With so many things to do, places to eat and sights to explore, Seattle can feel a bit overwhelming, especially when there is limited time. That's why we've put together this guide to some of Seattle's highlights—these bite-sized chunks of the city are options for the busy traveler with only a few hours to spend in the Emerald City. From museums and neighborhoods to popular attractions and parks, you can make the most of your time.
South Seattle neighborhood Georgetown is a lively spot with bars and restaurants and a hotbed of artists and other makers. The main drag extends along Airport Way S, parallel to Interstate 5.
If time is limited, we’ve got a few must-stops, starting with an icon in the neighborhood, Hat and Boots in Oxbow Park. A former gas station (with restrooms in the boots!), the buildings were saved from destruction and refurbished by the community. They now have a home in the park, and are a popular spot for photos. From there, head to the headquarters of Fran’s Chocolates, where you can view the delectable treats being made by hand. Make sure to get a cup of the drinking chocolate before selecting a few items to bring home—the salted caramels are a favorite of the Obamas!
After those sweet treats, head to Flip Flip Ding Ding, a 21-and-older pinball arcade that serves beer and vintage sodas. If you’re there on a Thursday evening, join the tournament that begins at 8:30 pm. Or, head to Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery and the adjacent Georgetown Records. Fantagraphics publishes indie comics, and the store carries a variety of titles from their own and other publishers, while Georgetown Records is one of Seattle’s favorite record stores.
MoPOP Museum of Pop Culture
Formerly called the EMP Museum, at MoPOP music, movies and all things pop culture reign. For sports lovers, head to the “We Are 12” exhibit just beyond the main ticketing desk. A tribute to the Seattle Seahawks, you’re greeted at the entrance by the Vince Lombardi trophy from the 2014 Super Bowl win. The iconic trophy is worth seeing up close, even if the Seahawks aren’t your team. The exhibit also includes shoe- and hand-prints of Seahawks players, if you’d like to see how you compare to an NFL pro.
What would a pop culture museum be without an exhibit about Nirvana? The ’90s grunge band put Seattle on the map, and the museum’s exhibit, “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses,” tells the story from their start in Aberdeen, Wash., to superstardom. You’ll recognize Kurt Cobain’s green striped sweater from the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video. Also see the band’s first Sub Pop contract, Kurt’s artwork from high school and the “Nevermind” album’s cover art concept page.
Movie buffs should visit the “Infinite Worlds of Science Fiction” exhibit. Be sure to pause right before you enter the exhibit to check out the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Once inside, see memorabilia from beloved sci-fi movies including Luke Skywalker’s light saber from “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope,” the T-1000 special effects hand from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and hoverboards from the “Back to the Future” movies.
The Chinatown-International District
Seattle’s Chinatown-International District is a lively and historic neighborhood south of downtown. You might hear people refer to it as the ID. The easiest way to get there is via Link Light Rail—get off the train at the International District stop and you’ll be in the heart of the neighborhood.
Across the street from the light rail station, find Uwajimaya, an anchor of the neighborhood. This grocery store has all the basics from both the United States and Asia. Be sure to check out the butcher case—some days they’ll have incredible ground meat sculptures. There’s also an excellent food court in the building, and it’s where you’ll find the Kinokuniya Bookstore with a huge selection of books, notebooks, pens and gifts from Japan and China.
Next, make your way to South Jackson Street, where two great neighboring stores are worth checking out: Momo has clothing, accessories and gifts, while Kobo has art, pottery, gifts and books. Maynard Avenue South is another worthwhile street, where you’ll find the Seattle Pinball Museum, a spot to play machines from the 1930s through today, as well as Tuesday, a local maker's tiny boutique who creates beautiful scarves and clutches.
End your visit at the Wing Luke Museum, a fabulous museum centered around the Asian Pacific American experience. In addition to excellent exhibits, the museum also has a variety of neighborhood tours.
Named Volunteer Park in honor of the volunteers of the Spanish-American War, this 48-acre park in Capitol Hill is a popular spot year-round. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the park was designed by the Olmsted Brothers in the early 20th century. It is the home of the Asian Art Museum as well as the Volunteer Park Conservatory and also has a water tower with an observation deck, tennis courts, a wading pool, a band shell and a children’s play area.
Start at the Volunteer Park Conservatory, a Victorian glass house built in 1912. Browse the collections inside, which include bromeliads, palms, ferns, cacti and seasonal plants. Admission is free the first Thursday and first Saturday of the month, otherwise it is $4 for adults, $2 for youth and free for kids under 12.
From there, head to the Asian Art Museum—the original Seattle Art Museum building—where you can browse the exhibits. First Thursdays are free to all, first Fridays free to seniors and first Saturdays free for families. Suggested admission is otherwise $9 for adults, $6 for seniors and military with ID, $5 for students with ID and teens and free for kids 12 and younger.
