“It’s so green!” exclaimed Alysha, as we made our way from the airport into downtown Seattle, passing through neighborhoods surrounded by greenery on all sides. It’s one of my favorite things about Seattle. Sure, it rains. A lot, some might say. But you know what that rain means? It’s basically always beautifully green and lush (and also, we don’t have as many water issues as, say, California).
And besides, the rain is usually just a fine mist, not a torrential downpour – I never once used an umbrella in my 15+ years of living in Seattle. Alysha makes fun of me for my refusal to use an umbrella. “I’m from Seattle” I say proudly “we don’t do umbrellas.”
I grew up in the Seattle area and lived there for 15+ years (including around 7 years in the city itself) before moseying down to San Francisco, which is where I met Alysha, we got married, and we started this site.
However, while the Bay Area is great, I always had my eye on a triumphant return to the Pacific Northwest. And, after some convincing, we decided on Portland, Oregon as our new home. I still spend a lot of time in Seattle – my entire family still lives there – and know the city like the back of my hand.
If you only have one day in Seattle, you’re going to want to make the most of it, and I guarantee it’s going to leave you wanting more (that’s what my guide to 3 days in Seattle is for).
This guide is a version of my favorite way to spend a day in Seattle, which I’ve done with countless visitors. It bears repeating: we’ve actually done everything in this entire guide at least once (and, like the Seattle Great Wheel, never again).
It goes beyond the usual things you’ll find on these lists (like the fake first Starbucks, but we’ll get to that) and I hope it gives you a local’s perspective on what to do in Seattle.
We also are going to give you a bunch of specific recommendations – bars, restaurants, shops, coffee shops, etc – that we love. Because we know the specifics are what makes the difference between a good trip and a great trip, and we obviously want you to have a great trip and fall in love with the Pacific Northwest.
Sound good to you? Let’s get into it.
P.S: When it comes to Seattle and what to do and see, never, ever trust anyone who says “Pike’s Place.” Every Seattleite knows that it’s Pike Place Market. Period. The end.
Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post, like hotel links, are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, we make a little bit of money if you click through and book. That being said, we would never recommend something to you that we don’t stand behind 100%.
Is One Day Enough? What Can You See in One Day in Seattle?
Nope, one day is definitely not enough time in Seattle. Though, neither is a weekend. Or even a week! There will always be more to do and see in Seattle, whether you’re visiting for a day or you live here for a decade.
Especially if you include the broader area and all the great Seattle day trips that are at your fingertips.
One of the things we love about Seattle is its more residential neighborhoods that you’ll find mainly north of the city center. Fremont and Ballard are two of our favorite places to visit, and we find ourselves up there basically every time we’re in town.
However, it’s a long way to go if you only have a day (especially with the inevitable traffic to get there).
Instead of trying to zip around the city to every corner, we’d recommend limiting yourself to the downtown core.
With a day in Seattle, you can see the main highlights, get a taste of the food and drink scene that makes Seattle a fun place to explore, and see a few of Seattle’s coolest neighborhoods. You can save those further out areas for your next trip (and by the end of the day, you’re already going to be planning said trip).
Getting Around Seattle
If the weather is okay, we’d highly recommend walking as much as you can while you’re in Seattle. Most of the itinerary above is within walking distance, and that would be our preferred method of connecting the different places.
Aside from walking, the easiest way to get around, especially if you only have a day in Seattle, is to use Lyft, a ridesharing app (like Uber, but slightly less evil) where you download an app, put in your destination, and a car shows up ~5 minutes later to whisk you away to the next stop on your adventure.
Seattle’s public transit system is pretty good too. There are a few different forms of public transportation that you can use to get around including light rail, buses, and ferries.
With just a day, the most useful is probably going to be the Light Rail, which connects Downtown Seattle and Capitol Hill (you’ll see us recommend it below).
What If You Have a Car?
If you have a car, I would strongly recommend finding a garage where you can park it for the day, and spend your time in Seattle without it.
Parking in the different areas you’re going to visit can range from tough to downright impossible, and it will be easier without a car. I promise.
One Day in Seattle: Exactly How to Spend 24 Hours in Seattle
And now, let’s get into the detailed guide.
If you follow this itinerary, you’ll see Seattle Center, walk the waterfront (including Olympic Sculpture Park), explore Pike Place Market (and stuff your face), and experience the food and drink scene in Capitol Hill before ending with dinner and drinks in Belltown.
We’ve done our best to avoid any doubling back, but it’s a little bit inevitable given how much we’ve fit in here. The only place you’ll really have to do it, though, is heading back to Belltown for dinner and drinks after Capitol Hill.
