From rough-and-ready lumber town to industrial powerhouse to glittering high tech capital, it’s been a wild ride for the New York of the Northwest. It’s not over yet, either – the forest of cranes currently working hard to reshape the region’s skyline will be your first clue. (Your second: Hearing the locals go on—and on—about how everything’s changing.)
Visiting Seattle today gives you a ringside seat to the ongoing transformation of one of America’s most livable regional capitals into what could become a world-class force to be reckoned with. Like any major transition, it hasn’t been easy, but at least you’re promised one thing: It sure as heck won’t be boring. Heading up for the first time? Here a few things to know, before you get there.
Ditch the car. Heard the one about Seattle traffic? Don’t worry, you will. The easiest way to keep from falling in love with what is otherwise a wholly-likable corner of the world is to attempt to navigate its often-ungodly gridlock. For maximum happiness, stay as close as you can to the things you want to see. No, seriously—walking distance is ideal, if you can manage it.
But, hey, check it out – there’s actually some proper transit now. It’ll be decades—centuries, at the rate they’ve been going—before Seattle has a complete rail network, but Sound Transit’s stubby light rail line did just expand, so that’s something. The addition of just two stops—one at the heart of the Capitol Hill business district and the other at the foot of the massive University of Washington campus—makes going wheel-free here even more appealing. Hop on board at the airport (make sure to get a ticket and make sure it’s validated, to avoid the wrath of the transit patrol) and ride to your downtown hotel. From there, you can use the subway to sample the nightlife up on the Hill, or you might ride the street car from downtown up to Lake Union for a morning of kayaking—there’s even another brand new streetcar that can take you from Pioneer Square, through the International District (what Seattle calls its historic Chinatown) and all along Broadway, atop up-and-coming First Hill and back into Capitol Hill, where it connects with the subway. Perfect? Not really, but for the casual visitor, getting around is absolutely getting easier.
If you need a ride… You wouldn’t have expected this in a city like Seattle, but their inaugural bike share program actually flopped. That’s okay though, because two new trial programs—Spin Bike and LimeBike—are now operating, at least until later in the year. What makes these programs different from the usual? The bikes are dockless, first of all—you find and book through an app; rates are $1 per 30 minutes. When you’re finished, no need to go find a rack. Cool, right? If you’d rather have a car, Seattle is a Car2Go city. Not familiar? Unlike Zipcar, Car2Go is point-to-point, meaning you can pick up and drop off anywhere within the program boundaries. (In Seattle, that pretty much means the entire city.) Just download the app, sign up and do the tutorial – it takes a second to figure it all out, but once you do, you’ll be able to do it in your sleep. (Do all this before you leave home—it can take some time, but it’s worth it.) If you’re more comfortable leaving the driving to someone else, don’t worry—this is the country’s #2 tech city, after San Francisco. Lyft and Uber are always just a couple of taps away.
You’ll get a workout, but Seattle is a great walking city. At barely twice the size of San Francisco, you could also just put on your comfiest shoes and go. A visitor could walk from the ferry docks (steps from increasingly interesting Pioneer Square, at the foot of downtown) and up into Capitol Hill in very little time at all, if they don’t mind the extreme glute workout. (Some streets seem to go almost straight up into the sky, speaking of San Francisco; stick with Pike or Pine for a more gentle grade, not to mention a very interesting walk.) It gets a little trickier when trying to rope in fashionably cool suburbs like Fremont or Ballard, but, traffic permitting, you’re looking at a very affordable Lyft or Uber ride to either from downtown. (If you have time for just one, stick to Fremont. Fremont’s better. There you’ll find the Theo Chocolate factory with its endless free samples, some of the better bars in town, great coffee at Milstead & Co. and superb if pricey restaurants like Revel, a sleek Korean bistro that’s great for lunch or dinner. Fremont is great. You’ll love Fremont.)
Can’t even with those downtown hotel rates, but want to stay close to the action? Sleep on Bainbridge Island. Commuting on the all-day, everyday ferry to one of the most picturesque suburbs in North America can be downright fun—more so when you’re not an actual commuter and can properly kick back and enjoy the 35-minute journey. With frequent-enough service until late at night (last boat over leaves Seattle at 1:35am) and a round-trip pedestrian fare of $8.20 for adults ($4.10 for the under 18’s), budget-watchers are wise to consider this option. There are plenty of great Airbnb listings to choose from, but the Best Western Plus Bainbridge Island is a pleasant, safe-at-any-hour, 20-minute walk through Winslow village, to and from the ferry dock. Generously-sized rooms and a decent breakfast can often be had for around $100. Try finding that downtown at the height of tourist season.
The market is something of a relic. But you’ll love it anyway. In many ways, a stroll through Pike Place Market is a trip back in time, before the recession-era food revolution swept the continent. That doesn’t mean that Pike Place Market isn’t still one of the best in its class (and one of Seattle’s best attractions.) Make sure to set aside some time to eat your way through it. If this is your first visit, you’ve timed it well—the market just wrapped the bulk of the work on its first expansion in 40 years.
