14 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Olympia
Washington's state capital, Olympia, sits at the southern end of Puget Sound. Here, the Deschutes River meets saltwater, and the glaciated slopes of Mount Rainier rise on the eastern horizon. It's a compact and beautiful city that absolutely shines on a sunny day, especially surrounding the neoclassical architecture of the Washington State Capitol Campus.
It's much more than just state politics in Olympia, it also has a lively waterfront district and historic downtown. Here, plenty of restaurants, shops, and museums mirror opportunities found in Seattle, a sixty-mile drive north. This bountiful selection also includes plenty of things to do even on those drizzly days throughout winter.
Olympia is worth a more extended visit with its adventurous side. Local landscapes like a National Wildlife Refuge and the unique Mima Mounds encourage day trips from the city center, while the world-renowned adventures of Olympic and Mount Rainier National Park are less than a two-hour drive away.
Plan your next Pacific Northwest adventure with my list of the top things to do in Olympia.
1. Washington State Capitol Building
The impressive white dome of the Washington Legislative Building is hard to miss when visiting Olympia. Its neoclassical architecture is visible across the city and ranks as the tallest masonry dome in North America. Visiting the capitol complex is free, with guided and self-guided tours available throughout the day.
The historic campus surrounding the capitol building is beautifully landscaped. I recommend exploring the memorials, fountains, and gardens surrounding the state buildings. Especially make a point of visiting the Tivoli Fountain for an excellent photo opportunity.
The Legislative Building is open for self-guided tours nearly every day of the year. Free guided tours are also available, led by a volunteer docent providing insight into its lavish interior, including a five-ton Tiffany chandelier. Other buildings of interest on the capitol campus include The Temple of Justice and the Governor's Mansion, also with guided tours available.
Address: 416 Sid Snyder Avenue Southwest, Olympia, Washington
2. Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
The Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is a vast habitat of protected fresh and saltwater marshes, grasslands, and forests for migratory wildlife. It's an excellent place to visit to hike or walk through a dynamic ecosystem that changes with the tides, offering all sorts of wildlife spotting opportunities, especially birds.
This wildlife-abundant landscape is less than 10 miles east of Olympia. It's part of the larger Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, which also includes Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge to the west. Head to the Brown Farm Road entrance for the easiest access off Interstate 5. And I recommend bringing some binoculars or a telephoto lens to get the best views.
Among the 200 visiting annually, common bird species spotted at the refuge include the great blue heron, American bittern, and peregrine falcon. Other wildlife also spotted at the refuge consists of pronghorn antelope, box turtles, and migratory orca whales. The refuge recommends arriving within two hours of high tide for the best birding opportunities.
Address: 100 Brown Farm Road, Olympia, Washington
Official site: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Billy_Frank_Jr_Nisqually/
3. Hands on Children's Museum
The Hands On Children's Museum is just north of the downtown historic district, near East Bay Public Plaza. It features eight detailed galleries with numerous interactive displays. Children are encouraged to play creatively while learning in stimulating settings. The museum is designed for ages zero to 10 – making it a popular outing for young families.
Popular permanent exhibits at the museum include an Arts & Paint Studio, a Fabulous Forest, and an interactive Outdoor Discovery Center. And unlike some children's museums, this facility is designed for various age groups — including parents with infants.
The WET Science Center is a nationally recognized education space less than a block away for additional family-friendly attractions. WET stands for Water Education and Technology, and this aqua-focused science center comprises a series of galleries with interactive exhibits about the earth's most essential resources.
Address: 414 Jefferson Street Northeast, Olympia, Washington
Official site: http://www.hocm.org/
4. Find Something Fresh at the Olympia Farmers Market
The Olympia Farmers Market is a highlight of a visit. The massive pavilion is lined with local produce and goods, and the Market's 40 years of experience showed. Add to that the market's location next to the picturesque Percival Landing boardwalk.
The Olympia Farmers Market is a four-day event each week, from Thursday to Sunday, during the summer season of April through October. The Market occurs throughout the year, with hours changing depending on the season.
Signs and ground arrows indicate the correct traffic flow throughout the pavilion, and on most days, it's a steady stream of people filling in the space between stalls. Expect different produce and goods throughout the year, including berries, baked pastries, and handcrafted cheeses.
Olympia Farmers Market is also home to a broad selection of hot food stands representing cuisine from across the world. A large seating area is next to these food stands, offering a great place to sit down and enjoy a meal wide a side of people watching.
Address: 700 Capitol Way North, Olympia, Washington
Official site: http://www.olympiafarmersmarket.com/
5. Stroll the Boardwalk at Percival Landing
Make time to visit Percival Landing to stroll down the wooden boardwalk lining this 3.4-acre public waterfront. The views of Budd Inlet from the boardwalk, overlooking the southern edges of Puget Sound, really highlight Olympia's seaside location and maritime culture.
