Finally, we get to the heart of the matter. Assuming you decide to visit, find a hotel, and get fed, what are you actually going to DO once you arrive in Seattle? Unfortunately, this topic is often overlooked or given a quick once-over. It annoyed me that the recent season of Top Chef: Seattle gave the city almost no screen time when here was a perfect opportunity to show of the charms of individual neighborhoods. More scenes were shot in Alaska and Los Angeles, and even the grocery store where contestants picked up their ingredients was outside city limits.
Likewise, I get many emails from readers who say they plan to spend one day exploring downtown and Pike Place Market, and then the rest of their trip will be spent driving 50-100 miles away to other sights. If so, you’re not visiting Seattle — you’re visiting Puget Sound. It’s analogous to visting Midtown and the Poconos but nothing else in Manhattan or the other four boroughs of New York. My guide will try to give more attention to destinations within Seattle.
For the record, Megan is very upset that I’m sharing secrets like Bhy Kracke Park. There is definitely some benefit when visitors stay in one area near the tourist traps where we can more easily avoid you. 😉
Water, Water, Everywhere
…And not a bit you’ll want to swim in. Well, maybe. Puget Sound is awfully cold. I grew up visiting my grandparents at Lake Tahoe, which is a cold lake, and Puget Sound is downright bone chilling. You can, however take an enjoyable dip in Lake Washington during the summer.
More likely, I will spend my time on a boat. The Agua Verde Paddle Club rents single and double kayaks that you can use to explore Lake Union and Portage Bay. However, you’re strongly discouraged from taking them through the Montlake Cut, a narrow channel that connects Portage Bay to Lake Washington, because of the many sail and motor boats. I actually prefer the Lake Washington side and will rent a canoe from the UW’s Waterfront Activities Center (near Husky Stadium). From there it’s like a game of Frogger, crossing the paths of these faster boats to reach the Washington Arboretum on the other side.
The Arboretum is one of my favorite places in Seattle. Boats glide quietly between the water lilies and trees to find little corners where you can stop for a picnic lunch or go swimming. The 520 bridge was originally designed to cut through the Arboretum, but construction was halted. Now off ramps stop in mid-air, creating a good diving platform for some. If you arrive by land, you can go for a short hike on a trail that includes floating platforms through the marsh.
At the southern end of the Arboretum, along Lake Washington Boulevard, you can find the Japanese Garden. It is not especially large but is still a nice place to stop if you have not been to such a garden before. A short drive past that is the neighborhood of Washington Park. Capitol Hill is to the right, but turn left onto Madison Street. Belle Epicurean, one of my favorite bakeries, is located at this intersection and has an excellent pecan brioche bun (another outlet is in the Fairmont Olympic downtown).
As you go up and over the hill into the adjacent neighborhood of Madison Park, you’ll find a Starbucks. Don’t bother going to the one in Pike Place Market. Head here instead. Rumor has it that the best employees are selected for this store because CEO Howard Schultz stops by each morning on his way to work. It’s also a test location for an enhanced menu including more food and alcoholic beverages.
Parks and Recreation
I have never seen anyone swim in the Sound, though I recently discovered that Lake Washington is a lot warmer. Check out Madison Park Beach if you really want to take a dip. If you come from a warmer climate, you might not be impressed, but remember that here in Seattle, a warm day is anything over 70 degrees.
Even if the water is cold, I still like going to the beaches around Puget Sound. The salt breeze are refreshing. Many people don’t make the trek to West Seattle and Alki Beach, but you should just to get a taste for a different part of Seattle. (We often make fun of these guys for living out in the boonies.) Alki offers the best views of the Seattle skyline, and weekend brunch at Salty’s on the Beach is one such opportunity. Discovery Park, a large space derived from a former military base across from Ballard, has some great hiking but only offers views of Puget Sound, not the city. In some ways that’s actually better.
