Via magazine
Via magazine - Your AAA Magazine

Things to Do When Visiting Seattle

From under the ground to the top of the needle, Seattle offers a wealth of top attractions.

the Seattle skyline with the Space Needle and Mount Rainier, picture
Photo credit
Photo: Kan Khampanya / Shutterstock
Photo caption
The Seattle skyline.

Latte capital of the World, software maker, unfurler of umbrellas, rider of bicycles and the nation’s commercial jet builder; drizzly, hilly, self-aware, city of the big shoreline: They tell me you love coffee and I believe them, for I have seen your sidewalk kiosks on every corner luring the passers-by. And they tell me you are fun to visit and my reply is: Yes it is true all over town I have seen reasons to enjoy Seattle then return to enjoy it again.

Seattle has lots of water. Aside from its famous rain, the city is bordered and bisected by such bodies of water as Elliott Bay, Puget Sound, Lake Washington, Salmon Bay, Lake Union, Portage Bay, and Union Bay. Scant wonder it boasts of having more boats per capita than any other U.S. city.

Some of these boats are available to anyone who’ll pay. The place to be is the Elliott Bay waterfront along Alaskan Way. Here are some of the possibilities:

  • Take a boat ride round-trip to Victoria, Bremerton or Bainbridge Island. Washington State Ferries information: (206) 464-6400. Victoria Clipper information: (206) 448-5000.
  • Tour the harbor on one of the Argosy boats at Pier 55. There are one-hour narrated cruises; Argosy also offers 2.5 hour rides through the Chittenden Locks, Lake Union, and the Lake Washington Ship Canal. For information on these and other excursions, call (206) 623-4252.
  • For a power trip, try the new "Rocket Boat" half-hour, narrated harbor tour on the 70-foot open boat sent skimming across the wavelets by two V-12 turbocharged diesels, a total of 2,000 hp. Pier 54 Adventures: (206) 623-6364.
  • For exactly the opposite experience, try a couple of hours on the replica of Joshua Slocum’s small sailing ship Spray. Slocum was a possibly eccentric mariner who made a solo circumnavigation of the world on the original Spray in 1895. The replica circumnavigates Elliott Bay with a variety of itineraries at a variety of prices. Information: (206) 623-6364.

Another place to see what Seattle does with water is at Chittenden Locks. Boats can get from the salt water of Puget Sound to the fresh water of Lake Union and beyond cross-town via the locks. Salmon can do it, too, although they have a tougher time. You can see the locks in operation as they raise and lower shipping, and watch through underwater windows as the salmon swim. You might even see the controversial sea lions eating salmon in Salmon Bay.

At Fisherman’s Terminal you can see one of the reasons that allowing sea lions to gobble salmon is controversial: the commercial fishing fleet. Hundreds of boats tie up at the docks near Ballard Bridge. You can walk among them—or you can watch them from the expansive windows of Chinook’s Restaurant. It’s an excellent place to get your own salmon dinner and watch the fleet simultaneously.

On the waterfront The part of the waterfront that concerns us stretches approximately from the Pike Place Hillclimb to South Main Street. Alaskan Way runs its length. So does an antique streetcar line and an elevated, double-deck freeway.

On the Elliott Bay side of Alaskan Way, brightly painted attractions pretty much line a wide walkway. On the city side survives a collection of old buildings, some of which are individually handsome but which in concert look like the backdrop for a film noir scene involving hard-boiled characters. You can find a couple of big antique shops among them, however.

Bay views, warrens of shops, restaurants (and eateries), ferry terminals, the fireboat dock, and tourboat facilities dot the harbor side of Alaskan Way.

Pike Place Market This rambling warren of produce markets, fish markets, bakeries, restaurants, and shops spreads out around Pike Street and First Avenue. Craftspeople and street musicians add to the colorful, loud, bustling atmosphere. The fishmarket people are the most extroverted. Buying fish becomes participatory theater, with signs warning of "flying fish." They’re actually fish flung up and down and across the counter by fish salespeople between bouts of banter with the customers.

Visit the Seattle Aquarium and Omnidome Theater at Pier 59. The aquarium is more extensive and much better than you might conclude from its Coney-Island-ish facade. It’s a thorough exploration of the life supported by Puget Sound. Among the highlights are a dome, where you can view fish from beneath, two tanks of Tiffanyesque jellyfish, and the otter exhibit. Feeding times for various exhibits are posted; the otters probably put on the best dinner show. The Mount St. Helens eruption looms very large at the adjacent Omnidome.