End the visit by climbing the 107 steps to the observation deck of the water tower. Built by the Water Department in 1906, the water tower sits at 520 feet and has views of the surrounding city as well as information about the Olmsted Brothers and the park.
There is a lot of stuff packed into Seattle Center, from attractions and art to food and performance halls.
Start a fast visit with a trip up the Space Needle. From the Observation Deck you’ll get a 360-degree view of the city, including Puget Sound and, if it’s a clear day, Mount Rainier. Take time to explore SkyPad, the giant digital wall that displays photography and history from the Needle.
From there, head to the EMP Museum, which has a variety of pop culture exhibits—choose a favorite to walk through, as they have everything from music (Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix) to movies (science fiction, horror and fantasy). Pre-purchase tickets online to save on adult admission.
Two fun spots for families: The International Fountain has water displays set to music, and is a fun spot to chase the moving water on a hot day. Another great spot for kids is the Artists at Play playground, a relatively new addition that has places to climb, crawl and slide.
No children? Visit Chihuly Garden and Glass, the long-term exhibition space of local glass artist Dale Chihuly. The indoor and outdoor exhibits showcase the amazing glasswork he’s created throughout his career.
Pike Place Market
Make the most of your time at the market by going in the morning, if you’re able. On nice days, the market quickly fills with visitors and locals, making moving through the hallways and stairwells slower. The good news: there is so much to look at, strolling isn’t a problem.
Start by entering the market at Pike Street. You’ll see the historic clock sign, and Rachel the Pig will greet you. Behind her, find the famous fish throwers. Start exploring in this building, the Main Arcade. Find flower sellers, craftspeople and artists stretching both northwest toward Victor Steinbrueck Park. Return toward the market along Pike Place—between Virginia and Stewart streets find the first Starbucks. If you have time, feel free to wait for a drink, but if you’re in a hurry, snap a photo and continue exploring.
Next, head below decks in the Main Arcade, where you’ll find multiple levels of stores to browse. Don’t miss the Giant Shoe Museum, one of the many quirky things in the market. Located next to Old Seattle Paperworks, put in quarters and see giant shoes through a viewfinder.
Another fun—and gross—spot to see is the famous Gum Wall. Head down the ramp on the left-hand side of the information booth at First Ave. and Pike St. Around the corner sits the Market Theatre (with improv shows regularly) and the Gum Wall. Add to the, um, artwork if you’d like, before moving on. As a final quick stop, stroll through Post Alley, where there is more shopping, restaurants and cafes.
Woodland Park Zoo
Built on land owned by Guy Phinney after his death, the Woodland Park Zoo opened in 1899. Today, it has a variety of animal exhibits organized by geographical location.
Enter off of Phinney Ave. N at the West Entrance and turn right to start at the penguin exhibit. The Humboldt Penguin exhibit opened in 2009. From there, head east to Tropical Asia, where you’ll see tree kangaroos, Asian small-clawed otters and one of the newest exhibits, the Malayan tiger brothers. Olan, Liem and Eko appear alongside sloth bears in the Banyan Wilds exhibit.
Nearby, you can also spot gorillas, including the new baby Yola, and, just south of Tropical Asia in the African Savanna, giraffes, hippos and zebras. The African Savanna also has an African Village, a model of how people of the savanna grasslands live.
Two more fun stops: The Willawong Station in the Australasia section, where you can get up close with Australian parrots—purchase a seed stick and the birds will eat right from your hand! And newly opened spot Molbak’s Butterfly Garden allows you to immerse yourself among North American butterflies. There are nearly 500 free-flying butterflies in the garden.
Museum of History & Industry
Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry is dedicated to preserving stories and artifacts from Seattle’s history. Located at South Lake Union, it’s a picturesque spot well worth a visit. Start the visit with checking out a few things in the large area just beyond the front doors, including a Rainier Beer neon R, a pink “toe” truck from a former towing company and the Wawona sculpture, a salvaged old-growth Douglas fir sculpture by John Grade that was repurposed from the hull of a sailing ship.
MOHAI’s core exhibit, “True Northwest: The Seattle Journey,” tells the varied and interesting stories of Seattle’s past. With clothing, artifacts, video and more, it’s a great way to get a primer on how the city went from wilderness to bustling city. Don’t miss the interactive Great Fire Theater, a chance to learn more about what might be Seattle’s most famous disaster.
Open daily 10 am-5 pm, the first Thursday of the month is free with extended hours until 8 pm. Youth 14 and younger are free at this museum when accompanied by a chaperone (limited to five youth per chaperone), making it great for families.
