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AARP’s City Guide to Seattle

Iconic landmarks, art and fresh seafood define the Emerald City

Two images of Seattle - Space Needle and a seafood display in the Pike Place Market - each one is framed in Polaroid style
Joel Rogers/Getty Images; AlpamayoPhoto/Getty Images

Overview 

The epicenter of the Pacific Northwest, Seattle overlooks the Salish Sea, one of the world’s biggest and most biodiverse inland oceans. Nature understandably commands the spotlight, but the Emerald City also turns up the heat with creativity (beyond grunge, yes) and technological innovation, from Boeing to more recent upstarts including Microsoft and Amazon. This vibrant metropolis showcases its flair from the iconic Space Needle to glass art, ferries to funky islands, museums galore and the gourmet Pike Place Market. Here are the best ways to explore this lovely, leafy destination.

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Plan 

When to go

Pssst — big reveal here: Seattle isn’t very rainy, despite its reputation. In fact, cities like Atlanta and New York experience more rainy days per year. The mild Mediterranean-esque climate does have an abundance of drizzle and cloudy days. Sun-seekers should opt for a visit in summer, when the area tends to be drier, but otherwise, pack a waterproof jacket and take advantage of shoulder-season deals. 

Before you go

Widespread dissatisfaction pushed passengers away from taxis and toward ride-hailing in this tech-tastic city. But the rising cost of ride-hailing has many visitors opting for public transit over car rides and vehicle rentals. Buses, trains and streetcars also help take the edge off dealing with Seattle’s traffic, which ranks among the nation’s worst.

​The steep grade of some of Seattle’s streets can be challenging for people with mobility issues or manual wheelchairs. Plan the route before you go: With such varied topography, often there’s an accessible route to take. 

​Note: Not all hotels have air conditioning, thanks to the city’s mild climate. Book strategically if you don’t want to deal with excessive heat in the summer. And wildfires nearby can spark at any time of year, sending smoke into the city, but they most commonly disrupt Seattle’s air quality between early July and late September.

Ferry in waterfront harbor area of Seattle Washington
water taxi
James Schwabel / Alamy Stock Photo

How to get around 

Most air passengers land at Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA), about 13 miles south of downtown. Travelers not renting cars at Sea-Tac can opt for taxis, ride-hailing services, buses and the light rail, which takes about 38 minutes to reach the city center. 

​Amtrak and regional Soundertrains roll into King Street Station, a half-mile southeast of downtown. With its bell tower modeled off Basilica di San Marco in Venice, the handsome brick-and-granite building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973. Seattle also has the Monorail and accessible streetcars with ramps and both audio and digital display stop announcements. 

​The Greyhound long-haul bus station is in the SoDo (South of Downtown) neighborhood, while FlixBus stops in the Chinatown-International District. Savvy travelers stock up on snacks at the nearby Uwajimaya Asian market

​Ferries and water taxis dock downtown. Popular day trips include hopping over to West Seattle or Bainbridge Island.

Stay 

Kimpton Palladian

The 97-room Kimpton Palladian makes for a chic home base in the Belltown neighborhood, two blocks north of Pike Place Market. The hotel faces the Moore Theatre, a relic of the Gilded Age, which makes the Palladian a favorite among performers and their fans. Expect floods of natural light and steampunky elegance like artist easels supporting TVs in the guest rooms and antique copper ceiling tiles in the speakeasy-style Pennyroyal. The hotel’s signature: oil paintings of celebrities as 19th-century Russian generals, including local legends Bill Gates and Jimi Hendrix. The Palladian reproduces these masterpieces on throw pillows, and guests can ask to snuggle with specific stars.

Fairmont Olympic

A $25 million renovation restored the 450-room Fairmont Olympic to its flapper-era glory. A sophisticated circular bar now anchors the lobby. Above its glasses and shelves rises a nautical-inspired kinetic sculpture, which casts shifting shadows onto the vaulted ceiling. Below stretches the 1924 building’s original hand-laid travertine tiles, lovingly revealed and restored, but now finished to reduce slipping hazards. From Herbert Hoover on, almost every U.S. president has stayed in this grande dame, along with stars like Elvis Presley and Joan Crawford. Guest rooms have tranquil color palettes — gray and silver punctuated with pops of teal — and mid-century modern décor. Accessible rooms include a teletypewriter (TTY) and assistive listening devices on request, as well as Braille signage.

