Seattle is the largest metropolis in the Pacific Northwest, found straddling the icy waters on the extreme edge of the contiguous United States. On the one side, the orca-splashing Puget Sound rolls in from the big ocean, while the soaring, jagged peaks of the Washington Cascades serrate the horizon to the east.
Amid that wild setting, Seattle stakes its place with the pinnacle of the Space Needle and a series of bustling, bohemian neighborhoods. Forever rocking with grunge (this was the birthplace of a certain band called Nirvana), sloshing with coffee (Seattle also gave the world Starbucks), and breaking down boundaries (tech giants Microsoft and Amazon make their home here), it’s a place of many sides and many stories. Or, to put it another way, there are stacks of awesome things to do in Seattle. You won’t get bored!
This guide will take a look at just ten of the most popular must-sees in the city, whether you choose to drive around in a rental car or take local transport.
It ranges from the hustle and bustle of the foodie mecca that is Pike Place Market to the hipster bar enclave of Belltown, adding in nearby national parks and famous locations where you can trace the history of Seattle back through the centuries.
1. Visit Pike Place Market
If there’s just one place you have time to visit in Downtown Seattle before heading off to the Cascades or hitting Interstate 5 for that West Coast road trip, make it the Pike Place Market. This is arguably the most famous location in the city.
Sat right down on the waterfront of Puget Sound, it’s hailed as one of the oldest markets in the United States. Sure enough, the history goes back to 1907, and there’s not been a single thing that’s stopped traders from coming in the 100+ years since then!
Most people come to see the shenanigans of the Pike Place fishmongers. They’re known for throwing huge two- or three-foot salmon several meters across the tables for customers – a routine that starts early on in the morning when the catch of the day arrives. And it’s not just seafood, you can also shop for fresh Washington apples, organic veg, and all sorts of Pacific Northwest delicacies. A walking food tour with a local chef is highly recommended.
Pike Place has historically been a gathering place for sellers and merchants from Seattle’s various ethnic minorities. Notice the abundance of mystical Chinese medicine stalls, Tibetan healers, and Japanese carvers, along with the sounds of Cantonese, Vietnamese, and other Far Eastern languages in the air. All that’s a testimony to the multicultural and open side of this uber-friendly town.
2. Climb to the Top of Space Needle
The Space Needle is now the icon of Seattle. It’s on postcards, in snow globes, on novelty coins; like Washington’s answer to the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State. AKA: It’s not to be missed by budding sightseers. Thankfully, it’s hard to pass it by, because it sprouts from the middle of the Uptown to a height of 184 meters, sporting a UFO-like top that was inspired by the Space Age of the 1960s.
The Space Needle was built as part of the huge overhaul to the city that came with the World’s Fair of 1962. It’s been used for a whole range of things since then, including a radio broadcast studio and a launchpad for opportunist base jumpers!
Today, the tower is best known for its soaring observation deck, the Loupe, which has recently seen the addition of a fully glass-bottomed floor and offers sweeping 360-degree panoramas of the Washington Cascades, the Puget Sound, and the Olympic Mountains in the distance.
There’s no rush up there, either – a revolving restaurant serves up slick cocktails and nibbles to help you enjoy the view. Avoid standing in queues for hours by making sure to book a skip-the-line ticket!
If you want an alternative view that’s magnificent in its own way, take a ride up to the Seattle Sky View Observatory at the top of the Columbia Center. Over 1000 feet tall, it offers the best views of the Space Needle, Puget Sound, Mt. Rainier, and more!
3. Stop by Pioneer Square
Pioneer Square is the first neighborhood that ever existed in Seattle. It was here, way back in 1852, that the city’s now-legendary founder Henry Yesler choose to raise his lumber mill.
What followed was expansion after expansion, as more and more settlers came in search of the dream that was the West Coast throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s now a cracking spot to unravel the long and intriguing story of Seattle and Washington State as a whole.
There are relics from all sorts of eras. Take the Smith Tower, a 1914 piece of handsome Art Deco architecture that once gave even the skyscrapers of NYC a run for their money. Then there’s the Pioneer Building, fronted with red brick and adorned with elegant Romanesque flourishes.
