The best ways to get around Seattle

A fashionable Hispanic woman walks the sidewalks of West Seattle, window shopping and enjoying some personal time.  Shot in Seattle, Washington, USA.
Find your way around Seattle with our guide to driving, walking and public transportation © iStockphoto / Getty Images

Considering its size, getting around Seattle without a car is surprisingly easy. Most of the neighborhoods on the tourist radar are walkable, although a few, like Capitol Hill and Queen Anne, involve some serious uphill climbs. Getting from one neighborhood to another is generally easy too, thanks to an extensive and affordable public transportation network.

Of course, getting around by car does allow you to explore the city at your own pace and there’s less risk of getting your hems soaked in Seattle’s famous rain. But it comes with drawbacks. To help you decide your mode of transport, here’s everything you need to know about getting around Seattle.


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Highway traffic in Seattle, Washington, with the city skyline in the distance
Driving in Seattle is not an easy experience © iStockphoto / Getty Images

    Driving in Seattle is not for the faint of heart

    Seattle's traffic is disproportionately heavy and chaotic for a city of its size, and parking is scarce and expensive.

    Add to that the city’s cobbled-together mishmash of skewed grids, the hilly terrain, the inexplicable left-lane freeway exits and the preponderance of one-way streets, and it’s easy to see why driving can be a challenge. And we haven’t even mentioned the addressing system yet.

    If you're feeling brave, rental agencies like Avis, Budget, Enterprise and Hertz are in the Sea-Tac airport. They're located in the baggage-claim area, with pickup and drop-off service from the garage's first floor.

    The city also offers share-car services, including Zipcar and GIG. Membership gives you access to several vehicles distributed throughout the city. Members can make reservations online or by phone. Rules for gas and mileage charges vary, so be sure to read the fine print.

    Taxis and rideshares can be pricey, but at least you're not driving

    If you need to get somewhere quickly outside public transit hours or don’t know how to get from Seattle airport to downtown with all your luggage in tow, taxi and rideshare services can help.

    You can try hailing a cab from the street, but it’s a safer bet to call and order one. All Seattle taxi cabs operate at the same rate, set by King County, which is USD$2.60 at meter drop, then $2.50 per mile. 

    There’s a waiting charge of $0.50 per minute or $0.30 per 36 seconds, so if you want to save your money, avoid taxis during rush hour with its stop-and-go traffic (Seattle’s rush hour is between around 6am and 9am, and 4pm and 7pm).

    There may be an additional charge for extra passengers and baggage, and some companies have flat rates for trips from the central business district to the airport. Expect to pay between around $40 and $55 for a trip between downtown and the airport. Reliable taxi services include Seattle Orange Cab, Seattle Yellow Cab and STITA Taxi.

    Rideshare services like Uber and Lyft are also prevalent throughout the city.

    People getting on an electric bus in Seattle
    Buses provide a cheap way to get around the city © iStockphoto / Getty Images

    Let bus drivers do the navigating

    If you’re on a budget, buses are your best friend. Most buses in Seattle are operated by King County Metro Transit, part of the King County Department of Transportation. The website offers route schedules and maps, plus a trip planner.

    To make things simple, all bus fares within Seattle city limits are a flat $2.75. Ages 6 to 18 pay $1.50, kids under 6 are free, and qualifying seniors and travelers with disabilities pay $1. 

    You can pay in cash, with a Metro transfer or ticket or with an ORCA card. Most of the time you pay or show your transfer when you board at the front.

    If you pay in cash, have the exact fare, since the drivers don’t carry cash: your fare goes into a fare box. Your transfer ticket is valid for three hours from time of purchase. Most buses can carry two to three bikes.

    There are six RapidRide bus routes (A to F). RapidRide buses have limited stops, so are faster and more frequent than regular buses, coming every 10 minutes. Line C connects downtown to West Seattle and Line D connects downtown to Ballard. Payment is the same as for regular Metro buses, and there may be fare inspections so keep your ticket.

    If you need public transportation in Seattle after a night out, the city runs Night Owl buses between midnight and 5am on some of the most popular routes.

    Between 8pm and 5am, there's an additional Night Stop service in some areas. You can ask the driver to drop you off at any point along the route – even if it isn't an official bus stop – to cut down on the distance you need to walk. The driver will make this stop at their discretion, though.

    Sound Transit operates regional buses that go beyond Seattle’s city limits and are a good option if you need to get to, say, Tacoma or Everett. Since stops are limited, they’re not very practical for getting around Seattle.

    People getting on a light rail train in Seattle
    The Link light rail system is a practical way to get around Seattle © iStockphoto / Getty Images

    Beat traffic with Link light rail

    For practical travel, Sound Transit’s Link light rail is your best option. There’s only one Link line that operates within Seattle. The Link 1 line runs from Angle Lake via the Sea-Tac airport and Westlake Station downtown to the Northgate neighborhood.

