72 hours off the beaten path in Seattle… Southside?

The communities around SeaTac airport offer family friendly dining, parks, gardens and more

This family travel story begins with a confession. Despite decades of living in the US Pacific Northwest, and multiple visits to Seattle, we had never paid attention to an area off the beaten path in Seattle. Yet the three communities of Washington’s Seattle SouthsideTukwila, SeaTac, and Des Moines—surprised us on a recent visit. The restaurants? Delicious. The parks and green spaces? Full of opportunities both to romp and relax. And the adventures for a learning-loving homeschool family blew us away.

This is not a tale of Pike Place Market, Gas Works Park, or the Space Needle. This part of the Pacific Northwest is less than a half-hour drive from downtown Seattle. (New elevated train lines running from north of the city all the way south to Tacoma will shorten it further). Sure, you’ll find the bustling Seattle-Tacoma Airport, or SeaTac, in the middle of this region. But Seattle Southside is far more than a place to stop for the night before flying out.

We want to thank Explore Seattle Southside for sponsoring our visit. Our opinions, however, are our own.

What is Seattle Southside?

Seattle Southside begins at the eastern edge of Puget Sound, where the blue waters lap up against the shores of Saltwater State Park in Des Moines. Trees line residential communities in eastern Tukwila. Vast parks encompass everything from a Japanese garden to a serene lakeside park, where the peak of Mt. Rainier pokes up from behind a hilly neighborhood like a dog’s head peeking over the table. It’s an area that’s off the beaten path in Seattle, but easy to get to.

Logistically speaking, Seattle Southside comprises three communities, about 102,000 people, dozens of diverse restaurants, and thriving area businesses. This community is chocolate and history. It’s aviation and fresh air. Seattle Southside is a pleasant surprise. Off the beaten path in Seattle, you can enjoy the delights of a city, but at a calmer pace than the West Coast metropolis nearby.

How to build out a Seattle Southside family trip

Given the area’s proximity to the Seattle-Tacoma Airport and to Seattle itself, it’s easy to build out a right-sized Seattle Southside trip for your family. Most destinations are within twenty minutes of where you might be staying. It’s not hard to get around the area either.

If flying out of SeaTac (especially if you have a long layover or stopover), Seattle Southside can be a great way to get more fun out of your time in the Seattle area. You can also dedicate a day or two to some of Seattle Southside’s many attractions, depending on what’s a good fit for your schedule and family.

Getting off the beaten path in Seattle made our time in the area all the more enjoyable and eye-opening. For us, we stayed in Seattle Southside as part of a larger trip in the Seattle area. We enjoyed about three days in the Seattle Southside area. Here’s how we broke it all down for our family of four.

Off the beaten path in Seattle: Our family’s 72 hours in Seattle Southside

When we travel, we balance what we do. We can take in what an area has to offer, but not at a breakneck pace that leaves everyone tired out. After checking out from where we were staying in another part of Seattle, we headed down into Tukwila a little after lunch—just in time for dessert.

Tour, taste, and learn at Seattle Chocolate

Tastings at Seattle Chocolate also explore texture and aroma, for a full-flavored chocolate experience.
Tastings at Seattle Chocolate also explore texture and aroma, for a full-flavored chocolate experience.

Earlier this year, a colleague gave us a Sea Salt Dark Chocolate Truffle Bar With Crunchy Toffee. The chocolate was smooth as Gene Wilder’s purple coat tails. The toffee brightened every bite. Anthony even held onto the wrapper for months. Finally, we opened a door and found ourselves at a table where little tasters of chocolate waited for us.

Seattle Chocolate began in 1991 and today continues as a woman-led business. Along with tasting cocoa nibs and getting the basics of where chocolate comes from and the many steps of how it’s made, we saw down into the heart of the operation itself. From raised pink platforms, our guide walked us through every step that turns the kitchen’s recipes into individually wrapped bars and truffles of chocolate deliciousness.

Back in the tasting room, a description wheel and a tray with six pieces of chocolate greeted each of us. We went over how to taste each piece, then sampled and discussed what we perceived, not unlike a wine tasting. Connor especially loved getting into the nuance of each piece, and took detailed notes. We later picked out various truffles. Over the next few days we tasted and discussed them all, from crunchy peanut butter to vanilla orange creme.

See if “the mountain’s out” at Angle Lake Park

Mountain's out!
Mountain’s out!

After checking into our room for afternoon downtime, we made our way to nearby Angle Lake Park for some pre-dinner fresh air. Pulling into the parking lot, the kids immediately noticed the mist-covered splash pad, complete with a large raised bucket where a group of children were staring. Once the bucket filled, it tipped, dumping water all over them while they splashed and giggled.

