I’ll just go ahead and say it, way too many people come to Seattle and miss the best parts of the city.
Elliot Bay (and the Puget Sound as a whole) contribute to the city’s scenic views, climate, and even smell.
But what can you do to actually experience Seattle’s waterways besides hitting up the city’s mediocre beaches?
You can take a day cruise of course!
Seattle is a well-known port for multi-day cruises to Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and even transpacific trips to Asia. However, Seattle’s day cruises are a great way to experience the ocean (or lakes) without spending a ton of money or dedicating a week of your time. In fact, an afternoon is sufficient in most cases.
So whether you’re looking for a whale-watching tour, a narrated tour of Seattle via the water, or a scenic cruise up 55-mile-long Lake Chelan we’ve got you covered.
Here are my recommendations for the best day cruises in Seattle and a few tips on how to get the most out of your trip!
Best Day Cruises To Experience In Seattle
We’ll start off with the option that makes the most sense for people who come into the city on a quick vacation or business trip and want to do all the iconic bucket list items.
So go see the Space Needle and then get tickets for the Seattle Harbor Cruise.
1. Seattle Harbor Cruise
The Seattle Harbor Cruise offers a unique and memorable way to explore the city’s historic waterfront from the vantage point of Elliot Bay and Seattle Harbor. The cruise has been a favorite attraction since 1949, with millions of visitors and locals alike appreciating the captivating perspectives it offers of the city’s most iconic landmarks, such as the Great Wheel Ferris wheel and the Space Needle.
Lasting approximately one hour, this narrated cruise is an excellent opportunity for both tourists and locals to enjoy breathtaking views of Seattle’s skyline, the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges, and the majestic Mount Rainier.
You’ll also get an up-close look at one of the world’s largest shipping terminals.
Leaving from Pier 55, the Seattle Harbor Cruise provides passengers with live onboard commentary which delivers an informative and engaging experience. Food and beverages, including alcoholic drinks, are available for purchase onboard, ensuring a comfortable and enjoyable experience for all.
The Seattle Harbor Cruise is a fantastic option for those seeking a brief, yet immersive introduction to the city’s waterfront and maritime history. With its convenient meeting and end point at Pier 55 and wheelchair accessibility, this cruise caters to a wide range of interests and needs.
If you can only do one thing and want to spend some time on the water, this is the best option!
2. Victoria Clipper (Victoria B.C.)
While it’s not technically a single day, I still consider a trip to B.C. from Seattle a day cruise.
Setting sail from downtown Seattle’s Pier 69 aboard the Victoria Clipper you’ll experience a high-speed catamaran that will whisk you along on a less-than-three-hour journey through Puget Sound and into the Strait of Juan De Fuca. Upon arrival in downtown Victoria’s picturesque Inner Harbour, you’ll be presented with a plethora of exciting activities and attractions to explore.
If you have tickets for the two-day trip you’ll have some time to spend exploring the city before heading back (which is what I’d recommend).
Day one of the adventure invites you to experience the wonders of Victoria, with popular attractions such as the 55-acre floral paradise of The Butchart Gardens, exhilarating whale watching on the Salish Sea, or exploring the city by foot, bike, or bus. Food enthusiasts can also indulge in five unique culinary experiences around the city.
On day two, savor a delicious brunch at one of Victoria’s fabulous eateries before spending the day delving into the city’s rich history. Cycle along the stunning Dallas Waterfront, visit harbor seals at Fisherman’s Wharf, or explore the magnificent Craigdarroch Castle. Finally, unwind on the relaxing evening cruise back to Seattle.
The Victoria Clipper also offers several packages so be sure to visit their site to find one that fits your specific needs.
3. Whale Watching Excursions
Victoria Clipper also offers a whale-watching tour out of Seattle but, if you’re serious about seeing whales, I’d recommend the Puget Sound Express. They do nothing but take people on whale-watching expeditions and have an iron-clad guarantee of giving you a return ticket for free if you don’t see any whales.
