Planning a visit to the Emerald City of Seattle? Find our recommendations of the best things to do in Seattle including the Space Needle, Chihuly Garden and Glass, Chinatown, Pike Place Market, and more. Also find recommendations on what to eat, where to stay, and what to do in this wonderful city. You might also like our post on Best Places to visit in Washington State.
This article originally appeared in PCH1 Road Trip: Pacific Coast Highway and Travel Guide and has been republished with permission.
“Tossed salads and scrambled eggs..”
Our introduction to Seattle was through the TV Series ‘Frasier’ and I always envied the view of Seattle skyline from his apartment. But turns out, that view is all wrong as are many other things that the show got wrong about Seattle! The city gets much more rain than shown in the show and you will find that the locals are much more casual than those in Frasier’s and Niles’s highbrow circle.
But yes, Seattle does have an amazingly rich cultural life – operas, symphony, ballet, concerts, theatre, museums, literature – everything is popular here. It is one of the best cities to visit in the US and every moment you spend here will be memorable!
Seattle was once drab and dull – the home of industry and technology – but since then it has undergone a marvelous transformation and is currently the trendiest city in Washington state. It is energetic and evolving, has a large young working population, and stands at the center of tech innovation.
Fun Fact: Seattle is named after Chief Seattle, who was the Chief of the Suquamish and Duwamish people in the 19th century. His original name was Si’ahl, which was anglicized to Seattle.
Seattle has an interesting history. It has its beginnings as a timber town, then flourished during the Klondike Gold Rush, and was a shipbuilding center during World War I. World War II brought Boeing and aircraft manufacturing to Seattle and the current boom is due to tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon.
Seattle has a beautiful waterfront and many piers turned into recreational spaces. Visitors can take boat tours and ferries to islands in the Puget Sound at the docks. Two of Seattle’s major attractions include the Great Ferris Wheel and the Space Needle.
Seattle also has a vast outdoor playground. The towering Mount Rainier National Park is to the south while the snow-capped peaks of Olympic National park are to the west. Seattle’s location on the Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, the moss-covered trees, and beautiful rainforest trails make the city a nature lover’s delight. Most of the forests surrounding the city are evergreen leading to Seattle’s nickname, ‘The Emerald City’.
“To know Seattle one must know its waterfront. It is a good waterfront, not as busy as New York’s, not as self-consciously colorful as San Francisco’s, not as exotic as New Orleans, but a good, honest, working waterfront with big gray warehouses and trim fishing boats and docks that smell of creosote, and seagulls and tugs and seafood restaurants and beer joints and fish stores–a waterfront where you can hear foreign languages and buy shrunken heads and genuine stuffed mermaids, where you can watch the seamen follow the streetwalkers and the shore patrol follow the sailors, where you can stand at an open-air bar and drink clam nectar, or sit on a deadhead and watch the water, or go to an aquarium and look at an octopus.”
― Murray Morgan, historian of Puget Sound
Best Things to do in Seattle
There are many cool and awesome things to do in Seattle. Tourists can enjoy sightseeing in the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood or take a stroll in Discovery Park. Downtown Seattle is the epicenter of activity with well-known places like the Pike Place Market and the Elliot Bay waterfront.
As you might have heard, it rains quite a lot in Seattle! In fact, November is one of the worst times to visit due to incessant rains. However, the city also has a lot of indoor attractions which are perfect for wet or snowy days. You can visit museums like the Seattle Children’s Museum or the Museum of Pop Culture. We have included a lot of indoor attractions in this post, so you can find something to do in the city no matter the weather.
Explore the Seattle Center
Seattle Center is the tourist heart of the city and every visit should start here. It has arts, entertainment, and science attractions. The complex was originally built for the 1962 World’s Fair which was held in Seattle. Today, the Seattle Center has grown to house several museums, the International Fountain, an IMAX theater, restaurants, and multiple sports and music venues including the Mercer Arena.
Tourist attractions are spread all over the area including the delicate glass artworks at the Chihuly Garden and Glass, a piece of the Berlin Wall, and the Seattle Laser Dome at the Pacific Science Centre. Tourists can easily spend an entire day at the Seattle Center experiencing its many attractions. We recommend picking your favorite attractions, many of which you will read about below, and focusing on them to save time.