Graduate Seattle

For travelers looking to venture beyond downtown, the affordable Graduate Seattle delivers style and substance in the University District. This art deco gem draws guests in with over 36 feet of plaid sofas beside the lobby’s fireplace. The bold design choices continue in the 158 guest rooms, with seashell-scalloped headboards and pops of coral among the tamer sage and eggplant accents. The pièce de résistance, however, remains its 16th-floor rooftop eatery, the Mountaineering Club (open to the public; reservations recommended). Soak in views of Puget Sound and the Cascade Range from its massive windows or outside on the giant wraparound deck. 

Art Inn

The affordable Art Inn immerses guests in culture — and for Seattle that means splashy guest room murals with vibrant ’90s-style graphics saluting the Space Needle and other landmarks. The petite 15-room inn has a virtual reception and — important to note — no elevator for the four-story property. The rooftop lounging area is great for large groups. If you’re driving, reserve a room that bundles parking. 

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Birding and boating near the University of Washington

More than 200 avian species touch down on four miles of shoreline at the Union Bay Natural Area, a natural restoration laboratory on Lake Washington. “Expect to see sparrows, waterfowl, herons, raptors, and some noisy marsh wrens and red-winged blackbirds,” says Lauren Braden, author of the guidebook 52 Ways to Nature: Washington. Prefer to paddle while wildlife viewing? The university’s Waterfront Activities Center rents canoes and kayaks about a mile southwest.

A woman wearing golden dress and sun mask on a street during Fremont Solstice Parade in Seattle, WA
Solstice Parade
Katya Palladina / Alamy Stock Photo

Connections Museum Seattle

This often-overlooked Georgetown neighborhood exhibition space is open on Sundays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. “It’s filled with vintage telephones and other telecommunications [and related] treasures from the days of Alexander Graham Bell to today,” says Harriet Baskas, a city resident since 1988 who wrote 111 Places in Seattle That You Must Not Miss. Expect everything from telegraph keys to still-functional switching systems plus old ham radios and a 1920s film projector.

Fremont

Wander among indie boutiques and antique shops in this funky neighborhood, four miles north of downtown. Turn to the Fremont Vintage Mall for memorabilia and eclectic finds such as original Charlie Brown books and retro fishing gear. Other standouts include kitchenware from Saltstone Ceramics, stationery at Laughing Elephant and cookbooks at the beloved Book Larder, which also hosts classes and author readings. Plant enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the Indoor Sun Shoppe, an oasis of houseplants, including cacti, succulents and air plants petite enough to slip into a suitcase. 

KEXP

Seattle’s beloved alternative-music station turned 50 in 2022 and now streams worldwide. Fans can swing by its Gathering Space, which sells coffee from indie roaster Caffe Vita alongside rare albums. Light in the Attic Records offers deluxe reissues by artists such as Betty Davis, Rodriguez, Sly Stone and Thin Lizzy. Visitors can also catch studio sessions live (sign up online the day of the performance). Set in the Uptown Arts and Cultural District, KEXP combines well with visits to Book-It Repertory TheaterClimate Pledge ArenaChihuly Garden and GlassMoPOP, Pacific Science Center and the Space Needle, all within walking distance of each other.

Seattle Glassblowing Studio

The Emerald City remains second only to Venice in its concentration of glass artists and the hot shops where they work. Dale Chihuly helped put the Northwest scene on the map: His exhibition space next to the Space Needle underscores the importance of his legacy. Due to health issues, the maestro no longer blows glass and instead relies on artisans. But visitors can still experience the white-hot scene at this Belltown studio. And each year in mid-October, the Refract festival highlights talent throughout the region.