These all jostle around the newly redeveloped plaza of Pioneer Square itself, which is where you find the famous Seattle Totem Pole standing tall, just as it has done for more than 100 years!
More than just a historical draw, Pioneer Square also comes riddled with quirky shopping boutiques and cozy coffee lounges, little beer bars and hidden alleyways that are a joy to walk around and explore.
If you have more time, go below Pioneer Square through underground passageways dating back to the 1890s and learn about the tragedies that befell the city and its rebirth after the Seattle Fire.
4. Discover Chihuly Garden and Glass
Calling all culture buffs and art lovers – the Chihuly Garden and Glass has to be one of the most intriguing galleries in the whole of Seattle. It’s dedicated to showcasing the work of local boy Dale Chihuly, who is now one of the most renowned glassblowers on the planet, having had works exhibited at prestigious institutions like Kew Gardens, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Royal Ontario Museum, and others.
But the best collection of his most striking pieces is surely reserved for the artist’s hometown. Through eight separate galleries, visitors can envelop themselves in the strange, anthropomorphic, organic glass shapes that Chihuly forges, often bright in color and bold in appearance.
The main draw is the central Glasshouse. A colossal greenhouse, it hosts a 30-meter-long creation of glass flowers picked out in dappled ochres and oranges.
You can also take the opportunity to learn about the intricate process of glassblowing in a dedicated theater show. Oh, and there’s an incredible al fresco garden space that’s interwoven with unique flora and glasswork sculptures that you simply cannot miss. You can get individual tickets to the Garden and Glass exhibit or buy the Seattle CityPass with multiple experiences to save money.
5. See Seattle Center
The Seattle Center, like the great Space Needle that looms large above it, is a relic of the 1962 World’s Fair. It was constructed to host the various events of the global gathering but has since morphed into one of Rain City’s most acclaimed culture and arts complexes, containing key museums, galleries, and attractions for travelers.
Among them is the Museum of Pop Culture (also known as, simply, MoPOP). Founded by Microsoft luminary Paul Allen at the turn of the millennium, it has a Frank O. Gehry-designed shell that contains arguably the planet’s best Sci-Fi exhibition, and a music section with a particular interest in Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana.
There’s also the Seattle Children’s Museum, an adventure-ready play space of over 18,000 square feet that’s perfect for anyone with energetic little ones in tow.
Perhaps more than anything, the Seattle Center is the perfect location to start your adventures in the core of the metropolis. Simply hop on the Seattle Center Monorail that begins here and you’ll whiz right across the heart of the city, from the Space Needle to the edge of Belltown.
6. Hike Olympic National Park
It’s no secret that Seattle is a prime jump-off point for some of the most jaw-dropping corners of the Western United States. And, right up there at the top of the list, the Olympic National Park is one that you’ll never forget.
A land of primeval forests and moss-caked hiking trails, it rises from the edge of the Pacific Ocean about 2-hour drive from the city down I-5 and then up the 101.
What awaits is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that covers a vast 922,000 acres. Staying low, you’ll be able to explore a wave-bashed run of coastline that opens onto blustery beaches and points that showcase the so-called Graveyard of the Pacific – a land of jagged sea stacks and boulders that’s long been the bane of sailors.
The reserve extends very far inland from there, straddling the Hoh River as it unfolds into ancient rainforests where not a single road can pass. You’ll need to pull on the hiking boots to go any further than the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center.
That’s where the mighty summits of 2,427-meter-high Mount Olympus take over, heralding glaciers and ridges that are covered in challenging trekking routes aplenty. The easiest way to experience the park is with a day tour hiking or snowshoeing, but if you have a few days to spare I highly recommend going on a multi-day trip.
7. Go to Mount Rainier National Park
It’s hard to ignore the presence of Mount Rainier in Seattle. The great peak – an active volcano, mind you – shoulders its way high above the horizon to the southeast of the city. It’s visible from just about anywhere in town, glimmering in greys and whites with its 29 glaciers and consistent ice cap shoved over 4,300 meters above sea level.
Today, Mount Rainier is completely enfolded by the Mount Rainier National Park. That’s accessible on the 410 and the 165 in just over two hours from the center of Seattle. The drive is most certainly worth it, though, because you’ll get to enjoy a glorious showcasing of wildflower meadows (in spring and summer), pine forests, and gurgling rivers, complete with bobcats and bald eagles for good measure.
