See This, Skip That: Downtown Seattle

PHOTO: The Space Needle in Seattle, Wash. is pictured from Kerry Park during sunset, Sept. 21, 2013.
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The Space Needle in Seattle, Wash. is pictured from Kerry Park during sunset, Sept. 21, 2013.

My 9-year-old son loves Seattle. We visited this vibrant town last spring, on a memorable family road trip that included that beautiful drive across the northern border from Vancouver. And the combination of cool vibes, neat places to visit and tons of things to do had him clamoring about coming back ever since.

When the chance came up to have him tag along on a work trip this summer, I cashed in on 50,000 United miles and off we went. It was a quick trip: two full days and an overnight stay. But, with a short to-do list and open minds, we covered plenty of ground.

Seattle is a colorful canvas of a myriad of neighborhoods, each one offering special traveler experiences. Our focus, though, was specifically on downtown Seattle, an easy-to-traverse area from Pioneer Square to Seattle Center, including the newly-improved waterfront. If you’re a first-time visitor to the city, or if you’re here with your kids, here are some ideas for your own to-do list.

Skip the Avenues, Hit the Waterfront

Our first order of business, actually, was exiting the downtown core of streets and avenues and taking one of the various sets of steep stairs down toward the water. Seattle’s waterfront saw a series of improvements earlier this year, making this 1.5-mile promenade a stroller’s delight. As you walk between the piers, take up a spontaneous game of shuffleboard or bean bag toss. Food options abound -– we nabbed juicy hot dogs at Frankfurter -– as well as several cruise options. The popular Seattle Aquarium is at Pier 59. And don’t miss the abstract art at the gorgeous nine-acre Olympic Sculpture Park, bookending the waterfront by Pier 70; it’s free and open every day of the year.

Skip the Museum, See the Oddities

At the waterfront, we lingered longest at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. There’s a ton of oddball, random, kitschy souvenirs to browse through here; my son liked stumbling onto 1990s baseball cards and shock pens. But this quirky stop doubles as a free museum of oddities, which are hung both along the walls and from the ceiling. The taxidermy two-headed calf and four-legged hen are fascinating, just like the embalmed eight-legged piglet, the shrunk heads and the costumed fleas. But the mummies were our favorite, including Sylvia, a dehydrated specimen of a Central American woman dating back to the early 1800s, and Sylvester, likely a Wild West prospector who’s considered one of the best-preserved mummies ever found in the U.S.

After SAM and EMP, Visit the Freebies

You can visit several world class museums in downtown Seattle, including the Seattle Museum of Art – you can’t miss it, just look for the 48-foot moving Hammering Man sculpture – and the EMP Museum, a design marvel that houses pop culture exhibits. But if you want to go cultural and stretch your travel dollar, consider a free museum. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Center, near the Space Needle, is family-friendly and features awareness-raising exhibits about the charitable work the foundation does worldwide. The Frye Art Museum, just north of downtown in the First Hill neighborhood, features 19th century paintings and sculptures that were once part of a private collection. By the way, the SAM is free to the public the first Thursday of each month and is always free for kids 12 and under.

Skip the Cab, Ride the Rail

I’m big on walking, but toward the end of our second day, my son wanted to give his feet a break. So we hopped on the Seattle Center Monorail, which whisks you back and forth from the retail shopping at Westlake Center and the Seattle Center, home to cool attractions like the Pacific Science Center, Chihuly Garden and Glass and the Space Needle. The one-way ride, which leaves both stations every 10 minutes and lasts less than three, cost me $2.25 and my son just $1.

Visit the Space Needle, Go Off-Peak

No doubt, this is one of the landmark attractions in Seattle –- a 600-foot structure erected to welcome the millions of visitors to the 1962 World’s Fair. The 360-degree views from the top are iconic, and the oohs-and-aahs start with the 41-second elevator ride up (try to snag a spot by the window for the best photo and video opps). Visiting off-peak will save adults $6 –- that’s 8-9:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. to close (when the sunset is likely to offer the best shots anyway). By the way, you can still enjoy these views after you head back home, thanks to the Space Needle’s just-launched real-time webcam.

