Planning a Trip to Seattle- The Guide for Curious Travelers
Seattle Washington. Photo by Tripscholars
Planning a trip to Seattle? Or enjoying some virtual travel from home? We invite you to discover and learn about the real Seattle before you travel!
This Seattle trip planner is a little different. We have gathered some of the best resources for you to learn about the history, culture, and nature of Seattle before you visit. This is trip planning at its best!
If you dive into information about the complex history, vibrant culture and breathtaking nature of the Seattle area before you go, you’ll come away a more educated traveler with much richer memories.
As you gaze in awe from the top of the Space Needle you’ll understand the geologic forces that sculpted the stunning landscape. (Note that the Sky View Observatory offers a more affordable option!) You’ll know the stories of the people who have lived here for thousands of years. And those of many residents who continue to shape our world today.
So, whether your trip is in the distant future, a staycation for those lucky enough to live here, or you’re taking a virtual vacation during the pandemic, read on for the best resources. Explore books, articles, virtual tours, movies, and more— all from home before and after your vacation.
We know you will find other resources to help you with the logistics of how to plan your trip to Seattle, we are here to help you really understand and deeply enjoy the Emeral City.
First, I suggest taking a virtual tour with one of my favorite local authors and tour guides, David B Williams. Learn how residents changed the topography of Seattle and the secrets of the ship canal and locks. He’ll show you the geology of nature around the area (and in the stones of the buildings downtown).
A way to view the area before your trip is through one of the many local webcams. Check out the cam on the Space Needle to see a live view of the region. Or peek in to see what the harbor seals and sea otters are up to on the live cams at the Seattle Aquarium.
Another not-to-miss resource you can enjoy from anywhere is the Orca Network. Follow them on social media and learn all about these majestic creatures and what you can do to protect them. You can even follow their most recent sightings in the area and be alerted to when you can listen to them on the hydrophone — a powerful, otherworldly experience!
If you are a resident or are planning a long trip, The Natural History of Puget Sound by Arthur Kruckeberg is my best recommendation for any budding naturalist, scholar, or any of us in between. You’ll explore the interrelationships between the geology, geography, flora, fauna, weather, water, and people of the region. It’s comprehensive and inspiring, but if it’s too hefty for a quick trip to the area, read on for other resources!
The Seattle region is breathtakingly gorgeous! The mountains, lakes, and Puget sound itself would make even Slartibartfast weep with joy. An exploration of the geologic forces that sculpted the area is fascinating.
As a well-researched traveler, you can marvel at how the mighty volcanoes of the Cascade range were made by the subducting Juan de Fuca Plate off the coast. Or you can think about the steepness of the Denny retrograde as you huff and puff uptown from the shoreline in the heart of the city.
While on a ferry, you can marvel at how Puget Sound was sculpted by incomprehensibly massive ice sheets. (The Cordilleran Ice Sheet, the last of seven to cover the region during the last ice age, was 3,000 feet high in what is now Seattle. That is five Space Needles high, and these sheets carved out the sound itself!)
A little study can make a simple look around the region transformative. This is trip planning at its best!
Ready to explore? Before you travel, enjoy these short videos about the particular geologic wonders of Washington state. Check out Nick on the Rocks, hosted on our local PBS stations.
Enjoy walks through Seattle guided by geologist David B. Williams in his book Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City. Or take a deeper dive to understand the geologic story of the whole state with Roadside Geology of Washington.
One of the most enjoyable natural wonders in Seattle are our shorelines. When you are planning a trip to Seattle, I suggest researching and crafting your itinerary around the low tides to experience the best of our beaches! A great place to start is by visiting the Seattle Aquarium website. Their website offers many activities to enjoy from home, including a robust collection for kids. Home educators will find many useful lesson plans.
During the lowest daytime tides in the summer, and for a couple of evenings in the winter, you can find the aquarium’s team of volunteer Beach Naturalists at the local beaches. They love answering questions about the many sea creatures and geology of our beaches!
An excellent field guide is The Beachcomber’s Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest. I served as a beach naturalist with one of our kids, and this was one of the books the aquarium provided. It’s chock full of useful information and photographs that make it easy to identify tidepool residents.
