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An interview with Tom Norwalk, President and CEO of Visit Seattle

From live music and literary haunts to award-wining restaurants and incredible natural wildlife, there’s a lot to experience in and around Seattle. We caught up with Tom Norwalk, President and CEO of Visit Seattle, to find out where to go on our next trip.

Seattle is known for being rainy, outdoorsy, and obsessed with coffee. How do you think the city, as it is today, relates to those stereotypes? What might first-time visitors find surprising about the city?

“Seattle is all of those things and, as locals, we embrace them proudly. We actually wear flannel shirts, too. What I think first-time visitors will be surprised by is how close to nature Seattle is. In fact, Orca pods are sometimes spotted between Seattle and Bainbridge Island, which you can see easily if you were taking the 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. Having such a vibrant city in the midst of all this beauty is always awe-inspiring, even to those who live here.”

 

In the 90s, Seattle’s counter-culture was expressed through its grunge music and riot grrrl bands. What’s the city’s music scene like today, and where are some of the best places to catch a gig?

“Grunge and Seattle’s broader alternative music scenes definitely defined an era of music and helped give rise to a multitude of new bands that went off and discovered their own Seattle sound. Seattle’s music scene is diverse. Some of my favourite places to catch a show would be Tractor Tavern in Ballard, the Triple Door downtown, and The Paramount and Neptune, which are slightly larger and offer a more vintage setting. And the Crocodile Café, where early Grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam played some of their first sets, is still rockin’.  A few new things to mention: listener-powered independent radio station KEXP frequently hosts concerts in its new Gathering Space at Seattle Center (and, since the 1980s, has been playing NW artists on their station every hour). Also, a brand new music festival is coming to Seattle May 11-13. Upstream Music Fest + Summit, founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, will bring more than 200 up-and-coming bands to Seattle, 75 percent of which will come from the Pacific Northwest.”

 

Are there any upcoming restaurant, bar, or hotel openings that you’re looking forward to in 2017?

“Nearly 100 new restaurants opened in 2016, so there is no shortage of new restaurants to explore. I’m excited to experience the new spots that will open when the MarketFront expansion at the Pike Place Market is complete in June 2017, including Jarr & Co. and Old Stove Brewing Co. Also, chef Edouardo Jordan, 2016 Food & Wine Best New Chef, is opening JuneBaby this spring that will celebrate the food of the South. In terms of hotels, we are getting our first SLS Hotel in July, a 189-room property that will have a lobby, restaurant and spa on the 15th floor overlooking Elliott Bay. In total, some 900 new hotel rooms will open this year.”

Washington State is gaining increasing attention around the world for its growing wine scene. What should novices know about the viniculture here? Which grape varieties are grown, and what are some of the best visitor-friendly wineries to explore?

“It is a little-known fact (except for us Washington wine lovers) that wines from our state are some of the highest rated wines in the world. The wine industry is exploding here and rivals that of Northern California. Washington State currently has more than 900 wineries, 14 AVAs (or American Viticultural Areas) and produces more than 70 wine grape varieties - a ratio of about 49% white and 51% red. Our urban wine scene is also starting to take off. And just 30 minutes from Seattle – in Woodinville – there are over 130 wineries and tasting rooms to enjoy.”

 

Seattle is one of the most literary cities in the US. Where are some of the best places to get a bookish experience of the city, from indie bookstores to literary readings and events?

“The Seattle Public Library in downtown Seattle was designed by award-winning Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and opened in May 2004, so in addition to providing a very bookish experience due to its size alone, it is also architecturally something to behold. In addition to a robust public library system throughout the city, there are many alluring independent bookstores throughout Seattle, including the notable Elliott Bay Book Company in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood; Phinney Books in the Phinney Ridge neighbourhood; Queen Anne Book Company in the Queen Anne neighbourhood; and Book Larder, a community cookbook store in Fremont. All of these bookstores offer literary readings and events. For more literary readings and lectures, non-profit Seattle Arts & Lectures has been inviting highly accomplished award-winning and up-and-coming authors to Seattle since 1987.”

 

Which restaurants do you think define Seattle’s diverse and eclectic culinary scene?

