Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Washington
More than just the second largest lake in all of Washington State, Lake Washington defines Seattle as a town intimately tied to the water, and it’s here that residents come to connect with their natural surroundings. Plenty of shoreline let visitors swim, picnic, hunt for clams and crawfish, and just generally relax and play. Floating platforms allow swimmers to rest and sunbathe, and the Madrona Park is a nice wooded area that slopes down to the beach and offers a changing station. Other attractions include the Kurt Cobain bench – a nice de facto cultural memorial also serving as homage to Seattle’s large music scene.
Pioneer Square, where Seattle’s founders first settled in 1852, has evolved into one of city’s prettiest downtown neighborhoods. Filled with streets lined with trees and restored Victorian buildings, the area is listed on the Nation Register of Historic Places. The neighborhood takes its name from a small triangular cobblestone plaza near the corner of First Avenue and Yesler Way, officially known as Pioneer Square Park, and features a bust of Chief Seattle, an ornate pergola, and a totem pole.
During the day, Pioneer Square buzzes with locals and visitors perusing the antique shops and art galleries. When you’re not shopping or marveling at cutting-edge art, you can visit the Seattle Underground, a network of underground passageways and basements that are remnants of the original building here, many of which were destroyed by fire in 1889.
Definitely make the Seattle Waterfront your first stop on a visit to Seattle, for it is one of the most popular attractions in the city. The bustling waterfront not only holds gift shops, candy stores selling fudge and saltwater taffy, sidewalk T-shirt vendors, and restaurants of all kinds, it’s also is the spot for some of city’s top attractions and piers tied with boats waiting to take you out on Puget Sound.
On the Seattle Waterfront, you can touch starfish at the Seattle Aquarium, watch your kids take a virtual kayak ride on Puget Sound at the Odyssey Maritime Discovery Center, or picnic in Waterfront Park, while taking in the breathtaking view across Elliott Bay to Olympic Mountains. If you want to get out on the water from the Seattle Waterfront, head to Pier 52 for the Washington State Ferries, Pier 55 for harbor cruises and trips to Tillicum Village on Blake Island, or Pier 56 for a boat to Chittenden (Ballard) Locks.
One of Seattle’s top attractions is Lake Union, a freshwater glacial lake enhancing the aesthetics of the area while also offering a number of recreational activities. For those who want to be in the water, kayaking, standup paddle boarding and canoeing are popular activities. If you’d rather stay dry there are a number of things to do around Lake Union’s shores, mainly exploring the many scenic parks like Fairview Park, South Lake Union Park, North Passage Point Park, Gas Works Park, and Terry Pettus Park.
While at Lake Union you can also visit the Naval Reserve Building, home to the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI). Along with a permanent collection holding over 100,000 objects, -- some of which include Seattle artifacts, local inventions, maritime pieces, local artwork and historical textiles -- there are rotating exhibits, historical workshops and lectures, and public tours.
In a city surrounded by water, the Seattle Aquarium acts as a touchstone for all who desire to experience the heartbeat of the underwater world without getting wet. An Associate of Zoos and Aquariums-certified center, this public aquarium is located on Pier 59 of Seattle’s vibrant waterfront. Spend the day discovering the elusive Pacific Octopus, gaze at the 120,000-gallon exhibit, immerse yourself in an underwater dome filled with life, or wiggle your finger at playful sea otters – this aquarium is one of the best in the country. Don’t miss the touch tanks and daily dive shows where divers explore the underwater world wearing special masks which allow them to speak to the aquarium attendants, thus making a visit to the Seattle Aquarium truly an interactive experience.
The fishy-smelling, heart of downtown Seattle is Pike Place Market. Each day, from dawn to dusk, the market bustles but not just with people perusing the fresh produce brought in by the farmers or the browsing stalls of fresh fish. The market is also brimming with good theater, as street performers entertain the milling crowds while more than 150 artisans and artist sell their creations.
The Main and North arcades of Pike Place Market are the most popular areas, with bellowing fishmongers, arts and crafts, and stacks of fruits and vegetables. Tiny shops of all descriptions are scattered throughout the market, along with dozens of restaurants. One of the most entertaining spectacles is the fish stall, where employees throw salmon and other fish to each other rather than passing them by hand. When a customer orders a fish, an employee at the ice-covered fish table picks up the fish and hurls it over the countertop, where another employee catches it and preps it for sale.
This picturesque beach on the shore of Elliott Bay runs a narrow 2.5-mile strip between Alki Point and Duwamish Head. Known as the site of the first white settlers in Seattle, its sandy shores attract as many cyclists, joggers and bladers as beachcombers and sun worshipers and storm chasers. Public restrooms, picnic areas, an art studio and bathhouses make it the perfect destination for a day of outdoor fun with family and friends. And impressive views of the Puget Sound and Seattle skyline make it one of the most scenic strips of sand in Washington.
