Seattle’s tourism scene has been on the rebound since the pandemic. Last year, 33.9 million visitors passed through Seattle and King County, and this holiday season is bound to bring in a wave of out-of-towners ready to stand atop the Space Needle and meander through Pike Place Market.
How should they spend their limited days in the area? We asked Seattleites what they like to show off to visiting friends and family — and what attractions they skip. A few hundred wrote in with their go-to itineraries, with most seeming to revolve around the question: What does the Emerald City have to offer that is difficult to find elsewhere?
Here’s what readers have to say.
As SJ Albright put it, “Viewpoints!!!” (but with many more exclamation points) are a highlight of the area.
To Seattle’s east is the Cascade Range’s guardrail of mountains, and the Olympic Mountains bracket Puget Sound to the west. Mount Rainier towers above it all to the south on a clear day.
“What still takes my breath away after almost 50 years here are views of the mountains, especially when I can see both ranges at the same time,” said Annie Gage, who likes to drive visitors from Seattle to Tacoma “to see how Rainier looks so much closer and even more amazing in 30 minutes.”
For US$35 to US$39, you can take in 360-degree views from the top of the 605-foot-tall Space Needle. “The view is fantastic and since it appears in every movie where Seattle is mentioned, your visitors can say to friends, ‘I was up there,’ ” Jack Miller said.
But many readers are hesitant to take their own guests to the tourist hot spot. As Teresa Mosteller said, it “doesn’t seem to have the same ‘bang for the buck’ as other options.” Plus, “visitors do like to see the Space Needle and that’s part of the problem. You can’t see it from its view at the top,” Mosteller said.
There’s plenty of cheaper (and, according to some folks, better) places to admire Seattle from the top of a tall building. Reader-approved alternatives downtown include Sky View Observatory & Bar downtown (US$30 for general admission or US$20 for Washington residents) and Smith Tower Observatory Bar (US$22).
If you’re near downtown but don’t want to dish out for the Space Needle, you can swap in Wings Over Washington (US$15 to US$19), a “flying theater” that takes you on a virtual, immersive 4-D adventure through the Olympic National Forest, Mount Rainier, the San Juan Islands and other Evergreen State destinations.
“(Wings Over Washington) is my very favorite thing to do, and I always take my visiting guests there,” Linda Montgomery said. “Preferable to going on (The Seattle Great Wheel) if you only can do one of the two.” (The nearby Great Wheel, a175-foot Ferris wheel on Pier 57, will lift you up and over Puget Sound for US$13 to $18.)
Or save your money at the free Water Tower Observation Deck at Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill, Kerry Park in Queen Anne or Gas Works Park in Northlake, readers recommend.
Mountains aren’t the only natural wonder surrounding the Seattle area. We also have water to the west (Puget Sound), the east (Lake Washington) and in the middle of it all (Lake Union).
And you don’t have to own a boat to enjoy it.
To get on the water on the cheap, Washington State Ferry rides were the most popular reader suggestion — “especially at sunset when the Seattle skyline looks like liquid gold with the last rays of the sun!” Hans Feddern said.
Diane Danklefsen recommended popular routes you can follow for less than US$10.
“One of my budget-friendly favorites is to travel as walk-ons onto a ferry to either Bainbridge or Bremerton,” Danklefsen said. “Spending the day exploring, having a meal with a water view and returning to Seattle, timing the voyage to coincide with the sunset.”
Another option: Cross Elliott Bay on the water taxi (US$5.75/adult), hopping between the downtown waterfront and West Seattle in 10 to 15 minutes.
“As anyone who has seen an episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ knows, Elliott Bay is iconic. An affordable and really fun way for visitors to experience it is to take the water taxi,” Geni Venable said. “After exploring Pike Place and the waterfront, I’ll take my guests to ride the water taxi to West Seattle … you can’t beat the views of downtown!”
If you dare this time of year, renting a kayak makes for “a fun add-on that out-of-town guests will remember,” Teresa Mosteller said. You can do so at Bellevue’s Enatai Beach Park or Kirkland’s Houghton Beach Park to get out on Lake Washington or reserve a rowboat for free at The Center for Wooden Boats on Seattle’s Lake Union.
Prefer to admire the water from land? Options abound, but readers’ favorite spots include Point Defiance Park in Tacoma and Alki Beach in West Seattle.
More nature (and some wildlife)
One outdoor attraction received more glowing reviews in my inbox than any other: the Ballard Locks. Readers lauded the beautiful setting and Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden, getting to watch boats enter the massive holding chamber, the fish ladder, the informative visitors center and nearby food options.
“When they list local attractions, the Locks are often overlooked. I always take the out-of-towners and they always love it,” Linda Rosenwood said.
“My parents always took out-of-town visitors to the Locks whether there was fish there or not. I’ve continued the tradition,” Melissa D. said. “It’s just a fun way to check out fish but also watch the boats go by.”
If you’ve already checked the Locks off your list, there are plenty of other unique spots to enjoy some urban nature. Readers suggested the Bellevue Botanical Garden, Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, Seattle Japanese Garden, Kubota Garden in Seattle’s Rainier Beach and Marina Park in Kirkland.
