Blink and it’s changed: Seattle can be that ephemeral. Welcome to a city that heralds innovation and nature; a city always marching toward the future.
First time in Seattle? Make a beeline for its proverbial pantry: Pike Place Market. It was founded in 1907 to fortify locals with fresh Northwest produce, and its long-held mantra of ‘meet the producer’ still echoes enthusiastically around a city where every restaurateur worth their salt knows the name of their fishmonger and the biography of the cow that became yesterday’s burgers. It doesn’t take long to realize that you’ve arrived in a city of well-educated palates and wildly experimental chefs who are willing to fuse American cuisine with just about anything – as long as it’s local.
A United States of Neighborhoods
Visitors setting out to explore Seattle should think of the city as a United States of Neighborhoods or – to put it in more human terms – a family consisting of affectionate but sometimes errant members. There’s the aloof, elegant one (Queen Anne), the social butterfly (Capitol Hill), the artistic, bearded one (Fremont), the effortlessly cool one (Ballard), the grizzled old patriarch (Pioneer Square), the precocious adolescent still carving out its identity (South Lake Union) and the one who lives out of town (West Seattle). You’ll never fully understand Seattle until you’ve spent a bit of time with them all.
To outsiders, Seattle is an industrious creator of macro-brands. To insiders, it’s a city of micro-businesses and boundary-pushing grassroots movements. For proof, dip into the third-wave coffee shops, the microbreweries with their casual tasting rooms or the cozy informal bookstores that remain rock solid in a city that spawned Amazon. Then there are the latest national trends that Seattle has helped popularize: craft cider, weed dispensaries, specialist pie-makers, vegan ice cream that's actually good, and chic donuts, to name a few. Hit the streets and you'll see there’s far more to this city than Starbucks, Nordstrom and Boeing.
A Walk on the Weird Side
Seattle's current reputation as the town that spawned Amazon and Starbucks won't give you the full picture of the city's oddball cultural heritage. Crisscross its urban grid and you’ll find all kinds of apparitions: a rocket sticking out of a building; a museum built to resemble a smashed-up electric guitar; glass orbs in wooden canoes; a statue of Lenin; a mural made of used chewing gum; fish-tossing market traders; and a museum dedicated to antique pinball machines (that you can still play). Need help acclimating? The city's still-booming legal weed market will help you embrace your own weird side.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Seattle.
A cavalcade of noise, smells, personalities, banter and urban theater sprinkled liberally around a spatially challenged waterside strip, Pike Place Market is Seattle in a bottle. In operation since 1907 and still as lively today as it was on day one, this wonderfully local experience highlights the city for what it really is: all-embracing, eclectic and proudly unique. A 2017 expansion of the market infrastructure added vendor space, weather-protected common areas, extra parking, and housing for low-income seniors. If you’re coming from downtown, simply walk down Pike Street toward the waterfront; you can’t miss the huge Public Market sign etched against the horizon. Incidentally, the sign and clock, installed in 1927, constituted one of the first pieces of outdoor neon on the West Coast. From the top of Pike Street and 1st Avenue, stop and survey the bustle and vitality. Walk down the cobblestone street, past perpetually gridlocked cars (don’t even think of driving down to Pike Place) and, before walking into the market, stop and shake the bronze snout of Rachel the Market Pig, the de-facto mascot and presiding spirit of the market. This life-size piggy bank, carved by Whidbey Island artist Georgia Gerber and named after a real pig, collects about $10,000 each year. The funds are pumped back into market social services. Nearby is the information booth, which has maps of the market and information about Seattle in general. It also serves as a ticket booth, selling discount tickets to various shows throughout the city. Pike Place Market History Pike Place Market is the oldest continuously operating market in the nation. It was established in 1907 to give local farmers a place to sell their fruit and vegetables and bypass the middleman. Soon, the greengrocers made room for fishmongers, bakers, butchers, cheese sellers, grocers selling imported wares, and purveyors of the rest of the Northwest’s agricultural bounty. The market wasn’t exactly architecturally robust – it’s always been a thrown-together warren of sheds and stalls, haphazardly designed for utility – and was by no means an intentional tourist attraction. That came later. An enthusiastic agricultural community spawned the market’s heyday in the 1930s. Many of the first farmers were immigrants, a fact the market celebrates with annual themes acknowledging the contributions of various ethnic groups; past years have featured Japanese Americans, Italian Americans and Sephardic Jewish Americans. By the 1960s, sales at the market were suffering from suburbanization, the