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Seattle is the biggest city by far in Washington State, with about half a million people in the city and more than 3 million in the Greater Seattle Area. Situated on the Puget Sound, a long and convoluted inlet of the Pacific Ocean, Seattle enjoys a wonderful cool temperate climate, rarely below freezing in the winter and rarely hotter than the mid 20s Celsius (around 80°F) in the summer. The city has a perhaps undeserved reputation for rain. True, it rains a lot of the time in the autumn, winter and spring, but the rain is rarely heavy, so the total rainfall is less than that of East Coast cities such as New York.
Seattle is famous for three things: coffee, Frasier1 and the Space Needle. But there's a lot more than that to interest the casual visitor.
The Puget Sound is a long body of seawater which runs from South to North and ultimately connects to the Pacific Ocean somewhere west of Vancouver. Lake Washington is a long fresh-water lake which lies to the east of the Sound and parallel to it. Seattle is on the neck of land between Lake Washington and the Puget Sound. It is roughly hourglass shaped; the centre of the city is at the narrow part of the hourglass, facing west onto Elliott Bay, a part of the Puget Sound.
The Puget Sound itself lies between two ranges of mountains: the Olympic Mountains in the west and the Cascade Mountains in the east. You can nearly always see mountains in some direction around Seattle. Most impressive is Mount Rainier, which lies about 70 miles to the southeast but is so big that it looks likes it is looming over the city.
North of the centre of the city lies Lake Union, a small lake. This has been joined by the Washington Ship Canal to the Puget Sound in the west and Lake Washington in the east. All this means that you are never far from water in Seattle.
Although the city is big, with motorways and skyscrapers, it is very laid back. Nobody seems to be in a hurry - you never get that frantic do-it-now feeling that is so common in New York, London or even Dublin. The people of Seattle are friendly, polite and willing to help. They take their time, whether it is helping you or the person in front of you in the queue. This easy going attitude extends to driving around the city as well. Nobody will beep their horn at you if you fail to notice that the lights have turned green or if you suddenly find you have to change three lanes to reach your exit off the freeway.
Walking about in Seattle you feel quite safe. The only suspicious area is between the main shopping district and the Space Needle. It seems as if time stopped there in the early 1980s.
Seattle is the coffee capital of North America. People drink it, people appreciate it, people know how to make it. Not for the residents of Seattle the bitter dishwater that is served in some parts of America as coffee. Any self-respecting restaurant in Seattle will have an espresso maker, which can be used to make any number of different types of coffee, including Americanos, Cappuccinos, Frappuccinos and so on. So much does the Seattleite depend on his coffee that there are little booths at the side of the road offering drive-in espresso to take away, and they open at 5am.
There are many excellent coffee companies, including Tully's and the self-appointed 'Seattle's Finest'. But one company stands out, both for consistency and the fact that it is everywhere...
Starbucks is a huge coffee company which is gradually taking over the take-away coffee business throughout the world. There are more than 350 Starbucks outlets in Seattle alone. The first Starbucks was opened in Seattle's Pike Place Market in 1971. If you wander down to the Pike Place Market (next to the shore), braving the fishy smell to try to land a catch of a 'World's First Starbucks' mug you will be disappointed. This Researcher even had requests from friends back in the UK for such treasures. Sadly, America Generica struck once more. The first Starbucks in the world looks just like every other Starbucks that you have visited. No shiny mugs, just more coffee.
When venturing into an American Starbucks, be sure to spend time listening to the lingo. While Americans easily demand what they want, the following quote is quite standard for the British traveller venturing into Starbucks territory:
It took me four attempts to explain to the Starbucks girl what I wanted: a small, black coffee.
The City Centre
The centre of Seattle is on the east side of Elliott Bay. There are five main areas in the centre:
Downtown - this is where all the skyscrapers are and the shopping streets.
The Seattle Center - an exhibition centre with many interesting things for a tourist.
The Waterfront - once a thriving part of the port, this area is now given over mainly to tourist activities.
Pioneer Square - this is the original centre of Seattle and contains the oldest buildings.
Belltown - a slightly run-down area which nevertheless houses many cafés, pubs and nightclubs.
Downtown is the modern centre of Seattle, where all the business is done and where the shopping streets are. You can't miss it, because it is where the huge 'supertall' skyscrapers are.
The Westlake Center - this is the premier shopping mall, where many stylish shops exhibit their wares. There is a monorail from here to the Seattle Center.
The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) - this is a good art gallery with a selection of American art, both native and modern, with European, African and Oriental art as well.
The Seattle Center
The Seattle Center is just north of the Belltown district. It was set up as an exhibition centre for the 1962 World's Fair, a showcase for American trade and technology. The Seattle Center features Seattle's most famous landmark, the Space Needle, as well as many other interesting buildings.