    There are 19 stations, including stops in SoDo (South of Downtown), the International District, Pioneer Square, Capitol Hill and the University of Washington. The light rail is faster than the bus or a car, so long as the place you want to go is along the line.

    Depending on the time of day, there is a train every 8, 10 or 15 minutes. There’s another Link line that runs in Tacoma, between the Tacoma Dome and the Theater District.

    Fares run from $2.25 to $3.50, depending on the distance traveled. For children age 6 to 18, the fare is $1.50 and for people over 65 and people with disabilities, the fare is $1, regardless of the distance traveled. Seattle light rail trains run between 5am and 1am, with reduced service from 6am to midnight on Sundays and holidays.

    Take a train to Everett or Tacoma

    Sound Transit also operates “Sounder” trains connecting Seattle to its sister cities Tacoma to the south and Everett to the north. It’s set up more for commuters than travelers, but if you want to visit, the trains are new and clean, and schedules run smoothly.

    Fares depend on how far you travel but are between $3.25 and $5.75 for adults, a flat $1.50 for children aged between 6 and 18 and a flat $1 for qualifying people over 65 and people with disabilities.

    Transit takes one to two hours, depending on how far you go. You can even use connecting bus routes to get all the way to Washington’s capital city, Olympia.

    A monorail train running on a raised line through a city
    The Seattle Monorail was built for the 1962 World's Fair © iStockphoto / Getty Images

    Experience Seattle history on the Monorail

    The Monorail was originally intended as public transportation but has become a tourist favorite. It only goes one mile, from Westlake Center downtown straight to Seattle Center – and the Space Needle – and back every 10 minutes, from 7:30am to 11pm on weekdays and from 8:30am to 11pm on Saturdays and Sundays, with extended hours for arena events and Kraken (Seattle’s professional hockey team) games.

    It’s a fun way to get between the two most tourist-attraction-heavy areas of the city. The Monorail costs $3.25 for adults and $1.50 for kids aged between 6 and 18, seniors over 65 and people with disabilities, and members of the US Military with valid ID. Kids under five ride free. You can pay by debit or credit card or use your ORCA card. The Monorail doesn’t accept cash.

    Hop on a Seattle Streetcar 

    The revival of the Seattle Streetcar was initiated in 2007 with the opening of the 2.6-mile South Lake Union line that runs between Westlake Center and Lake Union. There are nine stops, and fares are $2.25 for adults, $1.50 for children aged between 6 and 18, and $1 for qualifying people over 65 and people with disabilities. 

    You can also get day passes that allow an unlimited number of rides on that day, for $4.50 for adults, $3 for kids between six and 18, and $2 for qualifying seniors and people with disabilities. Kids under 5 ride free.

    Streetcars breeze by every 15 minutes from 6am to 7am, every 10 minutes from 7am to 7pm, and again every 15 minutes from 7pm to 9pm. On weekends and holidays they go by every 15 minutes, between 7am and 9pm on Saturdays and from 10am to 7pm Sundays and holidays.

    A second 10-stop line opened in 2016, running from Pioneer Square via the International District and First Hill to Capitol Hill. The First Hill line has 10 stops. On weekdays, streetcars run from 5am to 10:30pm, passing by every 15 minutes or so (every 12 minutes during rush hour).

    On Saturdays, they run every 15 minutes between 6am and 10:30pm and on Sundays and holidays, they run every 15 to 18 minutes between 10am and 8pm.

    Roll-out plans for future streetcar lines are extensive, with links earmarked for Fremont, Ballard and the U District.

    Two siblings stand on the deck of a passenger ferry as it travels through Puget Sound, Seattle
    Cross Puget Sound on the local ferry © iStockphoto / Getty Images

    See Puget Sound from a ferry or water taxi

    The most useful inter-neighborhood boat route is the water taxi, which connects the downtown waterfront (Pier 50) with West Seattle’s Seacrest Park and the Alki neighborhood. The water taxi is for foot and bicycle passengers only. 

    It runs hourly every day in the summer but only on weekdays in the winter. The fare for the 10-minute crossing is $5.75 for adults and children or $2.50 for qualifying seniors and people with disabilities. Your bike can go on for free.

    A second water taxi route takes visitors to nearby Vashon Island. The crossing takes about 15 minutes, and a ticket costs $6.75 for adults and children, and $3 for qualifying seniors and children with disabilities.

    However, bus service on the island is limited and the hills are unforgiving to cyclists; make sure you have a ride on the other side before heading across the water.

    The much larger Washington State Ferries serve foot, bicycle, and car traffic. The Pier 50 terminal offers routes to Bainbridge Island and Bremerton, which both make for excellent day trips from Seattle.

    Both locales provide easy access to the Olympic Peninsula for car travelers, while cyclists and pedestrians can enjoy the waterfronts. Be sure to pick up a route schedule; you don’t want to miss the last ferry back to the city.

