Looking for a long weekend getaway somewhere new? Planning an Alaska cruise and considering whether to extend your trip for a few days to explore that city? Consider spending 3 days in Seattle!
This ‘upper left’ city, nestled in the forested and mountainous Pacific Northwest, is a perfect weekend destination. It’s also easy to extend your cruise trip to see what Seattle has to offer. Or, if you’re just traveling through the area, make sure you give yourself three days in Seattle to explore what’s so special about this place I once called home.
Why Visit Seattle
Picture this: Seattle on a sunny day. The city is nestled in between two mountain ranges (the Olympics and the Cascades). Verdant green trees punctuate the urban development and sparkling blue of Elliott Bay, Lake Union, and Lake Washington give the city a vibrant, lively aesthetic. On the city streets, you can explore markets, learn history, ascend to a glass structure in the sky, and eat some of the best seafood (and other food) in the country. The only question I have is: why not visit Seattle?
I fell in love with Seattle on my first trip in 2012; I moved there in 2013 and lived there through 2017. I’ve made several trips back since (1-2 per year, for work and pleasure), and still feel the deep pang of home whenever I think about the city.
On a sunny day, the only city I’ve found more beautiful than Seattle is London, and yes, there actually are sunny days in Seattle.
Traveling to Seattle
If you’re traveling to Seattle by plane, you’ll most likely arrive at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (“Seatac” to the locals); Paine Field airport near Everett north of Seattle might be another good option for regional travelers coming to the area. If you fly into Seatac, you won’t need a car to see Seattle – the section below details how to use public transportation for your whole trip.You can also easily drive to Seattle from one of the other major cities in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a 3-hour drive from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, and a 3- to 3.5-hour drive from Vancouver, Brtish Columbia (depending on border crossing time!). Or, if you love less conventional modes of transportation, you could take the Amtrak Cascades (which connects Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver).
Getting Around Seattle
While you can rent a car to explore Seattle, I don’t recommend it. You can easily get from the airport to downtown Seattle and back, and explore the entire city, using public transportation!
From Seatac airport, you’ll want to take the Link Light Rail system into Seattle. The Link runs through many of Seattle’s main neighborhoods, including downtown, and it’s easy to reach from the airport. Fares are usually $3-4 each way, and you’ll need to buy tickets in advance before boarding.
Within Seattle, you can get around pretty much everywhere using the buses and walking. Be aware that downtown Seattle is actually pretty hilly, so you should wear comfortable shoes that can handle the hills! (My favorite travel flats are Tieks.) Bus fares are $2.75 no matter the time of day, and transfers are good up to two hours.
Where to Stay in Seattle
Whether you love the room service and housekeeping of a hotel or the independence and homey-ness of an Airbnb, here are my top suggestions for where to stay in Seattle.
Hotels in Seattle
Seattle has some great hotels, so it’s pretty hard to choose which ones to recommend.
- The Edgewater is arguably Seattle’s most famous and iconic hotel because it’s where the Beatles and Anthony Bourdain stayed on their visits to the city. Located right on the waterfront, it’s also a total splurge if you want a water view (up to $800 per night!). Rooms start at $181 per night (off-season) with city views; book on Booking.com.
- On my last trip to Seattle (September 2018, I stayed at the recently renovated Hotel Theodore (formerly Roosevelt Hotel). I loved the historic patents printed on the wall as art, and the turn of the century design aesthetic that Teddy Roosevelt himself would have recognized. Rooms start at $209 per night; book on Booking.com.
- The Ace Hotel is easy to miss – but it’s actually the first Ace Hotel of them all, and shows you where this iconic hotel brand got its start. It’s also in my favorite neighborhood, Belltown, and I treated Mr. V to a stay here for his birthday one year (November 2015). Rooms start at $249 per night; book on Booking.com.
- The Fairmont Olympic is right in the heart of downtown, plus has all the luxury touches of the Fairmont brand. I stayed in a suite here on a trip to Seattle in March 2018, and even with construction outside (it’s Seattle, after all!), I couldn’t hear a thing during our stay. Rooms start at $389 per night; book on Booking.com.
