The Best Things to Do in Seattle
From lush Northwestern panoramas to bustling night markets and a pop culture museum shaped like Jimi Hendrix’s smashed guitar, The Emerald City offers some of the country’s best attractions and here’s our list of must-see attractions.
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.
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.
400 Broad St, Seattle, WA 98109, USA
Far and away Seattle‘s most iconic structure, this U.F.O saucer on a stick is an Atomic Age baby—it only dates back to the 1962 World’s Fair. A 41-second elevator still whisks guests to the observation deck, which really ladles on the natural beauty when the clouds lift and “the mountains are out.” The Needle underwent a glorious $100-million “space-lift” in 2018. Innovations include floor-to-ceiling glass walls with benches that angle backwards (designed for great selfie angles—seriously!). The landmark also added the world’s first and only revolving glass floor, spinning under the Atmos Wine Bar. A café still serves quick bites, but the full-service restaurant has yet to reopen in early 2019. Below sprawls the Seattle Center’s carnival rides, science exhibits, world-famous glass art garden and the MoPop, a superb rock and sci-fi museum that resembles Jimi Hendrix’s smashed guitar when viewed from above
85 Pike St, Seattle, WA 98101, USA
Walk, cycle or people-watch along the shores of Elliott Bay, a downtown stretch known for its circusy flair and spectacular vistas. You can ride the Great Wheel or visit the beloved Seattle Aquarium, home to wolf eels, sea otters, and the world’s largest octopuses. Refuel with chowder from local favorite Ivar’s Acres of Clams, then hit the market’s 200 owner-operated shops, ranging from a radical book collection to the Northwest’s oldest magic store. Just don’t turn your back on the famous salmon-slinging fishmongers: They’ve been known to wallop selfie-photographers with a plastic decoy for yucks!
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.
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!
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).
3801 Discovery Park Blvd, Seattle, WA 98199, USA
Seattle’s largest public park sits on a sea bluff that’s high enough to pierce the city’s infamous fog, revealing gorgeous views of the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. Wander its 11 miles (18 km) of paths through forest groves, meadows fringing coastal cliffs, and active sand dunes on the protected tidal beaches. Once a military installation, the area now serves as an open space and wildlife sanctuary. Stop into the Daybreak Star Center, which celebrates American Indian culture and hosts the city’s powwow in mid-July. Around 25 drum groups and 500 dancers converge here for the event, along with close to 10,000 spectators.
6861 NE South St, Suquamish, WA 98392, USA
Just across Puget Sound—via the half-hour Edmonds–Kingston ferry—stands this exceptional tribute to the area’s first people. American Indian tribes have inhabited the Northwest for 10,000 years, shifting from cedar-plank houses in winter to summer camps for fishing, hunting, and picking berries. The Suquamish welcomed and traded with settlers, but the newcomers eventually turned on them, even burning their spiritual center, Old Man House, to suppress traditions. Now recognized as a sovereign nation, the Suquamish run this remarkable museum and maintain the grave of Sealth, the chief who gave his name—with a twist—to Seattle (a two-minute walk downhill).
On clear days—"when the mountains are out,” as locals say—this steep, ice-gilded volcano dominates Seattle’s horizon. In fact, the peak is 90 miles southeast of the metropolitan area. You can see lush green forests blanketing about 60 percent of Mount Rainier National Park, while the rest is covered in meadows, alpine heather, and the densest patch of glaciers in the contiguous United States. Easygoing hikers like to explore the wildflower meadows near the 1916 Paradise Inn, which transform into prime terrain for sledding, snowshoeing, and igloo-building come winter. Prefer the thrill of downhill? Head to Crystal Mountain, just northeast of Rainier, where the state’s first ski gondola still serves its most elevated restaurant.
860 Terry Ave N, Seattle, WA 98109, USA
A tiny former ferry—the m/v Fremont Avenue—takes 50-minute spins around Lake Union, a glacial-gouged body of fresh water the size of Monaco. A cruise reveals gorgeous views of the Space Needle and Seattle‘s skyline, as well as the rusted splendor of the world’s last remaining synthetic-gas plant, now a postindustrial play space for picnics and kite-flying. Quirky narration highlights more hidden sights, like the studio of world-renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly and its birdhouses shaped like vintage RVs. Bring cash or checks for the $12 ticket and $2–$4 treats. Well-behaved, leashed pets are welcome, too!
