Day Tripper is an occasional series focused on accessible, low-cost out-and-back trips throughout the region.
Sip tea or sample Indian curry inside a historical freight house. Ride the free light rail to museums. Stop in for a beer in an old-time saloon, then hop on an electric scooter for a waterfront ride before making like a kid again, and zipping down a slide in a real-life game of Chutes and Ladders.
On a recent car-free day trip, my husband and I relied on four modes of public transportation (plus some walking) and discovered there’s more to Tacoma than the Dome.
Instead of dealing with the hassle of traffic and parking, we sat back, taking in views of Mount Rainier from the top deck of a near-empty Sounder train on its reverse commute. We left Seattle’s King Street station at 7:55 a.m., and arrived in Tacoma just before 9.
Our plan was to spend the next eight hours exploring on foot, by bus and light rail, falling back on Uber or Lyft if we ran out of time to catch the last train back at 5:15 p.m.
Three destinations, all in different parts of the city, were on our agenda for a sunny September weekday: Museum Row, the downtown hub that houses three of Tacoma’s major museums; Old Town Tacoma, a historical neighborhood fronting on the scenic Ruston Way waterfront walking and biking path; and the Dune Peninsula park, which opened in July on the former Asarco copper smelter Superfund site, along with the “Chutes and Ladders” staircase and slides linking Point Defiance Park with a waterfront marina.
Stepping off the Sounder, we took a quick look around Freighthouse Square, a collection of vintage shops, art galleries and restaurants next to the Tacoma Dome station. The Olive Branch Cafe & Tea Room (olivebranch-cafe.com), decorated with antique furniture and crystal chandeliers, looked inviting, but didn’t open until 11 a.m. (the restaurant will be closed through Monday, Sept. 30, and will reopen Tuesday, Oct. 1). Making a mental note to return later, we crossed the street and stepped aboard the free Tacoma Link light rail for a five-minute ride downtown.
Within a short walk of the Union Station light-rail stop on Pacific Avenue, you’ll find the Tacoma Art Museum, the Washington State History Museum and the Museum of Glass.
Finding breakfast wasn’t a problem. Anthem Coffee (myanthemcoffee.com) next to the history museum is open early, with coffee, pastries and an outdoor patio. Across the street at Savor Creperie (savorcreperie.com), we lingered over plump breakfast crêpes filled with eggs and avocado until the museums opened at 10 a.m.
Unless you plan to spend the day museum-hopping and shopping downtown (a perfectly doable option), your best bet is to pick one museum, spend an hour or two exploring, then move on, with the aim of getting back to the station by late afternoon. (No worries if you want to stay longer, or go on a weekend when the Sounder isn’t running. Sound Transit also operates an express bus with frequent service between Seattle and Tacoma).
We chose the Tacoma Art Museum (tacomaartmuseum.org), known for its collection of art glass, much of it donated by Tacoma-born Dale Chihuly, co-founder of the Pilchuck Glass School.
The museum’s new Rebecca and Jack Benaroya wing has been open since January and houses selections from the Seattle couple’s extensive collection of works by glass artists from around the world. “Bart at TAM: Animating America’s Favorite Family,” on display through Dec. 31, features more than 100 hand-drawn scenes, scripts and other drawings related to the first 13 seasons of “The Simpsons” television show.
Something old, something new
Tucked between Museum Row and Point Defiance Park is Old Town Tacoma, a historical neighborhood across from Commencement Bay where Tacoma’s founder, Civil War veteran Job Carr, arrived in 1864.
It was here that Carr staked a claim on land he hoped would be the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and became mayor of what then was called Tacoma City. But Carr missed the mark slightly, and the rail line ended 2 miles east in what became “New Tacoma.”
Reminiscent of days gone by is the Spar (thespartavern.com), a friendly tavern and coffeehouse in a red brick building at 2121 N. 30th St. on the site of the Old Tacoma Saloon, first opened in 1884.
Getting there took about 20 minutes on bus Route 13, which we caught on Dock Street by walking across the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, an art-filled pedestrian route leading from the history museum to the Museum of Glass.
Over espresso shakes and turkey sandwiches in the Spar’s backroom we could see Commencement Bay and the start of the long, paved Ruston Way shoreline trail, popular with pedestrians, cyclists and Rollerbladers.
One option to get there was to take the Route 11 bus that would put us within a short walk of our final destination near Point Ruston (pointruston.com), a residential, shopping and dining development built on the site of the former Asarco smelter, once one of the country’s most polluted Superfund sites.
The sun was out, so we decided to walk almost 3 miles instead — until we spotted two Lime e-scooters parked next to a fishing pier.
Most of the waterfront path, as it turns out, is a designated “low speed zone,” meaning our scooters were programmed to go no more than 5 mph. The ride was safer and more relaxing at this speed, but it was also expensive — it cost about $11.50 each.
We ditched the scooters at the start of the mile-long Waterwalk at Point Ruston, a pedestrian and biking trail along the bay that connects to the new 11-acre Dune Peninsula park (metroparkstacoma.org/long-awaited-bridge-and-park-now-open-at-point-defiance).
Named after a science-fiction novel by the late Tacoma native Frank Herbert, the park opened this summer following years of work by Metro Parks Tacoma to convert the peninsula, created by toxic slag from the smelter, into a safe waterfront attraction.
Also opened in July is the new Wilson Way pedestrian bridge, linking Point Defiance Park to the Ruston waterfront. Next to the bridge is what locals call the “Chutes and Ladders” experience, a series of six slides next to sets of stairs leading to the Port Defiance Marina below.
“On weekends, this place is packed with kids,” a woman said as she slithered down one of the slides. Today, it was mostly adults like us, alternating between sliding and walking until we reached the marina and the bus stop for the Route 11 back to town.
If you go
Transportation: Sounder trains run between Seattle and Tacoma from Monday to Friday during peak hours, and sometimes on weekends for special events. Travel time between Seattle’s King Street Station and the Tacoma Dome station is one hour. Tickets cost $5.25 each way for adults ($2.50 for seniors). See soundtransit.org for schedules.
Sound Transit also operates the 590/594 express bus between Seattle and the Tacoma Dome station on weekdays and weekends at times when the Sounder isn’t running. The trip also takes an hour. Tickets cost $3.75 for adults ($1 for seniors).
The free Tacoma Link light rail serves downtown Tacoma with six stops including the Tacoma Dome, South 25th Street, Union Station, the Convention Center, South 11th Street and the Theater District. Details at traveltacoma.com/plan/link-light-rail/.
For Tacoma bus information, see piercetransit.org.
All the trains and buses accept the ORCA transit cards.
Bikes and four-wheeled surreys can be rented from Wheel Fun Rentals on the Waterwalk at Point Ruston. More information at wheelfunrentals.com/wa/tacoma/point-ruston/.
Park information: See metroparkstacoma.org/long-awaited-bridge-and-park-now-open-at-point-defiance for a map and information on the new Dune park, Wilson Way bridge and “Chutes and Ladder” slides.