The State of Washington is in the heart of the Pacific Northwest and is full of all the wondrous things this region is so loved for. But what are the top things to see in Washington State?
Whether you’re looking for outdoor adventure, romantic getaways, nature and wildlife experiences, charming towns to explore, beach and water pursuits or amazing food and drink, this list of our own favorite sights and activities have you covered.
So, let’s get started creating an amazing Washington State vacation!
Cities & Towns of Washington State
Washington State is best known for its beautiful scenery and outdoor activities. But, there are also plenty of vibrant cities and charming towns to explore. Here are a few of our top picks for cities and towns to see in WA.
We’ll start with the best-known city in Washington. Seattle (aka Emerald City) has been on the tourist radar for many years with good reason. The scenic setting, surrounded by water, mountains and forest, Seattle is nothing short of spectacular.
Furthermore, Seattle has a fabulous food scene, fun attractions, great shopping, unique neighborhoods, craft breweries and a vibrant, varied nightlife. What more can you ask for in a city?
Tip: We’ve used the Seattle City Pass and found it to be a great savings if you’re interested in seeing many of the top Seattle sights.
The town of Bellingham sits on the Washington coast just south of the Canadian border. It’s a university town so there’s a young and energetic vibe with plenty of cool and casual pubs and eateries.
If you like craft beer you’ll really love Bellingham as there are more than 15 breweries in the area. Nature lovers will also be in heaven here with easy access to water, mountains and forests.
Walla Walla is the place to go if you enjoy sipping wine in a beautiful setting. Downtown Walla Walla is charming with tree-lined streets full of trendy boutiques, vintage shops, amazing restaurants and of course plenty of tasting rooms.
The surrounding Walla Walla Wine Valley boasts orchards, farmland and more than 120 wineries. You definitely won’t go hungry or thirsty in Walla Walla but you may need to loosen your belt.
You may think you’ve been transported to Europe when you arrive in the town of Leavenworth. It’s a Bavarian-style town surrounded by the Cascade Mountains that attracts visitors year-round. Downtown Leavenworth has streets lined with colorful Bavarian buildings housing shops, restaurants, tasting rooms and gourmet food vendors.
The town hosts several festivals a year including a magical 6-week long Leavenworth Christmas Lighting Festival, Maifest and of course a fun-filled Bavarian Oktoberfest. Tip: If you’re visiting Washington in the fall the Autumn Leaf Festival is gorgeous.
The tiny town of La Conner may be best known for the colorful Tulip Festival in the spring. However, this charming harbourside town is also regularly voted as best for romantic and weekend getaways in Washington.
Situated on the shores of the Salish Sea between Seattle and Vancouver, BC and having one of the closest marinas to the San Juan Islands makes it a seafaring favorite. Sights and activities in town include interesting museums and shops selling local arts and crafts.
Gig Harbour is a small, scenic town on the Puget Sound near Tacoma. It’s a place with stunning scenery, historic downtown and lots of water activities including gondola rides. Yes, gondola rides! You can actually take a tour on an authentic gondola around the harbor.
Alternately you can get out on the water with kayaks or paddleboards or take a long walk along Cushman Trail. In town, you’ll find shops, museums and plenty of dining options.
Lovely Port Townsend, on the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, has been named one of the Most Beautiful Small Towns in the US. It’s a historic seaport with a long maritime history that is displayed in the museums, shops and art galleries found around town.
Adventure and outdoor enthusiasts can make use of the trails, beaches, wildlife and sea activities. Romantics can enjoy Victorian architecture, cozy restaurants and live music. Kids will love beachcombing and exploring the old bunkers of Fort Worden. There is a bit of everything in Port Townsend.
In the middle of Washington State, you’ll find the western town of Ellensburg. Home to the much-loved Ellensburg Rodeo there are hints and memories of the Wild West everywhere. However, the historic downtown has been revitalized and you’ll see old lamp posts, lovely flowering containers and custom signs among the brick buildings from the late 1800s.
Be sure to visit the interesting Kittitas County Historical Museum and do a walking tour of the quirky and beautiful public arts displayed around town.
