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Visiting Tacoma's Museum District

Published on: August 01, 2006

Tacoma Museum DistrictThe waves of development that downtown Tacoma's Pacific Avenue has experienced over the past decade and a half, including the opening of three museums within walking distance of each other, have resulted in an area that's an ideal destination for family outings.

In early spring, my middle school-aged son and I spent a day exploring the Washington State History Museum and the surrounding museum district. We found an absorbing museum, wide public plazas for strolling and vistas of a complex cityscape that's still rough enough around the edges to be interesting. Child-friendly restaurants and snack spots are located nearby, and the free Tacoma Link light-rail line runs right in front in case you want to take off for other points downtown.

Indoor exploration

The museum, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2006,  is housed in a graceful brick building that echoes the curving lines of its next-door neighbor, the gorgeously restored former railroad terminus Union Station, now a federal courthouse.

On the ground-floor "Great Hall of Washington History," nine exhibit areas vividly illustrate Native American encounters with the Lewis and Clark party, frontier life, logging and industry, World War II and the advent of hydroelectric power. The exhibits look terrific. Materials are top-notch, and a visually rich mix of stylized and realistic design elements packs a lot of information into a relatively compact space.

Children are able to interact with the exhibits on a variety of levels. Smaller kids can play dress up or sit in a pioneer-era prairie schooner. A life-size Southern Coast Salish plank house, made of cedar logs, contains narrated scenes of daily village life. A particularly fascinating display, the interactive "Washington Over Time" map, dramatically illustrates the state's shifting landscape through the ages.

Upstairs, in the History Lab, kids learn about methods of historical research by studying maps and artifacts and using computers to solve a "history mystery." Don't miss the model railroad exhibit, which takes up one long narrow slice of floor space and shows scenes from the Tacoma of the 1950s. The HO scale layout is the largest in the state and can be operated by pushing one of four buttons.

When you arrive, be sure to pick up scavenger hunt sheets at the Information Desk on the third floor. Scavenger hunts are designed to get kids to investigate the exhibits and think critically about what they're seeing, and kids who finish are awarded cool prizes. The hunts are geared toward kids in the primary grades through high school, but there is also one for pre-readers. Since the museum offers so much for kids to see and think about, a good strategy for visiting is to take a break off site halfway through and come back refreshed after a snack or walk.

Outside action

If it's time for a break, step outside and walk across the Bridge of Glass, a 500-foot-long walkway that crosses I-705 and connects the museum with the Museum of Glass and the Thea Foss Waterway below. The bridge boasts three bold, colorful installations of Chihuly glass, and kids who like to watch cars go by will love its traffic-spanning vantage point. Once you cross the bridge, go down the grand staircase that hugs the Museum of Glass' signature stainless steel cone to an esplanade that overlooks the Thea Foss Waterway. The scene is interesting in a quintessentially urban way -- refined public spaces and restored vintage buildings abut the grit of a working waterway, with the constant roar of traffic in the background.

For a snack or lunch, visit the Museum of Glass' cafe (253-627-2555), which offers outdoor seating on the Thea Foss esplanade, or boxed lunches to go ($5.50-$8). At Cascade Bagel & Deli, located directly across from the Washington State History Museum entrance, you can get bagel breakfasts and sandwiches, plus soups, sodas and coffees ($2.30-$6.20). A corner of the clean, sunny deli contains a small table and activities for kids. Cross Pacific Avenue for many other food choices, including fast-food outlets.


The Washington State History Museum is located 1911 Pacific Ave. in Tacoma. Find driving directions at, or call 253-272-3500 (toll-free 888-BE-THERE). Reasonably priced parking is available in the lot next to the building or park for free at the Tacoma Dome Station (611 Puyallup Ave.), and take Tacoma Link to the Union Station stop. The daily schedule is posted at

The museum is open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday noon-5 p.m. Every Thursday, the museum is open until 8 p.m., with free admission from 5-8 p.m. Each Wednesday, visit all three museums (Washington State History Museum, Tacoma Art Museum and the Museum of Glass) for one budget-friendly price: adults $18, students $16. Regular adult admission is $8, student (ages 6-17) $6, and family admission is $25. Children under 5 are free.

Kris Collingridge is ParentMap's Out & About editor and a mother of two. She never gets tired of exploring the city.

Photo credit: Kris Collingridge

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