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The Emerald City

A beginner’s guide to Seattle

The best strategy, when exploring a new city, is to follow the locals into stores, cafés and neighbourhoods. Step into Seattle’s Pike Place Market or peruse the bargains at Nordstrom Rack and you’re as likely to bump into someone from the adjacent Capital Hill neighbourhood as you are a tourist from Boston. Call us provincial, but we love our icons here in the Emerald City. We’ll gladly take visiting friends and family to the top of the Space Needle, hop on a ferry to Bainbridge Island for lunch or wander the colourful warren of books inside the fabulous Rem Koolhaas-designed Central Library. 

Despite being best known today for technology and aviation, Seattle was originally settled for its potential to move timber from mill to sea to San Francisco. Founded in 1851, Seattle’s Yesler Mill cut most of the wood used to build San Francisco homes, including the mansions constructed by those who’d profited mightily from the 1849 California Gold Rush.

Seattle almost lost its “Big City” status to neighbouring Tacoma in the late 1870’s, when the Northern Pacific Railroad announced plans to build the terminus there. By 1883, a connector to the Tacoma line re-established Seattle primacy in the region and the city’s boom and bust economy took root. 1,000 people per month moved into the region, diversifying the economy, the population and the culture.

Though distinct multi-ethnic communities have blurred in the 20th and 21st centuries, a visit to Seattle’s neighbourhoods remains the best way to understand local culture. Ballard, founded by Scandinavian fishermen, was the last town to join Seattle, in 1907. The boats, including those made famous by “The Deadliest Catch” hit reality series, still file home through the Ballard Locks at the end of the Alaska fishing and crabbing seasons. Modern Ballard has recently become Seattle’s hottest neighbourhood, and cobblestoned Old Ballard Avenue now teems with boutiques, restaurants and bars where marine supply stores once stood.

The adjacent Fremont neighbourhood, self-described “Center of the Universe”, remains a go-to locale for funky boutiques, music venues and curios, while plenty of endemic Northwest culture can be discovered at Zoo Tunes at Woodland Park Zoo, which features a great roster of international musicians who perform in a meadow beside the penguins. Capitol Hill Block Party provides a major stage for the next “Death Cab for Cutie” or Macklemore, to name just two local acts who’ve gone global, and Bumbershoot remains one of the largest arts festivals in America, with over 2,500 performers playing during the three-day event.

Once left for dead, downtown Seattle thrives today thanks in large part to the Nordstrom flagship – its 1998 renovation invigorated the previously slack retail environment. Several other lesser-known flagships can be found in or near the urban core, many of which are considered pioneers in high-end outerwear.

Finally, you just can’t experience Seattle without sampling some coffee. The original Starbucks, located in Pike Place Market, is a favourite tourist stop, but other local brewers like Caffé Vita demonstrate that there’s more room in the roaster in this caffeine-fuelled society. So, grab that mezzo soy latte and enjoy exploring one of America’s most inviting urban landscapes.

 

Written by Crai Bower

Image credits:

Olympic Mountains background © Howard Frisk - Visit Seattle

All other imagery © iStock