The Best Museums in Seattle: A Helpful Guide

Seattle always likes to do things a bit differently. This offbeat, progressive city’s museums are no different. Straying from the more classic history and art museums that grace the streets of New York, D.C., and Chicago, museums in Seattle, Washington are reflective of its innovative and forward-thinking nature, its musical roots, the presence of engineering and aviation industries, its Indigenous origins, and the influence of Asian and Nordic culture in the city. 

These elements make for a less typical museum experience that instead shine a light on lesser-known artistic styles, cultivating conservation of nature and cultures, and immersing visitors in interactive, educational experiences. 

As a Seattle native by origin, I’ve had the opportunity to experience and appreciate the Emerald City’s museums through all stages of life, from a young kid, to a curious high schooler, to a college student, and now as an adult. 

I’ve witnessed the Emerald City’s museums evolve and have experienced them through the ages. Each time I come back to the city, I’m intrigued to explore the new cultural and art offerings that have emerged since I last visited and finding new appreciation for the nuanced and conscious approach Seattle museums adopt. 

While the city may really shine in its stunning nature and views, the best museums in Seattle have a way of keeping up with the times, aligning with contemporary political and social events, climate issues, music, artistic innovation, pop culture, and more, and make for a perfect stop indoors, particularly on those notorious, rainy Seattle days. 

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The Best Museums in Seattle

While not an exhaustive list, here is a compilation of what I think are the best museums in Seattle, each offering an exceptional experience that is characteristic of a unique aspect to Seattle.

If you find yourself with more time on your hands, you may consider checking out the smaller museums like Henry Art Gallery and the Frye Museum—both well-curated art museums and an extra bonus that the Frye is free! From art and music to history and nature, explore the niche creative inspiration that can be found in this maritime city. 

Note that on the first Thursday of each month, many of Seattle’s museums offer free admission and some also have extended hours, allowing you to linger over your favorite exhibits later than usual.

Museum of Pop Culture 

If you were going to only choose to visit one museum during your time in Seattle, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Museum of Pop Culture, also known as “MoPOP.”

Situated in Seattle Center in the Queen Anne neighborhood, the iconic architectural design of MoPOP—formerly known as the “Experience Music Project”— is impossible to miss. The deconstructivism building fuses vivid colors and textures in head-turning metal waves that are intended to represent the fluidity and energy of music. 

If the outside of the museum caught your attention, you’ll be in for a treat inside. Originally established as a museum dedicated exclusively to music—music icons, music history, contemporary music, musical instruments and costumes, famed Seattle musicians, and musical experimentation—MoPOP has now expanded to include exhibits on contemporary pop culture as well.

The innovative space’s self-proclaimed mission is to: “make creative expression a life-changing force by offering experiences that inspire and connect our communities.” 

MoPOP is no ordinary museum, which is what makes it so much fun. You can get lost here all day, regardless of your age group. Kids, teenagers, and adults alike will be captivated by the fun exhibits and the interactive activities. MoPOP hosts permanent exhibits of Seattle music icons including Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Jimi Hendrix, alongside rotating exhibits of other musicians, from grunge to hip hop artists.

I’ve admired the show stopping dresses of the Supremes and followed the musical evolution of Hendrix over the years. As the museum has expanded, you can also explore rotating exhibits showcasing science fiction, myth and magic, costume design, and beyond. 

The fun doesn’t stop there, though! Tap into your musical side in the Sound Labs at MoPOP, where you experiment solo or with friends on guitars, microphones, and other instruments while recording your own music. Or, find your rhythm as you play around on the many different drums from around the world and learn about the origins of global percussion instruments. 

Key Information

Location: Queen Anne (Seattle Center)

Opening Hours: Daily 10:00 am-5:00 pm

Entrance Fees: The Museum of Pop Culture has adopted a “plan ahead” pricing scheme. This means that you can purchase tickets online in advance and the price differs depending on the day of the week, the time of the day, and how far in advance you purchase them. Prices generally range between $25-31. 

Free Day? No, unfortunately MoPOP isn’t part of a free day program. 

Seattle Art Museum

Perhaps the most classic of the art museums in Seattle, Seattle Art Museum, or simply “SAM,” is conveniently located in downtown Seattle, just a couple of blocks up from Pike Place Market. The museum is impossible to miss with the giant iron man with a hammer standing in front of the building. 

