to get a feel of the action. This is definitely one of the most fun things to do in Tacoma for car lovers. It’s open from 10 am to 5 pm and entry is $18.
Test Out Your Biking Skills
Swan Creek Mountain Bike Park is Tacoma’s first and only bike park. It’s found between East Tacoma and Pierce Country. It has plenty of different trails, paths, and lush canyons. It’s constantly being developed with new tracks being added from time to time.
Adventuring through the trails in Swan Creek Park is one of the most fun things to do in Tacoma, especially considering its size of over 350 acres. It’s open from 6 am to 6 pm.
Take a Tour of the Water
It’s no secret that Tacoma has always had a close relationship with the sea. To make the most out of your visit to Tacoma, make sure to check out these tours, such as those run by Destiny Harbor Tours. The unique thing about them is that they allow for touring on restored US Navy boats.
These tours will allow you to cruise by Old Town, all the while seeing fantastic sights. Here you’ll also see a lot of local wildlife easily. Creatures like sea lions, eagles, hawks, and leaping salmon are a frequent occurrence. Destiny Harbor Tours also offer private charters which include at-sea memorials.
Watch a Comedy Show
The Tacoma Comedy Club is considered to be the best in the Northwest. There are different headliners every week, and each show tends to be unique and unrelated to the previous one. It’s a great place where you can also order food and drinks, and it’s pretty much an ideal date night location.
The comedy shows are always well performed and the service is great, just make sure to be there ahead of time to get better seats. It’s open from 6 pm to 11 pm. Tickets are usually at least $10, but sometimes there are free shows.
Check Out Bob’s Java Jive
The Java Jive is one of Tacoma’s most unique buildings. It’s a retro bar/coffee house with a lot of history behind it. However, the unique part is that it’s actually shaped and built like a coffee pot.
Throughout its life, the Java Jive has been different things. It has been a speakeasy, a diner, and a drive-in. What’s important is that it has stood there all this time. It might be surprising but drinking coffee in a coffee pot is one of the most fun things to do in Tacoma.
Sticking around for the evening? There’s plenty of events and activities to entertain you in Tacoma at night!
Watch a Baseball Game
The Rainiers’ Cheney Stadium might not be an enormous stadium but it has a fun charm. The Rainiers are a minor league baseball team but they’re considered a local favorite. Baseball has always been the favorite sport in Tacoma just as it is across the country, and is one of the best cheap things to do in Tacoma in the summer.
Relaxing with friends while watching a baseball game is one of the most fun things to do in Tacoma. Make sure to check out the team’s schedule first to know when they’re playing.
Play Arcade Games
Sometimes you just want to feel like a kid and an adult at the same time. Dorky’s Bar Arcade allows for that because it’s an arcade for grown-ups. Here you can relive your childhood with some of the most popular video games from a couple of decades ago.
You can use coins, just like a regular arcade. Since there’s no entry fee, it’s technically a free thing to do in Tacoma if you want to just observe the atmosphere.
Dorky’s is also a beer bar, so you can find all types of beer here. You can also order food, though it’s not on the same level as a standard restaurant. It’s open from 4 pm to 2 am.
Check Out the Arts
One thing that separates The Grand Cinema from many others is that it’s run solely by volunteers. Their passion for the art of cinema is what’s kept the place going, as well as support from their patrons and regular members. Here you can find projections of films from all across the world.
The best domestic and foreign films, as well as documentaries, are being played constantly. Besides standard projections, the cinema also showcases the Tacoma Film Festival in October. Make sure to check the schedule on projections.
See a Live Show
There’s always something happening in the Tacoma Dome. It’s an enormous arena that’s been recently renovated and is considered one of the world’s largest wood-domed buildings. Due to its large capacity and state-of-the-art technology, it has been the preferred venue for various events – from concerts to expos to monster truck shows.
While some events like concerts can be expensive, there are plenty of events where you can get reasonably priced tickets. This is especially true if you don’t mind sitting in the back of the stadium (which still has a great view).
No matter what your budget is, you’ll find plenty of cheap and free things to do in Tacoma. The city is fun to visit whether you just have a few days or the whole weekend.