Seattle: a picturesque town harbored by the serene Puget sound, surrounded by dozens of deep blue lakes, dotted with quaint villages and lake homes, and protected by tall glacier mountains all around. In other words, the ultimate layover city.
As an airline pilot, I’ve found myself there on many layovers but haven’t found an excuse to complain about it. There’s an energy – a vibe – to this city. I don’t know if it’s the water or the mountains. Maybe it’s both. Either way, I’m always excited when I see Seattle pop up on my airline schedule.
So here are the top 10 things you can do on a Seattle layover. I can personally attest that each of these (*individually) can be done on a day or less layover.
Check out these other Ultimate Airport Layover Guides: ATL | JFK | SEA | SFO | LAS | AMS | CDG | LHR | and more
Take a Ferry from West Seattle to Bainbridge Island
Time: half to full-day
Check out the schedule here.
Hop on a ferry and get that true Seattle vibe. It’s the cheapest way to get on the water – you don’t even have to own OR rent a boat.
Get those Puget sound feels – and you can even bring your rental car along. If you want to get some exercise, take a bike instead, or rent one on arrival in Bainbridge. There’s a lot to see and not much time, so hit the road running.
This quaint, cute seaside village offers everything you need out of the Pacific Northwest: the evergreen, the calm water, the small friendly towns.
You can rent bikes right off the ferry stop at Bike Barn Rentals – electric, hybrid, and road bikes. There are well indicated trails all over the island, so it’s hard to get lost.
Make sure to head to downtown Bainbridge and stop for some homemade ice cream and milkshakes at Mora Iced Cream. It’s about 10 minutes walking from the ferry dock. There are also some wineries if you’re feeling a bit rambunctious.
After enjoying some delicacies downtown, you can bike 40 minutes along the water up to the Bloedel Reserve, one of North America’s 10 Best Botanical Gardens according to USA Today. No matter the time of the year, the Bloedel Reserve is an absolutely spectacular wonder of nature, and a masterpiece of the Pacific Northwest.
The Bainbridge Island website is the greatest source of information on what’s happening here in the Olympics.
Kayak on one of Seattle’s Gorgeous Lakes then Reward Yourself With a Local Brew (or two)
Time: 1-2 hours kayaking, then it’s up to you!
Head up to The White Swan Public House for some local brews and seafood right on Lake Union. While you’re there, you can rent some kayaks and enjoy the Lake Life – or why not try a Donut Boat? You don’t have to be a cop to enjoy it, trust me!
For those who are COVID-conscious, the White Swan offers outdoor dining. You don’t have to take my word for it, there are a ton of breweries and gastropubs in the Lake Union area for a fun evening.
Moss Bay offers kayak rentals at the southern tip of Lake Union, most convenient for those staying in downtown Seattle. You can also stop at The Center For Wooden Boats, a museum that preserves & exhibits historic wooden boats, which can be rented for a fun day on Lake Union!
Sail the Seattle Way on the Incredible Puget Sound
Time: 2 hours to half-day (or weeks?)
2 hours is enough time to get a taste of the Puget Sound. But it takes 2 weeks for an addiction to set in. Sailing the Puget Sound up to the San Juan islands is on every sailor’s bucket list, but a sunset cruise shall suffice for those on a short layover. Try here for the cheapest cruise (only $59 per person).
If you’re looking to come back and hone your sailing skills, you can also take lessons here.
Elevate Yourself on Seattle’s Space Needle
Time: 1-3 hours
Seattle’s iconic, 605-ft.-tall spire at the Seattle Center is a must-see. Whether you simply visit the observation deck or enjoy a romantic dinner at the rotating restaurant, you won’t be disappointed. Unless it’s a typical Seattle drizzly, low-cloud kind-of day. Then I’d probably skip Seattle’s most iconic landmark.
If the weather isn’t to your liking, head next-door to the Pacific Science Center (though it’s currently closed for COVID-19).