Get transported back to the Wild West with a visit to Winthrop, WA in the scenic Methow Valley. The main street of downtown Winthrop is like a living museum with an antique boardwalk lined with old west-style buildings. You’ll find nostalgic places like Three-Fingered Jack’s Saloon, Old Schoolhouse Brewery, the Marshalls’ Office and the Winthrop Emporium all open for business.
In reality, despite being founded in the late 1800s, the Winthrop of today was created in the 1970s as a Western theme town. However, there’s still plenty of history which you can learn about in the Shafer Museum.
Poulsbo is also known as “Little Norway” after Scandinavian-heritage settlers from the midwest arrived and claimed similarities to the Nordic region they were from. This was also a temporary home to Chief Sealth who is the origin of the name Seattle. The scenic bay-side town offers plenty of nature-based activities like hiking and boating as well as boutique shops, charming restaurants, museums and art galleries.
But, one of the top attractions in Poulsbo is the Viking Festival held every July. People come dressed as Vikings to join the festivities such as parades, Scandanavian food and even fish-eating contests.
Located on Fidalgo Island, north of Seattle, Anacortes is a charming little town with epic Pacific Northwest views. These views and abundant nature can be appreciated by hiking or biking the 50 miles of trails nearby. Or, head out on the water by kayak or on a whale watching tour.
The historic downtown offers a waterfront walk, shopping, art galleries, museums and plenty of cafes and restaurants to enjoy the sunset views.
Washington State & National Parks
Washington is known and loved for its abundance of beautiful Pacific Northwest nature. So, it’s no surprise that many of the top things to see in Washington State are national parks and forests. There are hundreds to choose from but we’ve hand-selected some of our personal favorites to add to a Pacific Northwest road trip.
Mount Rainier National Park
You’re sure to have seen the iconic shot of the Seattle skyline with majestic Mount Rainier in the background. For a closer look at this snow-capped active volcano, you’ll have to head to Mount Rainier National Park. Hiking is the number one thing to do in the park and with 260 miles of hiking trails, you’ll never run out of options.
There is something for every level of expertise. You’ll find gentle walks through wild-flower-filled meadows to the 93-mile Wonderland Trail that goes all the way around Mount Rainier. Every year experienced climbers tackle the summit but only half of them succeed.
Tip: If you don’t have a car you can take a tour to see the beauty of Mount Rainier up close. This Mount Rainier Day Trip from Seattle gets rave reviews.
North Cascades National Park
A ruggedly beautiful, wilderness wonderland pretty well sums up North Cascades National Park. Highway 20 (aka North Cascades Scenic Byway) runs through the Ross Lake National Recreational Area. The road separates the north and south areas of the National Park. The highway offers spectacular vistas of Glacier peaks, evergreen forest and gorgeous Diablo Lake. However, in order to access the NP itself, you need to hike in.
There are more than 400 miles of trails to explore including a section of the epic 2,600 mile Pacific Crest Trail that runs from Mexico to Canada. If wilderness hiking and camping excite you this should be on your list of top things to see in Washington State.
Olympic National Park
Located on the beautifully rugged Olympic Peninsula, the Olympic National Park should top everyone’s list of things to see in Washington State. This massive park contains several unique ecosystems offering a bit of everything nature can provide. Rain forest, beaches, mountains, lakes, waterfalls and hot springs can all be found in this stunning natural wonderland.
Must-see spots include Hoh Rainforest, Hurricane Ridge, Marymere Falls, Sol Duc Hot Springs and beaches like Rialto and Ruby. On a personal note, hiking in Olympic National Park is one of our favorite things to do in Washington.
Tip: Don’t want to drive to the Olympic Peninsula? This small-group day trip to Olympic National Park is a good option with great reviews.
Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
At one time there were two separate areas. But today they combine to cover a massive stretch reaching from the Canadian border to Mount Rainier. The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest contains glacier peaks, volcanoes, alpine meadows, multiple lakes, old-growth forests. Additionally, there are 1,500 miles of hiking trails and snow sports including seven ski hills.
