Updated August 28, 2023
You probably already know about some of the best things to do and places to visit in Seattle, such as the Space Needle and Pike Place Market. But my list of recommended attractions below will take you to hidden gems off the beaten path, as well as exciting destinations within just a short drive from downtown. If you do not plan on renting a car, buses and tours are available for some of the more remote locations.
This visitor’s guide will introduce you to iconic neighborhoods, the finest museums, fun and educational tours, diverse cultural destinations, as well as some a few short daytrips. Be prepared to find yourself on a ferry or a cruise boat, in a maze of alleys lined with yummy good eats, soaring high in the sky above, or venturing underground in tunnels beneath the city.
To fully enjoy my recommended lists of the best things to do in Seattle, try to be open minded in both art and cultural appreciation, have an explorer’s spirit, and bring with you an appetite for some adventurous local food tasting.
Table of Contents
- Iconic Attractions of Seattle
- Arts and Museums in Seattle
- Cultural Explorations in Seattle
- Outdoor Sightseeing in Seattle
Iconic Attractions of Seattle
You go up the Space Needle in Seattle probably for the same reason that you go up the Eiffel Tower if you are in Paris. This is one of the city’s most iconic structure that attract visitors from across the World.
Once you enter into the main lobby, take time to explore the exhibits on the history of the Space Needle before heading to the elevator. You will also find some interesting tidbits as well.
There are many large floor-to-ceiling glass window to provide a stunning and panoramic view of the city. There are a few glass benches and tilted windows for more exciting photo opportunities. The lower deck, where the revolving restaurant was once located, is now fitted with glass floors for those who would like even more excitement.
💡TIP: To save time and money, purchase your advance Space Needle and Chihuly Garden and Glass combination ticket here.
Seattle Harbor Cruise
Whether this is your first or your tenth trip here, your visit to the Emerald City is incomplete without taking a Seattle Harbor Cruise. Not only will you enjoy the spectacular skyline of the city, but you will also be able to see the many landmarks of the city from a completely different perspective that you cannot observe on land. On a clear day you can also see the iconic Mount Rainier as well as the Olympic Mountains.
The tour comes with a very knowledgeable guide who will give you plenty of information about the history of the city, as well as background information on the many structures on its waterfront. You will also learn about the bustling sea commerce of the city as you sail past the container terminal.
The cruise departs daily from Pier 55 and is almost always sold out, especially on weekends and during the city’s peak travel season. You can obtain more information and also purchase your advance tickets here.
Pioneer Square is Seattle’s first neighborhood and is known for its charming historical buildings, Renaissance Revival architecture, and cobblestone streets. It is a vibrant and lively area packed with contemporary art galleries, trendy cafes, lively pubs, and fashionable boutiques. There are also plenty of restaurants to satisfy every budget and appetite. If you want to be a bit more adventurous, join the Underground Tour to explore the dark tunnels and secret passageways beneath the city’s surface (see below).
To fully appreciate the history of the Emerald CIty, you’ll have to literally go beneath the streets and take an Underground Tour. The Great Seattle Fire on June 6, 1889, burned most of the central downtown area to the ground. As devastating as the fire was, not one person was killed, but it eliminated the city’s rodent problems. It also forced the city to rebuild its dysfunctional sewage system and also build new structures with stone and brick.
The rebuilding of the city went so fast that many new structures were built physically on top of the rubble. In fact, today’s Pioneer Square actually sits atop the old city’s ruins. Retaining walls were built on both sides of the main streets, which raised the sidewalk one story higher than where the old streets were. What was then a lobby turned into a basement and the raised sidewalk also created passageways which became today’s paths of the Underground Tour.
The one-hour walking tour is preceded by a 15-minute presentation of the history of the events. The tour is both educational and entertaining.
Pike Place Market
The Pike Place Market is a huge neighborhood comprising of farmers markets, seafood and produce stalls, gift shops, specialties stores, and some of the best places to eat in Seattle.
