Seattle Itinerary: 2, 3, or 4 Days
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Seattle’s stunning views and laid-back vibes make it an ideal place to simply wander and enjoy the surroundings. Stroll the waterfront paths, stare at the big mountains, and then stop for a cup of coffee that demonstrates why everyone here is so obsessed with the drink. Breathe in the refreshing, invigorating salt-water breeze on a boat across Puget Sound, and suddenly it makes sense how good the seafood from that same water tastes.
Seattle’s main tourist attractions fit the same map: The Space Needle shows off the view, and Pike Place Market shows off the fish. Getting on a boat—or a couple different boats—is an essential component of understanding Seattle, as is enjoying the natural beauty of the city.
That makes visiting Seattle great for anyone looking to spend time outside, to breathe in the smell of spring blossoms or fall leaves, to pad along forest floors—even in the middle of the city—and then eat food from those same landscapes and hear music inspired by them.
2-day Seattle itinerary
Day 1: Seattle Center and local sounds
Start your day with a cup of expertly brewed coffee at the polished, modern café by Fulcrum Coffee, which imports and roasts unique single-origin beans, including one from a co-owner’s family farm in Costa Rica. Then stroll down the mostly-pedestrianized Bell Street, and take a right on Western, which brings you to the Olympic Sculpture Park. The nine-acre display of outdoor art, including Alexander Calder’s Eagle, is run by the Seattle Art Museum, which provides an audio tour of the public park on its website.
Circle back up Broad to Seattle Center, where you can get a combined ticket to see the bold colors of the Chihuly Garden and Glass and the iconic Space Needle. On the far side of the Seattle Center complex, find Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bar, and sit down with a Pacific Northwest seafood feast in the form of geoduck chowder, a dozen oysters, and Dungeness Crab.
Pop into the KEXP Gathering Space to rest your feet and listen to Seattle’s impressive independent radio station. If you hear something you like, the Light in the Attic Record Shop in the corner of the room might carry it. Then head to one last stop in Seattle Center, the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP), where you can make some music of your own, learn about Seattle’s superstar musicians, and wander the Science Fiction Hall of Fame that’s housed there.
Head up to Capitol Hill for dinner, where the city’s center of LGBTQ+ life also features many of the best restaurants: a tasting menu of local ingredients at Lark, Spanish snacks at MariPili Tapas Bar, or pizza and natural wine at Blotto. Whatever you eat, follow it up with some live music at one of the neighborhood's many storied venues: Neumos, ChopSuey, or ChaCha Lounge.
Day 2: Boats and Ballard
First thing in the morning is the ideal time to check out Pike Place Market: The crowds aren’t there yet, and the best stands sell breakfast foods. Watch the freshly made doughnuts drop at the Daily Dozen, pick a humbow at Mee Sum Pastry, or choose one of the colorful fresh yogurt options at Ellenos. Then watch the fish counters set out their seafood and the produce people create towers of tangerines, all at a leisurely pace and with none of the jostling required at busier times.
When you finish, make your way back to the Link Light Rail and take it to the University of Washington Station. Walk past Husky Stadium (also known as “The Greatest Setting in College Football” thanks to its impressive view) to UW’s Waterfront Activity Center, which rents out canoes and row boats. Navigate your craft across the shipping canal, and enter the lily-pad-lined aquatic paths of Washington Park Arboretum.
Return to shore and follow the canal around to Saint Bread, just south of campus, for lunch on the waterfront. The eclectic menu of pastries and sandwiches mixes Japanese, American, and Scandinavian traditions, resulting in a fried egg sandwich on melonpan; okonomiyaki-style tortilla; and a killer cheeseburger.
After lunch, hop on the number 44 bus across town to the Ballard Locks. Built in 1917 by the Army Corps of Engineers to manage the water levels in the new Lake Washington Shipping Canal as they reached the saltwater of Shilshole Bay, they remain absolutely fascinating. Pop by the visitors center for one of the free ranger-led tours, and then meander the botanical gardens or cross to see the salmon at the fish ladder.
Make your way west from the Locks shopping for souvenirs in the boutiques lining Ballard Avenue. Look for jewelry and housewares from local artists at Venue or clothes that rep the Pacific Northwest at Standard Goods. As the stores peter out, you’ll hit the Ballard Brewery District. Choose from IPA-specialist Stoup, the joint taproom from Bale Breaker and Yonder Cider, or the Chinese-influenced Lucky Envelope, and expect to see lots of kids and dogs—locals use these brewhouses like bonus backyards.
Grab dinner from one of the food trucks parked in front of a brewery, or head to Mexican steakhouse Asadero Prime for bone marrow crostini, ribeye tacos, and a colorful salsa bar.
3-day Seattle itinerary
Day 3: International flavor and a ferry
Start your third day south of Downtown in the Chinatown-International District. Early 20th–century immigrants from Asia, excluded from the city center, set up enclaves here, including Chinatown and Japantown, with Little Saigon coming along many decades later. Today, the public spaces reflect those heritages and the neighborhood’s restaurants and shops carry on the legacies.
After digging into a dim sum meal of dumplings and rice noodles at Harbor City Restaurant, head to the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific Experience to understand more about how the neighborhood evolved and where it’s going. The immersive museum includes a tour of the historic hotel in which it’s housed, so make sure to aim your arrival to include the 1:30pm tour (it also runs at 10:30am and 3:30pm).
