The Best Things to Do When You're Visiting Tacoma

bridge of glass
bridge of glass | property of City of Tacoma
bridge of glass | property of City of Tacoma

Tacoma sits on the Puget Sound roughly 30 miles outside of Seattle. It's a town that’s managed to maintain its PNW charm and character throughout the decades, even as surrounding metropolitan hubs slowly scrub away their history and modernize with peculiar high-rises and lavish condos. And though the price for resisting rampant development is urban decay, Tacoma haunts like Bob's Java Jive and B&I show the city's propensity to stay true to its roots and maintain its identity.

Tacoma is also known for its weirdness (the phonetically pleasing phenomenon dubbed the Aroma of Tacoma probably has something to do with this). Here, you get a distinct sense that you’ve taken a half step back in time driving into a quirky town awash with both shrines to bygone eras and sweeping views of the Puget Sound, Mount Rainier, and Olympic Mountains. The city boasts two distinct nicknames: "City of Destiny" and "Grit City," each paying homage to Tacoma's past, present, and future. But to truly get a sense of Washington's third-largest city, you just have to go there. And when you do, we'll have you covered with everything you need to do when you arrive.

bluebeard coffee
Flickr/Gexydaf

Get jacked up on the best coffee in town

Bluebeard Coffee Roasters
Hit the open, airy and stylish Bluebeard to start things off when coming into the city. Bluebeard’s roastery is in-house and features seven different roasts, including a blend that tips its hat to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and has notes of chocolate, caramel, berry, and citrus. Happen to be a fan of the movie 10 Things I Hate About You? Good, because the high school (Stadium High School) the movie was filmed at is just down the way if you care to check it out.

Eat the most legendary donut of your life

Legendary Doughnuts
The corner shop boasts four different categories of donuts: Amateur (for the basics like old-fashioneds), Doughsant (a square-shaped marriage of a doughnut and croissant), Famous, and Legendary. Naturally, you’ll want to spring for the Legendary variety. These include such creations as the caramel sea salt pretzel donut (an enormous raised pretzel-shaped doughnut topped with caramel and sea salt) and the Yogi Bear, which is a two-person bear claw filled with peanut butter and jelly. If those just don't seem venerable enough for you, opt for the gigantic burger-shaped donut, especially if you came with a crew. The large hamburger donut is composed of three 9-inch donut rings that are strategically frosted and served with cinnamon sugar fries and raspberry dip to replicate ketchup.

bob's java dive
Flickr/Kenji Ross

Walk into a world-famous teapot

Bob's Java Jive
The sheer novelty and fortitude of this extremely weather-beaten watering hole has earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Just off Tacoma Way, this quirky giant teapot-shaped dive bar is the spot to hit for an ice-cold Rainier and a bit of karaoke. Open since 1927, it's lived countless lives throughout the decades; from hosting go-go dancers on a greased wood stage to being a warm, welcoming spot to visiting tourists. These days, it’s mostly locals that frequent Bob's, which is perfect if you're looking for a big weird slice of Tacoma’s vibe. Bob’s occasionally hosts live music as well, so keep your eye on their calendar here.

Experience old Tacoma at B&I

B&I Public Marketplace
The golden era of this former circus attraction is long gone, but its popularity and allure hasn't faded one bit. Tacoma’s wackiest public marketplace lives on the south end of town and features a pet store, sizable arcade, and flea market-esque array of shops that are arranged in a maze-like manner. It'll feel like you're walking into a David Lynch film, and you should prepare yourself to get lost, but if you’re truly committed to getting to the bottom of what Tacoma has to offer, B&I is a big part of the city’s history and tradition. After starting as a hardware store back in 1946, B&I evolved into a huge tourist destination. Not only did they house an elephant from India by the name of Sammy, they also hosted an assemblage retro TV stars like Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and The Cisco Kid -- we even hear Burt Ward (Robin from the old-school Batman series) stopped by in the 60s.

dorky's arcade
Flickr/Orin Blomberg

Find your inner dork and let it out

Dorky's
Nerd out at this behemoth bar arcade just down the road from downtown Tacoma. Dorky’s touts an insane selection of both games (they have around 140) and bottled beers (over 100), meaning there's plenty of opportunities to experiment. From classics like Tapper, Ms. Pacman, and Donkey Kong to more obscure fan favorites, Dorky’s features over 60 standup arcade games and over 20 pinball machines (among a miscellaneous selection of other activities like beer pong and Arm Champs 2). Note that Dorky’s is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so plan accordingly... and don't forget to bring quarters.

wright park tacoma
Flickr/Gexydaf

Throw a picnic in Wright Park

Wright Park
Roll by MSM Deli beforehand, just up the way from the park, and grab a meatball sandwich (or gluttonous sub of your choice, there are a ton of options) from the excellent hole-in-the-wall. Once you do that, toss out a blanket and soak in a sunny day in scenic Wright Park. The gorgeous 27-acre park boasts a forest of beautiful trees (great for finding some shade), picnic tables, and even features a free indoor arboretum on the south end. Think of it as Tacoma’s Central Park.

infinite soups
Laura Clapp-Adams

Sip a never-ending bowl of soup

Infinite Soups
Infinite Soup is a living manifestation of a Seinfeld episode (you know the one). You can’t miss the mom-and-pop spot; a giant spoon -- that you’ll have to be careful not to bang into when you walk out -- will immediately assure you that you're in the right place. The selection changes every day (they serve over two dozen varieties daily), but one mainstay here -- the chicken gorgonzola tortellini -- shouldn't be passed over. Infinite serves fresh bread from Corina Bakery down the street: Be sure to add a roll or two to your order.

