Visit a national historic park, take an underground history tour, chug brews at Seattle’s oldest bar, or check out some of the city’s top art galleries. These are just some of the cool things to do in the neighborhood of Pioneer Square, Seattle.
Pioneer Square is the city’s oldest neighborhood, having been rebuilt in 1889 after a massive fire took out most of the existing city. So it’s an interesting place for visitors to check out and a great place to experience the history of Seattle.
It’s located along the waterfront, just south of downtown and west of the International District, aka Chinatown. That makes it easy to get to via bus, subway, Lyft or Uber.
There aren’t any real skyscrapers in Pioneer Square. Because of its historic status, building height is severely limited here – unlike the rest of the city, where skyscrapers are going up left and right. In fact, very few new buildings of any height are going up here at all. Most of the buildings in Pioneer Square are brick and stone structures built decades ago.
I’ve been going to a coworking office in Pioneer Square for the past several months, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the area. In fact, I’m writing these words from there right now…
If you’re visiting the city, Pioneer Square is a cool place to visit for dining, art, architecture, and history. Here are some of the coolest things to do in Pioneer Square, Seattle.
Points of Interest: Fun Things To Do in Pioneer Square
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
Here’s a spot that’s way under the radar. Many Seattleites don’t even realize there’s a National Historical Park in their city! Klondike Gold Rush Park is one of the best free things to do in Seattle.
The park honors the legacy of the 1890s gold rush, when thousands of money-hungry adventurers headed to Alaska to try to find gold. Most of them passed through Seattle and boarded their ships to Alaska right here in Pioneer Square. The park teaches visitors all about that history with pictures and videos.
The Underground Tour
After the big fire, Seattle rebuilt itself a bit higher than its previous level. That buried a lot of the older Seattle buildings and sidewalks. But those sights are still accessible via an underground walking tour.
Getting to see these hidden underground passageways make the underground tour one of the coolest activities in Seattle. It runs for 75 minutes and takes place at the top of every hour.
The Totem Pole & Pergola
There’s a National Historic Landmark in Pioneer Square, but if you’re not careful, you might walk past it without even noticing! The 50-foot totem pole, originally called the Chief-of-All-Women pole, has a shady history.
The totem pole was created by the Tlingit indigenous people in Alaska. A group of Seattle businessmen visiting Alaska in 1899 shockingly cut it down from the Tlingit village without permission and brought it to Seattle. The tribe sued and won, but the pole remained in Pioneer Square until 1940, when fire damaged it and a replica was reinstalled.
That replica has now stood for 80 years and is a historic landmark. Since it’s located in a busy parklet and stands next to a tall lightpole, the totem pole is easy to miss if you’re not specifically looking for it. Find it at the corner of 1st Avenue and Yesler Way.
Also part of the historic landmark is an iron pergola, or shelter, located in the same parklet. It was built in 1909 as a bus stop. The current pergola was built in 2001 after the original was destroyed in a truck accident.
Smith Tower Observatory
With a narrow pyramid tower jutting up from the rest of the building, the uniquely-designed Smith Tower is one of the coolest structures in the city. Smith Tower is currently the 23rd tallest building in Seattle (and it’s poised to drop out of the top 30 once skyscrapers under construction are finished.)
But it was once the tallest building on the entire West Coast – from 1914 until the construction of the Space Needle in 1962. Originally conceived as a 14-story skyscraper, Smith Tower eventually became a 484-foot tall landmark, after the builder’s son convinced him to think bigger.
From 10 am to 9 pm, you can buy a ticket to the 35th floor observatory for some sweet views of the city and the water. After 9 pm, you can still go up to the 35th floor to visit the bar, and admission is discounted.
The Ninety – Seattle Sounders Venue
On days where the Seattle Sounders have a game, the local soccer club opens the doors to its headquarters, called The Ninety. This large gathering space is where you can see the club’s trophies from past seasons, while enjoying a drink and checking out other games on the big screen. Don’t miss it, futbol fans!
Occidental Park (or Occidental Square) is a can’t-miss spot on Pioneer Square. During the summer, you’ll likely find live music and games and activities sponsored by the Seattle Parks Department, including foosball and ping pong tables. These tree-lined streets are the best place in the ‘hood for people watching.
Fallen Firefighters Memorial
Located right in Occidental Park, the Fallen Firefighters Memorial was created by local artist Hai Ying Wu in the aftermath of a 1995 fire that killed four firefighters. The bronze statues are surrounded by granite slabs that stand for a fallen building.
Wu said the figures are “represented realistically, yet with exaggerated gestures to emphasize the intensity of the battle in which they are engaged.”