When you finish there, make your way back downtown toward the Colman Dock to grab a ferry across the water to Bainbridge Island for dinner. It’s about a 35-minute ride, with excellent views looking back at the city and south toward Mt. Rainier. From the Bainbridge port, it’s a short walk up the hill to Windsor Way, the main road through town. Wineries, a bookstore, and small-town charm line both sides of the road. Plan to spend some time poking around before heading to dinner at Ba Sa Restaurant, where second-generation Vietnamese American restaurateurs Rang Nguyen and Huyen Tran mix local ingredients, traditional foods, and modern techniques to produce dishes like pepper flake razor clams and corn milk crème brûlée.
4-day Seattle itinerary
Day 4: Day trip to Snoqualmie
With a fourth day in the city, it’s time to get out of town. Wait for morning rush hour to die down, then take a rental car straight east for half an hour to Snoqualmie Falls. Park in the upper lot, where you’ll get your first glimpse of the 270-foot waterfall. Follow the short interpretive trail, which identifies native trees, about three-quarters of a mile down to the bottom of the falls. The walk back up the boardwalks and gravel path gets steep, so take your time. Plan about an hour round trip—less if you don’t stop for many photos, but that’s hard to resist.
Back at the top, stop into the Snoqualmie Falls Gift Shop and Visitor Center to learn about how the Snoqualmie Tribe aims to reclaim their ancestral lands—and how their purchase of the land around the falls plays into that. There is also a gallery displaying artwork and photographs celebrating the Tribe and its ancestral lands.
When you finish at the falls, stop on your way back to the freeway at Aahar, where some of the state’s best Indian cuisine hides in an otherwise unremarkable development. Fortified with mango lassis and palak paneer, continue east on I-90 to exit 47 and find the Franklin Falls Trailhead.
The hike to Franklin Falls is relatively short, has terrific waterfall views, and gives a taste of a typical Pacific Northwest hike without a long drive, steep climb, or arduous trail. The trail to the falls is about a mile and rewards hikers with spectacular views of the lowest tier (of three) of Franklin Falls, about a 70-foot drop.
After retracing your steps to the car, head back west—but stop for one last refreshment before returning to the city. Twede’s Café in the town of North Bend has a damn fine cup of coffee and plays one on television, too. The diner stands in for the Double R Diner on Twin Peaks and, like its fictional counterpart, serves excellent slices of cherry pie.
Key Seattle Travel Details
Where to stay in Seattle
The overwhelming majority of Seattle’s hotels sit in the main portion of Downtown, in part because most visitors like the proximity of major sites and convenience of good public transportation. Most Downtown hotels are a short walk from the Pike Place Market, Seattle Art Museum, and Washington State Ferry’s Colman Dock, plus a Link Light Rail stop, which makes getting elsewhere in the city (and to or from the airport) significantly quicker and easier.
Downtown also remains the only area with really tall buildings, like the kind that most major hotels occupy, and those tall buildings allow the hotels to offer stunning views out over Elliott Bay and to the Olympic Mountains beyond.
The Palihotel, with its quirky and fun design, sits just across the street from the Pike Place Market, and prices start at $162. For a more classic luxury feel, the nearby Thompson Seattle starts at $294.
Staying in Ballard means stepping out of the hotel and into the middle of the action. The partially-pedestrianized Ballard Avenue sports one of the city’s best collections of restaurants and bars, and on Sundays, it turns into an enormous farmers market. Cute boutiques selling locally made clothes, gifts, and toys turn any walk into a window shop, and walking a little farther brings you to the Ballard Locks, Golden Gardens Park, and the National Nordic Museum.
Ballard’s two hotels are siblings, just down the street from each other in charming older buildings. There’s the more-traditional, rather elegant Hotel Ballard, where rooms start at $289, and then there’s the scaled-back Ballard Inn, where a twin room with a shared bathroom starts at $79—one of the best values in town.
How to get around Seattle
Seattle’s meager public transportation system works well to get you to and from the airport via the excellent Link Light Rail, as well as decently by bus rapid transit and standard bus if you are going to or from Downtown. However, it gets harder if you need to go from one neighborhood to another without going through Downtown. Most of the tourist neighborhoods are decently connected, though, so if you have time, seeing the city by public transportation works well. Fares depend on the route but run from $2.75–$3.50. Buses do not give change, so it is best to use the Go Transit smartphone app.
If you are staying Downtown and not planning to leave the city, there is no reason to rent a car. But if you plan to take a day trip or are staying in an outer neighborhood where parking will be reasonably priced, having a rental car will make planning and traveling much easier.
When to go to Seattle
Seattle really shines in summer, when the weather stays reliably warm and dry but rarely hot and the clear skies allow for unblemished views of the mountains. Unfortunately, that also makes it the busy season, when cruise ships disgorge hundreds of people at a time, and hotel room prices skyrocket. Late-spring and early-fall run the risk of a few raindrops but more than make up for them with saved money and avoided hassle.
Two arts and music festivals at Seattle Center bookend summer in the city: the Northwest Folklife Festival over Memorial Day weekend in May and Bumbershoot over Labor Day weekend in September. In between, festivals of some sort run nearly every weekend throughout the city. The biggest ones occur in mid-July (Capitol Hill Block Party, Bite of Seattle) and the early-August Seafair Weekend that snarls traffic with a parade, airshow, and hydroplane races.
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Published November 29, 2023
Last updated December 21, 2023
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