Gritty, industrial, and unpretentious, Tacoma, WA is a historically underrated city in Pierce County that’s one of the coolest places to visit in Washington.
With an edgy art scene and world-class museums, beautiful parks, unique restaurants, landmark eateries, and incredibly well-stocked vintage shops, there are fun things to do in this south sound city for every type of visitor.
Tacoma is one of the easiest places to take a day trip from Seattle, and one of my personal favorites.
Not sure where to begin? Not to worry! I’m a Washington local ready to walk you through all of the best things to do in Tacoma!
Table of Contents
- 23 Best Things to Do in Tacoma
- Museums & Cultural Attractions
- What to Do to Eat, Drink, Play & Shop
- Free & Cheap Things to Do in Tacoma
- FAQs About What to Do in Tacoma
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23 Best Things to Do in Tacoma
Point Defiance Park
Explore a giant park full of amazing attractions
Point Defiance Park is an enormous park on the northernmost tip of Tacoma, Washington. Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, a living museum, rose garden, numerous trails, Owen Beach, and Five Mile Drive are just a few of the attractions within it.
Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium is easily one of the best things to do in Tacoma. Home to red wolves, sea otters, Asian elephants, sea lions, and more, it’s a fascinating place to learn about animals and the zoo’s conservation efforts.
You can’t go wrong exploring the forested park outside the zoo, but head to Owen Beach if you want to relax by the water and watch the Vashon Island Ferry crossing the Puget Sound (note: Owen Beach is temporarily closed as of February 2022 – check the website here for more information). The Dune Peninsula is also a fantastic place to take a stroll or relax and watch for seals.
👉 Pro Tip: Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium is currently on a timed reservation system. Book your tickets in advance to make sure you get in! After you explore the zoo and rest of the park, make sure to grab a delicious sandwich or a slice of pie from The Antique Sandwich Co. You won’t regret it.
Ruston Way Waterfront
Take a scenic stroll along a gorgeous waterfront
When the weather’s right, the waterfront along Ruston Way is one of the prettiest spots to get outdoors in Tacoma. What used to be an industrial area with boatyards and lumber mills has transformed into a family-friendly destination equipped with delicious seafood restaurants and plenty of spots to picnic or go fishing.
Jog, bike, or walk a 2 mile stretch along Commencement Bay, making sure to stop at the various parks along the way. I recommend starting your stroll on the east end at the Chinese Reconciliation Park, a beautiful spot dedicated to Tacoma’s commitment to healing its past with its Chinese residents.
Eat, bar hop, and shop on one of Tacoma’s coolest strips
If you want to go to Tacoma and do as the locals do then checking out the shops, bars, and restaurants along 6th Ave is a good way to get a taste of Tacoman living. The strip between State and Alder is where you’ll find some of the best this area has to offer.
Start by grabbing hot dogs and beer at The Red Hot and then head over to Hi-Voltage Records to peruse their vinyl collection. Find unique vintage clothing at Scorpio Rising, and grab a stack of good reads from Stargazer Comics. In the evening wander down to Jazzbones for karaoke, a live show, or a dance party.
Museum of Glass
Marvel at stunning glass sculptures
📍 Address: 1801 Dock St, Tacoma, WA 98402 | Phone: (253) 284-4750 | Website | Hours: 10 am – 5 pm Wednesday – Sunday, Closed Monday and Tuesday | Entrance: $17 adults, $5 children (6-12), free children under 6
Gorgeous glass sculptures await visitors to the Museum of Glass. Here you can view awe-inspiring glass art, see live demonstrations, and learn about the detailed process of making glass.
The MOG is connected to the rest of downtown Tacoma by the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, a pedestrian bridge that gives you a little preview of what you’ll see in the contemporary art museum. You’ll be surrounded by stunning blown glass sculptures as you walk the 500-foot bridge.
Museum hopping in Tacoma made my list of the best things to do in Washington State, and a trip to the Museum of Glass is a great way to check that item off your list. It’s definitely one of the best things to do in Tacoma. After visiting you just might be inspired enough to sign up for a class at the Tacoma Glassblowing Studio to try your hand at making glass art.
👉 Pro Tip: Recent Tacoma transplant or Pierce County resident? With a Pierce County library card, you can get free admission to this museum and others in Tacoma!
