Visiting Seattle - Top Tips from a Local
As a Seattle Native, I love Seattle and all it has to offer; in the city itself, in addition to the surrounding waterways and mountains. Seattle is a narrow city bordered on the east by freshwater, Lake Washington, and on the west by, saltwater, Puget Sound. The climate is mild, even in the winter, due to the Sound’s warming effect. In the summer, the Sound has a cooling effect. Snow is rare. Temperatures over 85 degrees are also rare although getting less so.
Gorgeous mountains can be seen from Seattle, in every direction, on a clear day. Mt Rainer, “The Mountain”, as referred to by locals, towers over the city and Lake Washington, to the south, at over 14,000 feet. The rugged Olympic Mountains can be seen across Puget Sound, to the west, on the Olympic Peninsula. And the iconic Cascade Mountains, “North America’s Alps”, can be seen across Lake Washington and past Bellevue to the East.
When I grew up in Seattle it was considered sleepy, backwards and cloudy. Rain is more of a mist and is only 37 inches per year. The economy was highly dependent on Boeing. (Historically, Seattle was a lumber and fishing town.) I couldn’t wait to leave. Now it’s hip and happening, and the economy is diversified. As such, the economy is fantastic – home prices are exorbitant. Homelessness is a crisis. Traffic is terrible due to the influx of people and the geography (lots of water and bridges). Puget Sound (and the Salish Sea) ecosystem is suffering!
Despite the growth, Seattle remains one of the best places in the world from this local’s perspective! So, without further ado, here are my five top tips by category, when visiting the “Emerald City”.
Link Light Rail is now a perfect way to get into the city from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport (which is about 30 minutes south of town) to downtown – it goes all the way to University of Washington, slightly north of the downtown.
Uber (and Lyft) work well in the Seattle.
Metro buses work ok, but schedules can be confusing.
I’d only rent a car if one plans to head out of the city and has a good place to park.
Tickets to Buy Ahead of Time
Theatre is good in Seattle. Broadway plays such as Hairspray began here.
As everyone probably knows, sports teams are a “thing” here. Stadiums are slightly south of downtown and accessible via light rail. The Seahawks (football), Mariners (baseball) and Sounders (soccer) are the big ones!
The Seattle Center, the former 1962 World’s Fair grounds, houses the fabulous Pacific Northwest Ballet in McCaw Hall.
Benaroya Hall, also downtown, features the famous Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
Like any big city, hotels abound and often aren’t cheap.
Less mainstream alternatives are the art deco Graduate (formerly called The Deca), near the University of Washington, the Edgewater Hotel, north of town right on the water (yes, the Beatles fished from their window).
Even the Silver Cloud right near the University Village Shopping Center works well.
I can also recommend an Airbnb on Capitol Hill. It’s a well appointed and remodeled backyard carriage house with garden space.
I certainly don’t claim to be a “foodie” but I can get you started.
First up are the top 17 view restaurants – couldn’t have done a better list myself!
In addition, here is a good list of the best new and best restaurants in Seattle right now.
That’s Amore Italian Café is a friendly neighborhood spot with a unique view of the iconic Smith Tower and great food.
Or, try a highly rated cooking class at Whisk on old Main Street in Bellevue.
City neighborhoods are one of the features that make Seattle unique. Many were built in the 1920’s when the classic craftsman bungalow was popular. And, it is again.
Ballard, originally a Scandinavian and maritime neighborhood, is slightly northwest of town, with popular bars and restaurants. A few miles south and east of Ballard is funky Fremont, a hippie neighborhood, now home to Tableau Software. Don’t miss the enormous Troll holding a VW Bug under the Aurora Bridge.
Across the Fremont Bridge and up the hill to the south is Queen Anne Hill, an old established, neighborhood. Take a walk or drive along Highland Drive to see the mansions and view (Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains). I have taken every visitor I’ve had to Kerry Park, day or night, for a spectacular view of our magnificent City!
North of downtown is my ‘ole neighborhood of Green Lake, with craftsman homes surrounding spring feed Green Lake. The 3-mile walk around the Lake is a classic - great people watching. (This is a good place to stop on the way to or from Ballard or Fremont.)