Other Quirky and Under the Radar Things To See & Do
Here’s a second round of suggestions, focusing on some notable places that aren’t necessarily huge tourist attractions, but which might be interesting to see as you stroll through the neighborhood.
King Street Station
Sandwiched between Pioneer Square and Chinatown is the King Street Station. Built in 1906, the station was designed by the same folks who did NYC’s Grand Central Station. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The King Street Station currently serves thousands of people daily between Amtrak and the Sounder trains linking Seattle and Tacoma. It received $56 million in renovations in the ‘90s to maintain its fancy interior.
Waterfall Garden Park
Hidden behind a gate on 2nd Avenue, Waterfall Garden Park is another easily-overlooked attraction in Pioneer Square. A 22-foot man-made waterfall is surrounded by trees and seating, creating a casual space for office workers and passing visitors to relax during the day. It’s free and open everyday from 8 am to 3:45 pm.
Fun fact: Waterfall Garden Park sits at the location of the original UPS, which was known as American Messenger Company when it began in 1907.
Last Resort Fire Department Museum
See vintage fire trucks at the Last Resort Fire Department Museum, located inside Seattle Fire Department Headquarters on 2nd Avenue. You can catch a glimpse of Apparatus 131, a 1937 fire truck that looks just as old-timey as it sounds. Check out a horse-drawn fire steamer vehicle from 1899. They even have a hand pumper machine for putting out fires that dates back to 1834.
In addition to the very old trucks and machines, the museum has a bunch of artifacts and memorabilia from the past couple hundred years. Admission is free. Just beware of the museum’s limited hours – it’s only open on Thursday from 10 am to 3pm.
Art Galleries & First Thursday Art Walk
Art walks are everywhere now, but did you know that the First Thursday Art Walk in Pioneer Square was the first art walk in the nation? It began in 1981 and continues today, with three garages providing free parking for visitors from 5-10 pm on the first Thursday of each month.
There’s no shortage of galleries to check out here, including Foster/White Gallery and Davidson Gallery. The art in Pioneer Square galleries tends to be on the fancy and polished side, although a few spots have stuff that is more gritty and edgy.
While walking through the streets of Pioneer Square, keep your eyes open for a handful of informational boards on the sidewalks. These provide interesting info about the history of the neighborhood. Some are maps that show where the shoreline used to be 150 years ago. It’s amazing to see how today’s shoreline is in a completely different place than it used to be.
The “Sinking Ship” Parking Garage
Behold, the coolest parking garage in the country! Built in 1961, the triangular garage on Yesler Way is nicknamed “the Sinking Ship” because of its unusual design, which appears to resemble a sinking vessel as its floors disappear underground. It’s one of the quirkiest sights in the area.
Once you’ve finished exploring Pioneer Square, hop on the free Waterfront Shuttle and head up to some of the other downtown attractions on the water, including the Seattle Aquarium, the Great Ferris Wheel, and the quirky Gum Wall. You can even ride the shuttle all the way to the Space Needle.
Note: As of this writing, funding for the shuttle is scheduled to run out by the end of 2019, so the shuttle may no longer be in service when you read this.
Pioneer Square Bars, Restaurants, Shopping, Nightlife
Here’s a sampling of some of the places in Pioneer Square to grab a drink, down some booze, or buy a few things. Many other shops that aren’t listed here can be found on the neighborhood’s retail page.
And here’s an interesting writeup of Pioneer Square’s re-emergence as a shopping destination.
Merchants is the oldest continuously-operating bar in Seattle, having opened in 1890. (Nearby J and M Café resides in a building that opened in 1889, but it was a hotel for its first 16 years.) Merchants is open all day, but if you stop by during weekday happy hour (4-7 pm) you can get cheap appetizers and a few bucks off alcohol. Try the cheese curds or deep fried mac and cheese!
Pioneer Square Saloon
The saloon is a laid-back dive bar that offers a break from the busy and sometimes chaotic nightlife of the neighborhood. Find more than a dozen beers on tap, plus darts and foosball. Woohoo, foosball! Its neon sign has also become something of an iconic sign in the area. Definitely one of the top Pioneer Square bars to check out.
I’ve had some great times enjoying beer and playing indoor mini golf at Flatstick Pub! A local chain with three locations in the Seattle area, Flatstick serves a variety of Washington state beers and ciders on tap. They offer trivia and bingo nights, but the real draw is their 9-hole putt-putt course.
