Whether you’re a weekend tourist, a local with a visiting family in town or you’re playing hometown tourist for a few days, these question always come up: Is the Space Needle worth it? Should we make the trek to Snoqualmie Falls? What museums will kids actually enjoy? Here are insider tips for how to do 10 top Seattle-area attractions with kids in mind, plus other delightful, lesser-known spots to explore.
THE VIEW: Space Needle
Seattle Center • Observation deck tickets $12–$21 (discounts for King County residents and online purchase)
>>Insider tips: Timing is the key to visiting this local icon. For starters, pick a clear-weather day when there is sure to be a view: The simplest way is to check the webcam (spaceneedle.com/webcam). Second, consider having a meal at the revolving SkyCity Restaurant. While it’s spendy (adult dinner entrées $39–$64, kids’ dinner menu $11–$14; brunch $48.95 adults, $15.95 kids), it comes with a giant helping of scenery — sunset is an especially nice time. And keep an eye out for this fun tradition: diners stick notes in the wall for others to find as the walls revolve. After you dine, stop by the observation deck for free — no waiting in line.
Other spots with a view:
Rotation with a view. Yes, it’s touristy, but kids will talk about it for weeks: Step into the eight-seat glass gondola of the 175-foot Seattle Great Wheel and ride it three rotations over Seattle’s bustling seafront ($8.50-$13, kids 3 and under free).
Fog fun. Climb to Kerry Park, a small greenspace on the south side of Queen Anne Hill not far from the Space Needle for a new perspective on the city in any weather: It’s a famously good place to watch the ebb and flow of fog over downtown.
Panoramic hike. Take older kids for a heart-pumping climb up Tiger Mountain to Poo Poo Point in Issaquah for vistas of parasailers and the Issaquah Alps.
THE MARKET: Pike Place Market
Downtown Seattle • Free
>>Insider tips: Go early or on rainy days for fewer crowds to explore this Seattle landmark with
more than 80 farmers and 200 small businesses clustered over 9 acres. Watch the fishmongers toss
salmon at the fish market, visit the Gum Wall, sample the work of Daily Dozen Doughnut Co.’s donut robot and take in the Giant Shoe Museum. Want a pre-made scavenger hunt? Download the $5 market hunt at strayboots.com.
Other market hot spots:
Museum-ready market. The nationally renowned Tacoma’s Broadway Farmers Market is known for its flower stands and is conveniently held on Thursdays, the best day to hit the nearby Tacoma’s Museum District (market held Thursdays 10 a.m. –3 p.m., opens May 7).
Picnic pick. Pick up your berries, greens, smoothies and pizza at the eclectic Juanita Friday Night Market, located at Lake Washington’s wonderful Juanita Beach Park, then spread out. There’s a playground, boardwalk paths, wetlands and more (Fridays, 3–7 p.m., opens June 5).
Multicultural mecca. Part farmers market, part aquarium, the 35,000-square-foot flagship Uwajimaya store is an eye-popping experience.
Don’t miss the sculptures made of beef and pork at the meat counter and kid-friendly draws such as bubble tea, Ellenos yogurt and Hello Kitty goods (smaller stores in Bellevue and Renton).
THE AVIATION ADVENTURE: The Museum of Flight
South Seattle/SODO • $12–$20, kids 4 and under free
>>Insider tips: The museum is too vast to cover in one day, so if that’s all you’ve got, make sure you hit these highlights: the space exhibit, the Boeing Field control tower (where you can eavesdrop on the conversations of nearby air traffic controllers), the Blackbird (fastest plane in the world) and the outside air park featuring a former Air Force One and a Concorde.
Other high-flying spots:
Happening hangar. The guided Future of Flight tour of the gargantuan Boeing plant in Everett is something kids won’t ever forget, but measure up first: Kids have to be at least 4 feet tall, and the Boeing folks are sticklers ($14-$20, discount for online reservation).
Plane awesome. Each of the restored World War II aircraft housed at the Flying Heritage Collection in Everett comes with stories about the people who designed, built and flew it, including a P-51 Mustang, “arguably the fighter that won the air war in Europe” ($10–$14, kids 5 and under free).
Kid-size fliers. Want a museum that won’t overwhelm kiddos? Bring your little fliers to the Olympia-area Olympic Flight Museum, a small, eclectic museum of 20th century military planes and helicopters, many in working order ($5–$7, kids 6 and under free).