Dine

Café Hitchcock

This bright, airy downtown haven serves up locally ranched meats and Olympic Peninsula organic vegetables. Swing by the handsome art deco Exchange Building for a straightforward breakfast (quiche, avocado toast) or a twist on a classic like beurre baton (biscuit fries with gravy). For lunch, owner and chef Brendan McGill’s menu includes a harvest grain bowl containing pepitas and zucchini and a mean pulled pork sandwich with cabbage jam.​​

Communion

Chef Kristi Brown opened this Central District soul food restaurant in late 2020. The pandemic gamble paid off: Critics crowned Communion one of the city’s top eateries, and reservations remain in high demand, as Brown hit the James Beard Foundation Emerging Chef Award semifinalist list in 2022. Her signature dish is hummus made from black-eyed peas, sometimes served with roasted collard green dip. But don’t stop there: Try the beef brisket and pork rib tips pho, which simmers classic spices in rich bone broth before layering in Chinese broccoli, mushrooms and onions. Wash it all down with a signature cocktail like the Hey Auntie, starring vodka and house-made ginger pear syrup.

Marination Ma Kai

Drive — or hop a 20-minute water taxi from downtown — to the peninsula of West Seattle for Hawaiian-Korean fusion fare and stunning views of the skyline, sound and mountains. This casual lunch and dinner spot boasts covered outdoor seating and doesn’t take reservations. Expect big pops of flavor, from kimchi fried rice to Kalua pork sliders and miso-ginger-chicken taco salad. Or stick with a more classic seaside vibe and order the panko-crusted fish and chips, then stroll the promenade a half-mile north to Alki Beach Park. Not in the mood for a half-day trip? Marination also has an eatery downtown (Sixth Avenue and Virginia Street).

Musang

This Beacon Hill favorite serves Filipinx cuisine from a lavender Craftsman home with a covered patio. Chef and owner Melissa Miranda crowdsourced more than $90,000 to launch and immediately won Restaurant of the Year 2020 from Seattle Met. Starting with the cocktail menu, interesting combinations include the isa (pear-infused bourbon with Frangelico) and the tatlo (gin and spiced apple shrub). Then move on to classic dishes such as lomi noodles, house-smoked Pacific oysters and crispy fried buttermilk-marinated chicken.

Willmott’s Ghost

Dine inside the Amazon Spheres, triple domes with more than 40,000 cloud forest plants from around the world. Seattle superstar chef Renee Erickson applies her talent to a Roman-influenced menu in this gentle pastel space, named for botanist Ellen Willmott, who would sneakily plant flowering thistles in her friends’ gardens. Start with antipasti, then move on to dishes like halibut in tapenade or a fresh mozzarella pizza. Reservations recommended.

Seattle, Washington: Visitors enjoy fall color along the Burke-Gilman Trail in the Fremont neighborhood.
Burke-Gilman Trail
Paul Christian Gordon / Alamy Stock Photo

AARP top picks

Ballard and the Burke-Gilman Trail

The Scandinavian-settled neighborhood of Ballard still shelters the North Pacific fishing fleet off-season, including boats featured on the Deadliest Catch series. But today Ballard is equally known for its bijou hipster bars, restaurants and boutiques, along with the splendid National Nordic Museum. Walkers and cyclists will enjoy the paved route along the 19-mile Burke-Gilman Trail, which begins at the sandy saltwater beach at Golden Gardens Park.

Ways to save: In the Ballard neighborhood, the quintessential Seattle experience remains free: the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, where boats transit uphill from sea level into the ship canal and the lake system north and east of downtown. Underground windows show the city’s three Pacific salmon species (sockeye, chinook, coho) migrating, with peak views from mid-June through September.

Boating on Lake Union

Long ago, a glacier carved this body of water, creating an aquatic playground the size of Monaco, just two miles north of downtown. It offers views of the Seattle skyline, the Space Needle and the dramatic industrial ruins at Gas Works Park, as Kenmore Air seaplanes splash down and take off.

​Plunge right into this bustling scene with a rental from the Center for Wooden Boats, which hires out classic craft from rowing skiffs to Blanchard Junior Knockabouts: sloops built right on this lake’s edge from 1933 to 1947. Fancy more ease? The neighborhood also has heated, enclosed, electric boats and even six-passenger vessels with hot tubs.

​Allison Williams, author of the guidebook Moon Seattle, says: “I really love renting kayaks from Agua Verde [Paddle Club], then following it up with margaritas and tacos on its patio. Pro tip: Don’t do that in reverse.”

