I knew I was going to love Seattle before I even pulled up to park at my friend’s apartment complex in Capitol Hill. For years people had raved about the fact it was a great place to visit, with plenty to do both outside and inside, great shops and restaurants, a rich history, and even richer coffee. Upon eventually leaving Portland, I had driven three hours up north to Washington State’s largest city (and setting to one of my favorite childhood movies — Sleepless In Seattle) to finally experience the charm and search for the grunge of the Emerald City. What did I know about Seattle at this point? Well, towards the end of high school I certainly had gone through my grunge phase and was therefore initially introduced to an image of Seattle as a wet and dreary haven of non-conformity. Later, as more and more friends moved there post-college and complained about the rising cost of living, I had come to realize that the tech-world had claimed enough of that fabled creative energy to turn homegrown brands into mega-brands such as the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon.
People in Portland had told me that their city was what Seattle was once like back before it “sold its soul” as in a place that embraced local business, local ingredients, local ideas, local whatever as long as it was L-O-C-A-L. From what I gathered, as a major American city in the 80s and 90s, Seattle was different in this regard. Unfortunately, I wasn’t road tripping around the US back then so I can’t comment, all I can say is that Seattle shocked me in a variety of ways. First of all, it was warm and sunny every day I was there which I wasn’t expecting given its reputation for being a grey, miserable place. I even got a tan. Secondly, I found it to be one of the most manageable of all major American cities despite its many neighborhoods. It never felt overpowering and I appreciated the extensive green space, the proximity to water and the laidback manner that flows off of those who reside in the Pacific Northwest (PNW). However, the homelessness and heroin crisis that the city (and state) is experiencing is unlike anything I have ever seen before and remains on my mind to this day.
To me, there is no other city that represents the impending challenge of the modern US city more than Seattle. It has a little bit of everything, for everyone, so how does it navigate its explosive growth to both maintain its idiosyncracies and take care of its local-loving locals. But, I am optimistic, as Seattle has always been a few steps ahead of the rest of us. Therefore, there is no reason not to presume that its drive and creative thinking will continue to push the envelope and take it into the future.
When To Go: The best time to visit Seattle is from late June to early September when the weather tends to be good and you are more likely to catch some sunshine. The city has a well-known reputation for getting a lot of rain, so I was pleasantly surprised to have blue skies during my entire stay (in July/August).
Getting Around: Taking advantage of the great weather, I walked the majority of my time in Seattle and only rode the metro a couple of times and took an Uber once. Within downtown, the bus system is convenient and the Light Rail provides a cheap ride from downtown to the airport. Here are the essential neighborhoods: Ballard, Capitol Hill, Fremont, Pioneer Square, Queen Anne, & South Lake Union.
Getting Sleep: I have a lot of friends who have made their home in Seattle, so I had places to stay for the entire week I was there!
Eating & Drinking
Just like many of the major US metropolises, Seattle has a thriving food scene with something for every taste and budget. There is no way to start a conversation concerning eating and drinking in Seattle without mentioning that it is, in fact, the home of Starbucks. This in itself gives it a special place in my heart (I explain my obsession in more detail here). The Original Starbucks, established in 1971 and complete with wooden floors and the old logo, is located in Pike Place Market and tends to have a gigantic line extended out of its small doors. On my third attempt, I managed to convince myself to stand in line and place my usual order. If you are a diehard obsessive, then this is a must; otherwise, merely seeing it from outside and then moving on with your day should be enough. That being said, everyone should visit the Starbucks Reserve which is best described as the “Disneyland of Starbucks”. Inside they have a tasting counter, a bar with coffee-flavored cocktails, a bakery and all the Starbucks paraphernalia you could ever want. The indoor food market Melrose Market is around the corner for those who need a real meal to balance out caffeine shots. While I did have a daily Sbux, I also enjoyed a yummy coffee from La Marzocco at KEXP (the local radio station) on my way to the Seattle Center.
