If business or pleasure travel brings you to Seattle, you’re likely to have a little culture shock. It’s not the city you might think it is.
There’s a good chance the average guy’s outlook on Seattle is a little out of date, and he can blame the 1990s for that. That was the decade when The Emerald City went first from being just “that city where it rains a lot” to “that Microsoft city where Starbucks came from,” and finally to “that Grunge music city full of angst-ridden, flannel clad youths grunting about teen spirit — where it rains a lot.” These days, there is infinitely more to the city than those tired stereotypes. With spectacular natural beauty combining with big city attractions, top restaurants and a vibrant arts scene, there’s plenty waiting for you.
The rain part is unavoidable. Seattle receives about 50 inches of it per year. There’s no getting around it, but it’s just rain. When you head out, bring an umbrella and prepare to explore the biggest city in the Pacific Northwest.
An overview of downtown immediately reveals the city’s unique topography and layout. It’s obviously a port town looking out on the calm waters of Puget Sound. Still, much of the city is built into and above what were seaside cliffs centuries ago. Downtown Seattle’s attractions line both the seaside and the bustling streets atop the nearby hills.
The perfect place to begin an exploration of Seattle offers a transition between sea and sky. Pike Place Market is the city’s most iconic destination — playing host to both the world famous Pike Place Fish Market and the first Starbucks. While both are definite photo stops and popular tourist attractions, Starbucks 1.0 (Starbucks Prime, or whatever you’d like to call it) is simply a coffee spot. Stop by, take a photo and move on throughout the market.
The Fish Market is a whirlwind of noise and activity. Once the customer selects his or her favorite seafood from a large, locally sourced and sustainable menu, the market’s fishmongers shout the order back and forth to each other – throwing the fresh salmon, cod or whitefish through the air over to the waiting customer.
While you can certainly walk away from the market with a little sole, the Fish Market is a show onto itself. Stick around and watch some of the assorted antics before exploring the rest of Pike Place.
Once inside the sprawling market compound, you’ll find multiple layers of interior shops and restaurants stretching out like a maze down several levels working their way down to the waterfront.
Strolling along the bay beyond the market, there’s an opportunity to get acquainted with Seattle environment and wildlife. The Seattle Aquarium devotes itself to the region’s waterborne creatures. While other aquariums around the country might focus on ocean and fresh water environments around the world, Seattle’s version focuses almost exclusively on Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest.
Its highlights include multiple tidal pool exhibits that offer visitors a chance to interact with area creatures like starfish and abalone in a personal and hands-on way. There’s also an impressive seal and otter exhibit offering animal lovers a chance to spend time with two of the region’s most unique creatures.
If you continue along the waterfront from the aquarium, you’ll run into the Great Seattle Wheel – a large, “London Eye-ish” Ferris Wheel offering a 20 minute ride in compartments large enough for six adults.
Heading back into downtown, it’s clear that city was designed and laid out sensibly and carefully — with special attention being paid to making it pedestrian friendly. For example, consider the home stadiums for the Seattle Mariners and Super Bowl-contending Seahawks. Both Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field are not only an easy walking distance from downtown — but they stand literally next to each other, helping to keep the city’s sports scene and downtown life perpetually linked.
Before turning away from this list of most common Seattle attractions, it’s impossible to ignore the Space Needle. It might be the city’s most immediately recognizable landmark, but it’s a tourist attraction at heart. Piercing more than 600 feet into the air above the city, the Needle was built for the 1962 World Fair and remains a top destination or first-time visitors to the city.
Go if you must — just to say you did. But, it’s definitely tourist central — and you can catch other outstanding views of the city at other Seattle rooftop lounges.
Then again, if you really are looking for the entire Seattle tourist experience, you can take some time and get a hop on pass to ride The Seattle Ducks – and, no, you’re not going to end up with feathers up your backside. (That comes later.)
The Ducks are renovated World War II amphibious landing craft adapted for tours in, over, and around Puget Sound. You hop aboard on paved terra firma and soon find yourself driving into the bay for a look at the skyline from the sea. Along the way, the Ducks stop at all of the most popular traveler destinations where you can wander around until the next Duck steams in to pick you up again.
As for city hotels, Seattle obviously offers the standard list of chain luxury and affordable lodging. But, the region excels at offering up unusual boutique hotels looking to capture elements of the town’s alternative culture.
You’ll find a variety of hotels throughout the city ranging from major luxury chains to modern boutique stays that capture the city’s more independent, artistic spirit.
Hotel Max names itself as the hotel HQ for artists, musicians, and creative types. Each floor and room offers photography and other works sourced from local artists. It’s well-located with comfortable proximity to Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, museums and other attractions. To play up the Seattle fringe style, Max is also pet-friendly, offering doggy massages and a pet psychologist on call.
