One of the most common questions I get from people who want to visit Seattle is how to make it an authentic and fun experience. The Pacific Northwest is such a unique corner of the country (and world), that you really need a local to give you the inside scoop. Whenever I visit new places, I like to see the main sights – no harm in being a true tourist – but whenever I can explore some hidden gems, that’s when the most magical travel experiences occur. I put together this list of Must-Have Seattle Experiences so that you know exactly how to plan your trip to the Pacific Northwest.
I’ve lived in Seattle for….nearly 30 years (wow!). I’m a University of Washington and Bastyr University grad and I grew up on the Kitsap Peninsula (hence some of the recommendations to head over there). Having worked in the restaurant industry for years and years combined with always living in the city and various neighborhoods, I have a lot of fun suggestions for you. If you come visit and try any of these tips, you have to let me know in the comments and if you have more to add that aren’t on my list, let me know, too!
Seattle Visit Overview
Seattle is known for its beautiful outdoor experiences, year-round, unique museums and parks, and amazing food. Here’s my personal, native-Seattle suggestions for you. You’ll find a mix of the touristy stuff and the hidden gems that you can combine depending on how long you’re here. I’ve broken down the top must-have Seattle experiences for you by category.
Seattle is nestled in the Puget Sound. Seatac airport is on the south end and there’s a light rail that you can catch from the airport that goes directly into the city. However, since things are pretty spread out and our public transport isn’t the best, you may want to seriously consider renting a car. Most of what you want to see isn’t directly downtown so consider getting an airbnb or hotel not in the downtown area. Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, Fremont or Columbia City can be fun places to stay and are centrally located.
Year round, you’ll want to bring excellent walking shoes that are broken in. You’ll be putting in some miles. Things are pretty casual around here; you’ll notice people dressing very differently than LA, Chicago, or New York. Jeans and a fleece is the norm for a lot of us. Even CEOs will wear jeans and t-shirts at work. Because of how far north we are and surrounded by water, the nights cool off quickly, even on the hottest days in the summer. In July, August and September, it’s not unusual to get up into the 80’s or even 90’s but the heat won’t hold so you should bring a jacket absolutely any time you visit. Yes: it rains a lot but not hard so consider some sort of shell jacket to wear so that you can still get out there. Umbrellas aren’t commonly used so it’s all about the outerwear.
Safety isn’t usually much of an issue in the city but you should be aware of your surroundings and avoid anyone acting sporadic or strange. Like any city, consider walking with someone else rather than alone if possible, at night, and keep an eye out if you’re in a park at night as well. Be careful crossing the streets; it’s dark and rainy and can be hard to see people in crosswalks if you’re a driver. The roads are often winding, steep, and narrow and confusing so if you’re driving, take some extra time. The drivers here are known to be a bit slow and polite, stopping in the middle of the street to let pedestrians cross and waving others on at 4-way stops.
Must-Have Seattle Experiences
Best Walking Parks
Seattle is all about getting outside – no matter the weather. You can walk one of these huge parks of ours, all spread out in different neighborhoods that you want to visit to get that local feel. Put on your walking shoes, grab your rain jacket and explore these favorite parks of mine. Make sure you keep your dog on a leash if you have one!
- Greenlake: this one is getting a bit crowded these days but it’s still a beautiful Seattle staple. Take the walk on the path; it’s flat and about 3 miles. There’s lots of free parking most of the way around the lake and a little bit of paid parking on the side where there’s a Starbucks and more stores and restaurants. Go a little further to not have to pay or opt for the other side.
- Seward Park: this park has lots of hiking trails to choose from and a 2.4 mile walking or biking trail. If you like sitting by the water, there are some awesome beaches to check out here, too. In the summer, people even take a little dip in the water…though it’s still chilly.
- Discovery: this is a great place to watch birds and other wildlife. You may even see some seals or sea lions! There are several beaches to enjoy and a loop trail through the wooded areas. This is a really big area so you can spend a half day exploring.
- Lincoln Park: this one is a good choice for hiking, picnics, and enjoying rocky beaches. There are about 5 miles of trails with some strenuous trails and others offer a milder hike. The views are incredible and it’s definitely a fun way to explore West Seattle if you’re over that way.
- Ravenna Park: this one is especially fun with kids. It has two picnic areas, hiking trails, and a playground. Mostly wooded with some fun bridges to cross, too, tourists would never think to come here!
Hidden Gem Experiences
There are some really fun secret spots in the city that a lot of people may not think to visit but that will give you a really authentic experience. You should consider doing some of the more obvious things like the Space Needle and Underground Tour, etc but this is where you go to get off the beaten-path.
- Smith tower: A historical skyscraper with an observation deck that offers an amazing 360 degree view of Seattle, this is a fun secret spot if you’re in the downtown/Pioneer Square area or if you’re doing a ferry ride. Keep your eyes peeled in this area as it can be a bit questionable after dark…and during the day, too. Parking is challenging in the area.
- Bloedel Reserve: A tranquil forest garden in Bainbridge island with easy walking trails. If you take your car over to the Kitsap Peninsula, this is a wonderful way to explore the authentic area.
- Volunteer Park Conservatory: A historical Victorian greenhouse with a variety of intriguing tropical plants; you can also check out the Seattle Asian Art Museum and walk the park right in the middle of Capital Hill if you come visit.
