A Travellerspoint blog

The Legendary Pacific Northwest: Seattle


When I was young I don't recall Seattle being famous for anything except rain. Then two things happened: Nirvana and Starbucks. Suddenly Seattle became an American cultural touchstone for all things related to rock music and coffee. Twenty years later some of the Seattle mania had died down but the city's allure was still somewhat out of proportion to its population rank among America's largest cities. We stayed in the International District, a small neighborhood not far from downtown. The area had formerly been known as Chinatown but the name had changed to reflect a more diverse Asian population. Our Airbnb was quite an interesting place, a three story home whose hideous dark-green siding concealed a comfortable, chic, and environmentally-conscious interior.

Pike Place Market is one of the iconic tourist attractions of Seattle. The market was created in 1907 to allow local farmers to sell their produce directly to consumers without having to use wholesalers as middlemen. The market rapidly expanded to include butchers, bakers, and restaurants. Over time the market grew so much they had to build more levels underground. Since becoming a well-known attraction, the market has pivoted to businesses that cater largely to tourists such as souvenir shops and craft kiosks. The best known stall is still the original fish market, where the staff has developed a tradition of tossing the fish to each other around the store once it has been purchased. There are always more people gathered around to film the fish tossing than there are actual customers. We scanned the prices and quickly saw there wasn't anything close to a bargain. There were a few other interesting sights at the market but we quickly grew tired of the crowds and the general artificiality of the place. I have a feeling its a pretty rare event for anyone who lives in Seattle to actually go shopping at Pike's Place.

Outside the market there was a huge line for the original Starbucks, even though it apparently isn't the original, but we couldn't have cared less anyway. The appeal of brands like Starbucks is something I'll never understand. Outside a supremely talented street musician was playing the guitar and harmonica while keeping a hula hoop twirling on his hips. It irritated the heck out of me that people were leaving the Starbucks after paying something like ten bucks for a coffee and couldn't spare a dollar for this entertaining and hardworking guy.

Pike Place is also home to one of Seattle's most unique sights, the Gum Wall. In the 1990's people began a tradition of sticking chewed gum to the outside wall of the Market Theater while they were waiting in line for shows. Eventually the multicolored wads covered the entire brick wall and tourists began to add their own sticky contributions. The year after we visited the wall was pressure washed but apparently locals and tourists immediately began to rebuild the installation.

A block away from the market the tourist crowds thin out rapidly and the downtown streets become practically empty except for numerous homeless people camped out or roaming the sidewalks. Of course homeless people are nothing new to us but downtown Seattle was remarkable for their sheer numbers as well as how many appeared to be psychotic and potentially aggressive. It seemed that as soon as we were out of earshot of one large person walking along and shouting at nobody we were coming into the range of another. There were a few fast food restaurants and shops around but I didn't see anyone inside. It's kind of hard to imagine how any business could survive in that kind of environment.

Our next stop was the Broadway Farmers Market in Capitol Hill, a neighborhood in central Seattle well-known for ethnic diversity and gay culture. The market was decent but not on the level of the best ones we'd seen in Portland. Afterwards we walked up Broadway and had a really good lunch in a Nepalese restaurant, the first one I could remember eating at. We also stopped by the iconic drag bar Julia's for a show, where Cleo got a big kick out of handing tips to the performers.

On the other side of the canal that connects Puget Sound to Lake Washington is the neighborhood of Fremont which has a historic reputation for being a home for artists and countercultural types. Underneath the Aurora Bridge that connects Fremont to the Queen Anne neighborhood is an enormous concrete statue of a troll crushing a Volkswagen in his fist. The Fremont Troll was constructed in 1990 as a protest against the commercialization of the neighborhood that was squeezing out the artists. It was quite creepy and we were glad we'd made it to the troll while it was still broad daylight.

Our Airbnb had a pretty awesome kitchen so that evening we drove into the southern reaches of Seattle to shop at a huge Asian supermarket. We found a pretty awesome selection of seafood including amazingly cheap Dungeness crabs. It was too late too cook so instead we ate at a Vietnamese restaurant where I impressed Cleo by pretending to sneeze out a rubber toy I'd bought for her in a vending machine.

Besides Pike's Place Market, the Seattle feature that most people can identify is the Space Needle. Constructed for the 1962 World's Fair, the 605 foot tower has since welcomed over 60 million visitors. We made the obligatory ascent to the flying saucer at the top and checked out the panoramic views of the city and the bodies of water that surround it.

Adjacent to the Space Needle is Chihuly Garden and Glass, a permanent exhibition of the glass sculpture of Washington native Dale Chihuly. Chihuly is recognized as one of the most skilled and influential glass sculptors in the world and his work is strongly influenced by flowers and plant life. Besides the indoor gallery there is a large garden outside the exhibition hall which is filled with vivid sculptures that are evocative of plant life as it may have developed on other planets.

There are several other museums and recreational facilities in the Seattle Center including a children's museum, but it was already well into the afternoon and Mei Ling wanted to start on our home cooked meal. Besides the crabs and halibut we had bought the previous night at the supermarket we had fertilized chicken eggs, which I had eaten before in China. Some people are familiar with the Filipino version which is known as balut. Mei Ling prepared a delicious and healthy feast that was by far the best meal we had in Seattle.

The next morning we took our leave of Seattle. Our first stop was an arts festival in the suburb of Bellevue on the other side of Lake Washington. It was the first sunny day since we'd arrived in Washington and the outdoor festival was a perfect place to be. I've always loved the experience of going from stall to stall never knowing when I'll come across a artistic creation that blows me away. There was also sidewalk chalk for Cleo to play with and a fountain to help her wash away the summer heat and chalk dust. In the distance I could see a rather odd cloud that was shaped like a pyramid. With a start I realized that I was actually looking at the snowcapped peak of an enormous mountain. We had never seen Mt. Rainier in Seattle due to the cloudy weather. From Bellevue it looked almost surreal, a white pyramid floating high in the air while the lower part of the mountain was invisible against the background.

Half an hour west of Bellevue is Snoqualmie Falls, a powerful 268 foot waterfall with a clear view from an observation deck. The surrounding valley is filled with farms and hiking trails and is one of many pleasant getaways within an hour of Seattle.

The fractured northwestern coast of Washington is filled with inlets and islands that are reminiscent of the fjords of Norway. If we had had more time we could have explored the Olympic Peninsula, but I didn't regret using that time to visit Portland instead. I considered taking the short ferry to Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound on the way north to Vancouver but ultimately decided not to risk a late arrival. The island has a reputation for being quite scenic and full of wineries so perhaps we'll find our way there some time in the future. We did find one cute roadside market when we pulled off the highway for gas and loaded up on berries one last time before crossing into Canada.

At this point there was nothing left to do except get back on the interstate to Vancouver. The day we left Seattle had been our best day in Washington. The city had been a marked letdown after the incredible experience in Portland, so we were very glad we hadn't limited our vacation to Seattle as originally planned. Seattle may be a great place to live for all I know, but I really can't recommend it for a family trip and we'll probably never go back. All the things that we travel to experience like a vibrant ethnic culture, beautiful neighborhoods, authentic markets, and interesting architecture were nowhere to be seen. Downtown was a scary, deserted wasteland. Afterwards I wondered if we might have missed something about the city, but every time I've seen any article praising Seattle since then it always dwells on the Pike Place Market and the Space Needle. As far as I'm concerned those are two tourist traps that we could have done without. We still enjoyed ourselves, of course, but I can't imagine what we would have done if we'd had to fill up another day in the city.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:08 Archived in USA

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