I try to keep breakfast relatively chilled, cheap, and healthy but I made an exception for Oddfellows Café and Bar after hearing so many rave reviews. The cheesy egg bake monstrosity that I devoured certainly kept me powered up for a lot of wandering. No trip to Seattle is complete without a significant amount of time spent trying samples (and then regular sized dishes) at Pike Place Market. I started with samples at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, before moving on to an award-winning (yes, really) chowder at Pike Place Chowder, a little fish taco action at Jack’s Fish Spot, and one of Rachel’s Ginger Beers to wash it all down. I would highly recommend this food crawl, but there are so many options you want to save some room to follow your eyes.
My friend Ryan took me to Tacos Chukis, proclaiming it “the best taco in the city” — always a tough call to pull off; however, when another Seattle-friend told me he too agreed, I knew this must be a local favorite. If you are in the Capitol Hill area around lunchtime this is where you will get the best bang for your buck (and a tasty bang while you are at it). After attending a Sunday afternoon book reading at Elliott Bay Book Company, I treated myself to dinner at Stateside. Their description reads “We serve a global cuisine inspired by years of living, traveling and cooking abroad and their menu is mainly “Asian inspired cuisine”. It is the perfect place to sit with your book and watch afternoon turn into evening.
When in Seattle, it is essential to take advantage of the proximity to the water and indulge in some delicious seafood. I met up with a travel friend on the patio at Ivar’s Salmon House to catch up over seafood appetizers before walking to Schilling Cider House for some local ciders. Taylor Shellfish Farms is one of the most popular seafood restaurants; but, I saved the tip in the back of my head and went to the one in northern Washington a week or so later. My last night in Seattle was spent at Ba Bar a Vietnamese restaurant and undoubtedly my favorite meal in the city. The Bánh Nậm (rice tamales with pork wrapped in banana leaf) and Bún Bò Huế (spicy Vietnamese soup with beef brisket, pork belly, pork shank, pork sausage, pork blood cake, and banana blossom) had me leaving feeling very full and very satisfied. Wow, I certainly didn’t go hungry in Seattle.
The Seattle Centre is one of the main draws to the city as it is home to the Space Needle — a landmark of the PNW that was built for the 1962 World’s Fair. Long ago I stopped paying to go up to the observation deck of the tallest building in every city because, while the views are usually amazing, my wallet and I prefer to admire the buildings from below. I did, however, go into the Chihuly Glass Museum which is also in the area and is now one of my favorite art galleries in the US. Showcasing the work of the great glass-blower Dale Chihuly, this exhibit (which is spread out over eight galleries, three drawing rooms, and a garden) demonstrates the dazzling potential of both simple and complex glass creations. If I had had more time, the Museum of Pop Culture would have been receiving a visit from me! Another artsy place of interest is the Olympic Sculpture Park, a 9-acre outdoor sculpture museum that is free to the public and makes a great stop when walking from the Seattle Centre to Pike Place Market (or vice-versa).
As mentioned earlier, Pike Place Market is the most iconic spot in Seattle and a must-visit. In addition to all the food, make sure to snap some photos at the Gum Wall (a brick wall covered in used chewing gum, disgusting but fascinating), watch the famous fish-throwers and spend some time looking out onto the water. One of my favorite architectural surprises was the Seattle Public Library — head to the 10th floor for a lovely viewing deck. On the other side of town (on the north shore of Lake Union), Gasworks Park is a public park that has been created on the site of the former Seattle Gas Light Company gasification plant. I love when cities re-use areas like this and when I was strolling around there were plenty of locals taking in the beautiful evening and view of the water and downtown. If you walk into Fremont, make sure to see the Fremont Troll!
In the Capitol Hill area, the main thing to do is to eat, drink and be merry; however, the Jimi Hendrix Statue is worth a photo op and the Elliott Bay Book Company is a delightful bookstore to find your next read. Last but not least, Seattle’s Chinatown-International District often gets overlooked by visitors but my afternoon there was one of the most memorable of my road-trip. In addition to an ornate gate, dragons climbing the lamp posts, and plenty of dining options, here you can find the Wing Luke Museum which offers a variety of tours to help you discover the traditions and spirit of the Asian Pacific American Experience. Afterward, have a look in Moksha for some funky vintage-inspired streetwear before treating yourself to an all-natural milk tea at the locals’ favorite Young Tea.