I’m a Seattle local who can answer all of your questions about Seattle Center, one of the Emerald City’s top destinations!
This Seattle Center guide covers the landmark’s history, numerous attractions including the Space Needle, nearby eateries, and year-round events. Think festivals, concerts, sports, educational opportunities, and much more! I also include helpful tips for maximizing your experience at one of the best things to do in Seattle.
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A Quick History of the Seattle Center
The First Purchase
The Seattle Center as we know it today came together gradually. In 1853, David Denny filed a claim for the land that would become the Seattle Center campus. A saloonkeeper donated money to build a civic hall on the site almost 30 years later. The Dennys donated land for the civic hall, under the condition that it be “public use forever.”
The Original Buildings
The first official Seattle Center buildings were the Civic Auditorium and Civic Arena. These are now called the Marion McCaw Hall and Seattle Opera. The mayor at the time, Bertha Knight Landes, dedicated the buildings. She played an instrumental role in the creation of the Civic Center Complex and was the first to break ground for it.
Various other structures that would eventually become mainstays were built in years to follow. These included the Seattle Field Artillery Armory and Memorial Stadium.
The 1962 World’s Fair
The Seattle Center saw the biggest boom in development when it was chosen as the main site of the 1962 World’s Fair. The Fair’s theme was Space Exploration, and it influenced the construction of some of the Center’s most notable structures.
The biggest one was the Space Needle (which was originally sketched on a napkin). The International Fountain was made to resemble a lunar landscape. The Seattle Center Monorail, with its 60s-era futuristic look, was another result of the World’s Fair.
The campus was officially renamed The Seattle Center a few years after the successful World’s Fair. This was after being called the Civic Center Campus and the Century 21 Center in the years prior.
Continued Development and Present Day
Development continued to take off after the World’s Fair. The Seattle Opera presented its first season in 1964. In 1971, the first Bumbershoot Festival debuted. 1972 saw the first Northwest Folklife Festival. The Museum of Pop Culture (then, Experience Music Project) opened in 2000.
Today, the Seattle Center continues to host some of the city’s best festivals. It has incredible attractions, and it’s home to the popular sports teams the Seattle Kraken and Seattle Storm.
Seattle Center Visitor Information
When to Visit
Fun, year-round events are one of the best things about the Seattle Center. Come to the Seattle Center at any time and find things going on. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect by season:
🌸☀️ Spring & Summer: Some of Seattle’s most popular festivals, Northwest Folklife and Bite of Seattle, happen in spring and summer. The WNBA Seattle Storm season begins in spring. This is the most crowded time to visit with July and August being peak. Expect lots of activity and an upbeat vibe but lines at most attractions.
🍂 Fall: You’ll see plenty of pretty fall foliage on autumn visits to the Seattle Center. Views from the Space Needle are extra pretty in the early fall before the rain sets in. Bumbershoot is the biggest fall event to come for. Fewer crowds make this a peaceful time to visit.
🌨️ Winter: Cold and rainy winter is a great time to visit the Seattle Center museums, go to the opera, and attend Kraken Games. In December, you can attend various holiday-related festivities and see fireworks on New Year’s Eve.
📚 Related Reading: Nearly every time of year is a good one to visit Seattle Center. However, you should read my guide to the best time to visit Seattle so you know just want to expect from the rest of the city during each month.
Hours, Cost, and How To Get There
💰 Cost: Visiting the Seattle Center and walking around the grounds is one of the best free things to do in Seattle. But note that certain attractions have entry fees, like the Space Needle and museums.
🕧 Hours: Seattle Center is open daily from dawn to dusk. However, each attraction has different hours. In general, museums are open from 10 am to 5 pm. The Space Needle is open from 9 am to 10 pm or 11 pm, depending on the time of the year. Check ahead to confirm hours and closures before visiting.
Getting There: There are multiple ways to get to the Seattle Center, but consider these options when planning your visit.
- 🚝 Seattle Center Monorail: The monorail runs from downtown Seattle at the Westlake Center. The Seattle Center is its one destination. It’s by far the coolest way to get to this attraction, and it drops you right at the Museum of Pop Culture.
- 🚌 Buses: Multiple buses will take you from downtown Seattle to the Seattle Center. A few bus lines that run this route include the 1, 3, 5, 8, D Line, and more.
- 🚶♀️ Walking: You can walk to the Seattle Center depending on where you stay in Seattle. You’ll be closest to it if you stay in the Lower Queen Anne or Belltown neighborhoods. You can also walk here from downtown Seattle and South Lake Union in around 20 minutes.
- 🚗 Driving: There are paid lots around Seattle Center that you can park in if you’re driving. Rates range from $6 to $30 depending on how long you stay.
