Long before the Starbucks franchise was a glimmer in its creator’s eye, Seattle was known for having more coffee drinkers than just about anywhere else in the U.S. That probably comes as no surprise, but here’s an eye-opening fact that you might not know: The city gets less precipitation each year than New York, Houston or Washington D.C.
Seattle isn’t just another coastal city; for one thing, it isn’t even located on the ocean, but rather at the inland-most end of Puget Sound, which wends its way north to the Pacific. It’s the gateway to some of the most magnificent scenery the continent has to offer. Pristine mountain ranges rim the east while hundreds of islands dot the Sound to the north and west. It’s consistently rated in the top 10 cycle-friendly cities in Bicycling magazine, and it has one of the country’s highest percentages of people biking to work.
Known as the Emerald City because of its omnipresent evergreens, Seattle is a charming and welcoming metropolis with a small-town feel. Pike Place Market is one of the country’s oldest continuously operating farmer’s markets, and sees millions of visitors a year. Modern architecture (check out the downtown library, which looks like precariously balanced glass cubes tumbling down a hill) and turn-of-the-century buildings create a visual contrast that works. And of course, there’s Seattle’s most famous landmark, the Space Needle, created for the 1962 World’s Fair, which changed the city’s skyline forever.
Seattle gets a bad rap because of its weather, and while it is indeed overcast much of the time, it gets a lot less rain than Miami, for example, or Mobile, Alabama. And when the clouds clear, there is something about the sun glinting off Puget Sound and the many lakes in Seattle that turns the city golden.
Seattle’s indelible landmark, the Space Needle allows you to soar in seconds to the Observation Deck 520 feet above the ground. There’s a 360-degree view of Seattle, the mountains, the ferries, Puget Sound and the islands, Lake Washington … and if you can’t see it all with the naked eye, don’t worry. Complimentary telescopes are part of the package.
Pioneer Square, Seattle’s first neighborhood, is a charming blend of cobblestone streets and turn-of-the-century architecture with some notable historic features. Smith Tower, built in 1914, was for a time the tallest building on the West Coast; today you can take an elevator to the 35th floor to explore the historic Chinese Room. Also in the Pioneer Square neighborhood are a small waterfall garden and the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, plus lots of shops and coffee houses to entertain you for an entire day.
Paris isn’t the only city that has underground excursions; Seattle has them too. The Underground Tour takes you beneath Pioneer Square, where the old streets and original storefronts from the Gold Rush Days are visible.
The colorful Olympic Sculpture Park is a relatively new addition to Seattle’s waterfront, occupying a nine-acre space that was once an industrial site. “The Eagle” by Alexander Calder is the most iconic of the contemporary art works that overlook spectacular views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. Admission is free.
The Seattle Art Museum, located downtown, is the city’s preeminent destination for art lovers. Don’t miss the glittering Porcelain Room, which groups more than a thousand decorative dishes by color and theme, or the collection of African masks, displayed not behind glass but on models dressed for a traditional celebration. There’s also a sizable collection of Native American art from the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle has been blessed with several parks and urban green areas designed by the Olmsted brothers, the team responsible for the design of New York’s Central Park and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. Volunteer Park is located high above the city in a rolling landscape that offers breathtaking views, the Seattle Asian Art Museum, a bandshell for summer concerts, playgrounds, formal gardens, a reservoir, an esplanade for strolling and a huge glass conservatory reminiscent of the one in London’s Kew Gardens. It’s a lovely place to spend a lazy afternoon. Check out the funky shops and boutiques in the nearby Capitol Hill neighborhood too.
The EMP Museum is the brainchild of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who was partly inspired by the fact that Jimi Hendrix was a Seattle native. This interactive museum/exhibit space/gallery is housed in a spectacular Frank Gehry building near the Science Center, and offers hands-on music creation in a state-of-the-art studio, among other things. The museum features exhibitions on rock music, science fiction, film and other aspects of pop culture.
A recent addition to the Seattle Center complex (where you’ll also find the Space Needle and the EMP Museum) is Chihuly Garden and Glass, where visitors can ooh and ahh over vibrantly colored installations by Washington-born blown-glass artist Dale Chihuly. To see photos and learn more, see Seattle Gains Artsy New Attraction.
Ballard Locks, actually named the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, is an engineering marvel that allows passage from Puget Sound into Lake Washington and vice versa. There’s a dam, a spillway and — best of all — a 21-step fish ladder so you can actually watch salmon swimming upstream to return to their place of birth to spawn. There’s an underwater viewing area as well.
Located 15 miles northeast of Seattle, Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, the oldest in the state, offers free tours and tastings. You can also visit Columbia Winery, right across the road. (There is a small fee for tastings here.)
Have you ever wanted to see the Concorde or go through Air Force One? You can at the incredible Museum of Flight (at Boeing Field south of Seattle), which also includes a “Personal Courage Wing” featuring rare and restored World War I and World War II fighting aircraft. Kids love this place — and adults do too.
