There are countless things to do in Washington’s largest city, from visiting world-class museums and unique attractions like the Space Needle and Chihuly Garden and Glass to getting a taste of the best restaurants and bars. Whether you’re a newcomer or a lifelong local, check off these essentials.
Best things to do in Seattle
Stroll through Pioneer Square
Seattle’s oldest neighborhood (it’s where the first settlers built their homes), Pioneer Square boasts some incredible architecture, several art galleries, cafés, bookstores and, bizarrely, one of the best cured-meat stores in the country: Salumi. Stop here for a well-earned sandwich (porchetta is the most popular, but the grilled lamb is a close second), before checking out the outstanding Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, a museum covering Seattle's involvement in the 1890s mass migration to Canada’s Yukon region, then Smith Tower (506 Second Avenue, 206-622-4004). Built in 1914, this was the tallest building on the West Coast for years, and the views from the 35th Floor Observation Deck are still spectacular.
Photograph: Courtesy Visit Seattle/Howard Frisk
This simple confection is the sole survivor of the original 1960s menu at SkyCity, the rotating restaurant atop the iconic Space Needle. It arrives at your table “smoking,” thanks to the crafty addition of carbon dioxide. A throwback to yesterday’s tomorrow perhaps, but the cloudlike sundae (vanilla ice cream with wafers, syrup and sliced fresh fruit) is still the coolest thing on the menu. Plus, heading straight up the elevator to SkyCity means you don’t have to pay for admission to the 605-foot Space Needle, but get to enjoy the same views.
A unique visual experience, the Chihuly Garden and Glass showcases the epic work of Northwest glass artist Dale Chihuly with a series of mind- and glass-blowing indoor and outdoor installations. The sculptures range from the elegant to the extravagant, particularly in the garden, where plants and glass pieces tangle in a blaze of colors. Regular events include yoga sessions in the Glasshouse or an early-morning garden tour. Refraction means it’s a completely different experience in different weather conditions—but permanent Instagram gold.
A suggestion to visit Seattle’s most visited landmark may border on the obvious, but if you’re going to check Pike Place out, you need to know the best place to get a bite. Since market merchants close at 6pm, it’s all about lunch. Sleuth out the rosy entrance to hidden local favorite the Pink Door, which serves ridiculously fresh Italian dishes. Other great options for sit-down lunch include Pike Place Chowder—serving some of the best clam chowder this side of Boston—and Lowell’s, where Seattle Joe’s Scramble (sausage, spinach and mushrooms) is a must-order. A number of outstanding food tours help you to navigate the market’s bustling alleyways as you take in the sights, sounds, smells—and plenty of free samples. Savor Seattle employs current or former Pike Place merchants as tour guides for an inside perspective.
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Thomas Hawk
Explore Seattle’s underbelly
The Rainy City’s reputation may be exaggerated, but when the weather looks menacing, simply duck underground. A number of local companies offer the opportunity to roam Seattle’s forgotten subterranean passages with expert guides. The best is Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour, which takes participants on a sub-sidewalk circuit of the city’s historic downtown. Beginning in a restored 1890s saloon, it passes many original storefronts that remain below street level after the city raised roads and buildings up one story to avoid flooding. Other underground expeditions include the new Beneath the Streets tour. Setting off from Cherry Street, the 60-minute walk snakes under Pioneer Square, past beautifully preserved 19th-century architecture and into the earliest roots of Seattle.Photograph: Courtesy Bill Speidel's Underground Tour
EMP is Seattle’s tribute museum to the history of Northwest music, from Jimi Hendrix to Nirvana. But it’s much more than that. Celebrating pop culture and science fiction, the exhibition space is wrapped inside Frank Gehry’s fluid, shiny temple to the creative arts. Play in your own virtual rock band while learning about the region’s rich rock legacy, or geek out in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. In the Venn diagram of 20th-century creativity, this is where Isaac Asimov meets Kurt Cobain.
