Seattle in Spring is a sight to be seen. It’s as if the hibernation working feverishly under the surface of damp earth is finally ready to burst open into a display of color and textures. The race begins with fragrant daphne bushes and delicate hellebores opening up around the beginning of March (technically still Winter) and then kicks into full throttle after April Fool’s Day. Our famous rhododendron are show stoppers around the end of April, turning almost any park into a splash of color — mostly rich reds and purples. And, while I’ve written the best (Summer) botanical gardens, Fall frolicking at Bloedel Reserve, or even West Hylebos Wetlands Park for a Winter stroll, Spring is truly the season that infuses optimism into the world. The mountains still display snow-covered peaks even while birds sing and a newly awakened urban area stretches awake after a long slumber. All this creates the perfect setting for many fun outdoor things to do in Seattle in Spring.
Wings clipped by the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve focused on exploration around my Seattle home this year. No matter the season, I find extraordinary inspiration in the green and blue spaces that range from Japanese-inspired gardens to the vast Salish Sea tides flowing through the seasons with ease. The Spring months are a bit chilly and most definitely still wet, but don’t be deterred — Spring offers expanding daylight and brilliant, crisp days that make exploring Seattle fresh like the coffee down the street. So, gear up with a few removable layers and join me with these fantastic outdoor Seattle Spring things to do.
Spring weather in Seattle — what to wear
Contrary to popular stereotypes, it only really rains in Seattle half of the days in the Spring months of March, April and May — much of this drizzle verses hard precipitation. The constant gray skies of Winter tend to get a bit brighter, even with clouds, encouraging even more connection with the outdoors. Spring weather varies in temperature between the low 40’sF and upper 60’sF by the time May rolls around. The weather every hour of each day can feel unique, making it very important to wear a variety of layers during the day that can easily be removed as the weather will undoubtedly change a few times. As such, I prefer to layer up with a button down shirt and a light waterproof shell to keep out the moisture. “Cap” it off with some sort of beanie and finally, get a very good pair of waterproof walking shoes — there can still be giant mud puddles!
Spring activities in Seattle — three distinct options
The Spring world in Seattle will be different this year, as famed coffee shops, restaurants, bars, museums and tours adjust to oscillating pandemic requirements — many still closed or limited in offerings. But despite the awkward logistics around indoor options, the outdoor world of discovery exists in three distinct groupings. Parks (marked in green on the map below) are always open and great for social distancing. Spring can still serve up quite a bit of mud, so I’ve selected the best options, given the blossoming of trees and plants in the Pacific Northwest. Water has cleansing, inspiring properties any time of year, and this section (marked in blue) provides my favorite public strolls. Finally, Seattle is alive and well with outdoor art and urban architecture and these highlights (shown in red) feature the famous brooding grit of the Emerald City — along with a few iconic installments. The Google Map has more detail and a few additional items not described in the sections.
The best parks to enjoy Spring outdoor things to do in Seattle (Green)
- Explore a Japanese-inspired garden
- Bellevue Botanical Garden
- Washington Park Arboretum — UW Botanical Gardens
- St. Edward State Park
- Volunteer Park
- Bonus — Memorial Day military cemeteries
Seattle waters nourish the soul any time of year (Blue)
- Lake Washington Boulevard
- Alki Beach — West Seattle things to do in Winter
- Arboretum-Waterfront Trail — Foster Point
- Fisherman’s Terminal
- Ferry to Bainbridge Island
Expressive art — Outdoor Seattle Spring things to do (Red)
- Olympic Sculpture Park
- International Fountain and art of Seattle Center
- Chinatown and UPS Waterfall Park
- Amazon Spheres and “Tron City”
- Art of the CHOP — Seattle’s Capitol Hill — outdoor Spring things to do
The best parks to enjoy Spring outdoor things to do in Seattle
There’s no doubt that Seattle parks are showstoppers with abundant Summer and vibrant Fall botanicals. I write about the Best Botanical Gardens, P-Patches (community gardens) and Places to View the Seattle Skyline in other articles, which highlight a number of parks — many of which also provide enjoyment and views in Winter. It’s important to enter this section with the understanding that Spring is a process in Seattle — a layering in of textures and hues over several months. While something is always in bloom, the experience is about the beauty of nature showing it’s regenerative powers, right on time. The following collection is my list of favorites to enjoy the colorful, bright, awakening world of Spring in Seattle.
Explore a Japanese-inspired garden
Ah… my heart opens the moment the topic turns to Japanese-inspired gardens in Seattle, especially in Spring, with cherry blossoms galore. Imagine fresh crimson-red leaves pushing through twisted branches of laceleaf maples while a tranquil brook bubbles over strategically placed rocks designed to welcome tranquility. Crocus push their way through deep green moss and proud pagodas provide vantage points to survey the landscape. Japan and the Pacific Northwest have enjoyed strong ties for over a hundred years. While the official Seattle Japanese Garden in the Washington Park Arboretum is stunning, there are many other examples of inspiring fusion between traditional Japanese style and Pacific Northwest botany. My article, The most inspiring Japanese gardens in Seattle can provide you with more helpful information.
