Washington State is in the heart of the Pacific Northwest, sandwiched between beautiful British Columbia and outdoorsy Oregon. The Pacific Northwest is known for stunning scenery and an abundance of nature-based activities. If you’re a nature lover or adventure enthusiast you will never run out of things to do in Washington.
But there are also plenty of places to visit in Washington for the not so outdoorsy types. There are fun and lively cities, charming towns, a wonderful wine region, and cuisine choices that will win over any foodie.
After spending most of my life living in and exploring this area of North America’s west coast I could write for days about the beauty that awaits. However, for the purposes of this post I have narrowed it down to my personal seven favorite places to visit in Washington.
The Best Places to Visit in Washington
The scenic city of Seattle is probably the best-known destination in Washington. Fringed by mountains and sea it’s definitely a pretty city but the views are just the beginning.
The “Emerald City”, as it’s also known, has a young and energized vibe as well as a love for visual and performing arts. There are festivals and events year-round at Seattle Center, home to the iconic Space Needle. Two of my personal favorites are Bumbershoot and Bite of Seattle.
Seattle is also a heaven for foodies with a cornucopia of restaurants serving local and international cuisine. Plus a trip to Pike Place Market is an absolute must for incredible displays of every edible you can imagine. Be sure to try some fresh seafood and clam chowder!
It’s a city of neighborhoods that are fun to explore. Pioneer Square has the character from being the first Seattle neighborhood. Head to Fremont (aka The Center of the Universe) for a funky, Bohemian vibe.
Belltown is great for nightlife and live music. Capitol Hill is the colorful LGBTQ center. And the Downtown, Queen Anne, and Waterfront neighborhoods are where you’ll find many of the cities top attractions.
San Juan Islands
The San Juan islands are some of the best places to visit on the Washington Coast. The San Juans is an archipelago made up of hundreds of islands sitting between Washington state and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. However, only about 172 of these islands are named.
There are no bridges to the San Juan Islands so they can only be reached by boat or air and only four of the islands are served by ferry. Lopez Island, Shaw Island, Orcas Island and San Juan Island can be accessed by car on Washington State Ferries from Anacortes, WA and Sydney, BC. There are also several walk-on passenger ferries operating.
With more than 80 of these islands being protected by the San Juan Wildlife Refuge, wildlife viewing is one of the top things to do. Visitors are almost guaranteed to see plenty of seals, sea lions, sea birds and whales. In fact, Orca whales can be seen year-round in the San Juans by sea kayak.
Orcas Island is the largest and is home to the beautiful Moran State Park. San Juan Island is the most populated and is therefore the most visited.
Friday Harbor is the main town on San Juan Island and is the epitome of a charming Pacific Northwest island seaport town. The town itself is very walkable so you don’t need a car if you arrive by passenger ferry. There’s even a shuttle bus and trolley to explore the island.
You’ll find plenty of charming shops and local restaurants and a delicious absence of food chains in Friday Harbor. It also makes a perfect base for whale watching, kayaking and wildlife viewing tours.
Imagine driving east from Seattle for about 2.5 hours and arriving in Bavaria. That’s what it will feel like when you visit Leavenworth, WA.
The Bavarian-esque town of Leavenworth is one of my favorite Washington getaways. The charming village sits at the foot of the snow-capped Cascade Mountains and is surrounded by iconic Pacific Northwest nature.
But what makes it really special is the fact that the buildings are styled after a typical town in Bavaria Germany. The downtown shops, restaurants, and hotels are themed both inside and out creating the feeling of having been transported to Europe.
Take a wander through town and you’ll find German food, beer, clothing and souvenirs as well as typical western US fare. Make sure to stop in at the Munchen Haus for a bratwurst and pint of ale in a traditional beer garden setting
Leavenworth is also a town that loves festivals. It’s a year-round destination and there’s an event or festival almost every month. Christmas is especially magical as the whole town lights up from early December to Valentine’s Day. In December there’s a lights festival every weekend with music, food and activities sure to fill you with holiday cheer.
Of course, in keeping with the theme, Leavenworth also hosts a fabulous Oktoberfest. You’ll be fully immersed in the German spirit of eating, drinking, and being entertained with Oompah bands.
Washington is known as the Evergreen State partly because of all the evergreen trees and partly because all the rain keeps things lush and green. Well, Lake Chelan in north-central Washington doesn’t play by that rule.
The area around Lake Chelan has an arid desert climate, a lack of rainfall, and four distinct seasons. This, plus the average 300 days of sunshine make it a popular destination for outdoors enthusiasts.
The lake itself is 50 miles long and in the summer months, Washingtonians flock there to enjoy watersports, camping and relaxing in the sun. There are also some fabulous glamping spots on Lake Chelan so you can enjoy nature in comfort.
