Seattle With Kids: Semi-Secret Things to Do
By Wendy K. Leigh
Let’s be honest about family travel: every major city has similar versions of children’s museums, science centers, zoos, and now even super-spinning Great Wheels slicing through the skies. But there’s a whole lot of hidden treasures when it comes to kid’s activities in Seattle. In this rainy Pacific enclave of earth-hugging, high-tech hipsters, traveling with children is far from ordinary. It’s not called the “Emerald City” for nothing, so check out these enchanting things to do in Seattle with kids.
Old-Growth Forests, In-City Hiking, and Alligator Hunting
It’s easy to think that Seattle has a super-small weather window for enjoying the great outdoors, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. When the wind whips and rain drips, that’s when Seattle’s evergreen eco-wonders are at their most magical. There’s no need to even leave the city limits to find the best kids activities in Seattle.
- Discovery Park perches on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound, framed by the snowcapped Cascade and Olympic Mountains. This 534-acre protected natural area swirls with secret hideaways, from tidal beaches to cragged sea cliffs, sand dunes, meadows, evergreen forests, and salmon streams. Take a hike through old-growth madrona and cedar groves, go zip-lining, visit a wildlife sanctuary, and climb West Point Lighthouse on the beach.
Hot tip: Traveling with kids actually saves you some money here, with a free beach shuttle for families if any kiddo is under age eight.
- Bring along some rubber wading boots for a romp though Schmitz Preserve Park in West Seattle, nestled within an obscure ravine. This preserve is home to clear natural streams for stomping and splashing, and it harbors mysterious trails full of hidden moss-covered creatures. Fortunately, they are only carved out of fallen logs. Look for the submerged alligator near the north entrance, just off an eastern-leaning trail.
- Seattle’s favorite glacier-carved water wonderland is unquestionably Greenlake, sitting smack in the heart of the city. No matter the season, you’ll find both locals and family travel clans whizzing along the lakeshore on bikes, strollers, unicycles, rollerblades, skateboards and wheelchairs. Everyone dips and dodges, whirls and twirls on 2.8 miles of dedicated lanes and dirt footpaths. Get onto the lake itself with rental kayaks, paddleboards and rowboats, all available seasonally.
Mummies, Ferry Boats, and Pier 57
Ride the Seattle Great Wheel, located at iconic Pier 57. The gondolas fit up to 8 people, making this the perfect family ride.
There’s nothing like a misty windswept day along the Seattle waterfront, with ferry boats churning the waters and log-loaded barges floating in the distance. This is an earthy Northwestern version of Coney Island, substituting hot dogs for salmon-and-chips or clams. Here are some of the best waterfront activities when traveling with kids.
- Sit at heated outdoor picnic tables on Pier 54, and have some ice cream or snacks from Ivar’s Fish Bar. The kids can feed the pigeons and watch seagulls swooping to grab floppy fish-bites from the water below.
- Stroll down to Ye Olde Curiosity Shop to meet Sylvia, scream-queen of the waterfront. Don’t tell the family ahead of time that she just happens to be a real mummy from Central America. Her afterlife companion, Sylvester, hangs around the shop with shotgun-lead and arsenic indicating his demise in the 1800s.
- Ride a genuine, working antique carousel and play old-timey pinball machines at the end of Pier 57, also known as Miner’s Landing. For dinner, give the kids a mallet and let them smash crab, clam and lobster to their heart’s content at the The Crab Pot. Order the Seafeast, which gets plopped ceremoniously in a huge steaming pile of pleasure right onto your tabletop. (And don’t worry: when traveling with kids, you can also order from a little skippers menu.)
- If you feel like splashing some cash, scoop up a “bounty of booty” at Pirate’s Plunder or ride the Seattle Great Wheel right at the end of the pier. Pop into Seattle Aquarium on Pier 59 to touch starfish, sea anemone and hermit crabs.
Salmon Bake, Storytelling, and Native Salish Dancing
Instead of just watching those ferry boats, ride one of them over to Tillicum Village on Blake Island. This is one of the most unusual things to do in Seattle with kids, as it’s like history literally coming alive in front of your eyes.
- On the ferry trip over to Blake Island, keep an eye out for migrating whales, seals and bald eagles. Most of the 475-acre island is a protected state park, so you’ll also have some time for exploring the beaches and forest trails after the dinner and show.