Ways to save: Reserve a one-hour rowboat for free through the Center for Wooden Boats as part of the year-round Public Peapod Program. Or try a 45-minute Ice Cream Cruise around the lake. Narration touches on highlights like the birthplace of Boeing, one of the world’s busiest drawbridges, and houseboats, including the famous Sleepless in Seattle one. This dog-friendly jaunt costs $15 for adults, compared with the Argosy Cruises two-hour Locks Cruise for $49 ($46 for people 65 and older) one-way sailing and shuttle return. 

Chinatown-International District

A mile south of downtown, this lively neighborhood stands on the National Register of Historic Places. Its star attraction remains the Wing Luke Museum, the Pacific Northwest’s first Smithsonian Institution affiliate and a National Park Service affiliated area. Community-curated exhibitions usually include a nod to local legend Bruce Lee, and walking tours help travelers explore the area. Favorite spots include the only surviving restaurant from Seattle’s once-bustling Japantown, Maneki, listed as one of America’s Classics by the James Beard Foundation. Saigon Viet Nam Deli serves up some of the country’s best banh mi sandwiches; and the Hood Famous café and bakery spotlights roasts from the Philippines, alongside striking and delicious cheesecake made from ube (bright purple Japanese yams). 

Ways to save: Meet seniors in Hing Hay Park, a popular spot for card games, chess matches, picnics, meditation, outdoor exercise and cultural performances in an ornate Taiwanese pavilion. If you work up an appetite, head half a block east on South King Street to one of actor Bruce Lee’s hangouts: Tai Tung, Seattle’s oldest Chinese restaurant. His favorite dishes were garlic shrimp and oyster sauce beef.

Climate Pledge Arena, Civic Center, Seattle, Washington, USA
Climate Pledge Arena
Amanda Ahn / Alamy Stock Photo

Climate Pledge Arena

This new stadium hosts events, concerts and matches for the city’s new National Hockey League team, the Seattle Kraken. It’s also home to the Seattle Storm, four-time champion of the Women’s National Basketball Association. ​​

The arena itself deserves some applause. Eco-friendly touches include channeling rainwater to resurface the ice, and the building’s on track to be the world’s first International Living Future Institute Zero Carbon–certified professional sports venue. It’s open year-round for events; book a tour to learn more about the sustainability efforts.

Ways to save: Arrive via the Monorail, a 90-second ride between Seattle Center and the arena. Tickets cost $3.50 for adults and $1.75 for passengers over the age of 65.

Explore Seattle’s Big, Beautiful Backyard

The Emerald City may be the gateway for Alaskan cruises, but it has plenty of nature, too. Wander the 20 acres of Kubota Garden, blending Japanese landscape design with native Northwest plants. Set in South Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood, it’s accessible via light rail and the 106 bus as well as by car (free admission, donations welcome). 

Or really stretch your legs at vast Discovery Park, six miles northwest of downtown. This lush green space sweeps from cliffs peering out at snowcapped peaks to meadows, forest groves and even sand dunes. Not comfortable hiking down the bluffs? People over age 62 — and anyone with physical limitations — can check out free beach parking passes at the visitor center.

​Trek 90 miles southeast of Seattle for an alpine experience: Mount Rainier, the most glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S., rises 14,410 feet above sea level there, protected by Mount Rainier National Park

​A hundred miles north sprawl the San Juan Islands, a tranquil landscape protected by national monument status that’s known for its resident orca pods. A 1919 lighthouse here remains one of the world’s best places to view whales from shore: Lime Kiln Point State Park. A scenic byway connects the two biggest islands, Orcas and San Juan. 

​Head west to experience sandy spits, sea stacks and temperate rain forest along the Pacific Coast. Olympic National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a two- to four-hour drive from the city, depending on where you’re headed in the almost million-acre reserve.

Ways to save: Seattle-based REI and the Mountaineers community both offer outdoor classes and day trips. The Mountaineers’ website provides information about carpooling to reduce the cost of gas and spare you the expense of renting a vehicle. REI also offers free training classes and courses; check the website for event details.

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