Seattle’s Must-See Museums

Whether your passion is for art, music, science, history, or aviation, Seattle has museums for you. Sometimes the museum itself is a landmark, like Seattle’s colorful Experience Music Project Museum building, designed by Frank Gehry. Add some educational value to your Seattle vacation when you spend an afternoon at one of these family-friendly destinations. If you plan to visit multiple museums, check out the Seattle CityPass to save on admission.

200 2nd Avenue North
Another one of the buildings created for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, the Pacific Science Center has a midcentury-space-age vintage-futuristic look from the outside. But inside, it’s all cutting-edge technology like the IMAX Theatre, laser dome and planetarium, and Live Science Stage demonstrations. The 4,000-square-foot tropical butterfly house is a favorite with visitors of all ages; we know of at least one wedding proposal that took place there. The dinosaur exhibit features seven animatronic, roaring dinos, while Professor Wellbody’s Academy of Health & Wellness is a kid-oriented tour of the human body, complete with gross-out fun facts. The Insect Village has plenty of creepy crawlies, and the saltwater tidepool exhibit features sea creatures that kids can touch. Outside, the Science Playground has gyroscopes, bicycle-powered fountains, and other hands-on fun. The Pacific Science Center also tends to get the high-profile touring exhibitions, like the 2012 Tutankhamen exhibit, so it’s worth checking in advance and booking tickets early if you plan a visit.
2901 Western Ave, Seattle, WA 98121, USA
Here’s a bold claim: the Olympic Sculpture Park might just have something for everyone. Located on the waterfront, not far from Pike Place Market, it features great views of Puget Sound (well, on clear days) and the ferries going back and forth. Stroll the paths and admire the sculptures large and small scattered throughout the park, or sit on the many chairs and benches and admire the view. There’s a nearby bike trail, and the Neukom Vivarium (a giant 60-foot rainforest log ecosystem in a greenhouse) is just steps away. Best of all, it’s free! Get a dose of culture and then head down to the waterfront for some fish ‘n’ chips.
4091 Factoria Square Mall Southeast
The KidQuest Children’s Museum in Bellevue is based on the premise that kids need both formal and informal learning environments—KidQuest is dedicated to the latter, encouraging learning through play. The exhibits are hands-on and engaging, and involve the whole family.
325 5th Avenue North
This sheet-metal fever dream by architect Frank Gehry is like a rock-and-roll Guggenheim, home to interactive exhibits that span music, sci-fi, fantasy, animation, video games, and other scrambled bits of modern life. A hands-on studio lets kids and grown-ups mess with real instruments and studio hardware. Originally intended to honor Jimi Hendrix, the building’s design echoes one of the legend’s smashed guitars (most obviously when viewed from atop the Space Needle). Critic Herbert Muschamp once accused it of “looking like something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over and died,” but visitors often enjoy the jumble of color and distorted reflections—perfect for quirky selfies!
1300 1st Ave, Seattle, WA 98101, USA
Guarded by the Hammering Man sculpture outside, this superb museum collection romps from native tribal art to African masks to carvings from Oceania. Highlights include the 16th-century wood-paneled Italian Room and The Studio, a portrait of the Seattle home of Jacob Lawrence, arguably the most acclaimed African American painter of the 20th century. Check the calendar for world-class temporary exhibits, not to mention lectures, performances, film screenings, and evening SAM Remix dance parties. If you need some air, head for the waterfront Olympic Sculpture Park to catch a glimpse of art in the wild. Free to visit, this green space offers stunning views of Puget Sound and the ferries trundling across it.