Airbnbs in Seattle
Normally, I recommend Airbnbs in each post, but honestly, I have had terrible luck with most Airbnbs in Seattle. No responses, exorbitant prices, cancellations, you name it. However, this was a few years ago. I just browsed the Airbnb Plus section, and here are a few that catch my eye:
- Lower Queen Anne Apartment with Views of Puget Sound – I lived in the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood when I first moved to Seattle, and it’s a cozy place to base yourself. There’s good transit through the area and you’re right near the Space Needle. From $81 per night.
- Lively Vacation Home in Seattle with Puget Sound Views – After living in LQA, I moved to Belltown, which is where this Airbnb is located. Super accessible by walking or bus, there are some great restaurants in the area too, and you can easily get to Pike Place Market. From $97 per night.
- Elegant Industrial-Chic Loft near Space Needle – I have never lived in South Lake Union, but it’s the place to be (aka Amazon central). Also great accessibility on foot or using the South Lake Union Transit (yes, we call it the SLUT), and there are tons of restaurants and bars. From $108 per night.
Want $40 off your first Airbnb stay? Click this link before you book!
What to Pack for Seattle
It always rains in Seattle, right? WRONG!
Like London, Seattle has a reputation for rain that it only sorta deserves. While it does rain 150 days per year, it’s far more likely to be grey and overcast during the wet winter months (and June, which locals call “June-uary.”)
So what should you pack? That depends on the season. If you’re traveling to Seattle in the summer, you can pack summer clothes. If you’re traveling in the winter, pack rain gear. In spring and autumn, it might be wonderfully warm – but pack rain gear just in case too.
I’ve also put together a post on the things you actually need to pack for Seattle (link will be live on Monday, January 14th), so be sure to check that out.
The Best Things to See & Do in Seattle
As you might expect from a large city like Seattle that draws a lot of visitors – there’s a LOT to do in Seattle! This is just the highlights, the things you most want to see on a first trip, or those ‘touristy’ sights that are actually worth the hype. You could easily spend a lifetime exploring Seattle, but this list will get you started planning a trip.
Pike Place Market
One of Seattle’s top sights is Pike Place Market, aka the place where the dudes throw the fish. Right in the heart of downtown Seattle, this market has been selling local foods, flowers, and crafts for 112 years! Today, you can browse the bouquets, sample Washington cherries, and wander around to see all the market has to offer – you’ll never discover it all!
Don’t forget to explore the subterranean levels, where you’ll find offbeat vendors from around the world, and the market expansion – a new building attached via a walkway with more food and drink vendors.
I wrote about the new market expansion for Lonely Planet when it first opened to the public: Pike Place Market in Seattle is set to open its much-anticipated expansion next week
You also can’t skip Seattle’s most disgusting sight, the Gum Wall, located near the market entrance. Despite being cleaned in 2015, the gum is back and more gooey than ever. Also don’t miss lining up for a cup at the first Starbucks across the street from the market. This isn’t the actual first Starbucks, but it’s the ceremonial one!
The Seattle waterfront stretches from downtown north along Elliott Bay to the Interbay neighborhood. In total, the sidewalks and trails stretch three miles, and there’s plenty to see and do along the way.
The Seattle Great Wheel dominates the scene, and is worth a ride if you’ve never been… but probably not worth a second ride if you have! You can also explore Miner’s Landing and the surrounding piers, with boat terminals, food stalls, shops, and restaurants. It’s always worth making a stop at Ivar’s for fish and chips from their counter window. Families will love the Seattle Aquarium because its home to some great Pacific Northwest creatures you might not see at other aquariums.
If you want the walk, be sure to check out Olympic Sculpture Park (above) as you move out of the downtown area. The huge statues are great for photos. You can continue along the Elliott Bay Trail for another two miles toward Pier 91 (where Princess, Holland America, and a couple other cruise companies dock), enjoying sweeping views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. Keep an eye peeled for Washington State Ferries as they pull out of the downtown Seattle Terminal headed toward Bainbridge Island and Bremerton on the Olympic Peninsula.
Pioneer Square is the historic heart of downtown. Located south of the modern high-rises of hilly downtown, Pioneer Square itself is a small, flat area – but it’s increasingly jam-packed with things to do.