Seattle Houseboats: You can’t get onto most of the docks since they are gated, but you can walk along the roads at the east end of Lake Union and gawk at these floating castles, many worth well into the multi-million-dollar range.
Seattle’s dining scene is a mix of Pacific Northwestern cuisine (think fresh-caught salmon, Dungeness crab, locally grown berries and wild mushrooms) and Asian influences. Seafood lovers in particular will thrive here — you’ll find the catch of the day everywhere from upscale restaurants to casual waterfront clam shacks. In keeping with Seattle’s progressive reputation, many restaurants here have a strong focus on organic, sustainable and locally sourced foods.
Ivar’s Acres of Clams, a Seattle institution for over 80 years, is located along the waterfront near the ferry docks. It started out as a little fish stand and has grown into a multi-restaurant corporation, but this, the original, is still special. Yes, it is touristy, but so what? The food is great, affordable and brilliantly served, and the menus are fun and funny. If you listen carefully, you can still hear the ghost of old Ivar yelling his signature “KEEP CLAM” as you blissfully munch on clams, calamari, fish and sourdough rolls while watching the Washington State ferries arrive and depart at the adjacent dock.
At the Hunt Club, located off the lobby in the Sorrento Hotel, the romantic ambience plays second fiddle only to the innovations of the executive chef, who composes his menus based on what’s fresh in the market and which fresh herbs and vegetables he can bring to the restaurant from his own garden. Enjoy after-dinner drinks and live jazz in the even more romantic Fireside Room, adjacent.
Located at the north end of the Pike Place Market area, Etta’s is a perfect place to sit and relax. It offers fresh seafood daily, as well as weekend brunch and an afternoon “Crabby Hour.”
Long Provincial serves beautifully presented Vietnamese food in a dimly lit downtown location. The extensive menu ranges from steamed rice paper rolls and green papaya salad to lily blossom halibut and deep-fried lemongrass chicken. There are numerous options for vegetarians.
Capitol Hill’s Coastal Kitchen is a casual seafood eatery in the heart of hipness. It serves only wild and sustainable fish, as well as non-seafood options such as herb-roasted chicken and all-day breakfast.
Chandler’s Crabhouse serves up fresh seafood and beautiful views of Lake Union. It’s famous for its Dungeness crab cake.
Weekend breakfast, daily lunch and dinner are offered at Chinook’s at Salmon Bay, located near Ballard Locks where the fishermen dock with their catch. The extensive menu includes everything from fish tacos to stir-fry vegetables with soba noodles.
The main draw at the Pink Door is the view over Puget Sound from the arbor-covered alfresco patio. Located just above Pike Place Market, it’s a lovely spot for a breather after tangling with the crowds below. On offer here is Italian trattoria-style food — pasta, risotto, mozzarella salad and more.
Shopping in Seattle
In Seattle, shoppers will find everything from mega-malls and trendy boutiques to independent art galleries and traditional fresh food markets. The downtown area is a bustling hub for shopping — that’s where you’ll find the Nordstrom flagship store as well as several major malls — but you’ll also find more unique places in Seattle’s other neighborhoods, including the quirky offerings of Capitol Hill and the art and antiques of historic Pioneer Square.
Pike Place Market, the home of “those fish-throwing guys,” is a must-visit. The south end of the market houses the edibles, including the fish stalls, the original Starbucks, fresh meats, and fruit and vegetables. The north end is filled with artists’ wares and freshly cut flowers (pick up a nice bouquet to brighten up your hotel room). Don’t forget to go to the lower levels; you might find a weird collectible that you’ve always wanted, or you can get your palm read by a self-proclaimed psychic. (One gross local landmark worth looking for: the gum wall, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s located in Post Alley, right near the market.)
It is said that you can return anything at any time to Nordstrom and its salespeople will refund your money with a smile; the company’s standard of customer service is taught in business schools around the world. What started as a simple shoe store in 1901 has evolved into the standard-bearer for class and sophistication. If you can’t afford to shop here, pretend it’s a museum and browse through the “exhibits” before enjoying a sweet treat in its cafe; then head for Nordstrom Rack at 400 Pine Street, where excess inventory is sold for a pittance. Just don’t call it “Nordstrom’s”; that’s a big no-no. It’s NORDSTROM.
Bibliophiles can’t come to Seattle without making a pilgrimage to the Elliott Bay Book Company, the city’s popular independent bookstore. It moved a few years ago from its longtime Main Street address to a new location in Capitol Hill, but the warm, homey atmosphere and 150,000-title collection remain the same.
Pacific Place is a downtown shopping and entertainment center where you’ll find names like Tiffany & Co., J. Crew, Chico’s and Williams Sonoma — as well as an 11-screen movie theater. There’s a sky bridge between Pacific Place and neighboring Nordstrom.
The historic Pioneer Square District is home to a number of art galleries and antique stores, as well as distinctive clothing boutiques and gift shops. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants here too for when you need a break.
Capitol Hill, home to Seattle’s GLBT community, has some of the city’s quirkier shops — offering goodies like vintage clothes, new and used CD’s, specialty bookstores, and adult items.
–written by Jana Jones