Seattle Bucket List: 25 Essential Experiences in the Emerald City
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Tucked away in the upper left corner of the United States, Seattle is the largest city in Washington and a top destination for over 40 million travelers per year. Some are passing through on their way to/from an Alaska Cruise; others seek Seattle as their final destination. No matter what brings you to the Emerald City, there are some Seattle bucket list experiences you don’t want to miss while you’re there.
To identify the best Seattle bucket list experiences, I’ve teamed up with my blogger friend Marissa from Postcards to Seattle on this one. Marissa and I met while I was living in Seattle; she still lives in the Seattle area and is an expert on Seattle and Seattle-based travel. Instead of just my expertise, you’re getting the double-whammy of past local and current local expert recommendations! (Also many of these spots make Marissa’s list of the most Instagram-worthy spots in Seattle, so be sure to bring your camera! I suggest one at the end of this post if you want my rec.)
So how did we choose which things to include on our Seattle bucket list? Here are 20 of the most essential experiences to put on your Seattle bucket list based on our experiences and how popular they are. We didn’t try to come up with every. single. thing. you could possibly do in Seattle – these are just the best and most essential bucket list things to do in Seattle. How many can you tick off on your trip?
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Duwamish, Suquamish, Muckleshoot, and Stillaguamish 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 January 2020, and was updated in October 2022.
1. Browse the Stalls at Pike Place Market
On the list of iconic places to visit in Seattle, the race is close between Pike Place Market and the Space Needle (#2 on my Seattle bucket list). Pike Place Market is right in the heart of downtown Seattle near the waterfront and it’s almost impossible to not visit this spot while visiting the city.
I recommend arriving early one day to watch the vendors set up and the market come to life. Depending on the time of year, any time between 7:30 am and 8:30 am is usually a good time to arrive to beat the crowds. Once the vendors open, you could watch the flying fish from the fishmongers, grab a bag of mini donuts from Daily Dozen Donuts, or treat yourself to a fresh bouquet of flowers or a local Seattle souvenir.
2. Ascend the Space Needle
Honestly, I can’t be sure whether I ordered this Seattle bucket list correctly. Is the Space Needle more popular? Do more people visit Pike Place Market? DOES EVERYONE JUST VISIT BOTH???
I’m guessing the answer to that last question is yes, so let’s put the Space Needle and Pike Place tied for first and second, and move on.
I wanna be clear: the Space Needle is super touristed. But there’s a reason it’s one of the most popular experiences in the city. (And that this is a bucket list that doesn’t shy away from that.) The Space Needle is freaking awesome, especially since the renovations completed in 2018. Even if you’ve visited the Space Needle before, you need to plan a trip back.
What makes the Space Needle so special now? Glass, glass, baby. The new Space Needle has glass everywhere – glass walls, glass benches, glass staircase, rotating glass floor. It’s like you’ve been suspended in the sky, and the city and Puget Sound spin around you, and there’s nothing between you and the best view in town.
3. Descend into the Seattle Underground
If you’ve never heard of the Seattle Underground experience, have you been living under a rock? I jest – it’s just that this unusual tour experience is so popular that both Marissa and I recommend it for your Seattle bucket list!
“Most visitors focus on Seattle tours around the city, not knowing that one of the best tours is actually underneath the city of Seattle,” Marissa said when I asked her why she loves this tour too. “The Seattle Underground Tour teaches you the history of when Seattle was first built, and you’ll even go underground to see parts of buildings from the 1800s.” I’ll add on that some tours dive into the saucier parts of Seattle’s history, too.
If you love history, the Seattle Underground Tour is pretty much un-skippable. You’ll learn all about Seattle’s weird and wild history… while standing at the original street level.
There are a couple of underground tours now, but I’ve always done Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour, which begins right from Pioneer Square.
4. Explore Pioneer Square
Speaking of Pioneer Square, this is Seattle’s historic neighborhood and a good place to wander around or grab lunch one day during your Seattle trip. The neighborhood has come up in a big way since I moved to Seattle in 2013. Long gone are the dingy parks and dodgy street corners; now you’ll find towering oaks, clean sidewalks, and hip eateries and bars.
