Explore Recreation

Boating on Seattle’s Waterways

Since you’re considering a stay at the lake, we’re going to take a wild guess that you love being in and around water! Lake Sammamish is one of the warmest lakes in Western Washington, making it ideal for swimming, and it’s a top draw for recreational boaters and wake surfers. But if you really love water, you’ll appreciate knowing that there are lots of additional watery experiences to be had in the Seattle area.

The city is nearly surrounded by water, with Puget Sound to the west, Lake Washington to the east and the Fremont Cut leading from the saltwater through Lake Union, and then the Montlake Cut leading through to 22-mile-long Lake Washington.

The list of adventures to be had in and on all this water is way too lengthy for a single post, but I’m going to give you our top recommendations for boating fun to be had here. Take your pick!

CRUISE ELLIOTT BAY AND LAKE UNION

Argosy Cruises, based on Seattle’s downtown waterfront, is a venerable cruise company offering a number of boat tours that will give you a good understanding of the lay of the land that comes with a side of informative spiel. Our favorite cruise takes you through the Ballard Locks, where you can experience the boat elevating up and up as water fills the chamber, until you’re at the same level as the water in the Fremont Cut (and the lakes beyond). These are the only working locks open for public viewing—and experiencing—in the nation. The cruise follows the working waterway into Lake Union, where sailboats dart between float planes taking off. A bus returns you to the waterfront.

OGLE OLD-TIME BOATS

On South Lake Union, The Center for Wooden Boats is an extraordinary portal to the past, with gorgeous vintage wooden boats available for viewing at docks and inside a new visitor center. But beyond just being able to see traditional boats, this is a living museum with a fleet of rental boats, from wooden sailboats to row boats. On Sundays, the center has a popular program in which you can take a ride on a historic steam launch. Feeling the thrum of the motor as this boat tootles around the lake is an absolutely visceral experience. Be sure to sign up early for this or any of the excursions offered.

SEE SEATTLE’S HOUSEBOATS FROM A KAYAK

Lake Union is the best local lake (outside of Lake Sammamish) for kayaking. It’s not as big and choppy as Lake Washington, and there’s a lot to see along the working waterfront. You can rent kayaks at any of three places on Lake Union: Northwest Outdoor Center, on the western edge of the lake, Moss Bay, on the south end, and Agua Verde Paddle Club, on the north end. Agua Verde is our favorite, since it’s just a short paddle from there to some of the most scenic shoreline, lined with picturesque houseboats—one of which featured in Sleepless in Seattle. Plus, when you get back, Agua Verde has a café offering delicious Mexican food and yummy margaritas, which you can enjoy on their waterfront deck.

RIDE A WASHINGTON STATE FERRY

One of the best ways to enjoy true Northwest ambiance is to take a ride on a Washington State Ferry to a nearby island. You don’t even have to take your car to enjoy a breezy ride from the downtown ferry terminal to Bainbridge Island. You’ll join lots of others standing at the railing taking selfies as you see the city growing smaller and the island coming into view.

Once there, it’s just a short walk to the main town of Winslow, which is so much more than your average little ferry town. The first thing you’ll see, at the corner of Winslow Way, is the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. In a gorgeous new, light-filled building, the museum specializes in contemporary art by local artists. There’s a really nice café here, and a gift shop.

The entire town, mostly laid out along Winslow Way, is oriented toward shopping for unique gifts; there are lots of locally owned boutiques to explore, as well as wine tasting rooms and some truly fabulous cafes and restaurants. Some make a special visit to Winslow just for the ice cream at Mora Iced Creamery, one of the best ice cream spots in the Northwest. They craft small batches that are chock full of fresh local fruit, in season. And if you love crepes, you’ll adore J’aime le Crepes, which makes some of the best anywhere. My favorite: Belgium dark chocolate and strawberries tucked inside, topped by whipped cream and toasted almonds.

For a peak experience, plan your return trip to coincide with the sunset, when the sun gilds Seattle’s skyline and the Cascades are awash in watercolor hues.

COME SAIL AWAY

If you love slicing through the sea with just the sounds of rushing water and a luffing sail, Sailing Seattle offers 1.5-hour and sunset cruises on Elliott Bay. You’ll be guaranteed gorgeous views of downtown, especially on the sunset cruise, when the skyscrapers turn to gold. This carefree, casual excursion promises no loudspeaker with constant announcements about what you’re seeing, just friendly crew that’s happy to answer questions. You can bring your own drinks and snacks and, if you’re really lucky, you might even see a pod of whales!

Note: Be sure to check websites for the latest on these and other excursions, especially during coronavirus times when offerings may vary, or the companies may be temporarily closed.

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