Two notes before we jump in.
- We do not recommend going to the top of the Space Needle. It’s a nice view of the city, I guess, but it’s crazy expensive these days ($35 for an adult is an insane price). Instead, we’re going to take you to our favorite view in Seattle, which is from a free public park. Which includes the Space Needle in the view!
- For similar reasons, we don’t recommend the Seattle Great Wheel. We’ve done it. On a rainy winter evening. And you literally could not see anything. We still laugh about it, because it was so incredibly ridiculous. Matt was so mad that we’d spent nearly $20 each to go on that stupid thing. Save your money and spend it elsewhere.
We’ve done both of these things, and don’t think they’re worth your time (or money). Especially if you’re limited to just a day.
But First, Coffee!
You’re in Seattle, after all, which means you’re right in the middle of one of the best coffee cities in the country.
Since your first real stop of the morning is going to be Seattle Center, we’d highly recommend heading to Vita @ KEXP, where local roaster Caffe Vita has set up a coffee bar inside the Seattle radio station’s recording studio. Well, almost. The recording studio IS literally inside the same space.
And that space is lovely. High ceilings, local art, and a small record shop in addition to the live radio recording. There are plenty of comfortable couches and more practical tables to sit at, though it does get full on weekend mornings.
The coffee is great, too. Caffe Vita has been around for forever, and they have choices here for coffee lovers, people who are just in it for the caffeine hit, and people who don’t really like coffee (Matt is in the first category, Alysha is in the third).
They usually have a few pour over options, a drip coffee of the day, a wide range of espresso-based drinks (your cappuccinos and lattes), and creative seasonal drinks.
It’s a great place to grab coffee and hang out before setting out for a day of exploring.
Exploring Seattle Center: Choose Your Own Museum Adventure
If you’ve taken our advice for coffee, you’ll find yourself right at Seattle Center, which is where we think you should start your day.
The most famous attraction here is the Space Needle. Like we mentioned above, we do not recommend going to the top of the Space Needle. It’s not worth it! Plus the next section in this guide will take you to what we think is an even better view of the city.
Your next question is probably something along the lines of “great, Matt, so why are we here?”
There are three excellent museums (one is really an art installation) at Seattle Center: the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPop), Chihuly Garden and Glass, and the Pacific Science Center.
Now, you don’t have time to do all three. Or even two of them, really, if you’re giving them the time they deserve. Which is where the whole “choose your own adventure” idea comes into play.
We’d choose one of these to tackle as a mid-morning activity, and which one you choose is going to depend on what exactly you’re interested in.
Option 1 (Our #1 Pick): The Museum of Pop Culture
Our favorite, by far, is the excellent Museum of Pop Culture. Fun fact – Matt had his prom here, though it was called the E.M.P. at that time, and was exclusively focused on music. Today, it has evolved to go beyond music to include other elements of pop culture like film and books.
There are a few mainstays, like exhibits on Nirvana and Pearl Jam, some Fantasy and Sci-Fi exhibits (which are really cool!), and there are usually a couple of seasonal exhibits that rotate throughout the year.
We recently caught “Contact High,” which was a visual history of hip-hop, and it was spectacular. It’s gone now, but I bet there’s a cool seasonal exhibit or two – see what’s going on at MoPop here.
Option 2: Chihuly Garden and Glass
The second option at Seattle Center is the Chihuly Gardens and Glass, which is a cool glass-based art exhibition celebrating Dave Chihuly, a local artist.
It’s well worth spending an hour or two wandering through and taking in the spectacular blown glass sculptures and art installations.
Option 3: The Pacific Science Center (Good for Families with Kids)
If you have kids, the Pacific Science Center is probably your best bet (although, depending on their age, they might enjoy the Museum of Pop Culture too). We used to go there all the time for field trips in elementary school, and they’ve got all sorts of kid-friendly exhibits, including a planetarium and a butterfly garden.
Their whole thing is inspiring curiosity in kids, and they have educational and hands-on exhibits that span from the natural world all the way to a rotating exhibit on the science and physics of hockey.
There’s also an IMax theater on their campus, along with a planetarium.
Walk up the Hill to Kerry Park for a Postcard View of Seattle
When you’re done exploring Seattle Center, head up the hill to find the best view of Seattle at Kerry Park.
You’ll have a view of the Space Needle, with Downtown Seattle’s towering skyscrapers, Mount Rainier (on a clear day), and the Puget Sound as a stunning backdrop. At least on a sunny day. It’s one of the postcard views of Seattle, and it’s worth elbowing your way through the swarms of people to get a few pictures of Seattle at its best.
