I’ll be honest, Seattle was never on my list of places to see. Even though my teen angst years were filled with Nirvana and Pearl Jam and my adult years filled with Starbucks, it had never really hit my radar. But when the opportunity arose to go on a cruise to Alaska, my friend and I decided to leave from Seattle instead of Vancouver. We’d both been to Vancouver already and neither of us had been to Seattle so why not kill two birds with one stone and get a taste of the Pacific Northwest as well?
I admit, I did not do my best research (or any for that matter) before going so I felt a bit unprepared when we arrived. I really had no idea what to expect. Our Airbnb in West Seattle was only a few blocks from Alki beach so I thought maybe we’d go swimming (see, I’m not an ocean dweller so it didn’t occur to me that the Pacific Ocean in the northwest might be kinda chilly) and I wanted to go to the original Starbucks in Pike Place Market. But other than that, I had no idea how to get around Seattle, where to eat, what the different neighbourhoods were like and what could be found in each of them. So it was a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants kind of adventure.
Technically, we spent four days in Seattle – 3 days before the cruise and 1 day after – but because of our late afternoon arrival on the 3rd and a shorter day on July 4th, you could easily fit everything we did into three days. Our Airbnb host, Ron, gave us lots of ideas for places to eat, how to get around and where to go and what to see. This helped us a lot in figuring out the best way to do things because while West Seattle is a beautiful place to stay, it isn’t exactly close to the tourist sights.
Patricia and I arrived in the Emerald City of Seattle on Wednesday, July 3rd around 3:30 pm. Because of the long travel day (ten hours of travelling and airport waiting) and the time change from EDT to PDT, we were planning on an early night. But first, we were excited to explore what Alki Beach had to offer.
West Seattle is the part of Seattle that’s actually kind of south and west of downtown, across the bay. Our Airbnb was located very close to the Schmitz Preserve and only a few blocks away from Alki Beach. We decided to go for a walk to the beach and to wander along until we found a place for dinner.
Alki Beach was breezy and this was something we were not expecting though perhaps we should have. Ottawa is hell’s front porch in the summer and going to a coastal climate can feel quite cool so even though the high was 20C in Seattle, it felt cold to us with the constant ocean breeze. I had packed sleeveless shirts and shorts but never wore them. That being said, it was cloudy every day but it did not rain so we counted ourselves lucky.
The full Alki Beach trail is about 6 km but from where we started to where we stopped for dinner was 4km. The trail goes from full-on beach with white sand, beach-side restaurants serving burgers, ice cream and drinks, and paddleboard and kayak rental tents to a grassy, ocean-side paved path overlooking rocks and the rising tide, past trees, e-bikes and newly built condos with ocean views. At the top of the path are the piers for the water taxi to downtown and boat launches for the locals.
Just past the water taxi pier, we found a lovely restaurant with a happy hour menu and decided to stop for an “early” dinner by Seattle standards (but for our minds and bodies it was a late dinner). Salty’s on Alki Beach was just what we needed. A waterfront restaurant with a beautiful view, patio heating, and great Happy Hour eating options. Seattle seems to have happy hours in a lot of establishments which turned out to be a great option for us since my friend and I tend to prefer eating a later lunch in the afternoon. This saved us a bit of money because then we didn’t need to eat dinner.
When near the ocean, one must partake of seafood! So I ordered two dishes thinking they would be smaller than they were. I ordered the blackened cod taco and the blackened steelhead caesar salad and it was absolutely delicious! And quite large so I was very full and very happy for the 4km walk back to the Airbnb afterwards.
It was now 6:30 pm Seattle time (9:30 pm Ottawa time) and we decided to head “home” for the night. Instead of just going back the way we came, we decided to make a loop and head back via Admiral Way, a busier street with a grocery store on it, so we could pick up some light snacks, fruit and wine to enjoy back at the Airbnb. Consulting our phones, we started back along Fairmount Avenue.