“There are so many incredible restaurants that reflect Seattle’s diverse and eclectic food scene that it’s difficult to call out specific restaurants by name. I would say, however, that there are several chefs/restaurateurs in the city who have helped put Seattle on the map as a dining destination: Tom Douglas, Renee Erickson, Ethan Stowell, and Matt Dillon, as well as, more recently, Josh Henderson, Jason Stratton, and Eduardo Jordan. I’d also add to that list Shiro Kashiba, who the Seattle Times calls the “sushi sensei” of Seattle. These are just a few of the notables who have helped shape and are continuing to shape Seattle’s culinary scene.”

 

We’d love your tips on the art walks and under-the-radar galleries that capture Seattle’s creative personality.

“Seattle is lucky to have a booming art walk scene, with more than 17 distinct neighbourhoods hosting periodic artwalks. Stop by one of our Visit Seattle Visitor Information Centers and pick up a free Cultural Heritage Guide or the Artists’ View of Seattle for self-guided art and heritage tours. Among organized tours, the oldest (and still the largest) is the Pioneer Square Art Walk, held monthly on First Thursdays. The neighbourhoods of Georgetown, Columbia City and Capitol Hill also host lively art walks.

For a huge collection of galleries and artist studios and an old school DIY-Seattle vibe, an open house event at Equinox Studios can’t be beat. There are 125+ resident artists and artisans in four buildings including painters, jewellers, sculptors, metalsmiths, sound installation artists and more. Other artist collectives hosting periodic open houses include Inscape and the Sunny Arms Artist Cooperative.

Seattle has more than 180 art galleries. Some top picks for under the radar/Seattle spirit include Vermillion (Capitol Hill gallery + bar), Soil (nonprofit collective gallery), Mad Art, Method, Shift, Core, Bryan Ohno, Mariane Ibrahim and Gallery 4Culture.  The Harris Harvey Gallery occupies a prime perch in the heart of Pike Place Market but remains a bit under the radar for causal passers-by, despite its excellent collection of Northwest artists. Established and well respected Seattle galleries include James Harris Gallery, Greg Kucera, Davidson, G Gibson, Foster/White, Linda Hodges, Woodside/Braseth, Abmeyer+ Wood, Stonington (native art) and Traver Gallery (glass art.)

And an often overlooked but fantastic resource is Seattle Art Museum’s SAM Gallery, which curates rotating shows, but also rents and sells works by Northwest artists, both established and emerging.  

Finally, a mention that our downtown Washington Convention Center has a remarkable permanent art collection and hosts rotating quarterly juried art exhibitions featuring a wide range of Northwest artists, from children’s book illustrators to the Seattle Metals Guild.”

Beyond the big National Parks of the Pacific Northwest, what other protected forests, nature preserves, or outdoor areas are worth taking a day trip from Seattle to see? Any lesser-known recommendations that are primarily frequented by locals?

“I love that from the top of the Space Needle – you can see three of our National Parks (Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades). I would highly recommend a visit to Mount Rainier, the Olympic Mountains, and Mount St. Helens if one has the time. They are each doable in a day – albeit a long day. The San Juan Islands are also stunning and worth a visit or overnight. Some of the lesser known islands primarily frequented by locals are Lopez Island and Lummi Island. One can also take a ferry to Vashon for a quick day trip. Lincoln Park in West Seattle and Discovery Park about 30 minutes north of Seattle in the Magnolia neighbourhood are local parks that offer miles of trails, stunning views of Elliott Bay and local wildlife, including bald eagles and harbour seals.”

 

What are five essentials that every visitor to Seattle should remember to pack in their suitcase?

“It all depends on when you’re traveling, but generally, I’d recommend packing a comfortable pair of walking shoes (Seattle is a great walking city), a hat, a rain jacket or windbreaker, an extra duffle bag for all the gifts you’ll purchase, and a camera with a telephoto lens. And... sunglasses!”

Image credits:

Traffic on cityroad through modern buildings in Seattle © iStock: zhudifeng

Tom Norwalk © Visit Seattle

Washington State Wine © iStock: jumaydesigns

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