Seattle is known by many as the jewel of the Pacific Northwest. Nestled between Puget Sound and the Cascades Range, the ‘Emerald City’ is a great home base to explore nearby mountains, waterfalls, evergreen forests, and the rugged Washington coastline.
The city truly shines in the summer sun, meaning May-October is the best time to visit Seattle. Long daylight hours and high temperatures in the 70’s make summer in Seattle pleasant and outdoor pursuits popular.
From Pike’s Place Market to the bustling waterfront to the futuristic Space Needle, Seattle bursts with indie eccentricity, vibrant arts and culture, fresh cuisine, and a pioneering spirit. For a chance to experience Seattle like the locals, plan your trip around the beloved—and sometimes quirky—summer festivals. Here’s what you’ll want to know about the best time to visit Seattle and what to do when you’re there.
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A Quick History of Seattle
The area around Seattle was originally the homeland of Coast Salish tribes. Seattle’s history as a city began with the Denny party who arrived in 1851, naming the settlement for a local Salish chief.
The dominant early industry was Henry Yesler’s lumber mill. The Northern Pacific Railroad linked the new city to the nation in 1893, offering a catalyst for growth. In 1896, Seattle rose to prominence as the main supply point for the Klondike Gold Rush.
This rapidly growing city hosted its first world fair in 1909, putting it on the map. Seattle’s industry grew quickly from there. In 1916, William Boeing began his venture into aircraft manufacturing. The port became a West Coast hub for grain and container ships.
Seattle hosted its second world fair in 1962 which resulted in the Space Needle, monorail, and Seattle Center becoming permanent city features. The 1980s saw the rise of Microsoft and the tech industry as integral to the local economy.
Today, Seattle is a hub of industry and innovation and a leader in the Pacific Rim. It’s a place where things are always happening. Locals and tourists alike delight in the beauty and natural bounty that surrounds them here. There are many places to visit in Seattle that tell the city’s story and many natural wonders within easy reach for those who seek them out.
The Best Time to Visit Seattle
There are two things that will factor in heavily to your decision of when you’ll visit Seattle: the cost and the weather. The Pacific Northwest is known for rain, and 150 days of the year are indeed rainy in Seattle. For almost half the year, the skies in Seattle are gray. It’s mostly a light drizzle, but the city can feel dreary and dark, making popular outdoor activities like hiking less appealing.
Seattle’s perfect summers are almost a locally-held secret. Rain rarely falls from June through September. Temperatures usually peak in the 70’s with low humidity and mild breezes. Summer sunrise is well before 6 a.m. and sunset is nearly at 10 p.m. The summer brings long sunny days and many hours to fill with adventures.
Summer is a peak time of travel in general, and Seattle is no exception. Those golden summer days are often in high demand with associated high pricing. Visiting in winter may mean you’ll find bargains, outside of holidays, for airfare and hotel stays. If you plan mostly indoor activities such as museums, you’ll also find fewer crowds in the winter months.
If you’re thinking you might compromise and travel between the peak and off-seasons, you’ll be in good company. The shoulder season, from March to mid-June, and October to early December is another popular time to visit. While the weather may be transitional, costs and crowds should be moderated by traveling a bit outside of the top tourist months.
Consider Visiting Seattle During Festival Season
Seattle loves its festivals, taking advantage of those warm summer weekends and highlighting all the things locals enjoy about the city. While there are usually several things going on during any given weekend, a few favorite festivals are:
- Seattle International Film Festival—April: For nearly 50 years, this film festival has delighted attendees with thought-provoking cinema.
- Dragonfest (Pan-Asian celebration of culture)—June/July: Beautiful cultural performance by one of the largest Pan-Asian celebrations.
- Bite of Seattle (200 food vendors)—July: Featuring more than 200 local food vendors.
- SEAFAIR—August: Hydroplanes, Blue Angels, and all things relating to Seattle’s nautical heritage.
- Bumbershoot—Labor Day weekend: One of the nation’s largest urban arts festivals featuring music and arts.
How Much Time Do You Need in Seattle?
