Only have one day to explore Seattle? That’s plenty of time to get a feel for the largest city in the Pacific Northwest.
The birthplace of both the 1990s Grunge movement and corporate giant Starbucks, Seattle offers an interesting mix of attractions. During a visit in late September, we traipsed around a sculpture park, snapped photos of a wall of chewing gum and sipped steamy bowls of Vietnamese pho in an upscale neighborhood dotted with rainbow flags.
Thanks to public transportation and a compact downtown area, we visited all of the major tourist attractions and a few offbeat picks in the span of 8 hours. Best of all, most of these sights are free or low-cost.
Read on for our top picks for Seattle activities. If you visit, make sure to bring exact change for the bus ($2.25) and comfortable walking shoes!
1) Victory Park Water Tower
We kicked off our sightseeing at the Water Tower, which a local B&B owner recommended as a free alternative to Seattle’s famous Space Needle (see #6 below). Located in the middle of a roundabout in Victory Park, this brick structure is easy to miss at first glance. Climb up the circular staircase for views of the Seattle skyline (including the Space Needle) and placards that explain the development of the city’s parks system. While the price can’t be beat, the Water Tower hardly rivals the monumental scale of the Space Needle and views are obstructed by metal grids placed over each window. Still, this is a great excuse to visit the park and get a little exercise in the process!
2) Pike Place Market
No visit to Seattle is complete without a stop at the Pike Place Market. This sprawling complex in the heart of downtown features vendors selling crafts and just about any type of food product you can imagine. From bizarre strains of broccoli to freshly fried donuts, there are plenty of photo- and tasting opportunities here. Don’t miss the fish stalls on the ground floor, which feature the latest local catch (heavy on the salmon and crabs). Most visitors are here to gawk and snap photos but if you stick around long enough you might see an actual purchase; this usually results in the staff shouting as they throw a fish into the air.
Cost: FREE (but you’ll be tempted to buy souvenirs and/or snacks)
3) The Gum Wall
Did your parents tell you not to play with your food when you were little? Fortunately, Seattle denizens didn’t listen and chose to artfully discard their used chewing gum on a wall next to the Pike Place Market. Beat aside the hordes of camera-wielding visitors to get a close up look at the Gum Wall and you’ll see how layer upon layer of Bubble Yum has formed a unique texture that looks like melted crayons. If you are comfortable touching the saliva of countless others (or have hand sanitizer in your bag), then you are welcome to contribute by pressing your own gum into this masterpiece.
Cost: FREE (and you can even dispose of your unwanted gum here)
4) Street Art
You don’t have to look hard to find public art in Seattle. Creative and often comical street art covers the area surrounding the Gum Wall right outside Pike Place Market. Wheatpastings and freestyle drawings feature zombies, cartoon fish, political statements and even a woman in trendy cats-eye glasses scratching (er, picking) her nose. I was fascinated with the massive amount of art here, blended together and playing off similar themes, and actually spent more time snapping photos of the street art than the Gum Wall! Don’t miss this when visiting Seattle’s downtown.
5) Sculpture Park
Forging our own private art walk through downtown Seattle, we headed to the Olympic Sculpture Park. This healthy walk from Pike Place Market took us through an area that alternated from touristy, to barren, to upscale– all within a few blocks. I was surprised how spaced out the art was on the large, waterfront grounds; this gave the appearance that there wasn’t much art on display. It wasn’t until I got close to the work that I realized how massive it was in scale. A 6-ton red sculpture called “The Eagle” frames the distant Space Needle, and is a popular spot for visitors to relax in metal chairs dotting the lawn.
6) The Space Needle
The Space Needle towers above the Seattle skyline and serves as a point of orientation for visitors; it’s easy to figure out what direction you are heading in when you have this tower in your sights. (In this way, it’s similar to the new World Trade Center One building in Manhattan). The Needle called to us, and we walked a few blocks uphill from the Sculpture Park to check it out. The Space Needle was built in 1962 for the World’s Fair and seems like a quaint reminder of a different era– in fact, it actually resembles a building you might see in The Jetsons. We chose to snap photos from below instead of paying to travel to the observation deck via an elevator.
Cost: FREE to admire from the ground; $19 regular admission to observation deck
7) EMP Museum
EMP is a pop-culture museum that has a diverse group of exhibits that seem to have little in common except a relation to the media industry (music, movies, TV). This is a fun, contemporary museum with interactive features and without the stuffiness you might expect from an institution in this location (right next to the Space Needle). The Nirvana exhibit includes fascinating memorabilia (like original newsletters and concert posters with artwork by Kurt Cobain himself); it seems to be permanent, since I caught it on this visit and also two years ago. The EMP Museum caters to fanboys and girls with memorabilia from classic horror and sci-fi films, from Buffy’s vampire stake to the Terminator skull from T2. If you are a TV junkie, Nirvana fan or sci-fi geek (and I confess to all three), this should be the one museum you visit in Seattle.
Cost: $20 for adults
8 ) Shopping
The original home of Nordstrom (and my personal favorite, Nordstrom Rack), Seattle offers solid shopping opportunities. The downtown area is filled with the large chains you are used to at home (Macy’s, Sephora, Nordstrom), but head to the Capitol Hill neighborhood for vintage stores and clothing boutiques. The main thoroughfare, Broadway, is also dotted with restaurants, bars, coffee shops and public art that covers everything from electrical boxes to construction sites. It’s a fun area that seems to combine the thriving gay scene of New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood with the young student crowd found in the East Village or Williamsburg.
Cost: Depends– are you a shopaholic?
9) Coffee Break
Seattle is known for its coffee, so we weren’t about to leave town without trying a classic Americano. While the city is home to the first ever Starbucks (located across from Pike Place Market), we turned to Yelp to find a local favorite. From the Space Needle complex, we walked to the calmer Queen Anne neighborhood and ordered a freshly roasted coffee at Caffe Vita. While not a coffee expert per se, Jake deemed it “fresh tasting” and we savored this opportunity to take a break from walking and charge my dying iPhone. As it turns out, Caffe Vita has a branch in New York’s Lower East Side– so we can recreate the Seattle experience close to home.
Cost: Under $5
I read about the Than Brothers soup shops in an alternative news weekly (it was a pick in their “welcome to Seattle” issue for college freshman) and it sounded like a solid dinner option. The chain serves Vietnamese noodle soup (pho) in several Seattle neighborhoods, but we chose Capitol Hill since it was closest to our B&B and had the best reviews on Yelp. Than Brothers did not disappoint; our immense “medium” bowls of soup were tasty, filling, and came with free cream puffs. The restaurant did not have much ambiance, but it was a great value and close to the nightlife in Capitol Hill.
Cost: About $6 for dinner (before tax and tip)
I’ll admit it: after a full day of sightseeing we ended up heading back to our B&B after dinner. But if you have more stamina and are craving a drink during your visit to Seattle, there are plenty of bars to chose from! The night before our epic tour of the city, we stopped by Hopvine Pub on 15th Ave in Capitol Hill. It happened to be open mic night and we were treated to performances by striving singer-songwriters in horn-rimmed glasses. Despite the lack of flannel, this conformed perfectly to our image of Seattle’s indie music scene.
Cost: About $5+ for a drink
What’s your favorite attraction in Seattle?
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