The Space Needle - everyone who has seen Frasier will know the Seattle skyline is dominated by the Space Needle. Opened in 1961/1962 it stands 605 feet tall. Home of the 1962 World's Fair, it was a symbol of the technological achievement of the time, although now it looks more like something from The Jetsons, that is, both futuristic and dated. It was the biggest building in Seattle when it was built, but has since been passed out by many of the tall skyscrapers. Photos of Seattle tend to be positioned to hide this fact.
There is an observation deck near the top, and on a windy day the tower will wobble a fair bit. They seem to leave the outside observation deck open during all weathers, so make sure you keep a good tight grip on your camera's lens cap. Below the observation floor, there is a revolving restaurant. This is considerably more pricey than other restaurants in Seattle, but the price includes the cost of the lift up and offers free access to the observation deck, so it may not work out too expensive after all.
Oddly enough, the Space Needle's original designs were drawn on the back of a coffee mat ... or perhaps not so oddly, considering Seattle's obsession with coffee!
The Pacific Science Center - this is an excellent museum of science for the older child or interested adult. Among other things, it features a good exhibition of dinosaurs, some live exhibits of small animals such as Naked Mole Rats, two different IMAX theatres, showing huge movies of scientific interest, and a butterfly house.
EMP - The Experience Music Project - Paul Allen, joint founder of Microsoft, is one of the richest people around. He particularly likes guitar music, so he set up the Experience Music Project as the biggest museum of Rock and Roll in the world. Well, actually it is only second biggest2, but that won't spoil your enjoyment. Here you will find galleries devoted to Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the history of the guitar, music of the Northwest, including Nirvana and grunge, and up-to-the-minute popular music. It is well worth paying the few extra dollars in addition to the entry fee to get a computerised guide called a MEG. At each exhibit, you can type in a number and get extra information such as the sounds of all the guitars, interviews with important personalities and so on.
Also available in the EMP are hands-on play-your-own-music booths, where you can play for free or record your own CD for a small charge. These instruments come complete with computerised tuition, so you can practise guitar hooks, drum rhythms and can jam along with the person in the booth next to you.
There's enough in the EMP for a full day's visit, particularly if you combine it with the Science Fiction museum.
The Science Fiction Museum - in the same building as EMP is the Science Fiction Museum. It is possible to get a combined ticket to both at a reduced rate.
The museum has exhibits that look at science fiction from the vintage pulp days to the present, with a special focus on what science fiction used to think today would look like, and what science fiction today thinks tomorrow will look like. The project has a strong educational component, developing and distributing curriculums to incorporate science fiction into the schools. It also has close ties to both the community of science fiction authors, through its advising board which includes many of the big names in the field, and also to the fan community, through its presence at regional and international science fiction conventions.
The Children's Museum - this museum caters particularly to smaller children, with plenty of hands-on exhibits.
KeyArena - KeyArena is the home of basketball in Seattle. The women's basketball team is called Seattle Storm; they play during the summer. The men are called the Sonics; they play during the winter. If you can get tickets, an American basketball game is a real experience not to be missed.
The McCaw Hall is home to the Pacific Northwest Ballet. This is one of the top ballet companies in the United States, even though it has only been around since 1972. The PNB repertoire includes a mix of traditional and eclectic works.
The Seattle Children's Theater, rather than serving up the fairy tale stock that predominates at many children's theatres, focuses on dramatic adaptation of high quality literature written for children and young adults, including the works of Jane Austen and CS Lewis, as well as classic books such as 'The Secret Garden' and 'Frog and Toad'. Tickets can usually be obtained for less than $10.
There is also a food court where good-quality fast food can be had, a giant fountain where children can get themselves soaked, and an overhead monorail which brings you to Downtown in a couple of minutes.
Head towards the sea from Downtown and you arrive at the Waterfront area. The nicest way to do this is to walk down the Harbor Steps, with their elegant fountains, from the Seattle Art Museum. Unfortunately the Waterfront area is cut off from the rest of Seattle by the two-layer raised Highway 99. The constant noise from the traffic on this takes from the waterside atmosphere, but nevertheless, there are things worth visiting.
Pike Place Market - Situated between Downtown and the Waterfront, the Pike Place Market is one of the must see places of Seattle. It started out as a place where farmers and fishermen could sell their wares directly to the public, cutting out the middleman. This is still the case today, and the Pike Place Fishmongers are famous; they don't just sell fish - they tell jokes, put on a show and always attract a crowd. Their most distinctive move is the flying fish where they fire fish through the air, landing it neatly in boxes. The market has lots of small shops and boutiques as well, selling everything from clothes to unusual musical instruments to wind-up toys.
The IMAX Cinema - Beside the Aquarium is the IMAX cinema showing short features on its enormous screen.
