We’re excited to have you all here! Our transportation system has a few quirks, so please check out our handy Seattle for Visitors page. If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t like to be tethered to technology all the time you’ll want to download and print out our Seattle Frequent Transit map.
We’ve also got an Unofficial Link Schedule that you might find useful. Below we’ve put together some urbanism-specific sightseeing suggestions.
1. Link from the Airport. After disembarking at SeaTac airport, it’s only a short walk until you reach the Link airport station directly east of the terminals. It’s a cheap, relatively fast way to reach downtown Seattle, but what distinguishes it even further is it offers an opportunity to see an under-appreciated quadrant of Seattle from the comfort of your train seat.
South Seattle is often passed over in favor of the Space Needle and other icons, yet neighborhoods throughout the area are thriving and expanding. There’s a mix of old and new bars and restaurants, and all generally affordable. These neighborhoods are an interesting mix of old, walkable, narrow-storefront streetcar suburb; postwar car-oriented poverty and neglect; and now gentrification with the very beginnings of proper transit-oriented development.
The zip code to the east of this segment of the line is said to be the most diverse one in the nation. Walk along Rainier Avenue (which roughly parallels Link but intersects it at Mt. Baker), and you may hear several languages and see food trucks and restaurants offering cuisine ranging from Ethiopia to Cambodia to New Orleans.
If you can only make one stop in this corridor on your way in or out, the best overall experience is probably Columbia City, whose downtown is about three short blocks east of the station with that name. Othello has lots of fast, cheap, delicious Southeast Asian dining options. As you enter the tunnel around Beacon Hill Station, don’t stop looking out the window.
2. DSTT Bus/Train Joint Operations. When the train gets you downtown, stop for a moment and note the buses coming in right behind it. Seattle is nearly unique in having joint bus/train ops in a downtown tunnel. It was used exclusively by buses for over 20 years, now supports both, and when Link ridership justifies it, will become train only. You may hear that your train is delayed due to “traffic ahead,” which is due to people paying as they board a bus.
Directly above the tunnel, Third Avenue has been bus-only since Link opened in 2009 and is in the early stages of a major revamp.
3. Leaving right in front of the Westin, the South Lake Union Streetcar (affectionately know as the South Lake Union Trolley, or SLUT) is an excellent Rorshach Test for participants in the streetcar wars. Proponents see a new, dense neighborhood that has sprung, from a dilapidated light industrial zone, around the streetcar line; and a transit line in so much demand that companies are chipping in both to build it and operate it frequently. Detractors note that, despite some signal priority, the line is short and slow, to the extent that there’s an occasional stunt to show one can beat it on foot. There are early-stage proposals to extend the streetcar into the next ring of city neighborhoods.
In any case, the neighborhood is a bit sterile, but has some nice places and is notable for having the headquarters of Amazon.com. Lake Union Park, near the end of the line, is a nice spot to watch the floatplanes come in and to tour the Museum of History and Industry.
4. Take light rail
Walk a couple of blocks to Pike St., and catch bus route 43 or 49 to Capitol Hill. If it’s not the weekend, you’ll be riding an electric trolley bus, like a handful of other American cities. Get off at Broadway and start wandering: Capitol Hill is an old, dense neighborhood and the epicenter of the Seattle gay scene. It is the best spot to eat and drink in the city. Moreover, along Broadway you will see Seattle’s next light rail station going in an enormous pit, a streetcar installation that’s a year away, and a cycle track that is almost done.
5. Experience Seattle’s transit past by riding the monorail, a relic of the 1962 World’s Fair, and solely useful for trips from the Westlake area to Seattle Center. Its fare system is not integrated with everything else, but it is notable as one of the few profitable transit lines in the world. The monorail inspired an effort to build a longer (distinct) monorail line, but that collapsed in a fiasco of bogus funding estimates about a decade ago.
Seattle Center, built as a World’s Fair back in the ’60s and still alive with the Space Needle, a great fountain, several museums (science, glass, children’s, sci-fi, and experience music project), an events arena, opera hall, ballet theatre, art film theatre, children’s theatre, Shakespeare theatre, dinner and acrobatic entertainment theatre (Teatro Zinzanni), skate park, and probably a dozen other forms of entertainment. If you walk East you can ride WWII “ducks” that will take you on a tour of Seattle and its lakes. Or walk Northwest for the center of the Uptown neighborhood, with great restaurants and bars.
If you walk to the corner of Roy and Queen Anne Ave you can read the engraved history of the counterbalanced trolley that used to roll up and down this hill. Walk back to 1st Ave N and Roy and you can ride the electric trolleybus #2 or #13 up the hill and walk down Upper Queen Anne‘s main street, or over to 2nd Ave W and Highland for the canonical view of Downtown Seattle.
6. Washington’s ferry system is one of the largest in the world and is mostly run by the state highway department (and it shows!). That said, if you walk down to the waterfront your best bet is to catch a ferry to Bremerton or Bainbridge Island, both relatively old cities with cute, compact downtowns. On a nice day the view from the ferry deck is exceptional.
7. King County Metro’s first attempt at Bus Rapid Transit is RapidRide. It’s on the low end of the BRT service quality continuum, but the frequent red buses on 3rd Avenue will get you to Ballard. A fast-developing neighborhood with old bones, Ballard is jam-packed with microbreweries, coffee shops, bars, pubs, and more. Westward lie the Ballard Locks, where you can watch ships pass through to Puget Sound. Take the D Line further north to Crown Hill and you reach a quieter, residential area of Ballard that nonetheless offers a pleasing stroll westward until you hit Golden Gardens, a nice little beach park with gorgeous views of the Olympic mountains.
8. Thanks to our many miles of HOV lanes, Seattle has one of the best commuter express bus systems in the nation. The fastest option is to get a 550 in the tunnel to Bellevue, a very pleasant but conventional suburban edge city. A large chunk of Microsoft (but not the headquarters) is in the relatively compact, high-rise downtown
9. For a longer adventure, there are two reverse-peak round trips on Sounder Commuter Rail, which is a fun way to get to the industrial port city of Tacoma, which has a decent crop of museums, restaurants, and shops. Pick the train up at King Street Station by the International District/Chinatown Link stop. If you don’t want to wait for the return train, the 590 through 594 buses can get you back to Seattle from downtown Tacoma about as quickly as the train.