THE POP-CULTURE ICONS: EMP Museum
Seattle Center • $13–$24, kids 4 and under free
>>Insider tips: There’s truly something for everyone at EMP – from the Sound Lab to Star Wars artifacts to a new exhibit about the animation art of Chuck Jones (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Pepé Le Pew, opening June 13). Consider splitting up your party so that people can pursue their passions in smaller groups. A good meeting spot: If VI was IX, a towering kinetic musical structure. >>
Other places to revel in pop culture:
Thrills on wheels. Haven’t brought your Cars fans to the LeMay-America’s Car Museum yet? Motor on down to the gleaming museum near the Tacoma Dome to see the 300 cool cars in its collection; race slot cars and pinewood vehicles; and create at monthly family STEM days on Saturdays ($8–$16, kids 5 and under free).
Bruce Lee and the I.D. The International District’s Wing Luke Museum takes an eclectic approach to covering the Asian-Pacific American experience, including exhibits on Bruce Lee, Korean-American identities and the International District itself ($9.95–$14.95, kids 4 and under free).
THE SHIPS: Ballard Locks
Ballard Ship Canal, Seattle • Free
>>Insider tips: The dance of the Locks — boats parade in, water surges, boats and walls rise, gates open and watercraft glide on — is a consistent “wow” experience. Make sure you stop by the fish ladder and viewing windows on the south side. Sockeye peak in July, Chinook peak in August and coho come through in December. Free concerts on summer Sundays.
Other places to see your ship come in:
Hard-working waterfront. Set on Tacoma’s active waterfront, the historic, glass-fronted building at Foss Waterway Seaport houses fun-for-kids hands-on exhibits about the industrial maritime history of the area ($5–$8, opens for the season May 17).
Row, row, row. Hours of activity await families at the Center for Wooden Boats and Northwest Seaport, two shrines to the beauty of old boats that sit side by side next to Lake Union Park. Rent a boat, sail model boats on the little pond ($5, weekends), pedal the paths or splash in the fountains. Check the websites for events.
THE BIG KAHUNA ZOO: Woodland Park Zoo
North Seattle • $12.25–$19.95, kids 2 and under free •
>>Insider tips: Home to more than 1,000 animals and 300 species, the multi-award-winning Woodland Park Zoo is best navigated with a plan. Before you go, check the “Today at the Zoo” page on the website. Don’t miss the Humboldt penguins — the exhibit itself is a fun place for kids to play — and quirkier species such as warty pigs and Komodo dragons. On so-so days, the Zoomazium is a magnificent place for kids 8 and under, with activities such as the Nature Exchange program: Kids can bring in items such as shells or seeds, research them and earn points toward other treasures. New in May 2015: the Banyan Wilds exhibit, which brings tigers and sloth bears back to the zoo and explores the diversity of and challenges faced by Asia's tropical forests.
Two other places to walk with the animals:
Sharks, tigers and jellyfish, oh, my! Located in Tacoma’s standout park, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium — smaller and more scenic than the Woodland Park Zoo — is a summer must: Don’t miss the tigers, sharks and a wild new jellyfish exhibit ($8.75-$17, discounts for Pierce County residents).
Kangaroos in your pocket. Not your average animal farm: The Outback Kangaroo Farm in Arlington offers the chance to see kangaroos (up to eight feet tall), wallabies and wallaroos. Tours are held Wednesday through Sunday ($9–$10).
THE JOURNEY BACK IN TIME: Museum of History and Industry
Lake Union Park, Seattle • $14–$17, kids 14 and under free
>>Insider tips: Time your visit to the anchor of Lake Union Park to coincide with one of the museum’s programs for children. Each Monday in July and August is “Mini Monday,” with special activities for preschoolers in the grand atrium. Learn about Seattle’s roots at True Northwest: A Seattle Journey, which includes an intriguing section on city improvement ideas that never happened — a good spark for discussion. Peek through the third-floor periscope, where you can plan post-museum playtime at Lake Union Park.
Other blasts from the past:
Ride the model rails. It’s a museum and a treasure hunt all at once when kids navigate Washington State History Museum in Tacoma using Museo, a bingo-inspired scavenger-hunt game. The 1,800-square-foot model railroad layout is also a highlight ($8–$11, kids 5 and under free, Third Thursdays free).
Vintage Issaquah. From May to September, you can take a spin on downtown Issaquah’s 1925 vintage electric trolley; the $5 admission also gets you entry into the Issaquah Depot Museum, with interactive elements such as a telegraph (typically Friday–Sunday).
