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12 Top-Rated Things to Do in Seattle in Winter

Written by Brad Lane
Oct 9, 2020

While Seattle does live up to its gray and rainy reputation come winter, the season provides a lovely time to visit the city. A different type of creative and cultural energy swirls through Seattle this time of year. It's cozy places, like local coffee shops, that supply this seasonal energy. Other indoor attractions, like museums and live music venues, also keep the pulse of Seattle buzzing throughout the winter.

It's not all indoor attractions that make Seattle fun to visit in winter. Thanks to its Pacific Northwest location, outdoor winter adventures are a short commute from the city. From exploring a less-crowded Seattle beach to skiing the slopes of Stevens Pass, Seattle's active community doesn't go dormant in winter. For a good fitness baseline to begin the season, the Seattle Marathon takes place at the end of November.

Another big appeal of Seattle in winter is fewer crowds congesting the streets. Popular summer attractions like the Space Needle and Seattle Waterfront have extra elbow room in the winter. With fewer crowds to contend with, hotels and other places to stay in Seattle also have more winter availability.

To explore a new season in a favorite city, check out our list of top things to do in Seattle in winter.

1. Spend the Day at the Seattle Waterfront

Seattle Waterfront

The best way to experience Seattle's proximity to Puget Sound is the Seattle Waterfront at the city center. The famed Pikes Place Market is the entrance to this iconic part of the city. Winter is the best time for locals to visit this vast public space, infused with the aroma of freshly caught fish. The hordes of summer tourists are less overwhelming this time of year.

The waterfront offers several other less-crowded attractions in the winter. For warmer days with a bit of sunshine, tourists can ride the Seattle Great Wheel or climb aboard a guided cruise atop the water. The entire waterfront is very walkable, making a casual stroll also fun in the winter months.

For rainy days, the waterfront also provides indoor tourist attractions like the Seattle Aquarium. This expansive non-profit museum houses six major exhibits with animals from around the world. The aquarium is open every day of the winter, excluding major holidays.

The waterfront comes alive with extra holiday cheer during the annual Magic in the Market event. At the end of November, this festive event celebrates the season with lights, music, and live reindeer.

2. Visit a Seattle Museum

Chihuly Garden and Glass, Seattle

Seattle has a treasure chest of museums to explore. While these establishments receive crowds throughout the year, Seattle's museums are particularly stimulating on a gray day of winter. Visitors don't just stand and observe at Seattle's museums. Instead, these educational spaces pull visitors into a world of hands-on experimentation.

The Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) is one such participatory place to visit. This lauded facility features interactive music-making exhibits and detailed displays covering Seattle's prominence in pop culture. The MoPOP building itself is an eye-catching piece of art next to the Seattle Center in downtown.

South of the downtown center, The Museum of Flight is another must-see museum. With thousands of aviation artifacts, including hundreds of hanging planes, The Museum of Flight is the largest museum of its kind in the world. The sheer size of exhibits at The Museum of Flight, like the three-million cubic feet of the T. A. Wilson Great Gallery, is astonishing to see in person.

Another awe-striking museum in Seattle is the Chihuly Garden and Glass. This famous museum highlights the lifelong work of Tacoma-native Dale Chihuly. With installations across the world, the 100-foot-long sculpture within the Glasshouse beneath the Space Needle is one of his most prominent.

Other notable museums in the city include the Seattle Pinball Museum, Seattle Art Museum, and the Pacific Science Center. February is Seattle Museum Month. Throughout the month, visitors staying in downtown hotels receive half-price tickets to over 40 museums.

3. Cozy Up in a Coffee Shop

Seattle coffee shop

Nothing pairs better with a dismal winter day in Seattle than the smell of roasted coffee beans. It's not just the mixed aroma of espresso and rain that makes Seattle a coffeehouse capital. Instead, it's the culture and community that percolates throughout these neighborhood shops.

Coffee shops in Seattle aren't just for to-go orders. These hip tasting rooms are a meeting spot for artists, entrepreneurs, and creative individuals. And in winter, Seattle coffee shops also offer a great place to stay stimulated when there's dreary weather outside.