The main must-do in Pioneer Square, especially for first-time Seattle visitors, is the Underground Tour. During this tour, you’ll literally descend under the city streets to see the remainders of a historic Seattle that came before. I’ve done it three or four times, even as a local, so it’s definitely worth doing at least once. If you love history, you can also visit the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park museum, which tells stories of the prospectors who set out from Seattle in search of riches further north in Canada.
Pioneer Square butts up to the SODO neighborhood, where you can enjoy watching several of Seattle’s top sports teams. The Mariners play at T-Mobile Park, and the Seahawks and Sounders both play from Century Link Field. On Occidental Avenue between the stadiums, food vendors set up before and after games; Joe’s Gourmet Grilled Dogs is my favorite place to recommend people try the “Seattle Dog” (spicy sausage, grilled onions, and cream cheese).
Pioneer Square also has tons of restaurants and bars, and is home to Smith Tower, Seattle’s first skyscraper. While it’s now dwarfed by the rest of downtown, for a time it was the tallest building in the city (and the tallest west of the Mississippi!). Today, you can ascend the tower to several bars and venues with great city views.
If downtown and Pike Place Market are one main part of the Seattle experience, the Seattle Center is another. Located north of downtown in the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood, Seattle Center is full of green spaces, sculptures, and museums worth exploring.
The three main museums to consider are Chihuly Garden & Glass, where glass artist Dale Chihuly’s work is on permanent display in stunning galleries; MoPop (the Museum of Pop Culture), where you can learn about pop culture from Seattle and the world; and the Pacific Science Center, a great family-friendly science museum with an IMAX screen and planetarium with laser shows.
You can also just explore the Seattle Center. Grab a coffee from the cafe near the KEXP studios. Sit and enjoy the international music played at the International Fountain. Catch a show or attendance event at the Seattle Rep, McCaw Hall, or Seattle Exhibition Center. The Armory also hosts cultural festivals throughout the year on weekends, including in the summer. You can even ride the Monorail, a relic of the 1962 World’s Fair (like the Space Needle), back downtown after you’re done exploring.
The Space Needle is located on the Seattle Center grounds, but it deserves its own section. As Seattle’s most iconic building, basically every visitor to Seattle visits the Space Needle. However, even if you’ve visited before, it’s worth putting the Space Needle on your Seattle itinerary.
In mid-2018, the Space Needle re-opened after an extensive renovation. The renovations revealed a stunning rotating glass floor that allows you to look straight down to the Seatle Center below. New glass paneling on both floors also allow 360-degree views of Seattle and the Puget Sound – without any of the fencing, metal enclosures, or rooflines from years past.
I had the chance to ascend the new Space Needle in September 2018, and it was one of the most thrilling “popular tourist attractions” I’ve ever experienced. I’m proud that Seattle invested to upgrade the Space Needle and push it back into the future.
I wrote a story for Lonely Planet about the new Space Needle: The Space Needle: Seattle icon of the past, future
Ask any Seattleite, and they’ll tell you: Seattle’s neighborhoods are where it’s at. While I lived mostly in Belltown (near downtown) during my time in Seattle, most friends lived in the neighborhoods. I’ll detail a few of those now.Young travelers and those who crave nightlife will love Capitol Hill, a neighborhood uphill and to the east of downtown Seattle. As Seattle’s gay-friendliest neighborhood, here’s where you’ll find rainbow crosswalks and the LGBTQ clubs that light up after dark. The Pike/Pine Corridor has many of those clubs, mixed in with funky and posh restaurants and bars. It’s easy to spend a whole night exploring the area.
Similarly, Broadway is the other ‘main drag’ through town. Bars and vintage shops line the street, with brunch spots and restaurants mixed in. One of my favorite spots is Nacho Borracho, where you can get tot-chos (tater tot nachos) and avocado margarita smoothies in a darkly technicolor dive bar.
Volunteer Park is nice if you need to clear your mind after a day or night in the area. Located on the top of Capitol Hill, you can visit the Conservatory or just admire the views of the Space Needle and Seattle.
