The sprawling Seattle metropolitan area is surrounded by water, mountains and lakes in the Pacific state of Washington - and home to a lot of history and culture.
From the iconic Space Needle tower to the historic Pike Place market and from the waterfront restaurants to Mount Rainier covered with snow, everywhere you look there is something new to see or adventures to be had.
A visit to Seattle would not be complete without exploring downtown on foot, riding the Monorail, spinning around on the Great Wheel, dining at the waterfront or finding unique gifts at Pike Place Market.
Interesting Facts: The Seattle area has been continuously inhabited for at least 4,000 years.
Seattle is also home to mega tech firms like Microsoft and Amazon and major industry giants like Boeing. The Seattle area was settled by native Americans for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. The first such visitor was George Vancouver in 1790. The city was officially incorporated in 1853 it then went through several cycles of boom and bust. The latest boom was driven by tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft. To read more about Seattle’s history go here.
Seattle’s weather is classified as Oceanic, but that doesn’t really tell you what to expect when visiting the city. In general terms, if you are visiting during the summer, then expect dry and temperate weather. Any other time, expect lots of rain (or snow in the mountains) and cold temperatures.
Getting there and getting around
For visitors from neighboring states, you can take major highways 5, 405 and 90 – but beware, traffic is a nightmare when you get close to downtown Seattle. If you are flying in, you will probably end up at Sea-Tac airport (Seattle-Tacoma).
The airport is very large and well organized. It is considered the 28th busiest airport in the world by passenger traffic. If you are renting a car, you will take a shuttle to the Car rental center – about 5 minutes away. The center is huge and has most of the rental companies.
Interesting Facts: Seattle is home to the world’s first gas station, opened on East Marginal Way in 1907.
You can also take light rail to downtown Seattle and avoid driving altogether. The light rail system runs from Angle Lake to the University of Washington, passing through downtown. Trains pass by every 5 minutes and cost around $3. For trips further away, you can take Metro buses and water taxis. Once you are in downtown, you can just walk around to the major attractions.
Where to stay
Like any large city, there are a lot of lodging options. You can stay at major hotel chains like Sheraton, Hilton and Marriott in downtown or you can find a room or a whole house with Airbnb.
If your main goal is to explore downtown and surrounding area, my advice is to book a place in downtown. This way you can avoid traffic headaches and walk to most attractions. If you plan ahead, you can find good deals right in the middle of the action.
Fun in Downtown
Downtown Seattle is a hodge-podge of old and new, trendy and laid back. The best way to enjoy this medley of sights and sounds is to just start walking. If are new to Seattle, try to join a walking tour or a food tasting tour.
During my recent visit, I went with “Show Me Seattle” Tours on their Pike Place tasting tour. The tour was just what I needed to get introduced to this iconic Seattle place. This market started in 1907 and it is still the most popular destination for locals and visitors alike. Read more about Pike Place tasting tour here.
Pike Place Market is full of all kinds of shops and restaurants. You can buy your produce or fish here, enjoy breakfast or lunch or find a special souvenir. While browsing, you can enjoy the street performers.
You can walk down a long set of stairs from this bustling market to reach Seattle’s waterfront, with many more restaurants, piers, parks and rides. The waterfront is also where many of the water taxis, ferries and cruise boats operate. Seattle is famous for its water transportation system and many island destinations.
Another way to enjoy downtown is by Segway. You can rent one or go on a tour. I recently went on a tour with “Seattle by Segway” through the waterfront, Seattle Center and Pike Place. Our guide Cory was an excellent tour guide showing us some interesting places along the way. Read more about Seattle by Segway tour here.
Here are some must-see attractions in downtown Seattle:
Pike Place Market
This market is the second most visited place in Seattle and one of the most popular places in the world. It is also home to the first Starbucks coffee shop which opened in 1971. The market first opened in 1907 as a farmer’s market. It started its life as a meeting place for farmers and fishermen to sell their products to the locals. It had now grown to a multi-level center with a variety of shops and restaurants.
Tip: Most visitors only discover the top level, which runs along Pike Street and Pike Place. Don’t be a tourist. Go deeper into the market and down the stair to discover more shops and restaurants.