growth of supermarkets and the move away from local, small-scale market gardening. Vast tracts of agricultural land were disappearing, replaced by such ventures as the Northgate Mall and Sea-Tac airport. The internment of Japanese American farmers during WWII had also taken its toll. The entire area became a bowery for the destitute and was known as a center of ill repute. In the wake of the 1962 World’s Fair, plans were drawn up to bulldoze the market and build high-rise office and apartment buildings on this piece of prime downtown real estate. Fortunately, public outcry prompted a voter’s initiative to save the market. Subsequently, the space was cleaned up and restructured, and it has become once again the undeniable pulse of downtown; some 10 million people stroll through the market each year. Thanks to the unique management of the market, social-services programs and low-income housing mix with commerce, and the market has maintained its gritty edge. These initiatives have prevented the area from ever sliding too far upscale. A market law prohibits chain stores or franchises from setting up shop and ensures all businesses are locally owned. The one exception is, of course, Starbucks, which gets away with its market location because it is the coffee giant’s oldest outlet, moving here from its original location in 1976. In 2015, ground was broken on the "Pike Up" project, a 30,000-sq-ft extension of Pike Place. Made possible by the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the MarketFront complex opened in 2017 with new shops, restaurants and stalls, and links the market to the waterfront via terraces, staircases and green space. Main and North Arcades Rachel the Market Pig marks the main entrance to the Main & North Arcades, thin shed-like structures that run along the edge of the hill; these are the busiest of the market buildings. With banks of fresh produce carefully arranged in artful displays, and fresh fish, crab and other shellfish piled high on ice, this is the real heart of the market. Here you’ll see fishmongers tossing salmon back and forth like basketballs (many of these vendors will pack fish for overnight delivery). You’ll also find cheese shops, butchers, stands selling magazines and candy from around the world, tiny grocery stalls and almost everything else you need to put together a meal. The end of the North Arcade is dedicated to local artisans and craftspeople – products must be handmade to be sold here. It's also abloom with flower sellers. The Main Arcade was built in 1907, the first of Frank Goodwin’s market buildings. Down Under As if the levels of the market that are above ground aren’t labyrinthine enough, below the Main Arcade are three lower levels called the Down Under. Here you’ll find a fabulously eclectic mix of pocket-size shops, from Indian spice stalls to magician supply shops and vintage magazine and map purveyors. Economy Market Building Once a stable for merchants’ horses, the Economy Market Building on the south side of the market entrance has a wonderful Italian grocery store, DeLaurenti – a great place for any aficionado of Italian foods to browse and sample. There’s also Tenzing Momo, one of the oldest apothecaries on the West Coast, where you can pick up herbal remedies, incense, oils and books. Tarot readings are available here on occasion. Look down at the Economy Market floor and you’ll see some of its 46,000 tiles, sold to the public in the 1980s for $35 apiece. If you bought a tile, you’d get your name on it and be proud that you helped save the market floor. Famous tile owners include Cat in the Hat creator Dr. Seuss and former US president Ronald Reagan. South Arcade If you continue past DeLaurenti, you’ll come into the South Arcade, the market’s newest wing, home to upscale shops and the lively Pike Pub & Brewery. It's not technically part of the historic market, but is with it in spirit and rambunctious energy. Corner and Sanitary Market Buildings Across Pike Place from the Main Arcade are the 1912 Corner & Sanitary Market Buildings, so named because they were the first of the market buildings in which live animals were prohibited. It’s now a maze of ethnic groceries and great little eateries, including Three Girls Bakery, which is as old as the building itself and the insanely popular Crumpet Shop. When you've finished devouring your baked goods, you can digest a bit of radical literature in bolshie bookstore, Left Bank Books. Post Alley Between the Corner Market and the Triangle Building, narrow Post Alley (named for its hitching posts) is lined with shops and restaurants. Extending north across Stewart Street, it offers two of the area’s best places for a drink: the Pink Door Ristorante, an Italian hideaway with a cool patio, and Kells, an Irish pub. In Lower Post Alley, beside the market sign, is the LaSalle Hotel, which was the first bordello north of Yesler Way. Originally the Outlook Hotel, it was taken over in 1942 by the notorious Nellie Curtis, a woman with 13 aliases and a knack for running suspiciously profitable hotels with thousands of lonely sailors lined up nightly outside the door. The building, rehabbed in 1977, now houses commercial and residential space. Post Alley continues on the southern side