If you're looking for the best things to do in Seattle, look no farther than our list of the top Seattle attractions you should definitely visit this year. Home to world-renowned museums, exquisite parks and a vibrant underground culture (both literally and figuratively), the Emerald City is one of the most fun-filled towns to explore, whether dealing with lifelong residents or first-time tourists. Don’t let the usual rain scare you away: There are plenty free things to do and bars to drink in no matter the weather. Check out this guide to the best Seattle attractions, but be warned, tourists might want to extend their trip.
RECOMMENDED: The best things to do in Seattle
Best Seattle attractions
One of Microsoft founder Paul Allen’s greatest contributions to the city (and there are a lot of them) is the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPop). Formerly known as the Experience Music Project, the museum’s structure was designed in 2000 by architect Frank Gehry, so it is truly a sight to be seen. Exhibits range in topic and explore a variety of themes, from indie video games to horror films and all things Hello Kitty. If you want to beat the crowds, come early on a weekday. This is one of the most popular tourist attractions.
Who doesn’t love a Ferris wheel? Boasting 360-degree-views of both mountains and open sky, Seattle’s Great Wheel is worth being a bit of a tourist for. At $14 for an adult ride, many locals scoff at this attraction. Don’t make their same mistake: Get in line and get up there. If you’re feeling swank, you can purchase a VIP ticket for $50 that puts you ahead of the line and in a four-person gondola with a glass bottom.
Opened in 1907, the Pike Place Market is one of the oldest continuously operating farmers’ markets in the country. A thriving community of farmers, street performers and restaurateurs, this is more than just a place to grab a bite: Make sure to check out the underground shops, bookstores, apothecaries and the one very special magic shop. As you head out of the market, you’ll notice a line snaking around the first-ever Starbucks. The inside is exactly like any other Starbucks so waiting on a 20-minute line to order your latte is something you can (and should) absolutely skip.
The University of Washington is in of itself a beautiful campus only made more enticing by The Henry Art Gallery. The contemporary art gallery features works from all over the world in its permanent collection and is also home to the yearly student thesis exhibitions. Many of their works focus on social activism, including shows by and about the LGBTQ community.
The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) is one of the largest collections of art in Washington, featuring a wide variety of works that range in genre, from contemporary to ancient Roman and more. Depending on the featured special exhibition, lines can be long so you better check out the offerings before heading there. Entry to the permanent collection requires only a suggested donation but special exhibitions cost extra. Pro tip: Visitors are offered half-price tickets on the first Thursday of every month.
A part of the SAM family, the Olympic Sculpture Park, which overlooks the Cascade Mountains, is one of the most tranquil places in Downtown Seattle. Free and open to the public 365 days a year, the venue’s vast collection includes pieces by Louise Bourgeois, Richard Serra and Ellsworth Kelly. The park occasionally hosts yoga in the garden, so be sure to check out the online schedule before you go.
If you don’t live in Seattle, you probably don’t know what a locks is. Simply put, it is a system of hydraulics that lift a boat from a lower level of water to a higher one. Some call it an elevator for boats. What makes the Ballard Locks so special, besides the fact that it is the most used one in the country? The fish that dwell below the boats. Underneath the locks system, you can watch as salmons run from fresh to seawater through the windows of the below-ground fish ladder viewing area.
Formerly the site of a city-run gasification plant, the nine-acre Gas Works Park is an unusual and truly breathtaking park. Designed in 1975 by landscape architect Richard Haag, this award-winning green space is a favorite of locals and tourists alike. The park centers around the Great Mound, a large hill that offers sensational views of Lake Union and the surrounding area. Make sure to find the Play Barn, a collection of pipes and machinery leftover from the former plant. Fun fact: That infamous paintball kiss in 10 Things I Hate About You takes place on the lawn of the gasworks park.
The Washington State Ferries are an integral part of commuter culture in Seattle. The largest fleet of ferries in the United States, the system stops at multiple neighboring islands and towns. Either as a walk-on or car passenger, a day trip out of the city is easy. Even though most boats can carry 200 cars, commuter crossings are very busy so try to avoid them during rush hour.
Seattle’s vibrant Japanese American community has given the city more than its fair share of attractions. Most notable is Uwajimaya, a massive Japanese grocery and gift store. Founded in 1928 by Fujimatsu Moriguchi of Yawatahama, Japan, this family-run store is full of every type of Asian delicacy you can imagine. In addition to exceptional edible items, the store is also home to the Tokyo-based Kinokuniya Bookstore, which serves all of your Japanese stationery and manga needs.
