Urban Outing Part 3: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

view from columbia center in seattle

For those landing on this page specifically to compare the Seattle Space Needle to the Sky View Observatory, scroll down to just below the photos.

Read Urban Outing parts one and two here.

The trip from the Mt. Baker Ridge Viewpoint to the Columbia Center for the next stop on my best friend’s urban birthday tour couldn’t have gone more smoothly. We drove right to the parking garage entrance with nary a problem.

This was a huge relief because I’d been dreading driving downtown. It helped immensely that we didn’t have to deal with hairy weekday traffic. Anxiety attack successfully avoided!

The Sky View Observatory was the Really Big Thing I planned for our Seattle outing. The most touristy, most urban thing. Neither of us had been there before, and I was excited to visit such an attraction for the first time in my own city.

The observatory is something anyone can enjoy, whether you’re a lifelong Seattle area resident or just here for one day before an Alaska cruise.

The Sky View Observatory is on the 73rd floor of the Columbia Center, the tallest building in Seattle, and provides a 360 degree view. At 902 feet, it’s the highest public viewing area in the US west of the Mississippi.

On a clear day you can see pretty much everything: Mt. Rainier, Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, Mt. Baker, the Cascade Mountains, the floating bridges, and of course closer things like the freeways, Space Needle, ferries, waterfront, ballparks, and Smith Tower. On a less than clear day you might miss some or all of the mountains, depending on weather conditions.

Before I get into the specifics of our experience I’ll say that the view truly is spectacular.

Getting to the observatory from the parking garage is a bit of a mini-adventure in itself. Thankfully I’d written down directions on a note I brought in with me or it would have been more confusing.

The lobby security guard could have been a bit friendlier, since he was also essentially acting as a tourist facilitator. He kinda acted like we should already know everything, including that we couldn’t operate the elevator without him.

On weekdays during office hours I imagine you just get in the correct elevator and go, which is what we were expecting to do. But when offices are closed the guards control elevator access in the main lobby.

It takes two different high-speed elevators to get to the observatory from the lobby and they are a trip if you’re not accustomed to life in skyscrapers. My friend and I both got a kick out of them. I suspect we were acting a bit like rubes on a citified joyride, but we didn’t care.

You can buy your observatory tickets at electronic dispensers in the main lobby, but we opted to just pay upstairs at the observatory entrance. There wasn’t a line to speak of and I didn’t see that buying ahead in the lobby actually speeded up the process. On a busy day it might.

In case you’re wondering, public restrooms are located on the same floor as the observatory. You’ll need to ask for directions at the ticket desk since it’s a bit of a maze.

The observatory itself isn’t fancy; it has an airport waiting room ambience. But since you’re there for the view it doesn’t matter. There are several comfortable couches to sit on if you’ve had a long day and need to take a load off. Though they aren’t near the windows, so you can’t sit and enjoy the view at the same time.

The observatory has what they call a cafe inside, but it’s like a ballpark snack stand. I didn’t pay any attention to it other than a quick glance, but according to the website it sells things like wraps, salads, and pastries along with drinks, including beer and wine.

For those who worry about fear of heights or vertigo, it wasn’t much of an issue for me despite my having real problems with that in recent years. You’re definitely wayyy high up. But being indoors in a large, very stable room, and with the windows starting at waist level rather than at the floor, it didn’t feel like I was going to plummet 900 feet at any moment. Whew.

One thing to note is the observatory has no coin-op distance viewers. So if you want to see a lot of detail you’ll need to bring binoculars or have a camera with a zoom lens.

Speaking of photography, even though the view is through glass, reflections cause surprisingly few problems and on a good day you can get some pretty great pictures. I think I only ended up with reflections in one photo when I wasn’t being careful. (You’ll see it below.) The trick is to get your lens close to or touching the windows.

The day we were there the light was really bad. In addition to it being midday, the haze made everything look flat and washed out, and the light had sort of a sickly aspect. Some of that might have been enhanced by the window tint, but based on photos I’ve seen online that usually isn’t a problem. We just happened to catch weird conditions.

All of the photos below looked terrible out of the camera. I had to make large post process adjustments to brightness and contrast to get them looking somewhat acceptable for this post. Good wasn’t to be had. But that just gives me an excuse to go back again on a better day.

We went on a late September weekend and quite a few people were up there, but it was the farthest thing from crowded. It was very easy to avoid bumping elbows with strangers at the windows. I’d imagine during tourist season it’s busier, but online reviews indicate that even then there are no long lines or dense crowds, unlike the Space Needle.

Inside the observatory there’s a neat model of the Columbia Center on display. There are also interpretive signs posted all around, but I was so distracted by the view that I didn’t end up reading them.