Mount Rainier National Park
Hike an incredible mountain
Because it’s only an hour and a half from the city center, Mount Rainier makes a perfect escape for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. You can get close to Washington’s favorite mountain via one of the many hiking trails, by taking a scenic drive or even riding a gondola over it from the Crystal Mountain Resort.
Mount Rainier is one of the oldest National Parks in the country and one of the top places to visit in the state of Washington. So it’s definitely worth taking a day to explore its forests, meadows, and waterfalls no matter how you go about it.
📚 Related Reading: Check out my article on the best hikes near Seattle where I highlight a few of the best Mount Rainier hikes so you can add one to your list!
Museums & Cultural Attractions
Foss Waterway Seaport
Learn about local maritime history in a restored 100-year-old building
📍 Address: 705 Dock St, Tacoma, WA 98402 | Phone: (253) 272-2750| Website | Hours: 10 am – 4 pm Thursday-Sunday, Closed Monday-Wednesday | Entrance: $10 adults, $8 youth (6-17), free children (5 and under)
You’ll learn about maritime history and culture in the Puget Sound area at the Foss Waterway Maritime Museum. Built on a historic dock along the Thea Foss Waterway, the Foss Waterway Seaport is a bit of a hidden gem.
With a wooden boat exhibit, information about the history of the Tacoma waterfront, articulated skeletons of humpback and fin whales, maritime artifacts, and so much more, visitors will be swept away by all there is to do and discover here.
💰 Want to save some cash? The museums on museum row in Tacoma’s downtown are open late and offer free admission on the third Thursday of every month! Included in this is the Foss Waterway Seaport, the Museum of Glass, the Washington State History Museum, and the Tacoma Art Museum. Times vary for each of these, so just be sure to check before you go!
LeMay – America’s Car Museum
Admire hundreds of classic cars
📍 Address: 2702 E D St, Tacoma, WA 98421 | Phone: (253) 779-8490 | Website | Hours: 10 am – 5 pm Thursday-Monday, Closed Tuesday and Wednesday | Entrance: $18 adults, $14 young adult (13-18), $10 youth (6-12), free children (5 and under)
Whether or not you’re a classic car fan, a visit to America’s Car Museum is a fun one. Here you can see the museum’s collection of 250 domestic and foreign automobiles with a variety of unique and unusual models.
In addition to marveling at the LeMay family collection, you can also spend time here testing your speed on the racing simulator, trying out slot car racing, and learning about the history of cars throughout the United States.
Tacoma Art Museum
View gorgeous, curated art
📍 Address: 1701 Pacific Ave, Tacoma, WA 98402 | Phone: (253) 272-4258 | Website | Hours: am – 5 pm Wednesday, 10 am – 8 pm Thursday, 10 am – 5 pm Friday – Sunday, Closed Monday and Tuesday | Entrance: $14 adults, free 18 and under, free for all ages Thursdays 5 pm – 8 pm
An extensive collection with evocative permanent and rotating exhibits makes a visit to the Tacoma Art Museum worth it for most visitors. The museum features contemporary and historical art from artists of the Northwest and those in the greater western region.
While it’s relatively small, the Tacoma Art Museum is meticulously laid out. Works from contemporary Native artists and the studio glass art displays are particularly lovely installments. Be sure to check out the website before you go to see upcoming and current exhibitions.
Fort Nisqually Living History Museum
Go back in time at a living history museum
📍 Address: 5519 Five Mile Dr, Tacoma, WA 98407 (located in Point Defiance Park) | Phone: (253) 404-3970 | Website | Hours vary seasonally, check website before going | Entrance: $11.94 adults, $8.58 youth (4-17), free children 3 and under
You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back to the 19th century when you visit the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum. Back then, this area along the Puget Sound was a European settlement, and some of the buildings you’ll see on your visit are the original structures from that time.
Take a self-guided tour through the premises and speak to volunteers and staff in period-appropriate clothing. You can even attend one of their workshops to learn things like traditional leatherwork, butchering, and making cookie cutters – just like they would have in 1855.
