Destination Guides,  Itineraries

One Day in Seattle: How to Spend a Day in the Emerald City

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By the end of my first trip to Seattle, I knew I was in love – a little over a year later, I would call the Emerald City home and ended up living in Seattle for four years. Though I only spent one day in Seattle on my first trip, I had a chance to see that there are a lot of really special things about this city tucked away in the Pacific Northwest.

What makes Seattle so special? First, most visitors are surprised to see the bright blue sky, which is visible more often than you might expect for a city with Seattle’s rainy reputation. Next up is the verdant greens that blanket the city, even into the urban core where you’ll find green spaces and urban parks – these are what give Seattle its nickname.

One Day in Seattle Hero

Once you get on the ground though, you’ll discover the real magic. Seattle is – and has always been – doing things its own way. Companies founded here have changed the way we live; music made here redefined genres; and the movies and pop culture set in Seattle continue to be seminal in the minds of both first-time and repeat visitors. (Yes, I can show you the Grey’s Anatomy hospital, but it’s not in this itinerary…) There’s something in the air here, or maybe in the water, or mountains, who knows – Seattle is a cool place, and it’s easy to fall in love with it.

That’s why spending just one day in Seattle is so hard. There’s so much to do! So many neighborhoods to see! So many great eats and delicious drinks! After spending your short time in Seattle, you might, like me, decide it’s the place you want to spend a lot more time. But first, let’s give you some tips for how to spend just one day in Seattle, from sunrise to sunset and beyond.

In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Coast Salish, Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Stillaguamish, and Suquamish peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

This post was originally published in December 2019, and was updated most recently in October 2022.

Seattle Travel Tips

Before I give away all my itinerary secrets, a couple of quick notes. I always like to provide travel tips before my itinerary, to answer any burning questions you might have before you have them. I’m a mind-reader (or I’ve just answered 50 emails with these questions and I want you to be a satisfied reader).

When to Visit Seattle

3 Days in Seattle - Panorama

It always rains in Seattle, right? Actually, I’ll let you in on a local’s secret… (I can share this now that I don’t live there anymore because they can’t kick me out for spilling the beans.)

It doesn’t rain that much in Seattle. It is grey a lot, but it’s not umbrella weather for 365 days a year.

The best season to visit Seattle is summer, of course. Between May and September, you’ll as likely experience glorious sunny days and blue skies as the notorious grey drizzle the locals want us to believe happens every day.

What to Pack for Seattle

Seattle has moved beyond its grunge phase… mostly. Actually, it’s a healthy mix of the same casual fashion you’ll find all along the West Coast. My main advice on what to pack for Seattle is to plan for cool, rainy weather but with layers – unless the forecast is all sun, in which case shorts and tees with a hoodie or sweater will work just fine.

As you can see from the photos in this post, I usually wear some combination of long and short layers in the summer: shorts and a sweater over a tee or pants with a short-sleeved shirt. In the winter, I layer up, preparing for rain with a good rain shell, waterproof shoes, and a scarf.

One Day in Seattle: The Best Things to Do

With only one day in Seattle, it’s hard to fit it all in – and I really struggled with what to recommend. Should I suggest staying downtown and exploring sights there like scenic Waterfront Park and the Seattle Great Wheel, the family-friendly Seattle Aquarium, the intriguing Seattle Art Museum, and the architectural gem of the Seattle Public Library? Or maybe send you out to explore neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Ballard, and South Lake Union where locals live and show off all the city has to offer? You’ll have to read to find out!

8 am – Explore Pike Place Market as it Opens

Pike Place Market (not “Pike’s Place”) is one of the most iconic and most visited attractions in Seattle. However, this isn’t built for tourists; Pike Place is a working market, and vendors there make a living by catering to locals and visitors alike.

Locals know that the best way to avoid crowds is to arrive before the market is officially open. Take a tip from them (and me!) and spend the hour watching vendors set up for the day. Depending on when you visit, you’ll be able to watch the flower vendors setting up their colorful stalls and watch the fish delivery for all those scaly plates of seafood that will fly through the air as the day wears on.

Don’t miss the Seattle Gum Wall, one of the weirdest, grossest, and simultaneously coolest sights in the city.

While you wait, pop across the street to the “Original” Starbucks and grab a cup of the brew that helped put Seattle on the map. If you’re peckish, you can also grab mini donuts from Daily Dozen Donuts for the road; you can eat them en route to breakfast.