These are just a few ways that you can discover and learn about the nature of Seattle before you travel. Share your favorite resources so others can learn from your recommendations.
As you plan a trip to Seattle, you’ll discover a rich and complex history. Local editor and journalist, Knute Berger has a fun collection of short videos, Mossback Northwest. It’s a great way to get an overview of the area and also know details like who or what was Galloping Gertie? And what was the Great Swinomish-Husky Race?
The city is named after the great Duwamish chief, Chief Si’ahl (Chief Sealth, Seattle). The Duwamish and the other Coast Salish Peoples have a fascinating history and a modern day culture. You can learn about their rich culture and their fight for federal recognition by watching Chief Sealth (Seattle): The Suquamish and Duwamish Peoples or The Promised Land.
Your study may inspire a visit to their longhouse in West Seattle, a trip out to Blake Island and Tillicum Village, or to the Burke Museum to see the stirring collection of artifacts from Coast Salish Peoples.
Today, the Duwamish continue to fight to have past treaties recognized so that they can become a federally recognized tribe. Interested in raising your voice to help? Check out Stand with the Duwamish.
Be sure and check out Jamie Ford’s best selling novel, Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. The book poignantly tells a story from another ignoble chapter in the city’s history. It opens at the Panama Hotel, where Henry Lee discovers an umbrella owned by his childhood friend Keiko, who was taken to a Japanese internment camp. In the novel, her family’s possessions were stored, along with those of many others who were forced into the camps.
It is a beautifully told, moving story that has earned many awards. And you can visit, or even stay at, the real Panama Hotel while in Seattle.
I brought my mom to the International District of Seattle to see the hotel on her last visit to Seattle. She had been moved by the book and was equally stirred by the experience of being there in person. It would be very hard not to be!
You can order tea and explore the historic photos on the walls. Don’t miss the plexiglass covered floor near the bar. You can peer through and see some of the remaining possessions that were stored there as Japanese American families were uprooted.
Seattle has a proud history that includes fighting for the rights of the underrepresented. In 1919, the International Workers of the World helped to organize a strike by hundreds of unions in the city. Also in the midst of a pandemic, the protests lasted for five days. Thirty nine members were sent to jail as “ringleaders of anarchy.”
In 1999, another protest happened in the city’s downtown core. Groups of mostly peaceful protesters stood up against the behemoth of the World Trade Organization. These protests are sometimes referred to as the Battle of Seattle and were the largest protests in the U.S. associated with economic globalization.
After George Floyd’s horrific killing in May 2020, a dedicated group of organizers and thousands of Seattle citizens repeatedly took to the streets demanding justice as part of the greater Black Lives Matter movement. They eventually created the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (formerly CHAZ). Although this administration has labeled the whole city an “anarchist jurisdiction,” CHOP covered just six city blocks and a park.
For more information about this history, check out the Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium website. The site is full of articles, photos, maps and even lesson plans. You’ll gain an in-depth understanding of this rich history in the Seattle region.
This just skims the surface of ways that you can plan a trip to Seattle by learning about the history of the city. Share your favorite resources so others can learn from your recommendations.
In addition to the activities listed above, here are more top recommendations for exploring the history of Seattle. The Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park is in the heart of downtown and an easy stop on your trip. The free NHP highlights Seattle’s pivotal role in the Alaskan gold rush of the 1890s. The Seattle Underground Tour is a favorite we often bring out of town guests to. The current downtown around Pioneer Square is built over the early city structures from the 1890s. In this tour you get to tour underground passageways while learning about the history of the city.
Everyone knows that one of the highlights of Seattle is the astounding creativity throughout the region. Start-ups, breweries, bands, video game companies and so many more– Seattle consistently ranks in the top ten cities for people pursuing these creative endeavors.
This may be rooted in our long dark winters and the time that gives us to devote to creative pursuits. Or perhaps it stems from the cultural crossroads in this multicultural metropolis. Whatever the reason, creativity is one of the great delights of the city. Read on to discover and learn more about the real Seattle before you travel!