On the Puget Sound Express you’ll embark on a 4-5 hour journey aboard their comfortable and speedy vessels, featuring heated cabins, restrooms, and a galley serving snacks and beverages, including their signature warm Blueberry Buckle. Cruise through the Salish Sea and San Juan Islands, marveling at majestic whales and diverse marine life in their natural habitat.
And to make you feel even better about your choice, Puget Sound Express is a proud member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA), committed to responsible, sustainable marine wildlife viewing and conservation. Their sound-proofed hydrofoil jet boats, the Saratoga and Swiftsure, are the quietest vessels in the whale watch fleet, ensuring minimal disturbance to the marine life you’ll encounter during the tour.
Depending on the season, day, and luck you might run into orcas, humpbacks, gray whales, and minke whales during your tour with Puget Sound Express.
With three generations of experience, Puget Sound Express guarantees a truly unforgettable whale-watching experience that immerses you in the breathtaking beauty of the Pacific Northwest and offers you an up-close encounter with some of the most majestic creatures on the planet. But that’s just my opinion. You do you.
4. Argosy Cruises
Argosy Cruises has been a staple of the Northwest for over 70 years, providing “unforgettable experiences and breathtaking views of Seattle.”
As a family-owned and operated company, Argosy Cruises offers two amazing day cruise options for visitors to the city: Seattle’s Original Harbor Cruise and the Locks Cruise.
While I didn’t specifically say that it’s with Argosy, I already talked about the first option above. Their Harbor cruise is the best option if you want to get out onto the water for a bit (but not long enough to get too sick).
Their other cruise, however, is a bit more interesting if you’ve been to Seattle a couple of times.
Argosy’s Locks Cruise
The Locks Cruise is a one-way trip that covers three Seattle neighborhoods and the unique Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. As you transition from salt to fresh water, you’ll be the center of attention on the “boat elevator.” This fully narrated tour offers up-close views of fishing vessels, seaplanes, and floating home communities, as well as popular attractions like Gas Works Park and the Space Needle. The Locks Cruise also features a full-service bar and discounts for Washington state residents.
Both cruise options from Argosy provide a variety of onboard amenities, including a full-service bar, local snacks, indoor seating and outdoor space, restrooms, and ADA accessibility. Additionally, Argosy Cruises offers discounts for groups of 20 or more, CityPASS® holders, and Washington state residents.
So, whichever day cruise you choose, Argosy is one of the best providers in Seattle for short trips on the water. You really can’t go wrong with either.
5. Private Tours & Sailing Excursions
If you’re looking for a more exclusive (in other words “better”) experience then your best bet will be hiring private for your day cruise.
While there are a ton of people (both reputable and not) who will take you out n their boat, your best bet is to go with someone who does it on a daily basis with small groups.
My recommendation on that front is Candere Cruising.
Candere Cruising offers a unique private sailing day cruise experience in Seattle, perfect for those who want to explore the stunning Puget Sound and enjoy personalized attention. The 3-hour adventure aboard the S/V Kingsley sets sail from the Shilshole Bay Marina, guided by an experienced captain. Whether you want to learn how to sail or simply sit back and admire the view, this private cruise is an excellent choice for an unforgettable day out on the water.
As you sail around Seattle, you’ll be treated to breathtaking views of the downtown skyline, featuring iconic landmarks like the Space Needle and the Great Wheel. Marvel at the majestic Olympic Mountains, including the awe-inspiring Mount Rainier in the distance. Keep an eye out for an abundance of local wildlife in their natural habitat, such as seals, sea lions, small porpoises, jumping fish, and even Southern Resident Orcas and Humpback whales on rare occasions. In other words, you can have just about the same experience as you would on any of the other boats, just less crowded.
A private sailing adventure with Candere Cruising includes a local guide, adult life jackets, and personalized attention for up to six passengers in your group.
You’ll just have to book it soon as they tend to sell out early in the season!
Other Lake Cruises In The PNW (Seattle Day Trips)
If you’re willing to branch out a bit from Seattle and its oceanic appeal there are a ton of unique experiences to be had on the water within easy driving distance.