The SAM hosts a rotation of exhibits unfolding over several floors, from classic works of European art and contemporary mediums, to more niche work capturing subjects like Indigenous printmaking and the evolution of South Asian art over time. A morning or afternoon spent in the SAM will be a journey through time and space.

In one museum, you can admire the classic watercolor paintings of Monet, study Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstract drawings, learn about Northwest modernist painting by Japanese artists—a style reflecting the connection to the Pacific, and explore innovative installations that use various materials to reflect Indigenous culture and history. 

Even this more classic art museum offers an unusual experience beyond the typical art museum by tapping into the niche subcultures thriving in Seattle. Storytelling and representation, particularly of the communities that comprise the community makeup of Seattle, are at the forefront of SAM’s diverse exhibits. As its exhibits frequently change, check out the website to see what’s currently showing at the SAM before you stop by for a visit.

Key Information

Location: Downtown 

Opening Hours: 10:00 am-5:00 pm, Wednesday-Sunday (closed Monday and Tuesday)

Entrance Fees: Day of: Adults $22.99, Seniors (ages 65+) $17.99, Students and Teens (15-18) $15.99. If you purchase advance tickets, save $3 per ticket. Children 14 and under are free. 

Free Day? Yes- First Thursday of the month is free for all, first Friday free for Seniors (65+). 

Museum of History and Industry

The Museum of History and Industry or, simply “MOHAI,” has had several locations over the years before it found its current home in South Lake Union. MOHAI is a museum for all things related to history and culture in Seattle, as well as the greater Pacific Northwest.

From photographs to historic signs, there is an impressive collection of artifacts including art, textiles, household items, maritime equipment, early computer and vehicle models, and so much more. 

This museum is a fun journey through time for anyone interested in tapping into the historical makeup of Washington State. Explore exhibits like the “True Northwest,” which captures unique eras and events in Seattle history, from pre-pioneer settlements to the Great Seattle Fire, to modern day occurrences.

Walk through an exhibit filled with Seattle cultural icons, such as the first commercial Boeing plane, the neon “R” sign of Rainier beer, and a clam costume from Seattle seafood chain Ivar’s. 

MOHAI is as educational as it is fun. The museum does a deep dive into the industrial and cultural history of the region. Tap into Seattle’s maritime roots as you observe 360-degree-views of Lake Union and downtown Seattle from a periscope in a naval submarine or explore the inventive foundation of the city at MOHAI’s Bezos Center for Innovation. 

Key Information

Location: South Lake Union

Opening Hours: Daily 10:00 am-5:00 pm; Thursdays in July and August the museum is open from 10:00 am-8:00 pm. 

Entrance Fees: Adults $22, Seniors $18, Students $17, Children 14 and under are free. 

Free Day? Yes- First Thursday of the month is free admission. 

Chihuly Garden and Glass

Situated inside the Seattle Center in close proximity to the iconic Space Needle, the Chihuly Garden and Glass is another entirely unique museum that captures the rising prominence of glass art in the Pacific Northwest over the past few decades.

Dale Chihuly, a world-renowned glass artist, is at the center of this movement and has roots in the Seattle area. Although you can find his work around the world, some of his most iconic pieces are right here in Seattle. In his home city of Tacoma, Washington—just half an hour southwest of Seattle— there is an entire museum dedicated to glass art. His work is truly awe-inspiring and visually stunning. 

Distinct from any other art experience in the city, Chihuly Garden and Glass is one of my favorite spots, partly for the pure visual brilliance the space offers. Chihuly was commissioned to reinvigorate the Seattle Center and Space Needle, icons of the city that were originally built for the 1962 World Fair. He designed a garden installation, glasshouse, and exhibition hall, while also creating a center to support local education in the arts. 

Chihuly Garden and Glass has three distinct sections unfolding over both indoor and outdoor spaces. Inside the glasshouse, admire immaculate works of glass art in vivid shades of orange and red suspended from the ceiling as the sun shines through, reflecting through the glass displays.

Wander through an outdoor garden blending greenery with glass. The garden is made of fantastical-looking glass flowers and surrealist glass plants in bold patterns and brilliant shades of the rainbow interspersed throughout a lush garden.

At night, the garden and glasshouse are illuminated with lights, bringing a new feel to the displays. Inside the Exhibition Hall, wander through several galleries of Chihuly’s most iconic galleries, demonstrative of how he has pushed the boundaries of glass art. 