Take off on a Boeing tour
Go behind the scenes at the facility where the famous Boeing aircrafts are made and tested. The 90-minute Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour covers the past, present and future of human flight in a state-of-the-art museum and gives you entry to the Boeing factory. At a sprawling 98 acres, this is officially the largest building in the world (measured by volume)—and the place where Boeing developed the new Dreamliner. The location is a 30- to 45-minute drive from downtown Seattle, but tour operator Show Me Seattle will pick you up and drive you there, with guided commentary throughout.
Like NYC’s Staten Island Ferry, this is a great way to eyeball a significant amount of Seattle’s highlights swiftly—and cheaply. Known to locals simply as “The Boat,” the Bainbridge Island Ferry is a 35-minute ride across Elliott Bay from Pier 52. The island itself is the antithesis of the skyscraper-stuffed city, with 150 acres of gardens, ponds and meadows to explore in the beautiful Bloedel Reserve. Before heading back, stop for a treat at one of the West Coast’s finest—and freshest—ice cream parlors, Mora Iced Creamery, where flavors include cheesecake with raspberry jam and whisky with hibiscus.
Have dinner with Tom Douglas
The famously self-taught chef remains MVP when it comes to Seattle’s restaurant scene. Tom Douglas has no fewer than 18 eateries in the city, from high-end trattoria Cuoco (310 Terry Ave N, 206-971-0710) to the chilled Dahlia Lounge (2001 4th Ave, 206-682-4142)—the latter’s triple coconut cream pie is epic. Douglas now has three Serious Pie locations, specializing in thin-crust wood-fired pizzas. But our money is still on the buzzing Brave Horse Tavern (310 Terry Ave N, 206-971-0717), which serves outstanding craft beer and simple yet expertly executed food.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/greenplasticamy
Wake up and make the coffee
If you’re a fan of the black stuff, the epicenter of the North American coffee scene is the perfect place to get your hands dirty. Located in Kent, a short drive from downtown, the Seattle Barista Academy (1621 Central Ave S, unit 26, Kent, WA; 206-612-8030) offers three-hour classes from $195, covering everything from beginners’ latte art to how to brew the perfect espresso. (For those who are really serious about their Joe, the Academy offers longer courses, of between two and five days.) Book well in advance to avoid disappointment.
Board the West Seattle water taxi at Pier 50, and 15 minutes and $8 later you’ll arrive in Hawaii. Or at least Seattle’s take on the Aloha State—with a healthy helping of Korean spice. Spawned by the popular food truck, Marination Ma Kai offers a unique Hawaiian-Korean fusion menu in a fantastic waterfront location. With breathtaking views from its patio, it feels more like Honolulu—or at least SoCal—than the Pacific Northwest. Highlights include the miso-sake marinated fish tacos and the kimchi fried rice with spicy pork.
The views from Seattle’s 175-foot-high Ferris wheel more than compensate for its corniness. From the top you’ll enjoy a grand panorama of the city, the Pacific Ocean and—if you’re lucky—the Olympic Mountains. The Seattle Great Wheel, on Pier 57, is one of the largest of its kind anywhere in North America and gondolas are fully enclosed for rain-or-shine rides. For an enhanced experience, visit on a Friday or a Saturday evening—when the wheel runs until midnight—and ask for the VIP carriage: a pimped-out glass-floored gondola with four leather bucket seats and a stereo system; perks include champagne, photo booth snaps and a personal escort to the front of the line.
A forested 300-acre peninsula jutting out into Lake Washington, Seward Park is only a 20-minute drive (or taxi ride) from downtown Seattle, but feels like a completely different world. Accessed via Lake Washington Boulevard South, the park covers all of the Bailey Peninsula, and its lush, old-growth forest (some of the trees are more than 250 years old) is a popular escape from the urban jungle. It contains a number of trails, the most popular of which is Shore Loop Road—a flat, vehicle-free perimeter track covering a little under two and a half miles. With beaches, boating, tennis courts and environmental learning centers, it’s an excellent day-trip option for all ages.
In 2012, Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry relocated to its grand new home in the city’s Naval Reserve Armory, over in Lake Union Park. The bigger premises allows this Smithsonian affiliate to display more of its colossal collection of four million artifacts from the region (though because of the huge number, you’ll still only see a fraction of those at any given time). Thankfully, there are several outstanding pieces on permanent display, from the Petticoat Flag—an 1856 American flag sewn by women during the Battle of Seattle—to Boeing’s first commercial airplane (the 1919 Boeing B-1). Visitors can also explore how innovation shaped the Seattle region—and the world—at MOHAI’s Bezos Center for Innovation.
