Seattle, Washington. The unofficial capital and most important city economically in the Pacific Northwest. Or, for many who have never been, that city way up there in the corner.
Well, it might be in the corner of the continental US, but Seattle is worth visiting, even though its location can make it a bit of a challenge to combine with other destinations. It is a world-class city, home to some of the country’s largest companies (Amazon, Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft, and more), some incredible sights, great food, and people who are largely friendly and welcoming.
But how should you spend a few days – or even a week or more – in Seattle? This guide will help you to plan your perfect Seattle trip. I have visited probably eight or ten times now, and while I haven’t done nearly everything, I’ve gotten enough of a feel for this amazing place to offer some expertise. Make sure to click on the links to read more detailed articles about different aspects of Seattle.
Unless you’re coming from Vancouver or Portland, you’ll almost certainly be flying into Seattle. Sea-Tac (for Seattle-Tacoma) International Airport is a bustling gateway airport. It is the central hub for Alaska Airlines, and a minor hub for Delta, but every US-based airline flies here, and many international ones as well, especially Asian carriers.
The airport is located south of Seattle. From here, a light rail will take you downtown (where most of the sights are) in about forty minutes.
There is one other way you might enter Seattle, and that is via cruise ship from Alaska. Typically Alaska cruises going through Seattle go round-trip, but if you find yourself on a one-way trip south from Anchorage, you might arrive here via the cruise port, which is split into a couple parts. Some ships will be just north of downtown, but Royal Caribbean vessels seem to dock even further out of the central part of the city. In this case, it might be best to either use Uber or a bus from your ship to get into downtown.
Let’s talk about the light rail for a moment. While Seattle has a couple streetcar lines and numerous buses, it is the single light rail (the 1 line) that will be your connection while here. It reaches the airport near the southern terminus, and from there connects the sports stadiums, downtown, and even the University of Washington. At Westlake, the 1 line connects to the Seattle Monorail, which will take you to Seattle Center, where the Space Needle is. (More on Seattle Center in a bit.) The light rail is smooth, clean, and comfortable, although it can get crowded during rush hour commutes or just after sporting events let out.
The entire transit system operates on what is called an ORCA Card, although when I was in Seattle last, cards were not available. A one-way ticket on the light rail from the airport to as far as Westlake is $3 ($1 for seniors), and a round trip ticket is considered a day pass. Tickets are not scanned, but are rather randomly asked for by transit authorities. I hear fines are very steep, so just make sure to have your ticket on you. The Seattle Monorail is a separate ticket.
For short distances, walking is possible downtown, but remember that downtown Seattle is built on a steep hill, with grades up to 18% as you walk from Alaskan Way (along the water) away from the waterfront up. Walking parallel to the water can be more level. If hills are an issue, consider using a bus or a ride share app. (Elevators exist going from the waterfront up to Pike Place Market, depending on where you are.)
If you have a car, beware of steep one way streets and difficult expensive parking.
Where to Stay
If your budget allows, stay downtown. Seattle’s urban core is mainly safe and full of energy. (Pioneer Square is a bit less safe to walk around at night, so try to stay north of there.) However, hotels downtown can be very expensive, especially during summer. If budget is an issue, consider instead staying by the airport. For less than half the price, you can just add $3 and forty minutes each way to reach downtown via the light rail. That was my choice on my most recent trip.
What to Do
There is a lot to do and see in Seattle. There are also some things to avoid, especially if you don’t like crowds.
Let’s start with Pike Place Market. If you like farmers markets, or crafts, visit. Just be prepared for it to be packed. Restaurants in the market can be jammed, but there are plenty of options just outside. Emmett Watson’s Oyster Bar, a couple short blocks away, offers the same great food as inside the market itself, but for cheaper and with fewer people crowding you. (I recommend the fried clams.)
One separate note on Pike Place Market. Unless you are a huge devotee, don’t go to Starbucks #1. You’ll wait in line for a half hour or more for the exact same Starbucks you’ll get at any other store.
