Tacoma is the third-largest city in Washington state and is made up of several neighborhoods that each have their own identities. Just south of Seattle, it has its own distinct vibe — one that's increasingly trendy and on the up and up as T-Town's reputation as an industrial port city fades (though make no mistake, Tacoma still has a major port and likely always will). These days, it's more known for its museums and arts scene and for the fact that the real estate is cheaper than in Seattle.
But make no mistake — Tacoma is booming and a part of why that's happening is because the real estate is indeed cheaper than Seattle's! As a result, many neighborhoods that have never been especially trendy are gentrifying and changing rapidly as rising prices force many buyers to consider places other than the North End and University Place.
A Bit of Geography
Tacoma's downtown core serves as the cultural hub, but most of the city is outside of downtown in residential neighborhoods and commercial districts. Some neighborhoods bleed together and don’t have as distinct personalities as others, whereas others have specific atmosphere and appeal. Beyond neighborhoods within the city limits, a number of neighboring towns and cities surround the city and, while they are not part of Tacoma technically, they are close enough that a day out and about may well spill into them, and they add more things to do for residents and visitors.
For those moving to the city, this is one of the most competitive real estate markets in town for a reason. One of the nicest areas in the city, North Tacoma is more affluent than most of the other areas of town except for Northeast. The North End has lovely old Victorian homes (stroll along Yakima Avenue between North 3rd and North 12th to see some of the best) as well as smaller, more affordable houses; strong walkability; amazing water views; and areas such as the Proctor District that help make living here so pleasant.
Schools have great reputations and often have waitlists to get into if you don't live in the neighborhood (Tacoma Public Schools allow parents to choose which school their children go to, regardless of where they live). Another perk is its proximity to downtown and Central Tacoma, but freeway access is a little on the weak side for many parts of this neighborhood.
South Tacoma is appealing for its central location, easy freeway access and affordable homes. There are many places to shop and go out to eat here because Tacoma Mall is located in this part of town, as are all the businesses that have popped up around the mall. Green spaces such as Wapato Park also add some balance to this part of town. Visit Wapato on a nice summer day or take a walk around the lake in autumn to enjoy the changing colors. No, it's not as affluent as North Tacoma, but there are some areas that have similar home styles to North Tacoma, so as real estate prices go up, more and more people are buying in this part of town.
Central Tacoma is a smaller neighborhood nestled between North and South Tacoma. This area has a number of stores, restaurants and businesses, but is largely residential. Many of its businesses are along South 12th Street and include Mandolin Sushi and Steak House, Flipping Out Burgers, and Uncharted Waters Float Center. Central Tacoma offers close proximity to just about everything in town.
East Tacoma has a rougher reputation than most other parts of Tacoma, but it is gradually pulling itself up and real estate is flying off the listings here as much as any other neighborhood as it's a little more affordable than the rest of town. You will find new home developments, parks and crime watches here, and there are parts of the East End that are great places to live. A bonus to living in this area is that it is closest to Seattle and getting onto I-5 at Portland Avenue bypasses much of the Tacoma commute traffic.
In years gone by, most locals considered this part of town a part of North Tacoma, but more recently, it's gone by West Tacoma. It even has its own neighborhood council. Tacoma’s West End is located in the western half of North Tacoma, and there are some lovely waterfront homes here or homes with views of the Narrows Bridge. This part of town also has some of the best places to walk and hike, including Point Defiance and the Narrows Bridge, as well as attractive neighborhoods that include a range of both older and newer homes and everything in between.
New Tacoma is the most diverse neighborhood as it encompasses areas such as the Stadium District (a small business district in one of the wealthier areas) and lower Pacific Avenue (the fringe end of downtown Tacoma)—vastly different parts of town. There aren’t as many places to live here, and what is here is often expensive. There is also a lot of business and industry, including the Port of Tacoma.
Located across the water on the other side of the port, Northeast Tacoma is barely part of Tacoma other than in name. It can take up to an hour to reach parts of this neighborhood from most of Tacoma. However, if you want to live in the Tacoma area and yet not really in the Tacoma area, consider the Northeast. Freeway access here bypasses the Tacoma Dome clog, water views are plentiful, and this part of town is quiet and peaceful. The only drawback is that kids mostly have a long bus ride to Tacoma proper and there isn't a lot of commercial activity in the neighborhood, so you'll either be driving to Federal Way or the rest of Tacoma to shop.
Tacoma's Trendy Districts
Within Tacoma's neighborhoods are several districts with unique vibes of their own. Although not all of the districts are as popular, some of the better-known ones include these.
6th Avenue bisects North and South Tacoma, and is one of the best places to find nightlife, restaurants, and many fun things to do. Although downtown Tacoma has some nice clubs and restaurants as well, 6th Avenue is more laid-back and walker-friendly if you want to go bar hopping. It's also the center of Tacoma's breakfast scene with options ranging from the Original Pancake House to local joints such as Dirty Oscar's Annex and Old Milwaukee Cafe.
Downtown Tacoma is where many of the best things to do are located. The Theatre District is centered around South 9th and Broadway. Tacoma's museums are clumped together around 17th and Pacific. In between, you'll find a big range of restaurants from ritzy El Gaucho and Pacific Grill to teriyaki spots. Especially near the theaters, you'll also find bars and restaurants that stay open late.
Located in North Tacoma, Proctor is not large (but it's growing), but it packs a lot into a small space. Centered on North 26th and Proctor, the district includes stores and restaurants, bars, shops, the historic Blue Mouse Theatre, and more. More recently, Proctor Station brought Peaks and Pints, Top Pot Doughnuts and other businesses to the area. In fact, there's a reason this is one of the most popular neighborhoods to live in. You'll find everything you need for daily life right within this district.
Small, but all around awesome, the Stadium District is a great place to live or hang out. Cool restaurants and nightspots such as The Hub, The Harvester, King's Books and Doyle’s Public House are all near each other. The neighborhood is walkable and you'll catch peek-a-boo water views around every corner. What's not to love?
Old Town is located in North Tacoma close to the waterfront. It's small but has The Spar restaurant, a Starbucks, and a few local businesses. Old Town also hosts a blues festival every summer that's always a hit.
Surrounding Cities and Towns
Puyallup is Tacoma’s more country neighbor. While it still has country homes and produce that grows well in the shadow of Mount Rainier, this area has also boomed in the last decade. Planned development areas such as Gem Heights and Silver Creek are great places to look if you want cheaper real estate than Tacoma as well as larger homes. Along with the real estate boom in the mid-2000s came a whole lot of retail development, so residents will find almost every chain store imaginable somewhere along Meridian Avenue.
Gig Harbor is across the Narrows Bridge from Tacoma. It is a quiet, seaside village that has grown in recent years to include just enough retail offerings that residents don't have to cross the bridge to shop or dine unless they really want to (but with bridge tolls, you really have to want to). Taking a tour of the harbor or wandering along Gallery Row are a few ways to enjoy what this town has to offer.
Lakewood is a sprawling residential town south of Tacoma. This is where the Lakewood Towne Center is as well as American Lake. Living, working, or playing here are all possible in this diverse town that's popular with those who live or work at Joint Base Lewis–McChord for its proximity to the base.
University Place (known as "UP" for short) is mostly residential, but it does have some great places to walk such as Titlow Beach and Chambers Creek Golf Course (home of the 2015 U.S. Open). For those shopping for a house, UP is a little more expensive than most parts of Tacoma and many of the homes date to the mid-1900s. The neighborhoods are tidy and the city is known for its strong school district.