Sample local wines (and beer)
Washington prides itself on its wine—and Chateau Ste. Michelle (14111 NE 145th Street, Woodinville, WA; 425-488-1133), less than 20 miles from Seattle, is the state’s oldest and most celebrated winery. A turreted French-style mansion surrounded by 105-acre grounds, Ste. Michelle produces chardonnay, cabernet, merlot and riesling and holds regular tasting sessions, as well as a popular summer concert series on its pristine lawn. Meanwhile, beer lovers will find their own castle across the street, in the shape of the award-winning Redhook Brewery. If you’re visiting during the summer months, the brewery’s outdoor Moonlight Cinema series is a lot of fun. Catch classic movies, accompanied by a selection of Redhook’s classic beers.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/akarkhanis
The Seattle Art Museum (SAM to its friends) is one of the city’s unmissable highlights. The extensive permanent collections of Native American and Pacific Northwest artwork are worth the visit alone, but it’s the diverse, lively temporary exhibitions that keep locals and visitors returning time and again. If you can, try to time your visit to include the first Thursday of the month, when entry is free and leave time to check out the nearby Olympic Sculpture Park—officially a part of SAM but always free to enter. Located on the waterfront at Western Avenue, the park combines its unique outdoor art with wonderful vistas—and is particularly scenic at sunset.
Browse indie wares in Fremont
“De libertas quirkas” is the unofficial motto of Fremont: “The freedom to be quirky.” The indie enclave has some of the best vintage stores and independent boutiques in the Northwest. Among the highlights are Bliss on Fremont Place North, a women’s boutique known for its cool accessories, and Show Pony, one block away on Fremont Avenue North, which champions local designers and is a mine of affordable fashion. Every Sunday, Fremont hosts an excellent flea market on 34th Street (next to the farmers’ market), offering locally made crafts, vintage furnishings, fashion and bric-a-brac alongside a convoy of food trucks.
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/dasbuch
It’s a mouthful to tell a cab driver for sure, but there’s plenty of interest at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. Located on South King Street in the Chinatown-International District, “The Wing” is dedicated to exploring the culture, art and history of Asian Pacific Americans. A Smithsonian affiliate, the museum is particularly strong on folk art and oral history, but also curates a number of fascinating neighborhood walking tours, which is an excellent way to explore the C-ID. Of course, there’s plenty of love for Seattle’s most famous Asian Pacific son, the mighty Bruce Lee, in an exhibition that includes some of his poems and personal possessions.
One of the city’s most popular live entertainment venues, Triple Door is well worth checking out. Located in downtown Seattle, opposite Benaroya Hall, the beautiful 1920s vaudeville theater has had stints as a burlesque house and blue movie theater. Now one of the Northwest’s top live music venues, it combines world-class acts with an award-winning restaurant, Wild Ginger. If you don’t want to commit to a full concert experience, the no-cover Musicquarium Lounge is great for pre-dinner happy hour cocktails and a taste of local music before moving on down Union Street.
Though their official name is the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, these labyrinthine waterways linking the Puget Sound with Lake Washington and the Ship Canal are known universally as Ballard Locks. Opened in 1917, they’re one of Seattle’s most popular tourist attractions, particularly on sunny days when people flock to the waterside and the neighboring Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden—one of the most beautiful green spaces in the city. If the sun is out, many people will just kick back dockside or stroll on the swinging walkways to watch the boats come and go, before heading into Ballard to eat at one of Seattle’s best brunch spots, Stoneburner (5214 Ballard Ave NW, 206-695-2051). Decked out with salvaged antique woodwork and fixtures, the restaurant prides itself on using the best local farmers’ market produce. Brunch options range from the hangover-blitzing (fried egg and porchetta sandwich) to the hyper-healthy (raw kale with spicy breadcrumbs and pecorino)—perfect to set you up for another packed day in Emerald City.