Madison Park, originally a community of summer cottages on Lake Washington, is now an expensive, if not trendy neighborhood with nice shops, restaurants and a public swimming beach! (South of the crowded swimming beach, on E Highland Drive, is a street end beach we love.)
I can’t forget West Seattle, south and west (ha!) of downtown. Alki Beach, a sandy beach on Puget Sound, is Seattle’s version of Manhattan Beach, CA complete with volleyball and a “strand” but it also had a fab view of the Olympic Mountains. Alki point was the first white settlement and South Alki is wonderful at low tide. There is a pedestrian ferry from the Coleman Dock in Seattle to West Seattle. Marination Ma Kai, right next to the ferry dock, is on the list above for good casual food with a view.
The Olmsted Brothers, of Central Park fame, created a plan for Seattle’s parks and boulevards in 1903. Implemented almost immediately, it’s one of the things that keeps Seattle lush, green and special today, for many of us.
Volunteer Park, Seattle’s iconic Olmsted Park, sits at the top of Capitol Hill. As such, you can get a lovely 360-degree view if you walk up the historic water tower. The Park also has a glass conservatory built in 1912, the original Seattle Art Museum which is now the Seattle Asian Art Museum (currently undergoing renovations), fabulous plantings and grounds, an amphitheater, wading pool, kids playground and a reservoir overlooking Seattle and the Space Needle – a great sunset spot!
Down the hill a couple miles to the east is the Washington Park Arboretum, a “must see” especially in March (cherry blossoms) and May (Azaleas). And, just across Lake Washington Boulevard is the Japanese Garden, one of the best I have seen even without my Seattle bias.
Driving, biking or walking south on Lake Washington Boulevard (Olmsted) along the Lake is so pleasant. One eventually comes to Seward Park another one of Olmsted’s works. It has a swimming beach, Environmental and Audubon center, tennis courts and a 3-mile Peninsula walk along the water or through an “in city” old growth forest!
Discovery Park, former Fort Lawton, with killer views of the Sound and great walks, in Magnolia is northwest of downtown. Take some time to enjoy the beach (at low tide) and the lighthouse. Don’t mind the smell (sewage treatment plant), it passes quickly.
Lincoln Park, out in West Seattle, is another Olmsted Park right on the Sound. Low tide is great here. And, it has the only open air public saltwater swimming pool in the area!
The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) is the big one downtown with a super permanent collection as well as visiting exhibits. It’s walking distance to the Pike Place Market.
The Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) is a long-time family favorite which got even better with its move to the old armory building in South Lake Union. Make sure to see the 3D pulley exhibit showing how the Seattle topography was totally re-shaped.
The Frye Art Museum, always free, has wonderful fine art on Capitol Hill.
And, we are proud to have the new National Nordic Museum. Being Norweigan, I love it! Yes, you guessed it, it’s in Ballard.
Since we are the home of Boeing, you won’t be surprised to know that we have a wonderful Museum of Flight, south of town. (Actual tours of the Boeing plant are up north in Everett.)
Gosh, where does one start?
The Ballard Locks, connecting freshwater to saltwater, are always fun to visit. You’ll see boats of all sizes going through the small and large lock. If the endangered salmon are running you can also see them in the fish ladder. The ship canal connecting Lake Washington and Lake Union to Puget Sound was opened amid celebration and controversy in 1917.
A trip up the Space Needle on a clear day for a meal and/or a 360-degree view seems almost requisite on your first trip. Let me know how the new glass floor is – I can’t take it. A favorite, the Chihuly Garden and Glass, is a must see at the base of the needle! You can buy a ticket to both.
Seattle’s waterfront is also requisite exploration on your first visit. If you start on the south end at the Seattle Art Museum Sculpture Garden (a downhill walk from the Space Needle), you will pass Pier 70, the Seattle Aquarium, Pike Place Market (uphill to your left), and the Seattle Great Wheel (our London eye). Coleman Ferry dock is a good ending point on the north near Pioneer Square (site of old Seattle before the Great Seattle Fire in 1889 on the Underground Tour). Seattle is demolishing the ole “viaduct” and a new tunnel finally opened in early 2019 so construction is continual in the area – check before you go.
