How To Spend a Weekend in Seattle’s Downtown

Downtown’s ease and convenience makes it an essential starting point.

PHOTO BY Tiffany Von Arnim/FLICKR
PHOTO BY Tiffany Von Arnim/FLICKR

Rising steeply from Elliott Bay, Seattle’s Downtown greets visitors to the city with a sample platter of its best features. From the culinary diversity and fresh ingredients of the iconic Pike Place Market, to the rooftop gardens, to the first Starbucks location  — the city takes pride in its open spaces and open attitudes. Seattle’s personality comes from its wide array of neighborhoods, but Downtown’s ease and convenience makes it an essential starting point for a weekend tour — and we’ve got all the places you’ll want to check out while you’re there.

When Seattle first opened to skyscrapers, the city permitted the high rises only if they included a “public benefit,” a policy that left a legacy of privately owned spaces that anyone can enjoy. The seventh-floor rooftop garden of this otherwise average office building stands out as one of the best spots in the city to get a breath of fresh air and a break from the bustle below. Aside from a modest patch of grass, a few seats, and free Wi-Fi, the garden offers breathtaking views, including of the Central Library and the Smith Tower.


Starbucks is turning 50 this year, so why not take a pilgrimage to its very first location as a way to celebrate? This small shop offers visitors a peek at the history of Seattle’s hometown coffee chain, as nearly all of the original features are still intact. Today, it's one of the most popular Starbucks cafes in the country, as latté lovers clamor to sip a Pike Place® Roast at the same very storefront that inspired it. (Apparently, some people even propose at this location.) Look for the original siren logo on the storefront's window and try to spot the differences from the modern version, order from the old-school wood counter, and check out the vintage fixtures from its days as a coffee, tea, and spice shop.

Photo Courtesy Pasta Casalinga, by Kyle Johnson

One of Pike Place Market’s newer lunch spots, this tiny pasta shop offers an equally tiny menu. It always includes a lasagna and plain tomato sauce option, plus one each “from the garden, “from the ocean,” and “from the farm.” All of the offerings utilize seasonal ingredients — often from fellow Pike Place vendors — in a vegetarian, pescatarian, or meat option. But fewer options just means better ones, as each features a pasta shape specially chosen to highlight the excellent local foods.

Also located in Pike Place Market, this Chinese bakery stall makes more than 1,000 of their buns, which they call hom bow, each day. They offer versions baked or steamed, and stuffed with their unique curry beef, traditional barbecue pork, chicken, or vegetables. The buns share the deli case with almond tarts, sesame balls, wife cakes, and all kinds of other Chinese sweets and savories.

At first glance, this shop, right below the famous fish throwers, could be just another eclectic gift shop — something of which the Pike Place Market hosts a delightful variety. But here, your purchase of hot sauces, jewelry, lip balm, wallets, or incense goes even further: this is actually a consignment store for graduates from a non-profit business incubator called Ventures. The organization focuses on providing training and resources for people for whom those things are often difficult to access — especially women, people of color, and immigrants — and for many who go through the program, this shop is one of the first places they sell.


Though Downtown’s green spaces and panoramic views need little extra beauty, the world-class works of art scattered around this hillside create a free outdoor museum open to all. Operated by the Seattle Art Museum, its walking paths zig-zag around the nine acres, leading visitors from Richard Serra’s looming steel “Wake,” through Teresita Fernández’s glass bridge, “Seattle Cloud Cover,” to Juame Plensa’s serene “Echo,” while above it all, Alexander Calder’s instantly recognizable “Eagle” watches. The park segues into a waterfront bike path and Myrtle Edwards Park, which run north along the rocky shoreline, expanding Downtown’s al fresco opportunities.

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas designed the city’s flagship library, opened in 2004, and it boasts floor after floor of public art, impressive open space, and 1.5 million books. But the fourth floor stands out, even among the many unique areas, because the hallway that loops around the floors, meeting rooms, and computer labs features more than a dozen different shades of red on the floor, ceiling, and walls. It’s the library’s most photographed section and shows off the intersection of art, function, and architecture that make this building such a beloved and significant part of the city.

If you prefer your views with a craft cocktail, the historic Smith Tower satisfies, whisking visitors up 35 stories in an old Otis elevator to a Prohibition-themed bar that harkens back to the 1914 building’s early years. Stop by for happy hour and the 360-degree view from what stood as the tallest building west of the Mississippi until 1931. (Smith Tower remained the tallest on the West Coast until Seattle’s other skyline standout, the Space Needle, went up in 1962.) But even so, the views remain great, especially seen from the elegant Observatory Bar as you sip local microbrews, barrel-aged cocktails, and bourbon flights.