Tacoma’s reputation precedes itself. For all the negativity that has clouded perceptions of Tacoma, the narrative has drastically changed over the past decade. There’s been a collective awakening about the virtues of this town, which has been a blessing or a curse to locals, depending on who you ask. The ever-popular “Keep Tacoma Feared” stickers say it all - the locals want Tacoma to retain its character and relative affordability, which has come into jeopardy of late.
Despite the changing social landscape, there’s an enduring specialness about this place - a beating heart, a grit, an innovative spirit, and an originality here that either energizes people or makes them run for the (Renton) hills.
Geographically and culturally, Tacoma has been an important spot for centuries. Tacoma is located on the traditional homelands of the Puyallup people, who have been stewards of the land for thousands of years. After European settlement, Tacoma was selected as the terminus for the Northern Pacific Railroad, earning it the moniker “the City of Destiny.” Throughout its long history, Mount Rainier has gleamed over the town like an ornament. It’s as much a city of industry as it is a singularly beautiful natural setting. Understanding its dichotomies and complexities is part of the Tacoma experience. While I cannot capture the Tacoma spirit in this itinerary, I hope that you find it during your visit.
The itinerary below is not the be-all end-all list of worthwhile stops in Tacoma, but it’s a start. Consider this an open invitation to come back and get more acquainted with the City of Destiny in the future.
Start your visit off right with breakfast and coffee at ALMA. ALMA is a music venue, coffee shop, brunch destination, and community meeting place all wrapped up into one super aesthetic indoor/outdoor location. It’s not often that you find a place with coffee as good as its breakfast, but this spot is a delightful exception. If coffee isn’t your thing, there’s always the Spicy Paloma, a mimosa (or three), and Bloody Marys.
Al fresco dining includes sitting amidst giant art installations made by local creatives, like the light and sound sculpture pictured below. With its mix of art, exceptional food, and community-centeredness, ALMA embodies the essence of Tacoma.
Museum of Glass (MOG)
Glass art and Tacoma are practically synonymous. Tacoma was the hometown of Dale Chihuly and the community continues to uplift glass artists today. The Museum of Glass is a ubiquitous Tacoma stop to experience works by iconic artists like Preston Singletary, Cappy Thompson, and even art deco production glass by Lalique.
Demystifying the process of creating art glass, the museum’s Hot Shop is open to the public. Here, you can watch artists in process as they turn, shape, and cut molten glass. It’s a mesmerizing (and sometimes nerve wracking) dance to watch.
Anchored by two sculptures that look like gleaming blue rock candy, the Bridge of Glass passes over the 705 highway and connects the Museum of Glass and the Washington State History Museum. It’s essentially a free outdoor gallery featuring dozens of works by Chihuly.
If you’re feeling ambitious: Follow up your visit to MOG with a glassblowing workshop at Tacoma Glassblowing Studio!
A little north and uphill from downtown Tacoma, you’ll find the historic Stadium District. Indo Asian Street Eatery is at the heart of the neighborhood in the shadow of Stadium High School.
The restaurant’s specialty is Southeast Asian comfort foods - it’s the type of place where everyone should share their dishes family-style to get the full experience. Indo’s drool-worthy menu includes pork belly yakitori, bahn mi, curries, and plenty of vegetarian options.
Fun aside: Some of the school scenes in 10 Things I Hate About You were filmed just a block away from Indo at Stadium High School! Take a post-lunch stroll to enjoy the architecture and maybe snap some totally unnecessary 10 Things-inspired pics.
Explore Point Defiance Park
Full disclosure: Point Defiance is too huge and too wonderful for one afternoon. I’ve lived in Tacoma for nearly a decade and still haven’t walked all of the trails or used all of its amenities. That said, you can choose your own adventure and create an itinerary that suits your group. Attractions and amenities include:
- Owen Beach
- Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium
- Rose & Dahlia Gardens
- Native Plants Garden
- Dune Peninsula
- Fort Nisqually
This distinctly Northwest-style restaurant focuses on seasonal and local ingredients. The atmosphere is simple, even spare, letting the food take the spotlight. The line between the kitchen and dining areas is blurred, so you can watch their chefs make magic happen while you sip your wine. Everything that I’ve tried at The Table has exceeded expectations. That said, it’s not hyperbolic to say that their legendary gnocchi mac and cheese has changed my life forever.