There are many restaurants of all sizes and prices, cafes, and bakeries. My top recommendation is Pike Place Chowder, where you will find one of the best clam chowders in the Pacific Northwest. I also highly recommend Le Panier French Bakery which takes you to the streets of Paris.
While you are there, visit the first Starbucks store, which opened its doors in 1971 right here at the Pike Place Market.
Arrive with an empty stomach and an open mind to try new things. Take your time to walk around and explore this foodie’s paradise and consider all your options. If you are like me, you’ll probably have a hard time deciding what to get.
Pike Place Market Tasting Tour
Venturing through the Pike Place Market yourself and deciding where and what to eat can be overwhelming. A guided tour is a great alternative to sample the most famous eateries while exploring the historical and cultural aspects of the iconic marketplace. It is also more economical than purchasing full size meals from many different restaurants yourself. An added bonus is that you will also gain some culinary ideas, shopping tips, and market knowledge.
The Pike Place Market Tasting Tour is the original food and cultural tour and is fully licensed by the Preservation and Development Authority (PDA) to operate in the Historical District. Group size is limited to a maximum of 12 people to ensure a personalized experience and attentive service from your guide. Depending on the day and time, there will be at least 8 tastings which include clam chowder, pastries, smoked salmon, fish fry, artisan Greek yogurt, Italian gelato, and more!
Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room
No matter how many times you’ve been to a Starbucks café, you have to check out this roastery and tasting room because it will offer you a completely different experience. The Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room is not just about coffee. This is about coffee culture and coffee adventure.
They have an extensive menus of rare Starbucks Reserve coffee roasted on site. A variety of coffee flights are also available for tasting. If you are hungry, a large selection of breakfast items, sandwiches, salads, and pastries are served.
The Mixology Bar offers “coffee cocktails” as well as beer and wine. If you want to be adventurous (and don’t have to drive), get their Espresso Martini Flight.
If you are a passionate coffee aficionado, be sure to visit the Experience Bar at the lower level to mingle with the “coffee masters” and to learn more about the beans and the brewing process.
Arts and Museums in Seattle
Chihuly Garden and Glass
Dale Chihuly is the World leader in the development of glass as a fine art. His work is proudly displayed in over 200 galleries around the World. One of the most extensive collections is right here in the Chihuly Garden and Glass, which opened in 2012, and is intended to be a permanent display.
The displays are breathtaking! Stunning is an understatement. I highly recommend that you take the time to slowly appreciate each piece of art. When you realize how complex the constructions of some of these displays are, you will truly appreciate the artist’s ingenuity.
It is located right next to the Space Needle. In fact, in one of the galleries here, you can take an awesome picture of the glass display with the Space Needle in the background. See one of my pictures above. It is most efficient to visit both places on the same day.
💡TIP: To save time and money, purchase your advance Space Needle and Chihuly Garden and Glass combination ticket here.
Museum of History and Industries (MOHAI)
There are literally numerous things to do to explore Seattle. Different people have different priorities. But for me, MOHAI is on the top of my list. This is where you can truly understand the history, culture, and people of this vibrant city.
Discover its history in the themed exhibit True Northwest: The Seattle Journey. Take a glimpse into the direction of the future at the Bezos Center for Innovation. There are also exhibits on aviation and maritime history.
Seattle Art Museum (SAM)
The SAM embraces Global cultures and historical arts in their exhibits, which include over 25,000 pieces of works of arts collected from around the World. Galleries are well organized and are sorted by Geographical regions. Their presentations of African arts and Native American arts are quite impressive.
At my time of visit, there was also a Claude Monet special exhibition and I really enjoyed it. Check their website for upcoming special exhibitions and events.
SAM is located in the heart of downtown. The museum has 3 stories and I recommend spending a minimum of 2 hours to half a day. Parking garage is located underground. You can get a discount parking voucher at the ticketing desk.
Olympic Sculpture Park
The park is an extension of the Seattle Art Museum (see above) and is located on the Waterfront, a short walk from Pier 70. The picture above is “The Eagle” by American sculptor Alexander Calder. The sculpture is an artful and poetic expression of the bird’s curving wings, assertive stance, and pointy beak. The Eagle is accompanied by another 19 world class sculptures which are scattered around the park’s nine acres of green space.