As you stroll through the market, you will notice a lot of street performers. They are also called Buskers and some of them go on to become famous performers and songwriters. While visiting, make sure to stop at one of the fish sellers and observe. To attract customer attention, some fishmongers started throwing fish to each other and making a big show out of preparing and selling fish.
Interesting Facts: Although Pike Place started as a farmer’s market, it now also offers many trinkets, fine art, shows, breweries and dining experiences.
Some of the vendors worth mentioning at Pike Place: Daily Dozen Donuts; Saffron spice Indian food; Supply The Best dried fruits and veggies; The Urban Garden; Don and Joe's Meats; Arts and Crafts area; Made in Washington stores.
This 605 ft observation tour is the most visited attraction in Seattle. The Needle reopened recently after some major renovations. The observation tower commands an amazing 360-degree view of Seattle, the Puget Sound, several lakes, and Mt Rainier. It has both outdoors and indoors observation decks. A snack shop offers drinks, popcorn and other snacks.
Interesting Facts: The Space Needle design was inspired by the Stuttgart Tower in Germany.
The tower also has a revolving restaurant, but it is still under construction. The new design calls for a glass bottom. That should be an integrating experience – looking down through glass while dining.
Waterfront and Great Wheel
A few steps down from Pike Place, you will reach Seattle’s waterfront with many shops and dining experiences. The waterfront is a long stretch of walkable sidewalks along Alaskan Way. Start from around Yesler Way which dead-ends into the Ferry Terminal and keep going north on Alaskan until you reach the Olympic Sculpture Park.
Along the way, you will pass great seafood restaurants like Elliott’s Oyster House, the Salmon Cooker, the Fish Bar or the Crab Pot. Looking for entertainment and fun? Stop at the Great Wheel at pier 57 get your tickets and enjoy a leisurely ride in the heated cars. Protected from Seattle’s unpredictable weather, you can observe the city skyline on one side and Elliott Bay on the other. You can even grab a beer for your ride.
Past the Great Wheel, you can stop for a picnic at Waterfront Park or you can continue on the Aquarium. If you decide to visit the Aquarium, make sure to spend some time under the dome. The underwater dome provides a window on sea life in the Puget Sound.
If you prefer to take a cruise through Elliott Bay, the Locks or the lakes, stop at Argos Cruise terminal and go exploring. Further down you will come across another ferry terminal and then the Olympic Sculpture Park. The park has a statue of a large white head, gazing at the Olympic mountains in the distance. The best spot to view this statue is at the tip of Pier 70. The park also has a nice fountain.
On the way back, you might want to stop at “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop” at Pier 54 for some unique merchandise and souvenirs. They have a large collection and the prices are reasonable. If you haven’t visited Pike Place Market yet, you can take a side trip from the waterfront up some stair and right in the middle of the bustling market. Across from Pier 62, there is an unnamed road that will take you to those stairs (on some maps it is called “Pike Place-Hillclimb”).
You can’t really miss the Space Needle from anywhere in downtown Seattle – and further away. But the Needle is not the only attraction at the Seattle Center. This multi-block area is home to the “Pacific Science Center”, “Chihuly Garden and Glass”, “Children’s Museum” and the “Museum of Pop Culture”. It is also home to several gardens, the International Fountain and kids play areas. The Children’s Museum building also hosts the Armory, which is a large food court with many dining options.
In between the Space Needle and the Pacific Science Center, there is a nice little garden with unique metal sculptures. On one side you can see tall glass flowers. If you pass under them, they will start singing.
The Pacific Science Center is a great place for kids and adults to spend time exploring and learning all day long. With a lot of exhibits and hands-on experiences indoors and outdoors, no one can get bored here. The science museum also has a large Imax theater that shows several nature and adventure films all day long.
The center is connected to downtown via a Monorail system. You can take the Monorail from Westlake station at the shopping mall to the Seattle Center next to the Needle.