There are oodles of ways to explore the park with a guide or without that would probably warrant a whole blog post on their own. However, the most popular hikes are on the Skyline Trail, a 5.5-mile loop of the most idyllic part of the reserve with spectacular views of Mount Rainier. Alternatively, try the easier-going Naches Peak Loop, which actually includes some portions of the Pacific Crest Trail!
8. Experience Belltown
No list of the top things to do in Seattle could possibly skip on the vibrant character of the city. And there’s arguably nowhere more vibrant than the area of Belltown. Once a gritty backwater known for its down and outs, the district is now a boho hub of dining, drinking, dancing, and creativity. It’s rated as one of the most livable parts of town, and always has something on, no matter the season.
Let’s start with the shopping. CBD pharma outlets meet boutique grocers here, while craft beer emporiums always stock the latest in Washington brews. That’s all backed up by a buzzy nightlife offering, which includes the legendary live-music haunt of The Crocodile Back Bar, a one-time stomping ground of Nirvana, no less!
But if Belltown excels in anything, it has to be gastronomy. There’s fusion food and East Asian sushi platters. You’ll find all-American grill houses and Middle Eastern mezze joints.
Favorites include the casual Caribbean diner of the Jerk Shack, the Thai-inspired food hall of Bangrak Market, and the Gaucho steak mecca, The Grill From Ipanema. And you can always end the day by visiting the popular donut stores secretly tucked away in different corners of the city.
9. Walk Through Washington Park Arboretum
The Washington Park Arboretum is waiting for when it’s time to escape the hubbub of Seattle. Run jointly by the University of Washington and the municipal parks authority, it filters down from Union Bay on the eastern half of the center. There, you can look forward to over 230 acres of urban greenery.
There’s a real patchwork of different enclosures. You could start in the J. A. Witt Winter Garden, where a snow-covered lawn is enfolded with evergreen trees and hardy cold-weather shrubs in December and January.
Or head straight for the serene Japanese Garden, a symphony of cherry blossoms in April. Flower lovers are sure to adore Rhododendron Glen when in bloom, while tree aficionados will enjoy gazing up at the maples and redwoods. And that’s just the beginning.
In addition to the managed gardens, the arboretum area also includes a playground for the kids and playfields with running tracks. Head to the south side of the reserve to find those.
10. Watch the Sunset
What better way to end a trip to Seattle than by watching the sunset onboard an authentic tall sailboat? The sunset harbor cruises will give you a chance to watch the sun dip behind the Olympic Mountains and take a peep at the Seattle skyline at night. Both are breathtaking.
Buy your ticket, hop aboard the tall sailboat, buy a wine or beer, and settle down to watch the city turn its lights on.
Note: Of course, if you’d prefer to cruise in the daytime, hop on an Argosy cruise that has been entertaining visitors since 1949. This one-hour cruise aboard the Spirit of Seattle from Pier 55 will give you perfect views of Seattle while recounting the history of the Emerald City.
11. See the Troll
The Fremont Troll is a public sculpture located under the Aurora Avenue bridge in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, Washington, USA. The sculpture was created in 1990 by a group of artists as part of a public art competition, and it has become a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike.
The Fremont Troll is a large, concrete sculpture of a troll with one eye and long, shaggy hair. The troll is depicted holding a real Volkswagen Beetle in its hand, which is intended to give the impression that the troll has just grabbed the car from the street above.
The sculpture has become an iconic symbol of the Fremont neighborhood, and it is often used as a backdrop for photographs and art installations. It is also a popular destination for visitors who come to see the sculpture and explore the eclectic and artistic neighborhood of Fremont.
Bonus: Consider staying at some of these amazing hotels in Seattle when you visit.
Best Luxury Hotels in Seattle
Grand Hyatt • Fairmont Olympic Hotel
Boutique Seattle Hotels
Mayflower Park Hotel • The WestIn • Motif Seattle
Reasonably Priced Hotels in Seattle
Hotel Andra • Staypineapple, Hotel FIVE
Which of these top things to do in Seattle have you ticked off your list? And which ones do you plan on doing next? Comment and let us know!