A visit to Seattle should be much more than ticking off a long checklists of sights, museums, and tourist icons. Half of the fun in the Emerald City is to wander aimlessly through the charming neighborhoods. Each has it’s own distinct character and offers a diverse selection of things to do.
Some of Seattle’s top neighborhoods will immerse you into nature while others are concrete jungles. All offering great food, a powerful cup of coffee, and quirky shops, some will offer lively nightlife and others will be ideal for families hoping for a quiet getaway.
Here area a few neighborhoods that are particularly suitable for strolling without destination in Seattle.
Starting on the west side of the city, West Seattle is home to the famous Alki Beach. Although still within the city limits, a stay in West Seattle is a residential neighborhood ideal for visitors looking for a laid-back environment with easy access to nature. This area is especially popular with volleyball players when the weather is favorable.
Other than Alki Beach, West Seattle is also well-known for it’s Lincoln Park. Not only is this park great for some fresh air and green space, it’s also the perfect spot to enjoy adrenaline pumping activities like zip-lining.
Located in Northwest Seattle, Ballard is a quaint part of town with good restaurants and a Saturday farmers’ market. About a 20-minute drive from downtown Seattle, Ballard is a destination well on it’s own. Any type of traveler will be able to find plenty to see, do, and eat in the neighborhood’s historic downtown. Just head to Ballard Ave. and start roaming from there!
A few more great things to do in Ballard include visiting the Ballard Locks (officially the “Hiram M. Chittenden Locks”) to watch boats move between the fresh-water Lake Washington and the seawater Puget Sound. You can also check out the nearby “fish ladder.” This series of 21 steps helps salmon migrate between bodies of water without going through the locks. The volume of fish making the trip varies by season; best viewing is mid-June through September. For a longer walk, stroll right into Ballard’s neighbor, Phinney Ridge.
Queen Anne is a charming neighborhood northwest of downtown. This neighborhood is consistently considered one of the best neighborhoods in the city and its easy to see why. Perfectly walkable and located near downtown, there’s always so much going on in Queen Anne. Technically divided into two halves: Lower Queen Anne and Upper Queen Anne (based on where on the hill you are), the entire area is well worth a visit.
The main street (Queen Anne Avenue North) features a variety of small shops, restaurants and cafes. Be sure to check out the fantastic view of downtown from Kerry Park while in the area. Queen Anne is also home to the famous Space Needle, which is literally a high point for most visitors to Seattle.
Looking for vibrant nightlife, artful graffiti, and a neighborhood that simply never sleeps? Capitol Hill is the place for you. Located just east of downtown, the Capitol Hill area comes to life at night with hipsters, goths and yuppies coexisting peacefully. For the most direct route through town, take a walk down Broadway.
There are lots of good restaurants, a Sunday farmers’ market, parks (most specifically Volunteer Park), coffee shops, and tattoo parlors. While not the most family-friendly place to stay, solo travelers, couples, and those really looking to immerse themselves in the culture of Seattle will have a fantastic stay here.
Fremonters are freakishly proud of their eccentricity. In Fremont, you will eccentric shops, bohemian cafes, and tasteful street art. You’ll even find an enormous troll under a bridge destroying a VW beetle. There is a sculpture of people waiting for a bus that is perpetually subject to “art attack” from mischievous locals. Nearby is an enormous statue of Lenin.
The oddities of Fremont go on and on, making it a fun and quirky place to visit while in Seattle. while you’re there, be sure to stretch your visit to nearby Wallingford to check out a common hangout spot for students at University of Washington. Fremont is self-proclaimed “The Center of the Universe” so if that’s not reason enough to go visit, I’m not sure what is!
Madison Valley/Madison Park
This is where we live and we love taking long walks from home through the neighborhood, oftentimes ending up all the way down at Lake Washington. In Madison Park, you will wander down streets with gorgeous estates featuring multi-million dollar views. As is typical in Seattle’s understated way, many homes are modest on the exterior, belying their huge size and high-end finishes. A handful are more over-the-top showy.
Here are some highlights to see in the Madison Valley neighborhood:
- At the intersection of 26th Avenue and Howell, you’ll see the home of a kind neighbor named Tim. You will know you’ve arrived when you see half a dozen rusted out antique trucks parked on the street. As Tim will proudly inform you, all of them are operational! You might luck out and see Tim working on the Gaudi-like wall surrounding his home. In this perpetual art project, he takes shards of ceramic and tiles and further adorns or grows the fence. Peek into the yard to see all sorts of sculptures and other curious objects.
- On John Street near 31st Avenue, you will find a city home with a small farm featuring a few horses and some smaller animals. Only in Seattle!