The nearby playground gave the kids ample chances to get some energy out, and pal around with other romping children. Jodie headed down toward the lakeside beach area, where families on a floating wooden dock leaped into the shimmering lake. Kids made sand castles (and Connor and Aster soon began construction of their own beachside property). Along the far edge of the park, trees and houses rippled in the gentle waves. Above it all, we caught a glimpse of the top slopes of Mt. Rainier. Anthony turned to Jodie and called, “The mountain’s out!”

Enjoy dinner at Moctezuma’s Mexican Restaurant

There are few better simple pleasures in life than the free chips and salsa on the table at a Mexican restaurant—perfect after all those park romps. Moctezuma’s Mexican Restaurant anchors part of the Westfield Southcenter Mall with intricate, classy design. Plant features evoked Mexican agave, and carved pillars spoke to artistic motifs from Mexico’s indigenous cultures.

Above all, the menu offered something for everyone, whether mild novice or spicy connoisseur. Sure, there were approachable favorites, such as the plate of chicken nachos that Aster and Connor devoured. But Moctezuma’s innovative dishes were the highlight. The mango and habanero chicken’s sweet, floral heat enhanced the savory flavors, especially when eaten with fresh corn tortillas.

Enjoy a local breakfast before your adventure takeoff

Seattle Southside is full of tasty breakfast options, such as Pancake Chef. A local favorite since the 1950s, the Pancake Chef’s menu features pancakes, omelets, and waffles. It can be a perfect preflight fuel-up before launching into a big day’s big adventure.

Soar sky and space at the Museum of Flight

A family favorite for us was wandering the lunar exhibits, complete with an Apollo lunar lander and landing module.
A family favorite for us was wandering the lunar exhibits, complete with an Apollo lunar lander and landing module.

Sometimes getting off the beaten path in Seattle means looking for a flight path. On a full day in a destination, we love to devote a lot of time to one big attraction. And in Seattle Southside, it’s hard to get bigger than the Museum of Flight. The sprawling museum campus encompasses 413,000 square feet and receives over a half million visitors per year. Plus, it’s not exactly every museum that has its own working runway next to the parking lot.

Our interest didn’t stop at the friendly skies, but launched into outer space. The Museum of Flight gave the kids a deep dive into space flight. We giggled at examples of old science fiction movies about moon landings. We even tried a hands-on simulator where you can try to land a virtual Apollo-style lunar lander. Connor managed a solid landing. Anthony managed a solid crash.

Flight-themed children’s play area

Returning to Earth, we took a break in the Flight Zone children’s play area. Amid the flight-themed play? A Scorpion Too personal helicopter—which was indeed a real product, available for purchase as a kit in the 1970s.

Seattle is home to manufacturer Boeing as well as carrier Alaska Airlines. But the Museum of Flight builds on these two local big names in aviation. From a Wright 1902 reproduction glider to the supersonic Lockheed Blackbird M-21, we wandered iconic aircraft from every major point of aviation history. The kids especially loved walking around the cabin and cockpit of a jet. And we had lots of laughs checking out an old TV commercial. In it, a passenger liked her flight so much, she took everything for a souvenir—from the silverware to the plane itself.

We marveled at military, commercial, and private luxury aircraft. We pondered what it would be like to fly in early passenger planes. Sometimes we also puzzled over speedy concepts that didn’t exactly get off the ground. Some exhibits had a touch of tragedy and mystery, such as a replica of Amelia Earhart’s lost Lockheed Model 10 Electra. The Museum of Flight helped us explore more about aviation and its history than we’d even gotten to do before.

Land with lunch at Wing’s Café

All our family daydreams about flying had really worked up an appetite for us too. Making our way past the gift shop on the ground floor, we headed to the Museum of Flight’s Wing’s Cafe for a light lunch.

With burgers for the kids and sumptuous salads for us parents, we talked about the things we’d encountered. Jodie loved learning about how the Apollo Lunar Rover had been folded up into the landing module. Aster got a lot of laughs in the spaceflight section’s hands-on exhibit. She experienced how different a five-pound weight would feel on Earth (like a bag of flour), the Moon (like her cozy friend cat), Mars (Anthony’s notebook computer) and Jupiter (Aster as a one-month-old baby, a description which gave her lots of giggles).

Relax in green space at Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden

Can you believe this peaceful garden is just a few minutes away from one of America's busiest airports?
Can you believe this peaceful garden is just a few minutes away from one of America’s busiest airports?

We love seeking out green spaces before a long drive, flight, or train ride. The Seattle area excels at combining urban space with peaceful parks. Nature calms and prepares us for the journey ahead. (Plus, we parents know how important it is for the kids to move their bodies before having to sit and ride.)

Just minutes from the airport, the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden provides a 10-acre green refuge that is like multiple gardens in one. The space feels away from the city and off the beaten path in Seattle. With free parking and admission, it’s an ideal spot to find some quiet moments. Depending on the time of year, you might wander spaces dedicated to roses, irises, or daylilies. The shade garden in particular provided calm refuge (and a respite from the late-summer sun).