- Talk the kids into trying the warm clam nectar that’s offered by Native tribal members when you step foot onto Blake Island. It’s a gesture of welcome and a family travel experience they’ll surely never forget.
- Step into the longhouse, designed in the Coast Salish tradition, and watch your dinner being roasted over open alder-smoked fires. The salmon is split and splayed onto alderwood stakes and branches, and then positioned in a circle around the smoky fire.
- When the lights dim, you’ll be enthralled by ancient storytelling with 3D projections and holograms. Live dancers in traditional dress enact tribal myths and history with drums and ancient instruments.
Water Taxis, Tidepools, and Beach Fires
Get back to Alki Beach early to snag a coveted fire pit on the sand.
West Seattle is the beachy-cool part of the city, typically reached by a massive bridge spanning the Puget Sound. However, when traveling with kids, you’ll want to hop aboard the very affordable water taxi from Pier 50. Bundle up and bring some waterproof gear for tidepooling and beach bonfires.
- The water taxi drops you off at Seacrest Park in West Seattle, where a rustic pier extends into the water for fishing or just running amuck. Catch a free shuttle to Alki Beach, and get ready for some fun.
- The promenade strings along the shoreline of Alki Beach, packed with joggers, skaters and strolling families chomping on Hawaiian shave Ice from Marination Ma Kai or macaroons from Bakery Nouveau. The sandy, pebbly beach runs for 2.5 miles with striking views of the mountains, boats, and downtown Seattle.
- Head over to Constellation Park for one of the best fun family things to do in Seattle: tidepooling. Bring a bucket and spade to dig at low tide for sea stars, sea anemones, hermit crabs, and urchins. The park also features tidepool-themed sculptures and a colorful glass mosaic named “The Intertidal World.”
Tip: You can check the tide schedules with a free smartphone app such as Tides Near Me, and learn all about tidepooling with the Washington Trails Association Guide to Tidepooling with Kids.
- Get back to Alki Beach early to snag a coveted fire pit on the sand. Build a roaring bonfire with supplies and s’mores fixins from Safeway on California Avenue, about a five-minute walk or a quick ride-share trip from the fire pits. Make sure to check the water taxi schedule for return times to Pier 50! Or click your ride-share app again; you’ll be scooped up in no time on Alki Beach.
Wooden Boats, Trolls, and Seaplanes
Downtown Lake Union glistens with all kinds of things, from high-rise reflections to lamp-lighted houseboats, and spectacular fireworks displays. It’s also home to wooden boat-building and seaplanes skimming across the water all day. Traveling with children gets a whole lot easier when you hit the shores of Lake Union.
- First stop is the Center for Wooden Boats at the south end of the lake, a living maritime museum where you’ll learn about knot-tying, boatbuilding and sailing – and it’s all free! Check out at least 80 historic wooden vessels, drop in for tugboat storytelling, and let the kids loose on the docks with marine-themed dock toys. You can also rent sailboats, canoes, paddle boats and kayaks, or go sailing for free on Sundays.
- Row or paddle over to Gasworks Park to let little legs fly over rolling hills sloping gently down to the water. Fly a kite, explore graffiti-covered structures once belonging to Seattle’s gasification plant, or rent a bike to cruise the Burke-Gilman Trail.
- Walk just a few blocks from Gasworks Park to quirky, groovy Fremont, the self-proclaimed “Center of the Universe.” This is where you’ll find the famous Fremont Troll, a massive concrete one-eyed troll residing under Aurora Bridge. He’s holding an actual Volkswagen Bug in his hand and is more than happy to let the kids climb all over him.
Tip: When traveling with kids, remember that trolls love shiny objects—so bring along some cheap, glittery peace offerings.
- After returning your canoe or boat, gather the clan for one of the most exhilarating kids activities in Seattle: a seaplane ride. On the east side of Lake Union, board a small airplane that suddenly starts skimming the surface of the water. Soar on a 20-minute adventure over the city, the Space Needle, Bill Gate’s mansion, and the Ballard Locks before landing right on the lake. You can also treat the family to a seaplane weekend at Mount Ranier or the San Juan Islands.
Seattle is one of the fastest growing big cities in America, teeming with entrepreneurs and self-made techie millionaires, but don’t be fooled by all the hype. At its very heart, Seattle embraces nature and nurture in a big way—especially when it comes to the little ones. So download some family-friendly apps, toss in some rain gear, and deep dive into some Pacific Northwest family time.