It is open to the public free of charge from sunrise to sunset daily. Note that the park has two main areas. From around Pier 70, go up the long flight of stairs to access the main sculpture section where “The Eagle” is located. Then you have to go back down the stairs to enjoy the other area which is looped along a pathway along the waterfront northwest of Pier 70.
The Museum of Flight
The Museum of Flight is one of the largest and most extensive museums in the World showcasing mankind’s ventures into air and space. One of the most compelling exhibits is “Apollo” which features the powerful F-1 engines and the legendary Saturn V rocket that established the Apollo legacy in the 1960’s.
Spend half a day or more exploring numerous aircraft exhibits and galleries that document the history of air and space travel. Discover aviation’s roles in the two World Wars as well as in commerce and postal services. Have a seat in Business Class in a Boeing 737 or explore the cockpit of an SR-71 Blackbird. The entire place is family friendly and offers plenty of fun things to do in Seattle for both adults and children of all ages.
💡TIP: Plan ahead and purchase your skip the crowds advance ticket here.
Boeing Future of Flight
The Boeing Future of Flight is located in Everett, about a 40-minute drive from downtown. The is the factory where Boeing assembles their 747, 767, 777, and 787 models. The future of Flight has many exhibits as well as a gift shop for the aviation enthusiast.
The highlight of your visit will be the factory tour. Since it is the tour of an actual factory, nothing is staged like an amusement park. So, the actions that you get to see in the factory depends largely on the day and time of your visit. If you are lucky, you might stumble upon a time when there are major constructions or activities.
Photography is strictly prohibited, and they do enforce that. Before you depart on the tour, you’ll need to place your phone and camera in a locker. The picture here is taken in the lower level of the lobby where there is a backdrop staged for pictures.
Cultural Explorations in Seattle
Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP)
MoPOP takes you through a contemporary musical journey from rock and roll to punk rock to hip hop, and almost everything in between. Some prominent highlights include Jimi Hendrix, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana, just to name a few.
There are many other points of interest as well. Don’t miss the Guitar Gallery and the Fantasy Hall of Fame.
Chinatown – aka International District
Seattle’s Chinatown is also known as the International District, but it is not without controversy. It was first named “International Center” by the city’s then-mayor in 1951, citing the diversity of the population who lived and worked there. However, the decision was heavily criticized that the name “international” was used to purposely mask the identity of Chinese Americans.
Today, the area consists of mostly (about 80%) Chinese restaurants and businesses, punctuated by a few Vietnamese and Japanese eateries and stores.
Chinatown is full of iconic restaurants. It is home to Bruce Lee’s favorite restaurant, Tai Tung, which still gets customers attracted by the name of the legendary kung fu star. It is also the oldest Chinese restaurant that is still in business (since 1935). Jade Garden and Harbor City are two legendary restaurants that serve truly traditional and authentic dim sums.
Other than food, Chinatown is full of cultural explorations, such as old hostels and food stores that date back to the Chinese population’s early immigration settlements. Wing Luke Museum is a must-visit if you want to learn more about Chinese culture and the early days of their immigrants’ lives.
Wing Luk Museum
Wing Luk Museum (of the Asian American Experience) is located in Chinatown (International District). It showcases the history and the heritage of Asian Americans.
One of the most popular galleries is “A Dragon Lives Here” which documents Bruce Lee’s roots in Seattle, where Bruce first settled in when he moved to America. It turns out that it was also where he launched his first martial arts studio and developed his Jeet Kune Do. Wing Luk is full of Bruce Lee memorabilia. It is also worth noting that Wing Luk is just steps away from Bruce Lee’s most favorite restaurant, Tai Tung.
Another major gallery is “Honoring Our Journey” which honors the Asian Americans’ journey to this country as immigrants and refugees. There is also a guided tour of nearby buildings where early immigrants settled in.