Seattle’s central core is chock full of attractions. making it a popular choice for a weekend getaway or a stopover en route to another destination. To truly see the city, you need at least three days. Though, if you intend to adventure on day trips as well, consider allotting 5 to 7 days. This will give you ample time for a full, authentic Pacific Northwest experience.
The 8 Best Things to Do in Seattle
Seattle, of course, extends beyond the downtown and adjacent areas. The Capitol Hill, Ballard, Fremont, Queen Anne, and Green Lake neighborhoods beckon. And each has its own unique flavor and energy.
Seattlites rush outdoors to enjoy sunny days, going out to the city’s parks, lakes, and hiking trails. A couple of hours’ drive delivers you to the state’s two best-known national parks, Mount Rainier and Olympic.
Discover Downtown Seattle
Downtown Seattle is the city’s glossy heart. It’s complete with lofty high rises and a bustling street scene. Geography hems in the compact downtown retail and financial district with hills on the north and east and Elliott Bay to the west.
Downtown Seattle proper is surrounded by several beloved central core neighborhoods: Belltown, Pioneer Square, and the International District.
Pike’s Place Market
All roads in Seattle seem to lead to Pike Place Market. It’s the country’s oldest continuously operating public market and one of the top free things to do in Seattle. Dating to 1907, the nine-acre market is an eight-building warren of produce stalls and fresh seafood vendors (cue the famous flying salmon!). You’ll also find collectible and novelty shops and artisan crafters.
In an alley by the main market entrance is the famous and continually evolving “gum wall,” with twenty years of sticky contributions. The original Starbucks coffee location is only a block away as is the main facility of the Seattle Art Museum. (The associated Asian Art Museum is in Capitol Hill and the Olympic Sculpture Garden is along the waterfront.)
The Seattle Waterfront
Straight downhill from the market and the Belltown neighborhood is Seattle’s waterfront. It features a line of repurposed piers jutting into Puget Sound.
In between the various seafood eateries and souvenir shops, the Seattle Aquarium features exhibits relating to local marine life and beyond. For an incredible view of the central city, hop on the 175-foot tall Seattle Great Wheel. It’s one of North America’s tallest Ferris wheels.
There are a number of favored waterfront shopping and strolling spots. These include the gold-rush themed Miner’s Landing and paragon of century-old eclectic treasures, Ye Old Curiosity Shop. For a view from the water, book one of several boat rides available with Argosy Cruises. Or, take a Washington State ferry trip through the islands of Puget Sound.
The Seattle Aquarium is located at 1483 Alaskan Way, Seattle, WA 98101. It’s open daily from 9:30 to 6 and admission starts at $23.95. The Seattle Great Wheel is located at 1301 Alaskan Way, Seattle, WA 98101. It’s open on Sunday from 11 to 8, Monday through Thursday from 12 to 8, and on Friday and Saturday from 12 to 10. It costs $14.
Pioneer Square was the earliest settled area of the city and the site of Yesler’s lumber mill. Today, it’s a collection of late 1900’s Richardsonian Romanesque buildings filled with art galleries, eating and drinking establishments, and varied storefronts.
You can find Pioneer Square on a map here. The Seattle Underground Tour is located at 102 Cherry St, Seattle, WA 98104. Klondike Gold Rush National Park is located at 319 2nd Ave S, Seattle, WA 98104. It’s only open from Friday through Sunday from 10 to 4. Entry is free.
The International District
Today’s International District was once a center of Seattle’s Chinese population. The original people who lived here were displaced from their original neighborhood by a fire in 1889.
They were joined over the next twenty years by Japanese immigrants and other Asian residents. Highlights include the Kobe Terrace green space which features Mt Fuji cherry trees from Seattle’s sister city, Kobe, Japan, and the massive Uwajimaya Supermarket.
The Seattle Chinatown-International District is located here on a map. Kobe Terrace is at 650 South Main St, Seattle, WA 98104 and it’s open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Uwajimaya Supermarket is located at 600 5th Ave S, Seattle, WA 98104. It’s open daily from 8 to 8.
