Soak in Seattle's Vibrant Culture, Stunning Beauty and Unique Charm
By Corinne Whiting
Seattle Local Expert
If you're assembling a vacation itinerary for seeing all the best sights in Seattle, we've got you covered. (Or perhaps you have a few hours to kill between business meetings and want to know the best way to maximize your time.) Either way, our 10Best list will help you save time on doing all the legwork yourself.
Some top picks don't come as a huge surprise, like visiting the Space Needle, located within the vibrant Seattle Center and (appropriately) proving to be one of the city's most-frequented sightseeing spots. Other must-see locales range from observation decks in historic towers to sprawling natural parks and even some quirky theme tours (think subterranean!).
While you've likely heard of some of these suggestions before, others will offer brand-new perspectives on how to experience this city and all that the surrounding region has to offer. Since weather here can be notoriously finicky, there are indoor suggestions as well as those that send you outdoors into the beautiful elements. (And even when the gray and mist do descend here, you'll quickly learn that this twist doesn't deter locals from getting out into the Great Outdoors.) So throw on some good walking shows, pack a rain jacket (just in case), and be prepared to learn why so many have fallen in love with this spectacular city.
Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
Some of Washington's most magnificent scenery can be found within this national forest's expansive boundaries. The rugged--and at times harsh--landscape encompasses the Cascade Mountains as well as an active volcano in the form of Mt. Baker. Beginning in mid-September, the forest's flora slowly change from bright greens to reds and oranges, providing an attractive contrast to the area's coverage of conifers. Huckleberry, mountain ash, and heather offer a patchwork of warm colors, often reflected in the forest's many lakes. Since the forest is so extensive, a driving tour is an ideal way to see as much fall foliage as possible in a relatively short time. Try the Mt. Baker Highway or the North Cascades Highway for some unforgettable views. (425-888-1421)
Well, we still don't have jet packs and flying cars, but the most iconic symbol of that 1960's space-age promise -- the Space Needle -- still stands as Seattle's most-recognized tourist attraction. Built for the 1962 World's Fair, the forward-looking theme of which was "Century 21," the 602-foot Needle looks like a huge flying saucer on a towering tripod. At the 520-foot level, the observation deck provides panoramic views of the area's surrounding bays, lakes, mountains, and other points of interest. Just below, at 500-feet, diners enjoy a 360-degree view in the revolving Sky City restaurant. On the way up to, entertaining and comedic elevator operators rattle off fun facts and invite visitors to test their Needle knowledge. (206-905-2100)
Bainbridge Island Ferry
From Seattle's downtown waterfront, it takes only 35 minutes to arrive at Bainbridge Island. Along the way, you can enjoy all the wonderful sights that make Seattle such a unique city (the ferry ride itself is worth the journey!). The snowcapped Olympic Mountains, Seattle's skyline and the eastern view of Mount Rainier are all points of interest along the way. (It's also fun to watch all the car and bike commuters onboard.) Peak season is early May through mid-October. Once on Bainbridge Island, it's easy to walk to a quaint "downtown" strip that features some shops, eateries and coffee spots. The island also features wineries, an organic distillery and other popular destinations. (206-464-6400)
Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park provides Seattle visitors with a huge range of recreation options in a compact area. About an hour to an hour-and-a-half southwest of Seattle on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, the nature preserve centers around the Olympic Mountains and its system of rivers and valleys to the Pacific Ocean. Hiking, backpacking, kayaking, or just touring by car, it's easy to check out the varying microclimates and zones within the park, which is encircled by U.S. Highway 101. So whether it's crunching along a dirt and gravel trail up a mountainside, padding over fragrant pine needles along a path deep in the temperate rainforest, or finding solid wet sand to save energy exploring along rugged Pacific Ocean beaches, this natural wonderland offers it all. ((360) 374-5450, (360) 565-3131)
West of Ballard, visitors find one of Seattle's best-kept secrets: Golden Gardens beach. Located on Puget Sound, this popular public park offers extraordinary views of the water and nearby Olympic Mountains. The park includes wetlands, beaches, hiking trails, as well as picnic and playground areas. The park is bisected by the BNSF Scenic Subdivision railway line. Golden Gardens offers wanders along a rugged coastline, hikes through forest trails, sunbathing on sandy beaches, fishing from a pier and a boat launch. In summer months, sandy volleyball courts fill with active folks, while the waters fill with swimmers, kite-surfers, kayakers, sailors and other nautically-inclined guests. The park is also home to an off-leash area for dogs in the upper northern portion of the park. (206-684-4075)
