Of all the many things to do on the coast of the Pacific Northwest, there is nothing like walking along the water, or just gazing out on the horizon and at the waves. Turn back toward land, and there’s a good chance you’ll see towering Douglas fir or hemlock, even in the most urban of neighborhoods. And rain or shine, there is nothing like the lighting in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s what to do on a weekend in Tacoma.
Tacoma, Washington’s population is 211,000, and the city offers a wonderful balance of natural beauty, urban culture, arts and fabulous dining while still being easy to navigate by car or public transportation. My daughter and I recently packed a lot into just two days in this vibrant city on the saltwater banks of Puget Sound.
Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium
We began our weekend in Tacoma at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium sits on 29 acres in Port Defiance Park. It’s the only combined zoo and aquarium in the Pacific Northwest. My daughter completes her veterinary degree next year, and with a dedicated animal lover and advocate in the family, a zoo trip is a given. We’re not alone; the zoological park is the second biggest tourist destination in Pierce County, second only to Mount Rainier, and attracts over 700,000 visitors a year.
There are, of course, zookeeper talks, public feedings and other educational programs throughout the day. The Aquarium maintains magical displays of jellyfish. Cage dives are offered with reservations and a fee in the 240,000-gallon, warm, salt-water South Pacific Aquarium, where you can swim with the sharks. We enjoy going behind the scenes at Rocky Shores, stepping inside the refrigerator and freezer to see the food supply for the Pacific Northwest marine animals. In the summer of 2018, a second large aquarium, the Pacific Seas Aquarium, is slated to open.
One of the zoo’s biggest conservation efforts is with red wolves. There are fewer than 50 of these endangered species in the wild and the zoo’s Red Wolf Conservation Center is having good success with its breeding program.
On our visit, in cooperation with WashedAshore.org, the Zoo displayed a series of large sea animal sculptures composed solely of plastic and other debris that littered our seashore, as part of an awareness campaign.
Point Defiance Park
Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium is a big draw for visitors to Point Defiance Park, but there’s plenty more to this scenic 760-acre waterfront park. Drive 5 Mile Drive, which takes you through the park, and offers views of the waterfront and native trees at every turn. Walk some of the many trails. Owen Beach is popular with Tacoma residents; picnic, beachcomb, or rent a kayak. (We walked there from the Promenade.) The Park is also the place in which to stroll some of the city’s gardens, including the Rose Garden, Japanese Garden, Dahlia Trial Garden, Fuchsia Garden, Herb Garden, Rhododendron Garden, and others.
Visit Point Defiance Park houses Fort Nisqually History Museum. Fort Nisqually was the first European settlement on Puget Sound and was established by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1833. The original site sits on what is now DuPont, Washington, about 45 minutes southwest of Tacoma. The effort to create the museum saved two historic buildings and recreated others, and it’s a great example of life before statehood; Washington didn’t become a state until 1889. (There are admission charges to the zoo and the museum, but no charge for use of the rest of the park.)
Ruston Way Waterfront
The new outdoor waterfront complex, Point Ruston, and the improved Promenade along Commencement Bay is an exciting development for the city. The Point Ruston development includes a host of new restaurants, shopping, a theater complex, art galleries, a hotel and waterfront residences. The Ruston Way waterfront has long been a city highlight, where a string of some of Tacoma’s best seafood restaurants is situated.
The improvements also create a scenic link between Point Defiance Park, the popular Proctor District, downtown Tacoma, and the Dome District, where was also roamed.
After all of our walking, we sat back to enjoy the water and mountain views, and the people-watching. Kids played in the water fountain “splash pad” just next to us and on the nearby play structure. It was a great day to be out walking, running, biking, rollerblading or pedaling rented lorries. We put the miles on, and it felt great.
There are excellent places to eat and all cuisines offered throughout Tacoma. Anywhere along the Pacific coast though, our tastes run decidedly to fresh seafood. We found that and more on the Ruston Way Waterfront. With perfect summer weather, we opted for outdoor dining wherever we went. We had a great meal at Wildfin American Grill, one of the new restaurants at Point Ruston. (We share their recipe for grilled corn here.)
And at Duke’s Chowder House, one of Tacoma’s most iconic seafood restaurants, we indulged in finely prepared and sustainably caught seafood. I tried one of their famous Bloody Marys, and we enjoyed the added bonus of the gorgeous colors of a dockside sunset. (Try their recipe for crab cakes.)