I lived in Ballard for a short time toward the end of my time living in Seattle, and I could immediately see why Ballard residents have such pride in the area – and why people were flocking to live there. This old fishing village has managed to retain that small town feel despite being a short bus ride from downtown.While there, check out the Chittenden Locks & Fish Ladder, a uniquely Seattle experience where you can watch boats passing from Lake Union to Elliott Bay (and back) via the system of locks. You can also see intrepid fish working their way back into the lake via a ‘fish ladder.’ In the summer months, you can spot salmon on their way back into the lake to breed.
Some of Seattle’s best arguably restaurants are located along Leary & Ballard two parallel streets in the heart of the neighborhood. Mixed in among music venues and bars, you can slurp oysters at The Walrus & the Carpenter, enjoy the monstrous happy hour nachos at Matador with a tequila tasting flight, sip craft brews at Peddler Brewing (where Mr. V and I held our Seattle engagement party!), and end the evening with a boozy shake from Hot Cakes. These are just three of the places to check out – anything you want to eat, you can find in Ballard.
Lastly, I haven’t been, but I’ve heard stellar reviews from friends who have visited the new Nordic Museum in Ballard. Moved to a stunning modern building in 2018, you can learn about the Nordic settlers who helped found Ballard, and why there’s that pocket park with a mural and Nordic flags in the area.
Pretty much everyone I know who’s lived in Seattle long enough has lived in Capitol Hill, Fremont, or both (except me, apparently! #Belltown4life). Fremont, which has affectionately dubbed itself the Center of the Universe is certainly one of the more fun places to explore in Seattle – if not the universe!Check for the Guidepost in the heart of Fremont, demarking the Center of the Universe with distances to a variety of locations including the Lenin Statue (1 block), Noogie (Top of Head), Rio de Janeiro (1,225 km), and Troll (2 blocks). Locations on the guidepost have changed over the years, but the intent is the same: Fremont is where it’s at.
Speaking of Trolls, don’t miss a visit to the Fremont Troll, who lives under the massive Highway 99 overpass. You can walk uphill from Fremont to the Troll for pictures; don’t miss his giant (real!) Volkswagen bug.
Fremont is home to plenty of restaurants and bars too, if you choose to make an afternoon of your trip to the area.
Gas Works Park
Close to Fremont, Gas Works Park is a popular spot for visitors and locals alike. A plant for the Seattle Gas Light Company that closed in 1956, Gas Works Park became a city in 1962 (the same year as the World’s Fair), and offers a beautiful view across Lake Union to the Space Needle and Seattle skyline. On sunny days, don’t be surprised to see locals sprawled on the grassy hills soaking up what little sun we get.
(Kidding, you already know it doesn’t rain as much as urban legends say!)
If you want to take a half-day or full-day trip out of Seattle, consider spending the day at Alki Beach. Located on West Seattle, Alki Beach was the area where the first non-Native settlers arrived in Seattle before making their way toward where the city stands today. Now, this stretch of waterfront lays claim as Seattle’s best (only?) sand beach, lined with ‘seaside’ bars, restaurants, and breweries that can make you forget you’re in the Pacific Northwest at all. (At least until you dip a toe in the water – Puget Sound is cold!)
You can catch a water taxi from downtown Seattle to Alki Beach, then walk the waterfront path around the point to the beach. The path is a nice, flat 2.5 miles to the Alki Point Lighthouse at the other end of the beach. You’ll commonly see locals out running or cycling on a nice day.
I wrote a story for Lonely Planet about Alki Beach: A guide to Seattle’s Alki Beach
Other Great Vantage Points in Seattle
In addition to the Smith Tower, Space Needle, Gas Works Park, and Alki Beach, which all offer stunning views of the Seattle skyline, here are some other vistas to check out Seattle from:
- Kerry Park – This is the best viewpoint of Seattle I know. To get there, take a bus up Queen Anne hill and walk to the park. It’s not a huge space, but it has sweeping views of the city and on a clear day you can easily see Mt. Rainier. (This is where I took the photo right at the start of this section.)
- Columbia Tower – Columbia Tower is home to the Sky View Observatory, a cool space on the 73rd floor with 360-degree views of Seattle from one of the tallest buildings. You can a lot of Seattle spread out below you, and a large part of Puget Sound beyond. There’s also a Starbucks on the 40th floor where you can grab a coffee with pretty good views too.
