A Writer’s Guide For A Winter Jaunt In Seattle, The Other City of Lights

By Sarah Anne Lloyd
Argosy Cruises’ Christmas Ship™ Festival.

Here’s the thing about winter in Seattle: It’s pretty dark. Our high latitude means that deep in the winter, you can go whole days without seeing the sun. Fortunately for Seattleites and those visiting the Emerald City this season, that darkness becomes a kind of gallery wall for an abundance of light. From the spinning Elephant Car Wash sign near Seattle Center to the blinking Bardahl sign by the Ballard Bridge, twinkling light displays are a deep part of Seattle’s cultural heritage. During the holidays, we combat the darkness by coating every errant roadside tree in string lights for a glow so magical that we (almost) forget the sun exists at all. The light show extends throughout the city, whether you want to gather underneath the giant tree by Westlake Mall to see the main display or venture down to Pier 55 to catch one of the iconic maritime events put on by Argosy Cruises for their annual Christmas Ship™ Festival.

Let’s take a journey searching for Seattle’s lights—with a few stops to warm up along the way.

Enchant Christmas at T-Mobile Park

Enchant Christmas at T-Mobile Park. Image Courtesy of Enchant Christmas.

Get lost in the lights at Enchant Christmas, which transforms T-Mobile Park into a massive, glittering maze of holiday cheer — as in, a literal maze of lights, billed to be the world’s biggest. Once you untangle yourself from the lights, there’s a holiday market by Urban Craft Uprising, an ice-skating trail, and caroling from local musicians.

When hanging around the stadiums, you'll want to take a moment for Pioneer Square to see the hanging lights in Occidental Park before heading out to the International District. One of the world’s most effective winter warmers is pho, the classic Vietnamese noodle soup, and this neighborhood is one of the best places to get it. While there’s a bevy of options at the east end of the neighborhood in Little Saigon, Pho Hoa is a delicious, healthy, and inexpensive option closer to the stadiums. Top it off with a walk through Hing Hay Park, a recently-expanded park with glowing details on its stairs and arch that make it a perfect wintertime setting.

Pike Place Market. Image courtesy of Pike Place Market.

It’s still easy to swing by the downtown core from here, which is, of course, filled to the brim with holiday lights. Perhaps our most famous neon light, the Pike Place Market sign, is festively adorned with additional holiday lights this time of year. I absolutely adore it, especially as it gets a little darker in the wintertime which allows for neon wayfinding at their Magic in the Market pop-up to shine even more. The recent MarketFront expansion gives a clear view of the nautical and holiday lights lining the Seattle waterfront, including a display on the Great Wheel.

It’s less crowded at Pike Place later in the day, and while many of the stands (including the vendor windows) start to close, other options open—like Il Bistro, located just to the south of the sign. Oddly enough for an Italian restaurant, the place is legendary for its Spanish coffee, a lesser-known winter warmer that’s a little bourgier and much more on-fire than its Irish cousin. If you’ve already had your fill of coffee, it’s also a cozy spot for some craft cocktails.

Book a convenient home base for your Seattle adventure at the Sheraton Grand Seattle, which hosts its annual Gingerbread Village event starting November 23rd. An iconic Seattle holiday tradition, The Gingerbread Village links up local architects, chefs from the Sheraton Grand Seattle, and children to collaborate and build elaborate gingerbread creations to raise funds in support of nonprofit JDRF’s mission to end type 1 diabetes. Come soak up some holiday cheer while also giving back to the community.

Winterfest at Seattle Center

The Fisher Pavilion during Winterfest at Seattle Center. Image courtesy of Seattle Center.

While Seattle has ramped up its winter offerings in recent decades, nothing can quite replace the old standby that is Winterfest, which transforms Seattle Center into a magical network of holiday delights. An elaborate train set becomes the centerpiece of the Armory, complete with a quaint wintertime village set around it. Fisher Pavilion transforms into a giant ice-skating rink. At the very least, it’s a great chance to walk among holiday lights, which adorn the campus’s beautiful temporary art installations.

Keep the light shining by heading just south to Belltown, host to some of our most beautiful and unique lights. Grab some festive treats at the flagship Top Pot Doughnuts location and warm up with its mind-blowing Ovaltine Latte–something that you’re not really going to find anywhere else. The cafe got its name from the neon sign still displayed at their original Capitol Hill location. It was originally made for a defunct 1950’s Chinese restaurant called “TOPSPOT” until the “S” fell off leaving it to read TOP POT.

The appropriately named Neon Boots fully harnesses the surreal magic of the neon medium. Enter past the illuminated cactus through a glowing pink doorway to an oasis of color and cocktails, and head to the bathroom (yes, the bathroom) for one of the best selfie spots in the city. Nearby, Jupiter Bar packs both arcade games and plentiful seating underneath its own flashing banner, and is full of elaborate murals that are perfect for photos.

Denny Park. Image courtesy of the Seattle Department of Transportation.

If you want to stick around the downtown area, finish your night off with a walk through Denny Park, which lines its pathways with festive light displays during the winter. If you want to cut through a little bit of that Christmas cheer, keep in mind that it’s the former site of a settler graveyard. (Don’t worry, they moved all the graves.)

Woodland Park Zoo WildLights

WildLights at Woodland Park Zoo. Image courtesy of Woodland Park Zoo.

I’m not too much of a daytime person, so I rarely make it out to the Woodland Park Zoo— but during the holidays, the park stays open much later for its stunning WildLights light display, which runs late November through early January. It’s not just the lights creating the winter wonderland; there’s a carousel, hot chocolate, and other winter festivities among the real-life penguins. The exhibits are open as normal, and the zoo’s free-range peacock still wanders the grounds.

While there’s plenty to do in the surrounding Phinney Ridge neighborhood, for more adventures in luminescence head down the hill to Fremont and the century-old Fremont Bridge, home of a site-specific neon installation of Rapunzel letting her hair down one of its towers. The surrounding neighborhood puts on its holiday lights as soon as the days start growing shorter, with plenty of neon-coated haunts like the High Dive, Red Star Taco Bar, and the Ballroom for capping off your night.

The coziest location around here might be the Backdoor at Roxy’s, though, with a speakeasy vibe and a seasonal menu full of classic winter warmers like hot toddies and spiced brandy for a nightcap you’ll be sure to remember.

Ivar’s Clam Lights

Ivar's Clam Lights at Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park in Renton, Washington. Image via PRNewsFoto/Ivar's.

Just southeast of the city limits, Renton’s Gene Coulon Park is host to one of the area’s most massive light displays: Clam Lights, presented by Ivar’s Restaurant. The park’s 57 acres line Lake Washington with flat, paved pathways, which are adorned in holiday lights that reflect and shimmer on the water. There’s an Ivar’s on-site if you want to try the local chain’s famed clam chowder, or you can beat the crowds and head to downtown Renton.

Urban Sprouts is a plant store specializing in high-design indoor plants with a DIY ethos — think air plants, moss balls, and small ferns — and has plenty of classes available for building holiday gifts or just a way to brighten up your own home during the darker months.

Just down the street, 8-Bit Arcade Bar provides plenty of indoor fun with pinball tables and classic arcade games, paired with beer and cider. They even have weekly pinball tourneys if you want to make things interesting.

Whether you're a first timer or a regular Emerald City visitor, you'll never have a holiday experience quite as memorable or quite as bright as when you Visit Seattle.

The post is sponsored by Visit Seattle.