In the shadow of the Olympic Mountains to the west and the Cascade Mountains to the east, Alex Benasuli discovers a vibrant oceanic city with a bustling downtown, charming neighbourhoods, a burgeoning foodie scene and a multitude of cultural attractions
Even though the Emerald City (as it is affectionately nicknamed) is the largest metropolitan area in America’s Pacific Northwest, Seattle is meeting the 21st century head-on, with more growth and development than ever before, while striving to maintain its much-loved unpretentious down-to-earth charm.
Surrounded by water and forested mountains, Seattle is blessed with a proximity to nature that few cities on the planet can rival. Combine this with a humming downtown, a variety of enchanting neighbourhoods, restaurants and bars to rival NYC and an abundance of water views and it’s not hard to see why Seattle is one of the most desirable places to live in the United States.
When the sun is shining the city literally glistens, so it’s best to visit between April and October. Upon departing Seattle’s SeaTac Airport (having most likely landed on a locally-manufactured Boeing aircraft) the feeling is evocative of a frontier outpost, somewhat cut-off from the rest of the United States by undulating carpets of woodland, towering evergreens and mountain ranges, with the only access to the outside world being the city’s harbour.
Today, of course, the lush landscapes and abundant waterways are interspersed by a high-rise urban downtown core and a low-rise semi-urban periphery and the Port of Seattle is one of the Pacific Northwest’s leading economic engines, but the overall sense of physical space lends a unique, laid-back feeling to the place which makes Seattle inherently appealing.
The best place to get a broad perspective of the city and its immediate surroundings is atop Seattle’s most famous building, the Space Needle. Built in 1962, standing at almost 185 metres tall and presiding over the city centre for more than half a century, the structure’s flying saucer-shaped observation decks offer visitors Seattle’s only 360-degree indoor and outdoor panoramic vistas of downtown, picturesque Queen Anne neighbourhood, Mount Rainier, the Puget Sound and the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. Following a recent USD 100 million top-to-bottom renovation there is no better time than now to visit the Space Needle and enjoy the inimitable views it offers. (www.spaceneedle.com)
What is remarkable about the city’s skyline is how quickly it is changing. Seattle is one of the fastest growing major metropolitan hubs in the United States. New buildings are popping up everywhere, many of which are architecturally noteworthy. Looking down through the rotating glass floor of the Space Needle’s lower observation deck, South Lake Union is a neighbourhood that barely existed five years ago. When Seattle was founded in 1851, it was the backwater of a backwater town. Today, South Lake Union is not only at the city’s geographical center but also pivotal to the exploding knowledge economy and biotech industry which are transforming Seattle.
In the middle of South Lake Union are The Spheres, which form a dramatic part of Amazon’s sprawling USD 4 billion Seattle headquarters. Open for public tours by appointment only and casually sitting in the middle of the city looking like they’ve landed from another world, this trio of massive glass domes serves as a space for Amazon employees to work and collaborate with their colleagues while relaxing among flora and fauna from every corner of the planet. Containing more than 25,000 plants of 200 different species, The Spheres’ four-storey living wall is in itself a sight to behold. (www.seattlespheres.com)
Awash with shiny glass box-like office buildings and newly minted bars, cafés, restaurants and boutique fitness clubs, South Lake Union is an impressive work in progress and a testament to the changing fortunes of this progressive and resourceful city. Juxtaposed adjacent to this hive of activity, on the banks of Lake Union, are the house boats, seaplane terminal and patchwork of ships, docks and warehouses that reflect the maritime culture of historic Seattle.
With its year-round snow-capped volcanic dome and its forested lower tiers, if you are lucky enough to visit the Space Needle on a clear day, when Mount Rainier is visible, you are in for a visual treat. More than 4,000 metres high and akin to a gargantuan alien mother ship hovering over the city, seeing this active volcano from the Space Needle makes extraterrestrial comparisons even more apt.
To get a better understanding of the city’s historical roots, head to the site of Seattle’s earliest settlement, Pioneer Square. Though most of the original buildings were destroyed in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, it is still the oldest part of the city. (www.pioneersquare.org)
After the great fire, the city grew rich as the main trading hub and infrastructure supplier for the 100,000 prospectors who migrated to the Klondike region of the Yukon looking for gold, and the seeds were planted then that led to Seattle becoming one of the largest container ports in North America. Hidden away in the historic Cadillac Hotel building in Pioneer Square, the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is actually more of a museum, filled with all kinds of fascinating exhibits about the Gold Rush era and Seattle’s connection to it. (www.nps.gov/klse)
Not only does Pioneer Square offer a plethora of drinking, dining and shopping options, it is also home to the largest concentration of art galleries, innovative exhibition spaces and working artist studios in Seattle. This vibrant neighbourhood also hosts the longest established art walk in the United States, which is held on the first Thursday of every month.
A monorail ride to Westlake Center or an easy 15-minute walk from Pioneer Square is the city’s original farmers market, established in 1907. With its larger-than-life retro neon signage, Pike Place Market is Seattle’s most popular tourist destination and one of the most visited attractions on the continent.
The upper floors house the oldest, continuously operated public farmer’s market in the United States, with everything on display from seasonal produce and cut flowers to an array of fresh fish and crustaceans. Fishmongers routinely flinging the catch of the day through the air between them, to be caught and wrapped behind the counter, has become something of a crowd-pleasing attraction.
The rest of Pike Place Market is a haven for the local arts and crafts community. Browse for quirky curios, vintage comics, vinyl records and all manner of objets d’art. Since a lifetime could be spent exploring the market’s nooks and crannies, best you set a time limit before arriving!
