Seattle's Attractions are Inside the Districts
By Naomi Tomky
While the Pike Place Market and Seattle’s biggest tourist attractions line the city’s Downtown waterfront, many of Seattle's finest treasures sit squirrelled away in neighborhoods. Essential eats, the best bars, and the kinds of intimate small shows that shape Seattle’s music scene find their space and loyal audiences in urban villages that thrive far from the hotel-lined streets of Downtown and the nearby tourist infrastructure. For visitors, getting out of Downtown and into a neighborhood is absolutely necessary to understanding the city. Given the city’s traffic challenges and devotion to local centers, the heart of the city lacks the vibrance found outside of it and tends to die down on evenings and weekends. Which just happens to be when the fun in the neighborhoods fires up. And this isn't just for those visiting. This list serves just as much as a guide for locals who have, perhaps, become a little too entrenched in their own 'hood and need to book themselves a staycation in another part of town to remember that what makes Seattle so fantastic.
Columbia City For a taste of old-school jazz clubs to hot new restaurants and an easy location directly off the light rail that whisks people from the airport to points north, Columbia City takes the cake -- one that comes, presumably from the award-laden Columbia City Bakery. Though gentrification has taken a toll on the neighborhood’s many historic businesses and buildings, the few that remain are treasured by the community, which prides itself on being one of the country’s most diverse.
Where to stay: The grand irony of trying to stay in a place undergoing this specific type of gentrification, of course, is that the best (and only -- there are no hotels in the neighborhood) way to stay here is by renting an AirBnB or similar, and short-term rentals can push costs up and force out long-term rentals. That said, the neighborhood’s old houses mean plenty of converted out-buildings and mothers-in-law suites that work well for a weekend rental.
Things to do: Columbia City’s main attraction is its main drag, a shopping street filled with the kinds of small business that fuel healthy neighborhoods. Like the quintessential Main Street USA, it’s got a flower shop, butcher shop, toy store, and boutique-y clothing and jewelry stores, but it also has unique gems: Life Enrichment, or LEMS Bookstore, is the city’s only Black-owned bookstore, and Bike Works is a bike shop that’s actually a non-profit that empowers local youth through teaching bike repair skills. And no Main Street is complete without its own movie theater -- or, in this case, two: Ark Lodge Cinemas, a charmingly-retro renovated Masonic Lodge playing new films, and The Beacon, which plays second run movies and all sorts of film-nerd bait.
Restaurants to hit: While La Medusa’s Italian food has long been the star of Columbia City’s scene, a half-mile south of the heart of the neighborhood is Archipelago. Serving ticketed tasting menu dinners of Filipino flavors made from Northwest ingredients, chef Aaron Verzosa has captured national attention for his creativity. For more everyday eats, pop into the Comfort Zone, a counter housed inside The Royal Esquire Club, and serving soul food classics, dig into local favorite Hawaiian-themed brunch at Super Six, or try the Kenyan cuisine (and hot sauce) from Safari Njema Restaurant.
Best bets for bars and nightlife: Find drinks and dancing at the spacious Royal Room, where live music takes the stage pretty much every night -- sometimes twice a night. Next door, the Columbia City Theater also almost always has something going on, whether it’s local music, open mic, a short-run show, or national-level comedy acts like Cameron Esposito and Nicole Byer. For a more laid-back drink, head to Flying Lion Brewing or Lottie’s Lounge.
Capitol Hill What was once the heart of the city’s gay community has blossomed into the heart of the nightlife and restaurant communities -- yes, these things are related. A short hike or light-rail ride up the hill from Downtown changes the scenery from office buildings and work wear to a mix of auto-shops-turned-food halls and crowds that express themselves through their clothing or lack thereof. Crowded with pedestrians around the clock and packed with businesses to serve them -- music venues, bars, restaurants, and plenty of vintage shops -- Capitol Hill shows off the city’s fun side.
Where to stay: The only true hotel in the neighborhood is a Silver Cloud on the southern edge, but plenty of local bed and breakfasts capture the spirit of neighborhood and make great bases for a weekend of exploration. The Gaslight Inn is the most modern and well-appointed of the bunch, with the Seattle rarity of a pool.