The abundance of activities and close proximity to Seattle and Vancouver, BC make it one of the most popular things to see in Washington State.
Deception Pass State Park
Deception Pass State Park is one of the most popular parks in Washington. The park covers more than 4,100 acres and includes many miles of both salt and fresh water shoreline. The iconic Deception Pass Bridge (actually two bridges) connects Whidbey Island, Canoe Island and Fidalgo Island and can be walked or driven across.
A wide variety of trails and campgrounds make hiking and camping the top things to do in Deceptions Pass State Park. As well as both salt and fresh water activities like kayaking, fishing and swimming.
Pacific Northwest Nature
Pacific Northwest nature is definitely a top draw for both visitors and locals. Washington State offers a bit of everything including mountains, forests, beaches, lakes, rivers and waterfalls. It’s impossible to cover all the natural beauty found here but we’ve picked a few top nature sights and activities in Washington State.
Olympic Peninsula Beaches
Along with a beautiful National Park, the Olympic Peninsula is home to several stunning examples of Pacific Northwest beaches. These wild, unspoiled beaches are not so much for sunbathing and swimming. Rather, they are loved for beachcombing, hiking, driftwood, sea stacks, camping and jaw-dropping scenery.
Some of the best beaches on the Olympic Peninsula are Shi Shi, Rialto, First, Second and Third beaches and Ruby beach. One of our favorite things to do in Washington is to hike in and wild camp on the sand of Second Beach.
Long, narrow and deep, Lake Chelan is a popular summer destination for Washingtonians. The lake is in Eastern Washington near North Cascades National Park. The area enjoys warm, dry weather from late spring through early fall. In the summer people flock to the lake to swim, sunbathe and enjoy water sports with beautiful scenery.
The town of Chelan offers a good selection of restaurants. Plus, there are lots of wineries nearby for your tasting pleasure.
The iconic Snoqualmie Falls is a top thing to see in Washington State and is easily accessible. You may even recognize the falls as they were featured in the cult classic series “Twin Peaks.” Falling 270 feet straight down it’s a pretty spectacular sight and there are several viewing platforms to enjoy the cascading water.
You can also take a short trail to the bottom of the falls. At the top of the falls is the Salish Lodge and Spa. Here, you can go and enjoy a meal or a drink pre or post-fall watching.
Tip: Combine a visit to Snoqualmie Falls with a wine tasting at local wineries for a fun-filled day. Or combine a Seattle city tour with a visit to Snoqulamie Falls.
San Juan Islands
The San Juans are an island archipelago made up of 172 islands and over 300 miles of shoreline. The majority of these islands are only accessible by private boat and some disappear completely at high tide. There is ferry service and tourism amenities for San Juan Island, Orcas Island and Lopez Island. You can also access Shaw Island by ferry but amenities are limited to a few campsites.
San Juan Island is the busiest. Charming towns like Friday Harbour and Snug Harbour offer lots of accommodations, dining and activities. If you get the opportunity to sail around this stunning group of islands, definitely take it. You will agree the San Juans are one of the top things to see in Washington State.
The Pacific Northwest is famous for whale watching. Therefore, we couldn’t create a list of top things to see in Washington State without mentioning the whales. The peak season for whale watching in WA is mid-June to early September but many tours run year-round. Most whale watching tours leave from Seattle, Anacortes, Friday Harbour, Port Townsend and Port Angeles.
Tip: This Guaranteed Whale Watching Tour gets 5 stars from recent guests.
Visiting Washington State Tips
- SeaTac is the main international airport servicing Washington State followed by Bellingham and Spokane.
- All major car rental companies are available in Seattle. We normally use Hertz or Sixt.
- Much of Washington State is mild year-round. However, the Seattle area sees lots of rain in the winter. Eastern Washington and the mountain passes can recieve a fair bit of snow in the winter months.
- Access Washington lists government sites that may be useful to visitors.
Writer, traveler, wine & food lover and co owner of Discover the Pacific Northwest and Live Dream Discover.