The oldest waterfront attraction, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, celebrates its centennial in 1999. Touristy and tasteless though it may be, it is fun. With curiosities everywhere (mostly hanging from the rafters) and a generally good-humored and old-timey air, it’s something you’d find in a nautical Virginia City. Two mummies, Sylvia and Sylvester (he with a bloody bullet hole), a mummified dog ("Petri-Fido"), stuffed animal heads, jaws of "Old Tobago Bill" (world’s most feared shark in the late 1700s), and unseemly bits of various marine mammals set the tone. It’s between Ivar’s Fish Bar and "The Frankfurter."

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute Saloon a hundred years ago, Seattle was the jumping-off point for the Klondike gold rush. The Klondike, a river and area in Canada’s Yukon Territory near Alaska, suddenly became famous after gold was found there in 1896. Word reached Seattle in 1897, causing a "stampede" of fortune seekers.

You needed considerable equipment to join this gold rush and the result was wealth for Seattle. The town had only recently burned to the ground (1889) and still was suffering through the depression following the Panic of 1893. Fire, depression, discovery, and rush are recalled and celebrated in the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park near Pioneer Square. The free museum is at 117 S. Main Street. Information: (206) 553-7220.

Pioneer Square and the "Dirt, Corruption, Sewers, Scandal" of the Underground Tour Pioneer Square, actually a several-block area, is the oldest surviving part of Seattle. It has been restored to its handsome c. 1900 appearance, complete with ornate transit shelter, totem poles, galleries, and nice shops. Perhaps the area’s most popular attraction is the Underground Tour. It’s a real treat and you can buy a ticket (actually a hand-stamp picturing a toilet. Adult price: $6.50) at Doc Maynard’s.

According to the brief lecture introducing the Underground Tour, Seattle’s early history had two driving forces: go-getters of amusing, picturesque unscrupulousness and a long, frustrating quest for adequate plumbing. Actually, the introduction is more a stand-up comedy show, which carries over into the tour narration. Don’t deny yourself the 90-minute tour, given several times a day, seven days a week. Doc Maynard’s Public House is a turn-of-the-century saloon at 610 First Avenue, near the Victorian bus stop.

Wings Boeing looms large in Seattle; its original manufacturing plant (the "Red Barn") now is part of the Museum of Flight largest air and space museum on the West Coast. Exhibits housed in the Red Barn trace the history of flight into the 1930s. The Great Gallery houses some 50 historic planes. Many of them, including a DC-3, are suspended from the ceiling, all pointing in the same direction, in an eerie evocation of an array of now-extinct birds headed who-knows-where.

The newest exhibits are the first jet presidential plane and an air control tower. The plane, the Air Force One used by Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Kennedy (Jackie redesigned the lavatory), Johnson, and a long list of other dignitaries, is the only such plane open to the public—you can walk through it. Through the tower’s inter-active computers you get an idea of what’s involved in being an air controller—and try your hand at it. Open daily 10 to 5, Thursday to 9. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas. Admission peaks at $8. Information: (206) 764-5720.

Leonardo’s Coming to Town Seattle has several art museums, but only one called The Seattle Art Museum. It’s in a post-modern building of striking individuality at 100 University Street. There’s a large, two-dimensional, all-black, animated statue, Hammering Man, in front of it. The collection is broadly eclectic, including, among others, Native American, modern American and European, European from 14th-19th centuries, Egyptian, Islamic, Central and South American. One can hardly miss.

The big event this winter is a special exhibition called Leonardo Lives: the Codex Leicester and Leonardo da Vinci’s Legacy of Art and Science. The Codex Leicester is a manuscript of Leonardo’s scientific observations and sketches, bought by Bill Gates (recently voted Seattle’s best billionaire) in 1994. Its 18 double-sheets with their observations on water, light, gravity, and fossils form the only Leonardo manuscript in the U.S. and the last one in private hands.

The exhibition includes a general introduction to Renaissance art, the Codex itself, and the effect Leonardo has had on subsequent artists. You’ll see models based on Leonardo’s designs and interactive computer stations exploring his scientific ideas and their relationship to art. Leonardo Lives is on view from Oct. 23 to January 4. Information: (206) 654-3100.

A healthful walk up the hill to 704 Terry Avenue takes you to a relatively hidden gem of a museum, the Frye. Recently enlarged, the Frye exhibits representational American and German works, largely from the 19th century and early 20th century. The collection’s core, gathered by meat packer Charles Frye and his wife beginning in 1893, is clearly the work of people who knew what they liked and weren’t swayed by fashion. That’s fortunate for us, as the museum has a thoroughly enjoyable array of works you need not be a traditionalist to appreciate. Free admission. Information: (206) 622-9250.