I recommend doing this after you complete the Seattle Underground tour on your bucket list; you’re already in the area and you’ll have a better context for what you see in Pioneer Square once you’ve wandered around underneath it.
5. Add Your Gum to the Gum Wall
Adjacent to Pike Place Market (#1), the Gum Wall is Seattle’s grossest yet totally unmissable attraction. If you can believe it, they scraped all the gum off this wall in 2015; whatever you see today is new since then.
The tradition to stick gum on the outside wall of the Unexpected Productions Improv theatre started decades ago, and since then it has … stuck! Hah, get it? Gum jokes!
You can bring your own gum to chew and stick, or just snap a selfie… just don’t get too close or you might also get stuck. (OMG, another gum joke… but I won’t call it out…)
6. Meet the Fremont Troll
You know those fairy tales about trolls under bridges? Seattle’s actually got one. That’s how darn magical Seattle is!
If you head up to the Fremont neighborhood, follow the signs for the troll, and you’ll find him under the Aurora bridge. This towering figure was constructed by four artists in 1990, and honors the Norwegian folklore around trolls – Seattle has a strong Norwegian population and lots of locals have Norwegian heritage (Mr. V is one of them!).
The troll is free to visit and open 24/7 – you may have to wait to get the perfect picture, and you’re welcome to climb on him, with care!
While you’re in Fremont, don’t forget to tick #15 off your Seattle bucket list too!
7. Visit the ‘Original’ Starbucks
As you’ll notice, it’s pretty much impossible to visit Seattle and not visit a coffee shop. They’re on, like, every corner! And which coffee shop will you see more than any other? Why Starbucks, of course!
Starbucks began and is still headquartered in Seattle, and the “Original” Starbucks is located close to Pike Place Market (#1). I put “original” in quotes because it’s not the “first” Starbucks – that location is no longer open. But it’s just down the street and is the location that Starbucks officially endorses as the “original.”
Be prepared for lines; this is a weirdly popular and tiny coffee shop that serves the exact same coffee you can find in 132 other locations across the city. And 30,000 locations worldwide. But this is the original, people, and that counts for something.
8. Catch Some Sun at Gas Works Park
Don’t tell anyone I told you: the sun shines in Seattle. Actually, quite a lot. But don’t move there. It’s expensive (true) and everyone is mean (not true). I don’t want to be blamed for causing everyone to fall in love with Seattle and overrun it!
Okay, yes, the sun shines in Seattle. And when it does, we all flock outside to enjoy it. One place you’ll find locals lounging about making up for their vitamin D deficiencies is Gas Works Parks. You can go for a stroll or plop down on the grass to look out across Lake Union toward the Space Needle (#2) and city skyline.
9. Wander Along the Seattle Waterfront
While you’re down near Pike Place Market (#1) or waiting to catch a Washington State Ferry (#16), spend some time exploring the Seattle Waterfront.
From the Ferry Terminal at the south end to the start of Elliot Bay Trail and Olympic Sculpture Park in the north, the 1.5-mile waterfront is chock-a-block full of great views, cool experiences, and distinctly Seattle things to do.
Want a cool view? Climb up atop the Bell Harbor International Conference Center.
Traveling with kids? Splurge on admission to the Seattle Aquarium and learn all about the animals in Puget Sound or pop into Miner’s Landing for carnival games.
Need to stretch your legs after a long flight? Extend your walk along the waterfront another mile all the way to Elliot Bay Park (2.5 miles one way).
10. Ride the Great Wheel
When you need a break from all the walking along the waterfront, head to the Great Wheel.
Most big cities have a Ferris wheel or a tower where you can see the city from. Seattle has both. The Great Wheel is a city landmark and even used to be the tallest Ferris wheel on the West Coast. With its 175 feet high, you’ll enjoy unbeatable views of the Seattle skyline and Puget Sound on a beautiful day.