Outdoor Sightseeing in Seattle
The Ballard Locks provide a link somewhat like a corridor for ships to travel between the Puget Sound and Lake Union. The level of the saltwater in Puget Sound is lower than the freshwater level at Salmon Bay. The locks use dams and gates to create chambers which act like an “elevator” for ships so they can move between the two water elevations.
When ships from the lower-level Puget Sound enter the canal, the gates will close behind them thus creating a closed chamber. Water will then flow into the chamber until the water level is the same as the elevation on the other side. The gates on the higher elevation end will then open and allow the ships to sail through. The process is reversed for ships entering from Salmon Bay.
The grounds of the locks and the park is open to the public free of charge. But to get a first-hand experience of this process on a boat yourself, consider taking the Seattle Locks Cruise which sails through the Locks between Pier 55 on the Waterfront and Lake Union. You will also enjoy spectacular views of the city’s skyline, the Olympic Mountains, and the iconic Mount Rainier along the way. Note that this is a one-way cruise so be sure to book the option with the return bus here.
This is a small neighborhood park on the top of Queen Anne Hill which is more like a viewpoint or a photo stop rather than a park. It is also known as “postcard park” for its perfect spot to capture the Space Needle and Downtown Seattle with the iconic Mount Rainier in the background. As you can see from the above picture, the view here is indeed breathtaking, which attracts people from around the World.
On a beautiful day during the city’s peak tourist season, this place can be completely filled with people. Only street parking is available so it could be a challenge to find a parking spot, especially when the tour buses show up. It is best to visit on a weekday if possible.
Snoqualmie Falls is about 30 miles east of Seattle, but it is definitely worth the drive, especially if you want to take a break away from the city and soak in all the beauty that nature has to offer.
There are many nice photo spots on the upper deck when you first walk across from the parking lot. But the best spots are actually further down when you get to the observation deck.
From the upper observation deck, you can take the Snoqualmie Falls trail to a boardwalk that leads you to the base of the fall. From there, you can get really up close and personal to the waterfall. Most of the trail is an easy stroll. However, note that there are a couple of sections with steep slopes which can get slippery when wet. So be careful there. Heels are not recommended.
Bainbridge Island Ferry
Sometimes, one of the best things to do in Seattle is to get away from the city itself! On any given day, taking the ferry is a pleasant escape from the city. There are numerous photo opportunities, and you can catch the stunning skyline of the city within minutes from departure.
The ferry is large and can hold over 200 cars. This somewhat reminds me of the Vancouver – Victoria ferry. But this ride is a lot shorter. Once you’ve parked your car, roam around to explore the ferry, or go to the top deck to enjoy the views.
Reservations are not accepted for this route, so you need to be at the pier at least 30 minutes before departure on a weekday, and at least one hour on weekends. Allow even more time during the summer peak seasons. You can find the ferry’s schedule here.
Day Trip to Bainbridge Island
Bainbridge Island is a small and quaint city that is just a short ferry’s ride away from the Ferry Terminal at Pier 52. (See Bainbridge Island Ferry above). Along Madison Avenue N and Winslow Way E are where most of the shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants are located. Many of them are locals owned and operated and each of them has their own uniqueness.
One of my favorites is Proper Fish, which is famous for their British style fish and chips.
Other points of interest include the Bloedel Reserve, Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, Lytle Beach, Hall’s Hill Lookout and Battle Point Park. There are a few wineries that offer wine tasting as well. It’s a great day trip away from the city.
Day Trip to Tacoma
With six museums in different themes all within walking distance from each other, Tacoma is a center of arts and cultural explorations. Start with the famous Museum of Glass, then walk over the Chihuly Bridge of Glass to the Washington State History Museum. The Tacoma Art Museum and America’s Car Museum are also nearby.
Another great place to spend part of your day is the Ruston Way Waterfront Parks, which offer breathtaking views along a scenic two-mile walk. On a clear day, you can get a nice Instagram-worthy picture of Mount Rainer. If you still have time left, it is just a short drive from there to the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium where you can meet tigers and red wolves face to face. You can also explore the habitats of polar bears in the Arctic Tundra or green sea turtles in the Pacific Seas Aquarium.