Going to the Market
On any list of Seattle attractions, you’ll surely read about Pike Place Market, the 116-year-old, half-outdoor market along the waterfront. The Market’s nine acres include more than 220 shops and restaurants and over 160 craftspeople, plus farmers and buskers, according to its website.
Though the presence of cars is a point of contention for some readers, most agreed the Market is a famous stop for a reason.
“Pike Place Market is ‘essential Seattle.’ It introduces visitors to local businesses, farmers, producers and artists, and it reeks of history (in a good way!),” Gary Tucker said. “Plus, hopefully visitors will then learn to not call it Pike’s Market.”
For some locals like James Thomas, though, “the crowds can be daunting.”
“We mostly avoid Pike Place, but bring visitors here when they specifically request this famous place,” Thomas said. “Then we enjoy flowers, people watching, Le Panier, Elliott Bay. … The whole thing is special.”
You could spend all day wandering through the Market, but some well-known highlights include Rachel the Pig (a sculpture on the corner of Pike Place and Pike Street), a food tour of the Market and, of course, the “Real World”-famous fish throwers at Pike Place Fish.
The jury’s still out on the Market’s infamous Gum Wall, with opinions ranging from Tara Shadduck’s “ridiculous but also weirdly beautiful,” to Paige Lowe’s “Look, the gum wall is gross. Fight me.”
But one thing many locals agree on skipping is the so-called “original Starbucks,” which isn’t actually the first location (the real first Starbucks no longer exists) and “has the same coffee as any other one without waiting two hours of precious time in a LINE,” Robin Byers said. (The 1912 Pike Place cafe and tourist magnet is, however, the longest-standing Starbucks.)
Take a picture from outside if you must, readers recommended, and then head elsewhere for a hot beverage.
All sorts of museums
Though most any large city boasts impressive museums, Seattle has some unique ones. One of the most famous is the Chihuly Garden and Glass (US$29-$35), located just beneath the Space Needle and showcasing the works of glass artist Dale Chihuly.
“Love him or not, Chihuly really screams ‘Seattle’ to the world,” Gary Tucker said. “Plus, the gardens at dusk are truly beautiful.”
Alternatively, suggested Jacqui Kramer, “If you’re into glass, head to Tacoma’s Museum of Glass. (It’s) larger, has more depth and fewer tourists.”
Another popular rec from readers was Ballard’s National Nordic Museum (US$20), which, according to its website, is “the only institution of its size and scale in the United States to present the history and culture of the entire Nordic region.”
The Ballard museum is “the perfect size for a visit lasting a couple of hours, and highlights an aspect of the area’s ethnic and cultural history that many people from elsewhere don’t know about,” Sheila Addison said.
Readers also suggested Snoqualmie’s Northwest Railway Museum (prices vary depending on the activities you do; US5 to $10 for admission) and, in Seattle: The Museum of Flight (US$26) for air- and spacecraft enthusiasts; Wing Luke Museum ($17), which focuses on art, history and culture of Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians; Seattle Art Museum (US$29.99); and the Museum of Pop Culture (US$25 to $28.50).
If you’re still looking to get to know the city of Seattle better, locals have no shortage of ideas:
- “One cannot visit Seattle without spending a couple of hours in Elliott Bay (Book Co.).” – Robin Byers
- “Talk about flagship stores, go to Nordstrom. The location changed from the original across the street but it’s a beautiful store.” – Carolyn Whittlesey
- “Besides the obvious Space Needle and Pike Place Market and a ferry ride and drive on Aurora (Avenue) to see both Olympics and Cascades, the one must-see in Seattle is to take newcomers to Archie McPhee.” – Bruce Greeley
- Or, perhaps you agree with Annie Hilen, who said, “I’d rather show guests how beautiful the state is, not just what downtown Seattle has to offer!” If so, the following ideas might suit your fancy:
- “We love to take our family and friends out to Snoqualmie Falls, then pop into town at the (Northwest Railway Museum – a great stop for kids), check out the shops and eat at Buckshot Honey. Then, we all hop in the car to drive all the way out to the Horse Monument near George, Washington. The drive itself really highlights the difference between east Cascades and west Cascades. On a good day it’s a breathtaking view there and back. Great photo opportunities too – all of our guests have loved that day trip!” – Christine Assaf
- “For a mini-vacation within a vacation, you can’t beat a road trip to Leavenworth. We’ve taken several out-of-town guests to this charming village for overnight stays and it’s always a hit.” – Teresa Mosteller
- “For a half- or full-day trip: a ride up to Mount Rainier; a day trip to Port Townsend; a visit to Snoqualmie Falls and a train ride: a full day in the Skagit Valley and depending on the season for the Tulip Festival or viewing eagles, snow geese and swans in the fall and winter. Also, a side trip to La Conner or Anacortes for lunch and maybe to Deception Pass State Park for great views.” – Hans Feddern
- “A day trip through Whidbey Island is my favorite way to show visitors some of the coastal/island terrain and culture. It’s easy and fun to do as a loop, catching a morning hike or evening sunset at Deception Pass and taking the southern ferry. Whidbey has several cute towns to stop for beer, food or a stroll.” –Andrew Tait
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