Argosy Harbor Cruises - Argosy offer a number of tours around Elliott Bay and along the ship canal to Lake Washington. These are a pleasant and relaxing way of seeing at least some of the city.
Ivar's Acres of Clams - A well known seafood restaurant.
The Pioneer Square area is where the original city of Seattle was built in about 1850. The area gets its name from the huge number of 'pioneers' who came into Seattle in the 1890s on their way to Alaska during the Alaskan Gold Rush. This influx of people turned Seattle into a huge port and made it what it is today.
The quaint brick buildings and tree-lined streets of this part of the city are very pleasant, but there's not that much to do or see. The few squares seem to be the homes of down-and-outs and there are very few restaurants. This is an area which could become the eating-out centre of the city with a bit of planning. In the meantime, it is still worth a visit because it is very different from the modern steel-and-glass look of the newer parts of the city.
The Elliott Bay Book Company - this is worth a visit just to see how many different books can be crammed into a small space. Be sure to get the free map of Pioneer Square from just inside the door.
Waterfall Park - this bizarre little park, only about the size of a small house, is hidden behind a wall. When you enter, you will suddenly see a waterfall about 20 feet high up against the wall. The rest of the tiny space has shaded pathways and seats to sit and rest on. The park is dedicated to the workers of UPS, the United Parcel Service.
The Smith Tower - this elegant white building with the pyramid roof was the first skyscraper in Seattle. When it was built in 1914, it was the biggest building west of the Mississippi, and it retained the title of tallest building in Seattle until 1969, but now it is dwarfed by the 'supertalls' of Downtown.
Within the Smith Tower, the Chinese Room contains a famous 'wishing chair' which was a gift from the Empress of China. Legend has it that a single woman who sits in the chair will be married within a year.
The Stadiums - beside the Smith Tower, you will see the stadium of the Seahawks, Seattle's (American) football team. Behind this, you may be able to make out Safeco Field, the stadium of the Mariners, Seattle's baseball team.
Pioneer Square Park - this leafy triangular 'square' features a totem pole and an elegant pergola. The original totem pole was stolen from the Tlingit Native Americans in Alaska in 1899 and sent to Seattle as a gift. Although the Tlingit people sued for $20,000 damages, they got nothing, the thieves were fined $500 and the city was allowed to keep the pole. When it was burnt by vandals in 1938, the pieces were returned to the Tlingits, who carved a new one and gave it to the city.
Pioneer Square Park is also the starting point of Seattle's strangest tour...
Bill Speidel's Underground Tour
Saving the best until last, Bill Speidel's Underground Tour is a little known tour of the Seattle underground. This isn't a tour of the metro system or mob-land but a historic tour of old Seattle. At this point, a brief history of Seattle will help to explain:
Mid-nineteenth-century Seattle, the logging town, is built at sea level. As more people arrive, the town starts to sink and flooding is frequent.
The local government decide to raise the level of the city by 8 to 30 feet depending upon location. The residents and businesses disagree, saying that they will have to pay to raise the height of the pavements (sidewalks). The government goes ahead anyway.
Now the sidewalks are between 8 and 30 feet lower than the road. People begin to get hurt while stepping from the road onto the pavement. Eventually the local government pays to raise the pavements.
Now there are two street levels. The new, higher open air street, where people enter buildings on the first floor3 and the underground street with bricks above and to the side which allow access to buildings on their original ground level.
In 1907, the Bubonic Plague appears in the city. The local government orders the floors of the underground to be concreted over and the underground streets closed.
In 1965, Bill Speidel opens them up at the end again and charges a small fee for a very funny and informative, although not necessarily historically accurate, tour.
Belltown is the formerly seedy but now trendy area to the northwest of Downtown, between the waterfront and the Seattle Center. It has many pubs and cafés and is a place to go in the evenings for a bit of nightlife.
Outside the Centre
Alki lies to the south west of the centre of Seattle. This is where the first European settlers made their homes, but they quickly decided to move around the bay to Pioneer Square and that's where Seattle was founded. Alki Beach is the best one around Seattle and is popular for sun worshippers and families, but at 8°C (46°F), the water is a little cold for swimming.
On the way to Alki Beach, you'll pass Salty's Seafood Restaurant, an exquisite and somewhat pricey place to dine. This has the best view in the city, as it looks across Elliott Bay at the famous Seattle skyline.
Woodland Park Zoo
Woodland Park Zoo is an interesting place, but be prepared to do a lot of walking. The zoo seems to be laid out in a very haphazard way, so you will spend a lot of time between exhibits. Nevertheless, it is a great way to spend a few hours - you'll need at least three to see most of the zoo.
Just north of the Washington Ship Canal lies the cool 'neighborhood' of Fremont. The sign says 'You are now entering Fremont, center of the Universe. Put your watch back five minutes.' This is a good place to hang out and to eat out. More than anywhere else in Seattle, Fremont is a place where people stay up late, and you'll find bars serving drinks till late. Be warned, however, that everywhere in Seattle, even in Fremont, restaurants can close as early as 10pm, so don't go looking for a long leisurely meal at 9pm.