Plus. Not enough time!

The whole parking, getting up to the observatory, and taking a bathroom break process had taken longer than I’d anticipated. Not long after arriving I had to once again inform my friend we were running behind schedule.

Lesson Learned: If it’s your first trip to Sky View, add about half an hour for parking in the garage, getting to/from the observatory, and buying tickets to however much time you expect to spend actually taking in the views.

Thankfully my friend was enjoying herself as much as I was and didn’t want to rush through. So we called the restaurant and pushed back our lunch reservation by half an hour.

I think we ended up being in the observatory for about 45 minutes. It was enough for a relaxed visit given the sky conditions, but on a clear day I’d probably want to be there a bit longer since I’d be taking more photos.

The optimal visit would be to arrive before sunset in good weather and stay through twilight to full dark to enjoy the changing sky and then the city lights at night. You’d need about an hour and a half for that at minimum. (Plus time for parking/elevators.)

As you exit the observatory there is a small display of souvenirs if you want a memento. They have items like postcards, fridge magnets, and ball caps.

My friend and I very much enjoyed our Sky View Observatory experience, even with the weird light and clouds obscuring the mountains. We would both consider returning in the future in better weather, especially if we could go at sunset and stay for the city lights at dark.

The $9 senior ticket price felt reasonable to us. (That it starts at age 55 instead of 65 is a big plus.) The full ticket price seems a bit high to me, but I’d still have paid it with no regret.

My friend’s final comment was that Sky View lacks the charm and kitsch of the Space Needle, but it’s modern and striking.

Our next (and last) Seattle urban tour stop was Ivar’s Salmon House on Lake Union. Read about it in Part 4.

Scroll down below the photos for recommendations, directions, and details on parking and tickets.

view from columbia center in seattle

Elliott Bay and Seattle Harbor.

seattle ferry

great wheel seen from sky view observatory in seattle

Seattle Great Wheel.

smith tower seen from sky view observatory in seattle

Smith Tower. Built in 1914, it was the tallest building on the West Coast until the Space Needle was built in 1962.

The Seattle ballparks; homes of the Mariners, Seahawks, and Sounders.

The Seattle ballparks; homes of the Mariners, Seahawks, and Sounders.

Model of the Columbia Center and observatory seating.

Model of the Columbia Center and observatory seating.

ruthurbanouting9-24-16-160

seattle space needle seen from sky view observatory

Seattle Space Needle.

lake union in seattle seen from sky view observatory

Looking north over Lake Union.

Sky View or Space Needle?

If you’re vacationing in Seattle, are really into big views, and have the time and funds to visit both, then do. You probably won’t regret it. But if you can only do one, here are some things to consider when choosing which it will be.

If you’re using public transit, both the Space Needle and Sky View Observatory are fairly easy to get to. If you’re going to Seattle Center from anywhere near Pike Place Market the monorail is the best choice.

Space Needle

The Space Needle is unique. It was built for the 1962 World’s Fair and is Seattle’s icon.

Pros

Since it’s located at Seattle Center it’s next to other popular attractions like the Science Center, Experience Music Project, and Chihuly Garden.

You can purchase tickets ahead of time online for a specific time and then plan your day around your scheduled “launch.” This saves quite a bit of time from waiting in lines.

The view level has both an inner indoors portion and the outdoor deck circling it.

You get a classic view of the Seattle skyline. Plus you still get to see all the mountains, etc.

The elevators are on the exterior, so if you’re lucky enough to be by a window you get to enjoy the view going up and down.

If you can afford to splurge on a pricey meal, eating in the restaurant at the top of the Needle is a neat experience. The restaurant floor rotates completely once per hour so you enjoy an ever-changing view as you dine. Eating at the restaurant includes free access to the observation deck.

Cons

The Space Needle is more expensive. $14 for ages 5-12. $19 for seniors age 65+. $22 for teens and adults. (2016 prices.)

Because the Space Needle is iconic it’s much more popular. Expect long lines and crowds when the weather cooperates, especially during tourist season.

Parking

The most convenient is the Space Needle’s valet service. The valet stand is at the Needle’s base, which saves you a lot of walking. The price with a view deck ticket is $16 for 3 hours, $3 for each additional hour. This is pretty reasonable for Seattle parking on a weekday, especially considering all you have to do is drop off your car, making it as hassle-free as it gets.

It’s possible to find less expensive parking in some of the lots in the areas surrounding Seattle Center, especially with evening or weekend rates. The drawback is time spent driving around unfamiliar streets and you’ll have to do a lot more walking.

