Last Updated on August 11, 2021
I knew that during my month in Seattle, I wanted to explore Washington beyond the ‘Emerald City’ and the first place on my list was Tacoma, which shares the international airport SEA-TAC with Seattle. The cities do not only share an airport, but a stunning location right on the shores of Puget Sound, one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the Pacific Northwest.
While I found that most Seattleites tend to look down on Tacoma, I found the city surprisingly charming with lots of things for visitors to do—so many that I returned several times. So if you are visiting Seattle or the surrounding region, or road tripping around the Pacific Northwest, I’d recommend stopping in Tacoma. And since Tacoma is less than one hour from downtown Seattle, you may even consider booking your accommodation there—hotels in Tacoma are much cheaper than a Seattle hotel.
5 Best Things to Do on a Tacoma Day Trip
1. The Bridge of Glass and Glass Art
What Tacoma is best known for is its glass art, and if you are not a fan of glass art already, you will be after a visit to the Museum of Glass. The famous glass sculptor Dale Chihuly was born here, and his remarkable glass blown sculptures can be seen all over the world. If you are planning to visit the Chihuly Gardens in Seattle, you also have to add the Tacoma Museum of Glass to your Tacoma to-do list. In addition to installations by Chihuly, glass blown pieces from other glass artists around the world are displayed here, and there is a glassblowing studio on site.
Tip: If you happen to find yourself in Tacoma on the third Thursday of the month, the museum is free from 5pm to 8pm. Otherwise general admission is $15.
If you don’t want to fork out for admission into the museum, visit the Bridge of Glass instead on your Tacoma day trip. This unique bridge connects downtown Tacoma with the Thea Foss Waterway (it goes right over the Freeway, so you’ll probably see it—it’s recognizable by two large blue crystalline towers when you drive into Tacoma) and displays artwork by Chihuly. You can combine the bridge with a visit to the Glass Museum, which sits right on the Thea Foss Waterway side of the bridge.
2. Ghost Stories & Local Brews
If you want to learn more about Tacoma’s past, which includes quite a few dodgy characters, serial killers, and dubious (ghostly?) events, the Booze and Boos Tour, offered by Pretty Gritty Tours, will be right up your alley. I learned much more about Tacoma during this tour than I did from any of the travel articles I read to research fun stuff to do in Tacoma.
The guides who run the tour are knowledgeable, entertaining and informative, and getting to see the city’s haunted places instead of the usual sights was a great alternative way to get to know the city. And because I love craft beer, the stops at local microbreweries were the icing on the cake—not only did I get to know the spooky side of Tacoma, but I also got to enjoy some topnotch craft beers.
3. Art and Cars
If you love art, the Tacoma Art Museum is a must, as it is the only museum in the region with an emphasis on artists from the Northwest and the broader West of the U.S. There are 3,500 pieces of artwork in total, and in addition to art from the region, you’ll find exhibits that include Japanese prints and woodwork, European Impressionism and special temporary exhibits. And of course there are Chihuly glass sculptures on display.
I know that art is not for everyone, so if you’re not into art, you might want to check out the LeMay – America’s Car Museum instead. Or if you’re into art, and your hubby is not, this is where you can send him while enjoying a stroll through the art museum (both museums are a five-minute drive from one another)!
This automobile museum is not only home to the finest collection of cars in the Pacific Northwest but houses the biggest automobile collection in the entire world with around 2,700 cars – it even made it into the Guinness Book of World Records.
4. Tacoma is Quirky
If you love quirky things, you’ll be happy to hear that Tacoma has quite a few quirky attractions to visit on your day trip from Seattle, and I don’t just mean the various bikini barista coffee shops around town. If you are a coffee lover though, make sure to check out the quirky Pacific Northwest invention of ‘bikini coffee’—there are several ones all over Tacoma.)
If you prefer coffee and other beverages in a less raunchy setting, make sure to head to Bob’s Java Jive (2102 S Tacoma Way), a 25-foot coffee pot music spot that has served up over 80 years of concrete kitsch, which earned it a listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Another quirky place in Tacoma? Antique Row (near 9th and Broadway downtown), which is home to a number of antiques stores that are filled with everything from vintage clothes, antique furniture, old books, jewelry, photographs and other treasures.
It’s easy to get lost in these shops for hours, and you’ll definitely find some rare things here. The biggest and strangest shop in ‘Antique Row’ is Sanford and Sons, a giant store with 20 antiques vendors that is spread over three levels.
5. Nature Galore for Outdoors Enthusiasts
One of the most attractive features of Tacoma is its beautiful natural setting. Getting out on the water means you will get to enjoy the city skyline from a completely different vantage point – and it’s not just the cityscape you can enjoy from here, but also the Cascade Mountains Foothills, majestic Mount Rainier and the Olympic Mountains.
In addition to kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding is becoming more and more popular, and the tranquil waters in Commencement Bay are the perfect spot for a couple of hours out on the water. You can rent kayaks at Owen Beach in Point Defiance Park and Ruston Way. Ruston Recreational Rentals in Point Defiance Marina has kayaking equipment; Dolan’s Board Sports on Ruston Way (open 2pm to 7pm Wednesday through Friday, 10am to 7pm on weekends) rents stand-up paddleboards.
If you don’t want to get out on the water, Point Defiance Park – a 760 acre park with beaches, natural forests and hiking trails – is still worth a visit, especially to hike the trail along the cliffs, which offers sweeping views over Vashon Island, Dalco Passage, Gig Harbor, and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. If hiking is not your thing, check out the scenic five mile drive through the park. Note that the road is closed to cars on Saturdays and Sundays until 1pm, making it a perfect spot for a weekend morning run, hike or bike ride.
While Tacoma may not have the metropolitan vibe of nearby Seattle, it definitely has enough to offer to make a visit worthwhile. No matter if you’re interested in art and museums or in outdoors activities – there’s something in Tacoma for everyone. If you are planning to explore both Tacoma and Seattle, consider staying in one the Sea Tac hotels around the airport, which is conveniently located right in the middle between Seattle and Tacoma. The Link light rail train goes straight to Seattle, and there is a bus that goes from the airport to Tacoma.
Photo credit: All images that are not my own are used under Flickr’s Creative Commons Licensing. (1) Tacoma Glass Bridge by Collin Votrobeck; (2) Chihuly Glass by CJ Oliver; (3) Tacoma Car Museum by Jim Culp; (4) Bob’s Java Jive by Kenji Ross.