The museum also has a theater where interviews, glassblowing, onsite workshops and more take place. And if you build an appetite during your visit, grab a bite at the Collections Café, where you can watch live glass blowing demonstrations and see how the magic happens. 

Key Information

Location: Queen Anne (Seattle Center)

Opening Hours: Daily 9:00 am-8:00 pm (except July 9:00 am-9:00 pm)

Entrance Fees: Regular tickets (ages 13-64) $32, Seniors (ages 65+) $27, and Youth (ages 5-12) $19, which includes entry to the exhibition, glasshouse, and garden. 

Free Day? No- Chihuly Garden and Glass doesn’t have free days. However, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, which offers some similar experiences, offers free days the third Thursday of each month from 5:00 -8:00pm. 

The Museum of Flight

For all aviation enthusiasts and budding young pilots and astronauts alike, the Museum of Flight in south Seattle will surely enthrall. An appropriate addition to the Seattle museum scene given the roots of Boeing airplane company in Seattle, the Museum of Flight is a fun diversion from your typical museum experience.

As someone who grew up with a dad who was first a navigator and then an engineer with Boeing, planes were an integral part of my childhood. Trips to the Museum of Flight were just as much fun for us kids as they were for my dad, who admired the collection of planes across the ages, explaining mechanics about the airplanes that flew over my head at the time. 

The expansive, high-ceilinged space has planes galore to admire, from the floor to dangling from the ceiling. Have fun looking at planes from across the generations, admiring how they have evolved in style, sophistication, and mechanics over time. The fun doesn’t stop at simply looking at planes.

The Museum of Flight offers a number of fun interactive experiences. Jump into the pilot’s seat and experience a 3-D flight simulation, which allows you to choose between nine different aircrafts from WWII fighter jets to modern aircraft. If you’d rather fly even further, head to space with the Spacequest VR experience, which will shoot you to the moon on a rocket. 

From customized tours and family workshops, to specialized events, the Museum of Flight not only pays tribute to the aviation history in Seattle, but it is a unique and engaging experience for anyone interested in space, travel, and an out-of-the-ordinary museum. 

Key Information

Location: South Seattle (Between South Park and Tukwila)

Opening Hours: Daily 10:00 am-5:00 pm. Stays open until 9:00 pm on the first Thursday of the month. 

Entrance Fees: Adults $25 and Youth (ages 5-17) $17. Note that certain experiences cost extra. 

Free Day? Yes- First Thursday of the month is free, though just during the extended hours from 5:00-9:00 pm. 

The Burke Museum

Situated on the University of Washington campus, the Burke Museum is the oldest museum in Washington State and blends science, natural history, and Pacific Northwest indigenous culture.

Although it was standing during my time as a student at the University of Washington, the former Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture has been recently completely renovated and reimagined to update its façade and become more interactive.

Its renovation is refreshing and aligned with the progressive energy of the times. The forefront of the Burke’s ethos is to enhance nature conservation and cultural traditions, through fostering thoughtful and sustainable connections to the culture and nature rooted in the Pacific Northwest.

From biological evolution to native archaeology, the exhibits are experiential and educational. The Burke focuses heavily on the Native communities of the Pacific Northwest, from architecture and traditional food practices, to art and culture, seeking to amplify the voices of individuals and communities from across the Pacific.

Explore exhibits such as the Northwest Art Gallery, which is dedicated to new and historic carvings, basketry, and other Native art, and curated by six Pacific Northwest Native artists. At the Burke, you can also see the only real display of dinosaur fossils in Washington State, as well as plant fossils and the mammals that wandered the land of Washington state during the last Ice Age. 

The Burke is also an active research museum and houses over 18 million geological, cultural, and biological objects through its collections that are a valuable resource contributing to both local and global research.

In line with its research emphasis, this museum focuses heavily on education and commonly offers learning opportunities including camps for kids, girls in science, and virtual learning opportunities. You can even learn about plants, fungi, and wildflowers of Washington through apps that the Burke Museum Herbarium has created. And if you need a bite to eat during your visit, stop by Off the Rez, a café serving food rooted in Native dishes, such as frybread and salads with squash, sweet potatoes, and corn. 