Washington State History Museum
Learn about the history of the Evergreen State
📍 Address: 1911 Pacific Ave, Tacoma, WA 98402 | Phone: (253) 272-3500 | Website | Hours: 10 am – 5 pm Tuesday-Sunday, Closed Mondays, 10 am – 8 pm third Thursdays every month | Entrance: $14 adults (18+), $11 student (6-18), free children 5 and under, free admission third Thursdays (3 pm-8 pm)
The Washington State History Museum covers it all – geological history, information about Native people and their cultures, and early pioneering history to the modern era. The building has three floors of exhibits that give visitors a thorough look at Washington’s history. History buffs and anyone looking to learn more about how the Evergreen State came to be will want to dedicate a few hours here.
The Tacoma Dome
Catch a show in an epic arena
At some point on your visit to Tacoma, WA you’ll probably see the Tacoma Dome, one of the more notable buildings in the city. Anything from sports events to concerts to monster truck rallies are hosted here. Make sure you check out the website to see what’s happening during your trip so you can grab your tickets and check off a visit to this classic Washington arena.
👉 Read Next: The Ultimate Travel Guide to Washington State
What to Do to Eat, Drink, Play & Shop
Bob’s Java Jive
Drink beer in a coffee pot
📍 Address: 2102 S Tacoma Way, Tacoma, WA 98409 | Phone: (253) 475-9843 | Hours: 8 pm – 2 am daily
You’d think a building shaped like a coffee pot would serve you coffee, but Bob’s Java Jive isn’t a cafe at all. Instead, this no-frills spot is a bar that serves up burgers and beer, and it’s the perfect place for a fun night out. Stop by for karaoke nights, live music or to sit back and play pinball or shoot pool. The building was built in 1927 and is currently on the national historic register so if nothing else, you should drive by just to see this quirky attraction.
The Church Cantina
Eat delicious Cuban food in a gothic-themed bar
The Church Cantina is yet another quirky Tacoma establishment. It’s a gothic horror-themed bar serving up Cubano eats and creative, delicious cocktails. The food is tasty with large portions, the bartenders are friendly and the decor will make you feel like you’ve stepped into a spooky movie in the best possible way – there’s something to look at in every corner. They also have a few arcade games, pool, and a photo booth to keep you entertained before or after your drinks.
👉 Know Before You Go: Washington State currently mandates that restaurants require proof of vaccination or a negative covid-19 test to sit inside. Some places do also offer take-out service, just call ahead to be sure!
The Grand Cinema
Watch indie films in a volunteer-run theater
The Grand Cinema is a movie lover’s dream. This beloved Tacoman theater plays indie, foreign and local films and offers post-film talks after some of the movies as well. They host the Tacoma Film festival during October and other film events throughout the year. Grab some local snacks and a glass of beer or wine to sip as you watch something great in this classic arthouse theater.
Game the night away
Pizza, pinball, and a variety of vintage and newer arcade games are what you’ll find at this popular arcade. Dorky’s is located in the heart of downtown Tacoma and it’s a great place for all ages. Kids are welcome during the daytime, but the arcade becomes 21+ after 9 pm. Be sure to bring a roll of quarters to play all night, and don’t miss coming early in the week for taco Tuesdays.
Search for vintage and antique treasures
Antiquers and shoppers who like to support small businesses will adore Tacoma. Located downtown on Broadway between 7th and 9th St, several small shops filled to the brim with vintage goodies make up Antique Row. They’re all within walking distance of each other, which makes treasure hunting a breeze.
Check out the vintage clothing at Glenna’s Clothing and Savoy Special Vintage, search for retro toys at Lily Pad Antiques and Old Toys, and scan Sanford and Son Antiques for furniture, art, and other fun knick-knacks.
🛎️ Need a Hotel?: The McMenamins Elks Temple Hotel is the best one to book, especially if you’re interested in staying downtown and want to stay in a place that’ll be as cool as your surroundings.
Wander through a maze of books
📍 Address: 218 St Helens Ave, Tacoma, WA 98402 | Phone: (253) 272-8801 | Hours: 11 am – 7 pm, daily
Part comic book store, part new and used bookstore with a vintage clothing shop attached make King’s Books a one-of-a-kind place that you can easily spend a few hours in. They’ve got a wide selection of books and comics to keep any book-lover happy, and the friendly store cat, Herbert, is a welcome presence in the store. It’s near many other downtown attractions which makes this the perfect place to visit on a rainy day.
