You can pack a lot of adventure into a couple of hours in Seattle, and with the downtown core spanning just a compact and walkable mile and a half, you’ll never be too far from the piers or easy transit to the airport.
Just a 10-minute walk from Pier 66 or a 25-minute bus ride (route 24) from Pier 91, historic Pike Place Market is a natural first stop. The multilevel market is a bustling mix of artisan craft and produce vendors, sweeping stands of technicolor flowers, locally owned shops, and live entertainment in the form of street buskers and wader-clad fishmongers slinging salmon. For scenic views of Elliot Bay and the Olympic Mountains, stroll the newly expanded MarketFront, which houses 47 new vendors and four new restaurants and a large outdoor plaza. Finally, no trip to Pike Place Market is complete without a picture near the red Public Market Center sign and clock at the entrance on First and Pike. Fuel up after your photo op with a latte from the original Starbucks or a bowl of signature mac and cheese from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese.
South of the market is tree-lined Pioneer Square, known as the city’s “original neighborhood” for its Gold Rush–era roots. Browse eclectic boutiques and art galleries—the First Thursday Art Walk is a local favorite. For a bird’s eye view of the city, visit the Seattle’s first official skyscraper Smith Tower, with its Prohibition-inspired bar and 360-degree, open-air observation deck. Another sky-high options The Columbia Center Sky View Observatory, standing at 902 feet, is the highest public observation deck on the West Coast.
Heading back toward the pier, the Seattle Art Museum is a draw for art aficionados and casual museum-goers alike, with permanent collections and rotating exhibitions. The Olympic Sculpture Park on the waterfront is another downtown art mecca, offering a sprawling nine acres to stroll and enjoy larger-than-life art installations framed by glistening Elliott Bay.
The waterfront offers its own array of attractions, including fun gift shops, seafood joints like The Crab Pot and its “Seafeasts” of clams, mussels, and Dungeness crab, and the tall Seattle Great Wheel. Pier 57 is also home to Wings Over Washington, a “flying theater” experience that takes you on a virtual trip over Washington state’s most scenic sights. For an up-close look at the marine life native to Puget Sound waters, the Seattle Aquarium on Pier 59 is home to sea otters, a giant Pacific octopus, tide pools and more —a perfect way to round out your Seattle experience.
Make the most of your time in the Emerald City, either exploring on your own or with a guided tour designed for cruise passengers looking to experience Seattle highlights in just a few hours.
Companies like Show Me Seattle, Tours Northwest, Argosy Cruises, and Customized Tours all offer info-packed tours traveling to iconic landmarks, all running three hours or less. You’ll see sights such as the the Space Needle, to the houseboat seen in Sleepless in Seattle, the Seattle’s Stadium District and more! In Pioneer Square, Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour or Beneath The Streets Tour offer a 75-minute mix of humor and history as you stroll through the city’s subterranean streets. For foodies, Eat Seattle food tours offers a variety of options, from walking tour of South Lake Union to a Pike Place Market eating extravaganza.
For self-guided touring, start at the Seattle Center on the north edge of downtown. Surrounding the Space Needle is Chihuly Garden and Glass, housing works by internationally renowned glass artist and Pacific Northwest native Dale Chihuly; the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP), a mecca for music and pop culture fans; and the Pacific Science Center, a family favorite with exhibits on everything from the human body to tropical butterflies. Music lovers can stop in at the KEXP radio headquarters to watch live broadcasts and do-gooders will enjoy the nearby Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a global perspective on health, poverty, and education.
A short walk away is the South Lake Union neighborhood. Known as a tech and biomedical hub (Amazon, Facebook, and Google are all located here, along with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center), the area is also home to the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) with exhibits delving into Seattle’s unique past; The Center for Wooden Boats, where you can rent sail boats and rowboats; and REI’s flagship store, complete with an indoor climbing wall. The expansive waterfront park on Lake Union is a perfect spot to watch Kenmore Air seaplanes take off from the water.
Nearby Capitol Hill is the city’s LGBTQ hub and one of Seattle’s trendiest neighborhoods, with rainbow crosswalks, a thriving music scene, and an array of hip restaurants, bars, and boutiques. When it comes to dining, options range from steak and seafood spots to local staples like Dick’s Drive-In for a quintessential Seattle burger and fries. Two-story Elliott Bay Book Company is a haven for lit lovers, and the local stores along Pike and Pine Streets are chock-full of artisan wares and spots to grab a drink or bite between browsing. For a look behind the scenes of java juggernaut Starbucks, take a tasting tour at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room.
South of Capitol Hill is the Chinatown–International District, well worth a visit for its diverse mix of shops, art galleries, and food. It’s easy to spend an hour in Uwajimaya, a Japanese grocery store where you’ll find popular Asian foods, pastries, gifts, and authentic fare. Wing Luke Museum is another cultural anchor of the neighborhood, offering guided tours of exhibits spanning the life of Bruce Lee to the history of Asian Americans in sports.
Half a day to explore gives you time to discover scenic parks, hip neighborhoods, and historic landmarks a bit farther afield.
Discovery Park in Magnolia is a short taxi or car-sharing ride from Pier 91. At 534-acres, it’s Seattle’s largest park, with a variety of scenery from beaches and bluffs (plus a picturesque lighthouse) to dense forest and wildflower meadows. To see it all, take a stroll around the three-mile Discovery Park Loop Trail.
From Discovery Park, it’s a 10-minute taxi or car-sharing ride to the Ballard neighborhood, known for its maritime and Scandinavian roots. Taste craft beer and spirits at one of the many breweries and distilleries or make your way through the artisan boutiques on Ballard Avenue. While there, stop in at Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery for a sweet pick-me-up. The Ballard Locks are one of the city’s most iconic settings, where visitors can view boats being lifted between fresh and salt water and watch salmon making their way up the “fish ladder” on their own passage through the locks.
Neighboring Fremont holds court as one of Seattle’s most eclectic neighborhoods—just ask the Fremont Troll sculpture lurking under the Aurora Bridge. It’s also home to several local hot spots like coffee shops and family-friendly Fremont Brewing Company (close to the Troll), and sandwich shop Paseo, which serves Caribbean-style pork numbers that have a cult following.
Head east towards the University District, where the Washington Park Arboretum is tucked away on the shores of Lake Washington. Wander easily accessible walkways through 230 acres of plant varieties from around the world or rent a boat from the nearby Waterfront Activities Center and paddle the marshlands at the edge of the lake.
Back at the downtown waterfront, a 12-minute water taxi trip across Elliott Bay takes you to West Seattle. Take in an entirely new vantage point of the Seattle skyline from Alki Beach, walk the 2.5-mile path down the waterfront. Take the free shuttle up to the Junction, West Seattle’s hub of boutiques, restaurants, and antique shops along California Avenue and Alaska Street. There’s often a line at Bakery Nouveau (the twice-baked croissants are worth the wait), while Easy Street Records is a must-visit for if you’re into vinyl. Grab a bite and a tropical cocktail at Marination ma kai, a Hawaiian-fusion spot with a waterfront patio perfect for summer days, while you wait for the water taxi back to downtown Seattle.
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