1801 Dock St, Tacoma, WA 98402, USA
The Museum of Glass is in Tacoma, about a half-hour away from Seattle, and it’s well worth the trip for art glass enthusiasts. The permanent collection includes some Chihuly pieces, work by 20th and 21st-century artists, and a charming collection of sculptural pieces interpreting children’s drawings. The temporary exhibits often feature a Northwest theme, and a theater features a rotation of short films about glass art. The real highlight of the museum, though, is the Hot Shop, where resident glassmakers and their assistants blow glass all day long for the entertainment of visitors. Often, their work is being filmed, and a narrator is on hand to explain what you’re seeing. You can walk all around the Hot Shop via overhead walkways, and photography is allowed throughout the museum, so it’s a great opportunity for photographers as well. The museum isn’t huge and takes only a couple of hours to go through, so it’s an ideal destination for a rainy afternoon. But don’t miss the striking outdoor art, like the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, outside the museum (free).
719 South King Street
The first Smithsonian affiliate in the Northwest, this superb museum chronicles the Asian Pacific American Experience. Among its most poignant exhibits is the Letter Cloud installation: old hotel walls frame tales of aging far away from home. It also offers walking tours of the surrounding International District, including Touch Of Chinatown, which visits the elegant Kobo gallery and Uwajimaya, one of America’s largest Asian grocery and gift stores. Stop into the nearby Panama Hotel, home to a teahouse and the nation’s only intact sentō (Japanese public bathhouse). Lockers and marble baths still stand in the basement, which harbored the belongings of Seattle’s 7,050 Japanese-American residents imprisoned in WWII internment camps—the basis for Jamie Ford’s best-selling novel Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet.
860 Terry Ave N, Seattle, WA 98109, USA
Better known as MOHAI, this collection dives deep into local history, from the region’s maritime history to its tradition of technological innovation. Highlights include Boeing’s first commercial plane, the 1856 Petticoat Flag sewn by women during the Battle of Seattle, and the original Rainier Brewing Company neon R sign. Behind the stunning building—overlooking Lake Union—bob National Historic Landmark vessels: most notably the star of the 1934 MGM movie Tugboat Annie and the 1921 Virginia V, a steamer that opens its decks for balls, excursions, and trivia nights. The Center for Wooden Boats has displays and rents vessels on the neighboring docks (cwb.org).
1400 E Prospect St, Seattle, WA 98112, USA
Located in a historic Art Deco building inside Volunteer Park, the Asian Art Museum contains a permanent collection of jades and ceramics, sculpture, textiles, and Chinese painting and calligraphy, as well as temporary exhibitions featuring everything from illuminated Persian manuscripts to modern Japanese anime. The Gardner Center offers public programs such as talks, author events, and artistic performances to introduce visitors to new cultural perspectives.
319 2nd Avenue South
It may not be the smallest U.S. national park (that honor goes to Pennsylvania’s Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, at 0.02 acres), but the Seattle unit of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is a small hidden gem in Pioneer Square. Interactive exhibits allow visitors of all ages to follow actual gold-rush stampeders on their cross-country adventure through journals, personal papers, and artifacts. Step into a miner’s cabin or hop on a scale to calculate your actual worth in gold. Learn about the entrepreneurs, like John Nordstrom or George Bartell, who came to the area to make their fortunes outfitting gold prospectors (and whose businesses survive today). This fascinating free museum is kid-friendly and a welcome rest stop for downtown visitors.
2655 NW Market St, Seattle, WA 98107, USA
The indigenous people welcomed the first European settlers in 1851. Soon reports reached Scandinavia, like Ostenson Stine’s: “When you throw your eye upon Puget Sound, and behold the fleet of fish barges, rolling upon her briny breast, a reminiscence of the coast of Norway steals into your soul.” It sparked a wave of immigration, now celebrated in a new $45-million landmark-building near the Ballard Locks. The sleek, sophisticated design has a central atrium evoking a fjord, crossed by bridges and pierced by contemporary stained-glass bird sculptures. While some of the exhibits honor Olde Worlde crafts and tools, expect interactive innovations as well. A fan favorite: pillows resembling giant stones, strewn under birch trunks. Cuddle up and watch gorgeous film footage that could easily inspire a trip—or several—to Europe.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: United States
Journeys: Sports + Adventure