As you plan a trip to Seattle, be sure and include a live performance in your itinerary if you can. There are numerous festivals throughout the summer and many historic local venues for entertainment. The current live music scene is one the most enjoyable parts of living here. (I’m writing this during our Covid pandemic and am one of many hoping for their survival.) Be sure and support local art and entertainment!
If you want to learn more about the countless talented musicians and bands from the region you have many choices. In A Film About Jimi Hendrix, marvel at his genius as he plays live performances. The film also includes interviews with him and others. The documentary Hype! tells the story of the region in the early 90’s as the local grunge scene erupted into massive worldwide popularity. And, Pearl Jam 20 celebrates the band’s 20th anniversary (back in 2011!) with loads of great footage and interviews.
The city mandates that 1% of all city capital improvement project funds goes toward the installation of public artwork. This and the fact that there is a prolific street art scene, leads to a city that is stimulating even without setting foot inside our many interesting museums and galleries. To learn more about some of the public art exhibits and artists in Seattle, check out this collection of short documentaries from the Seattle Channel.
Some of you best stops to explore Seattle’s creativity are our public library downtown (seriously, check it out!), the Seattle Art Museum, Chihuly Garden and Glass, and MoPOP– a one of kind museum celebrating music, science fiction, horror and fantasy! The City Pass is your best bet for visiting most of these sites since the admissions individually add up quickly.
Creativity also shines through in the city’s thriving food scene. Before you visit, enjoy the tantalizing podcast Seattle Kitchen hosted by local James Beard recipients, Tom Douglas and Thierry Raututeau. The stories and information will wet your appetite and help as you plan your restaurants, bars, and markets for your trip.
Considering how beautiful it is in Seattle, it is really no wonder that there are many movies and television shows filmed here. As you plan your trip to Seattle, queue these up for Friday nights. Or, during Covid, maybe Tuesday afternoons!
I had never seen Sleepless in Seattle and figured I would be remiss if I didn’t include the classic in this article. I watched it for the first time to write this and it has everything you would expect from from Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in Seattle in the 90’s. It is a feel good story that can offer the balm of an easier time with some nice shots of the Seattle skyline and beaches. When you visit Seattle and are out on Lake Union, you can see the famous houseboat from the movie.
Or, cozy up with the family to enjoy The Last Mimzy, another film with beautiful shots of the region. This sci-fi classic can just as easily be enjoyed by adults. Based on All Mimzy Were the Borogoves and featuring Roger Waters on the soundtrack with Hello (I love you), you can be confident that this is no ordinary family film.
To see what local independent filmmakers are up to check out the Northwest Film Forum. During Covid they are streaming indie films that they would otherwise be showing in their theater/school/hub for local filmmakers. When you visit their site, the films may, or may not, be featuring Seattle or local filmmakers. By the way, the NWFF was inside of the Capital Hill Organized Protest and screened free social justice documentaries during the existence of CHOP.
There are many great ways to enjoy and learn about the culture of Seattle before you travel. Share your favorite resources so others can learn from you!
To wrap up my recommendations on the best way to discover and learn about the real Seattle before you travel, I leave you with just a few travel tips.
The best tip I can recommend is to learn a little more before you come so you can appreciate the city of Seattle from multiple facets. This can save you money as you’ll be knowledgeable enough to craft your own tours instead of hiring tour guides.
Another way to save, is to craft your itinerary around first Thursdays at many of our world-class museums for free or reduced admissions. I also highly recommend that you take a ferry ride to get out on the water. This is a money saver and the stunning views are the same as those you would enjoy from tourist boats! The Bainbridge Ferry offers beautiful views and many wonderful things to do on Bainbridge.
The next best tip is to plan on spending at least a couple of nights out of the city itself relishing the natural splendor of the area. Seattle is surrounded on all sides by national parks and monuments: Mount Rainier NP, North Cascades NP, Olympic NP, Mount Saint Helens NVM, and San Juan Islands NM are all no further than a few hours from downtown. We are excited to offer articles about visiting each of these parks in the future.
I hope I have conveyed a small sliver of what makes this city so special. I look forward to reading your comments and learning about your favorite resources.
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