Traveling is expensive and purchasing tickets to every attraction adds up fast. After living in Seattle for almost 5 years and entertaining out-of-town guests, here are our top picks to help you enjoy the area while not wasting your time or money.
Number 1: Underground Tour
Bill Speidel's Underground Tour was by far our favorite place to take friends and family visiting Seattle for the first time. We enjoyed it each and every time we went. The tour guides generally consist of comedians who are working there as a day job and they recount history in an entertaining and comical way. Each guide tells different stories, there's no set script, and we learned something new with each visit. Seattle was originally built a story lower than it is today, and the Underground Tour takes you to the original store-fronts and sidewalks where the debauchery took place that made the city so popular. Tickets are $20 for adults, $17 with a student id card, and $9 for children. It's a little pricey but definitely worth it. Check Groupon before you go to see if there are any current deals.
Number 2: Alki Beach
If you are lucky enough to visit Seattle on a sunny day, trek over to Alki Beach in West Seattle to enjoy a day on the water. I recommend renting a kayak at Alki Kayak Tours. You don't have to take their tour, you can go solo or with a partner. If you're brave enough, you can also rent a paddle board for a stand-up, full body workout. Watch out for jelly fish though. There are a ton and you can get stung if you fall off your board. They're generally not harmful and some don't even hurt, but they can be a little freaky. Being out on the blue water with a view of downtown and paddling in the same water as large ships coming in and out of the Sound is an unforgettable experience. It'll definitely beat visiting any museum. Again, Groupon it. They often have $20 worth of rentals for $12 which will get you an hour in a single kayak.
You can also rent a double surrey as shown in this picture at Wheel Fun Rentals. You pedal just like a bike and honestly, it can be a little tiring, but was totally worth it for me because I got to keep ringing the bell attached to it. I'd say it's too expensive at $35/hr for a double surrey (fits four people - you can get a single for $25), but if you get the Groupon deal of $30 worth of rentals for $15, you can get the rental of your choosing for a more reasonable price. They also have beach lounge chairs, beach umbrellas, and even sand toys that you can rent for a few bucks an hour so you don't have to bring your own. If you want to rent a beach cruiser bike, which is a lot easier to pedal than the double surrey, go back to Alki Kayak Tours for the $10/hr bike - a little cheaper than the $12 rental at Wheel Fun Rentals. Alki Kayak Tours also has roller blade rentals for $5, so, you know, if you don't know how to ride a bike, you can roller blade. There are two paved trails along the beach, one for walking, and one for wheeled activities. These are only a few of the activities at Alki Beach. There are several sand volley ball courts, snorkeling venues, fishing, the list is endless. When you're good and tired, any type of food you may be craving is available. Happy hour at Salty's on Alki is a popular place for locals. It's a little more upscale than some of the other restaurants and a good romantic stop for an adult beverage and appetizer on their deck over the water. Small pizza shacks are good for a quick slice between activities, Cactus is a popular, high quality Mexican restaurant with delicious margaritas or a tequila flight if you're really looking to enjoy your vacay. Our favorite is Phoenecia, an award-winning small plate bistro. Artisanal pizzas, charcuterie, cheese plate... yum. They have outdoor seating that is a counter facing the beach, so you can enjoy amazing food while people-watching with a backdrop of the Sound. Know Before You Go Tip: Any sit-down restaurant in Seattle is going to be pricey. You'd be hard-pressed to leave without spending at least $40 for two people even during happy hour. So if you're on a budget, choose restaurants carefully. Seattle is big on fresh, organic, local, vegan and gluten-free options, so what looks to be just a small sandwich and soup place can be surprisingly expensive.
