Seattle is one of the most family-friendly and accommodating cities in the United States, with educational opportunities as well as ventures that are pure fun. Not only that, but there are activities and adventures that span the widest of age groups and interests. Teens, for example, love the Music Experience Project, younger kids love the Woodland Park Zoo and everyone is crazy about the Seattle Aquarium.
There are walking and hiking trails right in the city that families can enjoy. You can also rent bikes and strollers at some of the parks, walk onto one of the ferries for a restful sojourn around Puget Sound, go fishing from one of the piers, gawk at the houseboats that were featured in “Sleepless in Seattle” and visit some hands-on museums.
Transportation is reasonable, and you don’t need to rent a car (in fact, you don’t want to rent a car if you are staying in the city). The buses that transit the downtown area are free. For sightseeing, try Gray Line’s hop-on, hop-off bus service.
Many hotels have great kids’ programs, and our recommended restaurants are definitely family-friendly.
If you are planning on visiting three or more of the most popular attractions, purchasing a CityPass is a good idea. For one price it allows entry into the zoo, the aquarium, the Space Needle and several other key sites.
You’ll come away from your stay with a greater appreciation for this northwest city, its unique perspective and delicate ecosystems. And what’s even better, so will your kids.
Home Away From Home
We’re big fans of the family-friendly Residence Inn by Marriott, but they’re usually in suburban locations. Here’s one right in the city at Lake Union, close to bus transportation and many major attractions. The hotel has a seven-story atrium with a waterfall, and all suites have a full kitchen. Complimentary breakfast and high-speed Internet are included in the rate.
The twin towers of Seattle’s largest hotel, the Westin, have become a city landmark. The 891-guestroom property offers splendid views of Puget Sound, the city or the Space Needle from almost all rooms, which are themselves spacious and comfortable. Kids up to age 12 are welcomed with a Westin Kids Club amenity bag, and the littlest ones spend the night in the Heavenly Crib (the infant equivalent of the chain’s famous Heavenly Bed). The hotel boasts an indoor pool and a great location.
For a worthwhile, once-in-a-lifetime splurge, treat the kids (and yourself!) to a stay at the Fairmont Olympic, located downtown within walking distance of most of the tourist attractions. The hotel’s ornate and historic ambience, indoor pool and health center, plus special amenities for kids, make staying here a special treat.
Start the day with a trip on Gray Line’s Double Decker, a hop-on, hop-off bus service that provides a nice overview of the city layout. For today, get off at Seattle Center.
If you’ve purchased the CityPass, you’re good to go. Make the Space Needle your first stop. Getting to the “O” (for Observation) Deck takes exactly 41 seconds, and brings you 520 feet above the ground with 360-degree views. Free Swarovski telescopes and colorful graphics help you orient yourself to what you’re seeing. Kids might be interested to know that on hot days the Space Needle expands by about an inch, and that its original name was the Space Cage.
From there, go to the Pacific Science Center, also in Seattle Center, for a visit to its five buildings with extraordinary hands-on exhibits for all ages. There’s also a butterfly house and two IMAX theaters. Have lunch at Fountains Cafe within the Science Center; it has a full menu and you won’t have to leave the fun.
If you have teens who get tired of the Science Center, set them loose in the Experience Music Project, also in the Seattle Center area. The building itself was designed by Frank Gehry, and encloses a … well, an experience. Not only do bands and singers of renown appear there from time to time, it’s a place to look at the history of rock ‘n’ roll, try composing a song and enter air guitar contests.
Since you’re spending the day at Seattle Center, you don’t need to travel for dinner. The original Steamers Seafood Cafe is located near the Seattle Aquarium, but they have considerately placed one in Seattle Center as well, serving excellent fish ‘n’ chips, chowder and even chicken sticks on the kids’ menu for those fussy eaters.
Make sure to take the Seattle Monorail back downtown. Riding above the city is a treat, and is especially nice at night with the lights twinkling from the hills to the water. It’s only a mile-long ride and doesn’t take very long, but most kids find it absolutely thrilling.
If it’s a nice day out, purchase a couple of kites and bus over to Gas Works Park, in the Wallingford District at the north end of Lake Union. This park was created from an old gas works and the original equipment has been brightly painted and turned into climbing objects. The knoll looks out over the city and is the perfect place to send a kite soaring.
Then go on to the Woodland Park Zoo, not the biggest, but certainly one of the prettiest and best-maintained in the country. Young kids will love the lizards and snakes, family farm and African savannah. If it’s rainy out, you can bypass Gas Works Park and go directly to the zoo; there’s an entire “rainy day” program that will keep you dry while you look at the exhibits.
The Rain Forest Food Pavilion is a food court with several outlets. Burgers, tacos, Chinese food, pizza and other fast-ish food can all be purchased here, making lunch choices easy for everyone.
When you’re finished with the zoo, make your way over to the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks to watch the boats go from the sea to the channel into Lake Washington and vice versa. Make sure to look at the viewable salmon “steps” (you can see number 18 through a glass viewing area) as the large fish go up the ladder to get back to the lake to spawn and the little ones go down the ladder to get to the salt water.
Have dinner at sunset at Chinooks at Salmon Bay, not far from the locks, where you can watch the fishing boats come in with their catches.
The Museum of Flight is a great way to kick start the day. A perfect outing for families, this venue has everything from World War II biplanes to a British Airways Concorde. There is even the original Air Force One, the presidential jet. More hands-on than the Museum of Air and Space at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., the country’s most popular, this one is a sure hit for all ages, from the youngest kids to easily bored teens and the parents who accompany them.
Wings Cafe is located inside the museum and is a fine place for lunch.
When you’ve had your fill of planes, find your way back to town and Pike Place Market, a riot of color and activity, food and trinkets. Maybe one of your kids is interested in catching a salmon at the Pike Place fish market — and by catching, we’re not talking hook and line. Watching the guys behind the counter is like going to a family-friendly comedy club for free, and yes, they really do throw seafood around, in all directions.
Walk through the market to the waterfront street, Alaskan Way, and north to the Seattle Aquarium, where you and the kids can get a full picture of Northwest sea life and the region’s ecosystem. It’s smaller than many aquariums but incredibly well stocked and equipped, including a walk-through tank where the sea creatures surround you.
There are two family-friendly dinner spots right near the aquarium, Ivar’s Acres of Clams and Red Robin, a block apart. Choose the former for delicious seafood at a very reasonable price in a family-friendly casual waterfront ambience. Choose the latter if you’re tired of fish and clams and chowder and want to sink your teeth into a juicy burger.
Or, if your family still has energy, head to the GameWorks up the hill from Pike Place to end the day with some electronic fun.
Visit our sister site, Family Vacation Critic, for more information on Seattle family vacations.
–written by Jana Jones