Seattle is one of the West Coast's most appealing destinations, with restaurants, nightlife, a fabulous aquarium, and top museums to please families, outdoors enthusiasts, and everyone in between. There’s no getting around the fact that the weather in Seattle is unpredictable, though, and there’s often rain in the forecast. We've gathered all the best options for what to do, whatever the weather—although it’s widely said that August and September are some of the best times, with sunny skies and pleasant temperatures.
If this is your first trip to the Emerald City—so called because of the lush forests of the area—there are some must-see sights. First up, visit the Space Needle and the nearby Chihuly Garden and Glass.
Towering over the city, the 605-foot Space Needle can be seen for free from just about anywhere in Seattle, but it’s worth the ride up to the observation deck for the 360-degree views of the city and the surrounding area. If the weather’s good you can see all the way to the Olympic Mountains and the Cascade range, but even in the rain, the misty views of downtown and Elliott Bay are wonderfully atmospheric. If it’s a special occasion, the revolving SkyCity restaurant is an excellent splurge, but the Collections Cafe in the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum is extremely reasonably priced and serves top-notch Pacific Northwest cuisine with a creative touch.
Chihuly Garden and Glass, at the base of the Space Needle, opened its doors in 2012 but is already an essential on most visitors sightseeing lists. The collection spans the lifework of renowned Washington State glass artist Dale Chihuly. The exhibits showcases his early work, in which the artist was inspired by woven baskets, as well as his more recent—and probably more familiar—brightly colored, giant glass sculptures.
Visiting the Space Needle is $19 or $26 for the multi-visit day/night access; a $33 packages allows you to visit the Space Needle Observation Deck plus Chihuly Garden and Glass.
The Seattle Art Museum, affectionately known as SAM, is right downtown and has an interesting permanent collection as well as visiting exhibits. It’s the perfect way to stay out of the rain for a few hours. If the weather cooperates, don't miss a stroll through SAM’s outdoor Olympic Sculpture Park, with its installations by Richard Serra and Alexander Calder and others, with the dramatic backdrop of Elliott Bay—it's especially atmospheric on overcast days.
Rain or shine, the excellent Seattle Aquarium knows that going local is the best approach, and the exhibits on Pacific Northwest marine life will thrill kids and adults. Stick your hand in the touch pool to feel an anemone close around your fingers, and "pet" a starfish or two. Make sure to visit the adorable, playful otters at feeding time, when they’re especially entertaining and playful.
Book lovers know that plenty of hours out of the rain can be spent browsing in a book store, and the country’s pre-eminent independent book store and a local institution Elliott Bay Book Company is worth a pilgrimage rain or shine—but the futuristically designed Seattle Central Library is also a prime destination to spend an hour or several out of the rain. Time your visit to take one of the free tours, attend a reading or a free movie screening, or just hang out and make use of the computer terminals and free Wi-Fi.
Appreciating the fresh seafood and bountiful local produce is an essential part of any visit to Seattle and a visit to the famed Pike Place Market is a must. Here, locals and tourists (and if you go early, local restaurateurs) shop for fruit, produce, fish, flowers, and more. For optimal enjoyment, be prepared to snack: options range from fresh donuts to sweet or savory pierogies from Piroshky Piroshky, or prepared gourmet food. If the weather’s cooperating, buy picnic fixings at the market and head to one of the city’s parks or outdoor spaces.
With several days in the city, you’ll be able to sample some of the city’s renowned dining establishments. The farm-to-table movement rules out here, and there are excellent restaurant choices for every budget all over the city.
Coffee, Doughnuts, and More
You’ve probably heard that Seattle runs on coffee. If you didn’t know, Seattle is the home of the original Starbucks (the first one opened in 1971), the one that spurred the international conglomerate, and the city is inundated with the chain’s locations. Have no fear, though—if independent, local coffee institutions are more your speed, there are plenty to choose from. Look for Caffe Vita, Espresso Vivace, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Cherry Street Coffee House, Zeitgeist Cafe, and Victrola Coffee Roasters. Our coverage of Seattle's Coffee Culture explores the city’s love of coffee—and the finer points of latte art.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the latest food trend in Seattle goes perfectly with coffee: shops specializing in single-item delicacies ranging from pie to donuts to cupcakes to ice cream—most made with top-notch, local ingredients—have opened all over the city. We gathered them all for you in our list of Seattle Sweet Spots.
Exploring Seattle Neighborhoods
The offbeat neighborhood of Fremont, sometimes called the Republic of Fremont but also known locally as the "Center of the Universe," is the perfect area for lunch and an afternoon walk. The tree-lined streets of residential neighborhood on Lake Union by the Ship Canal also has some excellent restaurants, including Renee Erickson’s bright and airy new restaurant The Whale Wins, which is perfect for a casual lunch. There are cute and quirky boutiques and shops along 36th Street, and a funky vibe throughout the neighborhood. A tour of the neighborhoodâ€™s public art installations includes the giant concrete Fremont Troll, which clutches a real Volkswagen Beetle in its hand—it’s on N. 36th Street at Troll Avenue. Chocolate lovers and fans of sustainable enterprise might be drawn to the Theo Chocolate factory, where you can sign up for tours of the chocolate making process—samples included.
Capitol Hill is also an excellent neighborhood on a nice day. Volunteer Park is home to the renowned Seattle Asian Art Museum, a branch of the Seattle Art Museum, but it’s also just a lovely green space to sprawl and watch local families play with kids and dogs. Climb up the interior stairs of the water tower for a view of Lake Union and the surrounding area from the top. The nearby Lakeview Cemetery attracts visitors to graves of Bruce and Brandon Lee—there’s always an interesting collection of drawings and offerings that have been left for the father-and-son movie stars.
Ferry to Bainbridge Island
It's definitely worth heading to the Washington State ferry docks for the 35-minute trip to Bainbridge Island, where you can stroll the boutiques and bakeries along Winslow Way. Stop for lunch at the Cafe Nola (or brunch on the weekends), or for coffee and baked goods at Blackbird Bakery. A waterside hiking trail will take you on a pleasant walk, or you can rent bikes from one of several bike shops in town.
Where to Stay
There are hotels for all budgets in Seattle. Downtown and Belltown have many options, from the moderately priced Ace Hotel, to the Fodor’s 100 Hotel Award winner Hotel Monaco, and the understated Hotel Vintage Park. The Hotel Ã„ndra is sleek and hip, and has the added bonus of Tom Douglas’s Lola restaurant in the lobby.
Photo credits: all photos courtesy of Caroline Trefler