A Pacific Northwest adventure can combine big-city fun with a small-town feel. Bellevue WA, across the lake from Seattle, offers the same access to great outdoor activities, but at a lower price. And that great seafood and produce that Seattle chefs use? Bellevue restaurants do, too, and they have delicious Washington State wines for pairing. Winter is a time of celebration in Bellevue, and a wonderful way to experience this gem of a city.
Fun Things to Do in Bellevue Washington in the Winter
When I first heard of Bellevue, Washington, across Lake Washington from Seattle, I thought it would be like Brooklyn. Close to the big city, but with its own identity. But after spending a couple of days exploring Bellevue, I started to think the Washington city was more like Lake Wobegon. Everything here is above average. I had some of the best pastries, most inventive cocktails and delicious vegan food I’ve ever had. The holiday celebration is both small town and a major production. The luxury shopping is unparalleled and the outdoor activities are what you expect in the Pacific Northwest.
And for anyone shocked by the high hotel prices in Seattle, the weekend rates at luxury hotels will thrill families and other leisure travelers.
Free Things to Do in Bellevue WA
The nightly Snowflake Lane parade, a 20-minute extravaganza, is worth a trip from Seattle or New York. The parade, which lines the streets of downtown every night from Thanksgiving to Christmas, offers guaranteed snowfall at every show. As a sucker for Hallmark Christmas movies, I watched the parade with a lump in my throat. Snowflake princesses danced, drummers marched, elves handed out lollipops and holiday cheer prevailed. This year, the parade is held Friday, November 24 through Sunday, December 24, 2023, at 7 p.m.
SheBuysTravel Tip: If you don’t want your kid to have a lollipop, watch from a skywalk (great view of the faux snowfall) or stand behind the front line. I am one of those meanies who always thinks about tooth decay.
The Bellevue Botanical Garden, open daily year-round, has free admission. For the holidays, The Bellevue Botanical Garden presents Garden d’Lights. The nightly attraction is just $8 per person and free for kids 10 and under. Garden d’Lights, built and installed by volunteers, dresses up the foliage with thousands of colorful lights. This year, Garden d’Lights runs from Saturday, November 25 to Sunday, December 31, 2023.
Inspiration Playground, part of Bellevue Downtown Park, is a destination playground for residents and tourists. It includes a sensory garden, climbing structures for big and little kids and water play in warmer months.
Low-Cost Things to Do in Bellevue WA
Skate at the outdoor rink in the Downtown Park. Near the Inspiration Playground and Lincoln Square, the covered rink is open from late November to mid-January. Admission is $14-$17 per person, depending on age and day of the week. Free lessons are available midweek.
The Bellevue Arts Museum invites students to visit for free on the 2nd Sunday of each month. Regular admission is $15 for adults, $35 for families. The other BAM, (the Brooklyn Academy of Music also goes by this name) the art museum focuses on art, craft and design. There are hands-on activity stations throughout the museum.
When it Rains, Things to Do in Bellevue WA
Since you have to expect rain, you need a few indoor activities in your pocket. There is shopping, of course (see below). The KidsQuest Children’s Museum is the place to head with infants through 10-year-olds. The museum specializes in hands-on fun that also exposes children to science, technology, engineering, art, and math. The small Eastside Heritage Center offers a look at local history.
JM Cellars, about a 20-minute drive from Bellevue in Woodinville, has a gorgeous tasting room where you can wait out a rainstorm. After the rain stops, walk the trails to see the mature specimen trees that fill the property. Woodinville has distilleries and over 100 wineries.
The Heavenly Bed is reason enough to stay at a Westin. Westin hotels even offer a Heavenly Dog Bed for your furry friend. But this Westin has a few other tricks up its sleeve.
Around the holidays, the Westin Bellevue has free cookies and hot chocolate or apple cider (this is the Pacific Northwest) in the afternoon. There is also a craft area where kids can write letters to Santa or take holiday-themed photos.
The gym offers just about every type of weight, equipment or cardio machine you desire. There are two Peloton bikes so you can take an amazing spin class on your schedule. Since I was jet lagged, this meant 5 am. Luckily, there is free coffee in the lobby in the morning – or you can make it in your room.