9 am – Breakfast in Belltown

Belltown was my favorite neighborhood in Seattle when I lived there; it has changed a lot in the five years since we moved away, but it still has some of the history and character I love.

One of my favorite breakfast spots in Seattle is in Belltown, my old ‘hood. The name is a bit uncouth, but Biscuit Bitch is one of the best spots for breakfast sandwiches made on delicious crumbly biscuits baked daily. As you plan your route, you’ll notice – there’s a Biscuit Bitch on the 1st and another one on the 3rd. Go to the one on 3rd Avenue; the one on the 1st is right near Pike Place Market and will be crawling with a crowd.

Once you get your biscuit, take it to-go and walk north along 2nd Avenue. Along the way, you’ll notice metal grates in the ground with addresses and years: these are the makers for Film Row, Seattle’s old film houses and cinemas that used to line the streets 100 years ago.

You can walk from Pike Place Market to the Biscuit Bitch on 3rd in about 15 minutes; it’s another 15-minute walk to your next stop.

10:00 am – Admire the View at Olympic Sculpture Park

It’s a bit of a detour, but I recommend taking the extra steps to spend a few minutes walking to and around Olympic Sculpture Park. This small outdoor park is home to some iconic sculptures and offers sweeping views of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains. In the morning, you’ll see people out walking their dogs or exercising their small kids, as well as wise visitors who want to admire the view or snap a few photos.

(Mr. V and I took our engagement photos here, which I’ve added to show how beautiful this spot is.)

10:30 am – Ascend the Space Needle

Locals are split on whether the Space Needle is “worth it,” but I’m firmly in the camp that it is – especially if it’s your first visit to Seattle and even more so if you only have one day in Seattle. There’s no better place than the Space Needle to see all of Seattle, admire the view, and visit an iconic spot all in one go.

Be sure to book timed tickets for the Space Needle in advance, so you don’t have to queue twice (once for tickets and again for the elevators). Once you arrive, you’ll be able to make your way to the top much more quickly for insanely scenic views.

The newly redesigned Space Needle (finished in 2018) has an all-glass rotating floor, and almost-all-glass walls. As you might imagine, you can see 360 degrees from the Space Needle, from Mount Rainier to Mount Baker on a clear day to the Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound, as well as much of Seattle spread out below and around you. It’s seriously so cool! (I’ve been twice since it reopened!)

12pm – Lunch at Seattle Center

As suggested above, head to the Armory for lunch at Skillet. If you’re not digging the menu at Skillet (but seriously that poutine tho), there are a few other food vendors here you can browse as well. And, of course, a Starbucks.

After lunch, you have some time to explore the other attractions of the Seattle Center. The Space Needle is the primary sight here, but you can also choose to visit one or more of the following too:

  • MoPop, formally called the Museum of Pop Culture, is a great spot for those who love music, film, and other aspects of pop culture. There’s a huge Jimi Hendrix exhibit here honoring one of Seattle’s favorite sons, as well as other musicians too. (We have a great music scene!)
  • Chihuly Garden & Glass, where artist Dale Chihuly displays some of his most beautiful and iconic sweeping glass sculptures. I haven’t actually been in here as the tickets are more expensive, but I’ve heard great things from those who have.
  • Pacific Science Center is great for families or those space and science nerds like me. Inside you’ll find exhibits about all kinds of science relevant to the Pacific Northwest, as well as other fields too (they have a planetarium!).

Or, if the weather is great, just stroll around the Seattle Center past the International Fountain, KEXP Studios (one of Seattle’s famous radio stations), and the new Climate Pledge Arena where the Seattle Storm (WNBA) and Seattle Kraken (NHL) play.

This part of the day is a choose-your-own-adventure chapter; I can’t know exactly which of these museums you might most enjoy!

2:30 pm – Admire the View from Gas Works Park

One Day in Seattle - Gas Works Park

Getting from the Seattle Center to Gas Works Park is a little tricky, so here are my suggestions:

  • Get an Uber or taxi if your budget allows it.
  • If not, you can catch the #62 bus, but you’ll need cash for the fare and it adds a bit more walking. I use the app Citymapper to navigate any city, and it works well for taking public transit in Seattle.

Once you arrive at Gas Works Park, you can stroll around the pathways, or find a nice spot on the grass to sit and enjoy the view. From here you’re looking south across Lake Union at downtown Seattle. You’ll end up across the lake for dinner later in the South Lake Union neighborhood.

Gas Works Park is an old industrial site that the city converted into a public park, and it’s a local favorite spot for enjoying a sunny day.