Keep in mind that these lots will fill up fast if you’re visiting during a big festival or a Kraken game. Event parking rates are $20 to $40. You can also search for limited street parking in the area, which is free on Sundays.
Attractions, Landmarks, and Museums
The Seattle skyline isn’t complete without the Space Needle! This is one of the most notable landmarks in Seattle. Ride up the 600-foot landmark to the observation deck for great panoramic views of Seattle and beyond. Enjoy the view while standing on the revolving glass floor. You can visit the Space Needle year-round.
Museum of Pop Culture
Expect the Museum of Pop Culture to be crowded in the summer. It’s one of the best museums in Seattle, after all, especially if you’re a fan of all things music, movies, and pop culture.
The museum has exhibits of some of Seattle’s beloved rock stars like Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix. It also has memorabilia and exhibits dedicated to famous sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies and TV shows.
Climate Pledge Arena
Come to the Climate Pledge Arena for sports, concerts, and other big events like comedy shows, tours, and ice skating performances. Big headliners have included Alicia Keys, Drake, Blink-182, and The Cure.
This renovated arena is the home of the Seattle Storm and the Seattle Kraken, Seattle’s beloved WNBA and NHL teams. Plan a visit if you’re in town during a game!
Seattle Children’s Museum
Go to the Seattle Children’s Museum if you’re in the Seattle Center with kids. This spot is a fun place for kids to burn off some energy and is perfect on a rainy day. There are a variety of areas for creative play including a mock grocery store, post office, and theater.
By the way, for more family-friendly Seattle, check out my guide to family-friendly activities in Seattle.
Marion Oliver McCaw Hall
McCaw Hall is Seattle’s opera house and where the Pacific Northwest Ballet performs. You’ll be in for a treat whether you go to the opera or ballet. The shows are high-quality and have included well-known stories like The Nutcracker and The Magic Flute. McCaw Hall is designed beautifully with a comfortable auditorium and great acoustics.
Pacific Science Center
Seattle’s Pacific Science Center is a great place for visitors and the community to learn about STEM-related subjects. Its interactive and hands-on exhibits, a tropical butterfly room, IMAX Theater, and fun laser shows make it popular with all ages.
Chihuly Garden and Glass
Washington local Dale Chihuly helped transform Seattle into the glass art destination it is today. Chihuly Garden and Glass is one of the best places to see incredible glass sculptures. Wander through the art museum and admire intricate glass sculptures in a well-manicured garden. You can also watch live glass-blowing demos.
Seattle Children’s Theatre
Go to the Seattle Children’s Theatre with little ones to see kid-friendly performances. It hosts shows geared toward younger audiences that include familiar stories like Paddington and The Wizard of Oz.
Don’t worry about visiting with babies who might cry or young kids who get restless. The theatre has a quiet viewing room for you to take them to for some peace of mind.
The International Fountain was added to the Seattle Center for the World’s Fair in 1962 and was designed to look like the moon for the fair’s Space Age theme. It’s particularly popular on hot days because it plays a water show synced to music. Watch people run in and out of it, testing their luck to see whether or not they’ll get splashed.
“Artists at Play” Playground
The “Artist at Play” Playground is a giant playground for kids located in the heart of the Seattle Center. It has supersized slides, climbing structures, an ADA-friendly merry-go-round, swings, and much more. It’s a treasure trove of fun for kids and even a tempting playscape for parents.
Festivals and Events
Festal is an annual festival at the Seattle Center made up of 24 “mini fests” which celebrate different cultures in the Pacific Northwest. It’s completely free, and you can catch parts of it on practically any visit to Seattle.
Learn about different communities through the arts, dance, and music. Attend the Philippine Festival in June, Brasilfest in August, Diwali in November, and so many more.
Bumbershoot is Seattle’s most epic art and music festival. It’s been going strong since 1971 and will make its triumphant return in September 2023. This Seattle Center Festival features a lineup of amazing musicians and has other fun and out-of-the-box art-centric events. Events to expect in coming years include roller skating, drag shows, culinary arts, and even a cat circus.
Bite of Seattle
Foodies will love the Bite of Seattle festival in the Seattle Center. This food-centric, free-to-enter event is all about sampling the amazing variety of food in Seattle. It features over 200 vendors, beer gardens, cook-offs, demos, and live music.
Northwest Folklife Festival
Northwest Folklife Festival is yet another big Seattle festival worth attending. This fest celebrates the arts, culture, and heritage of people in the Pacific Northwest. It occurs over Memorial Day weekend and features hundreds of food and craft vendors, music, dance, and much more.
Seattle International Film Festival
The Seattle International Film Festival runs over two weeks in spring. It’s perfect for cinephiles and casual movie-goers alike. Check it out to see fantastic international, independent, and local films premiering for the first time.
It’s worth going to SIFF if you appreciate artistic films. There are multiple theaters to catch a screening both within and around the Seattle Center.