of Pike Street where you'll find the beautifully disgusting gum wall. The once venerable red-brick facade is now covered in used pieces of chewing gum, originally stuck there by bored theater-goers standing in line for a nearby ticket office in the 1990s. Despite early attempts by the city council to sanitize, the gum-stickers persevered and in 1999, the wall was declared a tourist attraction. Feel free to add your own well-chewed morsels to the Jackson Pollock–like display Next head to one of the market's best hideaway spots, the bar and pizza restaurant Alibi Room. Triangle Building All in a row in the diminutive Triangle Building, sandwiched between Pike Place, Pine Street and Post Alley, is a huddle of cheap food take-outs including Mee Sum Pastry (try the steamed pork bun), a juice bar and Cinnamon Works – all great choices for a stand-up snack. First Avenue Buildings These downtown-facing buildings, added mainly in the 1980s, blend seamlessly into the older hive. Here you'll find Pike Place's only two accommodations – Pensione Nichols and Inn at the Market – a couple of classic pubs and community resources such as a medical center. North End The market's North End stretches along Pike Place from Pine Street to Victor Steinbrueck Park – a popular meeting point for daily walking tours. The 1918 Soames-Dunn building, once occupied by a seed company and a paper company, is now home to the world's oldest Starbucks. Beware of crowds and errant elbows knocking over your mermaid-logo coffee cup. Pike Place Market Hours Early birds catch more than worms at Pike Place Market. Arrive promptly at 9am for some real-life street theater at market roll call before wandering over to the Main Arcade to see the fish throwers warming up. The purpose of roll call is allocating space to the market’s temporary craft-sellers. As Pike Place has more than 200 registered vendors but only 130 available trading spots, each day is nail-biting. By 9:30am the spots have been assigned and everyone is on their way. Roll call is held at the north end of the North Arcade.
The Museum of Pop Culture (formerly EMP, the "Experience Music Project") is an inspired marriage between super-modern architecture and legendary rock-and-roll history that sprang from the imagination (and pocket) of Microsoft co-creator Paul Allen (1953–2018). Inside its avant-garde frame, you can tune into the famous sounds of Seattle (with an obvious bias toward Jimi Hendrix and grunge) or attempt to imitate the masters in the Interactive Sound Lab. There's a science fiction and fantasy exhibit on-site, as well as various temporary exhibits. Editor's Note: At the time of this post's latest update in May of 2021, the Sound Lab is temporarily closed. Check here for more COVID-19 specific information regarding exhibits and hours. The building The highly unusual building with its crinkled folds colored in metallic blues and purples was designed by renowned Canadian architect Frank Gehry, a strong proponent of deconstructivism. Gehry – who designed the equally outlandish Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain – supposedly used one of Hendrix’s smashed-up guitars as his inspiration. Exhibits The main exhibit hall is anchored by If VI Was IX, a tower of 700 instruments designed by German-born artist Trimpin. Many of the permanent exhibits center on Hendrix, including the Fender Stratocaster guitar that he played at Woodstock in 1969. There's also a nostalgic slice of grunge memorabilia in a section entitled "Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses." Dominating proceedings on level 2 is the Sky Church, a huge screen displaying musical and sci-fi films. Most of the 3rd floor is given over to the interactive Sound Lab, where you can lay down vocal tracks, play instruments, fiddle with effects pedals and – best of all – jam in several mini studios. "On Stage" takes things further, allowing you the opportunity to belt out numbers under stage lights with a virtual audience. A separate Science Fiction Museum opened on the site in 2004 and, in 2012, was incorporated into the Museum of Pop Culture in a permanent 2nd-floor exhibit called "Infinite Worlds of Science Fiction" that displays artifacts from iconic films and TV shows. Expect to come face to face with a Doctor Who Dalek, a Terminator 2 skull and, more topically, plenty of Star Wars life forms and film props. Tying in with the museum's sci-fi theme is the "Scared to Death" exhibition on Level 2, subtitled "The Thrill of Horror Film." Unveiled in 2013, the displays were dreamed up by three horror film directors, including John Landis of An American Werewolf in London fame. Shocking stuff on show includes Jack's ax from The Shining and Michael Jackson's zombie costume from Thriller. Scary or not, they've earned the exhibit a PG13 rating! Nearby restaurants Adjacent to the museum is the Seattle Center Armory, which sports a food court full of familiar franchises on its ground floor. You can get booze and food any time of day at the neighborhood institution 5 Point Café a few blocks south of the Seattle Center. Tickets and passes The museum offers timed ticketing and plan-ahead pricing. If you plan to visit several attractions while in Seattle, you can purchase package deals.