We love this view around sunset, when the glow of the setting sun bathes the city in a warm golden light, but it’s a little out of the way from your afternoon activities if you don’t have a car. The view is still excellent midday.
For what it’s worth, we bring just about everyone that comes to Seattle up here for the view.
Walk to Olympic Sculpture Park and Along the Seattle Waterfront
From the hill, head down Queen Anne Avenue N to Olympic Sculpture Park, which is a permanent art installation furnished by the Seattle Art Museum down on the water. On a clear day, you’ll find the huge red sculptures backed by the snow capped Olympic Mountains.
If you follow the path down the hill through the Sculpture Park, you’ll end up on Seattle’s waterfront. If it’s nice, it’s worth taking a short detour to the north (right, if you’re facing the water) to the beach. There are a couple of great views, especially when the mountains are out.
Otherwise, head left and follow the waterfront south all the way to Waterfront Park (here on Google Maps) where you’ll find the Seattle Great Wheel (don’t ride it!) and, more importantly, the path up to Pike Place Market, which is your next stop.
If you have kids, you’ll pass the Seattle Aquarium on the way down the waterfront, which would be a good substitute for the Pacific Science Center if you think they’d be more interested in that.
From the waterfront, head up the stairs to Pike Place Market.
Lunch and Exploring Pike Place Market
Pike Place Market is in the running for the most iconic attraction in Seattle (the other would be the Space Needle).
And I think it lives up to the hype. It’s part farmers market, part food hall, and there are a wide variety of food options to indulge in, including some unique offerings that you probably don’t come across too often (piroshkis for example).
As you walk up the stairs, you’ll pass Ghost Alley Espresso on your left when you’re right underneath the market. Which brings me to a mini rant here, if you’ll indulge me. Don’t worry, this mini rant will also save you precious time.
DO NOT go to the “first Starbucks.” It’s essentially the same as every other Starbucks on the planet, just with a longer line. And it’s not even the first Starbucks! It’s just the oldest operating Starbucks, which, let’s be honest, just isn’t as catchy a title. Every time I read someone recommending it as a cool thing to do in Seattle, I die a little inside. It’s not.
Here is my recommendation for you: if you must have Starbucks, walk a few blocks out of the way.
Better, though, would be to hit one of the independent coffee shops around Pike Place Market. Ghost Alley Espresso, which is next to the Gum Wall, is one option. Storyville Coffee is another good option right in the market, and a few blocks north is Anchorhead Coffee, which is my favorite of the three in terms of the coffee.
Now, on to what to do, eat, and drink at Pike Place Market.
First of all, we couldn’t possibly cover everything there is to see at the market, so we’ve compiled a separate guide to Pike Place Market (coming in early 2023!).
Second of all, you should start by walking through the street-level portion of the market, starting at the Pike Street end (with the flying fish and famous Pike Place Market sign) and heading inside. Wander the main floor of the market (or take a guided tour with a chef, if you’ve got the time) and check out the different vendors.
Flowers, fish, spices, vegetables, honey – the list is nearly endless. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, try some things, and buy a souvenir or six.
Then come out of the market and walk the street outside of the market, which is where you’ll find the more “food hall” portion of Pike Place Market.
Here are our favorite spots in the market for food and drinks – this is where you should plan on having lunch.
- Rachel’s Ginger Beer: Excellent ginger beer with creative flavors (we love any and all of the spicy ones) that you can make boozy.
- Pike Place Chowder: One thing you need to know about Seattle is that seafood is serious business, particularly salmon. For chowder made with fresh seafood, head here. Pro-tip: get the salmon chowder, and get it in a bread bowl.
- The Alibi Room: Wood-fired pizzas, a cozy ambiance, and excellent happy hour deals (4:00 pm – 6:00 pm) that get you a pizza for under $10. It’s directly across from the gum wall.
- Indi Chocolate: We stop here every time we’re in the market. High end chocolate, including thick, delicious sipping chocolate (if you want something more similar to hot chocolate, get the drinking chocolate).
- Beecher’s Cheese: Their flagship cheese is heavenly, and is one of the main food items I associate with Seattle. You can get it here smothered all over Mac & Cheese, or as grilled cheese. Plus, they have a whole retail operation where you can buy it for later.
- Ellenos Greek Yogurt: Excellent greek yogurt that is served kind of like frozen yogurt, with all sorts of fun toppings.