More Things to Do in Washington
If Seattle takes credit for the birth of the grunge movement and thus leading garage bands into what is now all-star rock fame, then it only serves as fair that the museum dedicated to all things rock and roll be located in Seattle’s boundaries. For a city that loves music, the Experience Music Project was a foregone conclusion. Attached to and now incorporated with the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, a trip to the EMP Museum offers more than an introspective into passing memorabilia – it’s a look at the outreaches of our collective imagination made manifest by rock gods and science fiction greats. Designed by wildly famous architect Frank Gehry and funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the surreal jellyfish-like structure is as much a part of the interest in the museum as the exhibits themselves.
Glass artist Dale Chihuly was born down the highway a bit in Tacoma, but he has left his glittering mark on the city of Seattle in many places – perhaps nowhere more than the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum at Seattle Center.
The museum opened in 2012 and features four different areas. The Glasshouse is just what you'd expect from the name – a 40-foot glass-covered building with Chihuly's famous flower-like sculptures hanging from the ceiling. The entire piece is 100 feet long. The Garden is, as you'd expect, an outdoor space with Chihuly glass sculptures in different places. Inside the Exhibition Hall you'll find a Chihuly retrospective covering his career, showcasing his often monumental glass artwork beautifully. The Theater shows videos about Chihuly's art and his work.
Safeco Field is the home of the Mariners baseball team, and the stadium is located just south of the city center in Seattle. The Seattle Mariners’ original home, the Kingdome, was replaced in the 1990s by Safeco Field, which hosted its first Major League Baseball game in 1999. The stadium holds more than 47,000 spectators for baseball games, and features a retractable roof.
Among the attractions at Safeco Field - besides the baseball games themselves - are the Mariners Hall of Fame, the Baseball Museum of the Pacific Northwest, and the many baseball-related pieces of artwork on display throughout the stadium.
In Woodland Park, up the hill from Green Lake Park, the Woodland Park Zoo is one of Seattle's greatest tourist attractions, consistently rated as one of the top 10 zoos in the country. It was one of the first in the nation to free animals from their restrictive cages in favor of ecosystem enclosures, where animals from similar environments share large spaces designed to replicate their natural surroundings.
The Woodland Park Zoo thrills with superb attractions including such exhibits as a tropical rain forest, two gorilla exhibits, and an African savanna. One of the best exhibits is the brown bear enclosure, which realistically resembles an Alaskan stream and hillside. Another highlight is the elephant forest, where the zoo’s pachyderms have plenty of space to rumble around. For kids, there’s the farm-animal area and the interactive Zoomazium, where kids can see what its like to be wild animals.
Inspiring a lifelong interest in math, science, and technology, the Pacific Science Center is a museum of delight, wonder and mystery. By exploring the inner depths of what makes this universe tick, the Pacific Science Center gives visitors a chance to be bedazzled by the diversity of life in a tropical butterfly house, gaze at the stars in the planetarium, test your puzzle solving skills in the Puzzle Palooza, or explore hundreds of hands-on exhibits that both exemplify and glorify the science of exploration. Occupying approximately 7 acres of the north side of Seattle’s famed Seattle Center, the Pacific Science Center is a 21st century museum designed by Minoru Yamasaki - the selfsame architect that designed the World Trade Center in New York City. Be sure to catch a show at the IMAX or the Laser Dome – one of the largest laser shows in the country.
Summertime in Seattle is when everyone comes out to enjoy the fine weather. For fun in the sun, no other Seattle icon speaks of the free-wheeling carefree attitude of this city than the Seattle Great Wheel. One of the biggest Ferris Wheels in the United States, the Seattle Great Wheel is open year-round with fully enclosed gondolas, making it one of the best viewing ports in the entire west coast. Standing over 175 feet tall and weighing in at over a quarter of a million pounds, the Seattle Great Wheel lives up to its name as one of the world’s truly great Ferris wheels.
Many know Seattle to be located upon the Puget Sound, but the specific body of water upon which Seattle sits is none other than the great Elliot Bay. And because Elliot Bay is the most prevalent source of water when visiting Seattle, it is part-and-parcel to the inner fabric of the “city by the sound.” From the original Duwamish peoples that lived here, to the locals that come enjoy the Elliot Bay Park along the waterfront, Elliot Bay is part of the culture, and it’s here that many visitors come to explore Seattle.