Play pioneer. Watch history live at Point Defiance’s Fort Nisqually Living History Museum, where folks in period costume act out life at an 1850s Hudson’s Bay Company outpost. On weekends, kids can learn historic crafts like blacksmithing ($4–$7, kids 4 and under free).
THE SCIENCE EXPERIENCE: Pacific Science Center
Seattle Center • $11.50–$19.50, kids 2 and under free
>>Insider tips: The special exhibits and IMAX shows at the region’s biggest science museum are terrific — this summer’s biggie is Grossology: The (Impolite) Science of the Human Body — but don’t miss the permanent exhibits: Create at the Tinker Tank, get wiggles out in Body Works, follow a colony of naked mole rats and watch the mechanical dinosaurs lurch. A membership comes with free reciprocal admission to museums including Portland’s Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and Science World in Vancouver, B.C.
More science fun:
Fossil fun. The University District’s Burke Museum tours kids through 500 million years of geological time in Washington, including triceratops bones, lava flows and mammoth tusks. ($7.50–$10).
Art, meet science. Mindport is a small, exquisitely crafted museum in Bellingham that explores the creative space between invention, science and art ($2).
THE ART PARK: Olympic Sculpture Park
Downtown Seattle • Free
>>Insider tips: The Seattle Art Museum’s 9-acre outdoor sculpture museum overlooking Elliott Bay is always lovely, but at its most lively in the summer. Find live bands, art activities and tours on Thursday evenings (starting July 10), and sketching and yoga during the day on Saturdays (all for free).
Other great places to see art:
Glass bridges. Walk the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, an exquisite pedestrian highway overpass at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, for free. Inside, artists mesmerize onlookers by working with molten glass in the Hot Shop ($5–$15).
Crafty art. Housed in a Steven Holl–designed building that resembles a piece from some giant construction toy, Bellevue Arts Museum — just the right size for kid exploration — includes kid play stations and $2 Get Crafty art sessions on Saturday afternoons (admission $10–$12, kids 5 and under free). Downtown Park is a Frisbee throw away.
THE WILD WATERFALL: Snoqualmie Falls
Snoqualmie • Free
>>Insider tips: More than 1.5 million people visit the falls every year — should you? Yes, especially if it’s cold and wet: You can park closer to the viewing areas, the crowds are smaller, and the 270-foot falls — an incredible blast of beauty and power — will be fatter and wilder.
More roaring cascades:
Wagon trail. The farthest east of a trio of falls, Franklin Falls is a kid-friendly two-mile round-trip hike along an old pioneer track (you need a Northwest Forest Pass to park).
8 family-friendly tours
Whether your family’s passion is history, ice cream or silliness, you’ll find something to love in one of these kid-friendly tours.
1. Seattle By Foot: Seattle Kid’s Tour. Two hours, a half mile of walking and four or so downtown destinations, picked with kids in mind ($13–$15).
2. Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour. This 75-minute exploration of Pioneer Square’s extensive array of tunnels comes with plenty of colorful history that your kids — if they are old enough — should enjoy ($9–$18, kids 6 and under free).
3. Ride the Ducks. You’re in for 90 minutes of stories, songs, silly jokes and quacking noises while riding a World War II–era amphibious vehicle (several tour options, $1–$29).
4. Savor Seattle. Have a budding foodie? Try Savor Seattle’s Chocolate Indulgence Tour (two hours, $49.99–$51.99) or the Pike Place Market Tour (also two hours, $39.99–$41.99); each features 15 or more samples to taste.
5. Sunday Ice Cream Cruise. Board the MV Fremont Avenue for this 45-ish-minute tour of Lake Union; buy ice cream treats and drinks along the way (every Sunday, $2–$11).
6. The Fremont Tour. Billed as street theater, this family-friendly 90-minute tour includes half a mile of walking, insights and improvised silliness from Fremont-esque characters ($16–$20, kids 9 and under free.
7. Destiny Harbor Tours. Leaving from Tacoma and Gig Harbor, these tours visit the working waterfront in open restored U.S. Navy boats (two-hour tour, $25–$35, kids 4 and under free).
8. Alki Kayak Tours. Step into a sturdy double kayak and follow your tour guide out onto the salt water. Expeditions from downtown and West Seattle include historical, sunset and full-moon themes (two-hour tour, $69).