The wheel goes around 3-4 times with a stop at the top to enjoy the views. You can even bring your favorite beverage to sip while watching the ferries as they come and go – there’s a little shop selling alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks before the boarding point. You can purchase tickets online or at the booth once you arrive. However, it’s best to book your tickets online to beat the queue.
11. Visit the Seattle Art Museum
Let your eyes marvel at the history and art at the Seattle Art Museum. The SAM, as local culture vultures call it, is Seattle’s leading art museum and operates three major branches: its main museum in downtown Seattle; the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill, and Olympic Sculpture Park on the central Seattle waterfront.
The SAM has an impressive collection of 25,000 art pieces housed in even more impressive modern buildings. With a strong focus on global art, the museum curates thought-provoking permanent exhibits, temporary exhibits of contemporary art, and rotating special exhibitions from the old masters and rising artists. It’s feasible to see the highlights in an hour, but the avid museum-goer will feel the urge to explore every nook of the building.
12. Ride the Seattle Monorail
Relic of a bygone era, the Seattle Monorail is like the Space Needle (#2) – built for the 1962 World’s Fair, and we just can’t shake it off!
If you want to feel like you’re living in the Jetsons, grab a one-way ticket to ride the Monorail to or from the Seattle Center (where the Space Needle is located). Try to grab a seat at the front of the car near the driver and you’ll feel like you’re flying right through the city above street level!
13. Admire the Glass at Chihuly Gardens
You know those places that have everyone saying This is amazing; I had no idea. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Well, the Chihuly Gardens is one of those places.
Located right next to the Space Needle, the Chihuly Gardens is an exhibit showcasing the glass works of Dale Chihuly. The venue is made of three components: the Interior Exhibits, the Glasshouse, and the Garden. The interior exhibits are a feast of color and make stunning use of light to enhance and compliment the glass artworks. There’s also a live glass-blowing area and a film to help you understand the tremendous amount of work and skill that goes into each individual piece.
By all means, don’t miss the Garden. This amazing place combines nature with blown glass pieces, making a really unique visual experience.
14. Grab a Drink Atop Smith Tower, Seattle’s Oldest Skyscraper
Before you leave Pioneer Square (#4), look up! Do you notice that funny squat skyscraper with the pyramid at the top? That’s Smith Tower – Seattle’s first skyscraper. From the time it was completed in 1914 until 1931, Smith Tower was the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi – and it remained the tallest building in Washington State until 1962!
But what makes Smith Tower special today is the recently renovated Observation Deck and Bar. Since 2016, you can ride up to the 35th floor for sweeping views of the Puget Sound and Seattle Skyline. While you’re up there, follow Marissa’s suggestions: “Sunset is the best time to go, as you’ll get amazing photos of the sun going down over Puget Sound,” she shared when I asked her for tips. And as for what to drink? “They always have a specialized menu of seasonal drinks, so ask what the current special is when you’re there.” Cheers!
15. Bar-Hop Your Way Across Capitol Hill
If I ever started a food blog, it would be about bars and food trucks… in fact, this was how I spent most of my money in the first year I lived in Seattle!
If there’s one neighborhood where you should spend time and money, it’s Capitol Hill. This neighborhood is home to some of the city’s best bars – heck, it’s home to some of the world’s best bars. One bar, Canon, made #6 on the World’s 50 Best Bars list in 2014 (during my Seattle era), and there are countless others I can recommend. Here’s a quick list: Witness, Knee High Stocking Company, Nacho Borracho, Pine Box, Unicorn, Liberty, Stumbling Monk, Seattle Cider Company, Foreign National, goodbye money...
16. Sip the Good Stuff at Starbuck Reserve Roastery (Capitol Hill)
Any self-admitted coffee lover has to stop at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery, even if they’re not a Starbucks fan.
Nestled in Seattle’s vibrant Capitol Hill, Starbuck Reserve Roastery isn’t your average Starbucks. It is an experience revolving around every aspect of coffee, from the beans to all the delicious things you can make with it. Here, you can sip coffee cocktails and spirits (yes, there is a bar), indulge in coffee comparison flights with beans that are exclusive to this location, and munch on coffee desserts.