Ride to the top of the Space Needle
Space Needle is the most famous icon of Seattle. The observation tower is 605 feet tall and was once the tallest building west of the Mississippi. The tower has an observation deck and a revolving restaurant and should be on the bucket list of most visitors to the city. A 43-second elevator ride takes visitors to the observation level at 520 feet.
From the top, you can see Washington’s famous attractions including Seattle skyline, Elliot Bay, the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges, Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and the islands located in Puget Sound. The view is truly breathtaking. The city landmark has been featured in several films including Sleepless in Seattle and is one of the most popular Instagram spots in the city.
Drink coffee and find your favorite barista
Love coffee? Then you must visit Seattle! When it comes to coffee beans and roasting, the city is the undisputed coffee capital of the world. There are cafes at every corner and every local has their favorite barista. The coffee-drinking began in the 1970s as a Bohemian counterculture trend and has flourished to create giant corporations like Starbucks and Seattle’s Best.
Today, you can still visit the Original Starbucks at Pike Place Market – but expect long lines and delays! Instead, opt for the less touristy spots and try discovering your personal favorite as you get around the city. Not a fan of finding things on your own? Then refer to this list of the best coffee shops in Seattle.
Catch a fish at the Pike Place Market
The Pike Place Market is Seattle’s original farmer’s market. It was established in 1907 and has grown to be a must-visit attraction. Located along the Elliott Bay waterfront, the market is huge and you need to use a map to know where to go. It has a fresh produce section, seafood market, and specialty food stores. In the seafood section, you can watch the fishmongers throw purchased fish to the customers – it’s a special market tradition!
Pike Place Market is the place to visit in Seattle for foodies. There are several bakeries, cafes, eateries, diners, and restaurants located inside the market. Visitors can have a coffee at the Original Starbucks, which is the first Starbucks in the country, and looks the same as it did when it opened in 1971. You can also try the chowder soups at Pike Place Chowder. To know about other famous eateries at Pike Place Market, check here and here. The market also has street performers and eating here is super fun.
The market also has a huge crafts section, a Japanese comic book store, a magic shop, stores selling collectibles, and antique stores – these unique shops are located on levels below the main arcade level. Before you leave, take a photo with the iconic neon Public Market Center sign and pose with Rachel the bronze Piggybank. Another unique attraction is the Market Theatre Gum Wall, where you can find pieces of gum stuck to the wall.
Be mesmerized by the glasswork at Chihuly Garden and Glass
Chihuly Garden and Glass located in Seattle Center is dedicated to the work of locally born glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. Chihuly’s intricate and stunning glasswork has made him world-famous. This museum is a must for art aficionados and has galleries full of marvelous glass creations located indoors as well as outside in the garden. You can see glass flowers, orbs, creatures, and sculptures.
A highlight of the exhibition is the glass glasshouse which has some of the most beautiful pieces and an amazing view of the Space Needle. Visitors can also see a glass blowing demonstration while visiting the museum. The museum and its artwork is one of the most photogenic places in Seattle. You should ideally keep an hour or two to explore the museum’s 8 galleries.
Immerse yourself in the Museum of Pop Culture
Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture or MoPOP is dedicated to contemporary pop culture and is a must-visit attraction. The museum has different floors dedicated to different genres ranging from sci-fi, fantasy, horror, music, cult films, and more. You can see movie props, costumes, and more at the museum.
Visitors can see exhibits about Pearl Jam, Jimmy Hendrix, Prince as well as memorabilia from movies like the Terminator and Back to the Future. The museum has many attractions for music lovers – you can see guitar galleries, visit the sound lab, learn instruments, and record yourself in a studio.
The museum building itself has striking architecture. The museum is family-friendly and great for kids of all ages. Kids especially love to see the artifacts and pop trivia. You need at least 3 to 4 hours to enjoy all the interactive experiences in the museum.