As soon as we crossed the street and started up Fairmount, we realized just how UP Seattle streets can be. Another thing that surprised me about Seattle – along with the cooler weather and sprawling neighbourhoods – was how hilly Seattle is. Do not drive a manual transmission here (unless, of course, you’re European). Do not try to cycle here (except along the beach). Do not have need of any sort of mobility device with wheels unless you can guarantee that the brakes are good enough not to send you flying face first into the ocean as you careen down an incline anywhere from 2% to 20%. Or strollers (again, unless they have great brakes). These hills are thigh burners and heart racers for sure if you come from the fast and flat landscapes of Eastern Ontario like I do. I’m sure there are steeper cities in the world but let’s just say, I’m glad I do the stairs at the gym.
Aside from the incline, Fairmount is noteworthy because of how lush and green it is. Houses were hidden behind lush rainforest flora with driveways that you’d never make up if it were icy. There was no sidewalk and the road was really not much wider than one lane. We were not the only pedestrians on it but it was hard to believe that it was right in the middle of a city. I can only imagine how much the houses here cost.
We found Admiral Way, found the grocery store and headed home. From here it was easy as the streets are numbered. The sun was setting and the orange glow tipped the rooftops and the islands across the sound looked like dusty mauve shadows through the haze and clouds. West Seattle might be far from downtown but we were both so glad that we chose to stay here, away from the highrises and bustle. It was a neighbourhood with parks and cafes and markets and it was welcoming to come home to.
Our first full day in Seattle was July 4th. So things were a bit up in the air as we really didn’t know if or what places would be open or what time things closed. But we had lots of time to think about it because we both woke up really early. Because of our early rise, we decided to go for a trail walk in the nearby Schmitz Preserve Park. To get there we had to go down (literally, downhill) our street and then UP again at an even steeper grade for several blocks to get to a side entrance that looked more like a path trodden through brush by teenagers with moss growing over crumbling stone steps.
Schmitz Preserve Park
This park is a little insane. It’s not a large park, really; the loop is about 1.6 km long. But the trees are so tall and the vegetation is so thick and the ferns are so huge that the whole place has a prehistoric feel to it. And you can’t hear the city when you’re in it. In fact, it’s quite a bit lower in elevation than the street so you really feel like you’ve found a lost world. If you are wondering why it took us an hour to walk only 2.7 km, that’s because we kept stopping to take photos. Even though it felt remote, we never felt isolated and we met runners, other walkers, and a small family with binoculars. The only thing you need to worry about is stepping on the slugs. Oh dear Lord, they’re huge and I can’t imagine the mess it would make. <cringe!>
We went back to the Airbnb for a quick change before heading back to Alki Beach. Today we were headed to Pike Place Market downtown and the original Starbucks.
We walked to the Water Taxi at Seacrest Park. There is a free shuttle that can take you to the water taxi. The shuttle is one way so depending on where you catch it, you may first need to go away from the water shuttle before it circles back again. It goes north along the beach and south down the residential streets.
It was July 4th, Independence Day, and we had no idea what changes would be in place on this holiday so we decided to walk along Alki Beach again and soak in the ocean air and atmosphere. The beach was full of families searching for treasure in the mud, groups of friends playing volleyball, dogs playfully running through the low tide and then spraying their owners with their wet fur. Teenagers collecting these massive fronds of seaweed, couples gathering clams or mussels, and tourists on multi-person bicycles. It wasn’t warm (by our standards) but everyone was out. Fire pits were ready, coolers were full and tents were up.
What is it about being near the water that is so wondrous? Especially the ocean. Its power. Its depth. Its tides. It just seems to put us in our place, to remind us that we are not actually in control or the strongest forces on earth. And having that responsibility taken away from us, gives us comfort somehow. It’s like the crash of the waves and murmur of the wind whispers to us that we are but stardust. That while we have but a short sojourn on this earth, the ocean, the tides, the sky, the wind will forever BE.
We made it to the water taxi and bought our tickets for $5.75 one way. We didn’t have long to wait and we hopped aboard for our ten minute ferry ride across the bay to the downtown waterfront.
