Attractions and things to do in Seattle: Learn why it’s a favorite destination for tourists of all ages
Seattle’s past is as diverse and colorful as its present-day attractions.
Whether you’re planning a family vacation or a romantic weekend getaway to the Pacific Northwest, Seattle—also known as The Emerald City—is a destination gem that has something for everyone. Not only does it offer some of the best fresh seafood for connoisseurs and magnificent photo-ops for shutterbugs but a city-wide commitment to preserving its colorful heritage. Bring a pair of good walking shoes—and, of course, an emergency umbrella—and let’s get this tour started.
To begin with, Seattle’s founding fathers had high expectations of their new city becoming a gateway to the Orient that would rival San Francisco in terms of trade. The California Gold Rush had just commenced as well, precipitating a need for lumber that was more than plentiful in the Washington territories. There was also the excitement of a booming fur trade in the Klondike, a quest for fortune that they were certain would attract as many adventurers northward and on to Alaska as had enticed others to trek to California.
When they set out to start building their harbor community on the shores of Elliott Bay, however, there was one thing they didn’t take into account. Specifically, the tide tables. Twice a day, the waters would seep in and take with it all of the landfill that had been methodically hauled down from the mountains in order to make a foundation for the stores, hotels, and saloons. The term “Skid Row” actually derived from this time period, in which trenches greased with smelly pig fat were cut through town on Yesler Way (Skid Road) as a means of moving timber down to the waterfront construction site and sawmill.
Like the hapless “No Name City” in the musical film PAINT YOUR WAGON, the ongoing erosion of soil made it perilous for the infrastructure to maintain itself. As the town’s streets became muddier and muddier to traverse, the enterprising merchants decided to abandon their original first floor entryways and build a network of ladders and catwalks whereby the buildings could be accessed on the second floor instead. While the mud and resultant sewer system problems were enough for them to have to deal with, the city was further beset by a raging fire at the turn of the 19th century which left standing only those structures which were built of stone and brick.
Although modern engineering—and much better city planning—have long since shored up the waterfront district’s involuntary ebb to the sea, you can still step back in time and see what the original city of Seattle looked like by taking the famous Underground Tour. The adventure begins with a narrative history told by costumed docents at Doc Maynard’s, a restored 1890’s bar. From there, you’ll literally step beneath Seattle’s current streets and sidewalks to see the eerie facades of general stores, rooming houses, livery stables, etc. The tour takes a little less than two hours and is replete with anecdotes about the political rascals, rogues and “seamstresses” (the city’s early euphemism for prostitutes) that peopled this burgeoning waterfront town.
Hungry for lunch? You’ll find no shortage of great meals at Pioneer Square, which is Seattle’s oldest neighborhood. Smith Tower, which overlooks the vintage square and its myriad of boutiques, also had the one-time distinction of being the tallest building west of the Mississippi back in 1914. There are plenty of places to pause for a kiss or romantic pictures, too, amongst the red brick buildings and the antique street lamps reminiscent of an earlier era. Another favorite place to linger is the recently restored iron Victorian pergola. Ironically, the original purpose of this 1909 piece of elegance was as a shelter…for an underground restroom! Pioneer Square is also where you’ll find Puget’s Sound’s first official landmark (pre-Space Needle!), a totem pole of Chief Seattle for whom the city was named. After dark, the square is a happening night spot with sports bars, ethnic restaurants, and live bands.
Don’t stay out too late, though. You’ll want to be up bright and early the next day to catch all the action at Pike Place Market. That’s when the fishing boats come into harbor with the fresh-catch fare that you and yours will be dining on throughout the day. Straight from the sea to orderly beds of ice in the many day-stalls that line this popular marketplace, salmon and shellfish aren’t the only meals you can hand-pick for yourself. Fresh vegetables and fruit, meats, eggs, bread, and anything else you can possibly imagine are on display in a venue that attracts nearly ten million visitors every year. Not sure of the best way to cook or serve some of your purchases? Just ask! The farmers, butchers and fishmongers are a ready source of recipes and preparation tips. In continuous operation since the summer of 1907, Pike’s is also home to a variety of craftspeople, musicians, and street performers. Two quick tips for the first-timer at Pikes: (1) Scope out the entire marketplace before you actually buy anything. For items that are plentiful in quantity, there will be variation in price. (2) Carry cash. While many of the merchants are certainly set up to take credit cards, a lot of them also require a minimum credit purchase of $20 or $25. If you’re only looking to buy one crab for dinner or perhaps just a handle of pistachios to nibble on as you stroll, this could make for problematic transactions. Worried about schlepping all your purchases back to a car you parked across town? Not to worry. Seattle’s friendliness extends to free rides on its Metro busses, alleviating what was once a prevalent problem downtown of too many cars and not enough spaces in which to put them.
No trip to Seattle, of course, would be complete without a visit to one of the most recognizable “stars” in its skyline. And no, we’re not talking about the NBC television sitcom, FRASIER. The Space Needle, towering 605 feet above the Seattle Center was built for the opening of the 1962 World’s Fair. Dubbed the “Century 21 Exposition,” the height and slender design of the needle was meant to be consistent with the fair’s theme of futuristic progress. Even the flyer saucer motif at the top was planned to conjure images of space travel…long before man’s historic landing on the moon. Among the other “radical” inventions on display when the fair opened were home computers, color TV’s, an IBM Selectric typewriter, push-button telephones, the Monorail (“How America Will Travel”) and a house of the future constructed entirely of plastic.
Both the observation deck and the revolving restaurant level of the Space Needle offer 360 degree views of the cityscape. While the prices for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch reflect the added cost of the view, it’s well worth it. And don’t worry about occasional seismic activity of the Pacific Rim or high winds; the Space Needle was built to withstand the force of both.
Down at ground level, the areas once occupied by the fair’s international exhibition halls have been transformed into Seattle’s premiere cultural center for the arts, theater, opera and the symphony. World class performers, Broadway shows, and artists have made the Pacific Northwest a popular stop on their tours; your concierge—or the local newspapers—can direct you to where the best shows are playing as well as how to get same-day discount tickets.
Another must-see in your appreciation of Seattle history is the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Chinatown. Within its walls, you’ll discover not only the historical and cultural contributions made by Asian Americans in the evolution and development of the Pacific Northwest but the new and emerging artists, educators, politicians, and social leaders who shape today’s modern community of Asians and Pacific Islanders.
The Chinese, as is well known, played a significant part not only in the California Gold Rush but also the 1897 gold strike in the Canadian Yukon. The stampede that ensued brought aspiring miners from around the world into Seattle, an economic boom that is well documented at your next stop, the Klondike Gold Rush Museum in Occidental Park. Not only did the newcomers have money to burn on supplies, food and transportation to Alaska but many of them were also eager to appropriate existing Chinese workers from the lumber camps and city laundries to cook meals from them on the journey. The story has it that the enterprising Asians discovered that the best way to stretch a meat dish was by cooking it with every available vegetable they could find and serving the entire thing over copious amounts of rice. To no surprise, the legacy of wok cooking is found here in some of the best Chinese restaurants in the state.
Last but not least, Seattle is served by an excellent ferry system between downtown and Friday Harbor. Whether you choose to drive your vehicle aboard these floating carpools or just go for a relaxing day-ride, there is connecting service to the San Juan Islands, to Vancouver Island, and to the delights of Vancouver, British Columbia.