What to Do in Seattle Before Your Cruise (or After It!) in 2023
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When it comes to Alaska cruises, you have two southern ports to start or end your adventure: Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia. While I like Vancouver well enough – and sailed north out of that port on my Windstar cruise in June 2022 – Seattle will always hold a special place in my heart, and it’s the port I recommend sailing in/out of since I know the city and love helping people spend time there.
You see, I called Seattle home for four years, and it’s where I met Mr. V (his family is from the Puget Sound region). Though we don’t call the Pacific Northwest home anymore, I love planning return trips to see how the city has changed and grown since we did.
Coming back to you, dear reader, Seattle is a common embarkation and disembarkation port for Alaska cruises, and you might be reading this, looking at your cruise itinerary, and wondering: what do I do for those extra hours in Seattle after my flight arrives but before embarking the ship – or after disembarking but before my flight departs? This post is here to help.
Below, you’ll find two suggestions for how to spend time in Seattle before your cruise – or after it. First, I share a guide for independent travelers to spend the day in Seattle seeing top sights; second, I recommend a handful of Seattle shore excursion that the cruise companies offer to help you see the city with fewer logistics. No matter which one you choose, you’ll have a great time exploring one of my favorite cities.
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.
Part of this post was originally published in January 2020, and was added to this new post in November 2022.
One Day in Seattle Pre-/Post-Alaska Cruise
Whether you’ve just woken up in your cabin and put out your luggage or touched down at SeaTac airport, you probably have some time to kill in Seattle before the next leg of your journey. Rather than wasting that time at the airport (though the Delta lounge is really nice!), here’s how you can spend a day in Seattle before heading to your cruise ship or after disembarkation.
10 am – Breakfast at Pike Place Market
The iconic Pike Place Market is one of Seattle’s top destinations, but it gets increasingly crowded as the day wears on. By the time you’re ready to start sightseeing, most of the market will be set up and you can grab breakfast. Since you’re on vacation, why not stop by Daily Dozen Donuts or Honest Biscuits; the latter is part of the Market Expansion and has great views out over Elliot Bay.
Don’t forget to seek out the famous (and disgusting) Gum Wall, give Rachel the Piggy Bank (a giant pig statue) a pat, and watch a few fish being tossed around by the fish vendors.
11 am – Coffee at the Original Starbucks
After fueling up with food, it’s time to visit another Seattle institution: Original Starbucks. This is just across the street from Pike Place Market.
While the Original Starbucks isn’t actually the original Starbucks (that location is no longer in business), there’s almost always a line here to buy a cup of coffee and souvenirs.
If you’re not digging the franchise-iness (or fran-cheese-iness) of the First Starbucks, there are plenty of local coffee shops in the area with good coffee as you walk from Pike Place Market to the next part of the itinerary.
12 pm – Ride the Monorail
It’s a five-block, 0.3-mile walk from Pike Place Market to the Monorail Station at Westlake Center. This should only take 10-15 minutes, so there’s no rush. Take time to stop and enjoy the scenery and new construction that has completely changed the Seattle skyline in the past decade.
I recommend taking the route up Stewart Street as opposed to Pike Street for a couple of reasons:
- It’s a bit more scenic and offers you glimpses into both the Downtown and Belltown neighborhoods.
- It’s a few blocks shorter, but it is uphill – a good way to get your steps in.
- It skirts past some of the rougher parts of Downtown, where you might encounter a few more homeless people. Like many West Coast cities, Seattle and The Puget Sound are struggling with homelessness and drug use and Stewart Street navigates around that.
Once you get to the Monorail Station, buy a ticket and board this historic relic of transportation. Like the Space Needle you’re en route to, the Monorail was built for the 1962 World’s Fair. If you can get a seat right at the front of the vehicle, it’s a fun elevated train ride with plenty of urban scenery to admire.
12:30 pm – Ascend the Space Needle
After you disembark the Monorail, head straight to the Space Needle for your timed ticket. You can (and should) book your tickets in advance to ensure you skip the line. If you didn’t book tickets in advance, you may have to wait to ascend the newly remodeled Seattle icon.