And, how could I go this long without mentioning Amazon. As of this writing, I haven’t been yet. But the Biospheres and the Amazon Go store are happening. If time allows, the Gates Foundation Visitor Center, near the Seattle Center is inspiring.
You will probably be here in the summer, so I suggest getting out on the water. Kayaking on Lake Union from the Northwest Outdoor Center (close to the Sleepless in Seattle houseboat) or from Aqua Verde (one of the casual restaurants with a view) is super fun. One can also rent Duffy, electric party boats, on Westlake Avenue, or rent boats at the University of Washington Recreation Center (and see “Boys in the Boat” history) to enjoy in city waterways.
I’ll make this quick!
University Village, which started the outdoor mall trend, is my absolute favorite.
Downtown has everything, including Nordstrom’s flagship store. But, don’t miss the flagship REI store just north of downtown.
Bellevue Square is a top-notch mall on the dreaded “east side”.
I’d suggest checking out the neighborhood independents in Ballard, Madison Park, Queen Anne and Capitol Hill.
And, you won’t miss the fish, crafts and fab flowers at the Pike Place Market, will you?
Maybe you aren’t a city person or perhaps you have more time to explore the area. There is a plethora of things to see and do close by.
Snoqualmie Falls starts the list. It’s only an hour east of Seattle – get up there if it’s been raining.
An hour south is Tacoma. Museums abound; Washington History Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, Museum of Glass and LeMay – America’s Car Museum. A nice waterfront area is evolving, and Point Defiance Park is wonderful. One can even take a Washington State Ferry from Point Defiance to Vashon Island and then take another ferry back to Coleman Dock in Seattle instead of sitting in traffic on Interstate 5.
Mt Rainer National Park is a short two-hour drive but a world away from Seattle. The historic Paradise Inn or the Sunrise area are great places to visit but try to get out on a hike in later July or early August for wildflowers galore. My local ski area, Crystal Mountain, has a gondola with one of the best views of Mt Rainer and is often less crowded than the Park. If you are a cyclist, click here for routes in the Park.
Visiting Mt St Helens, one of the volcanoes on the ring of fire that blew in 1983, is incredible. It’s 3 hours south.
Victoria, the Capital of British Columbia, with it’s English flare can be visited in a day on the Victoria Clipper. While there don’t miss Butchart Gardens.
An enjoyable day trip is to take the ferry from Coleman Dock in Seattle to Bainbridge Island and visit the Bloedel Reserve. It’s sensational. Afterwards, head into Winslow, prior to catching your ferry back and have a nice lunch at Café Nola.
(I just couldn’t get this section down to five!)
I hope this is helpful and that you enjoy your visit to my wonderful hometown. Now, please go home and tell everyone it rains in Seattle all the time!
If you go:
We try to leave town in November – there is less than 8 hours of daylight and it rains. Come another month. Summer usually exists between 4th of July and Labor Day although it’s moving into June. September can be one of the best months and not so crowded.
Visiting the Pacific Northwest deserves a separate article. However, I can’t help but suggest the San Juan Islands – specifically Orcas Island, the Oregon Coast – our favorite is Manzanita, Olympic National Park and the North Cascades National Park.
If you want more city, check out Portland, OR and/or Vancouver BC. I love the Amtrak ride to Portland, OR. Get business class and sit on the water side – it’s just so peaceful! Portland has a vibrant food scene along with fun boutique hotels, shops and outdoor activities. Vancouver, BC is also easily accessed via train, but don’t forget your passport. It’s a big cosmopolitan city! Staying in or around English Bay works well.
And, if you are a skier, like me, Crystal Mountain is two hours south, Stevens Pass is two hours northeast and Whistler is about five hours north. Ski season generally runs December – April.
In the summer, wonderful hikes exist all around Seattle, the closest being only an hour east on Interstate 90. Washington Trails Association is a great website to get trail information and current conditions.
Check out Seattle’s Montlake Neighborhood - a Bit of Personal History for more Seattle info.