- Piroshky Piroshky: This is a famous Russian bakery with tons of fun pastries, both sweet and savory. Definitely get their namesake Piroshky, which come filled with things like beef and cheese or potatoes and mushrooms, but also make sure to order one thing that looks interesting that you wouldn’t usually try (like their cinnamon cardamom roll).
If you’re a beer fan, we love Seattle Beer Co, which is on a lower level of the market towards the waterfront, and has an amazing array of local craft beers on tap and in bottles (plus, a bunch of cider too, which is our preferred boozy beverage).
An Afternoon in Capitol Hill
After you’ve stuffed yourself full, it’s time to walk it off in Capitol Hill (before immediately continuing to eat and drink), which is our favorite part of the downtown core. To get there, you can either take a Lyft, or hop on the Light Rail (head to Westlake Station and take the 1 line north towards Northgate, getting off at Broadway and E Howell Street).
The Light Rail is the easier and cheaper option, especially if there’s traffic downtown, and you can buy a single ride ticket at the station (it’s going to cost $2.25 per person).
You’ll come up from the station on Broadway, and you’ll want to head a few blocks south to E Pine Street to start your exploration.
Before we go any further, let’s talk about Capitol Hill. Today, the Capitol Hill you see is one of the hippest neighborhoods in Seattle, with all sorts of amazing food, drinks, and shopping to be had.
But a decade or two ago (even more recently, really), it was ground zero for gentrification in Seattle. Marginalized groups that used to call this area (and the broader Central District) home have been pushed out in favor of newer development which have brought both an amazing array of cool things to do and see, but have also brought higher costs of living and doing business.
The Capitol Hill today is almost nothing like the Capitol Hill I fell in love with two decades ago, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth a trip on your visit to Seattle. It still has that hipster vibe, but it has very much shifted from hippies to yuppies, as rents have risen and basically the only people who can afford to live there are tech workers.
It’s worth keeping that historical and cultural context in mind as you explore Capitol Hill.
Our general recommendation for Capitol Hill is to spend your time along the Pike/Pine corridor (here’s a rough map so you can see what we mean), which is going to be the best bang for your buck. Here are some places not to miss:
- Elliott Bay Books: The best bookstore in Seattle. We go here often, and love it every time. Particularly the staff recommendations section.
- Molly Moons: The OG ice cream in Seattle, they now have a mini empire going on with locations all over the Seattle area. They do a lot of good things in the community, and their ice cream is fantastic. They have a rotation of seasonal flavors along with some staple flavors, which can be stuffed inside a freshly pressed waffle cone.
- Frankie and Jo’s: If you can’t have a) dairy or b) gluten, go to this plant-based ice cream spot, which is one of Matt’s favorites. There’s usually a line, but it’s worth the wait if you’re dairy / gluten free.
- Espresso Vivace: The OG coffee spot in Seattle, Espresso Vivace’s espresso bar in Cap Hill is an institution, and is a place that every coffee lover should go to. However, be aware that there are no frills or flavorings here – it’s all about the perfectly pulled espresso. More reminiscent of a coffee shop in Italy than the specialty coffee scene in Seattle. Get the Cafe Nico for a fun concoction made of orange, half and half, and cinnamon.
- The Starbucks Reserve Roastery: Now, unlike the so-called “first Starbucks” (which, as we’ve already covered, is a fraud), I do enjoy a visit to the Reserve Roastery. This is no regular Starbucks – it’s like Starbucks Disneyland. You’ll find a cold brew bar with coffee-based cocktails (like a Nitro Mole Mocha – “espresso, dark chocolate, and bitter chocolate mist with notes of chile and vanilla are shaken with almond milk and topped with nitrogen-infused cold brew” YUM), a pour over bar where you can get a single cup prepared basically any way you want it, and plenty of Starbucks-themed nick nacks that make good souvenirs, if you’re into Starbucks. And, as we discovered when we put together our guide to the best coffee in Seattle, the coffee is actually pretty decent (though, if you really want the best coffee, head a block up to Victrola Coffee, which is one of our favorites in Seattle).
If you’re craving a drink, here are the spots to hit in Capitol Hill:
- For cocktails, head to Tavern Law (great cocktails), Canon (excellent whiskey list), or Knee High Stocking Co (speakeasy vibes).
- For cider, head to Capitol Cider.
- For wine, head to Footprint Wine Tap.
- For beer, head to Optimism Brewing, Redhook, or Elysian.
Dinner and Drinks in Belltown
To close out the day, head back towards downtown to Belltown, the neighborhood immediately north of Pike Place Market, for dinner and drinks.
This area comes alive after dark, and is known for the incredibly wide variety of bars and restaurants you’ll find here. Which is why we’re recommending it for dinner.
