It's easy to get a handle on the city if you use a few simple landmarks: Puget Sound marks the far west; Lake Union is smack in the middle, and its canals separate the central and southern neighborhoods from the northern ones; and I-5 cuts through the city, serving as a rough east-west dividing line. Downtown is the most visible part of Seattle—it is the skyline, containing all the major hotels. Directly below the Downtown core is Pioneer Square, the city's most historic neighborhood. To the east of Pioneer Square is the International District, the site of Seattle's original Chinatown. Across I-5 from Downtown is Capitol Hill, the city's most eclectic neighborhood. To the north, across Fremont Bridge, is the first of the northern neighborhoods, Fremont, flanked by Ballard on the west and Wallingford on the east. Green Lake and the zoo are north of Fremont.
WHEN TO GO
Though it's true that Seattle doesn't quite live up to its rainy reputationboth New York and Chicago get more annual rainfallthe fact remains that it drizzles persistently here, particularly from January through April (though locals don't let that get in the way of their outdoor activities; most don't even use umbrellas). July through September brings absolutely perfect summer weather, glittering lakes (all swimmable and accessible to the public), and delicious wild blackberry bushes along fences and sidewalks. Early fall and late spring are also lovely, though the weather is less predictable.
HOW TO GET THERE
The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (widely known as Sea-Tac) is approximately 15 miles south of Downtown and served by most major airlines (206-431-4444). Metered cabs cost about $30 to Downtown, and Shuttle Express has a 24-hour shuttle service for a flat rate of $20 (you can reserve ahead or make arrangements at the airport upon arrival). The most convenient option may be Seattle's light rail, a 16-mile, $2-billion stretch of track that debuted in late 2009. Trains depart from Sea-Tac every 15 minutes and take about 35 minutes to reach Downtown (5 am to midnight; tickets from $2.50). The least expensive option is the Metro Transit city bus: Catch the 174 or 194 outside the baggage claim area for the 45-minute ride into central Downtown. Buses come every 30 minutes, and a ride costs just $2 (cash only).
Downtown, Belltown, Capitol Hill, and Pioneer Square are easily explored on foot, but to access Seattle's charming residential neighborhoods—Queen Anne, Magnolia, Fremont, and Ballard among them—you really need a car. Buses within the Downtown core are free between 6 am and 7 pm (view Ride Free Area map). Outside those times, the fares are $2 to $2.25 (exact change required; dollar bills accepted). If you're heading into Downtown, you pay as you board; if you're heading out of Downtown, you pay as you exit. The new South Lake Union streetcar (fare, $2.25) connects Pacific Place mall in the downtown retail core to this emerging neighborhood, though it may be of little use to visitors unless they are staying at the Pan Pacific Hotel or want to reach the park and restaurants at the foot of the lake. Built for the 1962 World's Fair, the Seattle Monorail jets between Downtown and Seattle Center (site of the Space Needle and the Frank Gehry–designed Experience Music Project), making the one-mile trip in just two minutes flat.
Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau
1 Convention Pl., 701 Pike St., Suite 800
Tel: 206 461 5800
Citywide Concierge Center
Washington State Convention & Trade Center, Eighth and Pike Sts.
Tel: 206 461 5888