There is also a large pool, for lap swimming or tiring out your kids. And there is a spa.
Shopping in Bellevue
If you forgot a bathing suit, an Apple Watch or comfy walking shoes, the Westin connects by skywalks to Bellevue Square, Lincoln Square and The Bellevue Collection for an incredible array of stores. These are unlike most shopping malls. There is a big play area for kids and high-end shopping, food and drink.
A short walk away, The Shops at the Bravern offer more luxury shopping.
Bellevue WA Restaurants
Here’s where the proximity to Seattle translates to fantastic food, with prices to match. You won’t find bargains, but you will find excellent choices.
A great way to start the day is at Cépaé Tasting Room. The French-owned wine bar is a patisserie during the day, with perfect flaky croissants, warm bread with cultured butter and delicious coffee. There is also yogurt, fruit, and eggs if you don’t want to indulge so early.
Cafe Trophy, a local chain, has a location at The Shops at the Bravern. The beautifully decorated cupcakes live up to their looks. The chocolate Nutella has Valrhona chocolate cake topped with Nutella buttercream. There are also vegan and gluten-free options. And all the macarons are gluten-free.
Fern Thai on Main has authentic spicy Thai food along with interesting cocktails and mocktails. Fern Thai on Main is part of Old Bellevue. Walk around here to find local boutiques in low-slung historic buildings.
Fine Dining in Bellevue
The Lakehouse, a Northwest farmhouse concept, is the house restaurant at the W Bellevue. You can use the skywalk to get there if it’s raining. It rains a lot here.
The James Beard award-winning chef, Jason Wilson, easily accommodated vegetarians and vegans. The roasted beets with Moroccan spices, almonds and mint were just as delicious with almond cream as they were with yogurt. Roasted cauliflower with black truffle sauce didn’t need the squid ink and wild mushroom risotto was perfect as is. I also tried beets with chevre and honeynut squash soup with sage. Everything was delicious.
The W also has a speakeasy, Civility & Unrest. There are cocktails made with duck fat, pistachio oil and pomegranate dust. I had the relatively tame absinthe-minded: bourbon, amaro, yellow chartreuses, clarified passion fruit and absinthe (no longer on the menu). The bartender decided to ‘make it fun’ for me and torched the whole concoction, adding a smokey flavor.
I also had a smoky drink at Ascend Prime Steak & Sushi. This high-end restaurant – both in price and location, offers a 360 view of Seattle city skyline and Cascade Mountain. I was there in the rain (of course) but that didn’t dampen my enjoyment. The rooftop bar is a glitzy nightlife scene without attitude.
Black Bottle Bellevue has great small plates, with lots of vegetarian options. Our group shared the blistered broccoli, (roasted till it was caramelized) cauliflower fritters, roasted baby artichokes and a few flatbreads. There are inventive cocktails here, of course. In winter, try “Them Apples” which has smoked bourbon and apple walnut bitters.
The light rail, which I usually use to travel from SeaTac to Seattle, opens a link to Bellevue in 2025. You will be able to travel to downtown Seattle in 24 minutes. If you rent a car, parking at the hotel is much less expensive than in Seattle. The overnight rate at the Bellevue Westin is $32. At the Westin Seattle, the rate is $55.
You’ll want that car to go to Snoqualmie Falls, the highest waterfall in the United States. If you prefer not to have a car, Evergreen Escapes offers one-day adventures from Bellevue (and Seattle, where the company is based). We took a day trip to Snoqualmie Falls, where you can hike trails, with your dog, for free. Evergreen Escapes will also take you to Mount Rainier.
The Rest of the Year in Bellevue WA
April to October, Bellevue Challenge Course and Zip Tour has a Zipline right downtown. The lower weight limit is 60 pounds. [Note: this is closed until 2024)
The REI Boathouse operates a kayak and stand-up paddleboard rental site at Meydenbauer Bay Park. The whole family can stand up paddleboard together on a 6-person SUP.