If you’ve got a layover in Seattle or are visiting for a short amount of time, don’t feel you need to stay cooped up in a hotel room. Even with 24 hours, there’s a lot you can do and see. If you’re staying near the airport, use the light rail to whisk yourself downtown, or book a hotel in the downtown core so that you’re close to everything. Either way, Seattle’s downtown is fairly walkable so you won’t have to deal with public transit or a rental car, if you don’t want to.
The Space Needle is Seattle’s best-known icon. Of course, you have to see it whether you’re here for a day or a week. However, if you plan to do Seattle on the cheap, you may want to skip going up to get the view as that is anything but cheap and it will take up precious time while you wait in an inevitably long line. If the day is sunny and clear, though, the view is pretty cool and features bodies of water from Lake Union to Lake Washington to the Puget Sound, and Mt. Rainier in the distance to top it all off.
The Space Needle is but one aspect of a wider complex called the Seattle Center, which is home to the Pacific Science Center, KeyArena, the International Fountain, EMP Museum, Teatro Zinzanni and more. Take a spin around. Seattle Center is especially fun if there happens to be a festival on while you’re there.
You can walk between Seattle Center and downtown in about 10 to 15 minutes, or you can take the monorail to Westlake Center.
Pike Place Market is just as iconic as the Space Needle, but in general a far cooler place to visit. Sure, the Space Needle has got a great view, but Pike Place Market has got a little bit of everything quintessentially Seattle. Stop by Beecher’s Cheese and taste locally made and delicious Flagship as well as other cheeses. Watch fish fly through the air at Pike Place Fish Market (they don’t just toss fish around, though, you have to wait for someone to buy one). Listen to buskers ply their tunes. Sample foods from farmer booths, little shops and restaurants. Check out the Gum Wall. Wherever you turn, Pike Place Market has got something to do or see or taste.
Stroll the waterfront
If you continue behind Pike Place Market, a short walk with take you to the Seattle Waterfront. This stretch of sidewalk along the Elliott Bay (part of the Puget Sound) is fairly touristy, but also not a bad spot to enjoy some views of the Sound and check out a few things to do. Along the Waterfront you’ll find the Seattle Aquarium (not worth a stop on a 24-hour itinerary, unless you have aquarium-obsessed kids in tow), Waterfront Park (a great spot for views and kicking back for a few minutes) and several piers worth checking out. On Pier 58, the Seattle Great Wheel offers some of the best views in the city and it's worth the time if you passed over the Space Needle and want to take in some Northwesty views, as well as a few restaurants and the Wings over Washington ride (which is worth a stop if lines aren't too long). Pier 54 is home to Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. The waterfront is best to take in, absorb the atmosphere, but don't get too drawn in to any of the touristy things unless they really seem worth your time.
Seattle is a maritime city and getting out on the water is the perfect way to sample some of the best scenery the area has. If you’re short on time, skip taking a harbor cruise or something along those lines. Instead, hop on a much cheaper water taxi. You can board a water taxi to West Seattle at Pier 50. You’ll enjoy views of the city and you can even explore West Seattle a bit, or simply ride right back downtown. The ride over is about 10 minutes and water taxis leave throughout the day. Be sure to note return times as well.
- From Pier 50 where the water taxi drops you off, you’ll be very close to Pioneer Square where the Underground Tour is located. The tour is interesting, but depending how limited your time is, it may be better to stay above ground.
- Within five blocks of Pier 50, the Columbia Tower offers higher-up views than the Space Needle.
- At 4th and Madison back closer to downtown is the Seattle Public Library. While its name might not strike you as a place to visit, the building is pretty neat. Floors and hallways are painted in striking and themed colors. Climb to the very top via colorful escalators and you can get a great (and free) view of downtown and the water.
- At 1st and University is Seattle Art Museum, if you’d like to add some culture into your experience.