Number 3: EMP aka Experience Music Project
Several of the big Seattle attractions are lumped together in one spot. The Space Needle, Chihuly Gardens and Glass, Pacific Science Center, and the EMP. You can purchase a CityPass for $74 and get 5 attractions, (you have to pick between: Chihuly Gardens OR the Science Center, Zoo OR the EMP), and it includes the Aquarium, an Argosy Cruises Harbor Tour, and the Space Needle. If you want to stay within the vicinity of downtown Seattle, this is probably a good choice. I personally don't recommend it and here's why:
Space Needle: There's usually a long line (CityPass skips ticket lines but not lines to get in), I'm not much for views, and most people do it just to say that they did it. It was okay, just not worth the time or money to me. The Pacific Science Center is geared more toward children, so if you have kids, you'll probably like it. I enjoy science centers and have gone to 3 on the west coast. The only thing at this one that I thought was worth seeing was the butterfly atrium. It seems a tad outdated to me, especially since it's in Seattle. I've never been to the Chihuly Gardens - it looks cool from the outside but never looked interesting enough for me to actually go inside. I've never been to the Woodland Park Zoo. I typically don't go to zoos when I visit new cities because I like to see the culture of the city and I don't think that's found at zoos. If I were to go to a zoo on vacation, I would go to one on the top 10 list and this zoo is not on that list. The Seattle Aquarium is okay. Ben loves aquariums so we went. Same deal as the zoo. It's not even on the top 25, so I would say save your money. If you want to see some fish, go to the Salmon Ladder at the Ballard Locks. It's free and there's a beautiful park there. The Argosy Harbor Tour is cool. It's always nice to go out on a boat, and they have snacks and drinks for sale on board. We were with family who was visiting and we had purchased the CityPass which is the only reason we went on this. We all fell asleep. It was exhausting trying to visit all of the different places and we really just wanted to go home and take a nap. We only went on the boat because we felt like we had to because it was part of the CityPass that we had already purchased. Which is the #1 reason why I would not recommend the CityPass. You do those certain things only because you feel like you had to because you paid for them but there are cooler things to do that you may enjoy a lot more. You might think it's a steal at $74, but you'll probably end up spending more on add-ons, in-museum souvenirs, over-priced snacks; you are pretty much forced to go by or through a gift shop at every venue. So that brings me to the one thing I would recommend - The EMP, Experience Music Project. There's a lot to it. They have really awesome exhibits - some are film, some about famous musicians and bands, and they have little soundproof rooms you can go in and play instruments and record yourself singing. It's just pretty darn fun. Do not go on a weekend. Ever. You will not get to play with anything if you do. It's $22 for adult admission, 17 and under is $16, and kids 4 and under are free. Save the remaining $54 and go to Alki.
Number 4: Mt Baker Snoqualmie National Forest
Leave the city! The most beautiful part about this area of the country is the national forest. To truly understand why people love this area and get the "living like the locals" experience, get a rental car and partake in one of the many outdoor activities east of the city.
Hike to Lake SereneThis is a tough climb but worth it. Located near Index, Washington, in the Mt Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, it's a 7.2 mile rocky trail that consists mostly of switch backs as it goes straight up to the lake. The lake is gorgeous. You can take a swim, climb to the other side and check out an ice cave, bring an inflatable of some kind and float around on the lake, have lunch and enjoy the view. This is a popular trail, you'll see numerous other hikers, several waterfalls on the way to the top, and there is a parking lot at the trailhead. You'll need to get there early to get a parking spot and you'll also need a day-use pass or use your national parks pass.
Camp at Beckler River Campground
Our favorite campground in this area. If I remember correctly, site 10 is the best. You walk through trees to get to the site that is directly on the river. Big, private and you can walk down the bank and into water. It's $16 for a campsite, cash only, firewood sold separately by the camp host. There's a little store down highway 2 for additional supplies. Vault toilet and no shower. If you are able to bring a tent, it's much cheaper than a hotel and you get to explore the beauty of this area more fully.
Backpack to Barclay LakeThis is a longer drive into the forest and a much shorter climb. It's really not much of a climb at all and is only about a mile to the lake/camping area. You need a national forest pass to park and there's no fee to camp. There are numerous spots - just find one you like and set up your tent. You can play on the beach, fish, hike, and take in the gorgeous mountain views. This is a popular spot for families and scout troops.