Glassblowing is a favorite pastime of Seattleites and Dale Chihuly is the master of the craft. Among the towering structures of Downtown Seattle lives a greenhouse turned gallery dedicated to the work of Chihuly. It is difficult at times to tell the difference between what has been grown and what has been blown. However, it is absolutely impossible to overlook one of Chihuly’s largest pieces suspended from the gardens ceiling. Twice a month, the gallery hosts Yoga Under The Glass, during which participants are invited to work on their flow in one of the most beautiful places in the city.
Constructed following a city beautification contest in 1990, the Fremont Troll is one of Seattle’s favorite attractions. Drawing inspiration from Norwegian folklore, artists Steve Badanes, Will Martin, Donna Walter and Ross Whitehead installed the Troll that holds an actual Volkswagen Beetle car as a warning to the drivers above. Every year on October 31st, the community hosts a birthday party for the Troll called Troll-o-ween.
Opened in 1977, the Seattle Aquarium is dedicated to the conservation of aquatic health inside and outside its walls. Offering programing for all ages, the aquarium puts special emphasis on the wildlife native to the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The underwater dome is one of the best ways to get acquainted with the family of sea-dwellers.
The Museum of Flight, found in Boeing Field’s backyard, is the largest private air and space museum in the world. Founded in 1929, it has grown to become one of Seattle’s most trafficked educational attractions. Robust programing (the venue boasts one of the largest educational programs in the world) includes daily tours, flight simulations and the occasional theatrical reenactment. Come early or around closing time to avoid the daily throngs of visiting school children.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Ken Lane
Little known fact about Seattle: the entire city burned down in 1889 and a new city was slowly rebuilt 22 feet above the rubble. Bill Speidel's Underground Tour is the only underground tour that actually brings you below street level, making it the ideal activity to sign up for when it’s raining. Remember to wear closed-toed shoes as the tour takes you through the catacombs of the city (we promise, it’s completely safe).
There are a ton of pinball bars in Seattle, but Add-a-Ball is king of them all. Hidden in the back of a massive empty lot, Add-A-Ball offers multiple rooms of pinball, video games and even an air hockey table—each equipped with cup holders to hold your beer or whatever else you order at the bar. The staff hosts pinball tournaments, which are very popular with the locals, but, if you’re just trying to have a good time, skip it. Tournament nights can get a little… intense.
The longest continuously running movie theater in Seattle, Grand Illusion Cinema is a required stop for all the film nerds. Opened in 1970, the volunteer-run non-profit space is filled with vintage red velvet seats where you can get comfortable and watch new indie releases as well as art film classics. The art house cinema is a beloved part of the University District and, though it has survived some close calls, it doesn’t seem to be closing any time soon.
If you’ve seen a picture of Seattle, you’ve seen the Space Needle. Built for the 1962 World’s Fair, the symbol of the city is one of its most visited attractions. At the time of its erection, it was the tallest structure west of the Mississippi. Technically, however, it’s only made of six floors. The tower can get very busy in the sunny months so snag a timed ticket and be prepared to wait.
In 2006, a woman was offered $1 million to leave her home, where real estate gurus were planning on building condos. Said woman declined and became a folk hero of Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Though construction continued around her, Edith Macefield stood strong and her home stands there today surrounded by the glass and concrete of the development. Though Edith has long since passed away, the home remains untouched in her loving memory. The site has also been credited as the inspiration behind the home depicted in Pixar’s Up.
Even though you’ll see the mountains almost everywhere you go throughout Seattle, there is something about being on their level that makes it especially awesome. For $100, you can hop a chartered Seaplane out of Lake Union and experience the majesty of the city’s topography from above. If you want to make a weekend of it, Kenmore Air offers flight and hotel packages to the San Juan Islands and beyond.
After a five-year construction project, the state-of-the-art field opened in 1999 in Seattle’s SODO district. If you’re not a huge sports fan but you want to check out the field, the stadium frequently offers discount tickets that won’t blow a hole through your wallet. Pro tip: Don’t drive to the stadium on game days, when the southern part of the city basically shuts down. Instead, take the Link Light Rail, which runs from Safeco Field to most neighborhoods around the city.
Keeping Seattleites inside when the sun is out is practically impossible. Though many residents go hiking on one of the many trails throughout the state, less ambitious folks opt to get a beach towel and enjoy the freshwater lake in the middle of the city. With 2.8 miles of trails and paved walkways around it, visiting the lake can turn into the best excuse for a leisurely bike ride or long walk.