Things to do: Spend a summer day laid out with the crowds at Cal Anderson Park, visit Bruce Lee’s grave at the Lakeview Cemetery (and peek across the lake at the adjoining viewpoint at Louisa Boren Park). Climb the water tower at Volunteer Park, visit the conservatory there, and maybe peer through the Black Hole Sun sculpture. In the same park, after its grand re-opening in early February, check out the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Shop at the Elliott Bay Book Company, one of the oldest and best in town, for sure, but also just stroll Broadway, Pike, Pine, and surrounding streets and poke around whichever stores pique your interest.
Restaurants to hit: The north end of Broadway boasts high-end eateries like Altura -- one of the city’s best and most expensive, and you’ll find Japanese fine-dining at 15th Ave E.’s Adana. But you can also find good food for any budget all over the neighborhood: thick, crispy pizza slices at Dino’s, pickle-powered Eastern European Jewish food at Dacha Diner, a literal hole-in-the-wall filled with Lao food at Taurus Ox, and perennial Seattle late-night favorite Dick’s Drive-In. And anyone that didn’t grab a Seattle dog smothered in cream cheese and grilled onions from a hot dog stand outside the bars will truly miss out on a local specialty.
Best bets for bars and nightlife: Neumos has long been the king of Capitol Hill, bringing in national bands for local audiences, but for those looking for more under the radar tunes, Chop Suey boasts an eclectic array. Clubs like Pony, The Cuff, and Queer/Bar cater to various niches of the LGBTQ+ community, and 35-year-old lesbian bar The Wildrose still thrives. For cocktail nerds, this is the place to dig into drinks, with world-class Canon, post-speakeasy-trend gem Knee High Stocking Co., the bar built by ginger beer at Montana, a circus-themed spot in Unicorn, and private-room karaoke romp The Rock Box.
West Seattle Without the excitement of closer-in neighborhoods, or the easy transportation of spots on the light rail line, West Seattle makes something of an odd choice for a weekend. But it’s also the best place for a beach vacation right in the city. Alki’s endless stretches of sand aren’t exactly California coastline, but they make a good place to launch a kayak, throw a bonfire party, and smell the sea air. As long as you remember to bring your hoodie for the cool evenings, you can just close your eyes and pretend.
Where to stay: Like so many neighborhoods, you’re not going to find any big hotels, but Alki’s condo-lined streets and the dense urban nature of the area making finding an adorable rental home a breeze. In seasons, you can also rent a cabin in Camp Long for a unique in-city camping experience.
Things to do: Rent kayaks and go for a paddle around the sound, join the crowds on the boardwalk by foot, bike, or rollerblade, build a sandcastle, and visit the miniature Statue of Liberty where the first white settlers landed in the city. Check out the other parks on this side of town, including Lincoln Park with its saltwater swimming pool, and Camp Long, with its climbing wall. And if all else fails, hop a boat to somewhere else: the ferry to Vashon Island leaves from Fauntleroy, while the water taxi to Downtown leaves from Alki.
Restaurants to hit: Without leaving the beach, visitors can dig into Hawaiian-Korean tacos and Spam sliders at Marination Ma Kai, near-perfect pastas at Il Nido in the historic Alki Homestead, and drink up a trendy brunch at Harry’s Beach House. A hike up the hill expands the options with Ma’ono’s fried chicken, Bakery Nouveau’s renowned pastries, and Mashiko’s stellar and entirely sustainable sushi.
Best bets for bars and nightlife: The best place to drink in West Seattle is in front of a bonfire on the beach (but it’s not legal so you didn’t hear from us). If you don’t drink from an obvious container, and don’t break the rules when you can have a bonfire, you’re unlikely to be bothered. Beyond that, the scene is a bit sleepy, but you’ll find good drinks at New Luck Toy, a laid-back place to buy a beer at Beveridge Place, and a cozy corner at the Nook.
