Pioneer Square is a unique neighborhood in Seattle – one that’s still up and coming in many ways, and yet one that’s popular for its nightlife and galleries and tourist activities alike. This historical neighborhood has a bit of everything, from tourist hotspots like the Underground Tour, to artsy activities and galleries galore, to restaurants and nightlife, to a major viewpoint.
That being said, Pioneer Square isn’t Seattle’s safest neighborhood. You’ll be fine if you use common sense safety and stick to populated areas. Skip ducking through side streets that you don’t know, especially if you’re visiting alone and aren’t familiar with the area or are out late.
Explore Seattle’s Underground
There are a couple tour companies that can take you underground — literally. Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood originally was a full story or two below the current street level. After the Great Seattle Fire in 1889 destroyed about 25 blocks of Seattle’s original core, the city’s streets were re-graded and raised, and as businesses rebuilt, they also raised their storefronts to stay at street level, burying the original Seattle underneath. Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour is the most popular tour (and Bill Speidel himself was largely responsible for bringing Pioneer Square back from the brink of being forgotten and rediscovering the Underground) and brings a lot of humor to learning about Seattle’s history. Beneath the Streets is a newer tour company that delves into the Underground, and it leads smaller, boutique tours.
Experience Some Art
Pioneer Square is a great place to get artsy. There are many galleries featuring all kinds of art within this small neighborhood’s bounds. Some galleries like Foster/White Gallery have been here for a long time (more than 40 years in Foster/White’s case), and others are newer. Expect art media from across the board — glass art and more at Foster/White, or photography set in a historic space at Axis Pioneer Square.
Dine Out or Grab Coffee
Like most neighborhoods in Seattle, Pioneer Square has plenty of restaurants, cafes and eateries. If you seek a cup of coffee (as you should), you will of course find the ubiquitous Starbucks, but you’ll also find a few other of Seattle’s best coffee shops that are not multi-national chains, including Caffe D’Arte, Caffe Umbria and Caffe Vita. For casual bites, there are pubs like Collins Pub or Biscuit Bitch with its basic and yet delicious menu. There are plenty of must-try spots too, like the tiny and usually crowded Il Corvo for its fresh pasta or Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bar, that brings oysters straight from Taylor Shellfish Farms to the table.
Go on an Art Walk
Pioneer Square is home to the First Thursday Art Walk where anyone can come down, score some free parking, and wander the galleries starting at 5 p.m. If you appreciate art at all or are just curious, this is a fun way to get to know what’s new at the galleries, learn about artists both local and not so local, and mingle with the community. The event is held, as the name suggests, on the first Thursday of each month. And while many cities have art walks now, Pioneer Square’s was the very first in the nation! To expand the fun, there is also another art walk on the second Saturday of each month from noon to 5 p.m.
Spend Time in a Park
You might not think of parks in a city scape like Pioneer Square, but there are indeed parks to enjoy here. However, don’t expect rolling green expanses. Occidental Square Park is a city square with neighboring businesses, places to sit, outdoor cafes, as well as bocce courts and ping pong tables, and some public art. Waterfall Garden Park is a sweet little park with a 22-foot waterfall. It’s located just behind Occidental Square Park and is not very large, but it’s the perfect place to enjoy a peaceful lunch or kick back with a book or your phone.
The hours of the Last Resort Fire Department Museum are fairly limited at 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Thursday, but admission is free and the exhibits are a treat if you like fire engines at all. The building is still the Seattle Fire Department HQ, but the staff stay on the second floor while the exhibits (i.e. big firetrucks) are located downstairs in fire engine bays. The display as of early 2019 includes: a 1834 Hunneman end-stroke hand pumper (The "Sacramento"), an 1899 American "Metropolitan" 1st-size horse-drawn steam pumper (Steamer #6), a 1907 American LaFrance 2nd size steamer w/1916 Seagrave tractor (App. #30), a 1950 Kenworth 1500-gpm pumper (Apparatus #194), and a 1958 Mack 1500-gpm pumper (Apparatus #247). There are also historic photos, alarm journals, uniforms, badges, vintage equipment and other things that tell the story of the Seattle Fire Department. The displays will likely rotate in the future so you can see something new on repeat visits.
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park delves into the history of the Gold Rush and its impact on Seattle, which served as a key stop for those headed to Alaska to seek their fortunes. The museum has two floors of exhibits, educational films that follow the Gold Rushers, and daily ranger-led gold panning demonstrations at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Bonus: younger visitors can earn their Junior Ranger badges here.
Delve into the Past on the Trail to Treasure
If you like to explore on your own, then pick up the Trail to Treasure map at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park; Milepost 31 visitor centers or the information booths at Occidental Square and Pioneer Square Park; or online. The map takes you back to what used to exist on the streets of Pioneer Square, from the former location of the tide flats to what exactly burned in the Great Seattle Fire.
Smith Tower is one of Seattle’s oldest buildings and its most historic skyscraper. Built in 1914, the tower was — and still is — known for its observation deck on the 35th floor. Back when it first opened, visitors paid just a quarter to go up and see the city from up high. Today, it costs a bit more, but you can still go up to the observatory and enjoy the view. While you’re up there, have a seat in the Wishing Chair, which has been in the building since its start.
Also like most Seattle neighborhoods, Pioneer Square is filled with little shops lining the streets. Some worth checking out include Agate Designs, which sells gems, crystals, minerals and fossils; Arundel Books, which sells out of print books, art and poetry, and other tough finds; and Bon Voyage Vintage and Beast Mode Apparel for clothing.
If you’re a Sounders fan, head to The Ninety at Sounders Headquarters in Pioneer Square. It’s open to the public each matchday and allows anyone to view the Club’s trophies and memorabilia. Also on match days, stop in and you can watch other games on big screens and enjoy a beer.
Party it Up
Pioneer Square has long been a nightlife spot and you’ll find a variety of ways to party into the wee hours. If something laid back is your style, head to Temple Billiards, Elysian Fields brew pub or Collins Pub. If you want something a little different, be prepared to laugh at the Comedy Underground or get your cowboy boots out for a night at Cowgirls Inc. If you’re in the mood for a full nightclub, Trinity Nightclub is a two-level club with three rooms, each with its own theme, décor and lounge.