Pike Place Market sits on top of the bluff, so an elevator or stairs down from it takes you to Seattle’s waterfront, along Alaskan Way. (Click here to read more about the Seattle waterfront.) While much of it is touristy, like the Seattle Great Wheel, there are some cool things to see. Consider a harbor cruise – I did mine on Argosy, but there are several companies – or a visit to the Seattle Aquarium. Both are pricy, but you can offset some cost with the purchase of a Seattle CityPass. When combined with the Seattle Center sights, you’ll get around $200 of admissions for $125. If you don’t intend to fully utilize it, skip the pass.
Let’s talk about Seattle Center for a moment. The most famous site here is the Space Needle, one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. Unless you have a CityPass, skip it. If you have a CityPass and therefore free timed admission, you still might want to skip it unless you can get there first thing in the morning. It is incredibly crowded, and there is no signage at the top to tell you what you’re looking at, although the view is lovely. (Click here to read more about the Space Needle and Seattle Center.)
Even if you don’t go up the Space Needle, you will need to visit Seattle Center, as some of the best sights in the city are here, including my favorite: Chihuly Garden and Glass. This is one of the largest collections of Dale Chihuly’s blown glass, and is easily worth the admission. (It is also included in the CityPass, along with the Museum of Pop Culture, a really cool museum right next door if you are into movies and music.) In addition, Seattle Center has a supposedly great science museum, the Pacific Science Center, and some lovely sculpted grounds.
If you like history, take a visit to Pioneer Square, the original city of Seattle, and sign up for a tour of the Seattle Underground. This underground city is only accessible via tour, and is a fascinating look into the history of the city. (Click here to read more about the underground and Pioneer Square.)
All of the above sights are easily accessible via the light rail (and monorail in the case of Seattle Center). Further afield, and harder to reach, is Woodland Park Zoo, which is another CityPass option. I have not been, so I can’t personally recommend it, but I have heard good things. Likewise, the Museum of Flight is not directly off the light rail; I have heard good things though I haven’t personally visited yet. It is the top attraction on my list for my next visit.
Seattle’s skyline is dominated on a clear day by the mighty Mt. Rainier. Though you’ll need a car, there are a couple ways to experience it. One, Mt. Rainier National Park. Two, Crystal Mountain, and a gondola to the top of a neighboring mountain. The views are stunning!
What to Eat
Unsurprising to anyone, Seattle is known for its seafood. Oysters, clams, crab, halibut, salmon… all are fresh each day at so many places. Eat some. Eat more. A couple of my personal favorite spots: Ivar’s for the chowder, and The Fisherman’s Restaurant for a more sit-down experience. (They also have a weekday happy hour with a half dozen oysters for $10, so if you aren’t sure if you like the little guys, this is a cost efficient way to find out.)
The area is also known for its fruit, and if you are here during the season, make sure to get cherries (especially the yellow Rainier variety) and blackberries, which grow wild pretty much everywhere. Or explore Seattle’s huge Asian communities through food. There are a lot of options.
But unless you hate fish, and even if you think you hate fish, eat the seafood here. It is some of the best in the world.
Other Useful Information
It is impossible to talk about Seattle without a discussion of the weather. It rains here about 150 days per year. While summer is drier, it can still rain. Be prepared for that. Winter can get snow, though normally not in huge amounts. Also, even dry days can be gray. On my most recent trip, I was incredibly lucky to have bright blue skies every day. That isn’t normal, even in summer.
I mentioned it above, but it is worth repeating. Downtown Seattle is one of the most hilly places you’ll visit. It is steep, and can be slippery in the rain. Wear comfortable shoes with some grip, even if you plan on taking Ubers for most short trips.
Seattle is a hipster town, even though it is less so than in the past. Expect people to be much more casually dressed, more laid back, and more caffeinated than in other cities. (Seattle is one of the top cities in coffee shops per capita.) There is a thriving art scene, and some awesome street art. Embrace that. And talk to the locals. They are among the friendliest in the US, maybe due to their proximity to Canada, or to their being forced into close quarters indoors with all the rain.
If you’ve never been to Seattle, it is a destination worth being the focus – or the sole stop – of a trip as early as now. If you’ve been, you will almost certainly want to go back. Seattle is a world-class city, a place that offers a diverse range of amazing sights and activities. I hope this guide helped inspire your next getaway.
If you enjoyed this guide, please click here to read our Ultimate Guides to destinations around the world!
Thank you to Visit Seattle for providing me with a Seattle CityPass that allowed me to have five different experiences and properly review them for you.
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