Ride the Seattle Great Wheel
The Seattle Great Wheel is a giant Ferris Wheel located at Pier 57 overlooking the Elliott Bay. With a height of 175 feet, it is one of the tallest Ferris wheels in the country. The views of the Seattle area and the surrounding scenery from the wheel are stunning. During a 12 minute ride, you can see the Seattle skyline, Elliott Bay, Space Needle, and Mount Rainer. The individual gondolas are climate controlled and you can enjoy the wheel even on rainy days or cold nights. A special VIP gondola has a glass floor, leather seats, souvenir photo, and a glass of champagne, making it perfect for anniversaries and birthdays.
Delve into the city’s past at the Museum of History & Industry
The Museum of History and Industry, also known as MOHAI, is a history museum located in Seattle. The museum collection includes over four million pieces from Seattle’s past. This is the place to go to learn more about the city’s growth, brilliant innovations that were developed in Seattle, and the history of the Pacific Northwest.
The museum exhibits take you through Seattle’s journey from a small coastal timber city to the giant metro region that it is today. You can experience the history of Seattle through snapshots, artifacts, and photography. Visitors can walk through exhibits like the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, and the Boeing exhibit. At the Bezos Center for Innovation, you can see industrial and cultural inventions that have come from the Seattle area.
Take a stroll around charming Pioneer Square Historic District
Pioneer Square is where the city began in the 1850s. This is the original downtown and it is full of Romanesque Revival-style buildings. The entire district was rebuilt after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 in brick and stone. Most of the historic buildings have now been repurposed into commercial buildings and house art galleries, coffee shops, eateries, and bars. On a self-guided tour of the area, you can see the elegant buildings, iron street lights from the early 20th century, and other sculptures and decor from that time period.
Besides architecture and cuisine, there are several other things to do in Pioneer Square. Take a stroll in the Pioneer Place Park and admire the sculpture of Chief Seattle, who was the Chief of the Suquamish. Explore the subterranean streets on a guided Seattle Underground tour. Understand the beginnings of Seattle at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. You can also see photos of gold miners and mining equipment at the park museum.
Engage in air combat at the Seattle Museum of Flight
The Museum of Flight is one of the largest space and air museums in the country and has a large number of exhibits that are spread over many buildings. The museum has all types of aircraft on display from the early WWI & WWII models to most recent planes.
Visitors can also see unique exhibits such as the Boeing Lunar Rover, the Air Force one from Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon Era, a Concorde, artifacts from Apollo 11, and the NASA space shuttle replica. Visitors can walk through planes and try air combat in flight simulators.
The Museum also has an impressive collection of fighter planes. This is a great place to learn about the history of aviation and a must for those who love airplanes.
Admire the exhibits at Seattle Art Museum
The Seattle Art Museum has two buildings: the Main Museum in Downtown and the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill. The downtown museum is well curated and has a stunning collection of Native American Art, African Art as well as a lot of modern and contemporary art. You will need at least 2 to 3 hours to explore the museum and its many collections.
Take a photograph with the sculptures at Olympic Sculpture Park
The Olympic Sculpture Park is the outdoor gallery exhibiting the sculpture collection of the Seattle Art Museum. This interesting park is built on a huge nine-acre former industrial site and has beautiful waterfront views of Puget Sound. The park is free to visit and one of the best places to get some air in Seattle.
There are over 20 significant sculptures at the park. One of the highlights is Alexander Calder’s monumental Eagle sculpture. It perfectly aligns with the Space Needle when viewed from the south-west. Other sculptures include works by famous artists such as Richard Serra and Roxy Paine. The park also hosts free outdoor performances, summer concerts, and outdoor yoga classes in the park.
Eat noodles and dim sums in the Chinatown-International District
A must visit in Seattle is the Chinatown-International District which is home to Seattle’s Asian American communities. In the neighborhood, visitors can find gift shops and colorful markets selling curios of all kinds. You will find stores selling imported goods like rice bowls, origami items, sculptures, Japanese comic books, and collectibles.
The neighborhood is a must for foodies. You can eat sushi, ramen, noodles, Hawaiian poke bowls, dim sums, and Vietnamese dishes like pho. Discover specialty shops, huge Japanese and other Oriental grocery stores, eateries, ready to eat food stores, as well as sit down restaurants. Take Instagram worthy photos of food stalls and dishes.
