You can pack a lot of adventure into a couple of hours in Seattle, and with the downtown core spanning just a compact and walkable mile and a half, you’ll never be too far from the piers or easy transit to the airport.
Just a 10-minute walk from Pier 66 or a 25-minute bus ride (route 24) from Pier 91, historic Pike Place Market is a natural first stop. The multilevel market is a bustling mix of artisan craft and produce vendors, sweeping stands of technicolor flowers, locally owned shops, and live entertainment in the form of street buskers and wader-clad fishmongers slinging salmon. Tour the main level but be sure to explore further—the market is full of hidden gems, from a magic shop with tricks performed while you browse to a tucked-away urban garden boasting a stunning overlook of Puget Sound. For more views, stroll the newly expanded MarketFront, which houses 47 new vendors and four new restaurants, with a huge outdoor plaza and backdrop of the Olympic Mountains across the water. Finally, no trip to Pike Place Market is complete without a picture near the red Public Market Center sign and clock at the entrance on First and Pike. Fuel up after your photo op with a latte from the original Starbucks or a bowl of signature mac and cheese from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese.
South of the market is tree-lined Pioneer Square, known as the city’s “original neighborhood” for its Gold Rush–era roots. Browse eclectic boutiques and art galleries—the First Thursday Art Walk is a local favorite—and if you’re visiting around lunchtime, grab a place in line early for the daily special at shoebox-sized Il Corvo, one of the city’s most coveted spots for homemade pasta. Nearby Smith Tower (the city’s first official skyscraper) is another spot for breathtaking views of Seattle and its surrounds, with a Prohibition-inspired bar and 360-degree, open-air observation deck. A five-minute walk away, the Columbia Center Sky View Observatory offers its own outlook—standing at 902 feet, the observatory is the highest public observation deck on the West Coast.
Heading back toward the pier, the Seattle Art Museum is a draw for art aficionados and casual museum-goers alike, with permanent collections and rotating exhibitions spanning classic to contemporary. The Olympic Sculpture Park on the waterfront is another downtown art mecca, offering a sprawling nine acres to stroll and enjoy larger-than-life art installations framed by glistening Elliott Bay.
The waterfront offers its own array of attractions, including fun gift shops, seafood joints like The Crab Pot and its “Seafeasts” of clams, mussels, and Dungeness crab, and the 175-f00t-tall Seattle Great Wheel. Pier 57 is also home to Wings Over Washington, a “flying theater” experience that takes you on a virtual trip over Washington state’s most scenic sights, from the Olympic National Forest to the San Juan Islands. For an up-close look at the marine life native to Puget Sound waters (think tide pools, moon jellies, sea otters, a giant Pacific octopus, and more), Seattle Aquarium on Pier 59 is a perfect way to round out your Seattle excursion.
Make the most of your time in the Emerald City, either exploring on your own or with a guided tour designed for cruise passengers looking to experience Seattle highlights in just a few hours.
Companies like Show Me Seattle, Tours Northwest, and Ride the Ducks all offer info-packed tours traveling to iconic landmarks, from the Space Needle to the houseboat seen in Sleepless in Seattle, all running three hours or less. In Pioneer Square, Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour is a 75-minute mix of humor and history as you stroll through the city’s subterranean streets. For foodies, Savor Seattle Food Tours offers a variety of options, from a chocolate indulgence tour to a Pike Place Market eating extravaganza.
For self-guided touring, start at the Seattle Center on the north edge of downtown. Surrounding the Space Needle and its 360-degree view of the Seattle skyline is Chihuly Garden and Glass, housing works by internationally renowned glass artist and Pacific Northwest native Dale Chihuly; the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP), a mecca for music and pop culture fans; and the Pacific Science Center, a family favorite with exhibits on everything from the human body to tropical butterflies. Music lovers can stop in at the KEXP radio headquarters to watch live broadcasts and do-gooders will enjoy the nearby Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a global perspective on health, poverty, and education.
