A Weekend at the Museums
Anyone who arrives in Pierce County with the notion that museums are dusty places with boring shelves is going to have their worldview forcibly widened.
What do you say to a place where collector cars are stacked on shelves three-high like Christmas ornaments in your garage? What do you say to a place where you can see Jacques Cousteau’s dive kit, and then turn the corner to a humpback whale skeleton? What do you say when two museums with world-class glass-art collections are connected by a bridge aglow with glass art? What do you say to a place where the largest automotive museum in North America is just a short drive away from the largest automotive collection in the Northwest?
Now what do you say to doing all of this in one trip?
How about say yes?
Day 1: Tacoma and Gig Harbor
Start the day Tacoma, and then find your way to the peaceful waterfront town of Gig Harbor, just across the Tacoma Narrows. A city with a foundation as a Croatian and Scandinavian fishing village, the architecture of the city is a museum in itself, with historic net sheds (not boat houses!) still dotting the waterfront.
Time for Museum #1…
1701 Pacific Ave, Tacoma, WA 98402
With among the top collections in the world in both studio glass art and art of the American West, Tacoma Art Museum focuses heavily on artists from the Pacific Northwest. The recently opened Benaroya Wing houses a groundbreaking collection specific to artists from the famous Pilchuck School, which has been defining the field of glass art since Tacoma native Dale Chihuly opened it in 1971.
Cross the Bridge of Glass and take in Tacoma native Dale Chihuly’s artwork on the bridge as you cross, the bridge features more than 2,000 objects from the artist.
And see how it’s made at Museum #2…
1801 Dock St, Tacoma, WA 98402
That giant cone that defines that skyline? Well, you’re about to discover that while its form is beautiful, its function is exquisite. It houses the Museum of Glass Hot Shop, an amphitheater where visitors can watch some of the best glass artists in the world create masterpieces right before their eyes, while an emcee explains the process.
Cross the (new) Tacoma Narrows Bridge to the City of Gig Harbor.
Have lunch at…
7804 Pioneer Way, Gig Harbor, WA 98335
If you stare at the sky and the sky is glaring back, better take your acai bowl (our recommendation) from to one of the tables inside. If the weather is looking fair and glorious, less than a block away is Skansie Brothers Park and their Welcome Center, with picnic tables on the roof that feature a water view from one side of the harbor to the other.
Get the big picture of Gig Harbor from…
3117 Harborview Drive Gig Harbor, WA 98335 (operates from Gig Harbor Marina)
The Gig Harbor Gondola has forgotten more about Gig Harbor history that most people will ever know, and doesn’t skimp on the details while he maneuvers and sings you around the harbor on his Venetian gondola.
Drop by Museum #3…
4121 Harborview Dr, Gig Harbor, WA 98332
Confirm the stories from the Gig Harbor Gondola at the Harbor History Museum, among the artifacts and exhibits that showcase the history of the harbor, and its relation to the rest of the Pacific Northwest. Don’t miss the round rocks, an exhibition the winners of the annual competition to find and submit the roundest rock on earth (the inflation-ignoring prize is still the same as it was when the contest started 70 years ago: $100) Also see authentic pieces of Galloping Gertie, the former Tacoma Narrows Bridge that sank just months after it was built in 1940, with the only life taken being a beloved canine.
2925 Harborview Drive, Gig Harbor, WA 98335
Every time a magazine wants to write about a seafood restaurant without pretensions, you’re going to find Tides Tavern on the list. The only seating that’s jackets-required are life jackets when the servers bring orders to boat-up customers on their dock, which is definitely a thing that happens in the actual world. Try the clams.
Small mom-and-pop businesses are the lifeblood of Gig Harbor, and even the local Best Western is run as a family affair, with all the attention to detail you’d expect from a tiny B&B. Whether your room is right on the water, or set a little further back from the waves and into the dining and retail core, the Gig Harbor experience will be all over your night’s stay.
Day 2: Tacoma
Day 2 is wrapped in museum action, covering art, history, automotive, and maritime.
First, recross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge back to Tacoma.
A drive to 6th Avenue (not saying it’s where the cool kids hang out, but if you wanted your choice of coffee roasters and vinyl shops, you’d find it on 6th) for breakfast is almost a spiritual pilgrimage, and Dirty Oscar’s Annex is where you pray to the relics. Everything on the menu is low-calorie* and fat-free*, especially the Waffle Monte Cristo bacon-stuffed, syrup-slathered waffle.
Get your hands dirty at a glassblowing workshop at…
Both glass art workshops have artists who have been taught to teach the thing they love to people who want to don the gloves, if just for an hour. Work with the artist/instructor to choose the colors and the form, then gather, turn, blow, rotate, pinch, shape, and twist it into shape. 24 hours later, your own objet d'art will be ready to take back to your maison.
