Amid Natural Wonders, Seattle Offers Indoor Culture and Alfresco Fun

Situated between two major mountain ranges on the banks of Puget Sound, Seattle exists in a virtual wonderland for outdoor recreation. Amidst all of this nature, though, Seattle is also a smart and sophisticated place, known for technology and airplanes as much as for salmon and Sasquatch. Activities and attractions here match that dichotomy, providing equal doses of extreme and more mellow, indoor sports.

The city’s commitment and connection to its marine surroundings are on view at the Seattle Aquarium. As an alternative, though, visitors can choose to get out on the water, either by sea kayak rental or by riding the Washington State Ferry system. There are multitudes of scenic waterfront and woodland parks at which to enjoy the region’s natural beauty, and the piece de resistance is Mt. Rainier National Park, where visitors can get up close to the namesake peak, hike, camp or picnic.

In Ballard, The Chittenham Locks, where ships travel from the Puget Sound to Lake Washington and Lake Union, exemplifies Seattle’s dependence on its waterways and educates the public about salmon conservation. On the cerebral side, Seattle museums offer enlightenment on aviation, history and industry, art and science. And here, even music and sci-fi get time in the spotlight, thanks to the 140,000-square-foot Frank O. Gehry-designed Museum of Pop Culture (or MoPOP, formerly the EMP) and Science Fiction Hall of Fame at Seattle Center.


Founded in the late 1970s by a retired Tacoma pediatrician and his wife, who donated the 715 acres for the park, this regional gem is home to more than 200 species of indigenous wildlife. In residence are snowy owls, river otters, bald eagles, lynxes, gray wolves, cougars, grizzly and black bears, and bobcats. On a good day, all of these creatures and more can be spotted during the 50-minute tram ride that meanders through the park. For the more adventurous, five miles of trails that wind through this pristine wilderness. The Cheney Discovery Center provides interpretive nature education for kids, and the Fir Bough Cafe is the perfect place to fuel up for more exploring and learning.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: In Tacoma, the 715-acre Northwest Trek Wildlife Park is home to more than 200 species of indigenous wildlife.

John's expert tip: An overnight Family Camp adventure allows visitors to see the animals at night, enjoy a narrated tram tour and play games and other exciting activities.

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Hands-on informational and historical exhibits distinguish this museum, which appeals to aspiring pilots and to those whose feet have never left the ground. Displays in the Red Barn, where Boeing's first planes where constructed, chronicle the history of flight up to the late 1930s. In the six-story Great Gallery, more than 20 planes hang from the ceiling and cause guests to gape in amazement. Additional sights include a mock air traffic control center, an early Air Force One presidential plane and a Blackbird, the fastest plane ever built. Furthermore, the outdoor airpark lets visitors explore some of the museum's largest planes. Other amenities include complimentary guided tours, a variety of free films, a cafe and a museum store.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Hands-on informational and historical exhibits distinguish this museum, which appeals to aspiring pilots of all ages.

John's expert tip: Admission is free after 5 p.m. the first Thursday of each month. (Any day, discounted tickets are available for those with AAA, Boeing employees and active military members.)

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Woodland Park Zoo
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Encompassing some 65 wild acres in the midst of urban Seattle, this world-class zoo houses more than 1,000 animals from 290 species and draws over a million visitors annually. Lush, forest-like habitats replicate the wild, so exhibits closely resemble natural habitats. The Bug World exhibit is a favorite for children, with live creepy crawly specimens that include walking sticks, beetles, and ants. Other popular exhibits include the elephant forest, African savanna, snow leopards and jaguars. In rain-prone Seattle, the zoo's multiple indoor exhibits and viewing areas keep the zoo experience from being deluged. are also available should the weather be uncooperative. Picnics are popular with the zoo crowd, but cafes and food kiosks cater to visitors as well. Enjoy after-hours seasonal events for kids and adults (like Brew at the Zoo each October).

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The Woodland Park Zoo brings more than 1,000 animals to a 65-acre space in urban Seattle, just a few miles north of downtown.

John's expert tip: During summer months, Zoo Tunes brings an incredible lineup of musicians to an alfresco concert series that is certainly worth a visit (or several!).

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With the largest ferry fleet in the United States, the Washington State Ferry system operates 22 boats. Lining up to drive a vehicle onto the deck of the vessel is just the beginning of a truly Northwest experience. Onboard, get out of the car and enjoy educational and interpretive signage around the ship. Grab a latte or hot chocolate to warm your hands, and step out into the brisk salt air on the open passenger deck to take in the passing bay, mountain and island views. Just two possible itineraries for a day trip to explore Puget Sound from the main Seattle terminal include the Seattle-Bainbridge Island Edmonds run or the route for Fauntleroy-Vashon Island-Edmonds. The fleet's biggest boats travel between Seattle and Bainbridge; the island offers a combination of rural charm and sophisticated amenities. In summer months, heading to the San Juans are a must. Fares vary seasonally by route.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The Washington State Ferry system operates 22 boats, shuttling passengers across Washington's beautiful waterways to a variety of stunning destinations.

John's expert tip: With such a water-focused culture, there is no better way to sightsee in Puget Sound than boarding a ferry. Riding your bike with Washington State Ferries (WSF) means you get priority loading and unloading on most sailings. (Approximately 280,000 people ride their bikes onto local ferries each year!)

