Home of Starbucks and the Space Needle, Jimi Hendrix and the grunge movement, Pike Place Market and “Grey’s Anatomy,” Seattle, Washington, has really put itself on the map. Despite its oft-mentioned stereotype of being gray and wet (not entirely true), the Emerald City really is one West Coast highlight that you don’t want to miss. Whether it’s a Seattle-centric weekend, or a just-passing-through affair, make some time to get to know Seattle.
First tip: If you’re going to be in town for a few days and want to hit up all the major sites, purchase a Seattle CityPass, which will gain you admission to six of Seattle’s top destinations and activities. You’ll be able to ascend the Space Needle (once during the day and once at night during a 24-hour period), check out the Seattle Aquarium, enjoy a one-hour narrated harbor cruise with Argosy Cruises, explore the Experience Music Project or visit the Woodland Park Zoo, and choose between a visit to the Pacific Science Center (with one IMAX movie included) or the Chihuly Gardens and Glass.
Here’s what you should definitely squeeze in on your first trip to Seattle:
Things to do on your first visit to Seattle
The best-known feature in Seattle’s skyline, the Space Needle was built in 1961 in time for Seattle to host the 1962 World’s Fair. The 605-foot structure was a bit of an engineering feat (the “bottom” of the Needle is actually 30 feet underground to bring its center of gravity lower), and it has come to represent Seattle in everything from postcards to television shows.
You can dine at the revolving SkyCity Restaurant 500 feet off the ground, or check out the Observation Deck at 520 feet, which gives views out over downtown Seattle and Puget Sound. With your CityPass, take the elevators up once during the day, and then return at dusk to witness darkness falling over Seattle and the city lighting up. (SO worth it!)
Chihuly Gardens and Glass
Glass artist Dale Chihuly is from Washington originally, and the Gardens and Glass at Seattle Center is a permanent exhibit of some of his work. Indoors, you'll find large glass exhibits lit up in darkened rooms, and outdoors are glass sculptures that blend in to the gardens. If you're up for a unique art experience, this one is a must!
Pacific Science Center
If you’re into science and museums, then the Pacific Science Center is for you. The interactive museum (included with your CityPass) is perfect for kids – for example, they had a circus exhibit going on while we were there – but might not satisfy an older crowd.
When we visited, my family watched a short IMAX film about the eruption of Mount St. Helens, and then roamed around in the Tropical Butterfly House. Here, you can walk through a balmy environment where colorful butterflies flit around you. Don’t be surprised if the butterflies are just as interested in you are you are in them, especially if you’re wearing bright colors.
Pike Place Market
No trip to Seattle is complete without the sensory experience that is Pike Place Market. Located just up from the waterfront, the nine-acre Pike Place Market is over 100 years old, and is rich in more than just history. Whether you’re in the market for some fresh fish and produce, or handmade arts and crafts, you’ll find it and more at Pike Place.
Give yourself ample time to explore the market, being sure to stop and smell some fresh-cut flowers, and examine some of the monstrous fresh seafood on display. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get to see some fish being thrown (yes, literally thrown) around. And be prepared for a plethora of buskers performing throughout the market. Have a listen; most of them are very talented.
Check out this video of Pike Place:
The original Starbucks
While at Pike Place, head across the street from the market and visit the world’s very first Starbucks. It was from this unassuming location that the coffee giant began its world domination in 1971. Be warned, though, that if you want to purchase a latte from the Starbucks epicenter, you’ll probably have to stand in a pretty lengthy line.
(You can also visit Starbucks' first Roastery and tasting room in Seattle's Capital Hill neighborhood.)
After checking out Pike Place Market, head down the harbor steps to the Seattle waterfront. This is a really charming spot in Seattle, colorful in the summertime thanks to hanging baskets of flowers, and full of sights and sounds.
Grab some ice cream or a basket of fish and chips, and check out some of Seattle’s quirkier souvenir shops, like Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. The store is over 100 years old, and includes a free museum of bizarre things like mummies and shrunken heads.
If you’ve got some time (and a CityPass) on your hands, pop into the Seattle Aquarium. You’ll see all sorts of fish and sea creatures, but the real must-sees here are the room of Puget Sound natives (fish and plant life), and the otters and fur seals. Learn about the kinds of life found in the waters around Seattle, and then head into the building next door to watch some adorable sea and river otters frolicking, and some massive fur seals swimming around in zoo-like enclosures.