If you’re going to do museums, start with the Chihuly. Why choose an expensive shrine to a popular glass artist, best known to many Americans as the guy who did that one lobby ceiling in Las Vegas? No matter how many times you’ve seen local legend Dale Chihuly’s work, you’ve never seen it presented like this. There isn’t a wet or dark day that can’t be salvaged by a slow, deliberate study of the compact but surprising, indoor-outdoor Chihuly Garden & Glass, shoehorned into the cramped Seattle Center complex, just beneath the Space Needle. It’s moody, it’s gorgeous and anyone who tells you not to go there is just being a crank.
Speaking of the Space Needle—maybe don’t. You can buy a combo ticket that gets you both into the Chihuly and up the Space Needle, but consider skipping the city’s most shameless tourist trap and riding instead up to the Sky View Observatory, a less-appreciated gem on the 73rd floor of the Columbia Center, aka the tallest tower in Seattle’s growing downtown skyline. Tip: If you’re too cheap to pay the admission fee, at least go as high as the building’s 40th floor Starbucks, open to the public and offering its own, very good views.
This isn’t Portland. (Also, don’t mention Portland.) Seattle enjoyed a rather lengthy moment on the global stage at a time when Oregon’s big city was still trying to shake that cow town vibe. Believe it or not, as far as some locals are concerned—and if you think you know American provincialism, come watch Northwesterners take it to an entirely new level—Portland as the world knows it today never really happened. Too bad. Seattle can puff itself up all it wants, but the fact is, if you’re looking for the innovative, impressive-at-all-price-points culinary scene that Portland is now known for, you really should go there instead. While Seattle has at times its hand at Portland-y stuff, where it’s most comfortable right now is the smarter, higher end of things. Think of the city’s dining scene like Manhattan’s, if it helps—there are lots of very good restaurants where money talks—whereas Portland is firmly (for now) the Brooklyn of the region. Don’t leave Seattle, however, without eating a ton of Pacific Northwest oysters—regional supplier Taylor Shellfish Farms operates a couple of excellent in-town oyster bars. Their relatively secluded Queen Anne location is never quite as mobbed as it should be and there are great wines by the glass. It almost feels like San Francisco’s Hog Island, before the hordes descended. (Next time you go to Hog Island, look closely at the list—a lot of their stuff comes from up here.)
The food is fine, but the beer is—once again—absolutely amazing. As with so many other things that matter, Seattle was way early to the craft beer game. It has sort of taken its time jumping onto the latest wave, but one sampling at, say, Holy Mountain Brewery (an easy hop from downtown, you can even walk along the waterfront) and it’ll become plenty clear: it was well worth the wait. There are many breweries to try these days, but for goodness’ sake, start there. (If you like barrel-aged sours, you’re in extremely capable hands.)
Other cities can say whatever they want. Seattle still owns coffee in North America, no contest. You will consistently drink amazing espresso beverages, everywhere you go. Pretense-despisers from those late-to-the-game towns that have turned coffee into an obnoxiously fancified lifestyle product will absolutely love Seattle’s serious, but often no-frills scene. For a crash course in how it’s done around here, go straight to Espresso Vivace’s retro sidewalk kiosk on Broadway, in Capitol Hill. (Hey—you can take the train!)
To see Seattle at its edgiest, go south. For the longest time, the southern half of Seattle was something you sped past on I-5 on your way in from the airport. Now, for those riding the light rail in from the airport, it’s the first thing you see. You’ll quickly notice that it’s nothing like the Seattle of most people’s imaginations. Like everywhere else in the region, however, things are changing; sometimes too quickly. You can’t get to all the good stuff via rail, and some of the more popular commercial areas really aren’t worth the slog for a visitor, but one neighborhood you really should bother with is Georgetown, a gritty, post-industrial wasteland that seems to attract an unusual number of very good businesses, starting with the the no-screwing-around All City Coffee to new breweries, restaurants, nightspots, art galleries and more. It may take a little sorting out to find everything, but it’s well worth the hassle. There’s even a decent budget hotel down here, the Georgetown Inn, for people who are serious about experiencing everything the neighborhood has to offer. Which is a lot.
Booking a trip?
If you’re looking for the lowest airfares to Seattle, start by noodling around on CheapFlights or BookingBuddy—both will compare multiple sites at once, saving you a lot of running around. When you’re ready to book, we recommend Orbitz or Expedia—both offer 24-hour cancellation policies, allowing you to lock in the lowest fare while you finalize your plans. (As always, read the fine print first.) Just on here looking for the best Seattlev hotel deals? Start by searching TripAdvisor, or Hotels.com, but don’t book anything without a stop at Priceline, where you can save up to 60% on any given night by taking advantage of their Express Deals feature. (This simple tool has probably saved us—no joke—thousands of dollars, over the years.). Finally, if you need a rental car, begin your search by swinging wide to get a sense of the market—BookingBuddy lets you check pretty much every site worth knowing, with just a couple of clicks.