Our family’s favorite spot, though, was the Seike Japanese Garden. Gravel paths, bridges, and tumbling streams and waterfalls evoked calm. A sign also gave perspective on the history and work behind this impressive space, and a nod to the garden’s whimsical feature that brought us a surprise of joy. Especially for families, keep an eye out by the pond for a rather large turtle, made of stones arranged just so around one central shell of a boulder.

Feast at Sumi Korean Grill

Our family’s travel plans include cultures and cuisines all over the world. There was no way we could pass up a chance to check out one of Southside’s newer culinary hotspots. In addition to Korean entrees and small plates, the feature presentation of the Sumi Korean Grill in Tukwila centered around the recessed circular grill plate in the middle of our table.

Sitting down to little dishes of banchans, or side dishes, of salads, marinated fish, pickled cucumbers, kim chi, and more, we decided to go big. Ordering from the Feast menu, soon wagyu chuck roll steak, prime brisket, marinated wagyu rib fingers, and spicy prime boneless short ribs were sizzling away on the grill. While they cooked, we tucked into starter servings of tender egg soufflé and cheese fondue. The beef and fermented soybean stew refreshed our palates—and a big pot of it would pair as well with a rainy Seattle winter day.

Feel home over breakfast at Patty’s Eggnest

The last day in a place can be a rush of packing and preparing for whatever’s next. Heading over to Patty’s Eggnest would have worked on a faster-paced morning too, but we were happy to be able to take our time in the bright, welcoming space. (A sign on the counter even says, “Our nest is best.”)

Sumptuous pancakes and french toast for the kids? No worries. Omelets and sautéed home-style potatoes with peppers and onions for the adults, along with rich, dark coffee? Bring it. This is exactly what we look for in a breakfast spot: kind staff and honest cooking in a place that feels like the grandma’s kitchen of your dreams.

Go to the edge of Puget Sound at Saltwater State Park

When traveling around Seattle, you never forget that water shapes this city. Wherever you are in the area, you are never more than a few miles from salt water or fresh water—including in Seattle Southside.

Des Moines lies on the western side of this region, and the hills and businesses of Des Moines gradually give way to the neighborhoods surrounding Saltwater State Park. From camping to seasonal kayak rentals, the 88-acre park hugs nearly 1,500 feet of Puget Sound shoreline. For us, it turned out that getting off the beaten path in Seattle meant pounding a little sand.

Driving down from the entry gate, we stopped to explore the little beaches near the parking lot. Under the blue September sky, gentle waves lapped against a shore of sand and rocks. Driftwood lined the rear of the beach. Connor and Aster immediately began turning a few select logs into a fort. People wandered up and down the shore. Others had spread out blankets here and there, taking in a few quiet minutes, like us, or giving some space for the kids to dig in the sand and look for gulls to chase.

The serenity of the place may also have to do with its history and location, which is about halfway between Tacoma and Seattle. The two cities used to have quite a rivalry, but in 1926 they buried an actual hatchet right here in the park, signaling a new era of intercity cooperation.

Enjoy a taste of Thailand at Bai Tong Thai

From Japan to India, the cultures of East, Southeast, and South Asia weave throughout the entire Pacific Northwest. And when a former Thai Airways employee wants to keep the taste of home available to their former co-workers, what are they to do?

Open a now-iconic Thai restaurant, of course. Originally a small location near the airport, over the years Bai Tong Thai has moved and grown, combining Thai art and sculpture with a stately dark decor that brings out the vibrant colors of every dish.

We’ve long been wanting to expand the children’s palates when it comes to Thai food. Bai Tong Thai turned out to be a solid stepping stone for both kids. While they’re not bellying up to the spiciest curries like their dad (yet), they did make ground with the fish cakes, chicken satay, and even tastes of the tom kha’s rich, tangy-sour smooth combination of galangal, mushrooms, and lemongrass.

Heading to Seattle or flying in or out of SeaTac? Start planning your family trip to surprising Seattle Southside

Now we're ready to start tasting all the truffles we got for later!
Now we’re ready to start tasting all the truffles we got for later!

In our family travels, we love keeping an eye out for the destinations that surprise us, and we loved getting off the beaten path in Seattle. If you ever thought of the area around an airport as nothing but a flyover zone, Seattle Southside is exactly the sort of place that can make you think again. Sure, come for the chocolate and the immersive museum. Enjoy the parks and gardens, and dazzle your children’s appetites with a range of cuisines.

But ultimately? Come for the beauty and convenience of the region, where green spaces interweave seamlessly with urban amenities. Stay for the caring people, where workaday neighborhoods get life done alongside the coming and going of planes out of SeaTac. And wherever you’re going from here, make some extra time to come back on your next visit to Seattle—and to Seattle Southside—just like we will.

Start planning your family trip to Seattle Southside

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

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