Lace up your walking shoes, grab an umbrella if it looks like rain, and hit the streets early if you want to experience the best of Seattle in a single day. Luckily, two of the city's top attractions—Pike Place Market and the Olympic Sculpture Park—open early, so you should get started as early as possible. For visitors, the fact that the market is only 2 blocks from the waterfront makes connecting the dots in this town fairly easy.
Spend your first day in Seattle getting a feel for the lay of the land, the spread of the sea, the riches of the country’s greatest market and its renowned outdoor art museum. You’ll be outside more than inside, and along the way you’ll enjoy fantastic views that capture the personality of Seattle.
You’ll start at the iconic Pike Place Market at the top of the hill-climb stairs, Seattle's sprawling historic market complex. There, in the oldest covered market in the country you’ll feel the pulse of downtown Seattle. The market is a “follow your nose” sort of place, and you can easily lose track of time as you browse the fish and produce stalls and explore the shops in the Down Under section. Plan on spending at a good 2 hours poking around this lively, colorful and endlessly fascinating hive of Seattle shopping. By midmorning, the market's arts-and-crafts vendors are usually set up, and you can shop for distinctive gifts and souvenirs. Wander through the dark depths of the market to search out unusual specialty shops. Then, stop for lunch at one of the market’s eateries. The nation’s first Starbucks is right at the entrance of the market, and you can stop for coffee there—or better yet, just a selfie (the coffee is no better here than it is at the nation’s other Starbucks).
Next it’s time to experience Seattle from the water, because water is a defining characteristic of the city’s personality. Just as at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, the Seattle Waterfront is ground zero for tacky tourist shops, fish and chips counters, and mediocre, overpriced restaurants. However, the waterfront does have its redeeming features: On a clear day, the view across Elliott Bay to the Olympic Mountains is unforgettable. Head down to the Waterfront to take the 1:25pm Harbor Cruise on an excursion boat operated by Argosy Cruises at Pier 55. The boat does sometimes sell out, so reserve your ticket in advance (but if you forget to do so, try your luck at the pier ticket office). On this 1-hour narrated tour you’ll cruise around Elliott Bay, the watery heart and soul of Seattle, learning more about the city’s maritime history. The trip is enhanced by unobstructed views of the city’s photogenic skyline with its towers, hills, and iconic Space Needle.
After your harbor tour, stroll north from the ferry terminal along the busy Waterfront. You’ve had a view of the skyline from the water, now get a view west, out over the water to the Olympic Mountains, by taking a ride on the Seattle Great Wheel. (Do this only if the sky is relatively clear or you won't get much of a view.)
After the 15-minute ride on the Great Wheel, continue walking north along the busy waterfront—it’s a flat, easy path and great for people-watching. You’ll pass piers where you can sit, shops where you can browse, the aquarium, and some terminal buildings before you arrive, in just over a mile at the famed Olympic Sculpture Park. This is the Northwest’s greatest display of outdoor sculpture created by an A-list roster of renowned artists. Take the self-guided path that leads up past giant works by the likes of Alexander Calder and Louise Bourgeois and provides still more far-reaching views of Elliott Bay and the Olympics.
From the sculpture park, make your way back to your starting point, the Pike Street Market, by following 1st Avenue south. (If you don’t want to make the 25-minute trek, hop on the Route 99 bus that heads south along 1st Avenue back to the market.) Choose a restaurant in the market or on the Waterfront for dinner. Café Campagne is an excellent, reasonably priced pick. The water view is better but the prices more elevated at Aqua.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.