Chihuly Garden and Glass
This is a must-see museum in the Seattle Center. The “Glass Museum” was opened in 2012 to showcase the glass works of Dale Chihuly. It has three distinct areas with amazing displays of lights and colors. Indoors, you can walk through several rooms with beautiful glass displays with vibrant colors and complex shapes. Some look like flowers or animals while others defy description.
Interesting Facts: Seat Seattle is the second largest glassblowing capital in the world, second to Murano Italy.
Outdoors, you can stroll through a glass garden. All kinds of glass plants and animals roam through this enchanting place. Connecting the two areas is a big glass house with amazing glass formations hanging from the ceiling. Through the glass ceiling, you can see the towering Space Needle. Read more here.
I am not a fan of shopping but for you die-hard shoppers, downtown Seattle has a lot of shopping choices. You can start at the Westlake Center, which is a 4-Story glass-enclosed mall connects to a 25-story office tower. The mall has many well-known stores like Nordstrom Rack, Saks Fifth Avenue, Clair’s and Anker and some favorite dining places like P.F. Chang, Starbucks and Candy Time. If you are looking for some gifts to take back home, visit the “Made in Washington” store.
Right next door, you can stop at the Pacific Place mall for some high-end shopping. From there you can take the Skybridge to connect to the Flagship Nordstrom store.
Many unique shops and restaurants are also found at street level as you navigate the downtown grid.
Outside of Downtown
The fun and discovery are not limited to the popular downtown. A few miles in any direction you can find places like parks with Seattle views, aviation museums, Sounds, Lakes and Islands.
From Kerry Park, you can see a great view of downtown, the Space Needle and Mt Rainier. The park is just a small strip of green overlooking the bay, but is very popular because of the view and the abstract art. The view is especially amazing at dusk or night time.
Another great view can be had at Hamilton Viewpoint Park. This is a larger park with portable facilities and telescopes. Seattle’s skyline is across Elliott Bay looking east.
The “Gas Works Park” also has a nice view of Seattle skyline with the added bonus of being a full park with its own history and views. It used to be a coal gasification plant, but was turned into a park after the city bought the plant in 1962. The designers decided to keep the factory structure intact as a contrast to the green fields and Lake Union.
Future of Flight Aviation Center & Boeing Tour
Have you ever wondered how the Boeing jumbo Jets are built? If so, this museum is a great place to get a glimpse of how models 747, 767, 777 and 787 (the Dreamliner) are built. The museum is located in the city of Mukilteo about 25 miles north of Seattle. Read more about Future of Flight here.
Museum of Flight
Another must-see museum for space and aviation buffs. This one is in the city of Tukwila south of Seattle and comprised of several buildings and a large outdoor exhibit. The museum holds a large collection of aircraft including the Boeing 747 and the Concord and dedicated building for Boeing history. Read more about Museum of Flight here.
Tours around Seattle
The best way to explore a new city is to join a tour and learn from the expert locals about where to go, what to see and do - and where to eat.
Taste Pike Place Food Tour
I went on the Taste Pike Place tour with Show Me Seattle the very first day I arrive in Seattle. It was a great way to learn about one of the most well-known attractions in town and to taste some delicious food. Marcia, our guide, was very friendly and knowledgeable. We spent more than 3 hours learning about the Pike’s history, people and shops and ended up tasting food from 13 different places. Taste Pike Place Food Tour here.
Seattle by Segway
Segways are a great way to discover a new town. You can rent a Segway and go on your own, but it is always better to learn from an expert. I recently went on a tour with “Seattle by Segway” through the waterfront, Seattle Center, Pike Place and other downtown landmarks. Read more about Seattle by Segway tour here.
Mt Rainier National Park
The majestic mountain towers over the Washington state landscape and can be visible from most vantage point in the Seattle metro area. It is an active volcano that is always topped with snow. It has 26 main glaciers - the most on any mountain in the lower 48 US states. It is more than 14 thousand feet high and spawns 6 major rivers and many waterfalls. The national park around the mountain was established in 1899 as the fifth national park in the United States and it encompasses 236,381 acres. Along with the towering peak of Rainer, the park’s expansive area includes many mountains, meadows, old growth forests, rivers and waterfalls. Read more about Mt Rainier tour here.