Bellevue Botanical Garden
The Bellevue Botanical Garden is a fantastic experience any time of year. I love the rock garden, which comes to life with Spring showers and offers a variety of interesting plants. Wander amongst the gravel paths and ascend the strategically placed stone slabs to the original mid-century style residence of Cal and Harriet Shorts, who generously deeded the land to start this garden in 1981. Much of the flower beds that produce flowing colors all Summer start their early rise to prominence in Spring, with bulbed flowers and shrubs brightening up the landscape. Continue on a path through the forest environment that passes by the little “Hobbit” door etched into a shallow bank where Mr. Shorts wintered his bulbs. Explore the delicate balance of the Yao Japanese Garden before wandering further into the forest through reclaimed native wetlands toward a full size suspension bridge that seems to magically float above a deep fern and rhododendron covered ravine.
Washington Park Arboretum — UW Botanical Gardens
This vast expanse in the central Madison Valley neighborhood of Seattle is well-known for providing numerous options to explore on well maintained paths. A paved beltway wraps around the perimeter and more intricate wood chip trails wind through an internal maze-work of staircases weaving together interesting plant zones. Depending on the month, something is always ablaze with splashes of colorful blossoms and textures from the new beginnings of leaves. Follow a ridge of evergreens that range from redwoods to unique varieties of pine and take in the smells of the sinewy bark as ferns throw out their fronds and carpets of bulbed flowers softly line the forest floor. The Seattle Japanese Garden (open March through November) is in this complex as well as the Arboretum-Waterfront Trail (mentioned below). Be sure to find the Arboretum Aqueduct and follow the moss covered railings to a hidden part of the park that showcases an interesting assortment of trees, like one of my favorites, the monkey puzzle (photo above).
St. Edward State Park
Long ago my great uncle attended seminary at this Catholic academy — which is now a Washignton State Park — and the spiritual vibe remains. The grotto that was dedicated to Mary is a very spiritual place to meditate amongst the intricate brick and stone walls framed in with moss, ferns and other things green. Continue down the hillside under a tall canopy of awakening maples to the banks of Lake Washignton. The gentle sounds of water lapping onto the tiny pebble beach help create a beautiful Spring retreat. The seminary buildings are currently under renovation to become The Lodge at St. Edward, a full service hotel space — expected to open in Summer 2021. Remember, since this is a State Park a daily parking pass ($10 via automatic machines) or a Discovery Pass ($30 where you buy hunting licenses) is required to utilize the ample parking area.
My favorite Spring park in Seattle is Volunteer Park. The stately square plot of land commands the top of the Capitol Hill neighborhood with old world charm, designed by the prestigious Olmstead Brothers in the early 1900’s. The curved roadways seem to flow in concert with the numerous varieties of evergreen trees and deciduous varieties that slowly come alive beginning in March. Cherry blossoms “pop” along the roadway near the Volunteer Park Conservatory, and the Black Sun sculpture offers a unique setting of which to view the skyline of Seattle, including the iconic Space Needle.
Daphne bushes are the first to throw open their fragrant blooms followed by hellebores and cherry blossoms — then the show kicks into full gear with layers upon layers of rhododendron delight, azaleas and camellia bushes. When April is in full gear, something always seems to be in bloom — the large chestnut trees that line the main drive push out brilliant hues of green in May. The smell of freshly cut grass mixed with sweet pollen of the abundant new life is intoxicating. On a nicer day, pull up a picnic at one of the tables situated underneath the arbor — or try your luck with a blanket on the foamy lawn.
Park Bonus — Memorial Day patriotism
My favorite thing to do on Memorial Day weekend (and 4th of July) is to pay respects to service members at two Seattle parks that feature military cemeteries — lined up with rows upon rows of crisp American flags. Discovery Park is popular regardless of the holiday, and once parked and on foot, look for the discreet entrance to the Fort Lawton Military Cemetery. The peaceful space also hosts German and Italian prisoners of war who died at the fort, a peculiar mystery given the European theater of WWII was mostly… in Europe. Up on Capitol Hill, near the larger Lakeview Cemetery (final resting place of Bruce and Brandon Lee), find a secret garden turned military cemetery for Civil War veterans who made their way West to Washington State.