Museum of Flight
It’s only appropriate that a fantastic museum of all things flight is in the city where Boeing began. The Museum of Flight has a ton to see, with multiple galleries both indoor and out.
If you only have a limited amount of time, start in the Great Gallery, home to more than 50 historic aircraft. Throughout the galleries, be sure to look up—many aircraft are hanging. In the Great Gallery, don’t miss a replica of the Boeing B&W, the first airplane designed and built by the company, the Lockheed M-21 Blackbird, the world’s fastest airplane, or the Taylor Aerocar III, an airplane-slash-car that really did drive on the road (towing the wings and tail or detaching from them) or fly in the sky.
From the Great Gallery, head next to the William E. Boeing Red Barn. This building is the birthplace of The Boeing Company. It’s the original manufacturing plant, moved to the site of the museum from its original location on the Duwamish River and restored in 1983. See everything from the original factory floor to Bill Boeing’s Office.
Finally, cross the street and head out to the Aviation Pavillion. In this outdoor space be sure to check out the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the third plane of the type built by the company. This particular aircraft flew to 23 countries during the Dream Tour. It’s configured to show part of a typical interior, but still has plenty of room for informational displays.
Before leaving, make a quick stop in the Airpark, where you can tour an old Air Force One that carried Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.
Located on Pier 59 along Seattle’s waterfront, the Seattle Aquarium is the ninth largest aquarium in the United States. There’s a lot to see when visiting, but if you’re short on time, following are a few of the highlights.
After purchasing tickets, one of the first things to see is the Window on Washington Waters. Boasting 120,000 gallons of water, it’s impossible to miss. Inside, find more than 800 fish and invertebrates also found in Pacific Northwest waters, including salmon, rockfish and wolf eels. Spend some time watching this glimpse into the area’s oceans at the 20-by-40-foot window. Three times a day, divers appear and will answer questions from the audience. It happens at 10 am, 11:30 am and 12:15 pm.
Deeper into the aquarium, find the Life on the Edge exhibit. Take a moment to explore the touch pools, which are filled with sea cucumbers, sea stars, sea urchins and more. Popular with kids, the touch pools are just as fun for adults. Just beyond the touch pools sits the Moon Jellies, a half-moon, three-dimensional installation with jellyfish. It’s a fun spot for interesting photographs. Also in this area, the giant Pacific octopus, which averages an incredible 90 pounds.
From there, exhibits move into birds and marine mammals. Stop at the sea otters and river otters. These playful animals can be viewed above or below the water and there are seating areas if you’d like to take a break while they swim and dive. Or time it to see a daily feeding at 11:30 am or 2 pm.
As a final stop in the aquarium, visit the Underwater Dome. Stand underneath a 400,000-gallon tank filled with sea life from Puget Sound. There are salmon, lingcod, sharks, rockfish, sturgeon and more. It’s a one-of-a-kind exhibit that kids and adults enjoy. This also has a daily fish feeding, which happens at 1:30 pm.
Seattle Art Museum
In the heart of downtown, near Pike Place Market, the Seattle Art Museum is a must-visit when in the Emerald City. The collections include works from a huge variety of cultures and time periods, from ancient Mediterranean and Islamic art to contemporary pieces created by respected artists still working today. If you’re short on time, here are a few fun things to see while at the museum.
Start on the third floor (one level up from the ticket desk). The floor’s north end is home to contemporary art pieces, scattered among a few galleries. Be sure to stop and examine “Sea Change” from Jackson Pollock and “Double Elvis” from Andy Warhol. Also on the third floor in the American Art galleries, south of the escalators, is the incredible oil painting “Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast” by Albert Bierstadt, from 1870. Fun fact: While no one knows for sure, it’s likely Bierstadt hadn’t yet traveled to the Pacific Northwest when he created the painting. The work is possibly a commission from a New York shipping magnate.
After the third-floor explorations, head to the fourth floor, where there are two unusual surprises hidden toward the back of the museum. Wind through the European art galleries to the eastern side of the building. It’s here you’ll find the Wyckoff Porcelain Room, an unexpected place to take a seat and see some gorgeous porcelain dishes. The room has floor-to-ceiling examples of European and Asian porcelain. Even if the delicate dishes and figurines aren’t typically what you’re drawn to, the collection is nonetheless impressive.
Finally on the fourth floor, head to the northeast corner behind the Ancient Mediterranean and Islamic art to enter the Italian Room. Built sometime between 1150 and 1600 in the northern Lombard town of Chiavenna, it was carefully restored and installed at the museum. While the windows, fireplaces and flooring are later additions, each is based on historical designs and materials.
The Seattle Art Museum is open Wed.-Sun. until 5 pm; 9 pm on Thursdays.