Ride the Monorail to Seattle Center
It’s only a mile-long ride, but the Seattle Monorail is a journey to the imagined future of the past. This holdover from the 1962 World Fair whisks riders from downtown to the old fairgrounds that is now the Seattle Center.
Popular attractions here include the Space Needle, Chihuly Garden and Glass, Museum of Pop Culture, and Pacific Science Center.
Whale Watching on Puget Sound
Puget Sound is visited throughout the year by Orcas, gray, minke, and humpback whales. Peak viewing is between June and September. You can spot whales from land at Alki Beach in West Seattle, but you’ll get a better vantage point on a whale-watching cruise.
Several operators offer half and full-day options, often with a 90% guarantee of whale sightings. Some of the best are:
- Clipper Vacations—Departs from Seattle
- Island Adventures—Departs from the suburb of Everett
- Puget Sound Express—Departs from the suburb of Edmonds
Out-of-Town Day Trips From Seattle
If you are able to stay longer in Seattle beyond a typical three-day itinerary, you’ll find easy access and abundant opportunities to experience the great outdoors. Washington is a state that worships the outdoors with its tall forests and rushing rivers.
A highlight are the mighty Cascade Mountains that divide the lush, green western state from the drier eastern reaches. Everyone in Seattle seems to hike and there are trails at all levels to enjoy!
Mount Ranier National Park
On a sunny day in Seattle, people often say that the “mountain is out.” Mount Rainier is Seattle’s mountain, only sixty miles away (though often a two-hour drive). Over 14,000 feet in height, Rainier is the Pacific Northwest’s tallest peak.
Mount Ranier National Park includes hiking trails through alpine meadows, temperate rainforests, and to gushing waterfalls. Interpretive visitor centers provide detailed information about the area for those who wish to know more.
Olympic National Park
Two hours due west of Seattle across Puget Sound lies the Olympic Peninsula, which is dominated by the roadless Olympic National Park. Much of Olympic National Park is wilderness, with road access circling the outskirts.
Visitors to the park enjoy three different eco-systems: alpine/glaciated mountains, old-grown rainforest, and seventy miles of undisturbed wild Pacific coastline.
How to Get to Seattle
For those in the western states, getting to Seattle can be a fun and easy road trip. Seattle is connected to Oregon and California by the Interstate 5 freeway and to all points east by Interstate 90. Amtrak serves Seattle from the south and east. It also connects to Vancouver, British Columbia, as do bus services such as Greyhound and Bolt.
Seattle International Airport is a major West Coast hub. It offers many flights daily from around the country and abroad. The airport is located in the town of SeaTac with easy light rail connections available to downtown Seattle. An added bonus of flying to Seattle are the stunning views of Mt Rainier from the plane!
How to Get Around Seattle
Quite a bit of Seattle sightseeing can easily be done on foot in the downtown area. Central Seattle is readily walkable once you factor in the hills. Many of the main visitor attractions are actually easier to access on foot. When you ditch your car, you don’t have the hassle of parking, which can be a real challenge.
Walking also allows you to enjoy city street life among the locals. If you do need a quick ride, Seattle has ample taxis and rideshares (like Uber and Lyft).
Biking is another popular way to get around Seattle. Cyclists will find an extensive network of dedicated biking paths and lanes throughout the city. Rentals (bikeshares) are available through JUMP at a rate of 36 cents per minute. If you tire of riding along the way, you can load your bike onto city buses and light rail trains to complete your trip.
Public transit in Seattle consists of buses, light rail trains, and streetcars. It also includes ferries across and around Puget Sound and even the monorail. King County Metro provides a network of nearly a hundred bus routes including express services. These extensive routes connect the central core to other portions of the city throughout the day and evening hours.
The neighborhoods of South Lake Union and First Hill have their own streetcar lines. They provide new and modern service operated by Seattle Streetcar. Sound Transit’s well-used Link light rail serves the airport. It’s also another option to access the University area, Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square, the International District, and the Stadium/SODO area.