Pike Place Market
From there, it’s a short walk past the waterfront tourist shops and up a couple of streets (up again), to Pike Place Market. Coming from the waterfront, you come into the market from the back of it. That famous neon sign that says Public Market Center? It’s on the other side, just FYI. There are numerous entrances to Pike Place Market but don’t be surprised if you get really confused once you’re inside. This place is huge. Massive. A veritable labyrinth.
One more thing I just didn’t expect. I was told to leave a lot of time for the market but I had envisioned markets similar to all the other markets in the world that I’ve been to. But no, this is a massive complex of hallways and stairways and half-floors and outside markets and inside markets and food market and fruit market and fish market and flower market and flea market and novelty shops and gum wall and ethnic food stalls and you name it, this place has it. Wow. If you enjoy this kind of thing, you could easily spend an entire day here. But be warned. The crowds are immense and the layout unruly so if you are prone to claustrophobia or becoming overwhelmed, you might want to take it in small bouts over a few days.
It was indeed a feast for the senses. I didn’t get too many photos because it was just too busy. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t incredible things to see. A paper shop, the gum wall (ewwww!), the food vendors shouting out to the crowds to try samples (how do they make any money?), the artisans, a magic shop of antique roadside carnival posters, candy shops galore, east Asian clothing and decor, a shop whose merchandise is entirely animal themed (yeah, I could’ve spent a lot of money in there), jewelry, recycled art and over 200 other shops.
And then there’s all the shops and restaurants that are on the surrounding streets, including the original Starbucks, which did not really resemble the cookie cutter green giant coffee shops they have grown into. It was small and quaint and had lovely window displays and advertised teas and spices as well. The mermaid logo had an antique look to her and the line up was at least half an hour long, stretching down the sidewalk. Seeing it was enough. I didn’t need to spend forever in a lineup.
At this point, Patricia and I were starving. And in truth, we just didn’t know where to go from here. The market was just so….much. We decided to just head away from the market for a bit so we headed up Virginia Street, which is the north end of the market. And yet again, another seriously steep street that felt pretty much vertical.
At the top of that first block (conveniently called 1st Ave), we found a bistro called the Virginia Inn. We checked out the menu and loved their options so we happily sat down to people watch and enjoy a well-deserved lunch. I ordered the roast beef sandwich, topped with caramelized onions and horseradish mayo with a side of chips and Patricia had the grilled vegetable sandwich piled high with zucchini, onion, squash, pepper, mozzarella and sun-dried tomato aoli. Oh! And I was able to get a locally-made gluten-free craft brew! Oh happy day!
We enjoyed our experience at this bistro so much we came back again on our last day in Seattle before heading home and had the fish and chips, which is ALWAYS gluten-free. Ah-mazing! I did not take a picture of it because I was tired of taking photos by that time.
After that, we decided to simply walk around and look at the shops. Many were open despite it being July 4th. We walked down Pine and poked around the stores you would find on any high street – Gap, J. Crew, Columbia, FjallRaven, Tiffany and Co, Sephora, Nordstrom, etc.
Eventually, we made our way back to the waterfront and the water taxi home. Unfortunately, we just missed the water taxi by minutes and had to wait a full hour before the next one due to the “Sunday” schedule used on holidays. It gave us a chance to check out the souvenir shops along the waterfront. But in the end, we hailed a cab to take us home. The thought of waiting and then walking the 4km back to the Airbnb was just too much for our tired feet. We had already put in our 20 000 steps and we were looking forward to wine and wifi at the Airbnb.
The next morning thankfully started at a more reasonable hour than the previous day. We started gathering up our stuff for our departure the next day and Patricia discovered she had not printed out a document that was needed for the cruise. So after consulting with Ron (our Airbnb host who offered to print it out but we couldn’t get it to create a PDF from her iphone), we headed on our way to Alki Mail and Dispatch, a cute little local shop that did mail, printing, copying, etc. as well as being a cafe and selling souvenirs. I love shops like this. They embody everything I wish our world was. Community, service, small business, a place to work in a relaxing atmosphere. We walked there and Patricia was able to print off her doc. As luck would have it, the stop for the free shuttle to the water taxi was right across the street.