Here are a few of the best cruise experiences we’ve had or been advised to experience in the area:
Booze Cruise on Lake Union
Okay, the operators probably wouldn’t appreciate this experience being described as a “booze cruise” but that’s roughly what it is…just the high-class version: a sightseeing and cocktail cruise.
In addition to getting tipsy, this cruise allows you to take in iconic landmarks such as the Space Needle, Seattle Great Wheel, Fremont Bridge, Gas Works Park, and the University of Washington, while enjoying the tranquil waters of Lake Union. You’ll also have the opportunity to see a variety of floating homes, including the famous house from the movie ‘Sleepless in Seattle.’
Choose from a morning, midday, afternoon, or evening cruise, and enjoy the flexibility to customize your itinerary according to your preferences. Your local guide and captain, who also serves as the resident bartender, will provide informative and friendly narration as you cruise through the heart of Seattle. The first round of drinks is included, and additional alcoholic beverages are available for purchase.
You can also bring any food and nonalcoholic beverages you’d like to enjoy during the cruise. So, while it’s not quite the ocean, this is perhaps one of the best places near Seattle to enjoy a drink on the water!
San Juan Islands
If you’re looking for something not strictly by Seattle and not strictly a day cruise, exploring the San Juan Islands is a great option.
While the public ferry offers an obvious way to explore the island on the water, there are plenty of companies that offer charters for exploration, fishing, and even dinner on the water.
If you’re looking for a luxurious experience, I’d recommend checking out Anacortes Dinner Cruises as they offer a wide range of reasonably priced options (including a crab boil if you’re after the PNW’s seafood).
Lake Chelan is just three and a half hours from Seattle and a cruise on the Lady of the Lake II takes you deep into the North Cascades wilderness on a trip that is one of the most scenic in the Northwest.
Lake Chelan is North America’s third-deepest lake and the largest natural lake in Washington. It’s most well-known for its clean, clear water and is popular with boaters, water and jet skiers, and sun-seekers throughout the summer season.
Sights along your four-hour (one-way) cruise include rugged snow-capped peaks, mountain goats and deer, waterfalls, wildflowers, and thick forests.
At the far end of the lake, you come to the rustic resort community of Stehekin, accessible only by boat or floatplane. The Lady stops at Stehekin where you can get a bite to eat at the restaurant there. You can also shop for local crafts or take a walk to a wonderful bakery just up the road, deep in the woods.
For a faster trip up the lake, the Lady Express will make the trip in 1½ hours each way with a one-hour stop in Stehekin to do some exploring.
The owners of Lady of the Lake, Lake Chelan Boat Co., also offer charters for weddings, parties, etc. as well as private transportation.
Lake Washington Cruise
If you thought that Argosy Cruises only operated on the Puget Sound…well, you were wrong. They operate anywhere they can launch a boat and make money.
One of those places is on Lake Washington, the huge body of water that is the other half of the Seattle Sandwich (with the Puget Sound being the other piece of bread).
On Lake Washington, Argosy offers a 1.5-hour narrated day cruise on taking in the breathtaking sights and sounds of Seattle’s historic lake waterfront.
The cruise offers stunning views of the city’s skyline against the magnificent backdrop of the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges, including the majestic Mt. Rainier. Not to mention that you’ll be treated to a view of all of the luxurious houseboats and waterfront homes of Seattle’s rich and famous.
Some highlights of the cruise include Lake Washington, Yarrow Point, Husky Stadium, the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, and Medina. On clear days, you can also enjoy unparalleled views of Mount Rainier.
In conclusion, Seattle is a city that truly comes alive when experienced from its waterways. The city’s unique charm lies in its picturesque waterfront, majestic mountain backdrops, and rich maritime history.
For visitors and locals alike, day cruises are an exceptional way to explore the city and its surroundings, whether it’s a narrated tour of the historic harbor, a high-speed catamaran trip to Victoria, a whale-watching excursion, or even a private sailing adventure (although I’d recommend just doing all of them, day after day….)
With a variety of cruise options to suit every taste and budget, there’s no excuse not to set sail and discover the wonders of the Emerald City from the comfort of a boat. So get it booked!