It can be pretty easy to love Seattle on first sight. You need only glimpse it from the air to know this city has a stunning location.
With downtown located on the deep blue shores of Elliot Bay and the surrounding suburbs and villages dotted along the Puget Sound, you can catch sparkling water views and briny smells from any number of vantage points.
And of course on a bright, clear day (I know, it sounds an impossibility in Seattle) you can see Mt Rainier lording it in the distance, its snow speckled peaks tantalising in the hot summer sun.
With time limited, Emerald City (it’s surrounded by greenery) drew the short straw, with my spending just two nights in town. Thankfully, there was just enough to keep me busy, yet allow me to feel satisfied I’d seen everything. Here are my suggestions for 48 hours in Seattle:
Walk along the waterfront
Well, really, why wouldn’t you? Its waterfront is what sets Seattle apart from other American cities. And to make sure you know it, developers have planted numerous draw cards to bring you down to the shore.
For a start there’s the bay, and from the viewpoint at the end of Bell Street you can catch some impressive views of the skyline and, with any luck, Mt Rainier in the distance, just like this one:
Then there’s the Seattle Aquarium, built in a historically preserved shed right on the waterfront. It’s the ninth largest aquarium in the U.S. and among the fifth most popular paid tourist attractions in the Puget Sound region, but I prefer to save my mullah for bigger and better things.
There’s also Miner’s Landing which is, if you ask me, a rather tacky shopping and dining complex filled with garish statues and dimly-lit restaurants. Its tackiness belies the site’s importance as the historic pier at which the steamship Portland docked with the first load of gold from Klondike in northwestern Canada.
Walk in the opposite direction and you’ll encounter leafy pathways and the bizarrely sparse and dry Olympic Sculptural Park.
Sadly the waterfront is slightly marred by a blaring viaduct cutting the city off from the bay. Thankfully, this waterfront freeway is in the midst of an overhaul and will soon be bulldozed to be replaced with a tunnel instead.
Visit Pioneer Square
Pioneer Square is a beautiful spot of red brick buildings and tree lined streets. This is the location of the first ever Starbucks, but if you’re a Melbourne tourist like myself, you’ll just look at the cafe with disdain and ask why?!?
Pioneer Square is where it all began in 1852. And if you’re thinking that’s a bit late for the U.S., here’s an astonishing fact: explorers only began to probe the west coast of the U.S. some 300 year’s after Columbus “discovered” the east coast. Three hundred years! What were they doing, sitting around the campfire singing kumbaya?
Most of the the original buildings here burned down in a fire in the late 1800s. The rebuild occurred over the top of the remains, burying the city’s foundations but if you take an underground tour you can apparently still see some original storefronts.
Ascend to the Sky View Observatory
You won’t take advantage of Seattle’s location without getting the lay of the land from high up. Of course, you’re probably thinking of Seattle’s famous Space Needle right now, but think again. That old structure is teeny tiny in comparison to its younger sibling sky scrapers, and it costs twice as much as ascending its taller competitor.
Not far from Pioneer Square is Columbia Centre, which boasts plenty of superlatives, including the tallest building in Seattle and the state of Washington, the second tallest building on the West Coast, and the highest public observatory west of the Mississippi.
It’s like a maze ascending the sky scraper through numerous elevators and lifts to reach the Sky View Observatory. So when you hit the top, it’s easy to feel disoriented. Thankfully the skyline quickly reorients you. And it is marvellous.
In one sweeping look, you can take in Elliot Bay, downtown Seattle, the Space Needle and the Olympic Mountains beyond. Past the shipping yards and industrial estates sits Mt Rainer, its peak peeking out above the clouds. Across suburban Seattle are the Cascade Mountains.
The $9 fee for students is a bargain, but the $14.25 for an adult isn’t all that bad either, given your entry lasts the entire day. Make the most of the fare by returning at night to watch the sun set over the city and the lights begin to twinkle on the Space Needle and surrounding buildings.
Go crazy at Pike Place Market
Descend to earth and really get into the thick of Seattle life at Pike Place Market. This marketplace near the water provides a pulsing vibrancy unrivalled anywhere else in Seattle.
Picture nine acres filled to the brim with flower boutiques, fishmongers, fresh fruit and veg stores, and arts and crafts stalls selling a huge range of knick-knacks and you’ve got Pike Place Market.
This is a Seattle institution and if you don’t see it, you haven’t seen Seattle. Just make sure you put aside a few hours to explore the multi-level labyrinth – you’ll need a good ten minutes just to watch the famous fishmongers at Pike Place Fish Co. boom their sport-like chants and toss slippery fish between one another. It’s a real show – and all for free!
Admire the Space Needle
OK, I know you’re not gonna let me leave it there without some mention of the Space Needle. I get it. This space-age spire is Seattle’s most renowned landmark. But because of that, they charge a whopping amount to scale to heights not all that impressive compared to its surrounding buildings.
The Space Needle is a strange one, obscured by taller buildings throughout most of downtown Seattle and rather stodgy-looking up close. Built for the 1962 Seattle World Fair, it was designed to be futuristic, its theme 21st century. But now we’re firmly in that century, I can’t help but think it looks rather cutesy and outdated.
It’s still worth a visit, of course, but for me it wasn’t worth scaling. It is set amid a spacious park that also hosts the acclaimed Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum and the Pacific Science Centre, so there’s plenty to wander around and look at while you’re there.
For more US adventures
With such a diverse country as the USA, of course there’s plenty on offer. Here are a few other fun American things to do:
- Explore the island of Oahu
- Exploring the endless aisles of famed Portland institution Powell’s City of Books
- Venture out to the fresh air in Yosemite National Park
- Let it out at a true American shooting range
- Marvel at the strangeness of baseball