Seattle Place Seattle got its signature building, the Space Needle, along with the 1962 World’s Fair. The fairgrounds, now 74-acre Seattle Place, recently has swallowed up nearly $200 million in improvements, Key Arena, home of the SuperSonics among them. The Opera House is nearby. And, for children, two superb attractions, the Children’s Museum and the Pacific Science Center.

The Pacific Science Center is a large collection of hands-on exhibits illustrating a wide range of scientific phenomena—how electric motors, levers, and parabolic dishes work; there’s a hall of Mesozoic dinosaurs, the opportunity to touch a giant cockroach, watch naked mole rats navigate a tube maze, an outdoor pool area with hydrological demonstrations—most involving large-scale squirting. There’s also an Imax theater. Information: (206) 443-4629.

Interaction is the ticket at the Children’s Museum, too, with do-it-yourself home construction (real lumber and tools), an elaborate computer room where kids can send messages to just about anywhere and interact with screen images, an art project room with artist in residence. Despite the apparent sophistication of these topics, and many of the others covered, the Children’s Museum makes things accessible to very young kids. Information: (206) 441-1768.

Street art and the Center of the Universe In parts of Seattle the style is studied eccentricity or whimsicality in a vaguely Berkeleyesque mode. The city has been described as "backpacky," and in places it is. One such is the small Fremont neighborhood, around North 34th and Fremont streets, just across the Fremont Street Bridge.

If Seattle is, as USA Today claims, "a self-aware city," this neighborhood fits right in. Called "The Center of the Universe," it’s full of informal small shops—pottery, books, clothing, coffee shops, restaurants. Its used book store, Twice Sold Tales, recently was voted best in town in the Seattle Weekly annual poll.

Probably most interesting to a tourist, however, is the unusual, varied street art. Results of the one-person Via poll on C of the U street art, in ascending order:

  • The statuary crowd awaiting a bus, Waiting for the Interurban, at 34th nd Fremont, which locals clothe from time to time.
  • The heroic, larger-than-life Lenin, straight from the former U.S.S.R., where such statues are a drug on the market. Is it a political statement? A quaint reminder of a gigantic flop? It’s what you make of it. Fremont and N 36th in front of Taco del Mar Mission Style Burritos.
  • Grand prize goes to the VW-grabbing troll beneath the G. Washington Memorial Bridge (aka Aurora Bridge and Suicide Bridge) at N. 36th.


Note: We were told that Fremont St. is not a "trendy" neighborhood. In fact, it’s "...anti-trendy; Seattleites don’t like to think of themselves as trendy. If there’s a restaurant that nobody goes to, but it’s a great find, that’s where everybody goes."

If I have seen far, it is because I've stood upon the tallest buildings in town

For a Seattle overview, you can take in the town from atop, or nearly atop, four reasonably lofty structures. We did them all with a critical eye, and here, in reverse order, are the ratings:

The water tower, Volunteer Park. Looking like a mediaeval castle keep, this 75-foot brick cylinder on a hill offers a 360-degree view from openings in the wall in a large room at the top of a curved metal staircase; there’s no elevator. Factoid: Memorializes former Water Commissioner. Ambiance: Industrial. View: Quite good; lack of competition at the price earns it local favor as "The best free view in town."

Smith Tower, 2nd and Yesler. View is from a room and balcony near the top of this 42-story 1914 skyscraper. The building’s a gem, with ornate lobby, brass elevators, "Oldest Cigar Store in Seattle," and an electric elevator motor looking as though it came from the Edison laboratory. Factoid: Formerly the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Ambiance: Slightly faded Edwardian. View: 360-degree aspect somewhat reduced by newer skyscrapers. Access is through a guided tour; check ahead of time for cost. It begins at 606 First Avenue.

Space Needle. The Jetsonian signature building has a viewing area at the 520-foot level. There’s a 360-degree indoor viewing area (with a 360-degree gift shop), and a balcony surrounding it. One level down is a rotating restaurant. Factoid: Elevators move at 10 mph. Ambiance: Tourist/kitsch. View: Unimpeded in all directions; lots of signs telling you what you’re seeing.

Columbia Seafirst Center, 5th Ave and Columbia St. You change elevators at the 40th floor to reach the 73rd floor observation room. From the glass-enclosed area, you can look almost directly down on Smith Tower and see the tops of just about all other skyscrapers in town. Factoid: More lawyers work in this building than in Japan. Atmosphere: Corporate. View: Because Seafirst Center is so tall and in the middle of things, you get a Seattle view both more intimate and more lordly. It’s our pick of the four.


This article was first published in November 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.