Where to Chill in Downtown Seattle
Some of the city's best privately owned public spaces ⛲
July 25, 2022
It feels like there’s nowhere to hang out that doesn’t cost money anymore. Well, let’s not forget public parks and libraries, but in addition to them, Seattle’s actually got a whole passel of privately owned public spaces—or POPS, which are basically mini-parks that are free for anyone to use.
But POPS aren’t necessarily just parks. They’re also things like atriums, hill climbs, arcades, and rooftop decks. Some have operating hours and others don’t, but they’re places where you’re free to read a book, eat your lunch, meditate, or just enjoy the view, without shelling out for the privilege.
We’ve organized a selection of POPS found in downtown Seattle (and one in Belltown) that maybe you didn’t know about.
Fourth and Blanchard Building
2101 4th Ave
Better known to locals as the Darth Vader Building for its dark glass exterior, Belltown’s Fourth and Blanchard Building takes up half a city block and is bordered by a public plaza perfect for lunching in.
As well as the plaza, don’t miss the giant sculpture of a red twin popsicle by artist Catherine Mayer on the Blanchard side. Fun fact: this skyscraper stands on the former site of the highest point of Denny Hill, which was literally washed into Elliott Bay during the first wave of the Denny Regrade project (1902 to 1911).
The Fourth and Blanchard Building itself has a Herkimer Coffee inside that’s open from 7:30 a.m. to 2 pm on Tuesday through Friday, if you should need it. The building’s also conveniently located just a few blocks from venues like the Crocodile and Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, so the plaza makes an excellent setting for a little picnic before the show.
Seattle Art Museum Hillside Terrace
1300 1st Ave
There probably isn’t a better place in the city to people-watch. You get the run-off from Pike Place, but you’re not in the actual crush of the tourist crowd. This spot starts at the giant Hammering Man sculpture at 1st and University and stretches the length of the block. And that whole hillside terrace is free for chillin’, to anyone who feels like it. The Harbor Steps are right across the street, too, with tons of restaurants, shopping, and lovely water views on offer. Just around the corner, the always-entertaining SAM Shop and Gallery keeps the same hours as the museum and is free to browse whenever you need some artistic inspiration.
Seattle Municipal Tower
700 5th Ave
An icon in the Seattle skyscraper pantheon, downtown’s Seattle Municipal Tower (SMT) and its swoopy blue roof is unmissable in the city skyline. It’s also got thousands of square feet of public space sprinkled throughout the building, including a plaza, a couple of art galleries, and an underground shopping area.
The SMT was built amid unique architectural challenges that required multiple elevator banks to connect on the 40th floor, where one must then transfer to another elevator to travel to the higher floors. The result is a 40th-floor “sky lobby” with a killer mountain-facing view open to visitors during building hours. The building’s open from 6 am to 6 pm every day, and you could spend hours navigating all the different staircases and elevator banks, so maybe plan for that?
The layout’s unusual, to put it mildly: the main lobby and terraced plaza are actually on the fourth floor, while the shopping tunnels and arcade level—three floors below the street—count as the first floor. Also, several restaurants are stowed away on the sixth floor, only one of which can be accessed from inside the building. And finally, the plaza and shopping levels can’t be reached via the main elevators; you must use the parking garage elevators. Or you can take the stars. How positively Escherian.
Hot tip: Here’s a video on how to get to the 40th-floor sky lobby of the Seattle Municipal Building from Pioneer Square Station. Just imagine if the mountain were out.
Fourth and Madison Building Rooftop Plaza
925 4th Ave
You were waiting for the public rooftop deck, weren’t you? Well, it’s hiding downtown in the Fourth and Madison Building, formerly known as the IDX Building.
I’ll confess it’s a little misleading to call this POPS a “rooftop” deck since it’s not on the rooftop of the 512-foot skyscraper, instead atop of the four-floor extension that juts out alongside the YMCA. But this little garden is still a total urban oasis, flooded with sunshine (er, sometimes) and views of Mt. Rainier and the Space Needle, depending on which way you’re facing (and, you know, which time of year it is). And there’s even free Wi-Fi up there, compliments of TIAA-CREF. It’s kinda the best lunch spot in all of downtown Seattle, even in the rain.
The park should be open from 7 am to 5:30 pm. And although the building’s street address is on Fourth Avenue, there’s a Third Avenue entrance that’s a little more user-friendly. To get to the deck, enter the building at Third and Madison, take a right through the lobby, follow the hallway to the elevators, and take one up to the seventh floor. The door to the rooftop space will be on the right.
Fifth and Yesler Building
300 5th Ave
It’s humble compared to some of the other POPSes on the list, but the well-manicured grounds of the Fifth and Yesler Building are open to the public whenever the building is—and it’s just steps away from the shops and restaurants of Chinatown-International District. And speaking of steps, the POPS includes the very long staircase that leads up to Sixth Avenue—and to even more flower-filled public space.
Meanwhile, at the base of the stairs, you can revel in the 89-foot painted steel sculpture, Songbird, by artist John Henry. If you need more outside time, right next door to the north is the hillside Goat Hill P-Patch, with a few picnic tables and sometimes a garden growing (other times… not).
Heads-up: The Fifth and Yesler Building is also known as the Seattle Passport Agency, although the agency only occupies one of the suites. It’s the same building though. It’s open Monday through Friday, 8 am to 3 pm.
Don't Forget: Public Libraries
1000 4th Ave
Public libraries are the best public spaces of all, and Seattle’s Central Library, designed by Dutch urbanist architect Rem Koolhaas (pronounced “cool house”), is one of the most spectacular, art-packed examples in the nation. Don’t hesitate to use it, even if it’s just to get some exercise by taking the elevator to the ninth floor and walking down the gently sloping Books Spiral to the sixth floor. The third-floor Living Room has an indoor garden and charging stations for devices, and there are sweet views of Elliott Bay to be found in the Betty Jane Narver Reading Room on the tenth floor. It’s a great place to take out-of-town visitors in particular. Cool house for books you got there, Seattle. Take a free online tour of the downtown library here:
The daughter of a King County Metro driver and a Space Needle waitress. Meg was born on the Hill, grew up on Queen Anne, went to school in the CD, and presently haunts the U District. Her writing has appeared in Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, Eater Seattle, Curbed Seattle, Atlas Obscura, Mental Floss, and many other publications. She sometimes backs up drag queens on the accordion and hosts drunken spelling bees.