The Chinatown-International District also has many opportunities to learn about Asian cultures. A must visit is the Wing Luke Museum which has artifacts about Seattle’s Asian American history and an intriguing exhibit about Bruce Lee. The neighborhood celebrates many traditional festivals like the Lunar New Year, Dragon Fest, etc.
Visit Frasier filming locations
If you’re a Frasier fan like us, then this is a must. While the Seattle based TV series was actually filmed in California, the 100th episode was shot in Seattle and shows many of the city’s landmarks. Visit the Elliott Bay Books Cafe to see the inspiration behind Cafe Nervosa. Take a photograph with the Space Needle and have a fish thrown at you in the Pike Place Market. Run around Historic Pioneer Square just like Frasier and Niles did in the 100th season!
See the penguins and walrus at the Woodland Park Zoo
Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, an award-winning zoo, is a great place to visit in Seattle with the kids. The zoo has many unique habitats where visitors can see a variety of animals/birds/reptiles.
In the penguin enclosure, kids can see the Humboldt penguins swimming in the water right by the glass. They can also see the penguins being fed at certain times. Other animals at the zoo include Malayan tigers, African lions, Indian rhinos, snow leopards, jaguars, gorillas, orangutans, zebras, giraffes, bears, tapis, red wolves, and ostriches. The walrus exhibit is also popular with the kids.
Visitors can walk through the bird enclosure or see demonstrations with hawks and owls. The zoo is pretty big and you need a map to navigate all the areas. We recommend keeping aside half a day and wearing good walking shoes as you may walk upwards of 4 miles in the zoo.
Touch the sea anemones at the Seattle Aquarium
The Seattle Aquarium, located on Pier 59 of the Elliott Bay waterfront area, is one of the best aquariums on the Pacific Coast. While the aquarium is small compared to the huge Monterey aquarium, it is still worth a visit. The museum has great staff and lots of educational talks and animal feedings throughout the day.
At the museum, visitors can explore the diverse marine life of the Pacific Northwest. The huge main tank has a glass undersea viewing room where one can view rockfish, wolf eels, salmon, and sea anemones. The aquarium hosts daily dive shows three times which are a great learning opportunity. They also have touch pools where kids can touch several marine animals like sand dollars, sea anemones, starfish, stingrays, and sea urchins.
Other things to see at the aquarium include moon jellies, a huge pacific octopus, sea otters, river otters, and the harbor seals. This is a fun and educational way to spend a few hours indoors with the kids in Seattle – it makes a perfect rainy day activity.
Explore Volunteer Park and its attractions
Volunteer Park is located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. Major attractions in the park include the Volunteer Park Conservatory and the Seattle Asian Art Museum. The conservatory has a low entry fee and a beautiful collection of orchids, tropical plants, cacti, and ferns. The Asian art museum has been recently renovated and is a must-visit for cultural tourists. You can see exhibits from China, Japan, India, Thailand, Pakistan, and other Asian countries. The red brick Water Tower, built-in 1906, is also located in the park. Visitors can climb to the top of the tower and get a 360-degree view of the area.
See the orchestra perform at Benaroya Hall
Benaroya Hall, located in downtown Seattle, is home to the Seattle Symphony. It is the most-visited performing arts venue in the city and named after the philanthropist Jack Benaroya who made a $15 million contribution to the construction of the hall. The Benaroya Hall has excellent acoustics and is home to various exhibitions, art lectures, musical events, and more. Attending a Seattle Symphony Orchestra performance at the Benaroya Hall is a delight and should be on the top of your list if you love classical music.
Play vintage games at the Living Computers Museum
Living Computers: Museum + Lab is a computer and tech museum in Seattle. The museum is a hidden gem in the city and really cool place to visit with the kids. The museum allows visitors to see vintage computers and hardware like floppy discs on the second floor as well as a newer tech on the first floor. The exhibits range from robots and self-driving cars to collections of digital arts and vintage games.