While the beverages and food are well worth the trip, it’s the atmosphere that makes all the difference for me. The scent of roasting coffee pleasantly wafting in the air, the huge coffee roasters in the back, the tubes that usher the beans through the building, the fancy coffee grinding machines. Starbucks has truly put a lot of love and attention into this venue. You’ll feel as if you’re in one of the best roastery’s in the world.
17. Nosh Fresh Oysters at Taylor Shellfish
Human cannot live on coffee alone, despite the proliferation of java spots across Seattle. We all have to eat sometimes, and these next two Seattle bucket list items are perfect for that. Be warned, vegans – I’m not one of you! (My blogger friend Brie has some great vegan suggestions in her Seattle vanlife guide, though.)
There are a lot of great seafood restaurants in Seattle and many of them offer great oysters – but most of those oysters are from Taylor Shellfish, so you might as well go straight to the source! Taylor Shellfish has three oyster bar locations in Seattle: the Lower Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, and SODO neighborhoods. Pick your poison, pick your size, and slurp!
18. Try Seattle’s Favorite Burgers at Dick’s Drive-In
Do you remember a few years ago, that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis song “White Walls?” In the music video, at the 1:46 mark, you’ll see Dick’s Drive-In. It’s a big enough Seattle institution that it was featured in one of their videos – and they still serve $2.05 cheeseburgers.
We love Dick’s so much that we had a big bag of burgers delivered to our wedding reception when we got married in Seattle in 2020:
(The bag also disappeared at the end of the reception with many burgers still inside so we’re not the only ones who love them!)
There are 7 locations around the Seattle area – as far north as Edmonds near where Marissa lives and as far south as Kent – so you have no excuse to not seek one out and snag a couple cheeseburgers and fries for less than $7 including tax. (The one in the Macklemore vid is on Capitol Hill, perfect after you try a couple of those bars I recommended.)
19. Visit the Center of the Universe
Not to get too space nerdy with you, but technically there is no center of the universe… Don’t tell the folks in Fremont that. Not far from the Fremont Troll, keep your eyes peeled for a crazy signpost that marks what locals consider the center of the universe.
There you’ll find helpful distance markers to places like the Louvre (9,757km), Machu Picchu (897km), and the Milky Way (69 light-years). It’s quirky, but heck, so is that troll and basically all of the rest of Fremont. (In fact, the neighborhood’s unofficial motto is motto “De Libertas Quirkas” (“Freedom to be Peculiar” in mock Latin).)
20. Ride the Washington State Ferry
Okay technically this Seattle bucket list experience takes you outside Seattle… but it’s about the experience more than the Seattle-y bit. While you’re in town, hop on one of the Washington State Ferries that depart from the Seattle waterfront! They’re spacious and comfortable and offer fantastic views of the city as you float away.
Where should you go? “Head down to the waterfront to catch the 30-minute ferry ride to Bainbridge Island, where you can grab lunch at the Mexican restaurant Isla Bonita,” Marissa advises. “Harbour Public House is another great option that lets you have a view of Puget Sound while drinking your pint.” (Harbour Public House is where I went on my first trip to Bainbridge!)
Whether you head to Bainbridge, as Marissa suggests as one of her favorite Seattle day trips, or Bremerton (the other destination you can reach by ferry from Seattle), it’s a fun way to spend a few hours.
21. Float on Lake Union in a Hot Tub Boats
You’ll see locals and visitors hesitate to recommend booking the hot tub boats on Like Union only because they don’t want it to get so popular that they can’t do it again.
While floating your way down a lake while taking in views of the surroundings is a relaxing plan in its own right, Seattle doubles down the bet and lets you meander on Lake Union in boats that have a wood-fired hot tub inside.