Summer is definitely the busiest time of year for Lake Chelan but it does get very hot.
The comfortable temperatures in spring and fall are perfect for hiking, cycling, golfing, and any other outdoor activities that are better done outside of searing heat. These are also good times for wine tasting at some of the local wineries around Chelan.
In the winter the combination of blue skies and powdery white snow draw people from the Seattle area trying to escape the all-too-often grey skies. Get active and warm up with cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding.
Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is on the beautiful Olympic Peninsula of Washington and one of the best national parks on the west coast. It’s a large park covering almost one million acres. Within this area are several unique ecosystems ranging from rainforest to coastline to glacier-capped mountain peaks.
The Hoh Valley Rainforest with its moss-draped, old-growth trees is nothing short of magical in any weather. It’s a lovely place for an easy hike. Speaking of hikes, this National Park is full of trails for all levels of hiker. One of the most popular being the stunningly scenic Hurricane Ridge.
If you love the water, and all the activities that go with it, you’ll be spoiled for options with more than 650 lakes and 15 rivers flowing through the park. Lake Ozette and Lake Crescent are the largest but the many little alpine lakes will leave you in awe.
Other watery wonders include several falls and two hotsprings. Sol Duc Falls is a favorite with easy access from a lovely trail. Marymere Falls is along Lake Crescent and is also easy to view from several platforms.
Then there are the 73 miles of natural, unspoiled coastline, making it one of the best national parks in the USA! You have to hike into many of the beaches in Olympic National Park but the stunning scenery at the end of the trail is so worth it. If hiking in isn’t an option, Rialto and Kalaloch Beaches are accessible by car.
Camping in the park is the best way to fully experience the wonder of nature. You can even camp right on the beach with a Wilderness Camping Permit. One of my favorite spots for camping is Second Beach but it can get quite busy in the summer months.
If you are on a Washington road trip and want to slow down to enjoy wine tasting in a beautiful setting you’ll love Walla Walla Washington. Walla Walla Valley is about 300 miles southeast of Seattle straddling the Oregon state border and it’s another of my favorite Washington getaways.
This fertile valley produces a wide variety of agricultural crops due to the diverse climates in the area. Depending on the time of year you may pass golden fields of wheat, orchards full of apples, rows of strawberries, onions, and asparagus and of course acres of vineyards.
At last count there were 3,000 acres of vineyards and over 120 wineries making Walla Walla an impressive wine region. Red varietals are the most prominent with Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon leading the productions.
Walla Walla is a bit remote for a day trip from anywhere so staying at least a couple of nights is best. Accommodations range from full-service hotels to quaint guesthouses and unique boutique stays.
Along with some fabulous Walla Walla wine tasting spots you’ll also find a foodie’s paradise with lots of great restaurants and cafes lining the cute streets of downtown Walla Walla. The charming little town is fun to explore on foot with over 30 tasting rooms and cute little local shops to browse.
Olympic Peninsula Coastal & Towns
Yes, I’ve already listed Olympic National Park as one of my top places to visit in Washington. But the whole Olympic Peninsula itself is so amazing that I’m mentioning it again.
I love to visit the Olympic Peninsula and explore the lovely little seaside towns in the summer. Some top spots are Port Angeles, Ocean Shores, Port Townsend, Neah Bay, Sequim, and Forks.
Port Angeles, on the north coast of the peninsula, offers a peaceful balance of small-town charm and a wide range of amenities. There is a passenger ferry from Victoria, BC to Port Angeles which takes you on a beautiful journey.
Picturesque Port Townsend has been named “One of America’s Best Small Towns” and it just oozes charm. It’s a Victorian seaport with one-time aspirations of becoming the largest harbor on the west coast. Personally, I’m glad that never happened.
Then there’s Sequim with its breathtaking views, heady lavender fields, and Olympic Game Farm. Plus Ocean Shores for beach activities including some pretty good surfing.
Other points of interest on the Olympic Peninsula are Dungeness Spit, Fort Worden State Park, Cape Flattery, the Ozette Triangle, and the many spectacular beaches.
This is by no means a full list of the amazing places to see in Washington State, far from it. But it is a list of my favorite seven places which I’ve visited many times over. In my humble opinion, this list is a great beginning and will definitely quench your Washington wanderlust. If it’s your first time to Washington I would recommend staying at least 10 days and road-tripping around to all these fabulous spots.
About the Author
Sarah is a writer and visual content creator who also co-runs several travel and lifestyle websites. When she and her partner, Nathan, are not traveling they are based in the Pacific Northwest. Wherever in the world they are, much of their time is spent researching and visiting destinations to create articles and videos for their own sites as well as other online publications.