Look out for the Fremont Troll, a giant sculpture which is under the Highway 99 bridge. The concrete troll is crushing an actual Volkswagen Beetle in his giant mitt.
In the Magnolia Bluff area of Seattle, Discovery Park is a little piece of wilderness in the middle of the city. Comprising 534 acres of wilderness, it is not your average city park. It belonged to the US Military for years and they let it run completely wild. Now there are woodlands, meadows, dunes and sea cliffs.
There are many tracks through the woodland; you should keep to them, as the forest is overgrown and impenetrable. Wildlife includes creatures not normally found in a city, such as bald eagles and beavers, as well as the more usual squirrels and chipmunks. There is a visitor centre at the East Parking Lot with some information about the wilderness and many organised educational visits for children. Alternatively, you can just buy a map and wander around.
Within the park is the Daybreak Star Cultural Centre, a Native American centre offering an introduction to their culture.
For a good tour of the park, it is best to park your car at the North Parking Lot.
The Ballard Locks
Lake Washington is at a different level to the Puget Sound, so the canal joining the two needs locks. This is a ship canal, so the locks are huge! Officially known as the Hiram M Chittenden Locks, these were the biggest canal locks in the world until the Panama Canal was built. They're a good place to spend an hour watching the boats go by. There's a cool place where you can go down below and see the Fish Ladder, that the fish use to get through the locks.
An annual event that is a big draw for international tourists is Seafair, which includes races of all kinds - hydro, triathalon, marathon, milk carton derby - as well as an air show and parade.
Another thing Seattle is known for is all of the Botanical Gardens - this is one of the things tourists come for. This site has links to information on most of them.
And of course, the shopping... the other question most visiting tourists ask is where the good shopping malls are. Pacific Place downtown is extremely expensive, and Northgate Mall in the north end of Seattle is nice although definitely older and smaller than many American malls. The mall most Seattle tourists head to is Bellevue Square Mall, although Southcenter Mall (near Boeing and the airport) is also quite nice.
The Museum of Flight
A short distance to the south of Seattle, just off the Interstate freeway I-5, you'll find the Museum of Flight, based around the original Boeing building, the 'Red Barn'. Here you can find all sorts of information on the history of flight, as well as examples of smaller aircraft such as Russian MIG fighters, a 1960s runabout car to which wings and a tail can be attached, and the bicycle-and-polythene construction that finally won the competition for man-powered flight. There are two full-size aircraft on display: Concorde and Air Force One (an old retired one from the Kennedy/Johnson era).
The Boeing Factory
To the North of the city is the Boeing factory; it is an absolutely huge building. Here you can go on a guided tour and see how the big planes are made. Note that you will be unable to visit if you rely on public transport, as buses don't stop nearby and you can't take bags on the tour. When ringing up the information desk and asking about where to put belongings, the receptionist will tell you to put them in the back of your automobile... after you had asked which bus stopped closest to the centre! Speaking to locals on the bus, it is worth the visit.
Mount Rainier is a fair distance inland (to the southeast) of Seattle. At 14,409 feet, it is the highest mountain in the state and is the home to more than 20 glaciers. Climbers who want to reach the summit need to be experienced in walking on ice as well as rock climbing. For the more casual hiker, there are a number of trails laid out in the forests and alpine meadows around the mountain. The Paradise Visitor Centre on the south side of the mountain is the best place to aim for in the summer. At other times of the year, make sure you check the weather in the region before you set out. In February you can only drive up half-way, as by this point the snow level will be above your head. There are a number of stop-points along the road where you can see lakes, raging rivers and mountainscapes. This is the rugged America that is often hidden by commercialisation.
Mt Rainier was named by the explorer George Vancouver in 1792, when he saw it from his ship off Pt Townsend in the Puget Sound. He named it after his friend Peter Rainier, who himself never saw the mountain. The Native American name is 'Tahoma' meaning 'snowiest'. Some people want to change the official name to Tahoma, probably to avoid all the jokes about rain.
The mountain is considered to be a dangerous active volcano. Although it doesn't produce a lot of lava and there hasn't been a major eruption of lava in the last 2,000 years, the mountain is prone to volcanically-triggered mudslides on a vast scale. The most recent of these was in the 19th century, but the next one could happen at any time, so the countryside around the mountain is staked out with signs showing evacuation routes. This is a serious threat: 5,000 years ago, there was a mudslide which was 1,000 feet deep and managed to reach 60 miles from the mountain, all the way to the Puget Sound. There's no reason to think that it couldn't happen again. By this reckoning, Seattle itself could be engulfed in mud.