Key Information

Location: University District 

Opening Hours: 10:00 am-5:00 pm, Tuesday-Sunday; 10:00 am-8:00 pm, first Thursday of the month (Mondays closed)

Entrance Fees: Adults $22, Seniors (ages 62+) $20, and Youth (ages 4-17) $14.

Free Day? Yes- First Thursdays are free at the Burke. 

Pacific Science Center

Also located in the Seattle Center like many of the best museums in Seattle, the Pacific Science Center is a fun and multifaceted museum. The Science Center is home to a number of different entities and numerous science experiences geared towards kids including a tropical butterfly house, a planetarium, a live science stage, and a dinosaur exhibit. There are also two IMAX theaters showing fun documentaries and a laser dome.

Beyond the many special elements, the Science Center is full of dynamic and interactive sections designed to spark curiosity and innovation in the minds of people of all generations.

Experience emerging and experimental technologies designed by local changemakers, learn about data distortion and collection, try out immersive VR experiences, get in touch with real creatures through the Living Exhibits, and so much more. Every exhibit at the Science Center is playful and educational, designed to reflect all elements of earth science, space, data science, plant life, and engineering.

One of my favorite features of the Science Center is the laser dome, which makes for an enjoyable evening activity. The laser dome regularly hosts shows during which they pair a music theme to lasers. Choose between shows featuring the likes of artists like Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, and the Beatles, and sit back and listen to your favorite tunes as you watch the laser designs take form and dance on the dome ceiling above you.

This was one of my favorite things to do while I was a student at the University of Washington—certainly a more offbeat, inviting museum experience for a college student!

Key Information

Location: Queen Anne (Seattle Center)

Opening Hours: 10:00 am-5:00 pm Monday-Friday; 10:00 am-6:00 pm Saturday and Sunday. The IMAX and Laser Dome have separate timing, depending on what is playing. 

Entrance Fees: The tickets depend on which part of the Science Center that you visit. General Admission Tickets are $21.95 for adults, $19.95 for seniors, $15.95 for youth (ages 6-15), and $11.95 for children (ages 3-5). IMAX shows are $21 for adults (ages 16-64) and $16 for youth and seniors (ages 3-15 and ages 65+). Evening laser shows are $15 for adults and $12 for youth and seniors. 

Free Day? No- The Pacific Science Center doesn’t offer free days. 

Seattle Asian Art Museum

One of the few museums located in the popular Capitol Hill neighborhood, the Seattle Asian Art Museum—also known as SAAM—pays homage to the prominent Asian community in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

An extension of the SAM, the Asian Art Museum exhibits both history and contemporary artwork from Asian countries, including Japan, China, Korea, the Himalayas, and India. Once housed as an exhibit inside the SAM, the Asian Art Museum was moved to the SAM’s original location in Volunteer Park in 1994. 

Inside, you’ll find thirteen permanent galleries and one gallery for special exhibitions, rotating in and out about every six months. The exhibits are organized thematically, bringing you through displays capturing concepts like spirituality, literature, clothing, nature, and the power and birth and death.

Wander through ornate displays of paintings, intricately carved sculptures, and elaborate robes and journey from Nepal, to China, to India, and beyond through the centuries. The SAAM is currently working to expand their scope, incorporating more Southeast Asian and Asian Pacific Islander exhibits as well. 

Although more on the traditional side unlike the more experiential Seattle museums, the SAAM has curated an incredibly beautiful and interesting display of art representing the diverse mediums rising from the Asian continent. And the bonus is that it happens to be located in Volunteer Park, my favorite park in Seattle, which can be combined into a full day excursion. 

Key Information

Location: Capitol Hill (Volunteer Park)

Opening Hours: 10:00 am-5:00 pm, Wednesday-Sunday (closed Monday and Tuesday)

Entrance Fees: Day of: Adults $17.99, Seniors, Students, and Teens (15-18) $12.99. If you purchase advance tickets, save $3 per ticket. Children 14 and under are free. 

Free Day? Yes- Admission is free on the last Friday of every month. 

National Nordic Museum

Located a bit outside of the center of the city where most of Seattle’s museums are concentrated, The National Nordic Museum overlooks the Puget Sound from Ballard, a north Seattle neighborhood steeped in Nordic history. While this may be a more niche choice for a museum to visit, the National Nordic Museum does a fantastic job of shedding light on Seattle’s Nordic roots and capturing the Nordic ethos at large. 