Percival Landing connects Olympia's Historic District and the Olympia Farmers Market with less than a mile walk beside the water. This connection helps reduce driving and parking logistics.
Several patio-clad restaurants also line Percival Landing, popular for lunch and dinner next to the water. Among the dining selections, Budd Bay Café is a local's favorite, offering menus for all three meals of the day. Budd Bay Café also has a popular weekend brunch that often sends a line out the door.
6. Shop and Dine in the Downtown Historic District
Head to the downtown historic district For restaurants and shopping in Olympia, a few blocks north of the capitol building. This charming district encompasses approximately 17 blocks, with several buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Alongside this aesthetic architecture, the many murals give the district extra color.
Dining in the historic district covers every meal of the day. More than a few coffee shops offer early morning aromas, and I'd recommend Burial Grounds Coffee Collective on Capitol Way. Just a block north is Basilico Ristorante, a go-to spot for date nights and fine dining. And for long lunch menus, on the other side of the historic district is the community staple known as 5th on 4th Sandwiches.
Keep your eyes peeled for the many murals adorning the downtown historic district. The city has over 50 registered murals, emblazoned on building sides and tucked away in alleys. Maps are available for those intent on checking out specific spots, but half the fun of this public art project is turning the corner and stumbling upon something new.
7. Walk around Capitol Lake
Capitol Lake is a 260-acre lake located below the Washington State Capitol. The biggest community attraction of Capitol Lake today is a 1.6-mile trail circling the entire body of water, connecting to different parklands, like Heritage Park and Marathon Park, and the Downtown Historic District. The route is entirely paved, perfect for walkers, runners, cyclists, and stroller pushers. Although, the western half comprises a sidewalk next to Deschutes Parkway.
It's good to know the history of the lake before visiting. The artificial lake is at the intersection of the Deschutes River and Puget Sound, and before the construction of the 5th Avenue dam in 1951, the area was expansive tidelands.
The attempt to regulate the river output caused significant environmental concerns, including high bacteria build-ups. The water has been closed to the public since 2009, and its murky appearance doesn't invite swimming anyway.
The city and state have recommended tearing down the 5th Avenue Dam and reverting the lake back to tidal mudflats. No major updates have occurred on this project, although best estimates say that it will take a better part of a decade before it returns to its natural state.
8. Catch a Show at the Capitol Theater
The non-profit Olympia Film Society (OFS) owns and operates the historic Capitol Theater, continuously providing entertainment to the community since 1924. Today, the rotating performances at the Capitol Theater include live music, independent films, and open gallery space for local artists to display their works.
The theater runs regular showtimes Thursday through Sunday with special events throughout the year.
Address: 206 5th Avenue Southeast, Olympia, Washington
Official site: http://olympiafilmsociety.org/
9. Mima Mounds
What created these odd, bubble-like mounds southwest of Olympia is a mystery. Proposed solutions to this puzzle include giant gophers, earthquakes, glaciation, and extraterrestrial activity. Half the fun of visiting is speculating what made this interesting and scenic landscape.
Whatever the answer, the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve is a great place for walking or hiking, particularly in the spring, when wildflowers bloom on the rolling hills. Approximately three miles of trails with interpretive information navigate the area, including a half-mile, fully accessible path.
It's approximately a 20-minute drive south from the State Capitol to Mima Mounds, utilizing Exit 95 on Interstate-5. It's free to visit, although parking requires a Discover Pass.
10. Tumwater Falls Park
Tumwater Falls Park is on the southern shore of Capitol Lake in the neighboring city of Tumwater to the south. This scenic spot is popular for waterfall enthusiasts and anyone looking for a landscaped space to enjoy. It's owned and managed by the Olympia Tumwater Foundation.
A half-mile hiking trail tours the cascading waterfalls created by the mighty Deschutes River. An additional 15 acres at the park provide ample space to enjoy the landscaped scenery with a picnic, stroll, or watchful eye on the changing seasons.
Address: 110 Deschutes Way Southwest, Tumwater, Washington
Official site: http://olytumfoundation.org/what-we-do/tumwater-falls-park/
11. Olympic Flight Museum
This aviation museum was established in 1998 at the Olympia Regional Airport. The dedicated museum hangar shelters heritage planes, helicopters, and memorabilia. It's a popular spot for aviation enthusiasts and often a hit with young kids.
Prominent aircraft on display include World War II fighter jets, Cobra helicopters, and military aircraft from the Soviet Air Force. The museum also hosts the annual Olympic Air Show in August, when some of its heritage planes take to the sky. Other special events include collectors shows and gear swaps.