Once you reach the top, be prepared for mind-blowing unobstructed views of Seattle and the surrounding region in every direction. You’ll be welcomed with city views, the Museum of Pop Culture’s funky design right below you, and on a clear day, you might be able to see the Olympic Mountains and Mount Rainier. The remodel replaced old steel and fences with almost entirely glass structures – including a glass floor on the lower level. Whether you’ve visited Seattle a dozen times (or even live in the area), it’s totally worth ascending the Space Needle for this new experience.
1:30 pm – Grab Lunch at the Seattle Center
Personally, I can spend forever atop the Space Needle with those views. But, as you’re on a time crunch, be aware of the time and make your way down from the observation deck after about an hour. (This is why it’s super important to book your Space Needle tickets in advance so you don’t spend 45 minutes just waiting to get to the top!)
The Monorail and Space Needle are both on a campus called Seattle Center; there’s another building called The Armory where you can grab lunch before heading to your cruise ship or the airport. Inside, I recommend ordering a bite at Skillet. They have delicious homestyle foods with all the modern flare – pro-tip: the poutine is basically irresistible.
3 pm – Catch a Ride to Your Ship/Head to SeaTac Airport
When you finish lunch, it’s time for either a bittersweet moment or a downright sad moment:
- It’s bittersweet if you’re out of time in Seattle but about to set off on an unforgettable Alaskan cruise.
- It’s sad if you are done with both your Alaska cruise and your time in Seattle and it’s time to head home.
No matter the case, all good things must come to an end. You can call an Uber or get a taxi from Seattle Center to your next destination.
The 7 Best Seattle Cruise Excursions
If your whole goal in planning an Alaska cruise is to NOT have to plan stuff on your own, you might rather book a shore excursion in Seattle to visit some, all, or none of the activities I mentioned above.
All of the major cruise companies offer shore excursions in Seattle pre-/post-cruise; here are the seven I think are most worth doing if you have the time and want to enjoy more of what Seattle has to offer – without worrying about the logistics.
1. Seattle Underground Tour
Curious about the history of Seattle? There’s no tour that teaches it to you in such an… interesting way as the Seattle Underground Tour. It’s by far the most unusual tour in town and still one of the most popular.
On a three-hour tour, you’ll descend beneath the streets of Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood. There you’ll learn about Seattle’s first urban core, the fire that destroyed it, how Seattle was rebuilt, and the characters that called this city home when it all was going on.
This is an excellent tour for families, as the guides offer a more kid-friendly version. There’s also an adult version too if it works for your schedule. I list the Underground Tour on my Seattle Bucket List too, so you know this is a good one!
2. Space Needle/Chihuly Garden & Glass Combo
If you have less time or just want a shorter excursion that still lets you see some of Seattle’s top sights, the Space Needle/Chihuly Garden & Glass Museum combo tour is a good choice. As it includes two of the city’s most popular attractions and maybe even have time to explore the Seattle Center a bit too during the 2.5-3 hour tour.
As you already know, I absolutely love the renovated Space Needle with all of the glass walls and rotating glass floor. Like with the ‘Grand City Tour’ above – and especially if you’re not doing that one –, this tour is a must-do on your first trip to Seattle – or if you’ve not been up the Space Needle since it re-opened in 2018.
3. The “Grand City Tour” by Land & Sea
If your Alaska cruise includes your first trip to Seattle, the “Grand City Tour” is a great add-on excursion before or after your time on the ship. Not all cruise companies call it by this name; some just mention the sights you’ll see or call it something like “The Best of Seattle.”
Which sights make the cut? On the 4-6 hour tour, you’ll visit and see:
- Seattle Center
- The Space Needle
- Pike Place Market
- Pioneer Square
- The International District
The itineraries might vary a little from company to company. But they almost all include all of these sights as well as a short cruise along the Seattle Waterfront and into Lake Union. They also offer variations whether you need a transfer to the airport, your ship, or your hotel – and accessible options.
I assume that this is the most popular Alaska cruise excursion in Seattle – and for good reason. Many of these made my list of Seattle bucket list experiences, so this tour is a great option to tick a few of those off!