Even people with absolutely no interest in aviation have been known to blink in astonishment at Seattle 's Museum of Flight, which takes visitors on a whirlwind tour through the history of aviation, from the Wright Brothers to the last flight of Concorde and the birth of the space age. This is one of Seattle's top stops for kids, and one of the top sights in the city. Taking off at the Museum of Flight It shouldn't be entirely surprising to find such an impressive aviation museum in Seattle – this is, after all, the home of Boeing, founded here by William E Boeing in 1916. Get ready for an exciting jet-propelled journey through war, peace, space rockets and inspired engineering. The story of how we got from the Wright Brothers to the first moon landing in less than 66 years is powerfully told using film, photos, audio, words, flight simulators, and of course, a wonderful collection of flying machines. Aircraft large and small are crammed into the museum's hangars, from a ginormous Boeing 747 and a decommissioned Concorde to the tiny Caproni Ca 20, the first ever fighter plane, built during WWI. You can get within touching distance of a Lockheed Model 10-E Electra, the same model plane that Emelia Earhart was flying when she vanished over the Pacific, and walk through the Boeing VC-137B that was the first presidential jet to use the call sign 'Air Force One'. Some aircraft are originals, some are reproductions – including most of the exhibits from the space age – but they all contribute to an evocative journey through the history of man's quest to take to the air. Look out for such oddities as Paul MacCready's Gossamer Albatross, which crossed the English Channel by pedal power in 1979, and Aerocar International's Aerocar, designed for both the airways and the highway. Plenty of displays cover the work of William E Boeing, the former lumber mogul who founded the Boeing aircraft company, transforming the world of travel, and the city of Seattle, in the process. The hangar known as the Red Barn was Boeing's original production facility, producing wood-framed, fabric covered aircraft in the first half of the 20th century. Tickets & Practicalities It's worth buying tickets ahead of time to make sure you get in, as availability can be limited on the day, and there's heavy demand from school groups. The museum has plenty of parking, which is handy, as driving is the easiest way to reach the museum (Metro bus 124 also runs here from downtown). Pilots can also come by air – the museum has landing space for up to five light aircraft daily!
Hard to beat on a sunny spring day, this former military installation has been transformed into a wild coastal park, laced with walking trails and offering glimpses of the Olympic Mountains across the water. It's the largest green space in the Seattle, with 534 acres of forest, meadows, sand dunes and beaches, providing a welcome escape for locals and a vital corridor for wildlife. History Discovery Park is a relatively recent addition to the city landscape; it wasn’t officially inaugurated until 1973. The peninsula occupied by the park was originally Fort Lawton, an army base established in 1897 to protect Seattle from unnamed enemies. Fort Lawton didn’t see much action until WWII, when it was used as barracks for troops bound for the Pacific theater. Over the course of the war it held up to 1400 German and Italian prisoners. When the fort was declared surplus property in the 1960s, the City of Seattle decided to turn it into a park, but various historic buildings from the fort remain. Soon after the military officially pulled out in 2012, the old officers' houses, many of which date from the early 20th century, were refurbished for private sale. Because all 26 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, the exterior architectural features have been kept intact. The first houses went on the market in 2015 with prices starting at around $800,000. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of interest. Trails For a map of the park’s trail and road system, stop by the Discovery Park Environmental Learning Center near the Government Way entrance. Here you can organize educational programs including Saturday nature walks, day camps for children and bird-watching tours. The main walking trail is the 3-mile-long Loop Trail, part of a 12-mile network of marked paths. Branch off onto the South Beach Trail descending down a steep bluff if you want to view the still-functioning West Point Lighthouse, a great spot for panoramic views of the Sound and mountains to the west. You can circumnavigate back round to the Loop Trail via North Beach. The park also has five miles of paved bike trails. Seventeen acres in the north of the park are Native American land and home to the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, a community center for the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation (UIATF), a confederation of the many Native American tribes in the Seattle area. Visitor facilities are limited, but the spot offers one of the best vistas of the Sound. Wildlife Wildlife is abundant in Discovery Park, particularly birdlife: 270 different species have been logged. At ground level, coyote, chipmunks and raccoons inhabit the woods, while offshore a marine park shelters sea lions and harbor seals. In 2009 both a lost black bear and a roaming cougar were spotted in the vicinity of the park…then safely relocated outside city limits. Getting there The park is located 5 miles northwest of downtown Seattle in the neighborhood of Magnolia. To get there, catch bus 33 from 3rd Ave and Union St downtown. A weekend-only free shuttle runs 10am to 6pm between the Discovery Park Environmental Learning Center and South Beach (by the lighthouse) in the summer (late May to early September). Nearby restaurants Discovery Park is wild – there are no food concessions or cafes. However, it's a beautiful place to have a picnic. If you're coming from Ballard, stock up at Cafe Besalu or grab some sandwiches at Un Bien. In Magnolia, the main shopping hub is on W McGraw St, between 32nd Ave W and 34th Ave W.