Food and Drink In and Around the Seattle Center
Seattle Center Armory
The Seattle Center Armory is where you’ll find most of the food options in the Seattle Center. The armory is a food court and event space. It’s a great place to have a meal in an air-conditioned area with plenty of tables. Some of the food options include pizza, loaded fries, chicken and waffles, wings, fudge, and, of course, coffee.
The Loupe Lounge
The Loupe Lounge is the restaurant and bar in the Space Needle. This is the spot for dinner with a view.
The menu is eclectic and includes things like oysters, burgers, fries, macarons, tasty wine, and well-made cocktails. It’s a good idea to make a reservation in advance. Note that the Loupe Lounge is temporarily closed as of Spring 2023, with plans to reopen in Fall 2023.
Toulouse Petite made my list of the best restaurants in Seattle. It’s a popular place to visit and just a few blocks away from Seattle Center.
Come here to try New Orleans-inspired food like fried chicken and andouille gumbo. Indulge in Dungeness crab over fried green tomatoes or spicy jambalaya. And whatever you do, don’t pass up on the delightfully fluffy and sweet beignets.
Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bar
Taylor Shellfish and Oyster Bar serve a variety of fresh seafood, so it’s a great place to try this Seattle specialty. Order the oysters that it’s known for. But don’t miss the smoked trout or geoduck sashimi when dining here either.
Queen Anne Beerhall
Queen Anne Beerhall is one of my favorite places to grab a beer with a bunch of friends in Seattle. The beer hall has large communal tables and tasty German-style beer. Snack options include salty delights like giant pretzels, herbed fries, sausages, wings, and burgers.
Tilikum Place Cafe
Tilikum Place Cafe is home to one notable Seattle food, the Dutch baby. It’s a must-try if you’re lucky enough to score a brunch reservation. Otherwise, head to Tilikum Place Cafe during dinner. Order delicious seared halibut, sage-butter pasta, french onion soup, or pork schnitzel.
5 Tips for Visiting the Seattle Center
Tip 1: Plan Your Visit Around an Event
The festivals and events that bring together the community are one of the best parts of the Seattle Center. Try to visit the Seattle Center during a festival, grab hockey or basketball tickets, or attend a free show or performance if you’re not crowd-shy. It’s a great way to experience the culture in Seattle.
Tip 2: Buy a CityPASS
Visiting Seattle on a budget? I recommend buying a Seattle CityPASS to experience some of the best of the Seattle Center. The CityPASS gives you a discount for Chihuly Garden and Glass and the MoPOP, along with a couple of other attractions in the city. With it, you can also ride to the top of the Space Needle for breathtaking views in the morning and the evening.
Tip 3: Take Public Transit to Get There
In my opinion, public transit is the best and easiest way to get to Seattle Center. The surrounding area is relatively congested and you don’t want to spend forever searching for a space or spend a ton of money on parking fees.
Taking public transit to the Seattle Center is practically a must if you’re going during a big event or festival. It’ll save you both your money and sanity.
Tip 4: Brings Snacks or Get Food Further Away
The food options in Seattle Center are decent enough, but you’ll pay a premium for them. I suggest coming with snacks if you’re going to spend a good chunk of the day in the area. For a larger meal, there are some great sit-down restaurants, pubs, and bars in the surrounding neighborhood, too.
Tip 5: Slow Down and People Watch
Sit, read, and people-watch — these are some of my favorite things to do at the Seattle Center. The museums and attractions are great, but the Seattle Center is a great place to unwind, relax, and enjoy an easy-going, no-pressure experience.
There’s a lot of green space, so take advantage of it when it’s warm out and the area is bustling with activity.
📚 Related Reading: The Ultimate Pike Place Market Guide
FAQs About Seattle Center
Why is Seattle Center famous?
Seattle Center is famous because it’s the cultural epicenter of Seattle. It’s grown exponentially in use and activity since the 1962 World’s Fair. Today continues to be a place where people gather for art, culture, and events.
How much does it cost to get into Seattle Center?
It’s completely free to get into Seattle Center! Some museums and attractions do have entrance fees. However, you can wander the grounds, check out sculptures, and kids can explore the “Artists at Play” Playground for free.
How late is Seattle Center open?
Seattle Center is open from dawn to dusk. The Seattle Center Armory Food and Event Hall is open until 8 pm daily. The Space Needle and laser shows at the Pacific Science Center are open latest. The Space Needle is open until 11 pm, depending on the season. Some laser shows begin as late as 10:30 pm.
Seattle Center is one of Seattle’s top attractions. I highly recommend putting it on your Seattle itinerary, especially if it’s your first time in the Emerald City! You’ll have an awesome time whether you go to see the Space Needle, museums, or just to people-watch.
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