Despite being the largest airport in the Pacific Northwest and serving as the hub for Alaska Airlines,(and its subsidiary, Horizon Air) Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport is surprisingly easy to navigate. Airport Revenue News honored it with the Best Overall Concessions award, and it does offer some great restaurants and shopping to keep you busy on a short layover.
If your plane isn’t delayed on arrival (as is often the case due to heavy cloud cover) and you have a longer layover, you can hop a 30-minute bus from the airport to downtown and spend your time exploring the “Emerald City”. You can even store your carry-on luggage at the airport.
Short Layover (2 hours)
You’re pretty much confined to the airport with a short layover, but that doesn’t mean you’re limited to spending your time face-down in a mug of beer at the airport bar…unless of course you want to be. If that’s the case, there are choices in every concourse, from beer at the Seattle Taproom to wine at Vintage Washington to margaritas at Case del Agave. You’ve got plenty of options for food too – full-service, casual, or to-go. Anthony’s Restaurant and Ivar’s Seafood Bar, downtown Seattle favorites, both have outposts at the airport and local celebrity chef Kathy Casey offers fresh-made sandwiches and salads with local ingredients at Dish D’Lish.
If shopping is more your thing, there are a few stores worth checking out. In addition to browsing the standard Borders Books and Hudson News, you can wander over to the Made in Washington store for last-minute Seattle souvenirs and Pacific Northwest food products or pop into Discovery Channel to play with educational games and toys.
Got work to do? Charge your cell phone for $3, or get online for $7.95 (for a 24-hour pass). If you’re too stressed out, you can relax with a massage, manicure or pedicure for very reasonable rates.
Longer layovers (4 or more hours)
With a little more time, you can spend your layover in downtown Seattle. The express bus, #194, departs from the airport every 15 minutes or so and takes about half an hour to reach downtown. If your layover is on the short end, it’s best to stick close to the bus stop and limit your exploration to a stroll through Pike Place Market, but if you have more time, you can see most of the major sites in the city in one afternoon. Here are some of the highlights.
Pike Place Market
Combine lunch and sight-seeing with a visit to Pike Place Market. This hundred-year old farmer’s market sells plentiful fresh produce and cheap, colorful flower arrangements, but there’s so much more to it than that. In a matter of minutes you’ll pass by countless stalls of fruit and vegetables, handmade jewelry, organic soaps, local honey, and fresh seafood. And that’s just in the main market. Wander down to the arcade and you’ll see antiques, comics, and magic supplies, and across the street you’ll find an olive-oil boutique, jerky shop, a Piroshky seller, wine shop, French bakery, truffle cafe, crumpet shop, and cheese-maker. The Market is also home to the original Starbucks and the Pike Place Fish Market, where the fishmongers famously throw fish around whenever an order is placed.
The oldest part of Seattle, Pioneer Square is an historic district with lots of art galleries, and plenty of vagrants. The square is part of the downtown “Ride Free” zone where buses are free, and it’s just a short ride from the rest of downtown. The big attractions here are the Smith Tower (which is much shorter than the Space Needle, but costs less and provides a different view), and the Underground Tour, a fascinating hour-long tour of the city-beneath-the-city. When the majority of Seattle was burned in 1889, a new city was built of stone and brick on top. The tour, which nearly always sells out in high-season, takes visitors underground and gives them a unique look at Seattle history.
Seattle’s waterfront is admittedly kitschy. It’s from here that sightseeing cruises depart and there are always tons of tourists milling about, coming and going from the Aquarium and Waterfront Arcade, and browsing in souvenir shops. But the views of Puget Sound really are something to see, and there are some great restaurants scattered further north towards Pier 70 (which was the pier the Real World kids lived on way back when and now houses the Waterfront Seafood Grill). A trolley runs the length of the waterfront, up to the new Olympic Sculpture Park.
Monorail, Seattle Center, and Space Needle
From downtown, you can take a bus or the waterfront trolley (or even walk about 20 minutes) to the Seattle Center, but for a more memorable ride, try the Monorail. The Monorail was built for the 1962 World’s Fair and, when it’s not being repaired after another crash or break-down, it ferries passengers on a 1-mile ride from Westlake Mall to the Center. The Seattle Center, the downtown area’s main park, is home to the Pacific Northwest Ballet, several theaters, the Children’s Museum, Pacific Science Center, and the Space Needle. To see the 360-degree views of Seattle, Puget Sound and its islands, the Olympic Mountains, and Lake Union, you’ll need to pay $16 for adults. But if you have the time and money, you can enjoy a meal in the revolving restaurant, Sky City. Like most observation-deck dining establishments, it’s expensive and the food is just a touch above average, but the views are spectacular.