Ways to Get Around That Are Also Attractions
Seattle is a hub for Washington State Ferries, which operates its fleet out of Pier 52. Pedestrians and cyclists can simply walk onboard, while vehicles should secure advance reservations.
Trips by ferry can be as short as nearby Vashon or Bainbridge Island. Or, they can be to the towns further away on the Olympic and Kitsap Peninsulas like Bremerton and Port Townsend.
Originally built for the 1962 World’s Fair, Seattle’s Monorail today connects the downtown Westlake Center Mall to the Seattle Center and the Space Needle. It’s a mere two-minute ride and you’re there!
Public Transit Costs in Seattle
Every one of the transit options mentioned is an independent system. However, all can be paid for using an ORCA card. (Excepting the ferry, which can be purchased ahead online or at the cashier).
Purchase your card with your first ride and load extra funds at any station. Tap your card on the reader screen when you board a bus or train and again when you depart. It’s that easy!
- King County Metro (bus): $2.75/ride.
- Seattle Streetcar: $2.25/ride.
- Sound Transit (Link light rail): $2.25 to $3.25, depending on distance traveled.
- Washington State Ferries: Fares depend on the distance traveled and sailing time. (They run from just under $10 and up to close to $200 depending on whether you’re bringing a car and the vehicle size).
- Seattle Monorail: $3/ride and it runs from 11 to 7 daily.
Where to Stay in Seattle
Seattle has many nooks and crannies and quirky neighborhoods with a lot of options. For easy access to the city at large, first-timers should stay in downtown or nearby Belltown. Downtown can feel commercial and parking is rough, but nothing beats being right by Pike’s Place Market and walking to everything in the central city.
- Budget: Hotel Five—For a wallet-friendly hotel in the Belltown neighborhood, this is a fun and personable hotel that’s brightly decorated. It’s located at 2200 5th Ave, Seattle, WA 98121. The cozy and welcoming Belltown Inn is another good bet, located at 2301 3rd Ave, Seattle, WA 98121. Starting at $90 a night, it’s a steal in Seattle.
- Mid-Range: The State Hotel, a 1904 landmark, is a renovated contemporary boutique hotel located at 1501 2nd Ave, Seattle, WA 98101. Another great option is the original hipster-styled Ace Hotel in Belltown located at 2423 1st Ave, Seattle, WA 98121.
- Luxury: Hotel Andra—This decadent Scandanavian-inspired boutique hotel will be sure to please. It’s located at 2000 4th Ave, Seattle, WA 98121.
Where to Eat in Seattle
Pacific Northwest cuisine revels in the bounty of local producers. Fresh produce, cheeses, seafood, and wines are available in abundance and work their way into Seattle’s favorite local dishes.
Salmon is king and shellfish are everywhere including oysters, geoduck clams, and more. Seattle is also known for inventive Asian cuisine, especially pho and teriyaki, with both fancy and casual options readily found.
- Best Downtown eats: The Pink Door located at 1919 Post Alley, Seattle, WA 98101 or Charlotte Restaurant and Lounge at 809 5th Ave, Seattle, WA 98104.
- Top waterfront eats: Elliott’s Oyster House, located at 1201 Alaskan Way Ste 100, Seattle, WA 98101.
- Top Belltown eats: Local 360 located at 2234 1st Ave, Seattle, WA 98121.
- Best seafood: Chinook’s located at 1900 W Nickerson St #103, Seattle, WA 98119.
- Best Asian: Pho Than Brothers, at multiple locations.
The Best Time to Visit Seattle
The best time to visit Seattle is whenever you can make it happen! The jewel of the Pacific Northwest has something remarkable for everyone: gorgeous scenery, fun activities, incredible dining, and lots of culture. However you fill your three days in Seattle (or more!), you’ll leave hoping to return again to the emerald city. It’s truly one of the most beautiful cities in the United States.
This post was contributed by Jill Watkins. She is a Portland, Oregon-based travel writer and certified tour guide. A natural explorer who has led groups throughout the western states, Jill believes you can find wonder wherever you might be.
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