This ingenious feat of urban planning is an offshoot of the Seattle Art Museum and it bears the same strong eye for design and curation. There are dozens of sculptures, dotted around in a calm green space that sprawls out over reclaimed urban decay, with front row views over Puget Sound. It's one of many signs that culturally, Seattle is staking its claim to a seat at the big table, alongside cities such as Los Angeles and New York. The Olympic Sculpture Park is Seattle's largest downtown green space, an imaginative reuse of former wasteland between the waterfront, the railway tracks and Western Ave. Zigzagging pathways cut between giant sculptural forms and angular steel constructions, dropping down to a shingle beach that is often strewn with driftwood. It's a surprising find downtown, and a symbol of Seattle's progressive attitude to town planning. If you have kids in tow and they need to burn off some calories, a run around the sculpture park should do the trick. The works rotate regularly, but signature pieces include Alexander Calder's angular Eagle and Louise Bourgeois's Eye Benches. The views over the Sound are almost an artwork in themselves, with huge open skies and giant freighters dodging the ferries shunting commuters across the Sound to Bainbridge, Bremerton and beyond. It's all the more impressive considering that this patch of land was a mess of oil and gas works until 2007. Practicalities It makes sense to combine a trip to the Sculpture Park and a visit to the Seattle Art Museum; it's a one-mile walk between the two, and you can stop for lunch en route at Pike Place Market. There's no charge to admire the sculpture park but tickets are needed (and worth booking in advance) for the Art Museum. The park's PACCAR Pavilion is a good place to retreat when it rains – and this being Seattle, it often does – and there's parking on site. Where to eat near the Olympic Sculpture Park Bring a picnic, or walk over to Belltown or Pike Place Market and chow down at the following eateries. Pike Place Chowder Tilikum Place Cafe Black Bottle
Opened in 2012 and reinforcing Seattle’s position as a leading city of the arts, this exquisite exposition of the life and work of dynamic local sculptor Dale Chihuly is possibly the finest collection of curated glass art you'll ever see. It shows off Chihuly's creative designs in a suite of interconnected dark and light rooms before depositing you in an airy glass atrium and – finally – a landscaped garden in the shadow of the Space Needle. Glassblowing demonstrations are a highlight.
This streamlined, modern-before-its-time tower built for the 1962 World’s Fair has been the city’s defining symbol for more than 50 years. The needle anchors the complex now called the Seattle Center and draws more than one million annual visitors to its flying saucer–like observation deck and pricey rotating restaurant. Purchase a combination ticket with Chihuly Garden & Glass for $49.
Seattle shimmers like an impressionist painting on sunny days at the Hiram M Chittenden Locks. Here, the fresh waters of Lake Washington and Lake Union drop 22ft into saltwater Puget Sound. You can stand inches away and watch the boats rise or sink (depending on direction). Construction of the canal and locks began in 1911; today 100,000 boats pass through them annually. You can view fish-ladder activity through underwater glass panels, stroll through botanical gardens and visit a small museum.
Founded in 1861, Seattle's university is almost as old as the city itself and is highly ranked worldwide (the prestigious Times Higher Education magazine listed it 32nd in the world in 2016). The college was originally located in downtown on a 10-acre site now occupied by the Fifth Avenue Theater (the university still owns the land), but with both university and city outgrowing their initial confines, a new site was sought in 1895.