Seattle is a maritime city wedged between Elliott Bay in Puget Sound to the west, and giant, freshwater Lake Washington to the east. The freshwater lake is connected to the saltwater Sound by the Chittenden Locks and Lake Union at the north end of downtown. Puget Sound is dotted with islands that are not part of Seattle proper but are bedroom communities served by commuter ferries; the most prominent and populous are Bainbridge Island, Vashon Island, and Whidbey Island.
Downtown This is Seattle’s main business district and can be defined roughly as the area from Pioneer Square in the south to around Pike Place Market in the north, and from First Avenue to Eighth Avenue. It’s characterized by steep streets, high-rise office buildings, luxury hotels, and a high density of shopping malls, and shops. This is also where you’ll find the Seattle Art Museum and Benaroya Hall, home to the Seattle Symphony and the city's major downtown concert venue. Hotels in this area are convenient to Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market, and the Convention Center.
The Waterfront The Seattle waterfront stretches along Alaskan Way from roughly Washington Street in the south to Broad Street and Myrtle Edwards Park in the north. This is the most touristy neighborhood in Seattle, presided over by the Seattle Great Wheel. In addition to the many tacky gift shops, fish-and-chips windows, and tour-boat docks, you’ll also find the city’s only waterfront hotel (The Edgewater), the Seattle Aquarium, and at its northern end, the must-see Olympic Sculpture Park.
Belltown This neighborhood, stretching north from Pike Place Market to Seattle Center, is home to the city’s liveliest restaurant and club scene and is constantly expanding and redefining itself. There are some good, out-of-downtown shops and a couple of good hotels, including the Warwick and The Ace.
Pioneer Square The Pioneer Square Historic District, known for its restored 1890s buildings, is centered on the corner of First Avenue and Yesler Way. This is the oldest settled part of Seattle, and its tree-lined streets and cobblestone plazas make it the most atmospheric neighborhood downtown. Pioneer Square (which refers to the neighborhood, not a specific square) is full of antiques shops, art galleries, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs; it’s also where you’ll find the wonderfully entertaining Underground Tour.
Seattle Center One of the city’s tourist magnets, Seattle Center occupies the site of the famous 1962 World’s Fair and is still served by a vintage monorail from downtown. Towering above it all is the iconic Space Needle, and here you’ll find the Pacific Science Center and Chihuly Garden and Glass. Seattle Center wasn’t really a “neighborhood” but in the last couple of years new apartment buildings have gone up on the surrounding streets.
South Lake Union At the north end of downtown, extending east of Seattle Center to the southern and western shores of Lake Union, this is Seattle’s newest and still developing neighborhood. Most of it is owned and has been developed by Microsoft gazillionaire Paul Allen—but the main corporate presence here is now Amazon, with three new towers and biospheres forming the company’s world headquarters. Formerly a low-rise warehouse and industrial area, South Lake Union has been transformed over the last decade into a residential and business neighborhood for high-tech and biotech companies. A streetcar line connects the area to downtown. The Pan Pacific Hotel serves the high-end business side of the neighborhood. The fascinating Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) is housed in the former Naval Reserve building on Lake Union.
Chinatown/International District Known to locals as the I.D., this small but distinctive neighborhood is home to a large Asian population. Here you’ll find the Wing Luke Asian Museum, Hing Hay Park (a small park with an ornate pagoda), Uwajimaya (an Asian supermarket), and many small shops and restaurants. The Chinatown/International District begins around Fifth Avenue South and South Jackson Street.
First Hill Because it is home to several large hospitals, this hilly neighborhood just east of downtown and across I-5 is called “Pill Hill” by Seattleites. First Hill is home to the Frye Art Museum and a couple of good hotels. It is an old Seattle residential neighborhood, too; once grand, now not so but with some nice strollable streets.
Capitol Hill To the northeast of downtown, centered along Broadway near Volunteer Park, Capitol Hill is Seattle’s main gay neighborhood and has long been a popular youth-culture shopping and entertainment district. Broadway sidewalks are often crowded, and it is nearly impossible to find a parking space. In recent years, the area has been undergoing a big spruce-up. New condominiums have been built on Broadway, and along 12th Avenue, near the intersection with Pike Street and there are now some good restaurants. Outside its commercial area, parts of Capitol Hill are undeniably attractive, with fine old homes and mansions; Volunteer Park is one of Seattle’s great parks and contains a wonderful plant conservatory and the Seattle Asian Museum.
University District This neighborhood in the northeast section of the city surrounding the University of Washington is called the U District for short. Because it’s a college neighborhood, it’s a good place to find inexpensive ethnic restaurants, pubs, clubs, espresso bars, and music stores. Visitors come to this area to visit the great Washington Park Arboretum and the gorgeous Seattle Japanese Garden.
Queen Anne Hill With its great city and water views, affluent Queen Anne, just northwest of Seattle Center, has long been one of the most prestigious residential areas in Seattle and features some of Seattle’s oldest homes. The neighborhood is divided into the Upper Queen Anne and Lower Queen Anne. Upper Queen Anne is very peaceful and abounds in moderately priced restaurants. Lower Queen Anne, adjacent to theaters and Marion Oliver McCaw Hall at Seattle Center, is something of a theater district and has a more urban character.
Fremont If you have time to visit only one neighborhood outside of downtown, make it Fremont. North of the Lake Washington Ship Canal between Wallingford and Ballard, Fremont is home to Seattle’s best-loved piece of public art—Waiting for the Interurban—as well as the famous Fremont Troll sculpture. This is Seattle’s most independent neighborhood, filled with eclectic shops and ethnic restaurants. During the summer, there’s a Sunday flea market. The neighborhood celebrates its left-leaning vitality with a yearly street fair—watch for the nude bicyclists!
Ballard In northwest Seattle, bordering the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Puget Sound, Ballard is a former (hard-)working-class Scandinavian community that prides itself in its past (the Nordic History Museum is here) and is rediscovering its old urban charms and character. One of Seattle’s most enjoyable neighborhoods, Ballard is a great place to discover off-the-beaten-path shops and restaurants. Art galleries and interesting boutiques and shops are set along the tree-shaded streets of the neighborhood’s old commercial center, also the site of Ballard’s famous Sunday Farmers Market. Ray’s Boathouse is probably the best-known of Ballard’s restaurants.
The Eastside Home to Bill Gates, Microsoft, countless high-tech spinoff companies, and seemingly endless suburbs, the Eastside lies across Lake Washington from Seattle proper and comprises the cities of Kirkland, Bellevue, Redmond, and a few other smaller communities. As the presence of Bill Gates’s mansion attests, there are some pretty wealthy neighborhoods here; but except for Bellevue this isn’t an area that draws tourists.
West Seattle West Seattle, across from the downtown port facility, is not just the site of the terminal for ferries to Vashon Island and the Kitsap Peninsula. It’s also the site of Seattle’s favorite beach, Alki, which is as close to a Southern California beach experience as you’ll find in the Northwest. Here, too, is the waterfront restaurant with the best view of Seattle: Salty’s on Alki Beach. Seattle’s very first white settlers landed on Alki Point, but after a miserably wet winter moved east to the area that would become Pioneer Square.