Reservations are recommended.
After Dinner Drinks:
Boom Boom Room
Mid-century modern lovers - this one’s for you! The vibes and the cocktails are updated versions of familiar classics. Boom Boom Room is dark, sultry, and campy all at once. From the moment you walk up to the entrance on the red carpet, you’ll feel like you’re in a Mad Men fever dream. It’s a fun and delicious way to end the night.
We all know and love McMenamin’s for its quirky environments, and Tacoma’s own Elks Temple is a standout in the franchise. The seven story building is home to five bars and restaurants, plus a gift shop and 45 guest rooms. You could spend a whole day bar hopping at McMenamin’s alone. That said, if you’re in a pinch for time, don’t miss The Old Hangout, a lusciously designed restaurant with an indoor waterfall and cocktails that taste like you’re on a beach somewhere in the tropics. There’s also a secret bar located somewhere in the labyrinthine halls of the building. I won’t spoil anything by giving a hint - half the fun is in finding it!
Home of the friendliest baristas you’ll ever meet! If you’re feeling adventurous, try one of their seasonal lattes for a flavor that packs all of the nuance and complexity of a cocktail. You can’t go wrong with any of their pastries, but I’m partial to the kouign amann, a doughy, buttery, sugary cake that has the density of a dying star.
Just a few doors down from Olympia Coffee, Waffle Stop is an adorable family-friendly eatery with familiar but flavorful breakfast staples. If you’re that kind of person who doesn’t mind mixing foods together, try The Mess Hall - it's a steaming heap of waffles, hash browns, gravy, eggs, and bacon. Best of all? No calories or saturated fat. None at all.
Shop in Proctor Neighborhood
After breakfast, check out a few of Proctor’s independent businesses. Consider this your permission to buy “just one more plant” from Fernseed, a modern plant shop with gorgeous planters and plant parent accoutrements. Nearby, Compass Rose is the ultimate gift destination for anyone from 0 to 100. For lux, heirloom-quality jewelry and accessories, visit Lapis located next door.
Visit Point Ruston and Ruston Way
Described as a “resort-inspired village,” Point Ruston has a little bit of everything. Set against a backdrop of islands, water, and Mount Rainier, it’s easy to spend an afternoon choosing from a range of amenities, including:
- Indoor Public Market
- Surrey Rentals
- Splash Park
- Movie Theater
- Coffee Shop
Don’t leave without grabbing a scoop of handmade ice cream from Tacoma’s own Ice Cream Social. You can also buy pre-packaged pints to go!
Snack your way through the Public Market at Point Ruston. My favorite spot is Taco Street, which serves up authentic eats from Chihuahua, Mexico. Their affordable menu features mulitas, huarache, and more than 10 taco varieties.
Steps away from the tacos, Only Oatmeal Cookie Creations has fresh-baked cookies in flavors like Caramel Apple, Chocolate Peanut Butter, and Butterscotch.
Check out Wright Park
At 27 acres, Wright Park has remained a Tacoma jewel since the first trees were planted back in the late 1800s. The landscaping and heritage trees themselves are worth a seasonal pilgrimage, but there’s lots more to see within and around the park, as well. Perched on the highest point in the park is W.W. Seymour Conservatory, one of only three Victorian-style glass houses on the west coast. With floral displays that are changed regularly, there’s always something in bloom no matter what time of year you visit.
Across the street, you’ll find one of Tacoma’s most underrated (and surprising) spots, the Karpeles Manuscript Museum. This bizarre little museum has hosted exhibits featuring documents of historic significance. Here’s a small taste of documents they’ve displayed in the past: handwritten letters by Charles Darwin, the flight log from the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and Karl Marx’s draft manuscript of the Communist Manifesto. It’s an amazing spot to nerd out and also talk to the museum’s dedicated curator and all-around lovable character, Tom.
Admission to both the Karpeles Manuscript Museum and the W.W. Seymour Conservatory is free.
en Rama’s food and drink menus are equally exciting. What’s not to love about a boozy horchata, or pasta topped with fried hominy, chimichurri, and chorizo? Apart from the culinary experience, the location of the restaurant is a surprising draw, too. en Rama is one of many businesses within a 72,000 square foot building from 1910 that has been many things over the years, including an outpost for the FBI, IRS, and US Marshalls. Today, the space still retains its historic beauty, no matter which corner you’re visiting.