An Afternoon in South Lake Union, Seattle

Lake Union Park sits in the heart of Seattle, nestled between the edge of downtown and the southern tip of Lake Union. Surrounded by Seattle’s bustling tech scene, this green space with public access to the water is a much-needed oasis for many residents. But did you know that it’s also one of the best places in the state to dip your toe into Washington’s rich maritime heritage? With world-class museums, a fleet of boats for rent, and an entire wharf full of historic ships, the park provides maritime experiences for visitors of all interest levels. The park is also home to dozens of beloved events throughout the year, including the Virginia V’s Steamship Sunday cruises, Northwest Seaport’s Tugboat Happy Hour, Seafair’s Fourth of July celebration, and even the occasional chantey sing-along. So, the next time the sun is shining in Seattle and you’re itching for a mini adventure, play hooky for the afternoon and head down to Lake Union Park.

Pro tip: Throughout the year, you can align your visit with a range of fun events. During the summer, we recommend planning your visit for a Tuesday to catch the Duck Dodge sailboat race—a Lake Union staple for nearly 50 years. The race starts promptly at 7:00 pm, with themes ranging from “Toga Night” to “Christmas in July.” Duck Dodge is free to watch, so pack a picnic, book a ticket for Tugboat Happy Hour, or rent a boat (more on those options below) to get a true front row seat. More in the mood for some music? Check the schedule for the monthly Chantey Sing on the Historic Ships Wharf—they’re usually on Fridays.

Start your visit at MOHAI

Open daily 10:00 am – 5:00 pm | 860 Terry Avenue N, Seattle, WA 98109

The Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) is the largest private heritage organization in Washington State, with a collection of more than four million (!!) objects. Located in the historic Naval Reserve Armory building, MOHAI is the perfect place to start your exploration of South Lake Union with some grounding in Seattle’s water-based history. We recommend heading straight to the top floor to check out their Maritime Seattle exhibit, curated in partnership with the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society. Compare then-versus-now images of Lake Union, check out historic artifacts from the industries that used to line its shores, or use the periscope to spy on Gasworks Park (or the tech offices…we won’t tell). The bonus? With its vantage point high above the park, the maritime gallery offers some of the best views of Lake Union. We recommend ending your visit to MOHAI by grabbing some coffee or a snack in their lakeside café.

“Take a few minutes to play our interactive Mosquito Fleet game. Each challenge in it is based on real events and photographs that we found in our archives, and some are pretty funny—watch out for that oyster barge!”

Stroll the Historic Ships Wharf

Wharf open from 4:00 am – 11:30 pm; historic ship openings listed below | North edge of the park, behind MOHAI

The Historic Ships Wharf may be the true hidden gem of Lake Union Park. Home to six historic vessels, the wharf is tied with San Francisco’s National Maritime Historic Park for the highest concentration of National Historic Landmarks in the country. Although the historic ships are not always open for exploration, there’s plenty you can still enjoy from the dock. From left to right, the ships include:

Virginia V

Check the calendar for chances to get onboard

A National Historic Landmark, the steamer Virginia V (pronounced “Virginia Five”) is one of the last remaining members of the region’s original “Mosquito Fleet” of hundreds of privately operated boats that transported people and goods across Puget Sound in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The S.S. Virginia V is kept in pristine condition with her original steam engine. You can frequently find her cruising the waters of Lake Union, Lake Washington, and the Sound on public cruises and public rentals. When she’s home at the Historic Ships Wharf and volunteer labor allows, the Virginia V is open for dockside tours.

Tugboat Arthur Foss

Open weekends 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm, June 3 – September 4

The oldest floating vessel in the Pacific Northwest, the tugboat Arthur Foss was built in 1889—the same year Washington became a state. In its long lifetime, it’s amassed an impressive resume: towing sailing ships off the dangerous Columbia River bar, carrying miners to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush, starring in the classic movie Tugboat Annie in 1933, helping to build the floating bridge across Lake Washington, working for the U.S. Navy in World War II, and rescuing crippled barges and rafts throughout the region. Now a floating museum managed by Northwest Seaport, the Arthur Foss is open for public tours, programs, and event rentals.

Pro tip: If you followed our advice and came on a summer Tuesday, don’t miss the Arthur FossTugboat Happy Hour! Tickets include heavy hors d’oeuvres and alcoholic drinks aboard the historic vessel with a prime view of the Duck Dodge sailboat race. Tugboat Happy Hours begin in May and run every Tuesday through the end of August in 2023.

