The only way to take in the true measure of Seattle’s grandeur is to see it from the sky—and a plane isn't even needed.
Seattle is a city defined by geography. Arts, tech and commerce all hold their sway, sure, but at the end of the day the dense collection of lakes, hills, canals and ravines rules the lives of its citizens. We negotiate it with a network of drawbridges and innovative buildings stacked like cracker boxes up steep slopes. In our spare time, the surrounding mountains and water draw us in and leave us with dreams of going back.
It can all be overwhelming—especially when it involves a bizarre five-way traffic interchange on the precipice of the city’s steepest hill. But to truly appreciate Seattle’s incredible topography, one needs to rise above it. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to do just that. From man-made wonders to glorious overlooks, here are some of the best places for a bird’s-eye view of the Emerald City.
The most iconic view of the city—the one that makes all the calendars—isn’t from a building, it's with feet firmly planted on the ground at Kerry Park, tucked on the southern lip of Queen Anne Hill. From this vantage point, the skyline, mountains and water form a romantic tableau that draws cheers from the gathered crowd, especially as the sun sets. Best of all, it’s free. 211 W. Highland Drive, Seattle, 206.684.4075.
The Nest at Thompson Seattle
By far the most luxe way to take in the city and sea below is from the new Nest—a rooftop bar perched atop the Thompson Seattle hotel. Featuring savory snacks and house-bottled cocktails, the lounge is filled with elegant furnishings and design, but between the city and seascapes stretching into the horizon, you might not notice. Expect to wait for a seat on sunny days, it’s worth it. 110 Stewart St., Seattle, 206.489.4629.
Sky View Observatory
At 902 feet, Sky View Observatory, the viewing room atop the Columbia Center, is literally the highest you can get above the city without the aid of aircraft. A 360-degree panoramic view offers sweeping views of Mount Rainier, the Cascades, the Olympics, Elliott Bay and all of Seattle spreading over the hills far below. It’s the tallest public viewing area in the Northwest, a glass-walled marvel that will make jaws drop and give height-haters vertigo. Tickets $9-$14.75, under 6 free. 701 Fifth Ave., Seattle, 206.386.5564.
When it opened in 1914, the Smith Tower was the tallest building in Seattle—and the fourth-tallest in the world. It’s since been eclipsed in size, but not in class. It reopened last year and debuted Temperance on the Observation Deck, an elegant bar designed to resemble a 1920s-era speakeasy. Bask in elegant woods and detailed ceiling tiles and enjoy Chinese dumplings, raw oysters or banh mi sandwiches with a period-appropriate cocktail like a Smith Tower Sazerac. Smith Tower Observatory tickets $13.50-$17.10, under 6 free. 506 Second Ave., Seattle, 206.624.0414.
Undoubtedly Seattle’s most famous building, the Space Needle debuted during the 1962 World’s Fair, when it hosted nearly 20,000 people a day. It’s still a number-one destination, and for good reason: An icon of the Northwest, this space-age tower rises 605 feet above Seattle Center and has a world-famous rotating restaurant at the top. With close-up views of the skyline in your face and 360-degree views of the mountains and water, there’s no better way to feel in the clouds. Tickets $14-$24, under 5 free. 400 Broad St., Seattle, 206.905.2100.