Close to the tourist heart of downtown, the Four Seasons Seattle offers all of the luxury and classic accommodations you’ve come to expect from this elite international hotel series. If the walking culture of Seattle city life wears you down, the Four Seasons offers one of Seattle’s top spas.
Dining and Nightlife
Seattle is also home to most of the region’s top restaurants and nightspots. The list of the town’s hottest dining spots is usually topped by popular spots like Canlis (a top destination for more than 60 years), Dick’s Drive-In (for cheap eats), Chan (a Korean spot inside Pike Place Market) and the new Le Petit Cochon.
However, two of the hottest and trendiest dining options include Radiator Whiskey and Palace Kitchen. The former offers up fusion takes on southern comfort food, though it considers itself more of a bar and one of the city’s top destinations for original takes on classic cocktails. Still, alongside all of that stylish booze, there’s plenty of down-home food served up with a refreshing lack of pretentiousness — something you might not expect in the city that once served up piles of ennui-drenched Grunge.
I’d recommend the Turkey Drum Confit with its over-sized drumstick drenched in gravy, or the Lamb Neck Sloppy Joe. Why a lamb neck specifically? I don’t know, but it’s good.
The most gimmicky plate on the menu is the pig head. That’s not code for anything. It’s a pig’s head. You eat a pig’s face down to the skull. It’s not as outrageously gross as you think since the entire pig is edible through to the bones and hooves.
Whoever eats the pig’s eye receives a free glass of whiskey. Of course, I was too proud to refuse the challenge and popped said eye in my mouth. All I can tell you is that it tasted of pig’s fat, and I needed every drop of the complimentary glass of Old Grand Dad I won to wash it down.
Palace Kitchen, a restaurant, also does double duty as a bar — rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the city’s best late-night dining destinations. If you’ve spent a long day visiting Seattle’s multiple attractions, the Palace Kitchen will be loyally standing by to feed any after-hours hunger.
The restaurant keeps a wood fire burning in the open view kitchen day and night, serving up a mix of meat and fish. I’d recommend the exotic Polenta Crepes and the honest, simple Whole Idaho Trout. If you really want to get down and dirty — or if you’ve had a few pops throughout the course of the night — the fun Late Night Frito Pie might come in handy as a booze-absorbing hangover preventative.
The city-based distillery and brewery trend is exploding around the country, and Seattle is a player in its own right. There is a variety of locally made beer, whiskey, vodka, gin, etc., made and sold locally with small, artisanal business set up through downtown and the outlying urban areas. Most of them do tours and tastings of one sort or another. You can sample whiskey and see how it’s made in small batches at the Westland Distillery, while beer lovers can settle into the beer garden near the steel tanks of Fremont Brewing.
The Seattle arts scene evolved far beyond the vibrant music scene of decades gone by. Echoes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam have given way to a strong local theater and comedy scene. In fact, the improv-based ComedySportz Seattle opened in the last year, adding some fresh, young comedy faces to the area.
However, while Seattle boasts its fair share of clubs, music venues, and theaters, the city distinguishes itself nationally as the unlikely home of a huge, yet constantly evolving burlesque scene. A sort of unofficial national capital of sexy theater (apart from Las Vegas), Seattle is home to multiple burlesque troupes and some of the entertainment industry’s most famous and longest-standing stars — including Lily Verlaine and Indigo Blue. However, if a man really wants to see the poetic hand of creation in the shaping of a woman find a local performance by burlesque belly dancer Fuchsia FoXXX.
The region’s burlesque scene includes troupes such as Emerald City Burlesque and Sinner Saint. They perform at popular venues like the Triple Door. There is no better way to escape Seattle’s techy and hippie aspects than with the sexier local artistry.
Alternatively, if the burlesque scene seems a little too “hot” for you, the Seattle Art Museum features an extensive collection of quirky modern and regional artworks, including a hanging sculpture in the lobby of a car tumbling through the air. What the museum lacks in recognizably famous masterpieces it gains in scope and originality throughout its galleries.
If you stay in the Seattle area long enough to afford a day away from the city proper, a journey across Puget Sound to the local island chains can serve up the flavor of a more rural Pacific Northwestern life.
Several ferry runs per day take tourists and local commuters to and from Bainbridge Island. The early morning trips carry a vast crowd of city workers and Microsoft employees into downtown, but travelers have the run of the ferry decks outside of peak commuting hours.
Bainbridge Island is known as one of Seattle’s most upscale suburbs; a thirty-minute boat ride lies between it and downtown . The island’s rolling hills and expansive forests can quickly make you forget that you’re just miles away from one of the largest cities west of the Mississippi.
If you can afford to rent a car, motorcycle or scooter — and if you have the time to wander – Bainbridge Island has long, quiet roads serving up spectacular views; those roads connect to other Puget Sound towns and neighborhoods north and south of Seattle. The eager traveler can ferry from downtown to Bainbridge and from the island’s opposite side back to the mainland. The overall journey provides a great overall feel for what the greater Seattle area offers.