After the Space Needle, Hop on the Wheel

Want more sweeping views? One of my son’s favorite rides was on the 175-foot Great Wheel, on Pier 57 at the Waterfront. The skyline views, including the Space Needle to the west, are awesome, and Elliott Bay, dotted with boats, glistens below. With at least three go-arounds, this is also a great place to witness that feverish construction taking place around downtown Seattle, in response to the growing corporate hub this city has become. For even more sights from up high, head to the highest public viewing spot on the West Coast, the 73-stories-high Sky View Observatory, on Fifth Avenue.

After the Bookshop, Visit the Library

Perusing bookshops is a favorite pastime for us; there’s a small but well-stocked one inside Pike Place. The Seattle Central Library is enviably stocked with tomes, of course, but this is also a destination. This dramatic 11-story structure on Fourth Avenue is an architectural marvel and, inside, the breezy living room on the third floor and the crimson halls on the fourth floor are attractions all their own. Ask about the self-guided cell phone tour.

At Pike Place, Consider the Tour

The best way to discover the eclectic and vibrant personality of Pike Place Market is to roam free. Aside from the classic stands of fresh fish, flowers and produce that front the market, multiple floors behind it house funky shops that sell classic collectibles -– from old superhero comic books to vinyl records to vintage maps. And foraging outside through eateries like Le Panier (the macaroons are awesome), Bavarian Meat Delicatessen (the pork belly on a stick is to die for) and Beecher’s Handmade Cheese (watching cheese being made live is cool) is a must. But sometimes, a little guidance offers interesting insight, so consider a tour from Public Market Tours, Seattle Free Walking Tours or Seattle Food Tours; the Market Ghost Tour leads spooky excursions through an empty Pike Place Market at night.

Skip the Coffee Shop, Visit the Roasters

There’s always a long line at the original Starbucks storefront at Pike Place, worth the wait for some, perhaps. The new Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room, though, located 1.5 miles away, north of downtown, might offer caffeine fans a better inside peek at the brand and the process. The roasting process is on full display here and you can check out the coffee book library while enjoying a barista-led tasting.

Skip Starbucks, Sip Cherry Street

We didn’t visit one Starbucks while we were here, though. He’s not a coffee drinker yet, of course, but my son had us go out of our way for the banana bread at Cherry Street Coffee House; it’s moist and chock-full of chocolate chips. For me, the espresso drinks here are delicious. There are a handful throughout downtown, but we like the window-side cushioned seating at the Cherry Street Coffee on the 1200 block of First Avenue.

Skip the Theater, Watch Outdoors

For a few weeks in July and August, when Seattle weather is at its prime, the silver screen heads outdoors. The Mural Amphitheatre at the Seattle Center offers free movies at night, with a towering screen that’s back-dropped by the towering Space Needle; this summer, the lineup included Back to the Future and Guardians of the Galaxy. Movie buffs should put the annual Seattle International Film Festival on their radar, which is billed as the most heavily-programmed film fest in the country.

Skip Dessert, Go For the Chocolate

Got a sweet tooth while you’re walking through downtown? Fran’s Chocolates is an institution here, with gourmet confections that are displayed like jewelry pieces. Located off the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, the cocoa delights here aren’t cheap. But the bevy of signature flavors, and the neat people-watching through the windows as you munch on morsels, is worth a quick pit stop.

Skip the Streets, Go High

You’ve taken in Seattle’s wonders on foot, so now savor them from above. For about $100, Kenmore Air offers 20-minute narrated tours aboard a seaplane, soaring above downtown, the surrounding communities and Elliott Bay. Take-off and landing happens at Lake Union, in the heart of the city.

Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals in and to Seattle.

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