You only have a day to spend in Seattle before moving on; what to do? Here are some possibilities.
TL;DR: Pike Place Market & City Center in Seattle or Ballard & the Locks.
My wife and I lived in the greater Seattle, Washington, area for 14 years having moved there from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before moving to Mobile, Alabama. Because of that, a friend asked, “We are taking an Alaskan cruise which sails out of Seattle. We want to spend a day in Seattle before we board… what should we do?” So, this article is written from my perspective as a non-native of the region and from that single requirement: just one day before a cruise.
Seattle is a city with a small downtown and a large, sprawling metropolitan area. While Seattle, itself, has a lot of offer, so do neighborhoods around Seattle as well as small towns to the north & south. There is no need to cross over the Cascade mountains.
If you are going to visit Puget Sound, I really recommend you go for 2 weeks, rent a car and really travel around a much wider area to explore not just Seattle but also the East Side of Lake Washington, Whidbey Island, Bellingham, Olympia, Tacoma, the Olympic Peninsula, and even Vancouver, BC. But that is not this article.
Back to Our Question
Most of the cruise ships depart from Smith Cove Cruise Terminal at Pier 91. This is just under 3 miles from Pike Place Market in Seattle. It is also just over 3 miles from Ballard, a quaint neighborhood north of Seattle. Sadly, there is not much between Ballard and Seattle. Pier 91 is nestled between two hills: Magnolia where there is not much to see or do, and Queen Anne Hill which has a vibrant night life with several live music venues.
Given the location of Pier 91, I would suggest exploring either downtown Seattle or Ballard. Pick one or the other; each area has a lot to offer for a single day. Then, depending on which area you choose, you should pick overnight accommodations in that area.
Ballard is an idiosyncratic neighborhood with quirky specialty stores, coffee shops galore, great restaurants, in the summer, and a delightful farmers market on Ballard Ave just south of Market St. If you are not in the mood for tourist attractions (read: traps), Ballard is definitely the place for you. The two streets to focus on are Ballard Avenue and Market Street.
It would be easy to spend the day exploring Ballard with an added excursion west to the Ballard Locks or south across the Ballard Bridge to Fisherman’s Terminal.
And if you just want to hang out in a park, I recommend heading over to Gasworks Park which is on the other side of Fremont. The vista of Seattle at sunset is breathtaking.
Downtown Seattle offers a wide variety of attractions that fit the requirement. These include
Seattle Center with the Space Needle, Museum of Pop Culture, Pacific Science Center, and events that happen regularly on weekends.
Pike Place Market This is a random collection of shops and seller booths between 1st Avenue and Alaskan Way (next item). Each block and area of Pike Place Market has a myriad of specialty shops, antique shops, produce, restaurants. I think it took us about 5 visits before we felt we explored the whole place. On the south end, you can sit for Japanese tea; in the middle, you can see the fishmongers throw fish about; and on the north end, arts and crafts booths. Remember there are several levels—-in every building—-so you definitely want to just wander about. Everything closes around 5:00pm so you’ll want to go early.
Alaskan Way Alaskan Way is at sea level (whereas Pike Place Market is about 4 stories above that). As you wander about Pike Place Market, you may find yourself going down to Alaskan way where you’ll find the Seattle Aquarium, antique shops, and other touristy things.
Seattle Art Museum On 1st Avenue, just 3 blocks south (and downhill) from Pike Place Market is SAM, the Seattle Art Museum. While not a large museum, they offer a varied and interesting collection of works.
Walking Tours If the weather is nice and you feel like walking, the Seattle Architecture Foundation offers guided walking tours. These are definitely worth the time. Seattle has a rich history of novel architecture.
Or, you can stop in to Metsker’s Maps on 1st Ave and Pike, and pick up a walking guide book of Seattle.
As I said, lots of attractions. However…
Visiting Seattle does not come without some serious risks. If you visit downtown, try to be very aware of what is happening around you at all times. Do not venture east beyond 1st Avenue. 3rd Avenue and Pine Street is overrun by drug dealers and vagabonds. It is now known as a war-zone; I’m not even sure if the police patrol it any longer.
The main problem is the overwhelming numbers of vagabonds that infest the city. Please do not call them homeless—-they have been offered homes and most of them have refused, preferring instead to live out their drama on the streets. Sadly, there is a great deal of money being spent on this situation with little result.
Also, avoid old Pioneer Square at night; in fact, avoid most of downtown after 5:00pm.
For only a one-day adventure, I do not think renting a car would be worthwhile. You can take a train from the airport to Seattle and Ballard. There is also an extensive bus service.
Uber and Lyft are very plentiful and easy to get. Using them removes burden of parking. Some neighborhoods even have bicycle taxis where you are pedaled to your destination.
I believe you can also take a train/subway from Pier 91 to the Sea-Tac airport.
