If you haven’t visited Tacoma recently — or at all — you’re missing out on a vibrant creative hub, intelligent destinations, and multiple layers of rich history. Formerly abandoned, historic beaux-arts structures from the turn of the 20th century have been revitalized and reenergized by a diverse, youthful community. Head down for a couples’ or friend-getaway or with teens.
Drive I-5 south for 33 miles to Tacoma and order brunch at The Patio at Alma Mater, where you’ll feast on pork belly hash or a sourdough brown butter waffle with poached pears inside cozy, heated, outdoor tents. If you’re fortunate, you’ll snag a firepit seat. The breakfast features fairly standard brunch fare, but the late afternoon-evening menu offers Indigenous savory or sweet frybread options, braised bison stew, or “foragers gathering,” a vegetable terrine with blackberry-juniper-onion gravy. Check the venue’s evening calendar, as the interior doubles as a live performance space.
In Tacoma’s Museum District, you’ll find a remarkable collection of museums, restaurants, hotels and boutiques. Museums line the east side of Pacific Avenue. On the west side runs the light-rail system, clothing and personal wares shops, cafes and restaurants. Pop into Tinkertopia for a quirky craft kit gift for the upcoming holidays — or the raw materials you need to innovate a present of your own.
Then, visit Washington State History Museum’s first floor, which walks visitors back in time, starting with an often-humorous take on ancient geological dramas and disasters. Move forward through Indigenous history and westbound 19th century trains. Eavesdrop on banter between 1930s Hooverville residents. Plenty of hands-on options and quirky facts make the museum accessible to all ages.
This year, two new permanent exhibits opened, including the 360 gallery, a hands-on exploration of how Washington’s 360-mile-wide expanse attracted and still sustains communities. A second gallery, “Remembrance: The Legacy of Executive Order 9066 In Washington State,” explores the devastating incarceration of people of Japanese descent through video interviews, photos and artifacts, including one very-loved teddy bear.
Pass the historic, copper-domed Tacoma Union Station and cross the Chihuly Bridge of Glass to the Museum of Glass. Take in live glassblowing demonstrations in the Hot Shop, or view current exhibits focused on Lalique’s art deco glassworks or wholly weird contemporary art pieces
Catch Tacoma Art Museum’s current star exhibit, “The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection,” before leaving in early December. This assembly of stunning paintings, drawings, manuscripts, poems and artifacts reflects Black American history and achievements from 1595 to today.
Brought together by Shirley and Bernard Kinsey during their five decades of marriage, the exhibit features Black popular magazines and a sharp Langston Hughes poem as accurate today as in the past. If you miss the presentation, TAM’s other galleries contain treasures of Northwest landscape paintings, Pilchuck School glassworks, and contemporary Indigenous portraiture.
If you’d like to stay within easy walking distance of this museum-centric area, consider the sleek, new 22-story Marriott Tacoma Downtown or the Hotel Murano, which features a unique collection of glass art from around the world.
But for a truly unique stay, book a suite at the McMenamins Elks Temple, which somehow packs an atrium, 45 guest rooms, an unusual collection of light fixtures, detailed narrative murals, performance space, multiple bars and Puget Sound views into seven floors. The Beaux-Arts building was a former fraternal-order Elks Temple that fell into disrepair and was renovated with more than $35 million before opening in 2019.
Even if you don’t stay, make a point of tiki cocktails and appetizers next to the underground, indoor waterfall in The Old Hangout or a beer behind The Vault’s hidden door. (If you need even more tiki-and-pirate-themed fun, slip into the nearby Devil’s Reef, where tiki enthusiasts from across the US visit to pay homage).
The McMenamins Elks Temple sits at the terminus of Tacoma’s Antique Row along Broadway, an assortment of specialty boutiques and antique dealers selling a jumble of vintage clothing, clocks and toys, upcycled art, 80s furnishings, and retro housewares. Sanford and Son’s dozen-plus shops and circuitous staircases within a three-story maze/arcade may remind some of the spelunking within Pike Place Market’s underground interiors.
Enjoy Asian fusion at local favorite Indochine. Or visit the 7 Seas Brewery Tacoma Taproom and Brewery to order grilled vegetarian, vegan and keto sandwiches from restaurant-within-brewery 3uilt. Wash your sandwich down with an IPA, pilsner, cider, kombucha or nitro cold brew.
For breakfast, try local favorite Art House Café or a cup of joe inside the outdoor-themed Campfire Coffee (Monday-Saturday only). Then head out to explore further afield from downtown Tacoma. The LeMay — America’s Car Museum’s winding garage-like ramps take visitors through four levels of candy-colored hot rods, buggies, station wagons, luxury sedans, sportscars and eccentric vehicles that can’t quite be categorized. You’re unlikely to forget the 1958 VW “Bubble Car,” a one-door coupe opening from the front, steering wheel and all.
Make your way to Point Defiance Park to visit Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium’s 500+ animals during the day and the bright Zoolights during the late afternoon and evening. Stroll through quiet autumn gardens and trails, or purchase admission in advance for the circa-1855 reconstructed Fort Nisqually’s cooking classes or Christmas-themed activities.
If you simply can’t get to everything on this one trip, reassure yourself that Tacoma is just 33 miles away — easy to reach for a repeat visit.
Note: Museums, cafes, restaurants and other attractions may only be open Wednesday through Sunday or closed on Sundays. The monthly “Third Thursday” offers free admission for many museums if you time your visit right. Be prepared to mask up and/or show vaccination history if asked.
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