If you think the only thing to do in Seattle is to go up in the Space Needle then you don’t know Seattle. If you don’t also think about glass blowing, pop music, gold rush history, beautiful scenery, and baseball then Seattle may surprise you.
Let me present out a 3-day itinerary of what to do in the Emerald City.
Table of contents: ()
- How Many Days in Seattle?
- Get a Seattle CityPASS
- What to Do in Seattle – a 3 Day Itinerary
- Where to Stay
- How to Get to Seattle from the Airport
If you visit Seattle the first thing to do is… pack both an umbrella and sunglasses and bring them both with you when you go out. Seattle is known for its rainy weather but it probably does not get as much rain as you think. It does get quite a few days that are misty or cloudy or partly cloudy. It also then gets a few hours of sun before another bunch of clouds move in. If the weather had a Facebook page, the relationship status would be “it’s complicated”. The mountains of the Olympic Penninsula is where you can really find a rain forest in the area, but the coastal mountains behind Seattle tend to pile up the clouds in Seattle.
How Many Days in Seattle?
If you visit Seattle the first thing to do is… come for at least 3 days. I know a lot of people are just planning on being in Seattle for one day before their Alaska cruise, but with day trips I could easily come up with a week-long itinerary. In fact, we have done that on the Amateur Traveler podcast.
Listen to Travel to Seattle, Washington – Amateur Traveler Episode 502 for some great ideas on what to do in and around Seattle for a week.
Get a Seattle CityPASS
If you are planning to visit at least 3 of Seattle’s top attractions (listed below) you can save money by buying a Seattle CityPASS. The pass is $99 for an Adult and $79 for a child.
The Seattle CityPASS Admission Includes:
- Space Needle
- Seattle Aquarium
- Argosy Cruises Harbor Tour (or upgrade to a 2 hour cruise)
- Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) OR Woodland Park Zoo
- Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum OR Pacific Science Center
If you are coming for a single day, I would probably skip the CityPASS and just pick one or maybe two of these sites. You really don’t save money unless you do 3 or more of these. The pass is good for 9 days. We were able to fit in 6 of these in a roughly 3-day trip but we do move quickly. The only one I have not been to recently is the Woodland Park Zoo.
What to Do in Seattle – a 3 Day Itinerary
This itinerary will need some tweaking based on the weather. Some of these activities are indoor activities but save the Space Needle and a harbor cruise for your best weather days and the Chihuly for your second best weather.
If you visit Seattle the first thing to do is… the Space Needle. There I said it. It is touristy but it is also iconic. Any photo that you take of the Seattle Skyline is immediately recognizable once it includes the Space Needle. I first visited the Space Needle the year that the men landed on the moon. The building is still the same but the experience has been updated since then. I do miss the revolving restaurant that used to be in the Space Needle, but then again it was my father who was paying the check when I went there as a kid.
You will still find the same great views which is the reason you want to do this on one of your best weather days. When the Space Needle was built for the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, you could look south and the tallest building would have been the 484-foot-tall 38-story tower Smith Tower at the south side of the downtown area. That building is eclipsed now by the tenth largest skyline in the U.S.
Now missing from the waterfront by downtown is the highway that used to run along the edge of the water. I, for one, don’t miss this eyesore.
To the east, you can see Lake Union that I am going to talk about and even recommend you cruise tomorrow. To the north, you will find the beautiful neighborhood of Queen Anne. To the west is the Puget Sound which is a deep water bay (a fjord really). There is water in every direction and the Seattle Area is always a lush green… when not a gloomy grey.
Your ticket to the Space Needle now includes a couple of things that this Instagram generation will love including selfie cams, a selfie wall of photos and a zoom video camera mounted on a neighboring building. Before you leave your hotel, download the Space Needle App to access these features. The app is free and there is free wi-fi at the Space Needle but we had trouble downloading the app while outside on the viewing platform.
