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, here are my tips for getting to know Seattle on your first visit.
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 5 of Seattle’s top attractions for a discounted price.
Things to do in Seattle on your first visit
I've been to Seattle several times, and love the city and all its different neighborhoods. But if you're planning your first trip to Seattle, here are all the things I think you *have* to do!
1. Space Needle
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.
The two-level observation deck here has been completely remodeled, and now features glass benches on its open-air observation deck, as well as a rotating glass floor (the world's first!) inside an area called The Loupe.
With your CityPass, you can actually visit once during the day, and then return at dusk to witness darkness falling over Seattle and the city lighting up. (SO worth it!)
2. 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!
(As a bonus, you also get some cool views of the Space Needle from here.)
3. 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.
If you really want to fully experience Pike Place Market, you can also take a market food tour with Savor Seattle Food Tours. This 2-hour walking tour is a great way to learn about the market, AND to try some really great food. (Book a Pike Place food tour here.)
3a. 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.)
3b. The Gum Wall
Okay, so it's kind of gross. Really gross, in fact. But if you head to Post Alley beneath Pike Place Market, you'll find brick walls surrounding the Market Theater covered in layers of previously-used (okay, chewed) gum.
The tradition of putting gum on the wall dates back to the early 1990s and somehow just… stuck. (Pun intended.)
The Gum Wall gets scraped clean every so often, but usually reappears within just a few days.
4. Seattle waterfront
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.
This is also where you can ride the Seattle Great Wheel, one of the largest Ferris wheels in the United States.
5. Take a harbor cruise
With your Seattle CityPASS, you can go 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 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.
6. Pioneer Square
Settled in 1852 and burned to the ground in 1889, the historic Pioneer Square Historic District comprises 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.
6a. Smith Tower
Smith Tower (the white building in the above photo with the pointy top) was built in 1914, and was the very first skyscraper in Seattle. Today, you can visit an observatory at the top of the tower, with open-air observation deck, 360-degree views of Seattle, and even a speakeasy-style cocktail bar.
6b. Klondike Gold Rush Museum
While in the Pioneer Square district, you can also 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, and 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.
7. Underground Tour
The funky Underground Tour is another must-do in Pioneer Square. On this 75-minute tour, you’ll climb down under Seattle’s current city streets to see some of the places that existed before the Great Fire of 1889.
After most of the area burned down, 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 – but be prepared for plenty of really corny jokes. (Book a tour here.)
8. Fremont Troll
Seattle's Fremont neighborhood is artsy and hipster, with lots of good food and some cute shops and cafes. My favorite quirky attraction here is the Fremont Troll, an 18-foot-tall concrete sculpture of a troll crushing a VW Beetle under the Aurora Bridge.
You can also check out the statue of Vladimir Lenin, topiaries shaped like dinosaurs, and the Theo Chocolate Factory in Fremont.
9. Visit some Seattle parks
Seattle is often referred to as “The Emerald City” – and no, it's not because you can get there by yellow brick road. The nickname comes from the fact that Seattle is quite a green city, with lots of trees and parks.
Some unique Seattle parks worth visiting include:
- Olympic Sculpture Park – You'll find the Olympic Sculpture Park near the Port of Seattle downtown. It's an open-air public park along the waterfront dotted with contemporary sculptures. From here you get views of the Space Needle and Puget Sound, making it a great place to hang out on a sunny day.
- Glass Works Park – Located on the site of the former Seattle Gas Light Company plant on the north shore of Lake Union, Gas Works Park is green space with the rusting remnants of the old coal gasification plant at its center. Kind of random, but the park is cool and offers some great views back towards downtown Seattle.
- Kerry Park – If it's stunning views of Seattle you're after, head to Kerry Park, a small park and viewpoint on the south slope of Queen Anne Hill. This park offers up the best downtown views – and on clear days, you can even see Mount Rainier!
9. Museum of Flight
If you're an aviation buff, a trip to the Museum of Flight should fit into your Seattle itinerary. The museum 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 sights in Seattle
If you bought a Seattle CityPASS, you can also visit the Woodland Park Zoo (which has been operating in Seattle for more than a century), the Seattle Aquarium, and the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP).
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.
You could also 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 $3.50.
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.
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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Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!