- Stroll through University of Washington – ask for the Quad and the fountain. It’s really popular during cherry tree season in the spring but it’s got amazing energy any time of year. You can grab some pho or Thai food on the “Ave” while you get a feel for university life in the middle of Seattle.
- Seattle Meowtropolitan: Have coffee with cats in the Fremont/Stone Way area! This cat cafe makes coffee with cat shapes in the foam. You can relax and enjoy an hour in the cat room and they even offer cat yoga. This cafe fosters cats from the Regional Animal Services of King County until they find their forever homes. Seattle has a lot of cat cafes – I also recommend Neko where I got my own cat – this one is on Capitol Hill!
Seattle has a lot of museums – some are more for adults and some are perfect for kinds like the Pacific Science Center. We also have a really fun Aquarium and Zoo. Here are my top picks (mostly for adults):
- Seattle art museum: A large museum featuring about 25,000 pieces of historical and modern art.
- Museum of pop culture: A contemporary museum to immerse in the pop culture experience with collections of instruments and handwritten lyrics from famous musicians like Jimi Hendrix. It also provides fun learning activities for all ages.
- National nordic museum: Learn about the history of Nordic immigrants with preserved historical collections and learning workshops.
- Seattle Asian Art Museum: A museum featuring beautiful Asian artwork with a variety of historical displays.
- Freye Art Museum: A modem museum with artwork symbolizing Seattle’s evolving identity and global issues.
Must Have Adventures
There are a few more obvious “Seattle” things that I honestly think are worth doing. I tried to combine the typical experiences with something a little more ‘local’ here in these ½ day to full day adventures I often recommend to visitors. If you try any, let me know in the comments!
Take a walk through Kerry Park and then spend some time browsing through the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum. While you’re in that area, take an elevator ride up to the observation deck of the Space Needle. It was recently remodeled to provide the most spectacular 360 views of Seattle. They also have a really fun brunch or fancy dinner if you want a splurge.
Bainbridge Island and Ferry Ride
Enjoy a ferry ride to Bainbridge Island. On the 30 minute ferry ride, you can stand outside and watch Seattle fade into the distance as you approach the island. You’ll find some fun adventures on Bainbridge; be sure to check out one of the many Bainbridge wineries and have dinner at Harbor Public House.
Pike Place Market
Walk through Pike Place Market to see all sorts of fun small shops. Support local artists by purchasing some art or a hand-made craft or jewelry and get your host a bouquet of flowers. You need to stop by my obsession, Ellenos yogurt. Walk down to Post Alley and see the gum wall while you’re there- be sure to snap a pic – it’s very gross.
Take a ride on the big ferris wheel at the waterfront for a fun way to view Seattle. Wings Over Washington is surprisingly fun, as well, especially after you’ve had a beer or two at Old Stove, Cloudburst or the Pike Place Brewing Co. Then head to Olympic Sculpture Park for an outdoor museum experience walking by modern art sculptures right on the waterfront.
Head to the Fremont neighborhood to take some fun pictures with the giant troll under the bridge. Take a walk over the bridge or on the trail below it and enjoy some pho or Thai food in the downtown area. There are also cute shops there and you can stop by my very favorite Fremont Brewing or Schilling Hard Cider while you’re there.
The sky’s the limit with local hiking. You’re going to want to head into the Cascade foothills and you’ll definitely need a car. Consider the popular Snow Lake or head to Little Si but please make sure you’re very prepared for these adventures, have food and water, stay on the trails, don’t litter, respect other hikers, and have a clear plan and path for your day.
Some of my Favorite Restaurants
I’m obsessed with Seattle food. Pacific Northwest cuisine is often very farm-to-table – you may find local sheep or goat cheeses, fiddlehead ferns, local onions, apples and potatoes, or marionberry or huckleberry baked goods on the menu. You’ll notice local foods on my blog posts all the time like my Pine Cordial and Blackberry Crisp.
Seafood takes center stage, especially salmon, halibut, mussels, clams, and oysters. Influenced by both Asian and Native American cultures, definitely try items you’re unfamiliar with and don’t forget to order a local beer, wine or cider. This is a small, small list of my very favorite restaurants in the area, spread out in different neighborhoods. A lot of these are very busy and have long waits so make sure to plan ahead; not all are kid friendly (at all) so if you need family suggestions, drop me a comment and let me know!
Edgewater gorgeous happy hour on the water
Pink Door a fancy little Italian dinner in Pike Place
Kedai Makan Malaysian food – best ever – on Capitol Hill
La Carta de Oaxaca beautiful little Mexican restaurant in Ballard
Fonda La Catrina delicious food in Georgetown; margaritas on tap
Bang Bar Thai West Seattle – one of my go-to Thai restaurants
Tamarind Tree – authentic Vietnamese cuisine
Umi Sushi – there’s a lot of sushi in Seattle; I like this downtown restaurant
Geraldines – go for brunch on a weekday; long lines on the weekends
Seapine brewing – tucked away in the Industrial District, this is a super local spot
Macrina bakery – grab a coffee and pastry at any of their locations from Queen Anne to Downtown
If you try any of these suggestions, you must let me know in the comments!