Step back in time at Museum #4…
5519 Five Mile Dr, Tacoma, WA 98407
When Metro Parks, which operates Fort Nisqually, calls something “living history,” they really mean it. The granary building is the oldest building in Washington state, built around it is a reconstructed fur trapping fort from 1850. Events throughout the year feature actors in period costume, and hands-on exhibits to help visitors get into the feeling of living through that point in time.
Find your history on the water at Museum #5…
705 Dock St, Tacoma, WA 98402
Tacoma was historically known as “the place where the rails met the sails” and the railroad fed the maritime industry and vice versa. All this culminates on the Foss Waterway Seaport Museum being the best place to learn about how nature, settlers, indigenous Americans, and industry came together to create a functional – and sometimes dysfunctional – waterfront story. And yes – this is the place with the diving suit and equipment of the one, the only Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
Located right on the Downtown Tacoma Waterfront, adjacent to the Museum of Glass, is the Social, the waterfront’s go-to lunch spot with outstanding seafood, steak, BBQ, vegetarian and vegan dishes. From the seasonal fall menu, you’d have a hard time beating the bacon pesto caprese sandwich, or the fresh-made hot gumbo if the weather calls for it.
Drive up to Museum #6…
2702 E D St, Tacoma, WA 98421
The largest automotive museum in North America, America’s Car Museum is a love letter America’s obsession with the automobile. 300+ vehicles on display – and the effervescent scent of oil around every corner – tell the story of not only the history and design. Ultra-rare cars; fast cars; valuable-beyond-belief cars; movie-making cars; cars that changed America and the world; cars that are a product of their time: You’ll see vehicles that you never thought you’d be just feet away from.
Explore the bigger picture at Museum #7…
1911 Pacific Ave, Tacoma, WA 98402
Let your feet guide you at the Washington State History Museum, and your gait will change throughout the visit. When you pass through the recreation of the Washington frontier town, you’ll mosey. When you’re passing the stories told from the ongoing pandemic in an exhibition called Pandemic Perspectives, you’ll slow to a shuffle to avoid missing a word. And as you look down on the shoes of, and listen to the stories told by 16 migrants to Washington who arrived here by choice, by chance, or by misfortune, maybe your feet will ache for them.
The Ruston Way Waterfront is jam-packed with restaurants serving up the best that the sea has to offer, from Duke’s famous chowder, to the Lobster Shop doing what they’re named for, to the freshest catches at the Fish Peddler seafood restaurant/market, to Copper & Salt at the Silver Cloud Hotel Point Ruston, to WildFin Tacoma’s traditional PNW fare.
If you want to stay close to the museums, the luxurious Marriott Tacoma Downtown, glass-art-themed boutique Hotel Murano, or convenient and amenity-rich Holiday Inn Express & Suites Downtown Tacoma or Courtyard Tacoma Downtown are right there. For the sound of waves lapping at your window, the Silver Cloud Hotel Tacoma at Point Ruston Waterfront and Silver Cloud Inn Tacoma Waterfront are right up against the Salish Sea.
Day 3: Spanaway
For your final day on the Weekend at the Museums Itinerary, you’re spending time a little south of Tacoma, in one of the lesser-explored areas of Pierce County, and you’re in for a treat.
8237 S Park Ave, Tacoma, WA 98408
If you were looking on a map, or even driving by, you might miss Tibbitts, but that would be to your detriment. A nationally rated Yelp favorite, Tibbitts is a tiny (you could count the number of tables on two hands without using thumbs) neighborhood mainstay outside of the center of the city, but directly en route to where you’re heading. Chef/owner Shawn Tibbitts uses ingredients he picks up at the local farms on his way into work, and cooks them up in the simplest of kitchens: Two portable butane gas burners. The menu: Seasonal. The prime choice right now: Champagne-soaked lobster called the Lobster Bomb. You’ll thank me later.
A final stop at Museum #8…
325 152nd St E, Tacoma, WA 98445
This is the Northwest’s largest automobile collection, but that undersells it in almost every way. The manicured grounds started life as a convent for Dominican nuns and continued life as a boys’ military academy. Now, within its many walls and roofs, there are fantastical collections around every corner, and even outside: Collections of authentic Rodin sculptures (including an original caste of The Thinker), of brass hose nozzles, pin cushions, antique radios, outboard boat motors, all in addition to the 1,000+ automobiles scattered throughout gymnasiums, pool decks, rifle ranges, and lined up and stacked on shelves three-high, fading off into the distance of one of the gargantuan warehouses. It’s an unforgettable end to a trip that shows the kind of wonder that should be at the heart of a Weekend at the Museum.