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Family-Friendly Adventures in Seattle’s Pioneer Square

A full day itinerary in Seattle’s first neighborhood

Published on: May 24, 2024

Habitat Beach dolosse sculptures kids playing pioneer square
Photo:
Credit JiaYing Grygiel

“EEEEEEEEK!” A flying monkey screeched as it sailed through the air, making us jump and the cashier smile. At Magic Mouse Toys, you just never know what you’re going to find.

"Magic Mouse Toys Pioneer Square family activites"
Magic Mouse Toys in Pioneer Square. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

Pioneer Square is home to Seattle’s oldest and biggest toy store, and so many more kid-friendly spots nestled within one square mile of tree-lined city blocks. Here in the city’s first neighborhood, settled in 1852, you’ll find historic buildings, yummy eats and adventures for the whole family.

Among Pioneer Square’s claims to fame:

  • Smith Tower was the tallest building on the West Coast all the way up until the Space Needle came along.
  • UPS was founded in Pioneer Square by two teenagers.
  • Pioneer Square’s First Thursday art walk is the longest running art walk in the country.
  • Pioneer Square is the original Skid Row. The meaning of the term has changed, but in the early pioneer days, lumberjacks would literally skid logs down Yesler Way to the waterfront mill.

I am a complete sucker for turn-of-the century buildings and I used to love wandering those lovely art galleries. But COVID-19 shutdowns hit the neighborhood hard and I stayed away. Until now. In the course of researching this story, I found Pioneer Square changed — for the better — and fell in love with the neighborhood all over again.

Restaurateur Sara Upshaw opened Ohsun Banchan in 2022, choosing Pioneer Square because of her special connection to the neighborhood. “This one needs a little bit of help,” she remembers thinking, “and I would love to be a part of it.”

"Occidental Square playground Pioneer square family activities"
Occidental Square playground in Pioneer Square. Credit JiaYing Grygiel.jpg

Pioneer Square is like no other neighborhood in Seattle, and it’s just waiting for you to rediscover. It’s easy to take public transit in: buses, trains, ferries and the streetcar are all within walking distance. With kids, though, I prefer the convenience of driving. We found street parking readily. (Pro tip: Sundays means free 2-hour parking.)

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention safety, especially with children. According to the Downton Seattle Association, at the end of 2023 crime in downtown Seattle declined to the lowest point since 2018. However, Pioneer Square is located in the heart of our major city, so you will want to hold hands with your little ones as you walk through the streets. During our visit, a man stood in a doorway outside the Klondike Gold Rush Museum seemingly engaging in drug use. I quickly herded the kids inside. 

A day of family-friendly fun in Pioneer Square 

A good starting point for exploring the neighborhood is the Klondike Gold Rush Museum (319 2nd Avenue South). It tells the story of how, in 1897, Seattle became a boom town. The museum is a National Park staffed with friendly rangers, and admission is free. I highly recommend a visit. Kids will have so much fun they won’t even realize they’re learning. Did I mention it’s free?

"Klondike Gold Rush Museum replica gold bars Pioneer square family activities
Klondike Gold Rush Museum replica gold bars. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

Stampeders rushing to Alaska stopped to stock up on supplies in Seattle. Follow along their journey through two levels of interactive exhibits. Kids can get their own passports to stamp and emboss along the way. More ambitious kids can complete a booklet to earn a Junior Ranger badge.

Spin the Wheel of Fortune-style spinner to find out if you’re one of the few who struck it rich. The truth is, of the 100,000 people who set off for the Klondike, only 50 struck it rich and managed to hold onto their wealth. My kids' favorite part of the museum is the weighing station, which calculates your weight in gold.

A block north from the Klondike Gold Rush Museum, Waterfall Garden Park (219 2nd Avenue South) is a nice spot for a break. It’s a secluded, gated park that marks the site of the original United Parcel Service headquarters, founded in 1907.

When you’ve worked up an appetite, head to Ohsun Banchan Deli & Café (221 1st Avenue South) for homey Korean cooking, where every dish is as tasty as it is beautiful. Kimbap (like the Korean version of sushi) is a kid favorite, as is japchae (stir-fried glass noodles) and bibimbap (a rice bowl heaped with veggies on top).

"Ohsun Banchan dishes Pioneer Square family activities"
Mouthwatering dishes at Ohsun Banchan Deli & Café. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

Bellies full, go find your weight in gold again. Then head over to Magic Mouse Toys (603 1st Avenue), a Pioneer Square fixture since 1977.

It’s a wonderland of stuffies and silly gag gifts upstairs, and downstairs, room after room of jigsaw puzzles, dress-up clothes, art supplies, picture books and much more. You’ll find treasures in the carefully curated selection you’ll never see at the chain stores, like wooden craft kits from Ukraine and games from Israel. We spotted a job posting for a board game specialist and it seems like a dream job.

With the Viaduct gone, you get a clear view from Pioneer Square all the way out to the water. For outdoor play, there’s the brand new Habitat Beach (199 Alaskan Way), a waterfront pocket park opened this spring. It’s a rocky beach located on the periphery of Pioneer Square, right next to the ferry terminal. Kids will be busy climbing the sculptural dolos and throwing rocks into the water while you admire the view.

"Habitat Beach dolosse sculptures Pioneer Square family activities"
Habitat Beach dolosse sculptures. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

For a traditional playground, head to Occidental Square (117 South Washington Street) for a mini climber opened in 2019. There’s often giant Connect Four and other lawn games set up. Across the street from the playground, Lady Yum (116 South Washington Street) serves up macarons in fanciful flavors like unicorn, princess cake and circus animal.

"Lady Yum macarons Pioneer Square family activities"
Lady Yum macarons. Credit JiaYing Grygiel

Pioneer Square is on the ancestral land of the Coast Salish people; at ʔálʔal Café (122 2nd Avenue South), we warmed up with a savory rabbit stew for the kids, an oat milk latte for me. The menu features traditional Indigenous foods, and all of the net profits go to Chief Seattle Club. Stock up on extra goodies for the road: the blue corn muffin, flower moon cookie and maple wild rice cake are 100 percent delish.

"ʔálʔal Café barista and kitchen lead Leah Sainz-Jones Pioneer Square family activities"
ʔálʔal Café barista and kitchen lead Leah Sainz-Jones. Credit JiaYing Grygiel.jpg

Save the iconic Smith Tower (506 2nd Avenue) for your final stop in Pioneer Square so you can watch the sunset from the 35th floor open-air observatory. But don’t just rush up to the top, make sure to fully soak in that drop-dead gorgeous lobby. Hallways lined with slabs of Mexican onyx, hand-laid penny tile, original elevators like gilded birdcages — they just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Smith Tower, which turns 110 years old in July, was the fourth tallest building in the world when it finished. The distinctive pyramid at the top is a private residence (rent is rumored to be $13,000 to $17,000 a month), and the entire building is currently for sale.

"View of Elliott Bay from the Smith Tower Observatory, including the new Habitat Beach next to the ferry terminal pioneer square family activities"
View of Elliott Bay from the Smith Tower Observatory, including the new Habitat Beach next to the ferry terminal. Credit JiaYing Grygiel

If you’re a lady hoping for a marriage proposal, try your luck by sitting in the famous Wishing Chair. Everyone else should pull up a seat in the chinoiserie dining room to enjoy a smoked salmon rice bowl and a panorama of the city’s skyline.

"Smith Tower wishing chair pioneer square family activities"
Smith Tower wishing chair. Credit JiaYing Grygiel

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