Lightship 83 Swiftsure

Open weekends 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm, June 3 – September 4

A National Historic Landmark, Lightship No. 83 Swiftsure is the oldest lightship in the country and the only with its original steam engine. Lightships acted as floating lighthouses and were used in locations where a land-based lighthouse was impossible. Along with the Arthur Foss and Tordenskjold, she is operated by the Northwest Seaport as a museum ship. Even if you can’t get onboard, the Swiftsure is worth admiring from the dock—be sure to check out her lights!

Fireboat Duwamish

Open weekends 11:00 am – 3:00 pm, April – October (pending weather and volunteer availability) or by appointment

Another National Historic Landmark—as well as a City of Seattle landmark— the Seattle Fireboat Duwamish was commissioned by the city in 1909 and served until 1984. She is currently the second oldest fireboat in the United States and remains one of the most powerful fireboats in the world. Fireboats are specialized vessels designed for fighting shoreline and shipboard fires. Today, she serves as a floating museum dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of Seattle’s firefighting and maritime histories. The Duwamish water cannons are a blast for kids of all ages!

“From the exterior, the main attraction is the fire monitors a.k.a. water cannons. The forward cannon has a six-inch barrel and can shoot water the length of a football field at 7,000 to 10,000 gallons per minute. The aft [rear] monitor is a five-inch barrel and can shoot 5,000 to 7,000 gallons per minute. The side monitors are 2,000 gallons per minute. The total capacity of the Duwamish is 22,000 gallons per minute!”

Photo by John Gateley.
Tordenskjold halibut schooner

Open weekends 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm, June 3 – September 4

F/V Tordenskjold is the oldest surviving example of a halibut schooner, a type of fishing boat designed in the Pacific Northwest for fishing the waters of the North Pacific and Bering Sea for halibut. Also operated by the Northwest Seaport, the Tordenskjold is still fully operational and serves as a mobile ambassador for maritime education.

M/V Lotus

Open occasionally on Saturday and Sunday for tours; email [email protected] or call 425-243-9641 to confirm

Last but not least on the Historic Ships Wharf is the M/V Lotus, a 1909 Edwardian cruising houseboat. Currently undergoing a comprehensive restoration, the Lotus is a great place to learn about Seattleites’ long tradition of traveling, living, and playing on the water. While she’s not always open for tours, the Lotus hosts a famous Sunday Tea that’s definitely worth a return visit!

Pro tip: Visiting from out of town? The Lotus has five staterooms available for overnight lodging rentals.

Get on the water at the Center for Wooden Boats

Hours vary by season; please check the website. Summer 2023 hours: open March – September, 12:00-7:00 pm Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays; 10:00 am-6:00 pm Saturdays and Sundays | 1010 Valley Street, Seattle, WA 98109

The Center for Wooden Boats (CWB) at South Lake Union is a hands-on maritime museum, with boatbuilding classes, boat rentals, and a truly impressive collection of small craft. The campus includes the Wagner Education Center and several floating structures—including the South Lake Union home and Old Boathouse—recently designated as City of Seattle Landmarks. We recommend starting your visit at the Education Center, where you can explore their permanent installations of historic wooden boats and other rotating exhibits. Next, it’s time to take to the water. CWB has a full “livery” of sail- and human-powered vessels for rent on a first-come, first-served, walk-up basis, including large and small sailboats, rowboats, canoes, and kayaks. While the sailboats require a one-time check-up before renting, CWB also offers one-hour free peapod rowboat rentals—no experience necessary.

“My favorite thing about CWB is the accessibility everyone has to the water by renting a boat, walking the docks, or taking a charter boat out. I particularly love taking guests out for charter rides on M/S Wolf, a 1932 Columbia River Gillnetter. Previously a fishing vessel outside of Astoria, Oregon, it is now the last of a 2,000-boat fleet, giving rides to passengers outside of Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal, on Lake Union and Portage Bay.”

Pro tip: If you’re curious about the world of boating or boatbuilding but don’t know where to start, CWB offers classes for all levels on topics ranging from nautical charts to woodworking to sailing. Check out their programs and event calendar for tons of opportunities to dive in.

All Itineraries