The waterfront is to Seattle what Fisherman's Wharf is to San Francisco. Stretching along Alaskan Way from Yesler Way, in the south, to Bay Street, Myrtle Edwards Park, and the Olympic Sculpture Park, in the north, the waterfront is Seattle's most popular and touristy destination. Tacky gift shops, candy stores selling fudge and saltwater taffy, sidewalk T-shirt vendors, overpriced restaurants, and walk-up counters serving greasy fish and chips -- they're all here. Why bother fighting the jostling crowds? Well, for one thing, this is where you'll find the Seattle Aquarium and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, which is king of the tacky gift shops and as fun as a Ripley's Believe It or Not museum. Ferries to Bainbridge Island and Bremerton, as well as several different boat tours, also operate from the waterfront. Oh, and then there's the view, that incomparable view across Elliott Bay to the Olympic Mountains. So stay focused and stay out of the shopping arcades inside the piers (unless, of course, you really need salt-and-pepper shakers shaped like the Space Needle).
You'll find the Washington State Ferries terminal at Pier 52, which is at the south end of the waterfront near Pioneer Square. (A ferry ride makes for a cheap cruise.) Pier 55 has excursion boats offering harbor cruises and trips to Tillicum Village on Blake Island. At Pier 56, cruise boats leave for trips through the Chittenden (Ballard) Locks to Lake Union. At Pier 57, you'll find the Bay Pavilion, which has a vintage carousel and a video arcade to keep the kids busy.
Pier 59 is home to the Seattle Aquarium and a waterfront park. If you continue up the waterfront, you'll find Pier 66, also called the Bell Street Pier, which has a rooftop park. Anthony's, one of the best seafood restaurants on the waterfront, is also on this pier. At Pier 67 is the Edgewater hotel, a great place to take in the sunset over a drink or dinner.
Next door, at Pier 69, you can see the dock for the ferries that ply the waters between Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia. Just north of this pier is the Olympic Sculpture Park and the grassy Myrtle Edwards Park, which make all the schlock worth enduring, a nice finale to the waterfront. Myrtle Edwards Park has a popular paved pathway and is a great spot for a sunset stroll or a picnic. The Olympic Sculpture Park , which covers a hillside overlooking the north end of the waterfront, is my favorite Seattle attraction, offering not only monumental sculptures, but also gardens of native plants and superb views of the Seattle skyline, Elliott Bay, and the Olympic Mountains.
Pike Place Market to Pioneer Square
Pike Place Market and the Pioneer Square historic district lie at opposite ends of First Avenue; midway between the two is the Seattle Art Museum.
The Pioneer Square area, with its historic buildings, interesting shops, museum, and Underground Tour, is well worth a morning or afternoon of exploration.
Seattle Center & Lake Union
Built in 1962 for the World's Fair, Seattle Center is today not only the site of Seattle's famous Space Needle, but also a cultural and entertainment park that doubles as the city's favorite festival grounds. Within Seattle Center's boundaries, you'll find the Museum of Pop Culture, the Pacific Science Center, the Seattle Children's Museum, the Seattle Children's Theatre, Key Arena, the Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, the Intiman Theatre, the Bagley Wright Theatre, a children's amusement park, and a fountain that's a favorite summertime hangout. Not far away, you'll find Lake Union, with a couple of nautical attractions.
The International District
Seattle today boasts of its strategic location on the Pacific Rim, but its ties to Asia are nothing new. This is evident in the International District, Seattle's main Asian neighborhood, which is centered between Fifth Avenue South and 12th Avenue South (btw. S. Washington St. and S. Lane St.). Called both Chinatown and the International District (because so many Asian nationalities have made this area home), the neighborhood has been the center of the city's Asian communities for more than a century. You can learn about its history at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (or, simply, The Wing).
At the corner of Maynard Avenue South and South King Street is Hing Hay Park, the site of an ornate and colorful pavilion given to Seattle by the city of Taipei, Taiwan. The International District also has many restaurants, import stores, and food markets, and the huge Uwajimaya is all of these rolled into one.
First Hill (Pill Hill) & Capitol Hill
Seattle is justly proud of its parks, and Volunteer Park, on Capitol Hill at 14th Avenue East and East Prospect Street (drive north on Broadway and watch for signs), is one of the most popular. Here you'll find not only acres of lawns, groves of trees, and huge old rhododendrons, but also an old water tower that provides one of the best panoramas in the city. A winding staircase leads to the top of the tower, from which you get 360-degree views. The observatory level also has an interesting exhibit about the Olmsted Brothers (the sons of Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York City's Central Park) and the system of parks they designed for Seattle. To find the water tower, park near the Seattle Asian Art Museum if you can; then walk back out of the parking lot to where the road splits. The view from directly in front of the museum, by Isamu Noguchi's Black Sun sculpture, isn't bad either. The doughnut-shaped sculpture makes a perfect frame for photos of the Space Needle.
Neighborhoods in North Seattle
The Fremont District, which begins at the north end of the Fremont Bridge--near the intersection of Fremont Avenue North and North 36th Street--is one of Seattle's funkiest and most unusual neighborhoods. Even livelier, though not as eclectic or artistic, the University District (known as the U District) has loads of cheap restaurants and the types of shops you would associate with a college-age clientele. But the main attractions for visitors are the two excellent museums on the university campus and the nearby Museum of History & Industry, which is just across the Montlake Bridge from the U District. This latter museum, however, is scheduled to move to the south end of Lake Union some time in 2012.
Parking Tip -- Parking on the University of Washington campus is expensive on weekdays and Saturday mornings, so try to visit the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture or Henry Art Gallery on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday, when parking is free.