The cold arctic ocean current is a constant 50°F. This means that the local weather never varies by more than +/- 25°F. If it gets too hot, it’ll soon go back to 55°F. If it gets too cold, it’ll soon go back to 45°F.
Because of this constant variability around the ocean temperature, it is very difficult to acclimate to anything but that temperature. The weather changes too often. If you let yourself acclimate to it—-it takes about 3 days—-you will find it actually very comfortable.
There are only two seasons.
For about 9 months of the year, it will rain nearly every day. From the 4th of July to some time in October/November, there will be more or less mostly sun and hardly any rain. That is the dry season. Otherwise, it is the rainy season. Expect rain.
When it does rain, it tends to be misty or light. Rarely is there a heavy downpour. Note that it is also sunny for a bit almost every day. In the winter, it is cloudy and misty/rainy most of the day with short bouts of sun. As summer approaches, each bout of sunshine increases and the cloudiness decreases until the dry season begin. Then in October or November, the rainy season returns.
If you happen to be there in the winter and it snows, DON’T GO ANYWHERE! Seattle is not equipped at all for snow and Seattle-ites have no idea how to drive in it. You will see people do extremely dangerous and stupid things in such conditions. Just find a nice local tavern or coffee shop and enjoy a hot toddy or two.
Because of the moderate temperatures and light rain, focus upon wearing layers rather than a single overcoat for each range of temperatures.
In the summer, a t-shirt or light top along with a long-sleeve shirt or anorak/light rain jacket would cover most situations. In the summer, it is unusual for temperatures to go above 80°F and not for very long if they do.
As it gets colder, add an undershirt under a long-sleeve shirt, a fleece vest, and a light fleece overcoat. I’ve actually worn those 4 layers in temperatures as cold as 25°F with only the addition of gloves and a hat. Most of the winters I spent in Puget Sound, I only needed 3 layers, and rarely wore the 4th top fleece layer.
Note: Down and down-filled outerwear, while warm and light do not do well in even light rain. This is why fleece is ideal in the Pacific North West (PNW).
As a bonus, the 4-layer fleece approach, with warm gloves, warm socks, a hat, and a scarf, will also work well for the colder temperatures on your voyage to Alaska.
Remember, too, that unless you come from a city like Chicago or New York, you are likely to walk a lot more than you are otherwise used to. Shoes with gummy soles or running shoes with thick padded soles would be best.
There is no need to dress up; everyone dresses fairly casually.
Seattle natives tend to be introverted and will tend to avoid any interaction with strangers. This will seem odd to anyone from, well, anywhere else. It’s not you. Really.
Southerners with their habitual politeness will likely fare much better than brash Yankees or loud Texans. And like most other places in USA, anyone from California already has two strikes against them; the natives are still smarting from the California invasion two decades ago.
Seattle is hilly. From sea level to about 200 feet in elevation. Some of these hills are steep, so don’t rush yourself walking these steep hills unless you are very fit.
What are we leaving out
Lake Union This includes a visit to Gasworks Park for a beautiful vista; Ivar’s Salmon House, especially for Sunday brunch—-of all of the Ivar’s, this one is our favorite; a seaplane ride over the city; renting an electric boat or kayak to cruise around the “lake”; hanging out in Fremont, a quirky but fun neighborhood; and the University of Washington.
Pioneer Square in the “old city”. This includes a visit Occidental Park and old Pioneer Square; an historical tour of “Seattle Underground” (don’t do this if the weather is nice); a walkabout in the International District; and taking in a baseball game or a soccer game.
Microbreweries There are excellent local microbreweries throughout the Puget Sound area. You could do just a microbrew tour of Puget Sound if that is your thing. At the same time, Seattle has a bevy of really excellent burger joints to complement your quaffing adventure. Two that come to mind are Two Bell Tavern in Belltown, and Lorreta’s Southwest Burgers near the Boeing Aerospace Museum.
Distilleries There are also a number of very good distilleries and whiskey bars throughout Puget Sound, again, if that is your thing. I no longer drink alcohol (that is another story for another time), but while you are quaffing beer, you could equally sip fine local whiskeys, ciders, and wine.
Restaurants Seattle is replete with excellent restaurant with a wide variety of cuisines: from standard American, fresh seafood, Japanese, Chinese, Brazilian, and a variety of Polish restaurants. Note that Seattle is famous for its teriyaki.
Lots of other stuff There are plenty of Seattle neighborhoods worth exploring, Capitol Hill, West Seattle, SoDo, Montlank area and the arboretum, the university district. And that’s just the Seattle side of Lake Washington.
I would like to emphasize not to overplan your day in whatever part of Seattle you choose. Let serendipity happen; you may discover things you never expected nor would any tour guide ever think to tell you.
One last thing, the air from the prevailing westerlies over the ocean can be amazingly crisp and fresh. You may notice this immediately when you get off the plane. You will certainly notice it on your cruise. Pay attention to that—-it is one of the only things I truly miss about the PNW.