The Olympic Flight Museum is only open on the weekends, Saturdays and Sundays, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. It's a small price of admission to check out the aviation on display, with discounts for seniors, military members, and children ages 7 to 12. Kids under seven receive free entry.
Address: Building A, 7637 Old Highway 99 Southeast, Tumwater, Washington
Official site: http://www.olympicflightmuseum.com/
12. Bigelow House Museum
Bigelow House Museum is noted for being Olympia's oldest home. It was built in the mid to late 1850s for the influential Bigelow family (although the exact year of completion is the source of some debate).
The house contains an extensive collection of original furnishings offering insight into local life during the 1800s. The only way to admire the entirety of the Bigelow House Museum is to hop on one of the daily guided tours. These 45-minute narrations provide insight into the Bigelow family's legacy and the city's history.
Address: 918 Glass Avenue, Olympia, Washington
13. Plan a Day Trip or Weekend Adventure to Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier is a true beacon for adventure in Washington State and was one of the first mountain environments that drew me to move cross-country to Washington in 2014. It's the tallest mountain in the state and the tallest in the Pacific Northwest, and the National Park surrounding the mountain is a massive playground for those looking to explore outside.
Mount Rainier is accessible from all sides, although the southwest Nisqually Entrance and northwest Carbon River Entrance are closest to Olympia, accessible with just under a two-hour drive (approximately 65 miles). Both offer excellent adventures and glacier views. I'd recommend heading to the Nisqually Entrance for a first-time visit. It has tons of accessible hiking trails and museums and easy access to the aptly named Paradise area of the park (one of my absolute favorite places on the continent).
It's an endless adventure in Mount Rainier National Park, with a peak season spanning from June through mid-September. I've stumbled upon a new breathtaking hiking trail with every visit, sometimes quite literally with the elevation climbs involved. Check out my Best Hiking Trails in Mount Rainier National Park article to find the best hikes for your interests and abilities.
Similarly, if you want to turn your day trip into an overnight visit, my guide to Camping at Mt. Rainier covers all the options, including several campgrounds in the surrounding national forests to help ensure you find a spot to pitch a tent or park an RV.
Official site: https://www.nps.gov/mora/index.htm
14. Take a Trip to Olympic National Park
The vast wonders of Olympic National Park are accessible within a short drive from Olympia. The national park encompasses nearly a million acres on the Olympic Peninsula, and visitors from the state capital reach its southern boundary within an hour's drive. Other iconic park areas, including the rugged coast and rainforest interior, require a longer commute.
Some of my favorite places to visit in Olympic National Park include the Hoh Rain Forest, Hurricane Ridge, and Ruby Beach. Other equally scenic spots include the Quinault Rain Forest, Sol Duc Hot Springs, and Shi Shi Beach on the northern coast. These areas all host some of the Olympic's best hiking trails, which always bring me back almost once a year.
Olympic National Park is busy throughout the summer, but it's not the busiest national park in Washington (see Mount Rainier). This also adds to the peninsula's allure for me and makes overnight endeavors much more manageable. Still, the number of places to camp is overwhelming. Check out my Camping at Olympic National Park article for a helpful guide on spending the night.
Official site: https://www.nps.gov/olym/index.htm
Map of Attractions & Things to Do in Olympia
Olympia, WA - Climate Chart
|Average minimum and maximum temperatures for Olympia, WA in °C|
|7 0||9 1||12 1||14 3||18 6||21 8||24 10||25 9||22 7||16 4||10 2||7 0|
|Average monthly precipitation totals for Olympia, WA in mm.|
|Average monthly snowfall totals for Olympia, WA in cm.|
|Average minimum and maximum temperatures for Olympia, WA in °F|
|44 32||48 33||53 34||58 37||65 42||70 46||76 50||77 49||72 45||60 39||50 35||44 32|
|Average monthly precipitation totals for Olympia, WA in inches.|
|Average monthly snowfall totals for Olympia, WA in inches.|
More Related Articles on PlanetWare.com
Other Cities in Washington: Rich in the culture of the Pacific Northwest, the city of Seattle is filled with all sorts of cultural and natural attractions. Near Olympia and Seattle, the city of Bellevue provides its own unique attractions, including art museums, botanical centers, and nature parks. Farther north, Bellingham is a college city with the great backdrops of Bellingham Bay and the San Juan Islands.
More to Explore in Washington: The many top attractions of Washington state stretch from border to border and include Mount Saint Helens, Spokane, and the stunning environment found in the San Juan Islands. For other scenic places to visit, the best small towns to visit in Washington state provide open communities and stunning natural attractions. For exploration of the waters bordering Olympia, our guide to the Puget Sound can have your sails heading in the right direction.