See Seattle as the Locals Do

Being global, acting local while on a family vacation in Washington State’s Emerald City.


In Seattle, it’s never hard to figure out who the tourists are. The city can transform even the most sophisticated newcomers into gaping, slack-jawed yokels.

They moon over Mount Rainier like we do, but then they see the mountains on the other side of the city—the splendid, craggy Olympic Mountains rising above Puget Sound to the west—and the jaws loosen further. They see sparkling water in nearly every direction, with yachts and commercial freighters and seaplanes coming and going. They see an urban skyline of skyscrapers and professional sports arenas that they didn’t imagine would exist way up here in the corner of the country, in a thriving metropolitan area of more than 3.3 million people.

Then the inner yokel comes out and the questions start: Are those mountains in Canada? (No, they’re in Olympic National Park, still in Washington State.) Is that the ocean? (No, it’s Puget Sound; you’d have to drive for more than two hours to get to the Pacific Ocean.) Is that where Bill Gates lives? (No, it’s Safeco Field, where the Mariners play baseball.) Is THAT the ocean? (No, it’s 22-mile-long Lake Washington, on which, in fact, Bill Gates lives.) It’s 95 degrees Fahrenheit everywhere else in the country, so how can it be 72 degrees here? (Trust us, it just can.)

I have to admit that even us hardened locals stop and stare at Seattle’s awesome beauty on occasion. On sunny days we find reasons to drive to Kerry Park, on W. Highland Drive in the Queen Anne neighborhood, for the city’s best views of towering Mount Rainier. White-capped with snow even in August, the mountain is stunning, and there is no shame in frequently stopping to admire it, because during the winter it can be obscured by clouds for weeks.

A City of Beauty and Brains

But beauty is only the first reason why Seattle is worth a visit. The city is also vibrant—it’s economically healthy these days and bustling with things to do for everyone from the fresh-out-of-college Gen Y-er to the suburban family of five, dog included. With a café society that began with the original Starbucks, a thriving restaurant and bar scene, a full slate of cultural and sports activities, dozens of urban parks and a business community that includes Boeing, Microsoft,, Starbucks and Costco, there is something for everyone here.

Seattle is currently undergoing a new construction boom that will bring even more vitality to its neighborhoods, a much-needed light-rail transportation system, and more attractions and hotel rooms to its visitor areas. In late 2008, the best address in town will be the brand-new Four Seasons Hotel and Residences being built at the south end of Pike Place Market.

Pike Place Market—the Heart of Seattle

Speaking of Pike Place, the market in downtown Seattle continues to be the heart of the city’s visitor experience, and somehow manages to sum up many of the city’s best qualities in a five-block area. Perched on a bluff on First Avenue, it offers stunning views of the Sound and the Olympic Mountains, with a little grassy park at the tip. Don't bother spending much time at this park. There are better ones nearby, such as Myrtle Edwards Park at the north end of Alaskan Way).

Pike Place shops are bustling with vendors selling salmon, clams and crabs, as well as fresh produce and foodstuffs that range from imported cheese to cinnamon rolls. There are coffee shops, several restaurants and dozens of stores that sell everything from books and wind-up toys to magic tricks.

Visit the Market first thing in the morning for coffee and pastries, and to see the flower vendors arranging their wares, or visit it when you’re hungry for lunch. Tourists line up to watch the likable vendors at Pike Place Fish Market toss salmon around, but the locals head across the street to Jack’s Fish Spot, which has a stainless-steel counter for excellent crab cocktails and fish and chips.

Better yet, walk through the whole market collecting bites along the way (try Dish D’Lish for salads and sandwiches, and the sublime Piroshky Piroshky for to-die-for pastries and savory salmon pies) and take a picnic away with you as you explore the city. Check out the original Starbucks, with its leering mermaid from the original logo, which you’ll only see here: She was too randy to take worldwide. The Market closes up tight around 5 p.m., and for goodness' sake, don’t even think about driving or trying to park on crammed Pike Place itself. Use a lot nearby and walk a block or two to beat the traffic.

A Center Especially for Kids

First stop for families after the Market is Seattle Center, a traffic-free, multi-block square in the middle of town—just north of downtown’s Denny Way—that is home to:

Seattle Center can eat up the better part of a very fun day. Choose a hotel in the nearby Queen Anne neighborhood and you can ditch the car and walk there.

On the Waterfront

The Seattle Aquarium is a great way to introduce the whole family to the amazing wildlife that calls Puget Sound home, such as lingcod and wolf eels and octopi, and a tropical tank is alive with sharks and bright reef fish. In the Fremont neighborhood north of downtown, the Woodland Park Zoo has excellent exhibits of dozens of animals. The black bear and gorilla environments are sensational, with the animals frequently cavorting within inches of Plexiglas viewing windows.

To chill out from the crowds and the traffic, head to a park or back downtown to Alaskan Way and take a ferry ride to quiet, rural Bainbridge Island, 35 minutes away. The views of the mountains and the city are breathtaking, particularly at sunset. A word to the wise: Avoid the rush-hour ferries between 4:15 and 6:15 p.m., because they’re packed with grumpy island commuters. You can walk off the ferry on the Bainbridge side and either explore the small town of Winslow, a five-minute walk away, or turn right back around and re-board the ferry for no additional fee as it cruises back to Seattle.

Regardless of the sites you choose to see, be sure to try Seattle’s local food. There are excellent fish and chips throughout the city (Chinook’s at Salmon Bay is a favorite), fresh fish in nearly every restaurant, and every kind of ethnic food imaginable (and for kids, most places serve the ubiquitous fried chicken tenders these days). Afterwards, stop by one of the dozens of neighborhood coffee shops for fresh pies and cakes—The Essential Bakery Café in Wallingford has gorgeous desserts, and the crullers are homemade at Top Pot Doughnuts on Fifth Avenue near the original Nordstrom department store.

Now snap your gaping jaw shut and enjoy the views. Put away your umbrella and wear a hat for anything short of a deluge. And have a great time in Seattle.

Destinations: Seattle

Themes: Family Travel, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Museums, Shopping, Sightseeing

User Comments

I love this city. I will live in Seattle someday. It has everything!

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