I’m more likely to visit Golden Gardens. This is the default beach for many in Seattle, and I’ve come here even in the winter for the views of the Olympic Mountains across the sound and bonfires on the beach, which are generally forbidden in California. Although alcohol and glass are still against the rules, these are not normally enforced as long as you don’t cause a scene and keep your tasty beverage concealed. Like many things in Seattle, people have a live-and-let-live philosophy.
Usually, I spend my free time at Green Lake since it’s closest to where I live and has a three-mile jogging path around it. It’s very popular whenever the weather is half-way decent and has paddle boats and canoes for rent. It’s worth a walk around just to see some of our more unusual citizens. There’s Spanish Lessons Guy, who wears a smock advertising free Spanish lessons if you care to follow along. A few people on rollerblades will be out dancing and doing tricks. Maybe you’ll see the family of four on stilts, or the guy on a bicycle wearing leather chaps and a cat on his shoulder.
Finally, where to go for a view of the city? There are four places, and two of them are not well known. The popular one, where everyone goes to get their picture taken, is Kerry Park on Queen Anne hill. However, it’s terribly overcrowded, has little parking, and creates the misperception that the Space Needle is in the middle of downtown. Gas Works Park, at the north side of Lake Union, is a former coal gasification facility and also offers good views of downtown.
Instead of Kerry Park, go to Bhy Kracke Park instead, a few blocks away. It has only three parking spaces, but there is lots of street parking on Bigelow Avenue. This park offers a view of downtown and Lake Union with some excellent picnic spots. Crossing Lake Union, Volunteer Park in Capitol Hill has a large, brick water tower at its entrance off Aloha Street. Climb the narrow stairs that surround it to get a view of downtown Seattle, the University of Washington, and Bellevue (the view to the south, of Capitol Hill, is not particularly good or interesting).
Keep Seattle Weird
I will make one exception to the tourist traps, which I generally despise: Ride the Ducks. The Ducks are large WWII-era amphibious boats that can drive on land. They typically pick up passengers at the Space Needle and Westlake Center before driving off to see a few downtown sights (better seen on foot) and then driving into Lake Union (which you can’t see on foot). It’s a unique experience, and you get a close-up view of some sights like the houseboat from Sleepless in Seattle without the inconvenience of kayaking out there yourself. Yes, other cities have Ducks, but few of them have as much water as Seattle to make good use of them.
Once you’re back on dry land, three neighborhoods you should visit are Capitol Hill, Fremont, and Ballard. All of these neighborhoods have been gentrifying rapidly in recently years, but they are still fun experiences with some local character. Capitol Hill is just across the freeway from downtown and accessible on foot or any of several buses. It has more bars, live music venues (the birthplace of grunge), and creative new restaurants than any other place in Seattle. Many young professionals and college students call it home, though I’ve often found it a little too exciting for my taste. If this isn’t your style, there are many stately historic homes just north of the commercial district.
Capitol Hill has hipsters, but I generally think of Fremont as having hippies. Every year there is a large solstice festival that begins with a parade of naked bicyclists. There is nothing more awkward than watching the parade and running into someone you know. Among this neighborhood’s more defining features are a large rocket ship attached to one building, a statue of Lenin rescued from a Slovakian junkyard, and a signpost that declares Fremont the center of the universe. If you think Whole Foods is eco-friendly, check out PCC. This grocery store even has a drinking fountain with a friendly sign saying the water has be de-fluorinated for your health. There is also a great Saturday flea market and an outdoor movie festival on Saturday nights each summer.
Ballard is further west from Fremont and still celebrates its Nordic heritage. Most of the activity is along its historic Ballard Avenue, where reclaimed furniture stores and Asian fusion restaurants compete with decades-old machine shops and warehouses. Unfortunately, Main Street has been overtaken by condos, replacing favorite venues like Sunset Bowl. Many of my favorite restaurants are here since it is easier to reach than Capitol Hill, and there is a great Sunday farmers’ market, but the Chittenden Locks will appeal more to tourists. These control the flow of water between Puget Sound and Lake Union (and, indirectly, Lake Washington). All day long boats are raised or lowered between the two, while salmon swim upstream at the adjacent fish ladder. You can also walk through the adjacent botanical gardens.