Take a trip to a classic drive-in

Rodeo Drive-In
So this spot is actually in Bremerton, but why not use it as an excuse to cross the Narrows Bridge to get over there? Rodeo screens first-run films, so this is your chance to catch the latest summer blockbuster from the comfort of your economical mid-sized sedan. Unlike most movie theaters around the area, Rodeo actually serves good food; the burgers and nachos are exponentially cheaper and more delicious than you’d find in any city theatre. Tune in to the right FM station and kick back at one of only five drive-in theaters still left in the state. There are three screens here and all movies start at dusk. Ten dollars gets you in for a double feature, so don’t forget to turn your car’s engine over every now and then, lest you face the wrath of a dead battery.

bridge of glass
property of City of Tacoma

Walk over a big glass bridge

Chihuly Bridge of Glass
Not only is the 500-foot-long Chihuly Bridge of Glass free to check out, but you’ll also get a nice sweeping view of Downtown and Thea Foss Waterway on the other end. There are a cluster of attractions all within walking distance in this vicinity (the UW-Tacoma campus, Museum of Glass, Union Station, Washington State History Museum, and Tacoma Art Museum), so you can pick your poison depending on how you’re feeling, or just stroll along the waterfront to take advantage of the day's weather.

frisko freeze
Flickr/Olin Blomberg

Hit an iconic 1950s burger joint

Frisko Freeze
Dick’s is to Seattle as Frisko Freeze is to Tacoma. Nothing hits the spot quite like some greasy spoon cuisine, and believe me, Tacoma does it right when it comes to a good old-fashioned burger, fry, and shake combo. Since 1950, Frisko Freeze has been purveying gut busting classics like its Tripleburger (their signature burger made with three patties), which should be all you need to fuel up to get home after a long day out. The onion rings are some of the best you’ll find around, and the retro aesthetic will knock you clear into an Archie comic, complete with a Veronica Lodge spending spree. Open ‘til 1am on the weekends, you’d be remiss to leave without ordering off their menu's impressive array of malts and shakes, with flavors ranging from vanilla and chocolate, to wild cherry and banana.

america's car museum
America’s Automotive Trust

Understand why people are nuts about cars at America's Car Museum

America's Car Museum
Just off I-5, when you hit Downtown Tacoma, America's Car Museum is a 165,000-square foot emporium of vintage cars that date back throughout the decades. Right next to the Tacoma Dome, five annual signature events take place here (Summer Ender Fender Bender and Cars & Cigars are two of the more popular ones) and there are 12 rotating exhibits in this behemoth auto mecca. Come for the rows upon rows of candy-colored whips -- there are over 300 cars here at any given moment -- and stay for the riveting history of America, and man’s second best friend: his wheels.

Live like a lighthouse keeper for a week

Brown's Point Lighthouse
It doesn’t get more PNW than the Brown’s Point Lighthouse, situated near the east entrance of Commencement Bay. Be it a blustery morning or clear summer afternoon, the charm of this historic beacon is unwavering. In 1964 the area surrounding the lighthouse became a public park, resplendent with ample opportunities for great beaching and picnicking. Pop into the free Points Northeast Historic Society for a bit of backstory on the area, or if you're really about the nautical life, replacing mph for knots and what have you, you can rent out the lightkeeper's cottage for a week for the full experience -- fishing from shore, walks on the beach, and guarding the front porch from the comforts of a rocking chair with beer in hand, naturally.

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium
Ingrid Barrentine

Finally befriend a puffin

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium
Alongside playing host to scores of exotic animals, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium touts killer views of the Sound. There are daily presentations ranging from puffin feeding to camel rides (offered daily from 10:30am to 3:30pm depending on the weather), and the aquarium is the perfect spot to dodge the sun in the dog days of summer. Roll out to Point Defiance Park after your visit to keep the party going -- it’s just a few paces past the exit.

Odd Otter Brewing Company
Odd Otter Brewing Company

Hang with locals. Get weird.

Odd Otter Brewing Company
If you often say beer is "your thing" and you’ve grown tired of the standard fare of most bars, Odd Otter is where you need to go. From a tasty mango hefeweizen to a potent lychee habanero IPA, you'd be hard-pressed to find more innovative and unique beers around. Odd Otter has eight beers on draft and three unique ciders, like their Thai ginger from Locust Cider and cherry cider courtesy of Tieton Cider Works. Pop by on Tuesday for karaoke night, belt out some Third Eye Blind, and then remember why you tell people beer is "your thing." Stylish yet cozy, you can find a corner spot in the brick-lined bar or opt for a sunny spot right out front.

thornewood castle
Flickr/Lara604

Spend the night in an actual castle

Thornewood Castle
It might be a little bit spendier than your average B&B, but it's a goddamn castle. Thornewood was constructed in 1908 and can be found alongside American Lake in Lakewood just south of Tacoma. If it's good enough for famed former guests -- Presidents Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt -- it's good enough for all of us. You can take your pick from Lord Byron's Attic (complete with a heart-shaped jacuzzi), the Presidential Suite (named after its esteemed former guests), the Blue Room (a guest room of the legendary owners of the castle), and much more at this resplendent gothic, Tudor-style castle.

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Chona Kasinger a Seattle-based photographer and writer. She went to school in Tacoma and has definitely banged her head on the spoon outside Infinite Soups. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Bon Appetit, and more.