Here's How to Discover Seattle's Historic Waterfront

Seattle's historic waterfront is a prime destination for visitors. Here's what to look out for.

When the Denny Party, a group of pioneers from the Midwest, arrived here in 1851 to settle the area they When the Denny Party, a group of pioneers from the Midwest, arrived here in 1851 to settle the area they named Seattle, they first built their cabins at Alki Point. The location proved less than ideal for establishing a waterfront to support the settlement though, so they soon moved it to the more sheltered harbor of Elliott Bay. Over the years, Seattle's position on Puget Sound was key to its role in the shipping and logging industries as well as the gold rush, and the area around its waterfront was a rough-and-tumble collection of boarding houses, taverns and gambling halls. Much has changed since then, but the waterfront is still a prime destination for those visiting Seattle.

Choose Your Own Adventure 

These days, the entertainment options on and around the docks are family-friendly but just as exciting.

Get an idea of the awesome yet challenging landscapes that greeted those early explorers as they made their way across the territory at Wings Over Washington. Part theater, part ride, this unique experience pairs cutting-edge technology like virtual reality, laser projection and drone photography with seats that change direction and pitch in synchronicity with the film. Once you're buckled in, you'll feel as if you're flying on the wings of an eagle, high above Washington's mountains, rainforest, cliffs and more.

From virtual views to the real thing—the Seattle Great Wheel. The 175-foot wheel has 42 glass-walled gondolas, allowing passengers full 360-degree views during the slow, smooth ride. After dark, the wheel itself becomes a sight to see, thanks to the almost 500,000 LED lights that line its spokes and circumference. For holidays and special events, such as Seattle Seahawks games, the lights are programmed with colorful, pulsating displays. 

The waterfront also offers a launching point for discovering the Puget Sound area as many early explorers did: by water. Argosy Cruises offers daily cruises from the harbor along the coast of Elliott Bay and in through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (a.k.a. Ballard Locks). For a glimpse into the lives of the area's original inhabitants, opt for Argosy's Tillicum Village cruise. The four- to five-hour roundtrip excursion, offered from April through September, takes passengers to Blake Island State Park to tour a longhouse, stroll along beach and forest trails, dine on steamed clams and alder-roasted salmon, and enjoy traditional Native American dance and music performances.

For longer excursions, Clipper Vacations offers daily departures to Victoria, British Columbia, where historic buildings (including a castle), formal gardens and high tea services are all part of the city's colonial charm. Clipper also has weekend-only ferries to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island through early October, with the option to add on a whale and sea life-spotting trip around the islands. 

If sea life intrigues you, you'll also want to set aside some time to visit Seattle Aquarium at Pier 59. Its permanent exhibits highlight the underwater wildlife of Puget Sound and the Northwest, including octopi, sixgill sharks, and salmon. Marine mammals are another key highlight—be prepared to fall in love with the aquarium's sea otters and their adorably playful antics. 

Try Today's Catch  

Long before the Seattle Aquarium was built, another, smaller aquarium attracted visitors to the historic waterfront. It was opened in 1938 by Seattle icon Ivar Haglund, a folk singer of Scandinavian descent, who had the idea to charge curious customers a nickel to view his collection of sea life. He soon added a fish 'n' chips stand to his attraction, which also proved a great success. Some years later, he opened a standalone restaurant called Ivar's Acres of Clams—and it's still right there at Pier 54 delighting visitors with fresh catches and awesome views more than 70 years later.  

You'll never be short of dining options on the waterfront. If it's shellfish you're after, check out a few of our other favorites: Elliott's Oyster House, a Pier 56 favorite since 1975, or The Crab Pot on Pier 57, where "sea feasts" of steamed crab, baked clams and more are served family-style on butcher-paper-covered tables. Expect to get messy! 

While Seattle is known for its seafood, that isn't the only option on the waterfront. Pier 55 boasts a location of a nationwide burger restaurant you might not have realized originated in Seattle: Red Robin. The chain got its start near the University of Washington in the 1940s as Sam's Tavern but was soon rechristened Sam's Red Robin after its founder's favorite song.  Of course, you'll find the usual menu of gourmet burgers and bottomless fries at the waterfront location—but the bay views are one-of-a-kind.  Kidd Valley, a local favorite that's been serving up burgers and hand-blended shakes since 1975, opened a location on neighboring Pier 54 last month. 

Find the Perfect Souvenir 

Seattle owes much of its success to its position as a gateway to the Klondike gold rush, when expedition outfitters and other businesses sprung up to cater to the needs of the 30,000-40,000 prospectors who passed through the city on their way to Alaska to find fortune starting in 1897. Some of those businesses still exist today, including Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. Part shop, part museum, the venue houses a collection of oddities like shrunken heads, mummies and taxidermied mythical creatures, along with Northwestern souvenirs that range from the quirky (Sasquatch action figures) to the classic (Native American art prints).  

For more traditional reminders of your visit, head to Simply Seattle for t-shirts, "rain globes," and gift baskets of locally produced artisan foods, or to Pike Street Press, where you'll find letterpress and lino-print postcards, prints, notebooks and more designed by Seattle artists.   

Lara Hale
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