The shuttle comes every half an hour. It’s a small bus that holds around 24 people sitting. We got to the water taxi just as it was docking and headed over to downtown.
Our first stop was to hit the Paramount Theatre to buy tickets for that night’s performance of Wicked. I had never seen the musical and Patricia loved it and offered to see it again. I enjoy going to musicals and broadway shows when I’m on holidays. I don’t spend the money to see them at home but when I’m on vacation, I feel that it is a justifiable expense.
The Paramount is about a 25 minute walk away from the waterfront so we thought we would save some time and energy and take the free shuttle up to 6th and Pike (which is only a few blocks away from the theatre).
It would have been faster to walk. The traffic in downtown Seattle is a nightmare. AND the shuttles aren’t big enough to handle all the tourists. So if everyone gets on the “East Loop” at the waterfront to go to Pike Market, then nobody is getting off to let anyone else from other stops on. See what I’m saying? This free shuttle is just new this year and clearly they were still ironing out the wrinkles. We also took this free shuttle out to the Space Needle and I basically had to elbow an old lady in the head to make sure we got on the bus after waiting another twenty minutes.
Save yourself the ass pain. Take the monorail. It has two stops: downtown and Seattle Center (which sounds like it should be downtown but actually it’s where the Space Needle, Chihuly Glass and Garden and the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPop) are situated). It’s a whole lot bigger, smoother, and will get you there in a whopping 3 minutes (as opposed to the 30 minutes by free shuttle). It has a whole lot of windows and you get to watch Seattle slip by while you defy gravity and go over the streets, past office windows and eventually slip through the MoPop structure before coming to your final destination. Still want to go on the free shuttle because it’s FREE? The monorail is only $2.50 for adults, $1.25 for kids.
Now, let’s talk the Seattle Center. In this location there are several tourist attractions. The Pacific Science Center, Seattle’s Children’s Museum, Memorial Stadium (football and soccer), MoPop, the Space Needle and Chihuly Glass and Garden. Lots to see here but it is super busy so you MUST plan ahead to some degree.
We showed up just before 2 pm with no plan other than to go up the Space Needle and have lunch. There is no longer a restaurant though, just a cafe. There are so many people around that you don’t go inside the building to buy your tickets. You go to one of the numerous kiosks around the base of the Needle. And if one kiosk has a really long line, just keep walking because there are many of them all around. At these kiosks, you can buy tickets for a variety of different tourist attractions. We were really only interested in the Needle and Chihuly Gardens but as we went through the process of purchasing tickets for the Needle, we discovered that the earliest tickets available were for a 5:30 pm entrance. And the lineup to go up was approximately 45 minutes. This did not sound fun at all.
We quickly changed plans and checked out the tickets for Chihuly Glass and Garden. We were able to get tickets for the 2pm-3pm entrance. Phew!
The admission price for the Space Needle, Chihuly and MoPop is significant – about $32 for each site. You can save a bit by buying tickets to more than one attraction but the tickets must be used the same day so you need to really work out your timings before purchasing. You may wonder if these attractions are worth it. We did. Those are steep prices (and in American dollars!) to go look out at a skyline or to look at some fancy blown glass sculptures or to play computer games and look at Elton John’s shoes. So here’s the deal.
The Space Needle: I hate heights and the idea of glass floors so high up made me queasy just thinking about it so I was completely ok with not going to the Needle. If Patricia had been hell-bent on it, I would have paid it just to say I had done it because I probably won’t be in Seattle again. But all in all, if that’s all there is, I think $32-$37 is a pretty steep fare considering how long you stand in line. So in my humble opinion, not worth it.
Chihuly Glass and Garden: After purchasing our tickets, we went to the back of this outrageously long line and waited. But because we had tickets for the 2-3pm slot and it was now just after 2 pm, the line moved as fast as they could scan tickets. If I could give any advice about improving your experience here, once inside, I would recommend waiting a few minutes for the crowd to thin. The gallery only lets in those who have tickets for that time slot so once everyone’s in, the crowd thins out and the ones who aren’t really interested have already plowed through, taken their selfies and are sitting at the cafe leaving much more space and calm in their wake.