Pacific Parasail gives you the chance for what some might consider a fun “soft adventure” and some might call an exhilarating I-can’t-believe-I’m-really-doing-this “bucket list” item by taking you parasailing over the waters of Commencement Bay. Either way, it’s a thrilling chance to soar high over water and see the beauty of Puget Sound, downtown Tacoma, the Port of Tacoma, the Seattle skyline, the Olympic Mountains, and Mount Rainier. Look down while you’re up in the air and you just might see seals and other marine life; and possibly even whales, if you really get lucky.
Captain Wiley and crewman Corey were our guides on what really couldn’t have been a nicer day to be out on the water. I’ve parasailed before and it was my daughter’s first time. They kept us laughing and inspired confidence.
We climbed into harnesses, were clipped in, and stood ready as the hydraulic line tethering us to the boat slowly let out and we flew into the air. We loved the quiet and the fresh air. The only time we stopped laughing was to point out and marvel at the beauty around us. On the 1,000 foot line, we were 150 feet higher than Seattle’s Space Needle. (Pacific Parasail is located on Ruston Way, at the Ram Restaurant.)
And yes, we went in for the optional toe-dip, a quick drop down into the water before going back up into the air and the final draw back onto the boat.
Captain Doug Luthi and family have owned and operated Pacific Parasail for fifteen years and have flown over 20,000 flights with a clean safety record. They can fly one to three people at a time, and kids 5 and older can parasail, as long as they’re with an adult. Bonus: kids 5 to 10 can sail free.
Museum of Glass
Glass art is well-loved throughout the Pacific Northwest, and the Museum of Glass showcases the art form. The 75,000 square foot museum opened in 2002.
The Hot Shop is a great way to see glass artists at work. Arena seating allows visitors to watch artists create original pieces while they watch. The Hot Shop is housed in the “Cone,” the 90 feet tall by 100 feet in diameter unique architectural design that resembles the wood-burning sawmills once found throughout the area. The theater presents multimedia presentations, films and lectures. The museum also has a glass blowing mobile unit that travels to schools and communities.
At the time of our visit, three temporary exhibits we on display: art deco glass; Venetian glass and contemporary art glass representing water themes.
Don’t miss the 500-foot long steel and glass pedestrian bridge, commissioned by the City of Tacoma in partnership with the Museum and renowned glass artist and Tacoma native, Dale Chihuly.
Visit Gig Harbor
The quaint waterfront at nearby Gig Harbor made a great little side trip that allowed us to meet up with a friend who moved recently to the area. Less than a half-hour drive away, we crossed over the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. We enjoyed lunch at the popular Tides Tavern on the waterfront, stopped in at the shops down Harborview Drive (especially liked Imagine Great Things and Tickled Pink), and stopped in at Heritage Distilling Company’s Tasting Room.
Beyond Just a Weekend in Tacoma
Our trip was just a quick, impromptu weekend in Tacoma, but sometimes those trips are the best. If you have more time, there’s so much more to see and do. Explore downtown and beyond, via the trolley light rail. You’ll find more great restaurants, the Washington State Museum, and performing arts at the Pantages Theater, Rialto Theater and Theater on the Square. There are always events happening at the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus and the University of Puget Sound.
Tacoma can also be your jumping off point to discover the rest of the area. From the Point Defiance Terminal, take a ferry over to Vashon Island. Explore the other waterfront towns and communities in the area and extending up into the Olympic Peninsula. And an hour and half away, Mt. Rainer (at a peak height of 14, 411 feet) offers a whole other kind of trip.
- Travel Tacoma, www.traveltacoma.com/
- Museum of Glass, https://museumofglass.org/
- Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, https://www.pdza.org/
- Point Defiance Park, www.metroparkstacoma.org/point-defiance-park/
- Fort Nisqually Living History Museum, www.metroparkstacoma.org/fort-nisqually-living-history-museum/
- Pacific Parasail, https://pacificparasail.net/
- Duke’s Chowder House, www.dukeschowderhouse.com/
- WildFin American Grill, www.wildfinamericangrill.com/tacoma-restaurant/
- Visit Rainier, https://visitrainier.com/
- Visit Gig Harbor, www.gigharborguide.com/
- Heritage Distilling Co., Gig Harbor, heritagedistilling.com
- Tides Tavern, Gigi Harbor, www.tidestavern.com/
- On our site: Gig Harbor’s Ocean5: Because Fun Is Something We Don’t Outgrow
-All photos by Nancy Zaffaro, except as credited.