The National Nordic Museum exhibits the culture, values, and ideas of the Nordic region through both historic and contemporary lenses. Take a journey through time as you explore the history and culture of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland, as well as the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Aland Islands, and the Sampi region, over the last 12,000 years.

Through traditional clothing, homeware, cookware, accessories, modes of transport, and beyond, the museum not only preserves historical artifacts but shares the region’s commitment to social justice, respect of nature, and curiosity.

Here, you can follow the journey of Nordic populations from their semi-nomadic era, to the time of the Vikings, to the millions who emigrated to North America and specifically the Pacific Northwest. 

Beyond the primary exhibit, tap into Nordic photography, paintings, and glasswork in exhibits honoring the landscapes and creatives hailing from the Nordic region. Throughout the year, the museum will also host events related to Nordic traditions, such as a Viking metal weaving class and Julefest, a Nordic Christmas celebration. If you’re feeling a bit hungry during your visit, pay a visit to the Freya Café, where you can indulge in some favorite Nordic treats. 

Key Information

Location: Ballard

Opening Hours: 10:00 am-5:00 pm Tuesday-Sunday (closed Monday)

Entrance Fees: Adults $20, Seniors (ages 65+) $16, Student $15, and Youth (ages 5-18) $10. 

Free Day? Yes- Free first Thursdays. 

Museum of Museums

Perhaps the museum that best captures Seattle’s eclectic, offbeat style is the Museum of Museums (MoM).

This creative space is Seattle’s newest museum, just opening in the spring of 2021 (a bit delayed thanks to COVID). MoM is housed in a renovated mid-century medical building tucked into the heart of First Hill and does things a bit differently than traditional museums. Created as a way to centralize, support, and celebrate local artists, MoM has two exhibition spaces, three museums, rotating installations, and a theater, art classes, and pop-ups. 

Predominantly an evening time museum, MoM is a fun, immersive, and contemporary art space that makes for an interesting weekend activity. The galleries are ever-changing, as they explore contemporary Pacific Northwest art and themes pertaining to technology, history, pop culture, and beyond.

Expect experiential exhibits that push the boundaries of art and society, such as an exhibit on Afro-Futurism, music videos from Pacific Northwest artists, and an immersive bathroom experience (yes, you read that right).

Key Information

Location: First Hill

Opening Hours: 5:00 pm-10:00 pm Wednesday and Thursday, 12:00 pm-10:00 pm Friday and Saturday, 12:00 pm-6:00 pm Sunday (Closed Monday)

Entrance Fees: $10 weekdays and $20 weekends

Free Day? No free days at the Museum of Museums. 

Temporary Art Exhibits in Seattle

Beyond the permanent museums in Seattle, the city hosts rotating art exhibits and fairs throughout the year. Here are a few of my favorites that are worth looking out for should you find yourself in Seattle when they’re showing. 

First Thursday Art Walk: On the first Thursday of each month, Pioneer Square hosts an art walk, rain or shine. Explore a whole range of art galleries in this historic neighborhood not far from downtown. The galleries not only host thought-provoking exhibits and impressive works of art, but also have live music, DJs, food, drinks, and dancing. A perfect way to get outside and get social, while tapping into Seattle’s local art scene—a favorite event of mine throughout the years. 

Seattle Art Fair: Taking place over a long weekend in July each year, the Seattle Art Fair showcases modern and contemporary art from around the Pacific Northwest. The fair takes place in Lumen Field Stadium in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood and hosts not only phenomenal paintings, sculptures, and works of art, but also hosts talks and interactive projects throughout the weekend. 

Refract: The Seattle Glass Experience: Every October, Seattle hosts a long weekend of events surrounding glass art during this relatively new festival. The Pacific Northwest is recognized as being the center of the glass art movement in the United States. Refract showcases the incredible work of artists from around the region and has open studio opportunities, exhibitions, glass blowing classes, crafts tables, and so much more. 

Seattle Erotic Art Festival: An annual event at the end of April each year, Seattle Erotic Art Festival isn’t quite like any other art gallery or festival you have frequented. From poetry readings to acrobatic performances, visual art instillations to pantomimes, and late-night DJs, dancing, and art parties, Seattle Erotic Art Festival is an experience on its own level that can’t be put into a box. Is there anything more Seattle than that? 

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