* Washington Park Arboretum: One of the Northwest’s great arboretums, this living museum was established in the 1930s and is planted with an extraordinary variety of specimen trees from the Pacific Northwest and around the world. In the springtime, Azalea Way—planted with thousands of azaleas and other flowering trees, plants, and shrubs—is an unforgettable sight.
* Seattle Japanese Garden: A traditional “strolling pond garden” designed around a lake in the Washington Park Arboretum, the Seattle Japanese Garden was one of the first Japanese gardens to be created in the U.S., and with its meticulous plantings, rocks, and stone lanterns, it is a highlight for any garden lover visiting Seattle.
In the downtown area, Myrtle Edwards Park, 3130 Alaskan Way W. (tel. 206/684-4075), at the north end of the waterfront, is an ideal spot for a sunset stroll with views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. The park includes a 1.25-mile paved pathway. At its north end, this park connects with the Port of Seattle's Elliott Bay Park.
Lake Union Park, at the south end Lake Union and linked to downtown via the Seattle Streetcar, is another pleasant place for a waterfront stroll. Several historic boats are docked at the park, which is adjacent to the Center for Wooden Boats, and sometime in 2012, the Museum of History & Industry is scheduled to open here. This is a great spot from which to watch floatplanes take off and land.
Freeway Park, at Sixth Avenue and Seneca Street, is one of Seattle's most unusual parks. Built right on top of busy I-5, this green space is more like a series of urban plazas, with terraces, waterfalls, and cement planters creating walls of greenery. You'd never know that a roaring freeway lies beneath your feet. Unfortunately, although the park is convenient, the isolated nature of its many nooks and crannies often gives it a deserted and slightly threatening feel.
For serious communing with nature, nothing will do but 534-acre Discovery Park, 3801 W. Government Way (tel. 206/386-4236). Occupying a high bluff and sandy point jutting into Puget Sound, this is Seattle's largest and wildest park. You can easily spend a day wandering its trails and beaches. The visitor center is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8:30am to 5pm. Discovery Park is a 15-minute drive from downtown; to get here, follow the waterfront north from downtown Seattle toward the Magnolia neighborhood and watch for signs to the park. When you reach the park, follow signed trails down to the beach and out to the lighthouse at the point. Although the lighthouse is only occasionally open to the public, the views from the beach make this a good destination for an hour's walk. The beach and park's bluff-top meadows both make good picnic spots.
Up on Capitol Hill, at East Prospect Street and 14th Avenue East, you'll find Volunteer Park, 1247 15th Ave. E. (tel. 206/684-4075), which is surrounded by the elegant mansions of this old neighborhood. It's a popular spot for sunning and playing Frisbee, and is home to the Seattle Asian Art Museum, an amphitheater, a water tower with a superb view of the city, and a conservatory filled with exotic plants. With so much variety, you can easily spend half a day exploring this park.
On the east side of Seattle, along the shore of Lake Washington, you'll find not only swimming beaches but also Seward Park, 5895 Lake Washington Blvd. S. (tel. 206/684-4396). This large park's waterfront areas may be its biggest attraction, but it also has a dense forest with trails winding through it. Keep an eye out for the bald eagles that nest here. The park is south of the I-90 floating bridge off Lake Washington Boulevard South. From downtown Seattle, follow Madison Street northeast and turn right onto Lake Washington Boulevard.
Near Alki Beach in West Seattle, Jack Block Park, 2130 Harbor Ave. SW (tel. 206/787-3654; www.portseattle.org), is well worth a visit. The park, wedged between the port and Elliott Bay, has a .25-mile paved walkway that meanders along beside the water. The path eventually leads to an observation tower overlooking both the water and the port. Kids will love watching all the cool machines and boats coming and going. Now, I know I've made this park sound like it's in the middle of an industrial area, but it actually has plenty of natural shoreline. For the little ones, there's even a play area that incorporates old buoys. You'll find the park adjacent to Terminal 5 on Harbor Avenue.
