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10 Seattle Museums You Need to Visit

SmarterTravel

When it comes to museums, Seattle can hold its own with any large city. Seattle museums do a particularly good job of highlighting the city’s unique traditions of innovation and contributions to the world.

Seattle Museums to Visit

A rainy day won’t slow you down when you put these terrific Seattle museums on your sightseeing list.

Museum of History and Industry

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The story of Seattle stars at MOHAI, which makes great use of its grand, cavernous space—a former Naval armory—to display some of the city’s most beloved artifacts. Boeing’s first commercial aircraft hangs high in the atrium, near the 12-foot neon “R” that once topped the Rainier Brewery. The “Seattle Journey” exhibit unfolds around the mezzanine like a walking timeline, tracing the city’s transformation from wilderness to worldly. The top floor is devoted to maritime history, complete with a working World War II periscope that offers a sneaky 360-degree view of the city. Don’t miss one of the best Seattle museums.

Museum of Flight

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As the birthplace of Boeing, Seattle feels a special affinity for aviation. You’ll feel it, too, as you explore one of the largest air and space museums in the world. The Museum of Flight‘s collections span pretty much the entire history of aviation, from early gliders to the NASA space shuttle program. On display are dozens of aircraft and spacecraft, plus techy interactive exhibits like flight simulators that put you in the cockpit. The exhibit on the U.S./U.S.S.R. space race features the world’s most powerful rocket engine, which propelled Apollo 12. It was lost on the ocean floor for decades until Seattle’s own Bezos Expeditions discovered and recovered it—proof that Seattle is still making aviation news.

Museum of Pop Culture

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Founded by Microsoft’s Paul Allen as the Experience Music Project, this wide-ranging Seattle museum is now “MoPop,” renamed to better reflect a broadened focus on music, film, science fiction, and other aspects of contemporary culture. Exhibits on Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana showcase the city’s significant contributions to the music world. Other key attractions include the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame and an interactive Sound Lab where you can play instruments and mix vocal tracks in a private music studio. Designed by Frank Gehry, MoPop is perhaps best known for its outrageous avant-garde exterior, a crinkled and curved metallic skin said to resemble a smashed electric guitar.

Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park

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The Seattle unit of this national park (its three other units are in Alaska) tells the story of how a gold rush nearly 2,000 miles north transformed this small coastal city into the trade and shipping center it is today. When word spread in the 1890s of gold strikes in the Yukon Territories, Seattle promoted its port as the best place to provision and board a steamship north. Among the displays, you can follow real-life characters on their journey from the piers of Seattle to the wilds of the bush and back. A few had their own lasting impact on the city, like John Nordstrom, whose Klondike earnings funded the first Nordstrom shoe store.

Nordic Heritage Museum

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With its northern climate, ample waterways, and forests that reminded them of home, Seattle drew thousands of immigrants from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland in the late 19th century. Their stories come to life in this downtown Ballard museum, housed in a grand, light-filled building (new in 2018) as large as a Viking ship. Its galleries, arranged around a central “fjord,” explore the immigrant experience, the core values and heritage of the five Nordic countries, and contributions of Nordic-Americans.

Living Computers Museum

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Backed by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, the Living Computers Museum celebrates both the past and future of tech. It’s the place to geek out on vintage mainframes and video games, and explore more contemporary advances in artificial intelligence and other ways computers continue to shape our world. Hands-on activities include a “Gamemakers Space,” where you can create a video game. 

Seattle Art Museum

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American art gets its due at the city’s preeminent art museum, with excellent collections of Pacific Northwest Native American carvings and textiles, and contemporary works from the Northwest School. Asian and African art are particularly well represented, too. The museum is no doubt best known for Hammering Man, the 48-foot motorized sculpture that adorns its First Avenue facade, a popular meeting spot.

Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience

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Named for the first Asian American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle City Council in 1962), “the Wing” examines the complex history and considerable contributions of Asian pioneers to the Pacific Northwest. Along with celebrating arts and culture—including a multi-year exhibit devoted to martial artist and actor Bruce Lee— this thoughtful Seattle museum also addresses darker periods in history, such as Japanese-American internment during World War II.  

Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

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On the campus of the University of Washington, this natural history museum tells the story of geology and evolution, with an exhaustive collection of fossils, minerals, animal specimens, and a largely intact Tyrannosaurus rex skull discovered by UW paleontologists in 2016. The Burke’s Bill Holm Center curates one of the world’s best collections of Northwest Native Art, and hosts workshops to share regional artistic traditions.

Seattle Pinball Museum

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This Seattle museum began as a three-month pop-up exhibit to showcase vintage pinball machines “as an interactive display of kinetic art.” The attraction proved so popular that it  became a permanent fixture in the International District. The ever-growing array of 50-plus clanging and buzzing machines includes some collectibles from the 1930s. Best of all, most are available for unlimited play for the price of admission. Pinball wizards unite!

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—Original reporting by Tina Lassen

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