4. Emerald City Highlights & Tillicum Village Excursion
As you know if you’ve reviewed any of my other Alaska cruise port guides, I recommend booking at least one Native Alaskan/American excursion on your cruise to educate yourself about the people who lived here long before big boats came sailing through.
There’s even an option in Seattle to begin/end your cruise with this essential experience, thanks to the excursion offered by Celebrity and Royal Caribbean. Over the course of the 6.5-hour tour, you’ll see some of Seattle’s top sights, make a stop at Pike Place Market, and board a boat to Blake Island where you’ll visit the Tillicum Village and enjoy dinner there. This tourist attraction isn’t strictly traditional, but gives you a chance to experience the cultures of the Pacific Northwest Native peoples.
5. Future of Flight & Boeing Factory Tour
Would you believe that despite my space nerdery, I have actually never done the Future of Flight and Boeing Factory tour? This is a great tour for families, aviation history buffs, and aerospace geeks like me.
On this 4.5-hour tour, you’ll explore all things planes and other flying contraptions. While the Boeing Factory Tour focuses more on industry and assembly, the Future of Flight has interactive exhibits all about historic and future technology, and innovation in the aviation industry.
6. Woodinville Wine Tasting
If you love wine and have the time before or after your Alaska cruise – you’ll need basically a whole day before or after embarkation – the Woodinville Wine Tasting tours that several cruise companies offer are a great option to escape the city and taste local flavors.
This tour ranks lower on the list than others because it’s not as great for those who are making their first trip to Seattle as part of their Alaska cruise – or who haven’t visited Seattle in 10 years or more since the city has substantially changed.
If you have visited Seattle recently and want to try something new, this wine-tasting tour is a great option. You’ll visit two wine estates (Woodhouse Wine Estates and Chateau Ste Michelle), tour them both and try their wines. As Washington continues to gain prominence in the global wine industry, oenophiles will want to take this tour for sure! (Isn’t oenophiles just the greatest word?)
7. Small Bites On The Bay – Pike Place Tasting Tour
As you may have guessed, Pike Place Market is one of Seattle’s best attractions, and a great spot to grab a bite or try a few new flavors. This particular tour is a three-hour guided tour of the Market, including stops at nine different vendors to taste and sample their wares.
While I love this particular cruise excursion, it ends up at the end of my list only because of how few companies offer it – just two. That said, if you love food and are cruising with Holland or Princess, this is a great option!
Bonus! One Non-Cruise Excursion Worth Booking
If you have the budget, haven’t yet booked a flightseeing excursion on the rest of your Alaska cruise, or you just love to see the world from above, you should definitely consider booking a flight with Kenmore Air. I had the chance to do their Seattle Scenic Seaplane tour back in 2016 and it was the first time I had seen Seattle that way – despite having lived there for three years at that point!
Flightseeing tours are surprisingly affordable, starting at $99 per person, but you’ll need to arrange your own transport to/from the experience. Luckily, Kenmore takes off from Lake Union which is centrally located and an easy taxi or rideshare ride.
What to Do with Your Luggage
To address the most common question I get about spending a day in Seattle before or after your Alaska cruise: what do I do with my luggage?!
- If you are spending time in Seattle before your cruise, I recommend confirming which pier you will depart from, and the use a luggage service like Bounce to store your luggage during the day. (Bounce takes advantage of spare storage in shops and such to securely store your luggage – I’ve used it and similar services around the world during my travels.)
- If you have time in Seattle after your cruise before your flight, I strongly suggest using the Port Valet service to transport your luggage directly to SeaTac airport from the ship. This is a super handy service that’s unique to Seattle (as far as I know) and only available for disembarking passengers.
Where to Stay in Seattle Before or After Your Cruise
If you’re planning even more time in Seattle before or after your Alaska cruise, you might next wonder where to stay. I have a guide to different Seattle neighborhoods I recommend, but since you only have a short time in the city, here are the places I consider the best place to stay before your cruise sets sail – or after it ends.
- 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 or Hotels.com.
- On one recent 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 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, 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 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 $389 per night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
I hope that answers your top questions. Have any other questions about spending time in Seattle before or after your cruise? Let me know in the comments!
Keep Planning Your Alaska Cruise!
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