With two marinas, numerous piers (including Pier 57 and Pier 59, both popular attractions), the Seattle Great Wheel, and the Seattle Aquarium, Elliot Bay provides many things to many people. Not the least of which is the great port of Seattle – one of America’s biggest and most important ports. Ferries also take commuters and tourists across the Bay to Bainbridge or Vashon Island.
Not far from the bustle of Seattle’s Space Needle, there is a public park on the bay where the focus is on wildlife and nature. The 4.8-acre Myrtle Edwards Park stretches along Elliott Bay and is known for its 1.25-mile paved walking and cycling path, and for the many opportunities to see eagles, herons and other wildlife.
The park was originally called Elliott Bay Park, but was renamed in 1976 for Myrtle Edwards. Edwards had been a prominent member of Seattle’s city council, where she fought for the preservation of the city’s natural spaces. Located between the park and the Space Needle is the Olympic Sculpture Park, a nine-acre park of outdoor art installations that opened in 2007.
Nature certainly has its miracles and you can see one of its highlights at the Chittenden Locks & Fish Ladder, locally known as the Ballard Locks, where you can see salmon fighting their way to their spawning grounds in the Cascade headwaters of the Sammamish River, which feeds Lake Washington.
Watching the salmon climb the fish ladder is pretty exciting. You can watch the fish from underwater glass-sided tanks or from above (nets are installed to keep salmon from over-leaping and stranding themselves on the pavement). In the past, the fish runs at Chittenden Locks & Fish Ladder have attracted sea lions that try to swallow the salmon as they go by. On the northern entrance to the Chittenden Locks & Fish Ladder is the Carl English, Jr., Botanical Gardens, a charming arboretum and specimen garden. Trails wind through gardens filled with mature trees and flower gardens. Flanking the gardens is a small museum and visitors center documenting the history of the locks.
Fishermen’s Terminal is the home port of most of the North Pacific and Puget Sound fishing boats, many of whom spend several months on the open sea before returning to Seattle. It doesn’t come as a surprise, that one of the main attractions of the terminal is the fresh fish. On big boards, the catch of the day – be it salmon, halibut or crab – is advertised and ready to be taken home and thrown in a pan. But those who can’t wait that long can also get their seafood fix at one of the restaurants right at the port. Chinook’s, Bay Café and the Highliner Pub offer great views of the Fishermen’s Terminal and are also popular hangout spots for the crews.
At the very center of Fishermen’s Terminal, hundreds of names are inscribed on a big bronze and stone memorial to commemorate all those who have died at sea and to serve as a reminder of the dangers of commercial fishing.
Touting itself as the “Center of the Known Universe,” it’s hard to beat this signature Seattle neighborhood’s charms. Known for a funky, irreverent, imaginative environment, Fremont is a bastion of Seattle creative-types and a hotbed for interesting Seattle landmarks. See the Fremont Troll – a giant concrete troll molded under the Aurora Bridge, a slew of murals painted across walkways and bridges throughout the area, the controversial and engaging Vladimir Lenin stature in Fremont’s commercial district, or the 50’s era Cold War rocket still poised for takeoff. Sure, there are a lot of things to see in Fremont, but the best part of this old beatnik neighborhood is the attitude of the freewheeling people and the many shops, restaurants, and pubs they inhabit.
The Chinatown-International District, often simply referred to as the I.D., is the multiethnic center of Seattle’s Asian community. Coincidentally, it is also one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and thus, is chalk-full with plenty of history and culture. Some highlights include Kobe Terrace, a small terraced park on a hillside showcasing a urban community garden and Mt. Fuji cherry trees, the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience as well as the many cultural festivals that are held each year, such as the Lunar New Year celebration and Bon Odori.
Most people head to the Chinatown-International District because of the abundance of authentic restaurants though, which sell everything under the sun from dim sum to banh mi. Many of these eateries are tiny mom and pop type shops or food carts and offer completely authentic flavors and experiences.
Puget Sound is a complex waterway of inlets, bays, and harbors that includes not only Seattle, but also the cities of Bellevue, Tacoma, Olympia, and a plethora of charming little towns and islands with a culture all their own. It is a region of sparkling blue waters, green forests, sandy beaches, and a relaxed pace of life. It’s a place where many Seattleites escape the bustling city life, get out on the water, and absorb the views of the Olympic Mountains.
Washington Ferries handle most of the traffic in Puget Sound, and you can get out on the water from Seattle Waterfront. Take a boat to Tillicum Village on Blake Island for a traditional Native Pacific Northwest dance performance, or sail to Brainbridge Island for an afternoon picnic. As you explore the Sound, you’ll come across old fishing villages turned yacht havens, and idyllic rural settings.
Things to do near Washington
- Things to do in Seattle
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