These are the places most people visit when they come to Seattle. They are also the least interesting parts of the city. You probably don’t care about my opinion because you’ll go anyway, so I’ll just walk though the list and get my negativity over with.
- Pike Place Market is ostensibly a farmers’ market, but I don’t know any locals who shop there. Pure Seafood is my favorite if you want to pack fish to take home, and I’ll leave it at that.
- The Central Library is a cool building, architecturally speaking, but you’re probably not going to be checking out any books.
- Columbia Tower is a tall building. There are lots of tall buildings.
- Pioneer Square is run down because the preservation laws are so strict it is almost impossible to renovate anything.
- The Monorail starts at a mall and goes less than a mile to Seattle Center. You’ll see more interesting sights if you walk through Belltown instead.
- Seattle Center itself is improving. The old carnival has been replaced with a new “Garden and Glass” by Dale Chihuly. It’s actually pretty good.
- The Space Needle is tall, and admission is expensive. You can get similar views of the city from public parks.
- Some people find the architecture of the EMP (Experience Music Project) bizzarre and ugly. I rather like it, but I don’t care for the museum itself. The Science Fiction Museum in the basement is my preference.
- The final Seattle Center attraction is the Pacific Science Center. I guess it’s okay, but I am loyal to the Exploratorium.
- Instead of going to Seattle Center, visit the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park. It’s free, and it’s one of the better parts of the waterfront.
- The waterfront is generally boring. Lots of seafood restaurants and souvenir shops. They built a Ferris wheel last year for reasons I don’t understand.
Finally, I will talk about some destinations outside Seattle. Woodinville is one of my top suggestions. You can do sequential tastings at several wine makers, a distillery, and a brewery all within walking distance of each other. Keep in mind that few, if any, of the raw ingredients are grown here because of the poor climate. Most are trucked in from the warmer areas in Eastern Washington.
Many tasting rooms are in warehouses, but you can find a few like Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery that put on a Napa-style show (of style over substance, if you ask me). Redhook Brewery started in Fremont but has since relocated here due to its growing popularity. Bicyclists will take the Burke Gilman trail all the way from Seattle and stop here for a beer and a burger before heading home. The Woodinville Whiskey Company opened more recently and will sell you your own charred oak barrel and white dog whiskey if you want to age your own.
If you continue driving on WA-522 to US-2, you’ll soon be on your way through Stevens Pass. There are many hiking trails along the way if you want to stop and see a waterfall or two. But eventually you’ll reach Leavenworth, a Bavarian-style town with themed architecture and several bars and small hotels. Some people come here to go rafting, and my research department would visit the Sleeping Lady Resort for our annual retreat. Snoqualmie is more convenient if Stevens Pass sounds too far away. It’s a good choice if you have young children as you can make a stop at Snoqualmie Falls before visiting one of the local blueberry farms that are busy in late summer.
Many people talk about visiting the San Juan Islands. I have only been there in March, during an annual conference at a UW research facility in Friday Harbor, but from what I’ve seen I agree it’s a nice place to visit. Most shops and restaurants are pretty quiet or closed entirely in the winter months. The main ferry terminal at Anacortes is about a two hour drive from Seattle with traffic, and for this reason you might want to spend the night. Consider parking in Anacortes and walking onto the ferry instead. Otherwise, I advise that you allow some extra time to arrive before boarding since you may be left behind if it fills up with cars.
I can’t comment at all on Olympic National Park, Victoria, Mt. Ranier, or Mt. St. Helens. I’ve never been to any of them. I will say that getting to Victoria seems like an awful lot of work if you depart on a ferry from Anacortes, and the hydrofoils that depart from Seattle have a poor reputation. My plan (when I eventually visit) is to pair Victoria with a trip to the Olympic Peninsula and take a ferry from Port Angeles.