Chittenden Locks & Carl English Botanical Gardens
Originally built in 1911, these locks offer a fascinating lesson in technology from days gone by. Observe ships and sailing vessels as they enter the locks and -- following a series of mechanical adjustments -- depart into either the sound or the lake at a completely different water level. You can learn all about the locks' history in the visitor center; from March to November, guided tours are also offered. In addition, visitors may look through a viewing glass to see salmon run from fresh to salt water in season (June through October and March through April). Also, be sure not to miss the seven-acre Carl English Botanical Gardens, which present nearly 2,000 varieties of plant life. Operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers. (206-783-7059)
Mount Rainier National Park
This slumbering volcano is the second-tallest mountain in the continental United States after California's Mt. Whitney. Because of its northern locale and more extreme weather, though, Washington State's prime peak is used by many mountaineering groups to train for ascents of the world's most challenging climbs. In warmer months, flocks of climbers are cued up to challenge the summit's less strenuous routes, and throughout the year a variety of activities are available to extreme athletes and vacationing families alike. Hundreds of miles of hiking trails wind through dense past placid lakes and frothing waterfalls. The scenic Wonderland Trail encircles the entire park, catering to long-range backpackers. There are plenty of short, spectacular day trips, as well, whether hiking in summer of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in winter. Lodging is available on the mountain at the historic inn at Paradise, where the visitor center offers meals and interpretive natural history. (360-569-2211, 877-270-7155)
Lake Washington Cruise — Kirkland
Ahoy matey! One of this city's best features? All of its beautiful bodies of water. So one of the best ways to experience this city? Well, come on abroad and see for yourself! Argosy Cruises offers this scenic Lake Washington tour that leaves from the public docks at Marina Park in Kirkland. The relaxing 1½-hour cruise highlights stunning scenery and includes interesting tidbits about the area's history and most famous residents. Snacks and beverages are available onboard, and free parking is available in Peter Kirk Municipal Library garage. Argosy also offers a variety of wonderful cruises departing from downton Seattle. (206-623-1445, 800-642-7816)
When Seattle's 1889 fire leveled part of the city, officials decided to raise the city to a higher level, both metaphorically and literally. The portion left behind (and beneath) is now subject matter for a tour of Seattle's past, especially its unsavory part. The network of abandoned rooms and paths is interesting, but the stories and tales of seamstresses, thieves, and prominent residents really brings the area to life. This tour provides a fascinating glimpse into the city's heritage. The tour begins inside Doc Maynard's Public House, a restored 1890s saloon, and continues through historic Pioneer Square to three different sections of Underground--about three blocks total. The tour ends in Rogues Gallery, the gift shop. (206-682-4646)
Experience Music Project
If you're ever going to visit a venue dedicated to the magic of music, Seattle is THE place to do so. This intriguing museum celebrates the history of rock and roll. Over 80,000 American music mementos are showcased in the ultra-modern Frank Gehry-designed building, which resembles a smashed guitar. Among the displays are Janis Joplin's floral bell-bottoms and a leather jacket once worn by Elvis Presley. Sky Church, a performance arena erected to host concerts by world-renowned musicians, is also part of the complex. After viewing the exhibits, guests may unwind in the museum's Turntable restaurant or Liquid Lounge bar. (206-367-5483, 877-367-5483)
About Corinne Whiting
Corinne hails from the other Washington, where she caught the travel bug early on. Corinne studied abroad in Strasbourg, France (undergrad) and in Edinburgh, Scotland (graduate school). She's backpacked around Australia, taught English in Argentina and explored (so far!) countries from Cambodia and Egypt to Turkey and China. Corinne served as associate editor at Where magazine for five years; as a freelancer, she now writes for publications like National Geographic Traveler and Amtrak's OnTrak. Here in the lovely Northwest, she's attempting to debunk the rain myths, up her coffee and live music quotient and find her Zen near/on the water.
Read more about Corinne Whiting here.