14 Top-Rated Things to Do in Seattle in Winter
Author Brad Lane lives an easy commute from Seattle in Portland, Oregon. On his last trip to Seattle, he spent extra time exploring the best museums and cozying up in coffee shops.
While Seattle does live up to its gray and rainy reputation come winter, the season offers a different type of creative and cultural energy. It's cozy places, like local coffee shops, that supply this vibe. Other things to do indoors, like visiting 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. Outdoor winter adventures are a short commute from the city.
From exploring a less-crowded 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. Popular summer attractions like the Space Needle and Seattle Waterfront have extra elbow room in the winter. With less visitors, 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
The best way to start a visit is at Seattle Waterfront in the city center. The famed Pikes Place Market is the entrance to this iconic part of the city. Winter is the best time to visit this vast public space infused with the aroma of freshly caught fish, when summer tourists are absent.
The waterfront offers several other less-crowded attractions in the winter. On warmer days with a bit of sunshine, you can ride the Seattle Great Wheel or climb aboard a guided cruise atop the water. The entire waterfront is very walkable, making a casual sightseeing stroll also fun in the winter months.
The waterfront also has indoor tourist attractions, like the Seattle Aquarium, for rainy days. 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
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. You don't just stand and observe at Seattle's museums. Instead, these educational spaces pull you 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.
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.
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.
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 or Take a Tour
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 meeting spots 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. Better still, join a tour. Seattle Coffee Culture tours are available in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. These walking tours visit some of the top coffee shops in the area and share interesting information on the history of coffee, as well as roasting and brewing techniques.
4. Enjoy a Less Crowded Space Needle Experience
The Seattle Space Needle is the most iconic symbol of the city. It was built for the 1962 World's Fair and today 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.
5. Take a Weekend Trip to 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
6. Hop on a Ferry to 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 weather. And, many San Juan Islands attractions don't go dormant in winter.
On San Juan Island, Friday Harbor is the biggest community of the archipelago and an excellent base camp for exploring 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 Puget Sound region 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.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in the San Juan Islands
7. Ski 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. Lights illuminate the slopes of Stevens Pass five nights a week for a great way to stay active in the early evenings of winter.
8. Catch a Live Show
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
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 the University of Washington's Husky Stadium.
10. Spend the Day (or Evening) at the Woodland Park Zoo
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.
On the real cold and damp days of Seattle, you can see much of the zoo while staying indoors. The facility even provides a rainy-day map if the occasion arises. Ironically, the tropical rainforest exhibit is an excellent place to stay dry while seeing 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 for Yourself
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 the 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
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.
13. Attend the Northwest Flower & Garden Festival
Check out the Northwest Flower & Garden Festival for some early spring vibes in February. This annual event occurs near the middle of the month at the Seattle Convention Center. It features several garden displays, seminars, and a bountiful Garden Marketplace with tons of treasures for sale.
The Northwest Flower & Garden Festival spans five days, typically Wednesday through Sunday. One-day, two-day, and five-day tickets are available. Parking costs extra, but plenty of public transportation reaches the Seattle Convention Center. Plan to spend at least four hours touring the different display gardens and vendor booths.
14. Browse a Record Shop
Vinyl collectors have plenty of bins to sort through in Seattle. Alongside a perpetual live music scene, throughout the city's neighborhoods are a wide array of record shops. These record stores flourish throughout the winter months, offering a place to escape the weather and add to a collection.
New record shops open every year in Seattle. A few longstanding favorites include Easy Street Records in West Seattle and Sonic Boom in Ballard. Both stores stay busy throughout the day and feature a large inventory. The shops also have some legendary status for live-music performances.