3:30 pm – Meet the Fremont Troll

3 Days in Seattle - Fremont Troll

To reach the Fremont Troll, I recommend walking from Gas Works Park. It’s a 15-minute walk and a little bit uphill but still within walking distance. However, all that climbing will be worth it to see one of Seattle’s most unusual sights.

The Fremont Troll, another popular tourist attraction was built in 1990 underneath an overpass; it turned an otherwise ugly junction between the land and manmade construction into a popular sight for tourists and locals alike. You can definitely climb on the troll if you’re brave enough; don’t be surprised if he’s got painted nails or holiday attire on, depending on the time of year you visit.

4:30 pm – Explore Ballard

From the Fremont Troll, it is a short walk into the main part of the Fremont neighborhood, where you can catch a bus to Ballard. If you have the budget, it’s easier to just call an Uber as it’s only a short ride.

Once you arrive in Ballard, you’re on your own! Just kidding – there are some cool sights here:

  • Old Town Ballard is a series of off-grid streets you can explore to find cool souvenirs and scope out spots for the next stop on my one-day Seattle itinerary…
  • If the weather isn’t great the Nordic Museum highlights Nordic culture and its importance to the Ballard community. I haven’t been in here but it’s on my list as they opened right after I moved from Seattle.
  • The Chittenden Fish Ladder connects Ballard to neighboring Lawton Park; it’s a feat of engineering that allows local salmon populations to make their way back to Lakes Union and Washington to spawn. This is just a cool area to walk around and explore.

6 pm – Grab Happy Hour Drinks

Once you’ve explored Ballard a bit, find somewhere for happy-hour drinks or a pre-dinner snack (or both!). This neighborhood is full of young people and cool bars, including Matador – which has insanely generous happy hour food deals –, The Walrus & Carpenter – which is unsurprisingly known for amazing oysters –, and King’s Hardware – with plenty of divey local vibes that remind you Ballard once used to be a fishing village. Oh, and if it’s super hot, pop into Hot Cakes for one of their spiked milkshakes instead.

Honestly, though, there are too many good places to recommend and you really can’t go wrong.

7 pm – Enjoy Dinner in SLU

Even if you love public transit and have managed to make it through this itinerary on buses and your own two feet so far, I recommend grabbing a cab or Uber to get to dinner – it’s just far enough to be annoying and cumbersome on a two-bus route.

For those who have been to Seattle before, perhaps before the dot-com boom that put companies like Amazon and Microsoft on the map, you won’t recognize South Lake Union at all. It used to be an industrial neighborhood; today it’s one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods and home to thousands of techies.

This also means there are some great restaurants in the area, including:

  • re:public – Where Mr. V and I went on our first date, and our last dinner date before getting married in Seattle. Awwwww….
  • Serious Pie – A funky pizza place that’s part of the Tom Douglas restaurant family, with unusual ingredients like charcuterie and veggies you didn’t know existed.

Again, like Ballard, it’s hard to go wrong here. These are just some of my favorites. If none calls out to you, you can wander the streets until you find one whose menu does.

9 pm – Sample Nightlife in Capitol Hill

Tired yet? No? GOOD. What’s life without a little nightlife? Grab another ride up to Capitol Hill, Seattle’s thriving scene after dark. There are two main areas of this neighborhood you can choose between (or visit both!): Broadway and the Pike/Pine Corridor.

Along Broadway, you could go for an avocado slushie margarita at Nacho Borracho (and if you have a few, you can settle your stomach with tot-chos). If you’re feeling brave, let the bartender have ‘Divine Inspiration’ and whip you up something unique at southern Baptist church-inspired Witness.

Over on the Pike/Pine Corridor, you can sample local craft brews and ciders at one of the many breweries or cideries. If you’re looking for something fancy, Rumba (and their sister bar Inside Passage) both require reservations, but mix up some incredible cocktails. This is also Seattle’s LGBTQ epicenter, so you’ll undoubtedly encounter a few characters (and may be tempted to join in!).

From this point on, your night is your own. You can just have a nightcap or make an epic evening of it! In either case, you’re capping off an epic day, and will probably wish you had more than one day in Seattle, right?

Where to Stay in Seattle

Last but certainly not least, you’ll need somewhere to rest your head after this long and lively one day 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. 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 $204 per night (off-season) with city views; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
  • I love the recently renovated Hotel Theodore. 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 $210 per night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.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. Rooms start at $285 per night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.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 $260 and up to $450 per night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.

Do you have other questions about how to make the most of one day in Seattle? Let me know in the comments!

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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