The video from the nearby building is a great idea but the execution needs a bit of work. Someone needs to clean the camera lens and re-aim the camera. But that really is me waving at you from the Space Needle. How cool is that!.
The selfie camera is also a bit odd because even though it is taking a picture of you on the Space Needle, the only copies you can get are ones with 6 different backdrops which are added into the photo like you standing as if you were giants in front of the Space Needle. Oddly one of these shows you as if you were on the Space Needle… but… I really was on the Space Needle. Why can’t I get that actual photo?
Oddly enough, your admission for the Space Needle will include a second admission for the same day. That is so you can come back and also see the city at night.
Right at the base of the Space Needle are 3 different museums: the Chihuly, the Pacific Science Center, and the MoPop. If you do the Space Needle as the first thing, then you should have time to get to one or two of these museums as well.
Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum
I love the glass artwork of the artist Dale Chihuly. I have seen installations of his artwork in the lobby of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas or at a glass museum in his native Tacoma down the road from Seattle but this museum is probably my favorite permanent exhibition of his work.
If you want to know the stories behind the pieces they have a nice mobile website with an audio tour of the exhibits.
Chihuly is known for large organic-looking shapes of blown glass that resembler fisherman’s floats, plants, baskets, and even alien lifeforms.
The museum is a mixture of dark interior spaces and an outside garden that combines glass shapes with natural landscaping.
I do not recommend this museum to parents of small children. I heard more than one unhappy child. They were unhappy not because they did not find the museum beautiful but because their parents did not want them to touch the beautiful, fragile, and very expensive artwork. It is hard to resist touching the art even as an adult.
Stay for one of the glassblowing demonstrations. They don’t have a hot shop at the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum as they do in the Chihuly museum in Tacoma (although I still prefer this museum), but they do demostrations in the atrium of glass blowing that gives you a better idea how these works for art were created.
Pacific Science Center
While I can’t recommend the Chihuly for small kids, I can highly recommend the Pacific Science Center for parents of pre-school and older kids. As we prepared to enter a planetarium show one couple leaned over and said, “oh, you are the other couple without kids”. Our planetarium guide finished up a presentation to preschool children (I am still not sure why the preschool kids all got a maraca… or more importantly why we did not). Our guide was great with the audience of smart science kids who attended our presentation on the constellations.
The museum has been updated since I was there as a kid. It still has the large models of dinosaurs but also has updated displays on the current theories on how dinosaurs really looked… complete with feathers.
I was particularly fond of the butterfly garden. You have to walk carefully in this exhibit so as not to tread on stray butterflies and they need to check you, front and back, before you leave to make sure you don’t have any stowaways. The museum also has newer exhibits on perception and virtual reality. It has an IMAX theatre and a Laser Dome which are not covered by a general admission ticket or the CityPASS.
There is a food court near both these museums in the Armory where you can stop for lunch.
If you still have time in the afternoon you can get down to Pioneer Square. Take an Uber or a bus. You don’t want to have a rental car in Seattle because parking is too much of a hassle. Pioneer Square is the heart of historic Seattle. You can tour the original ground floor of many of the buildings in this area on the Seattle Underground Tour for an unusual afternoon outing.
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
Also near Pioneer Square is one half of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. The other half of this national park is in Skagway Alaska. You can visit this park for free to see how the Klondike Gold Rush helped put Seattle on the map. Prospectors streamed north from Seattle. It was here that many of them bought one year’s worth of supplies that the Canadian authorities required everyone to have before entering the Yukon Territory.
The video presentation on the gold rush is great. The museum is free and can be visited in an hour and a half or less.
Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP)
I had a mixed reaction to the MoPop museum near the Space Needle. This museum has an interesting collection of science fiction, fantasy and horror artifacts which I enjoyed but I don’t think it quite wowed me.
The MoPop used to be the Experience Music Project and I still think that the strongest part of the museum is the parts that are about pop music.