There is an audio guide or an online app, using the gallery’s wifi, if you enjoy that kind of thing. This gallery is entirely the work of Dale Chihuly from Tacoma, Washington, just south of Seattle. It starts with his early work of glass bowls and then moves into his other works – a ceiling filled with blown glass objects, chandeliers, balls, sculptures inspired by the sea, and his garden pieces.
When Patricia and I were considering whether we should go or not (and we really only decided to go because we couldn’t get into the Space Needle), we wondered how exciting blown glass would be. Everyone we knew who had seen it had said that it was incredible but it’s really hard to imagine what could be so mind-blowing about glass sculptures.
And even after seeing it, I find it difficult to put into words just how incredibly beautiful and insane these sculptures were. They were surreal and dreamlike. They were vibrant and exquisitely detailed. The gardens are landscaped for these pieces and each and every plant and flower becomes a piece of this art. There are a series of chandeliers that are mind-boggling to think of how he made them and god forbid what would happen to them if they fell. There is a glasshouse that holds ONE massive, suspended, swirling sculpture that sprawls overhead that might be one of the most beautiful and romantic things I have ever seen in my life. Made of hundreds of different elements, one sees the sky and the Space Needle beyond as the light tumbles through the orange, yellow and red glass of the flowers.
So, in case you were wondering, it’s SO worth it!
MoPop: We did not go to the MoPop this day. We went on the day we came back from the cruise. But because it’s in the same location, I’m going to write about it here. The MoPop (the Museum of Pop Culture) was another thing that was not on our radar at all. But when we decided not to do the Space Needle because of the heights factor, we instead thought we’d give this a shot. The admission is $30.
So what exactly is in a museum of popular culture? It’s almost an oxymoron. Museums show historical artifacts, not popular culture. It’s kind of like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But it also has a huge interactive aspect to it with the games room and the different exhibits on the horror, sci-fi and fantasy genres of storytelling. There was an exhibit on Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, a sound lab in which you could experiment with different instruments, and a fashion exhibit representing the six female archetypes, as well as politically and ecologically motivated fashion. This museum has something for everyone.
We spent three hours there and enjoyed every moment. I wanted to take a photo of everything! I was a kid in a candy store! All these movie props and Eddie Vedder’s green army jacket! Prince’s motorbike and the guitars of legends like Eric Clapton and Hank Williams. It hardly felt like a museum. The horror section was ultra creepy and seeing Inigo Montoya’s sword that slayed the six-finger man was a highlight. “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Classic.
Worth it? HELLS YEAH!
(I had a hard time whittling my photos from MoPop down to just seven.)
The Paramount Theatre
If you want to see a show while in town, Seattle has a lot of places you can do that, depending on what you’d like to see. I love broadway musicals. So when Patricia suggested we see if Wicked was playing, I was game. And it was on for a limited engagement the exact time we were in Seattle. We bought tickets the day of and returned for an 8 pm show.
There are several other theatres around as well and on our last day in Seattle (the 13th) we found the 5th Ave Theatre in the same general location that had West Side Story on. Prices for these shows are comparable to anywhere else and we didn’t find any significant difference in buying tickets online vs going to to the theatre and buying them at the box office. In fact, there is no processing fee when you go to the box office.
The Paramount Theatre originally showed film and vaudeville but since 2009 has been a performing arts theatre. It was built in 1929 and is listed as a historic building in Seattle and is considered a city landmark. It has several different floors (we bought the cheap seats), and is festooned with gilt and red velvet as per its history. It was a lovely evening and the show was, as I knew it would be, incredible. I was singing “Defying Gravity” for days.
It was a late cab ride home for us after the show in a light rain. The first rain we’d had in three days in a city known for being wet so we couldn’t complain. Luckily, our cruise didn’t leave until 4 pm the next day so we had the morning to pack our belongings for the second part of our big adventure.
Goodbye Seattle! Bring on Alaska!