While the museum is a must-visit for geeks, it has universal appeal for all ages – even those who are not that into technology. There are many hands-on exhibits and experiential learning opportunities at the museum. Visitors can find exhibits based on robotics, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. Kids can try creating voice-controlled mini-robots and playing on 80s arcade machines.
Explore beneath the streets with a Seattle Underground Tour
The Seattle Underground has a unique and interesting history. This network of underground passages and basements under Pioneer Square was originally at floor level in the mid 19th century. After the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, the streets were rebuilt 1 to 2 stories higher to avoid flooding. The old streets fell into disuse and form the Seattle Underground.
Today they are a major tourist attraction and visitors can see them on a guided walking tour. Tours are usually 60 to 75 minutes long and go under historic Pioneer Square, the oldest neighborhood in the city. Several companies offer tours of the underground including history tours, ghost tours, and so on.
Read a book or two at the Seattle Public Library
If you love books and architecture, then the Seattle Public Library is a must-visit. Located in Downtown, the library has a futuristic steel and glass structure building that is voted among 150 best structures in the country. The interior of the library is as beautiful as its exterior. There are lots of reading areas, a small cafe that serves coffee, lots of floors to explore, and a viewing area on the top floor from which you can look all the way below. The library also offers free self-guided tours during the week.
See the artwork at Frye Art Museum
The Frye Art Museum is located in the First Hill neighborhood of Seattle. The museum is free to visit. The museum’s art collection ranged from the nineteenth century to current works. Visitors to the museum can see a rich collection of paintings, prints, sculptures, and multimedia exhibits on display. The museum also holds several temporary exhibits that offer an interesting, thought-provoking, and reflective experience for art lovers. While the museum is small, it is easy to navigate and can be easily seen in a few hours.
Buy fresh produce at the Ballard Farmers’ Market
This year-round neighborhood farmers market sells fresh organic produce from the farmers around Washington state. The market is operational every Sunday from 10 am to 3 pm and is worth a visit. At the market, you can buy exceptional quality fruits and vegetables at affordable prices. It also has handmade and local foods. The market offers an explosion of colors and tastes – you can eat doughnuts, pasta, meats, mushrooms, bread, cheese, and more. The market also has musicians playing different instruments, poets, and is the perfect place to buy cider.
Enjoy the outdoors at Discovery Park
Discovery Park is the largest park in Seattle. Located on Magnolia Bluff overlooking Puget Sound, the park has a panoramic view of the water and the surrounding mountain ranges. The park is located on the site of Historic Fort Lawton and you can still see many military buildings in the park.
There are many things to do in Discovery Park. The park has many beaches where visitors can enjoy different water activities. Discovery Park also has meadows, forests, sea cliffs and is perfect for hiking. One of the highlights of the park is West Point Lighthouse. This whitewashed lighthouse is very photogenic and looks beautiful at sunset. Visitors can also see spot wildlife at the park.
Spend a day on Bainbridge Island
Bainbridge Island, located in Puget Sound, is a great day trip from Seattle. The island has beautiful nature, scenic vistas, cultural attractions, and a variety of outdoor adventures. See the local art at Bainbridge Museum of Art, understand the area’s history at Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, explore the beautiful Bainbridge Gardens nursery, and eat seafood at the Harbor Public House. To reach the island, take a half-hour long ferry from Seattle. Visitors can also stay on Bainbridge Island – it has many comfortable accommodation options for all budgets.
Watch the locks carry boats and fish at Ballard Locks
The Hiram M Chittenden Locks or Ballard Locks is one of the most popular outdoor attractions in Seattle. It is fun to watch the busy locks carry boats and other water traffic from Puget Sound to the Washington ship canal. There are walkways above the locks which allow visitors to view the process.
The area also has a fish ladder and Botanical Gardens and is a great place to visit. The fish ladder is used by various types of salmon and trout during spawning season. At this time, visitors can view the fish through the glass windows on the last weir of the fish ladder. To see the spawning seasons for different species, check here.
Seattle has something to offer for people of all age groups and should be on everyone’s Pacific Northwest bucket list. We hope you like our post on the best things to do in Seattle. Did we miss out on any of your favorite attractions? Let us know in the comments.