30 March 2020

City Break in Seattle: Bex's Guide

[[I wrote this blog post soon after returning from New York and Seattle one month — and a lifetime — ago. At the time, COVID-19 hadn't yet been declared a pandemic, although the World Health Organization had declared it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern a month earlier, and several cases had been confirmed in the Seattle area. It didn't feel right to publish this post at that time. I'm not advocating that anyone travels anywhere now — quite the opposite, in fact, as we should all be staying at home as much as possible. But some day we'll be able to travel again and if, like me, you're dreaming of your travel bucket list or looking for armchair inspiration, I can recommend Seattle as a great destination for future trips. Its coffee shops, restaurants and other small businesses will certainly appreciate your visit. Read on for my city guide.]]

Seattle 101 walking tour
I often like to take free walking tours when I travel — some are better quality than others — and so, it seems, does Seattle Free Walking Tours founder Jake and his wife Rebecca. They spent their extended honeymoon travelling the world and its walking tours, and incorporated the best elements into their own pay-what-you-think-it's-worth Seattle offering. There's a two-hour Seattle 101 tour and a one-hour Pike Place Market tour, among others. I took the former, which Jake ran and which was funny, informative and irreverent, and a great introduction to the city, its history and its culture. If you prefer tours of a subterranean nature, you might also like to check out Beneath the Streets.

Pike Place Market.
As you'll see from the food and drink section below, and my Seattle coffee guide, I spent a fair bit of time at Seattle's historic Pike Place Market, which dates back to 1907. The market is a multi-level labyrinth of food stalls, shops and eateries, with views over the Puget Sound. I enjoyed visiting by night too, strolling through the deserted, neon-lit hallways that contrast so much with the hustle and bustle of the day (especially weekend lunchtimes). Keep an eye out for the sculpture of Rachel the Market Pig, and the somewhat gross curiosity that is the Gum Wall.

Pioneer Square. This square — and the surrounding neighbourhood of the same name — is claimed by some as Seattle's oldest neighbourhood, dating back to 1852. However, the square also hosts a statue of Chief Si'ahl of the Duwamish tribe who have inhabited the area for thousands of years, and from whom Seattle takes its name. There's a totem pole in the square — the original was allegedly stolen from a Tlingit, and later destroyed. The second version was gifted to the city, but if you look closely at some of the carvings, you may be surprised, and some believe this may be a shame pole. Close to the shiny glass buildings and skyscrapers just a few blocks further north, Pioneer Square has some historic and characterful architecture. Don't miss Waterfall Garden Park, also known as UPS Park, on the site of the original UPS building, a most zen of retreats.

Museums and galleries.
I was in Seattle during Museum Month, where visitors staying in downtown hotels can get half-price admission to many of the city's museums and galleries. If you don't have a Museum Month pass, the $99 Seattle CityPASS, which includes admission to the Space Needle and four other attractions, is very good value.

Although I had heard good things about the Seattle Art Museum, I was more excited to visit the gallery and garden dedicated to the work of local glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. I loved every room and the garden, at the foot of the Space Needle, with its impressive, colourful sculptures. I particularly liked the Persian Ceiling and capturing golden hour reflections of the Space Needle in some of the glass spheres in the garden. The nearby Museum of Popular Culture was fun too, with current exhibitions including: tattoos, fantasy and sci fi, Nirvana, Hendrix and Pearl Jam.

Two of the evening receptions for my conference were held at the Pacific Science Center, in Seattle Center, and the Burke Museum, which made for some fun after-hours viewing. The former had some cool science-based interactive exhibits (and dinosaurs in the fountains outside), while the latter is a great natural history museum, whose collections include a T. rex skull. After I had finished all of my meetings on the Sunday, I stopped by the Seattle Aquarium, where I was won over by the darling sea otters, especially Mishka ('little bear') and a giant red octopus called Hugo. Alas, Hugo was "not super-interested in his shrimp" during the octopus demo session. My Museum Month pass got me half-price admission, but they got their money back from me in the gift shop!

Sunset at Kerry Park
I decided not to pay the $37 to go up the Space Needle, instead seeking a viewpoint that would include the iconic 184-metre structure in the skyline view. Kerry Park, a short but steep walk up from Seattle Center in Queen Anne, offers great views of the downtown, the bay and even Mount Rainier on a clear day. I was lucky to have two beautiful sunny days in the city and was treated to glorious sunset views from Kerry Park, as the sky turned pink and then black, and the city lights came on. If you don't fancy the walk, the park is a short bus ride from downtown. For another observatory that is higher and cheaper than the Space Needle, the Sky View Observatory near Pioneer Square is a good option.

Boat trips
With an unexpectedly sunny morning on my first full day off in the city, I decided to take Argosy Cruises' one-hour harbour cruise, with views of and commentary on Seattle, its port and the Puget Sound. It was interesting, if chilly (despite the sun), and I took dozens of photos of Seattle's beautiful skyline.

Later that day, however, some friends from the conference told me about their trip out to Bainbridge Island. You can take a public ferry that takes about 35 minutes and costs about $8 one-way (the return journey is free). Although you don't get the commentary, the views are just as good. I spent about an hour on the small island the following day, walking along the waterfront, visiting Eagle Harbor Book Co and stopping by the small but fascinating Bainbridge Museum. If you have more time, there are diverse eateries and wineries too.