A short walk away is the South Lake Union neighborhood. Known as a tech and biomedical hub (Amazon, Facebook, and Google are all located here, along with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center), the area is also home to the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) with exhibits delving into Seattle’s unique past; The Center for Wooden Boats, where you can rent sail boats and rowboats; and REI’s flagship store, complete with an indoor climbing wall. The expansive waterfront park on Lake Union is a perfect spot to watch seaplanes take off from the water.
Nearby Capitol Hill is the city’s LGBTQ hub and one of Seattle’s trendiest neighborhoods, with rainbow crosswalks, a thriving music scene, and an array of hip restaurants, bars, and boutiques. When it comes to dining, options range from steak and seafood spots from James Beard Award–winning chefs like Renee Erickson (The Whale Wins) and Jason Wilson (Miller’s Guild) to local staples like Dick’s Drive-In for a quintessential Seattle burger and fries. Two-story Elliott Bay Book Company is a haven for lit lovers, and open-concept markets like Chophouse Row and Melrose Market are chock-full of artisan wares and spots to grab a drink or bite between browsing. For a look behind the scenes of java juggernaut Starbucks, take a tasting tour at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room.
South of Capitol Hill is the Chinatown–International District, well worth a visit for its diverse mix of shops, art galleries, and food. It’s easy to spend an hour in Uwajimaya, a Japanese grocery store where you’ll find popular Asian foods, pastries, gifts, and authentic fare. Wing Luke Museum is another cultural anchor of the neighborhood, offering guided tours of exhibits spanning the life of Bruce Lee to the history of Asian Americans in sports.
Half a day to explore gives you time to discover scenic parks, hip neighborhoods, and historic landmarks a bit farther afield.
Discovery Park in Magnolia is a short taxi or car-sharing ride from Pier 91. At 534-acres, it’s Seattle’s largest park, with a variety of scenery from beaches and bluffs (plus a picturesque lighthouse) to dense forest and wildflower meadows. To see it all, take a stroll around the three-mile Discovery Park Loop Trail.
From Discovery Park, it’s a 10-minute taxi or car-sharing ride to the Ballard neighborhood, known for its maritime and Scandinavian roots. Taste craft beer and spirits at one of the many breweries and distilleries here, or make your way through the artisan boutiques on Ballard Avenue. While there, stop in at Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery for a sweet pick-me-up. The Ballard Locks are one of the city’s most iconic settings, where visitors can view boats passing through from Puget Sound to Lake Union and Lake Washington (and watch salmon making their way up the “fish ladder” on their own passage through the locks).
Neighboring Fremont holds court as one of Seattle’s most eclectic neighborhoods—just ask the Fremont Troll sculpture lurking under the Aurora Bridge. But its also home to several local hot spots like coffee roaster Milstead & Co. and family-friendly Fremont Brewing Company (both close to the Troll). You’ll also find The Book Larder, Seattle’s only cookbook bookstore, and sandwich shop Paseo, which serves Caribbean-style pork numbers that have a cult following.
Head east towards the University District, where the Washington Park Arboretum is tucked away on the shores of Lake Washington. Set out in any direction to wander easily accessible walkways through 230 acres of plant varieties from around the world. Pay a visit to the Seattle Japanese Garden at the south end of the arboretum for a view of the carefully curated sanctuary of Japanese maples.
Back at the downtown waterfront, a 12-minute water taxi trip across Elliott Bay takes you to West Seattle. Take in an entirely new vantage point of the Seattle skyline from Alki Beach, walk the 2.5-mile path down the waterfront, or rent a kayak or paddleboard from Alki Kayak Tours. Take the free shuttle up to the Junction, West Seattle’s hub of boutiques, restaurants, and antique shops along California Avenue and Alaska Street. There’s often a line at Bakery Nouveau (the twice-baked croissants are worth the wait), while Easy Street Records is a must-visit for if you’re into vinyl. Grab a bite and a tropical cocktail at Marination ma kai, a Hawaiian-fusion spot with a waterfront patio perfect for summer days, while you wait for the water taxi back to downtown Seattle.