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Museum of History and Industry
Photo courtesy of Loren Javier

The Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), located in vibrant South Lake Union, is a "must" for any first-time Seattle visitor. As the largest private heritage organization in Washington state, the venue is devoted to teaching and preserving the diverse history of Seattle, the Puget Sound region and the country. If you count historic photos and artifacts as art, MOHAI's permanent exhibit "Essential Seattle" is a must-see on any Emerald City arts tour â€" from both a photographic and historical perspective. A fun and informative way to learn about Seattle, the display documents the city's history from the day Captain George Vancouver's ship first sailed into Elliott Bay in 1792 to the present, taking visitors through key events that shaped the modern city, with a focus on the fascinating and diverse people and characters that helped shape this unique region.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The fascinating Museum of History and Industry explores the city and region's past, present and future; be sure to save time to explore Lake Union.

Corinne's expert tip: Spend an entire day wandering the lakeside region where this museum is located; if the weather's nice, go for a paddle at the neighboring Wooden Center for Wooden Boats, or grab lunch at nearby waterfront restaurants (like Cask & Trotter or Duke's Chowder House). On the first Thursday of the month, all permanent exhibits are free.

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Pike Place Market
Photo courtesy of Magic in the Market/Richmond Public Relations

Sights, smells, and sounds make Pike Place a head-spinning whirlwind for first-time visitors. Fishmongers near the main entrance entice buyers with loud hawking and dexterous salmon throwing antics, the briny smell of fresh seafood filling the air. Countering that are the rows of vibrantly colorful flower stalls, which emit their pleasing perfumed aromas to passersby. Farm-fresh produce is mounded high along the aisles, and local artisans display their art and wares unique to the Northwest. Restaurants, a brewery and specialty shops for everything from antiques to movie ephemera fill the multi-level maze. For those wanting to combine their exploration with the history and art of the Market, the nonprofit Friends of the Market offer 1-hour tours on Saturday mornings (during summer months). Other companies like Savor Seattle and Eat Seattle offer culinary tours and cooking classes throughout the year.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: No visit to Seattle is complete without a trip to Pike Place Market, where fish fly and local vendors sell their enticing goods and wares.

John's expert tip: Across the street from the main market building along an arcade of shops and restaurants, the original Starbuck's Coffee remains in its unassuming original location. (While the queue is often long and winding, it's probably wise to enjoy the music of the buskers camped out front–and then grab a coffee elsewhere.) Be sure to visit the revamped Made In Washington store in Post Alley for a SeaBear Wild Salmon's Smokehouse Tasting Flight.

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Golden Gardens

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.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Relish one of Seattle's best-kept secrets: Golden Gardens beach, a popular public park that offers extraordinary views of the water and nearby Olympic Mountains.

Corinne's expert tip: Before or after you've dug your toes in the sand, grab a bite at nearby Ray's Boathouse, known for its stellar sunsets and delicious seafood dishes.

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The 5th Avenue Theatre is known as one of the nation's leading musical theater companies, especially for its production and development of new works. Since 2002, the Seattle-based company has produced 17 new musicals. (To date, nine--including hit Disney's Aladdin-- have moved on to Broadway premieres, earning a combined 15 Tony Awards, including two for Best Musical--Hairspray and Memphis). The 5th Avenue Theatre also known makes waves for its lauded productions of musicals from the contemporary canon and the Golden Age of Broadway. Most recently, it staged the wildly acclaimed musical Come From Away. While the shows are sensational, the venue itself justifies a visit, too, thanks to a unique, Chinese-inspired design. The exquisite theater opened in 1926 as a venue for vaudeville and film.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The 5th Avenue Theatre brings top-notch musical productions to an exquisite space that boasts a Chinese-inspired decor.

Corinne's expert tip: To avoid service fees ($9 per ticket for all Web and phone orders), purchase tickets in person at the Box Office.

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Safeco Field
Photo courtesy of Geoffrey Smith/Kirsten Graham PR

Since its opening in July 1999, Safeco Field has served as home to the Seattle Mariners (of Major League Baseball's American League West Division). Praised by fans, Major League players and the media as one of the best ballparks for its beautiful urban setting and excellent sight lines, the popular downtown venue has drawn kudos in other departments, too. Over the years, Safeco Field has earned a reputation for serving great food and beer that showcases a bounty of local vendors. Safeco also becomes a concert venue when major entertainers breeze through town; for example, Beyonce and Jay-Z filled the stadium with electricity during their "On The Run II" tour.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Safeco Field has been praised by many as one of the best ballparks for its beautiful urban setting and excellent sight lines.

Corinne's expert tip: Throughout the baseball season, check the online schedule for a complete list of promotions and special events. Visitors happily take advantage of special theme evenings that range from family nights and girls' and guys' nights out to ticket specials for college students, military men and women and seniors who show valid ID.

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Mount Rainier National Park

This slumbering volcano is the most heavily glaciated mountain in the United States outside of Alaska. At 14,417 feet, it is the fifth tallest peak in the continental U.S. Because of its northern locale, glaciers and extreme weather, 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 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 forest past placid lakes and frothing waterfalls. The scenic Wonderland Trail encircles the entire park. There are also plenty of short, spectacular day trips for hiking in summer of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in winter. Lodging is available at the historic inn at Paradise, where the visitor center offers meals and interpretive natural history.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Mount Rainier National Park offers unfathomable natural beauty and a prime destination for adventurers of all levels.

John's expert tip: One of the tallest peaks in the United States, Mt. Rainier is a training destination for international climbing parties, but during mild seasons on basic routes the trek is accessible to climbers of most skill levels.

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Meet 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...  More About Corinne