See some of your favorite late-night standup comics at Comedy Underground, which brings in local and national comedians. Virtually every now-famous comedian performed here as they rose to prominence, including Mitch Hedberg, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, and Jerry Seinfeld.
Magic Mouse Toys
Who doesn’t love an awesome toy store? Especially one that’s partly underground? Magic Mouse has been around since 1977 and their storefront is one of the most eye-catching on 1st Avenue. They proudly cater to both kids and adults. Stop inside to see their large collection of games, puzzles, stuffed animals and the like.
Bon Voyage Vintage
The best vintage/thrift store in Pioneer Square is Bon Voyage, which specializes in obscure finds from the ‘50s through the ‘90s. On the trendiness meter, this place ranks as one of the coolest shops in Pioneer Square.
Ebbets Field Flannels
Here’s a great spot for sports fans. Named after the famous Brooklyn stadium that hosted baseball and football games until 1957, Ebbets Field Flannels specializes in vintage sports uniforms. You can find vintage jerseys and hats for just about any team in American sports, including Negro Leagues teams and sports franchises that no longer exist.
Notable Attractions Just Outside Pioneer Square, Seattle
CenturyLink hosts Seahawks NFL games and Sounders soccer games. If there’s no game, you can take a public tour of the stadium for $14. Tours run everyday during the summer and on weekends during the rest of the year. There’s also a Pro Shop open daily for visitors who want to take home jerseys or memorabilia.
About a 12-minute walk from the heart of Pioneer Square, T-Mobile Park is where the Mariners play their 81 home baseball games. It has a retractable roof, perfect for when Seattle’s showers show up. Tickets for games can usually be found for an affordable price, especially when the team isn’t doing well. The park also hosts large concerts – I saw rock legends The Who here recently.
WaMu Theater is one of Seattle’s best music venues. The indoor hall hosts mid-level acts with a capacity of around 7000. They have lockers at the venue for guests to store belongings. Recent performers here include hot acts like Lana Del Rey, the 1975, Vampire Weekend, and John Legend.
Chinatown / International District
Definitely make the walk over to Chinatown while you’re visiting Pioneer Square. It’s one of the most bustling international districts in the country, with loads of Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese restaurants and shops. Visit the Wing Luke Museum for Asian history or the super popular Asian food market Uwajimaya.
Places to Stay: Pioneer Square Hotels
Pioneer Square doesn’t have a ton of lodging options, but the ones it has are pretty excellent.
Best Western Plus Pioneer Square. The Best Western is the main hotel right in the heart of the neighborhood. It’s just steps from the waterfront. If location is your main concern, book here.
Courtyard Marriott Seattle Downtown / Pioneer Square. This one has all the comforts you’d expect from a Marriott. It occupies a structure that was called the Alaska Building when it was built in 1904!
Embassy Suites Seattle Pioneer Square. For a taste of luxury, the best hotel in Pioneer Square for you is the Embassy Suites. It has a heated pool, free wifi, and multiple restaurants and bars in the lobby.
Silver Cloud Hotel. If you’re visiting to check out a Mariners or Seahawks game, book at the Silver Cloud Hotel. This property is right across the street from the stadiums. Just do it early because those rooms will fill up!
Airbnb is also an option, as some local residents have rooms or apartments available for short-term rentals. Of course, prices are higher in Pioneer Square than they would be if you book in some of Seattle’s more outlying neighborhoods.
Pioneer Square Parking, Directions, Safety
Parking is not exactly plentiful in Pioneer Square. Aside from the Sinking Ship garage, you’ll find a handful of street-level lots and garages. There’s also some metered street parking, which is expensive but perfectly fine for a couple hours.
Most folks who visit Pioneer Square choose to talk public transit or Lyft / Uber to get there. Dozens of buses pass through the area, and the light rail subway has a stop in Pioneer Square. The light rail connects Pioneer Square directly with SeaTac Airport, Capitol Hill, Beacon Hill, and other prominent neighborhoods.
Crime in Pioneer Square is at moderate levels. It’s certainly not unsafe to visit here during the day, when thousands of Seattleites come here for work. This area does have tons of panhandlers, but most do not hassle passersby.
After dark, you should still be fine if you stay in the busy areas with bars and clubs. Don’t wander down alleys alone, and take the usual precautions to be aware of your surroundings.
And while you’re in Seattle, make sure to visit the Capitol Hill neighborhood, which is currently the coolest part of town. It’s also home to the Jimi Hendrix statue.
Have any more suggestions for the best restaurants, bars, or other cool things to do in Pioneer Square, Seattle? Leave a comment and let us know!
Further reading: Is it safe to visit Seattle in the age of coronavirus?