This plan is perfect for a date night or birthday party. You can captain the boat and take it anywhere you want, and even jump in the lake to cool off and get back in with the ladder. Companies let you take snacks or drinks with you and provide Bluetooth speakers to keep the party going strong.
22. Take a Road Trip from Seattle
Don’t point out this is another “Seattle” bucket list item outside Seattle… but part of the reason people love Seattle is that it’s in the middle of a beautiful part of the country and there are basically endless destinations you can reach if you base yourself in Seattle.
To that end, if you have the time, consider booking a few days in one of my favorite Seattle road trips:
- You could visit Anacortes, or use it as a jumping-off point for the San Juan Islands
- Gig Harbor is close at hand, and it’s at the base of the Olympic Peninsula, which is a great road trip
- Further afield, Long Beach has won me over many times, and Portland, Oregon isn’t far either
Seriously, there are tons of amazing options if you want to tick off ‘exploring the Pacific Northwest’ on your Seattle bucket list.
23. Visit Nearby Alki Beach & West Seattle
Here’s random trivia I find fascinating and maybe you will too: did you know that the first European settlers to land in Seattle actually set foot in what’s now called West Seattle, on Alki Beach? There’s actually a monument there! (Pictured above with Mr. V reading the plaque.) While the Puget Sound was long inhabited by First Peoples, specifically the Duwamish and Suquamish, we white folks love to commemorate our own discoveries.
(Before you get at me about this, there’s also a cool statue of Chief siʔaɫ (“Seattle” in the local Lushootseed language) – the Suquamish and Duwamish chief after whom the city is named – in Belltown not far from the Space Needle. Consider it a bonus Seattle bucket list stop if you want to balance out your ‘admiring historic monuments’ scale.)
Today’s West Seattle is a very different place than those Europeans discovered. The stretch along Alki Beach – yes, there’s a real sand beach in Seattle! – is a great place to spend an afternoon.
Here’s some fun trivia from Marissa: “Locals call Alki Beach “Seattle’s Venice Beach” due to it having a large stretch of sand where you can play volleyball,” she said. As for what to do while you’re enjoying our Venice Beach, “Renting bicycles or even rollerblades is another popular activity people love doing on the sidewalk that goes the length of the beach. Make sure to stop at Duke’s Seafood & Chowder for a huge selection of Pacific Northwest seafood.”
To be honest, I completely forgot that chowder is a must-eat food that should definitely be on your Seattle bucket list too. There’s just too much good stuff to do!
(Thanks here to my friend Kelly for consulting to ensure I got the details right on the First Peoples in the Puget Sound region.)
24. Find Your Favorite View of Mt. Rainier
Throughout this Seattle bucket list, there have been several great city views and cool vistas across Puget Sound – but I haven’t mentioned the other breathtaking view you can have in Seattle: Mt. Rainier.
A sleeping giant, it’s easy to forget that if volcanic Mt. Rainier erupted, we’d pretty much all be toast. There’s nothing like remembering death to make you appreciate life (and tick off those bucket list items!), right? So here are some of the best spots to get a view of Mt. Rainier in the Seattle area:
- From atop the Space Needle (how convenient since you’re already doing that!)
- In Kerry Park (this park in Queen Anne neighborhood has some of the best views in town)
- Atop Columbia Tower (the Sky View Observatory has 360° views including stunners of Rainier)
Note that you can’t see Rainier from Gas Works Park (#8) – the city obscures the view.
25. Book a Seattle Duck Tour
If you know Seattle at all, you’ll be surprised that I waited this long to mention it: you gotta do a Seattle Duck Tour!
The ‘Ducks’ are amphibious vehicles that will take you on a tour on the streets of downtown Seattle and into the waters of Lake Union for some epic city views. While the Ducks did have an unfortunate vehicle accident in 2015, the company has worked hard to repair their damaged reputation and improve their safety record.
Mr. V and I did a Seattle Duck Tour for our first anniversary of dating… as you can tell, even as locals we love completing items on this Seattle bucket list!
You now know my top 25 essential Seattle bucket list experiences – which one is your #1? Let me know any questions or comments below!