Sky View Observatory

The Columbia Center is sleek and modern. It was completed in 1985 and is the tallest building in Seattle.

Pros

Almost twice as tall as the Space Needle.

Close-up views of city details. Plus you can see the Space Needle.

Fairly close to Pioneer Square and the Seattle Underground Tour.

You’re not exposed to the elements if it’s cold and/or windy.

Not as popular. This means no lines and there’s no need to hurry in order to catch your “launch time.”

Tickets are cheaper, with better discounts. (See ticket section below.) Your paid ticket allows you two visits on the same day, so you could go once in the morning and then go back at sunset.

Cons

Since you’re right in amongst the downtown skyscrapers you don’t get the more classic view of the city skyline as a whole.

There’s no open air deck, the views are all entirely through glass.

Parking

During weekday business hours it’s almost impossible to find street parking, which is the cheapest option. Parking lots and garages are expensive during business hours. But the Columbia Center does have its own garage, making it extremely convenient and saving you time.

On weekday evenings and all day Saturday parking in the Columbia Center garage is $9, with no time limit other than the garage closing time. You could park here on a Saturday and see the observatory, then take public transit to more congested sightseeing locations like Pike Place Market, saving on parking expenses and hassles.

The garage is closed on Sundays, but street parking is easier to come by and is free, and parking lots are cheaper with weekend rates.

Websites

Sky View Observatory

Seattle Space Needle

When to Go to Sky View

If you’re vacationing in Seattle you won’t have much choice. If it’s rainy or foggy it might still be interesting if you really want to go up, but for most people it’s probably not worth it. For the best light, go in the morning when the observatory opens, mid afternoon, or at sunset. (In late afternoon you’ll be shooting your camera into the sun for Puget Sound photos.)

If you live in the Seattle area then it’s smart to watch weather forecasts and plan around that, rather than picking a date ahead of time and taking a chance on sky conditions like we had to do.

The best option is to wait for a good day and go spur of the moment when one presents itself. The Space Needle webcam is a great tool for this because you can see what the sky is doing and if the mountain is out.

Saturday is the best choice if you’re making a special trip by car from an outlying area. Downtown traffic isn’t as crazy, parking is cheaper, and the Columbia Center’s garage is open.

If you want to see/photograph the city lights at night and will be using the parking garage, don’t go from mid-April through mid-August. Sunset is too close to the 9:30 garage closing time.

Other than that specific situation, all four seasons are fine. The Olympics and Cascades are much more striking with snow on them. The city is more colorful late spring through fall when trees have their foliage.

Hours

10 am – 8 pm during winter hours (which start in the fall).

I think in summer it’s open until 11 pm.

Tickets (2016 prices)

$14.75 for teens and adults.

$9.00 for children 6 – 12, students and military with ID, and seniors age 55+.
Children 5 and under are free.

Ticket price allows two visits in the same day.

Directions

The Columbia Center is on the block between 5th and 4th avenues, and Columbia and Cherry streets.

You can enter the building on foot on both 4th and 5th avenues. If you enter on 4th you will need to take escalators up to the main lobby.

If driving to the Columbia Center parking garage you need to approach from the north on 5th Avenue, which is a one-way street heading south.

Turn right onto Columbia Street, which is one-way going west towards Puget Sound, and get into the left lane.

The garage entrance is on the left side of Columbia between 5th and 4th. It’s the second big opening.

There is an elevator in the garage that will take you to the main lobby.

Getting from the Main Lobby to the Observatory

In the main lobby there is a large security guard desk and you can ask directions there if needed.

The lobby observatory ticket machines are on the other side of the security desk from the parking garage elevator.

The first elevator bank you need is for floors 37-76. (They are clearly labeled.) Push the button for the 40th floor.

On the 40th floor look for elevator bank 66-76. Push the button for the 73rd floor.
The observatory entrance is on the 73rd floor, but not next to the elevators.

When going back down do these steps in reverse. On the 40th floor the elevators you need are labeled Main Lobby. Push the button for the lobby.

Parking

Columbia Center Garage Hours

5:30 am to 9:30 pm weekdays
9:00 am to 9:30 pm Saturday
Closed Sunday

You need a debit or credit card to pay for parking because it’s an automated machine. The machine is at the garage exit gate. (You can ignore the one in the lobby if you happen to notice it.)

The garage exits onto Cherry Street, which is one-way going east (away from the water).

Columbia Center Parking Rates (2016)

Weekday evenings and Saturdays $9 (flat fee)

Weekdays
40-60 minutes $11.50
60-80 minutes $13.50
80-100 minutes $17.00

 

Urban Outing Part 4

 

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