With new coffee shops popping up every month, it's easy to find somewhere new to sip your favorite beverage of choice. Several Coffee Shop Tours are available in the downtown area. These walking tours highlight some of the top spots in Seattle to grab a latte, and different brewing techniques across the city.

4. Take a Weekend Trip to Leavenworth

Winter holiday in Leavenworth

A big appeal of the city is its quick access to many great weekend getaways from Seattle. On the other side of Stevens Pass, one such weekend getaway is a Bavarian town that specializes in winter splendor.

Leavenworth is just over two hours east of Seattle. This scenic small town adopted a Bavarian persona in the 1960s, and today is a top tourist destination of the state. The winter adds extra appeal to this Alps-inspired village surrounded by stunning mountain peaks. As the colder months start to shorten the days, Leavenworth's evenings transform into a wonderland of lights and color.

Alongside the postcard attributes of Leavenworth's Village of Lights, the town swirls with sensory details that define the season. Roasting chestnuts, caroling choirs, and the feeling of falling snow lend to memorable weekend visits. Mark a calendar for the Leavenworth Christmas Lighting Festivals that occur on December weekends.

Leavenworth's access to big mountain terrain also makes the town a prime winter weekend destination from Seattle. Outdoor adventure in Leavenworth is very accessible in the winter. Snowy pursuits in the area include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and backcountry skiing.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Leavenworth

5. Hop On a Ferry to the San Juan Islands

Fresh snow in the San Juan Islands

Winter escapes to the San Juan Islands are easy to do from Seattle. The winter is the "off-season" for the San Juan Islands. However, these coastal getaways provide several ways to relish the season.

On San Juan Island, Friday Harbor is the biggest community of the archipelago and an excellent base camp to explore the region. Friday Harbor has several cozy winter accommodations and daily ferries leaving from its port. Riding any of these ferries to or from Friday Harbor is best accompanied by a steaming hot beverage.

Throughout the islands, winter activities include hiking, spa visits, and watching morning storms crash upon the shore. One of the best aspects of visiting the San Juan Islands is the often sunny weather that breaks out in the afternoon. Inside the Olympic Rain Shadow, the San Juans provide a vital vitamin D source for residents and travelers.

6. Enjoy a Less Crowded Space Needle Experience

Seattle Space Needle and glass artwork at Chihuly Garden and Glass

The Seattle Space Needle is the most iconic symbol of the city. Built for the 1962 World's Fair, the Space Needle is a visitor favorite throughout the year.

With two observation decks and a revolving glass floor, this rotating landmark provides an encompassing view of the region. While still popular in winter, the drizzlier months of the year offer the least crowds at the Space Needle.

Cloudy days in winter sometimes offer an overcast view, but it's not just the scene from the top that makes the Space Needle worth a visit. The encompassing campus of the Seattle Center offers tons of attractions to enjoy. Other indoor places to visit at the Seattle Center include Chihuly Garden and Glass and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center.

The Seattle Center Winterfest also takes place on the campus throughout December. This five-week celebration features tons of affordable and free activities for the whole family. Ice sculpting, ice rinks, and thousands of holiday lights define much of this winter event in Seattle.

7. Ski at Stevens Pass

Snowboarder at Stevens Pass

While snow doesn't stick around the city much during winter, the mountains surrounding Seattle offer a true wintry escape. One of the hottest spots for snow sports from Seattle is Stevens Pass. This recreation destination is less than two hours east on Highway 2.

Downhill pursuits are abundant at Stevens Pass Ski Resort - one of the best ski resorts in Washington. Ten chairlifts at this popular ski and snowboard destination enable exploration of over 1,000 acres. Other amenities like mountain dining and weekend events add to this snowy landscape just outside of Seattle.

Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are also abundant at Stevens Pass Nordic Center. And the resort features dedicated tubing and snow play areas that are popular with young families. For a great way to stay active in the early evenings of winter, lights illuminate the slopes of Stevens Pass five nights a week.