It was in the Market that the original Starbucks opened in 1971. 48 years later, visitors to Starbucks’ very first store at 1912 Pike Place wait in a long line to drink a piece of caffeine history, their patience a testament to how ingrained in daily life this chain of coffee houses has become. (www.starbucks.com)
Opened by three Greek brothers 100 years ago adjacent to the Market, the Athenian is still hard to beat for the freshest seafood. (www.athenianseattle.com) Alternatively, grab a cup of award-winning chowder and head to one of the many terraces overlooking the bay towards West Seattle to take in the view. (www.pikeplacechowder.com)
A short walk from Pike Place will take you through Belltown, a gentrified former industrial district made up of handsome brick and stone buildings that now house upscale apartments, bars and restaurants. Shiro Kashiba arrived in the city 50 years ago and has since become a Seattle sushi legend. While Kashiba now has three restaurants in Seattle, Japanese food connoisseurs still flock to his first outlet, 25 years after it opened in Belltown, simply because it serves the best sushi in town. (www.shiros.com)
On the waterfront, at the northern edge of Belltown, is the city’s award-winning nine-acre Olympic Sculpture Park. Monumental works by Richard Serra, Alexander Calder and Jaume Plensa (amongst others) set the park apart as world class. The setting alone, overlooking the Puget Sound with the Olympic mountains visible on a clear day, makes the park worthy of a visit and entry is free year-round. (www.seattleartmuseum.org) For those on foot or pedalling around the city, the sculpture park is connected via an array of attractively landscaped walking and cycling paths.
If your cultural appetite is not yet satisfied and you fancy a visual feast, you must visit long term exhibition Chihuly Garden and Glass which opened at Seattle Center in 2012 to showcase the work of master glass artist, locally born Dale Chihuly. Chihuly’s staggeringly beautiful work is the result of incredible craftsmanship and a wild imagination. A set of indoor galleries, a massive conservatory and a stunning garden are all filled with his blown glass creations and viewing them makes for an utterly enchanting few hours. (www.chihulygardenglass.com)
Chihuly’s lifelong passion for collecting is the theme of Collections Café adjacent to the exhibition, which offers a fresh and uniquely Northwestern dining experience for lunch, brunch or a quick bite, in a colourful space inspired by Chihuly’s iconic boathouse on Lake Union.
For sunset, make your way to Volunteer Park in the historic Capitol Hill neighbourhood of Seattle. This beautiful 48-acre urban park was laid out in the early 1900s in a naturalistic American romantic style by the Olmsted Brothers, the same team responsible for New York’s Central Park. From its western perch, the Space Needle, downtown and the bay are all in full view. One of Seattle’s countless Instagramable shots is the Space Needle as seen through the centre of Isamu Noguchi’s doughnut-like Black Sun sculpture in the park.
Seattle is a city on the move. Its industrial and maritime past spawned a down-to-earth quirkiness and honesty that is baked into its DNA. And now, thanks to the technology boom, Seattle is moving through the 21st century as a metropolitan leader, not a follower. For many however, the city’s near idyllic position on an isthmus between the Puget Sound and Lake Washington will always be its main selling point.
Indeed, from the top of the Volunteer Park Water Tower – the highest point on Capitol Hill – Mount Rainier, illuminated by the setting sun, is nothing short of spectacular. The light dancing through the trees and green spaces, reflecting off the various bodies of water that surround Seattle, gives new meaning to the word emerald in this sparkling gem of a city. www.visitseattle.org
FAIRMONT OLYMPIC HOTEL
While Seattle appears to be in the midst of a hotel building boom, there remains only one Olympic.
Located in the heart of downtown and originally simply known as “The Olympic”, when the hotel first opened in 1924 it was designed to provide the city with lodgings fit for a president. Today, the building’s Italian Renaissance facade is not only a city landmark but also a national treasure, and this grande dame is as beloved by generations of Seattleites as it is by business and leisure travellers from all over the globe.
Afternoon tea served in the ornate Georgian dining room is an institution. Locals will tell you fondly that they or their parents or even grandparents married, celebrated an anniversary or marked a special occasion at the Olympic. Many employees have worked at the hotel for 20, 30 or even more years. Guests are treated like family whether first timers or returning regulars. The Olympic simply oozes tradition, hospitality and history at every turn.
The hotel’s cavernous central lobby, lounge and reception area – with its floor-to-ceiling wood paneling, broken-up by columns and opera house-like viewing boxes – is as grand as it is welcoming.
450 rooms and suites spread out over 14 floors were recently renovated to a high standard and boast a contemporary colour palette of grays, whites, creams and blues. Traditional soft furnishings add a warming touch. Some corner rooms boast water views towards Elliott Bay. Toiletries by luxury NYC-based perfume brand Le Labo add a dash of cool to the bathrooms in all Fairmont properties.
Every one of the hotel’s food and beverage venues are institutions. Collectively they make the hotel one of the city’s most upscale social hubs.
The dark and moody Terrace Lounge is one Seattle’s favourite watering holes. In addition to Washington State-sourced wines and local craft beers, guests can enjoy the hotel’s very own Olympic Honey Vodka infused with honey from its rooftop beehives.
One of Seattle’s oldest oyster bars, old-school Shuckers is as renowned for its 1930s oak paneling and tin ceilings as it is for its fresh fish, seafood and cocktails. (www.shuckersseattle.com)
Undoubtedly the hospitality heart and soul of the city, the Fairmont Olympic is as prominent today as it was in the 1920s and makes the perfect, full-service five-star base from which to explore Seattle’s many multicultural charms. www.fairmont.com/seattle