Just a couple minutes down the road is Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, right along the Puget Sound. It’s an offshoot of the Seattle Art Museum and features numerous sculptures spread over 9 acres with a backdrop of the Olympics mountains.
Enjoy THE Seattle Beach Day
Hop on a ferry from West Seattle to Alki Beach. Breathe in that refreshing Pacific air while taking in impressive views of downtown Seattle and its surround alpine landscape.
Locals consider Alki Beach as the best place to walk and bike along the water, not to mention a wonderful place to spend watching gorgeous Seattle sunsets.
Alki Beach was first made famous by a scene from the movie “Sleepless in Seattle” where Tom Hanks flies a kite with his son. Nowadays, you can play volleyball, go for a cool swim, or enjoy delicious beachside cocktails at Catcus Alki Beach.
Taste Fresh Fish and Visit the FIRST Starbucks at the Pike Place Market in Seattle
Time: 1-2 hours
Do you drink coffee? If so, head to the first Starbucks ever!
In naval terms, a “Starbuck” mean a shipmate, and the first Starbucks capitalized on the long days and early mornings that drove sailors of the Puget sound to seeking good coffee to start their day.
If you aren’t a coffee aficionado, the Pike Place Market still offers so much. There’s fresh fish in the mornings, floral bouquets all day, freaking fantastic pastries and food from all over the world (for great, non-restaurant prices), and spectacular views on the water.
Si, I’d Love to Hike
Time: half to full day
The twins Si’s are possibly the most popular mountains for hiking in Seattle, for good reason. There are short hikes, long hikes, campsites, epic views, switchbacks, mountain goats, waterfalls, and more. All of this is only 30 minutes outside the city.
The only problems you might find are the crowds – these are Seattle’s most popular hikes for good reason. AllTrails is probably the best resource for finding a hike that will suit you. Make sure to stop by the Snoqualmie Falls on the way back!
A great alternative is Lake Serene, a splendid alpine lake found just an hour and 15 minutes from the city. I hiked the area after visiting Austria and truly could not tell the difference. A little bit of German and you’d think you were in Tyrol.
Round trip to Lake Serene only is 7.2 miles.
Boeing (Not Boring!) Future of Flight Museum in Seattle
Time: 1 to 6 hours
I’m an airline pilot. I can’t end this guide without telling you that you HAVE to see the Boeing Air Museum. I mean, it’s a work of art – whether you’re an Airbus or Boeing lover (or you don’t like planes at all).
The museum just re-opened up this week, so head on over and discover the only public tour of a Boeing commercial jet assembly plant.
Explore the Tallest Mountain in Washington
Time: half to full day (1h45m drive each way)
A must-see near Seattle: the one and only Mount Rainier National Park. As ride-sharing is cost-prohibitive and there are no great public transpiration options, make sure to rent a car before heading down.
The drive down is almost 2 hours each way, so make sure you have extra time planned. There are a couple wonderful stops along the way, including Longmire, Paradise, Ohanapecosh, and on to Sunrise.
For those with more time, there are endless hiking trails, waterfalls (such as Christine Falls and Narada Falls), adorable mountain towns, hot springs, vistas, and even rainforests. The Carbon River and White River make great destinations for those looking to fully embrace nature for a couple days.
Fall for Seattle’s Snoqualmie Falls
Time: 40 minute drive each way
Looking for the ultimate instagram picture? You can find this 268-foot waterfall (50% taller than Niagara falls!) super close to Seattle, and the best news – it’s FREE, and you don’t even have to hike for it.
The upper observation and lower observation decks are both now open.
If you’re looking for an easy hike nearby with epic views, Snow Lake offers everything you could dream of: translucent turquoise water surrounded (obviously) by snow, Alpine evergreen forests, and fresh air. The farther Gem Lake makes for a more private setting – and a great (very refreshing) place to go for a swim!
On the way back, stop at the local Snoqualmie Falls store for an “old fashioned” pancake mix to take home. Better than any souvenir I can think of.