- The Nest at Thompson Seattle – I’ve actually never been to The Nest (I’ve heard its members only?? but maybe that’s not true, so I’ll try and get there on my next trip), but I’ve heard great things – and the pictures look awesome.
A 3-Day Itinerary for Seattle
Okay, wait: how the HECK do you cram all that into a three-day trip?! Below, I’ve sketched together a brief outline of how I would fit most of the recommended locations into a three-day trip (assuming you have three whole days, not arriving Friday night and leaving Sunday morning).
If you’re visiting Seattle for a day or two before/after an Alaska cruise, consider just doing Day 1, Day 2, or a combination of them both.
If you know you want to do several of the activities I recommended – the Space Needle, MoPop, and Chihuly Garden & Glass – or you’re traveling with kids (who will love the Seattle Aquarium and Pacific Science Center), consider getting a Seattle CityPass. It’s a great way to get discounted admission to these attractions (and others) and make it easier to organize your trip. Click here to learn more about the Seattle CityPass.
Day 1: Downtown Seattle
On your first day in Seattle, see the stuff in the heart of the city. Start your morning at Pike Place Market; grab a coffee from the Original Starbucks while you wait. Watch the vendors set up, the crowds swarm, and the fish start flying. Grab breakfast from Daily Dozen Donuts, explore the market and new Market Expansion, and enjoy an early lunch at Uli’s Famous Sausage (the only currywurst in town, made just like you’ll find in Germany!). From downtown, walk south along the waterfront toward Pioneer Square. Maybe ride the Great Wheel en route. Maybe also enjoy some fish and chips from Ivar’s if you’re not too full from lunch.
Once you arrive in Pioneer Square, get tickets for the Underground Tour and wander the streets above ground a bit afterward. For dinner, Altstadt Bierhalle & Brathaus is a good choice, as is Il Terrazzo Carmine. If you’re eating an early dinner, consider The London Plane or Copal. End with a cocktail at Damn the Weather. Head back to your hotel by bus or walk off some of that indulgence.
Day 2: Seattle Center
On day two, walk from downtown through the Belltown neighborhood to the Seattle Center. You can also take a bus, but if you walk up Second Avenue, keep your eyes peeled for markers inset in the sidewalk. These note historic places along Seattle’s Film Row, where production and distribution studios once had their offices and private screening theaters.You could also walk to the Seattle Center along the waterfront, if you want to enjoy the views of Elliott Bay and pass through the Olympic Sculpture Park. Note that you’ll be climbing a pretty steep hill back from the waterfront to the Seattle Center, so you need good fitness and walking shoes for this option!
At the Seattle Center, get your tickets to the Space Needle right away. You may need to wait in line, so it’s best to do this early! After you ascend the Space Needle, are thoroughly wow-ed, and come back to earth, grab lunch at the Armory. Skillet, with their poutine, ‘ultimate grilled cheese,’ and pork belly & waffle, is my top recommendation and worth the wait.
In the afternoon, explore the whole of Seattle Center if the weather is good – or head into one of the museums if it’s not. Visitors of all ages will like MoPop, families with younger travelers will prefer the Pacific Science Center, and culture vulture adults will probably prefer Chihuly Garden & Glass.
At the end of the day, catch the Monorail back to downtown for dinner. It’s difficult to give suggestions here as there are so many good choices! Lola and Serious Pie are both great options though, to get you started. If you want a nightcap, Suite 410 is my favorite hideaway; look for action figures placed throughout the bar and movie nerd cocktails.
Day 3: Exploring Seattle’s Neighborhoods
On your final day in Seattle, I recommend getting out of the downtown area. Walk from downtown to Capitol Hill, catch a bus to Ballard or Fremont, or take the water taxi to Alki Beach. I’ve put suggestions for each of these neighborhoods above, so if you missed them scroll back up to see what I recommend doing. These neighborhoods all have a distinctive vibe – and show you another side of Seattle. In each, you’ll likely be rubbing elbows with more locals than visitors, and can explore more freely. You’ll experience fewer crowds and more of what we locals love so much about our city.
Make sure to grab at least one meal (preferably two) in whichever neighborhood you choose, so you can get a real taste for all the flavor that area offers. (#dadjokes)
That wraps it up! Do you have questions about visiting Seattle? Let me know in the comments!