Float the Wenatchee
If you're really in the mood to explore, take the beautiful and LONG 2 hour drive to the Wenatchee River. The double tube we were on in this picture was purchased for $30 on Amazon or you can go to a rafting company for an easier experience with less planning. We ended in Cashmere, Washington and there are frequent drop-in sites upstream depending on how long you want to float. While two hours seems daunting and time-consuming, it's a gorgeous way to see nature and you will also go through Leavenworth, Washington, a cool Bavarian themed town with plenty of restaurants and events. Leavenworth is a destination in itself so it's a bonus to get to see it as well.
Hike to Wallace Falls
This is a great 5.5 mile round trip hike that's on the edge of the forest, on the way back to Seattle. This is one of the most beautiful hikes we've done in the area. There are 3 waterfall sites, the Lower falls, the Middle falls, and the Upper falls. You can also hike all the way to the top but I wouldn't recommend it unless you're an experienced hiker. There's no maintained trail to it and the tree canopy can take away your light even in early dusk, and it can get very cold in the Northwest forest at night. The hike to the Upper falls is quite a climb, so be prepared but seeing the falls is well worth it.
Number 5: Skydiving in Snohomish
Again, this is outside of the city, but if you're in it to win it, take the hour drive up to Skydive Snohomish to get your dose of adrenaline. It's a beautiful area to skydive and this facility is safe and the instructors are friendly. If you've never skydived (skydove?), you'll be going tandem with an instructor. I am terrified of heights and did not do this, but hearing Ben and my little brother, Micah, tell of their experiences, I would recommend it to anyone who has the guts. It's not cheap. The weekday special is $199, but, again, it's an unforgettable experience. If you want to practice first, you can go to iFLY Seattle. You get 3 rounds in the wind tunnel for $70.
While you're in Snohomish, you can do something different for dinner and go to the Murder Mystery Company. They ALWAYS have a Groupon, so don't pay full price. The Groupon price is $30 per person and they offer a 3 course meal that's pretty decent. Both times we went, Ben was picked to play a part in the murder scenario. It's very interactive, you get to talk to people who are mostly from the area, some people dress up in the theme, and it's generally a pretty fun time. It beats sitting in a crowded restaurant in downtown Seattle. You can purchase drinks at the bar and photo booth pictures separately.
Other Things to Do in the Seattle Area
Pike Place Market is a must-see. It's not a place you go to "do" much of anything, it's a place to take in the culture, historical significance, and see the famous fish market. If you have the ability to cook fish at your lodging establishment, you can purchase a fish and they will throw it to you. People crowd around this stand to see them yell at each other, tell jokes, and interact with the customers. Downstairs, there is a wall of gum, and many more shops in this 3 story structure. The original Starbucks is across the street. Just look for the long line. You can see cheese being made through the window of Beecher's Handmade Cheese on your way.
If you go a little south of downtown, you can visit Georgetown. It's an artistic area on the outskirts of the industrial district. We frequented Brass Tacks, one of the quintessential Seattle restaurants that totes grass-fed burgers, frites, poutine, and menu descriptions that will take you an hour to read through. The food is good, the ambiance is swanky, they have live jazz on certain nights, and the best part - by the bathrooms, there is a secret door disguised as a fireplace that leads to a private room you can rent out. Around the corner is an arcade bar called Flip Flip Ding Ding. It's nothing fancy but it's fun to have a beer and play some old arcade games. There are several other cool bars along the main strip of Georgetown for all types. It's not a place that tourists frequent, as most wouldn't know about this area. A good spot for younger people who want to see some local nightlife.
The Seattle area is ripe with hipsters. Kilts with combat boots, skinny jeans with converse, and Macklemore haircuts can be found every where you look in Capitol Hill several blocks east of downtown. This is the "trendy" area. It's easy to get to by city bus and has the cool bars, old movie theaters, juice shops, things you find trending on Twitter. If you're looking to go out at night, Capitol Hill is where all of the cool people are. This is what I was told by other people while living in Seattle, most of whom resided in Capitol Hill. But if you want to see the true style of Seattle, Capitol Hill is the place to be.