8. Catch a Live Show

Paramount Theatre | Nathantain / photo modified

As the gray days of winter descend upon Seattle, the city residents keep active with creative energy. Live music, theater, and special performances keep the city buzzing throughout the winter.

Seattle takes its live music seriously. Several iconic bands have grown up from Seattle to shape the worldwide sound. The city also fosters an ever-evolving talent of up-and-coming artists.

Seattle has enough venues to check out a new place every weekend in the winter. Some of the hottest spots include Neumos in the Capitol Hill neighborhood and the Neptune Theatre in the University District.

Theater productions and classical musical ensembles also make up the soundtrack of a Seattle winter. Broadway musicals at the Paramount Theatre are often the toast of the town, and the elegant Benaroya Hall is home to the Seattle Symphony. The 5th Avenue Theater is also a top spot to catch a theatrical production, including holiday-themed shows in winter.

9. Go on a Hike or Go for a Run

Hiker in the winter at Mount Rainier National Park near Seattle

The stunning Pacific Northwest environment surrounding Seattle doesn't go dormant in winter. Instead, the mossy landscapes and mountains offer new shades of scenery to explore. Surrounding the city, some of the best hiking trails near Seattle provide a great way to stay active in winter.

Several Seattle running events in winter also encourage training on the pavement. Most notably, the Seattle Marathon takes place on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. This international event draws thousands of runners to the Emerald City with a route that ends on the 35-yard line in Memorial Stadium.

10. Spend the Day (or Evening) at the Woodland Park Zoo

Wolf at the Woodland Park Zoo in the winter

For a family-fun winter excursion in Seattle, Woodland Park Zoo offers new habitats to explore throughout the day and night. This acclaimed city space next to Green Lake Park adapts to the winter with heated indoor exhibits and holiday lights. Plus, some animals like snow leopards are also more active this time of year.

For the real cold and damp days of Seattle, visitors can see much of the zoo while staying indoors. The facility even provides a rainy-day map if the occasion arises. The Tropical Rain Forest exhibit, ironically, is an excellent place to stay dry while espying animals like toucans, monkeys, and anacondas.

Throughout December, WildLights at the Woodland Park Zoo illuminates the evenings. This month-long event features over 300,000 holiday lights, transforming the park into a winter wonderland. Other fun things to do at WildLights include rides on the historic carousel and snow activities within Snowmazium.

11. Find a Beach Spot to Yourself

West Point Lighthouse in Discovery Park on a sunny winter's day

Seattle is blessed with many beautiful beaches. These sandy attractions often garner crowds throughout the summer months. In winter, they provide welcome solitude. Swimming and sunbathing aren't as popular this time of year. Instead, activities like long walks and wildlife sightings make for a fun winter day at the beach.

Seattle's largest beach area, Discovery Park, offers new perspectives of the landscape come winter. Formerly the site of Fort Lawton, this 500-plus-acre public space has massive natural appeal not far from the city's center. In winter, hiking around is a little more challenging, with wet and slippery trails, but this adds to solitude found in no other season.

Discovery Park isn't the only beach worth visiting in Seattle. Other spots to take in the wild side within city limits include Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park and Golden Gardens Park.

12. Celebrate New Year's Eve in Style

New Year's Eve fireworks over Seattle and the Space Needle

Seattle offers many positive ways to end the year. After the Noon Year's Eve parties for young families, celebrated evening shindigs for adults take over the streets. And a spectacular fireworks display erupts from the Space Needle at the stroke of midnight.

Many prominent public institutions of Seattle host grand NYE celebrations. The Pacific Science Center, Chihuly Garden and Glass, and the Seattle Center all throw popular parties with a unique theme every year.

The Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) also features a great place to bring in the new year. With a lively soundtrack and social opportunities, guests can also immerse themselves into the museum's exhibits at this end-of-year celebration.

The Space Needle fireworks display is one of the best in the Pacific Northwest. A great vantage point is from the grounds of the encompassing Seattle Center. Free activities occur at the Seattle Center throughout the day leading to the big show.

Other great spots to view the fireworks include Queen Anne Hill, Alkali Beach, or aboard a Washington State Ferry.

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