    Test your bicycling skills on Seattle’s hills

    Winter might not be the best time for cycling, but you can spot Seattle locals doing it even in the rainy dark, especially with recent improvements to bike lanes. The lanes are painted green and are usually separated from traffic lanes.

    If you want to brave the wet, pick up a copy of the Seattle Bicycling Guide Map, published by the City of Seattle Department of Transportation’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Program. The best non-motor traffic route is the scenic Burke-Gilman Trail, which passes through the northern neighborhoods of the U District, Wallingford, Fremont and Ballard. 

    Other handy bike paths are the Ship Canal Trail on the north side of Queen Anne, Myrtle Edwards Park, Green Lake Park and the Cheshiahud Loop around Lake Union. Keep in mind that Seattle is a city of hills: always check the elevation gain of your intended routes.

    While Seattle and all of King County repealed the law that required that cyclists wear helmets in 2022, it’s still recommended that you wear one for your own safety.

    The city also has a bike-sharing program, operated by Lime and Veo.

    Pedestrians cross the street on a rainbow crosswalk on Capitol Hill at the Corner of East Pike St and Broadway
    Stroll through Seattle’s walkable neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill and Queen Anne © SEASTOCK / Getty Images

    Explore Seattle on foot

    Yes, the monorail was highly revolutionary in 1962, and the ferries are a wonderful way to get some salt in your hair, but on a rare clear day, you can’t beat the visceral, oxygen-drinking act of walking. Besides, hoofing it is the cheapest way to get around Seattle.

    Because most of Seattle’s through traffic is funneled along one of two main arteries – I-5 and SR-99 (also called Aurora, Alaska Way or Pacific Highway, depending on where you are) – the central streets aren’t as manic as you’d imagine. 

    In Belltown and Pioneer Square, your worst hassle might be sports fans hanging out by the nearby stadiums. Downtown, the hills might slow your progress slightly, while on the waterfront you’ll need to watch out for the seagulls – and the tourists.

    Seattle’s most walkable neighborhoods are leafy Capitol Hill and Queen Anne. If you’re really adventurous, ditch the car/bus/train and explore the U District, Wallingford, Fremont and Ballard by talking a walk or bike ride on that entertaining people-watching bonanza, the Burke-Gilman Trail.

    Accessible transportation in Seattle

    All public buildings (including hotels, restaurants, theaters and museums) are required by law to provide wheelchair access and to have appropriate restroom facilities available. Telephone companies provide relay operators for the hearing impaired. Many banks provide ATM instructions in Braille. Dropped curbs are standard at intersections throughout the city.

    Most of King County Metro’s buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts. Timetables marked with an “L” indicate wheelchair accessibility. There will be signage at the bus stop to indicate whether the lift or ramp can be used here.

    Once you’re on the bus, be sure to let the driver know if you need your stop to be called and, if possible, pull the cord when you hear the call. 

    Service animals are allowed on most forms of public transport in Seattle but emotional support animals may be classified as pets, which means some restrictions may apply. Passengers with disabilities qualify for a reduced fare, but first need to contact King County Metro for a permit.

    Most large private and chain hotels have suites for guests with disabilities. Many car rental agencies offer hand-controlled models at no extra charge, but make sure you give at least two days’ notice. All major airlines, Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains allow service animals to accompany passengers and often sell two-for-one packages for passengers who require attendants.

    The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH) provides info for travelers with disabilities and Easter Seals of Washington provides technology assistance, workplace services and camps for individuals with disabilities and special needs. For more, check out Lonely Planet’s Accessible Travel Guides.

    Keep the change with an ORCA card

    Seattle offers a unified transit card that works across services, including Sounder trains, King County Metro buses, Link light rail, Seattle Streetcar, Seattle Monorail, water taxis, and Washington State Ferries. 

    ORCA cards operate like a digital purse: you input money in your account using a credit or debit card, then tap on and off transit to access your funds. Some services, like the water taxi, offer discounted rates for ORCA card users.

    You can order an ORCA card online for $3 (or free for kids between 6 and 18, for seniors and people with disabilities). It takes five to seven days to receive your card. You can also buy one at any ORCA refill kiosk in the Link Lightrail transit tunnels or at certain retailers. You can also refill the card at those kiosks or online.

    If you're going to be traveling a lot, you can purchase a regional day pass or even a monthly pass, allowing you unlimited trips for the time period.

    If you’re under 18, you can travel for free

    In March, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed the Move Ahead WA package, aimed at improving public transportation and infrastructure in Washington. One of the provisions in this legislation is free transit for youth 18 and under.

    In King County, the new law kicked in on September 1. This means that kids and teens (with a Youth Orca Card or middle school or high school student ID) can ride Seattle’s buses, trains, streetcar and water taxis for free until their 19th birthday.

    This article was first published on May 17, 2021 and updated on September 3, 2022

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