Free & Cheap Things to Do in Tacoma
Take a stroll through a beautiful park
Exploring Wright Park is one of the best free and cheap things to do in Tacoma! This beautiful urban park and arboretum is filled with over 600 trees (each with a plaque to identify its type) and gorgeous statues. In the summertime, it’s a great place to try lawn bowling, picnic, or take kids to the spray kid and playground.
Within Wright Park is the W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory and across the street is the Manuscript Museum. The Conservatory is filled to the brim with exotic plants and has a sweet gift shop.
The Manuscript Museum houses tons of original manuscripts (including ones from Charles Darwin to Che Guevara). Exhibits rotate every so often and the curator is friendly and knowledgeable and will be happy to tell you all about them.
Charlotte’s Blueberry Park
Go blueberry picking
One of the best family-friendly activities for a summer day in Tacoma is going to Charlotte’s Blueberry Park. Here you can pick as many blueberries you like at no cost! This farm-turned park is a hidden treasure and a local favorite. After you pick your blueberries you can wander along the walking paths and enjoy the playground with kids as well. Just be sure to bring your own bags, buckets, or bins to collect your blueberries.
Munch on some delicious, cheap, late-night eats
Quick and delicious describes the type of meal you’ll get from Frisko Freeze. This restaurant serves up cheap burgers, fries, onion rings, milkshakes, and more off their old-school menu. Order via drive-through or walk-up counter. If you need an easy lunch or some late-night snacks that will hit the spot, this 58-year-old Tacoma, WA staple is the place to go after a good day of exploring.
Stadium High School
Admire an architectural beauty
Fans of the ‘90s movie “Ten Things I Hate About You” will recognize the iconic Stadium High School. Originally built to be a luxury hotel in the 1800s, this present-day high school was featured in this movie for good reason – it’s an architectural beauty that certainly makes an impression.
Visitors are welcome to come by and take pictures of the outside. You can even take a tour of the inside and learn more about the history of the building through Pretty Gritty Tours (currently paused due to covid). Just be sure to respect boundaries if you visit when school is in session.
Tacoma Narrows Bridge
Walk the famously shaky bridge
Nicknamed Galloping Gertie in the ‘40s, and popularized by the videos of it violently waving in the wind, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge is another Grit City landmark. It was completely rebuilt after its collapse so it’s now structurally sound and no longer nearly as wobbly. But it’s still a sight to see.
You can walk across the beautiful bridge where you’ll have breathtaking views (especially if you go during sunset!) Keep in mind that it will be loud because of all the car noise, and it may be very windy, depending on the day. If you choose to drive across instead, make your destination Gig Harbor, a quaint port town on the other end of the bridge.
🚗 How to Get There: Wondering how exactly to walk the bridge? Just park at War Memorial Park and take the Scott Pierson trail across it. If you want to drive across instead, you can rent a car via Discover Cars which will make it that much easier to explore Gig Harbor.
Tacoma Nature Center
Search for turtles in the middle of the city
Tacoma Nature Center is made up of wetlands, forests, a lake, and several trails which make it a good place to get away for some peace and quiet right in the middle of the city. Because of the wetlands, it’s a great environment for turtles and waterfowl, so you’re sure to see some wildlife here.
Kids will adore exploring the nature playground as well as the interpretive center which has more information and learning material for anyone else interested in learning about the Center and what it provides for the city.
👉 Read Next: Where to Stay in Seattle, WA
FAQs About What to Do in Tacoma
What is there to do in Tacoma for free?
There are many things to do for free in Tacoma Washington. You can visit Wright Park, the Seymour Botanical Conservatory, and the Manuscript Museum, walk along Ruston Way and explore Point Defiance Park. Some museums also allow free entry on the third Thursday of the month.
Is Tacoma WA worth visiting?
Tacoma, WA is absolutely worth visiting. This gritty, historic city has a lot to offer visitors in the form of outdoor exploration, art, and cultural experiences along with eclectic shops, restaurants, and bars.
How do I spend a day in Tacoma?
There are several ways to spend a day in Tacoma. You could start at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium and then bike down the waterfront on Ruston Way before stopping for lunch or dinner. You could also spend a day in downtown Tacoma checking out the museums and local shops.
Ready to make your way to Tacoma, WA for a good time? Grit City won’t disappoint. What’s first on your list? Let me know in the comments!
📚 Related Reading: Planning more day trips? Check out my article about things to do in Bellevue to explore another city with totally different vibes!