2300 S Massachusetts St, Seattle, WA 98144, USA
This historic cultural center grew from fierce roots. Activists occupied the 1909-vintage Colman School for eight years before Seattle finally greenlit the museum in 1993: The occupation was possibly the United States’ longest act of civil disobedience. Today, you can take in exhibits about African American settlers; World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen; and Chinese jazz clubs, which brought together black musicians and fans of all ethnicities during the 1920s Jazz Age. The temporary displays can be found in two galleries, one focused on black culture and the other celebrating local visual artists. Popular past exhibits explored the beauty of natural hair, the aesthetics of funk music, and positive black characters in classic 1970s cartoons.
2100 Westlake Avenue North, 1, Seattle, WA 98109, USA
If you want to immerse yourself in Seattle’s vibrant spirit and natural beauty, nothing beats renting a boat on Lake Union, the 580-acre aquatic playground just northeast of the Space Needle and downtown core. Rent a kayak or a stand-up paddleboard, then glide past the colorful houseboats from Sleepless in Seattle. On the north shore towers Gas Works Park, where the world’s last remaining synthetic-gas plant has been transformed into a fascinating postindustrial monument. The Northwest Outdoor Center has two great competitors—Moss Bay (mossbay.co) and the pricier Agua Verde Paddle Club (aguaverde.com)—but remains a local favorite for its parking, bathrooms, storage area, waterproof-bag loans, and friendly, knowledgeable staff.
9817 55th Avenue South
Pacific Northwest plants and Asian aesthetics merge in this stunning 20-acre landscape, secreted away in the South Seattle neighborhood of Rainier Beach. Japanese immigrant Fujitaro Kubota started the garden on a brush-choked, logged-off swamp, which he couldn’t even legally own because of discriminatory laws (a sympathetic friend helped out). After spending World War II in an Idaho internment camp, the visionary gardener crafted the graceful streams and waterfalls of the 65-foot-high Mountainside feature. Kubota later added ornamental bridges and a moon-viewing platform. After his death, the city declared his masterwork a historic landmark and eventually took it over as a public park. Free admission, open year-round.
Burke-Gilman Trail, Washington, USA
Nineteen miles of paved path start at Golden Gardens in Ballard. Get a close look at the park’s resident beavers—which dam the ponds on its north end—then head east along the saltwater shoreline, keeping an eye out for seals, sea lions, and even orcas. The route meanders to Lake Washington and sweeps around its northwestern shore. Still going strong? Turn onto the 11-mile Sammamish River Trail, pocketed by views of the Cascades and the gleaming snow cone of 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, the most glaciated peak in the continental United States. Refuel at one of Woodinville’s wineries or breweries, maybe even taking in a summer concert or moonlit outdoor flick—if you planned ahead enough to score tickets!
2127 7th Ave, Seattle, WA 98121, USA
Three futuristic glass domes stand in South Lake Union: the crown jewels of the e-tail giant’s $4 billion urban campus and a striking, sculptural tribute to Seattle’s role as an innovation hub. The tallest shelters a river and waterfalls hovering over tropical gardens kept lush at 72°F (22°C) and 60 percent humidity—a microclimate like that in Costa Rica’s Central Valley. Over 800 Amazonians can roam the interconnected botanical bubbles at once. Amazon opens the Spheres to the public two Saturdays a month by reservation (available online up to 30 days in advance). Fuel up on coffee and donuts at General Porpoise, a café captained by Renee Erickson, named the James Beard Best Chef Northwest of 2016.
162 Cemetery Rd
Two hours northwest of Seattle, this National Historical Reserve celebrates the early pioneers who came to Whidbey Island for its rich soil and promising seaport. The reserve also shelters one of the area’s most stunning all-season hikes: 5.6 miles round-trip, with just 260 feet of elevation gain. The path threads through wildflower-dotted fields for a mile before bursting onto high coastal cliffs fringed with golden prairie grass. (Bird buffs should pause here for a peek down into the lagoon.) Continue another mile before descending to a wide beach, which offers epic views of Puget Sound as well as the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. (Note: Hikers starting from the Ebey’s Landing parking lot need a Discover Pass, good for all state parks, discoverpass.wa.gov).
Pioneer Square, Seattle, WA 98104, USA
One of Seattle‘s most postcard-friendly areas, Pioneer Square is a beautiful, historical neighborhood with plenty to do. The galleries come alive for First Thursday art walks, not to mention the delicious lunch spots, quirky boutiques, and vibrant nightlife. Every Tuesday, a different food truck parks at the First & King Loading Dock (505 1st Ave S.), so there’s always something new to try. By night, the bars, pubs, and clubs fill up with tourists and locals looking for fun. The Seattle Underground Tour and Smith Tower attractions can be found here, as well as the Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum and its collection of vintage police cars. But there’s plenty to see if you just amble around and explore, too.