Seattle waters nourish the soul any time of year
Water is ample in every direction around Seattle — any time of year. That’s what keeps our world green, especially fueling the rebirth of Spring. While there are plenty of great places to access the water, those listed below are my absolute favorites for the season. I’ve also placed a few additional options on the map above. Be sure to bundle up, because microclimates along the water can differ from other parts of the city and moisture is everywhere. When considering a saunter along the Puget Sound (Lincoln Park & Alki Beach below) be sure to research the tides, as they can change as much as 14 feet between low and high marks. Otherwise, the lake levels stay pretty constant.
Lake Washington Boulevard
The Seattle Parks system was created around the turn of the 20th Century by the Olmstead firm, famous for designing Central Park in NYC. They imagined a system of green spaces traversing the East side of Seattle from Seward Park along Lake Washington to the Washington Park Arboretum and Portage Bay. Although some of the land in this patch was eventually sold for development, much of this master plan remains today. Windy Lake Washington Blvd passes rows of flowering cherry blossoms amongst other Spring wonders. The drive is beautiful but walking along the water’s edge is fantastic in Spring. Take in water views of Lake Washington with the towers of downtown Bellevue in the distance. There are plenty of parking areas and trailheads to inspire any length of outing.
Alki Beach — West Seattle things to do in Spring
I love Alki Beach (Al – Kai) and West Seattle so much I write about this fantastic waterlogged peninsula in another article: The best things to do in West Seattle, including Alki Beach. While the hustle of volleyball, bikes, roller blades, picnics and paddle boards is only waking up in Spring, this stretch of beach and boardwalk is full of life and interesting things to see. I recommend parking near Luna Park, which has views both of the Seattle Skyline and the Olympic Mountains. From here stroll toward the busier part of the promenade. The lighthouse at the end of the spit is walkable along the beach at low tide, but check the tides to avoid getting stranded. There should be plenty of food and beverage options or coffee if the blustery weather inspires a warm cup to carry in hand.
Arboretum-Waterfront Trail — Foster Point
This experience reminds me of duck hunting with my brother — amongst cattails and other marshy plants soaked with moisture — except you’re viewing the birds instead of shooting them. It’s possible part of the trail will involve thick mud, so be sure to wear appropriate footwear — probably boots. There is something liberating about trudging through the mud amongst a soggy marsh while taking in the variety of animal life and absorbing the stillness of Union Bay, which is an alcove of Lake Washington. Start out at Foster Point, with benches and rocks that frame in the lake while stray geese wander about. The plank system begins here and continues through a system of brush and elevated viewing stations. The trail ends at East Montlake Park, which is still in transition from the development of the new Evergreen Point Floating Bridge — also a great outdoor option for a Spring outing in Seattle. Unless the desire is to continue to the bridge, it’s a more pleasant experience to back track on the plank system.
Fisherman’s Terminal — Interbay
Seattle hosts an armada of fishing vessels that work hard to bring in the catch from Pacific Northwest waters all the way up to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. In fact, a good portion of the Alaska fleet is based around the docks of Ballard, Freemont and the fishery industry Mecca, Fisherman’s Terminal. Chow down on excellent fresh fish-n-chips at Chinooks at Salmon Bay before wandering around the public docks. Watch crew members mending fishing nets, painting boats, refueling, and doing everything necessary to prepare for the next bounty.
Take the Washington State Ferry to Bainbridge Island
Not much beats floating through the Puget Sound on a ferry — no matter the weather. Walk onto either the Tacoma or Puyallup (yes, I’m geeky about airplanes and boats) at Coleman Dock in Downtown Seattle. At the time of this writing the passage costs $9.05 per person for the round trip. Machines sell tickets or ORCA (Seattle Transit) cards are accepted — right as you walk through the boarding gate. Since the fare is only sold as a round-trip, no tickets are taken when boarding the eastbound return to Seattle. Masks are required on the ferry and I spend all my time out on the deck, looking for kelp beds and the elusive Orca whales.
The skyline of Seattle is amazing as the boat pulls away from the city and about forty minutes later you’ll feel the bump of the marine vessel into the Bainbridge Island pilings. There are a few easy coastline walks from the ferry terminal, towards Waterfront Park & City Dock. Hawley Cove Park is about a mile away in the other direction but showcases wide views of the ferries and Seattle from a peaceful public beach. Winslow Way East offers a variety of to-go food and drink options, but I love the pizza at Bruciato — order the date prosciutto with drizzled balsamic. Ferries run frequently throughout the day, so this is an easy jaunt for a scenic lunch.
Urban art and architecture — Outdoor Seattle Spring things to do
Seattle has a rich art culture that’s alive in formal museums, architecture, outdoor exhibits and wall murals. More recently, the events of 2020 brought about a new edge to the art expressed in the city — atop plywood window coverings and vacant brick walls — associated with energy from the closing of business for the coronavirus pandemic and then, later, Black Lives Matter protests. Those taking the Link Light Rail line from Seatac Airport to central parts of the city will enjoy numerous wall murals only visible from the urban connector — especially between Beacon Hill and Stadium stops. The Google Map above includes more options not mentioned here, like the Hat & Boots Park in Georgetown, but the following are my favorite places to experience Seattle art and architecture in Spring.