North Seattle has several parks worth visiting, including the unique Gas Works Park, 2101 N. Northlake Way, at Meridian Avenue North (tel. 206/684-4075), at the north end of Lake Union. In the middle of its green lawns looms the rusting hulk of an old industrial plant; the park's small Kite Hill is a popular kite-flying spot.
Moving farther north, on Green Lake Drive North near Woodland Park Zoo, you'll find Green Lake Park, 7201 E. Green Lake Dr. N. (tel. 206/684-4075), a center for exercise buffs who jog, bike, and skate on its 2.8-mile paved path. It's also possible to picnic on the many grassy areas and swim in the lake (there are changing rooms and a beach with summer lifeguards).
North of the Ballard neighborhood is Golden Gardens Park, 8498 Seaview Place NW (tel. 206/684-4075), which, with its excellent views of the Olympic Mountains and its somewhat wild feeling, is my favorite Seattle waterfront park. It has great views, some small wetlands, and a short trail. Golden Gardens is best known as one of Seattle's best beaches, too, and even though the water here is too cold for swimming, the sandy beach is a pleasant spot for a sunset stroll. People often gather on summer evenings to build fires on the beach. To reach this park, drive north from the waterfront on Elliott Avenue, which becomes 15th Avenue West; after crossing the Ballard Bridge, turn left on Market Street and follow this road for about 2 miles (it will change names to become NW 54th St. and then Seaview Ave. NW).
Visiting Volunteer Park
Capitol Hill’s century-old Volunteer Park, designed by the Olmsted Brothers, is one of the gems of Seattle’s park system and has several worthwhile attractions. Chief among them is the Volunteer Park Conservatory (1402 E. Galer St.; www.volunteerparkconservatory.org; admission by donation; Tues–Sun 10am–4pm), one of only three Victorian-style glasshouse conservatories on the West Coast. You’d never guess from looking at this elegant building that it was shipped as a prefab kit from Brookline, Massachusetts, and assembled on site in 1912. In addition to its many species of palm trees, the central Palm House showcases a collection of tropical orchids, and the Seasonal Display House presents an ever-changing show of color and fragrance (in the spring, it’s loaded with blooming bulbs, lilies, cyclamen, azaleas, and hydrangeas). Beyond it is the Cactus House, where the variety of shapes, thorns, and growing habits is remarkable, as are the flowers the cacti produce in the spring. Other rooms showcase ferns and bromeliads.
After visiting the Conservatory, take some time to wander through the rest of Volunteer Park. In the early 1900s, the Olmsted Brothers, America’s pre-eminent landscape design firm (their father, Frederick Law Olmsted, designed New York’s Central Park), were hired to draw up a plan that set aside portions of Seattle’s uniquely handsome terrain as places for relaxation and recreation. Climb the stairway in the Romanesque-style brick water tower (open daily 11am–dusk) located in the southeast corner of the park near the reservoir, where the free Olmsted Interpretive Exhibit on the observation deck chronicles the Olmsted legacy in creating Seattle’s parks and offers great views of Seattle and Puget Sound. Another highlight of Volunteer Park is the Seattle Asian Art Museum (1400 E. Prospect St.; www.seattleartmuseum.org; tel. 206/654-3100; $7 adults, $5 seniors/students/ages 13–17; Wed–Sun 10am–5pm), housed in a classic 1933 Art Moderne building near the Conservatory. This small museum features rotating exhibits and a permanent collection of ancient and contemporary art treasures from a variety of Asian cultures. But the museum closed in 2017 in preparation for a major expansion and won’t be reopening for at least 3 years; check the website for information on other Seattle venues where the museum’s programs will be relocated. Across from the museum stands Isamo Noguchi’s 1968 outdoor sculpture called Black Sun, a circular form created from Brazilian granite; look through the center hole and you’ll see the Space Needle.