Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID) is more than a Chinatown—there’s no one dominant culture there. While the area started as Chinatown in the 1800s, today it’s a mishmash of many cultures, especially Asian, coming together to create something awesome and often delicious. The restaurants in this district are many and worth exploring.
Any day of the year, this unique Seattle neighborhood is an excellent place to go out to eat, visit a museum, or duck into a shop—the stores in the International District range from the huge Japanese grocery store, Uwajimaya, to smaller specialty stores. While the area is not always a bustling place and might be quiet if you stop by on an average afternoon, make no mistake because this neighborhood knows how to throw a good party and is worth keeping an eye on for events.
Here are the top things to do in Chinatown-International District.
Like most Seattle neighborhoods, Chinatown-International District has all kinds of shops and stores. You’ll find small herb shops, a few galleries, as well as some really stand out shopping opportunities. If you only go to one store in the area, go to Uwajimaya. It’s huge. It’s filled with amazing groceries and ready-to-eat foods. You’ll find sushi, Japanese snacks, raw ingredients, imported goods and more. You’ll also find a food court with everything from Hawaiian to Chinese to Korean to Japanese food on the menu. Whether you're grocery shopping or looking for a place to eat, Uwajimaya has got you covered.
Also located within this large store, Kinokuniya is a Japanese bookstore stocked with manga, anime, and plushies galore, but also amazing Japanese school and office supplies, toys, collector items, and random goodies.
Learn About Asian Culture
Don’t expect dry, stuffy, large museums here. The Wing Luke Museum has a focus on Seattle's Asian history and culture, including everything from Bruce Lee to the Korean-American experience. The museum is on the small side, but the exhibits are interesting and included in the price of admission is a tour through a historic hotel and other spaces around the museum.
Party in the Neighborhood
This neighborhood loves to party! Throughout the year, major events take to the streets and celebrate all kinds of happenings. A few not to miss include Bon Odori, which is part of Seafair. Bon Odori is traditionally about honoring your ancestors, but is fun for all whether you feel like honoring your ancestors or not. Count on Taiko drums, yummy food, a beer garden and literal dancing in the streets—join in if you’d like.
Dragon Fest is another top event there and is a grand culmination of food, CID tours, performances, and markets. If you love anime, also look for the Sakura-Con Anime Costume Contest. Dragon Fest usually takes place in July.
Finally, don’t miss the Lunar New Year celebration. While there are many happenings in and around Seattle celebrating the Lunar New Year, this is the biggest celebration.
Go out to Eat
It goes without saying that if you enjoy any sort of Asian cuisine, the Chinatown-International District is a great place to find it. Wander the streets and peek at menus or food displays in the windows, but there are a few places that rise above the rest. If you seek dim sum, look to Harbor City or Jade Garden. If you seek great Vietnamese food or pho, try Green Leaf Vietnamese.
The Seattle Pinball Museum is also located in the district, but don’t expect placards and exhibits about pinball. Instead, dozens of vintage pinball machines and beer constitute this “museum.” Not your average museum, but it’s a lot of fun!
There is an entry fee but pinball play is free.
Celebrate the Autumn Moon Festival
During the annual Night Market and Autumn Moon Festival in September, more than 30 food trucks gather in the International District to offer tastes of all kinds of Asian dishes. There’s also live entertainment, vendor booths, the shops stay open, and entertainment fills the streets.
The Autumn Moon Festival has been an annual tradition in Asia for over 3,000 years. The festival coincides with the fifteenth day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar when the moon is full and brightest. When you go to the Market, you will be able to sample a variety of traditional mooncakes, the official Autumn Moon Festival pastry. You'll also find mooncakes in the bakeries and shops in the Chinatown-International District during September.
Dip into Dim Sum
Dim sum is a fun experience where you choose small plates from a selection of oriental delicacies. Dumplings served inside bamboo steamer baskets and sauces to dip them in are dished up from little carts wheeled around the restaurant.
Hing Hay Park translates to "Park for Pleasurable Gatherings," is in the heart of the Chinatown-International District Neighborhood. Take the stairs from Maynard Street to find a red brick square with a beautiful Chinese-style Grand Pavilion. The pavilion was designed and constructed in Taipei, Taiwan. On one side is a dragon mural and you'll find places to picnic in the expansive plaza with cafe tables, trees, and lighted Asian figures. Hing Hay Park is the center for many festivals, including Lunar New Year and Summer Dragonfest celebrations.
Refresh with a Bubble Tea
Bubble tea is a popular drink where brewed tea is enhanced with milk and sweetened to make a beverage suitable for an afternoon pick-me-up. This Taiwanese tea-based drink was invented in Tainan and Taichung in the 1980s and has spread internationally in popularity.
Most bubble tea starts with freshly brewed tea, hot or cold, and then you can have it blended with milk. Toppings like tapioca pearls, puddings, and gels can be added.
Once you have enjoyed your CID visit, you'll probably want to experience more. One way to do that is to stay overnight.
Within blocks of the center of the neighborhood, you'll find the historic Panama Hotel and a Youth Hostel. While the digs are not fancy, you'll be right in the center of everything and be immersed in the color and culture of the district.
The Panama Hotel opened in 1910 with five stories of single-occupancy rooms for Japanese laborers. The hotel was designed by Seattle’s first architect of Japanese ancestry, Sabro Ozasa. In the basement of the hotel, you can still see the original Japanese bathhouse or sento.
The renovated rooms are small and there are shared bathrooms. The hotel has a restaurant and a bar.