Although I had only two full days of sightseeing, I had plenty of opportunities while I was working to enjoy some of Seattle's splendid eateries. I covered some of my speciality coffee experiences in this post.

A crucial fact about Seattle that I only learned after getting there is that there are a lot of happy hour deals. This is because most Seattleites don't live downtown and thus bars and eateries want to keep commuters in town as long as possible before they head back to the 'burbs. Happy hours often run from 3–6 pm, although they can start as early as 10 am, and some establishments have a second late-night happy hour. I wouldn't have been too excited by this until I found out that many happy hour deals also extend to food, from snacks to entrées, if you sit at the bar. If you're on a budget but keen to sample several restaurants in one evening, you can hop between them, enjoying a bite at each. Do bring your passport in case you're in the lucky position of being IDed — I only had my UK driving licence and wasn't allowed to sit at the bar in one establishment, even if I switched my order to a mocktail.

Pike Place Market is a good starting point for a culinary introduction to Seattle. I ate at several of its eateries, including East Coast-beating chowder in a sourdough bowl at Pike Place Chowder. It was worth the 15-minute wait in line! For a quick mid-conference lunch, I headed to Pasta Casalinga for some delicious homemade pasta with pistachio, kale, pesto and crème fraîche. On my last night in Seattle, I treated myself to dinner at Matt's in the Market, a restaurant run by a former market fish thrower, which sources most of its ingredients from the market. Having failed to save room for dessert throughout my trip to New York and Seattle, I didn't make the same mistake here. After some bread and a superb roasted salmon with cannellini beans, I loved the decadent deconstructed millionaire's shortbread that was the candy bar square. The cocktails and service were excellent too.

I also ate well on the stretch of First Avenue south of the market, towards Pioneer Square. At Heartwood Provisions, I got one of the city's best deals in the form of the $10 happy hour burger, with gruyère and aioli fries. Perched at the counter, I got to watch and chat with the chefs, who offered me a few small samples, including of the jamón iberico being carved up. I wish I had had time to return to try some of the other dishes on the menu. Another great burger can be had at the wonderfully named gastropub Damn the Weather. It was a beautiful day when I stopped by, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment! Meanwhile at Japonessa, a sushi spot with Latin American influences, I had two sushi platters — one with six very fresh nigiri and one with 10 pieces of the Seattle roll (salmon, avocado, cucumber, tobiko) — for a total of $20 during happy hour.

Over in Capitol Hill, I had an unexpected take on a classic British dish at popular brunch spot, Olmste(a)d. It was toad in the hole, Jim, but not as we know it: French toast with a hole cut in the middle that was filled with braised chard, melted white cheddar and egg, with home fries on the side. I loved it! Strolling down Broadway, I happened upon the Capitol Hill Farmers' Market, where I might just have acquired a fried-to-order bakewell tart doughnut from 9th and Hennepin. I spotted Stateside on the way to brunch at Olmste(a)d and decided to return to the Asian-influenced restaurant one evening. I had the duck rolls, followed by pork collar on rice vermicelli (from which I could make some DIY rolls), along with a piña colada with an Asian twist.

As most of my budget went on food and coffee, I was mainly window shopping in Seattle. I picked up a few gifts from museum gift shops — those at Seattle Art Museum, Chihuly Garden and Glass, and Seattle Aquarium were particularly good. I also did some gift shopping at local chocolatier, Frans Chocolates, and at Pike Place stationery store Pike St PressWatson Kennedy is great for gifts and homewares, while Capitol Hill has a superb independent book store in Elliott Bay Book Company.

I spent two nights at the wonderful Hotel Theodore, a boutique hotel close to the convention centre. My room was small but comfortable, stylish and thoughtfully designed, with decorations inspired by the Museum of History and Industry: a patent for the Seattle Space Needle, a patent for the original Eddie Bauer down jacket and a photo of the Starbucks founders adorned the walls. There is a free cocktail hour every day in the lobby, and even though I showed up at 9:00 am, long before check-in, I was able to check into my room. I booked direct during a Black Friday sale to get a good rate.

For work, I stayed at the Seattle Sheraton, which was right next to the convention centre and which had a very good conference rate. My room was large and quiet, with views over the downtown. There was a small gym and pool on the 35th floor, which I used a few times.

Arriving and getting around. From Sea-Tac Airport, the Link Light Rail costs about $3, departs frequently and takes just over 30 minutes to get to the downtown Westlake station. During my trip, there was construction work that meant changing at Pioneer Square, and taking the journey time to about 50 minutes. To save time on the return, I took an Uber, which cost about $32 and took just over 30 minutes. Within the city, many of the key attractions are within walking distance. The Light Rail is currently limited, but is in the process of being extended. There are plenty of bus routes — I took one to get back from Kerry Park ($2.75, cash only, no change given) — and although the Seattle Center and its museums are only a mile or so from downtown, I took the monorail, because it's fun to do so!

Money. Credit cards, contactless and Apply Pay are widely accepted — I only used cash for hotel staff and walking tour tips and on the bus. Some Seattle restaurants include a 20% service charge, which is what I tend to tip in the US anyway. Alas, the current exchange rate with the British pound, plus tax, means eating out can be quite expensive, even at fairly low-key venues.

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