To really get to know Seattle, spend a few days exploring beyond the main attractions. Spread out over (and up and down) the city’s seven hills are too many gems to count, but we’ve made a start. Here are 10 insider tips on what to see and do in Seattle.
Get Out on Lake Union
Hands-on experience is encouraged at the Center for Wooden Boats in South Lake Union. Every Sunday, rain or shine, volunteer skippers give free rides during the Public Sail, a 25-year-old tradition. You can also rent a sailboat, rowboat, canoe, kayak, or a paddle boat to explore Lake Union; take a class on sailing, woodworking, toy boat building, and more; and check out interactive exhibits right on the dock.
Visit a Literary Landmark
The city that gave us Amazon hasn’t let go of its love for traditional bookstores. A cultural mecca for readers, Elliott Bay Book Company in Capitol Hill is considered one of the finest bookshops in the U.S. It’s easy to see why. The space itself is airy and beautiful, with high ceilings and lots of wood. The selection is outstanding, with local authors, up-and-coming writers, and bestsellers sharing shelves on two floors. In the back is Little Oddfellows, a cafe that invites lingering over a good read.
See Spawning Salmon
The main purpose of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (better known as the Ballard Locks) is to shuttle boat traffic between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, which is worth a visit in itself, but there’s an even cooler reason to come: The locks also include a fish ladder for spawning salmon. Twenty-one “steps,” called weirs, let marine life make the same passage the boats do, critical to the survival of Pacific salmon. Large viewing areas offer a submarine view of the huge coho, chinook, steelhead, and sockeye salmon that parade by as they head upstream to their spawning beds. There’s a best time to visit for each species, but you’ll see action from June through November.
Take a Ferry to the Islands
Don’t come to Seattle without getting out on the water. The best way is by taking a ferry to one of the nearby islands—Bainbridge, Vashon, or any of the San Juans—for a day trip (or longer). The ferry terminals are located on the downtown waterfront and in West Seattle. Take the 35-minute ride to Bainbridge Island and explore the quaint town of Winslow, or the 20-minute ride to rural Vashon Island. Ferries also head to Bremerton on the Kitsap Peninsula, an hour away, where you can tour the U.S.S. Turner Joy and the Puget Sound Navy Museum.
Parks, Parks, and More Parks
Ever wonder why Seattle is known as the Emerald City? It’s green. About 12 percent of Seattle is parkland, which works out to more than 485 parks. In addition to the must-see Gas Works Park, don’t miss Discovery Park (the city’s largest, overlooking Puget Sound); Kerry Park in Queen Anne (for a world-famous Seattle view); Washington Park Arboretum on Lake Washington (for 230 acres of gardens and trails), Seward Park (for the largest stand of old-growth forest in the city); or Waterfall Garden Park, a stunning (and tiny) surprise in Pioneer Square.
Go to the Library
Wait, a public library on the list? Trust us. The main library of the Seattle Public Library system is a showstopper. An odd-shaped glass-and-steel attraction, the building is full of cool touches. Nearly six football fields’ worth of glass combines with metal mesh to form the library’s walls, allowing light to pour in. The books themselves are arranged in a continuous ribbon that spirals up three floors, with Dewey Decimal numbers serving as graphic waypoints. There’s also a huge “living room” for lounging, a gift shop for literary souvenirs, and an LCD art installation that shows a mesmerizing real-time visualization of items as they are checked out.
You might not see it, but it’s always there. Mount Rainier, the active volcano that anchors Mount Rainier National Park, is just 54 miles away, but cloud cover often means you can’t spot it from Seattle. (If you can, you’ll hear “the mountain’s out.”) Head to the park in winter for snowboarding, skiing, and sledding, or in the summer for technical climbs. If pretty views are more your speed, you’re in luck any time of the year, though spring’s wildflower displays are hard to beat.
Sample Seattle Brews
Seattle may be better known for its coffee, but not by much. The city’s craft beer scene has been steadily growing for decades and it doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. The success has been partly attributed to the unique flavor of the hops grown in the Yakima Valley east of the city. Fremont Brewing Company offers small-batch brews made with local ingredients, plus an urban beer garden open every day. Reuben’s Brews in Ballard is on a mission to “brew bloody good beer.” It’s working: The beers have won awards and the taproom draws happy customers. Also worth a visit: Holy Mountain Brewing, Georgetown Brewing Company, and Cloudburst Brewing.
For an off-kilter look at Seattle, go deep. Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour takes visitors through the city’s interconnected tunnels for a look at what Seattle was like before the Great Fire of 1889. After the blaze, which destroyed 120 acres, the downtown was rebuilt—but with the streets raised in order to level them out. The remains of the original buildings were entombed belowground and left abandoned until Speidel saw their potential as a tourist attraction. The walking tour takes 75 minutes and leaves every hour.
Asian supermarket giant Uwajimaya’s flagship store covers an astonishing 66,000 square feet in Chinatown/International District. The grocery section alone is overwhelming, with more than 20,000 offerings from Japan, China, and the rest of East Asia. It also includes a gift market, a food court, and Kinokuniya Bookstore, a wonderland of Japanese pens and paper goods, books, manga, and much, much more.