Olympic Sculpture Park
The setting of this narrow landscaped patch, infused with a variety of thought provoking exhibits, could barely be matched on a clear day. The front row view of the Salish Sea is soulful in any weather, but on a clear Spring day when the snow-capped Olympic Mountains emerge in all their grandeur it’s hard not to feel the delicate balance that exists between city and nature. Wind through the diagonal pathways that meander through casts of metal with teetering objects and grasses planted in strategic places, bringing to life the feeling of wandering through the dunes at the beach. The Space Needle hovers above this scene, remaining in the background. From the nine-acre park take the pedestrian walkway over the railroad tracks to meet up with Elliott Bay Trail — which changes direction North along the sound as far as you fancy (also shown on map above).
International Fountain and art of Seattle Center
The Seattle Center was originally created to house the 1962 World’s Fair — firmly launching the iconic Space Needle into the city’s identity. A whole cluster of futuristic pavilions were constructed for the event that showcased all the space-age technology that would build the future of the world. Most of the original buildings were dismantled, but a few remain, such as the mid-century gem that houses the Pacific Science Center and the sporting arena with a roofline resembling a ceremonial hat worn by traditional Salish tribes.
I enjoy strolling through this hodgepodge of architecture because artwork seems to pop out from every direction. Look for giant daisies extended up toward the Space Needle or the effervescent curvature of the Museum of Pop Culture’s metal exoskeleton. Continue wandering through the collection of buildings to the giant round ball wedged in the bottom of a sloped concrete basin — like a pinball waiting to drop through a hole. The massive spray of water shooting from various conduits around this giant ball inspire a child-like interest to run through the streams of mist and spray. An activity perfect for a rainy day — but this time an umbrella might be useful.
Chinatown and UPS Waterfall Park
Chinatown is a fun place to visit, and the merchants could use our friendly support right now. Some of the best asian cuisine lives in this historic neighborhood, along with colorful dragon gates and other art. Occidental Square offers interesting sculptures and it’s hard not to be inspired by the beautiful flowing UPS Waterfall Park. Grab a bite to go from Honey Court Seafood Restaurant, or any of the great Chinese restaurants in the area, and have a seat amongst the metal pergolas that frame the rock wall that at the time was the most expensive US park to build on a square foot basis.
Amazon Spheres and “Tron City”
Even as the pandemic seems to have caused a halt to many parts of society, Seattle’s downtown is morphing everyday. Skyscrapers continue to shoot up, sleek steel and glass monuments to the ongoing prosperity of tech giants in the area, most notably Amazon.com. While the glass orbs known as the Amazon Spheres enjoy most of the notoriety, I love wandering through “Tron City” as I call it. Just look up, in every direction, at a new city forming. There are a few Amazon grab and go stores, which require no exchange of money. Just download the app, load a credit card, scan the code to enter and take whatever you’d like off the shelves. Perhaps buy a picnic lunch to enjoy at one of the brightly painted red metal benches nearby. Mbar, which I featured in the article about the best places to view the Seattle skyline, is open again and serves sophistication with a Birdseye view of all that’s new on the tech horizon of the Emerald City.
Art of the CHOP — Seattle’s Capitol Hill — outdoor Spring things to do
I’ll close with the art of my own neighborhood — Capitol Hill — which consists of a mix of long-time murals, pandemic plywood coverings and expression associated with the Black Lives Matter protests that started in June 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. I present a real-time account of the art in a photo essay written in June 2020 titled, Art of Seattle CHOP. CHOP stands for Capitol Hill Occupied Protest and consisted of a small portioned area in the heart of Capitol Hill near the Seattle East Precinct Police Station. While most of the temporary installments were removed, much still remains on the sides of buildings and in other nooks and crannies. The large “Black Lives Matter” letters that emerged on the surface of East Pine Street last Summer were recently repainted and still invoke some of the fraught energy of the impassioned movement.
Similar to my feelings about places like Berlin, it’s important to honor the meaning of the energy that inspired this protest — and visiting the art is one way to acknowledge our very recent Seattle history. Wander between Pine and Pike streets in this area with eyes peeled for all kinds of brilliant artwork. The plywood is coming down as businesses fully open — albeit with pandemic appropriate adjustments — and would appreciate any support for coffee to-go or outdoor dining. I like Cafe Vita for coffee and Poquitos, Lost Lake and Oddfellows Lodge all offer outdoor meal seating. Finally, while this area received a lot of negative press about burning cars and rampant crime, this is my home and I feel safe walking in this area — day or night.