Few people outside the Pacific Northwest knew much about SEATTLE before 1991, and it was considered a distant, rainy backwater even by most Americans. Since Nirvana and grunge rock exploded that year, things have never been the same: Hollywood quickly jumped on the bandwagon with Sleepless in Seattle, Frasier and Grey’s Anatomy, and today the tourists and Alaska cruise ships flock in to soak up the city’s famously picturesque setting, lively Pike Place Market, stunning Chihuly Garden and Glass, fun coffeehouses and slew of excellent museums, framed by a modern skyline of shiny skyscrapers and the snowy peak of Mount Rainier in the distance.
Yet the 1990s wasn’t the first time Seattle made a global impact. Founded in 1851, the city was really put on the map after the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s, Seattle’s population doubling and economy booming as it served as the main port of embarkation for hopeful miners; in 1962 the World’s Fair saw the construction of the iconic Space Needle and brief attention again thanks to Elvis in It Happened at the World’s Fair. From the beginning of the twentieth century, Boeing was crucial to the city’s economic strength, and more recent success stories have included global corporate icons Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon.com, all based here. One Seattle stereotype that remains true: it still rains a lot here, especially from October to May.
A fifteen-minute bus ride east of downtown takes you to the mildly counterculture- flavoured Capitol Hill, an electric neighbourhood of historic mansions and a thriving LGBT community. The main drag is Broadway, which offers a solid choice for dining, buying music, clubbing and drinking coffee, while the section between E Roy Street and E Highland Drive contains Harvard-Belmont Historic District, sprinkled with huge Neoclassical piles and sprawling period-revival homes; for a tour, contact the Seattle Architectural Foundation (seattlearchitecture.org).
Unbeknown to most visitors, the best café views in Seattle can be had from a humble Starbucks on the 40th floor of the soaring Columbia Center. You don’t pay a cent to ride the elevator, and for the price of a cup of coffee you can enjoy stunning views of downtown Seattle for as long as you like.
Seattle has many fine restaurants, from the funky diners of Capitol Hill and ethnic restaurants of the University District to the delicious fish of Pike Place Market. Moreover, local coffeehouses host an engaging cultural scene, and are inexpensive choices for whiling away the time or surfing the internet. Seafood dominates menus: try the salmon (a lot of it comes from alaska these days), dungeness crabs (named after dungeness in Washington, not the one in Kent, England) and oysters from the Puget Sound.
The Fremont Fair & Solstice Parade (206 297 6801, fremontfair.org), in mid-June, is Seattle’s jolliest celebration, with hundreds of food stalls and arts vendors, plus a parade of naked bicycboxs and human-powered floats, followed by a pageant at the end of the route in Gas Works Park.
A steady stream of martial arts fans make their way to historic Lakeview Cemetery, just northeast of Capitol Hill at 1554 15th Ave E, to pay their respects to movie star Bruce Lee (1940–73), buried here with his son Brandon Lee (1965–93). Bruce was born in San Francisco but raised in Hong Kong, later becoming an iconic kung-fu movie star (his wife Linda was from Seattle, and chose to bury him here). The two relatively modest marble tombstones are often littered with flowers. The cemetery is open daily 9am– sunset.
Love it or loathe it, Starbucks has become a truly global coffee chain, as familiar to Asians and Europeans as Americans. Pike Place is where it all began; the original store opened near here in 1971, and the original logo (now way too racy for the brand) is maintained at the often-packed 1912 Pike St branch across the street from the market entrance (don’t confuse this with the much newer branch at Pike and First). Inside you’ll find a variety of special drinks and merchandise only available at this store, though the coffee is standard Starbucks stuff. Note however that Starbucks moved to this location in 1977; the first branch was actually not far away at 2000 Western Ave (now torn down).
Few cities in America have anything like Pike Place Market, founded in 1907 overlooking the waterfront and the oldest continuously working public market in the USA; countless stalls offer piles of lobsters, crabs, salmon, vegetables, fruit and flowers. Though it’s often mobbed by tourists in the summer, locals still shop here and having saved it from demolition in the 1970s remains a source of pride. The covered complex is a labyrinth of thirteen buildings on a triangular lot covering nine acres, holding three hundred produce and fish vendors, bakeries, craft stalls, touristy shops and small retailers.
At the main entrance on Pike Street the fishmongers of Pike Place Fish Co hurl the catch of the day back and forth to the amusement of tour groups while street entertainers play to rapt crowds. Here also is the brass statue of “Rachel the pig”, a large, actual piggy bank, with receipts going to charity. Even if you have no interest in buying salmon or fresh fruit, there are some classic places to eat here, as well as the original Starbucks. Don’t leave without taking a peek at the slightly gross Gum Wall, an alley along the side of the market plastered with used chewing gum, some if it strung out like stalactites (seriously).
A few blocks south of modern downtown, Pioneer Square is Seattle’s oldest district, where the original settlement began in the 1850s and still rich with appealing bookshops and galleries amid the old red-brick and wrought-iron buildings. The name refers to an area; there are parks and squares here (Occidental Park and Pioneer Place), but no plaza itself called Pioneer Square. There are also a number of rough-around-the- edges clubs and bars, and more than a few homeless people adding to the diverse environs. Kids will love the Waterfall Garden at 219 Second Ave South.
Seattle’s biggest events are Bumbershoot, hosting hundreds of artists on dozens of stages around town on Labor Day weekend in early September (206 281 7788, bumbershoot.org), and the Northwest Folklife Festival (206 684 7300, nwfolklife.org), a Memorial Day (late May) event at the Seattle Center drawing folk musicians from around the world. In late May and early June, the Seattle International Film Festival (206 464 5830, siff.net) centres on classic moviehouses in Capitol Hill, and in July and early August, Seafair (206 728 0123, seafair.com) is a colourful celebration held all over town with aeroplane spectacles, hydroplane events and milk-carton boat races.
Boasting one of the biggest and best ensembles of historic aircraft in the USA, the Museum of Flight encompasses two giant galleries filled with planes – from John Glenn’s 1962 Mercury space capsule and an SR-71 Blackbird spy plane to Spitfires and Messerschmitts. The galleries surround the restored 1909 “Red Barn” that was the original Boeing manufacturing plant, now displaying relics from the early days of flight. You can also have a go on several flight simulators, while more icons are on display outside in the museum’s expansive Airpark, which has a walk-in collection of planes that include the 737 and 747, as well as a Concorde and the first jet Air Force One.