Here are a few places we like in Belltown.
- Serious Pie: Tom Douglas is a staple in the Seattle food scene, and this is his pizza restaurant. Alysha loves this place, but since Matt can’t do gluten, she saves her trips here for friends/family outings sans Matt.
- Lola: Another offering from Seattle chef-turned-restauranteur Tom Douglas, this time focused on Mediterranean food. We really like this place. Don’t miss the dips – especially the red pepper and kopanisti – and the halloumi/fig kebab.
- Petra: A great Mediterranean spot (though we haven’t been in a few years) with big portions and affordable prices. Get the Shish Tawook, thank us later.
- Bathtub Gin: Probably at the top of the list of the best craft cocktails in Seattle. It’s a speakeasy, with a fun communal room they call “the library”. And yes, there’s a bathtub. And no, they don’t only make gin drinks.
- Navy Strength: If you’re craving tropical cocktails featuring a lot of tequila and rum, this is the spot for you.
- Some Random Bar: Nothing particularly groundbreaking here. Just a friendly neighborhood bar with local beer on tap and good cocktails.
And, just like that, your action-packed day in Seattle has come to an end.
What to Do with More Than One Day in Seattle?
If you have more than one day in Seattle, your options start to really open up and you can afford to spend the time to explore the further out neighborhoods that we really love, like Ballard (the Sunday Farmers Market is an experience!) and Fremont.
Don’t miss Gasworks Park near Fremont and its commanding view of the skyline, and consider a day trip to Bainbridge Island (which includes a picturesque ferry ride to get there).
We have an entire guide dedicated to spending 3 days in Seattle, and if you have more than a day we’d head straight over there. We’re not going to rehash everything we say in that guide here.
What is the Best Time to Visit Seattle?
The best time to visit Seattle is undoubtedly summer, from July to September, when you’ll find blue skies, temperatures somewhere in the 80’s and 90’s, and stunning views of Mount Rainier and the surrounding mountain ranges from every part of the city.
Basically every other time of the year, you’re rolling the dice.
It could be one of those stunning weekends in February, where it is sunny and mid-50’s and literally everyone is wearing short shorts even though it’s freezing. Or it could be gray and drizzly.
Unfortunately, the odds are in favor of rain, so pack a good rain jacket, some waterproof boots, and plan to do things in the rain. It’s the Seattle way – a truly authentic experience!
Usually, the rain in the Pacific Northwest is the variety that is heavy enough to be annoying and make it a little uncomfortable, but not so heavy that it’s a deterrent for going outside.
Getting to Seattle
If you’re driving, Seattle is roughly a three hour drive from both Portland and Vancouver along I-5. You’re likely going to hit traffic along the way during peak commute times, so bake that into your plan. This guide assumes you’ll be in town by 9:00 am, and leaving at around 7:00 pm, which is a long day if you’re driving.
If you’re flying to Seattle, you now have two airport options.
The main option, and the one I’d recommend to most people, is to fly into SeaTac Airport (SEA), which is about 15 miles south of the city. It’s the city’s main airport, and has great public transit connections to the heart of the city. Yes, the security lines are often LONGGGGG. But there are tons of flight options coming into SeaTac, both domestic and international, that it’s sure to be the most affordable place to fly into.
The other option is to fly into the newly opened Paine Field (PAE), which is sort of like a semi-private airport up in Everett, about 30 minutes north of the city. It’s smaller, security lines are shorter, but there are fewer flights to fewer places, and there are no public transit connections to the city. Although, if you’re renting a car, they do have plenty of rental car agencies.
How to Get to Seattle From SeaTac Airport
There are two main options for getting from SeaTac Airport, which is about 15 miles south of Seattle, to the city center.
You can take the Lightrail from the airport to Downtown Seattle, Capitol Hill, and the University of Washington. And it’s super easy. It’s cheap, fast, and efficient, and the most affordable way to get to the city.
The other option is Lyft or Uber, which will be more expensive and, depending on traffic, could take a LONG time during rush hour.
Heading to Seattle? Here are some other Seattle travel guide you might like.
- 3 Days in Seattle: A Perfect Weekend Itinerary for First Timers
- Where to Stay in Seattle: The 5 Best Areas to Stay for a Trip to Seattle
- Where to Find the Best Coffee in Seattle: 15 Excellent Coffee Shops
- The 13 Coolest Hotels in Seattle
- Gluten Free Seattle: A Travel Guide for Celiacs
- 8 Incredible Day Trips from Seattle: A Complete Planning Guide
- A Picture Perfect Day Trip to Bainbridge Island from Seattle