With your Seattle CityPass, you’ll be able to turn in a voucher for a ticket on a one-hour, narrated harbor cruise with Argosy Cruises. You’ll board a mid-sized vessel and sail out into Elliot Bay, all the while learning about everything from Seattle’s piers to its skyline. You’ll head over to the Seattle shipping yard and learn about how insanely difficult it is to use the giant cranes to unload barges and ships.
You’ll not only walk away with some great pictures of the Seattle skyline, but you’ll learn a bit of the city's history, too. There are multiple sailings throughout the day, and you can upgrade your ticket to another tour (perhaps a dinner cruise or a ride out to Tillicum Village) for a price.
Settled in 1852 and burned to the ground in 1889, the historic Pioneer Square Historic District comprises of some beautifully restored buildings, vibrant art galleries, and small boutiques. Grab some coffee (there literally is a Starbucks on just about every corner), and take a meandering walk through this quiet part of Seattle. Stop for a break at Waterfall Garden Park, and enjoy the relaxing sound of rushing water in the middle of the city.
Klondike Gold Rush Museum
While in the Pioneer Square district, stop into the Klondike Gold Rush Museum (technically a park, part of the National Park Service) and learn about the gold rush in Seattle. The museum is free, and is really well-laid-out and informative. You can view interactive exhibits, replicas of everything from clothing to dog sleds, old photographs and newspapers, and listen to the story of the 1897-98 stampede to the Yukon gold fields and Seattle’s role in it all. This is a great place to kill an hour or so of extra time.
RELATED: Quirky Seattle
The funky Underground Tour is a must-do in Seattle. On the hour-and-a-half tour, you’ll climb down under Seattle’s current city streets to see some of the places that existed before the Great Fire. After most of the area burned down in 1889, city planners just rebuilt on top of the old portion of the city, leaving the remains of charred buildings in place. The tour is fun – and be prepared for plenty of really corny jokes.
Museum of Flight
If you're an aviation buff, a trip to the Museum of Flight should fit into your Seattle itinerary. My family decided to check it out because my dad flies small planes, but I found myself really enjoying the jam-packed museum, as well. The Museum of Flight covers all aspects of flight history – from the very first airplanes to space travel. There's one gigantic warehouse space filled with all manner of aircraft, a mock control tower, a space exhibit, rooms dedicated to WWI and WWII, and even commercial jets and an old Air Force One plane outside that you can walk through.
Give yourself ample time to explore the museum. It not only includes planes of all shapes and sizes, but also interactive features and tons of history to read about. You can book bi-plane rides outside the museum, or (if you've really got the money), sign up to ride in a B-17 or B-24 bomber. We watched both roar to life and take off from the museum while we were there.
Other Noteworthy Sites
We didn't have time for anything else in Seattle, but our CityPasses would have also gained us admission into the Woodland park Zoo, which has been operating in Seattle for more than a century.
A point of interest for the sports fan in the family might be Qwest Field, home to the Seattle Seahawks, which you can also visit and tour.
Seattle also has lots of free parks to check out, such as Olympic Sculpture Park and Gas Works Park.
You could stroll around the city's Chinatown/International District. Check out some Asian art galleries, give bubble tea a try, and visit Kobe Terrace Park, where you can see cherry trees in bloom during the month of March.
Getting around Seattle
So you’ve got your CityPass and now you know what you want to see. But how do you get around? Well, it’s easy. Being a large city means that Seattle has a pretty decent public transportation system.
There’s a light link train that runs from the SeaTac Airport into downtown Seattle, making about a dozen stops along the way. It's great for getting into the city from the airport affordably – a one-way ticket runs $2.50.
Once you’re downtown, there are a few options.
- You can rent a car.
- You can do some walking. Your feet will hurt, but you’ll see a lot of Seattle this way. If you’re up to the task, you can easily make it from the Space Needle to Pike Place Market in about 15-20 minutes. It’s another 5-10 minutes down to the waterfront, and another 10 to Pioneer Square.
- You can catch a bus or call for a ride using Uber or Lyft (both alternatives to taxis).
Where to stay in Seattle
Here are some hotels worth checking out in Seattle:
- Inn at the Market – The #1 hotel in Seattle on TripAdvisor, and also the only hotel located at Pike Place Market.
- The Maxwell Hotel – A Staypineapple Hotel – I like this hotel chain a lot!
- The Fairmont Olympic Seattle – For luxury located right downtown.
What other must-dos do you have for Seattle?
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