Ballard Polished, hot, and hyped, Ballard awaits visitors looking for a way to make their weekend trip a little bit swankier. It’s the only spot on this list that has high-end hotels and fancy restaurants -- things that tend to be a little less “Seattle” in nature, and thus congregate in the Downtown area, where the visitors flock. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have deep roots worth exploring. Once a Scandinavian fishing village, Ballard still brims with pride in its bayside location and working-class roots. Have fun dancing the night away here, but don’t forget to get up and explore its nautical past.
Where to stay: Sister spots Hotel Ballard and Ballard Inn both offer upscale amenities at varying price ranges right in the heart of the neighborhood. While you can find rental homes listed as Ballard, the neighborhood stretches far beyond its commercial core and few of them will be as close to the heart of the neighborhood as you want.
Things to do: The Hiram Chittenden Locks might sound like a weird tourist attraction, but somehow varying levels of water flowing back and forth between salt and freshwater is fascinating, especially if you take the free guided tours offered daily, but don’t miss the salmon ladder on the far side. Head out to Golden Gardens for a beachside picnic if you prefer a more typical interaction with saltwater. The recently renovated Nordic Museum offers a peek at the cultures of the people who founded the neighborhood, including a really cool Viking ship.
Restaurants to hit: Eat an antipasto platter and some pasta on the patio of an old Craftsman house at San Fermo, dig into Sri Lankan-inspired dishes at Rupee, cut into Mexican steak at Asadero, and taste innovative new American style mash-ups at Sawyer. But don’t neglect Ballard’s less flashy spots, either: You can grab Filipino pastries from Hood Famous Bake Shop, get homey Thai noodles at Sen, and find some seriously good Lebanese food at Café Munir.
Best bets for bars and nightlife: As good as the food is, Ballard hits its stride at nightfall. From old school fisherman dives like the Sloop and the Ballard Smoke Shop to high-end cocktail joints like Barnacle and the Sexton, the bars open their doors to everyone. Country and related genres of music spill out from the Tractor Tavern while the Sunset and Conor Byrne host a wider variety of small shows. With so many worthwhile spots in such a small space, the best move is to start at one end and crawl your way along Ballard Avenue.
University District Student energy with adult amenities make this undersung area around the University of Washington worth a weekend. Though the neighborhood’s central thoroughfare, The Ave, doesn’t have the most polished presentation in the city, it does offer some of the best food, one of the city’s best farmers markets, and lots of life. If that’s not all you need, it’s a short journey to the opposite end of the spectrum: Find the over-the-top luxury to suit your shopping needs at nearby University Village.
Where to stay: The Graduate Hotel caters to University-adjacent visitors with Husky-themed décor, but anyone can enjoy the renovated historic building and its Art Deco touches -- as well as the panoramic view from the rooftop bar. Trendy and affordable Stay Pineapple offers rooms at the University Inn and Watertown Hotel, and there is a Silver Cloud hotel next to University Village, if that’s your focus.
Things to do: Starting your Saturday with a stroll through the U-District farmers market is essential, and if it’s a fall weekend, make sure look into tickets to the “Greatest Setting in College Football,” aka Husky Stadium. In season, Agua Verde and the Waterfront Activities Center both offer small craft (kayak, canoe, rowboat) rentals to paddle around the lake, while Recycled Cycles offers bike rentals to explore from shore along the Burke Gilman path.
Restaurants to hit: Small spots with budget-friendly food are the core of the neighborhood, including Thai charmer Wann Yen, handmade noodle hit Xi’an Noodles, and Korean dessert chain Snowy Village. But University Village adds big name international chains like Santouka Ramen and Din Tai Fung, as well as local favorites Ba Bar for Vietnamese food, Mr. West for an all-day café, and Ma’ono’s fried chicken sandwich counter. But just heartbeat away are a trio of nationally lauded restaurants: sushi star Wataru and Salare and Junebaby from Edouardo Jordan.
Best bets for bars and nightlife: If you’re not a student or of a similar age, the nightlife around here might not be your favorite, but whatever musician or comedian is playing at the Neptune is usually a good bet for a fun evening, and the view from the Mountaineering Club at the top of the Graduate Hotel automatically makes everything taste better.