If you are a Nirvana fan, there is a collection of artifacts from the band that pays tribute to this locally grown group.
My favorite exhibit is still the Sound Lab upstairs where you can experience music. You can learn to play blues riffs or practice improvising on the keyboard. All of this using instruments that light up to show you which fret or which key you should play.
Harbor Cruise or Locks Cruise
The Seattle CityPASS included a harbor cruise from Argosy Cruises bt we upgraded that to the 2-hour cruise that goes from Lake Union through the Ballard Locks around to the downtown waterfront. I recommend this cruise for your second day. We took an afternoon cruise and spent the morning at one of the museums by the Space Needle.
The cruise we took started at the southern part of Lake Union near the Center for Wooden Boats. Get to the cruise early so you have some time to wander around the marina and check out some of the beautiful boats.
Lake Union is in between Lake Washington and the Puget Sound and is connected to both by a ship canal. Lake Union is best known for its 500 houseboats like the one that was featured in the movie Sleepless in Seattle. Originally people started living on the lake because they could do so for free in the depression. Newly arrived immigrants were not allowed to own land but a houseboat had no land. As many as 2,000 houseboats once floated on the lake. Many of these were simple shanties with no facilities and no power. Unfortunately, they fouled the lake with untreated sewage and greywater until regulations were changed that limited how many houseboats could be on the lake and required sewage connections. Now, these are some of the most expensive houses in the area.
The entire cruise is narrated by the knowledgeable crew who will fill you in on the history and culture of the area. Lake Union and the ship canal host a number of commercial maritime businesses including dry docks, tugboat companies, and commercial fishing boats. The Lake itself is also an international airfield as seaplanes take off from here and fly to Canada.
One of the highlights of the cruise was going through the Ballard Locks, which are basically an elevator for boats. The lake is always at the same level but after you leave the locks you are now in tidal waters.
Some of my best photos of Seattle, like the first one in this article were shot from the boat as it made its way to Pier 55 by downtown. Here you can see the old thin Smith Tower building which used to be the tallest building in town in between a monster cruise ship and the new Seattle Great Wheel at Pier 57.
Pike Place Market
I have saved one of the other iconic places for the last day. Pack Place Market is a farmer’s market and an area filled with shops and restaurants and tourists. It is famous for the fish place that throws “flying fish” but you can also find interesting crafts and fun food.
There is a free shuttle that runs in between the market and the waterfront or you can walk down the hill to get to the Seattle Aquarium. If the Chihuly museum is one place where I would caution bringing kids, this is a place made for kids. If you don’t have your own kids, see if you can borrow someone else’s kids to stand in front of the large fish tank that will greet you at the main lobby.
Kids of all ages can also touch the sea creatures in the tide pools.
The fish and the jellyfish are fun but most people will fall in love with the otters.
The Aquarium has a collection of both sea otters and river otters like these that are mesmerizing.
T-Mobile Park – Mariners Baseball Game
It is only a few stops on the light rail from downtown to the ballpark where you can watch the Mariners play baseball. This was not a particularly good year for the Mariners but they will have better years. You have to love a baseball field where you can easily get there on public transportation.
Where to Stay
We stayed in a hotel near the Space Needle, which was a convenient location for so many of these attractions. There are a number of hotels just a few blocks away in an area that is gentrifying with high-tech companies. These include some affordable and family-friendly hotels.
How to Get to Seattle from the Airport
Again, I would recommend not renting a car in Seattle unless you want to do side trips out of town. The easiest way to get into the city from the airport is the light rail system. It goes right from the airport to downtown.
If you want to get from there to Seattle Center and the Space Needle area you can take a bus, grab an Uber or even take the monorail which was built for the 1962 World’s Fair. The monorail used to run much more smoothy when I first rode it in the 1960s.
Learn more about what to do in Seattle by listening to this Amateur Traveler podcast episode: Travel to Seattle, Washington – Episode 502.