Seattle is a sprawling city with lots of neighborhoods to explore, a lively downtown core, and a half-carny waterfront that attracts the sea-lion’s share of tourist attention. Seattle is notorious for its traffic jams, so avoid them: most visitors find they do just fine here on foot, or using public transportation. Unless you’re planning on taking a lot of day trips out of the city, you don’t need your own car to enjoy a vacation in Seattle.
Central Seattle—including downtown, Belltown, Seattle Center, South Lake Union, the waterfront, and Pioneer Square—is fairly compact and walkable. There is also a good bus system, a streetcar that connects downtown to South Lake Union, and a light-rail system that connects Seattle to the airport and makes some stops along the way.
If you’re staying in downtown Seattle, a car is unnecessary. Parking is difficult and expensive, and Seattle traffic jams are awful. If you are planning a day trip to Mount Rainier National Park, however, a car is necessary. And a car makes getting to Seattle neighborhoods like Ballard, Fremont, and Capitol Hill easier (though you still have to find a parking space when you get there).
In Washington, as in Oregon, you may turn right on a red light after a full stop, and if you are in the far-left lane of a one-way street, you may turn left into the adjacent left lane of a one-way street at a red light after a full stop. Everyone in a moving vehicle is required to wear a seat belt.
By Public Transportation
Save money: All-Day Regional Transit Pass
If you’re planning to travel around Seattle on public transportation, consider getting an All-Day Regional Transit Pass for $8. You can use this pass on all of Seattle’s public transportation services except for the monorail and on Washington State Ferries. The downside is that you have to buy an ORCA card (a reusable transit card that costs $5 and can be refilled) in order to download the $8 all-day pass from a vending machine. Seniors can get the all-day pass for $4, and the ORCA card for $3.50.
BY BUS Seattle’s Metro (http://metro.kingcounty.gov; tel. 800/542-7876 in Washington or 206/553-3000) bus and electric trolley system covers all of greater Seattle. Fares are based on zones and travel time. Off-peak fares for all zones are $2.25 for adults, .75 for seniors, and $1.25 for ages 6–18. During peak commuter hours, adult fares go up to $2.50 for 1 zone, $3.00 for 2 zones; senior and children fares remain the same. Use exact change and pay on the bus.
BY STREETCAR One line of the Seattle Streetcar (www.seattlestreetcar.org) runs from downtown to Lake Union. The newer Capitol Hill line runs north-south along Broadway to Pioneer Square. The Lake Union line will take you to the Museum of History and Industry on lake Union; the Pioneer Square line will deposit you in the heart of Seattle’s historic district, where you’ll find the Underground Tour, Smith Tower Observation Deck, and lots of architectural and artistic character. Fares are $2.50 for adults, $1 for seniors, $1.50 for ages 6 to 17.
BYBY LIGHT RAIL BY The Central Link Light Rail (www.soundtransit.org) runs beneath 3rd Avenue from Westlake Station to Sea-Tac airport, making key downtown stops along the way including Pioneer Square and the Chinatown/International District, and north to Capitol Hill (for strolling, shopping and dining on Broadway) and the University of Washington. Adult fares range from $2.50 to $3.25 depending on distance traveled and time of travel; the senior rate is $1, and youth rate is $1.50.
BYBY MONORAILBY The fastest way to get between downtown and Seattle Center is the historic Seattle Monorail (www.seattlemonorail.com; tel. 206/905-2620), an elevated train built for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. It leaves every 10 minutes from Westlake Center shopping mall (Fifth Ave. and Pine St.) and covers the 1 1/4 miles in 2 minutes, dropping you off near the Space Needle. The monorail operates daily from 9am to 11pm (in winter, Sun–Thurs 8am–8pm; Fri and Sat 9am–11pm). Departures are every 10 minutes. A one-way fare is $2.25 for adults, $1 for seniors, and 75 cents for ages 5 to 12.
BYBY WATER TAXIBY A water taxi runs between Pier 55 on the downtown Seattle waterfront to Seacrest Park in West Seattle, providing access to West Seattle’s popular Alki Beach and adjacent paved path. For schedules, check with Metro (http://metro.kingcounty.gov). The one-way fare is $5.25 for adults and ages 6 to 18, $2.25 for seniors.
BYBY FERRYBY Washington State Ferries (www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries; tel. 800/843-3779 or 888/808-7977 in Washington or 206/464-6400) is the most extensive ferry system in the United States. These big passenger and car ferries, used primarily by commuters, won’t help you get around Seattle itself, but they offer great options for scenic trips from downtown Seattle to Bremerton (1-hr. crossing) and Bainbridge Island (35-min. crossing), among other destinations. One-way walk-on (no car) fares between Seattle and Bainbridge Island are $8.20 for adults, $4.10 for seniors and ages 6 to 18. You’ll pay more, of course, if you take your car.
Leave those four wheels at home. Seattle’s traffic congestion is bad, parking is limited (and expensive), and streets are almost all one-way. If you drive to the city, you’ll avoid frustration by leaving your car in your hotel parking garage. The city center is well served by public transportation. Plus, Seattle is very walkable. The only time you’ll need a car is if you want to explore beyond Seattle proper—that is, north of Seattle Center, east of Lake Washington, south of the sports stadiums, or to any of the islands in Puget Sound (Bainbridge, Vashon, Whidbey)—or take day trips farther afield, to Mount Rainier or La Conner and the tulips fields of the Skagit Valley. The best strategy is to rent only for the days you’re going on these day trips.
PARKING On-street parking in downtown Seattle is expensive and extremely limited. Most downtown parking lots charge $25 to $35 per day, though many offer early-bird or after-5pm specials. Some lots near the Space Needle charge less, and you can leave your car there, then take the monorail downtown. Some restaurants and Pike Place Market merchants validate parking permits. Expect to pay about $40 a day for valet parking at downtown hotels.
DRIVING RULES & TIPS Washington State law prohibits texting or talking on a telephone while driving; stiff fines will result if you are caught. You can make a right turn at a red light after coming to a full stop. A left turn at a red light is permissible from a one-way street onto another one-way street after coming to a full stop.
If you park your car on a sloping street, be sure to turn your wheels to the curb. When parking on the street, check the time limit on your parking meter. During rush hour, be sure to check whether or not your street parking space is restricted.
Taxis can be difficult to hail on the street in Seattle, so it’s best to call or wait at the taxi stands at major hotels. Two reliable companies are Yellow Cab (www.yellowtaxi.net; tel. 206/622-6500) or Farwest Taxi (www.farwesttaxi.net; tel. 206/622-1717). The flag-drop charge is $2.60; after that, it’s $2.70 per mile. A maximum of four passengers can share a cab; the third and fourth passengers will each incur a surcharge of 50 cents. Of course, you can also use Uber (www.uber.com) and Lyft (www.lyft.com) car services to get around.
Seattle is a surprisingly compact city. Following north-south avenues, you can easily walk from Pioneer Square to downtown Seattle, Pike Place Market, the waterfront, and Seattle Center. Walking from west to east is another story. When you head east from the waterfront, you will be climbing some steep hills or stairways.
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