- At the intersection of Lake Washington Boulevard and 37th Avenue East is a lookout over Lake Washington. On the other side of the lake is the city of Bellevue. In the distance are the Cascade Mountains.
- The small “village” of Madison Park at the end of Madison Street at Lake Washington has numerous restaurants (see the Dining Guide for Cactus and Independent Pizzeria), a grocery store, some quaint shops, and a large playground.
- Madison Park Beach is located in Madison Park, at the end of Madison Street. It is one of our favorite spots to spend time on a summer afternoon. This is a mostly grass beach with a lifeguard stand that is staffed between Memorial Day and Labor Day. There is also a small section of sand that is great for children. In good weather, many people can be found soaking up the sun or throwing a Frisbee. Dogs and humans are often swimming, though the water can be pretty cold, especially early in the summer. Look right (beyond the ugly 1970s-era building jutting into the water) for a magnificent view of Mt. Rainier on a clear day. The bridge on your left is State Route 520. The bridge to your right (toward Rainier) is I-90. Take this road far enough east, and you reach our old home of Boston. Note that both bridges are “floating bridges,” a concept that confuses us no matter how many times someone explains the engineering.
- The stroll from Madison Park up Madison Street is scenic, even though the street is busy. Look out for the Russian consulate on the right hand side. If you’re here in June or July, you might get lucky and pass a man in overalls peddling fruit out of the back of his truck near the gated community called Broadmoor. He sells delicious fresh cherries and peaches at a great price. Buy some for snacking.
- The Washington Park Arboretum is a gem of the neighborhood and can be easily accessed by foot from most of our homes. For more detail, see the Parks and Playgrounds section.
Madrona does a great job at combining urban with suburban. This mainly residential neighborhood is close enough to downtown that it can feel like the Seattle center but far enough away that you will notice a more residential feel the closer you get to Lake Washington.
Madrona is a really great choice for guests who are first time visitors and want to check off all of the hot spots in Seattle, most of which are located downtown, but prefer to have a quiet escape from the city. With Madrona Park, Lake Washington, and 34th Ave, you’ll have plenty of low-key things to do intermixed with big city living.
Columbia City is another one of the best neighborhoods in Seattle. With Lake Washington to the east and Beacon Hill to the west, downtown is only about 10 minutes away. While you can certainly drive yourself there, it’s a quick light rail ride away.
The center of Columbia City is on Rainier Ave. Starting here, you can easily spend all day walking about quaint Columbia City, enjoying shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes along the way. It’s a great neighborhood to enjoy with no real schedule in mind.
Magnolia is the perfect neighborhood for a tranquil getaway. Located on three sides by water and one side by affluent Queen Anne, you’ll feel calm and well rested throughout your stay in Magnolia. From nearly anywhere in the neighborhood you’ll be rewarded with great water views, adding to that sense of peace.
Much of Magnolia has been converted into Discovery Park. Discovery Park is full of trails and beaches so if you plan to stay in Magnolia, bring your walking or running shoes for some fresh ocean air. For shopping at boutiques and eating at delicious restaurants, head in town to Magnolia Village.
Montlake is a tightknit neighborhood near University of Washington. Other than taking a walk across the Montlake Cut and exploring the University District, or U District, this affluent neighborhood is well-known for it’s plethora of parks.
Interlaken Park creates the natural division between Montlake and Capitol Hill and is a great place for running, biking, and walking trails. The Washington Parks Arboretum is an incredibly well-maintained garden that is certainly worth visiting.
Although certainly not the least important place in the city, we’ve left downtown until the end for two big reasons:
- Most people know about downtown
- It’s not our favorite part of the city
Regardless, if this is your first time visiting Seattle, a visit to downtown is a must. Here you check out the famous Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square, eat at some fantastic eateries, and stroll among the high rises and modern buildings in the business district.
North of downtown is Belltown, a small neighborhood typically lumped in with downtown. Just south of downtown is the International District, also known as Chinatown. Although specifically its own neighborhood, since it’s so close to downtown Seattle it’s easy to combine these two spots into one. For delicious, cheap food, especially Asian dishes, you’ll love grabbing a bite in the International District.
Enjoying the Best of Seattle Neighborhoods
Although this Pacific Northwest city is commonly characterized by what’s found in it’s downtown center, there’s so much more to Seattle than just the top tourist attractions. With micro breweries, great thrift shops, local art galleries, and plenty of quirky things to keep you entertained along the way, your Seattle vacation will be so much better once you get off the beaten path and enjoy some of the best neighborhoods in the city.