There’s much to be said for turning up late to the party. Pin your arrival to the perfect moment and you can be the fascinating newcomer, that fresh face who brings with them a pep and vitality simply by entering when the proceedings are in full swing. Seattle, founded in 1851, is precisely that stylishly tardy guest.
If New York (1624) and Boston (1630) are the punctual early birds making small talk in the kitchen, before sharing canapés and jokes with the enthusiastically prompt New Orleans (1718), then Seattle is the confident figure who slips over the threshold mid-evening, clutching two bottles of the fine local red. Reds which have made its wider setting, Washington, the USA’s second most important wine-producing state (behind California).
Seattle is many things, but an old soul it ain’t. America was already into its third century by the time it was born on its west coast in 1851, and into its fourth before this baby had learned to walk — the ‘Great Fire of Seattle’ destroying what little of the city had been built in 1889. Wander its steep streets in 2015, and you’re charting a metropolis whose skyscrapers and sidewalks have barely a hundred years of existence to their name.
The result of such ‘inexperience’, of course, is that the city rarely feels less than youthful and energetic. It may not quite smell like teen spirit, but its upbeat ambience blossoms in the bars of Capitol Hill and Belltown, a music scene, which gave the world Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana (and continues to make a racket in a plethora of venues), as well as a cultured side that shines in a host of exciting museums and galleries.
It’s not just the final foot through the door of the American soiree, Seattle’s the fashionable latecomer: trendy, sharp, clever — although never to an extent that it resembles an aloof members’ club or a glacial catwalk procession. This is a city of broad open arms, down to earth and friendly.
In part, this attitude is thanks to its geography. Seattle lurks too near to the wilderness to ever lose itself entirely to urban sophistication. True, it sits just 140 miles south of its Canadian cousin and kindred spirit Vancouver, but by being wedged into the far north-west of the USA, it shares the space with snowy mountains and deep-pile forests. Notably, it has a neighbour in the Olympic Peninsula, which shelters the city from the Pacific with a realm of peaks and lakes that are just as key an element of a holiday in Washington as a cappuccino in its biggest conurbation.
What to see & do
Space Needle: Every major US city needs a towering cliché. Seattle’s skyline is pierced by a 605ft landmark, which symbolised the future when it opened 53 years ago, but looks very Sixties now that the 21st century’s here. Still, the view from its observation deck at 520ft ($18/£11.50) overrides any hint of tourist-trap fustiness.
EMP Museum: Directly below the Space Needle, this grand structure of steel — unmistakably designed by Frank Gehry — salutes the city’s pop culture, with detailed exhibits on Hendrix and Nirvana. Studios and performance areas mean visitors can forge their own noise. Don’t miss If VI Was IX, a huge artwork made of 500 guitars. From $22 (£14).
Seattle Art Museum: The city’s key gallery blends African, Asian and American art. The latter veers from Albert Bierstadt’s Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast — which captures Washington on a stormy day in 1870 — to the dabs and swirls of Jackson Pollock’s 1947 work, Sea Change. Tickets $19.50 (£12.50).
Olympic Sculpture Park: Pitched on the edge of Elliott Bay, this grassy segment is full of brightly inventive art pieces. See the red steel behemoth of Alexander Calder’s Eagle (1971), while the enormous ships prowling just off-shore are a reminder this is also a hardworking port. Free entry.
Pioneer Square: The city’s foundation point isn’t the prettiest of plazas, but it’s host to the Seattle Underground Tour — which offers trips into the subterranean remnants of the first, pre-fire Seattle (from $19/£12).
Lake Washington: Seattle is outlined by water, but Lake Washington, on its east flank, is arguably prettier than oceanic Elliott Bay. Venture to the city’s ‘other side’, four miles from Downtown, and you see it at play: fishing, swimming or dozing on grassy Madrona Beach.
Olympic National Park: Easily reached by ferry from Elliott Bay to Bainbridge Island (wsdot.wa.gov/ferries), Olympic National Park is the protected part of Seattle’s guardian peninsula, including the eight-mile Boulder Creek Trail. Or, watch the Pacific roar at Ruby Beach.
Like a local
Buck the trend: Coffee-worshipping Seattle was the birthplace of Starbucks in 1971. This global giant’s original cafe is on Pike Place, but there are endless alternatives, including Local Color, which peddles paintings as well as caffeine.
Left Bank Books: A market stalwart, this literary hotspot fits neatly into Seattle’s on-the-outside world view, selling ‘independent, radical and small-press titles’.
Vain: The key branch of this Seattle hair and beauty salon at 2018 First Avenue has a back-story: it was once one of the city’s tiny gig venues, and one of the proving grounds of the grunge scene.
Westlake Center: Proof that Seattle is not all hipster values and outré trinkets, this mainstream mall offers over 60 possibilities for retail therapy. It also leads to the Seattle Center Monorail, which runs to the Space Needle.
Where to stay
Warwick Seattle Hotel: A three-star slotted into the happy-hour, fun-zone of Belltown, the Warwick is ideally positioned for those who prefer to stumble home, in the shadow of the Space Needle.
Hyatt At Olive 8: Directly uphill from Pike Place Market, it’s all in the name at this modern super-hotel. It garnishes its big-brand presence with a colossal indoor swimming pool and a fab spa.
Inn At The Market: Immersed in the comings and goings of Pike Place Market, this discreet boutique retreat overlooks the harbour to splendid effect, and has a roof terrace where you can grab a coffee — or a cocktail.
Where to eat
Athenian: This reliable restaurant has been part of the Pike Place complex since 1909. It serves a slow-cooked Alaskan King Salmon fillet for $19 (£12), while its rear windows peer out on Elliott Bay.
Icon Grill: Decorated with gentle glass creations by American artist Martin Blank, the kitchen matches this delicate touch with heavy slabs of meat — such as a hardwood-grilled rib-eye for $28 (£18).
Staple & Fancy: Take a taxi ride north of the centre to Ballard, where this cutting-edge affair cooks succulent Italian dishes under star chef Ethan Stowell. Seared sea scallops are $29 (£18.50) and the gut-busting ‘Chef’s Menu’ $55 (£35).
The Crocodile: Maybe the most celebrated of Seattle’s small-scale choices for live music — and the definition of Belltown’s garrulous atmosphere. Grab a beer, squeeze in at the back, and catch a brand new local band.
Von’s Gustobistro: A Seattle institution, which lays claim to 1,000 different types of spirits. A giddy boast to be sure, but peruse the massed ranks of bottles behind the bar and you can believe the hype.
Elysian Capitol Hill Brewery: Making merry on the long drag of East Pike Street, this brew-pub, whose vats are lined up along the walls, pumps out its own cask ales to a clientele that won’t go home.
British Airways flies the only direct service between Seattle and the UK (Heathrow), but connected services are on offer via United, American Airlines, Delta and Icelandair (the latter with the exotic choice of a pause in Reykjavik).
Average flight time: 10h
The Central Link (see ‘Like a local’ p.145) connects the airport to the city between 5am and 1am. A ride to Pioneer Square costs $3 (£1.90), and takes 40 minutes. Taxis into town cost about $40 (£26) and take around 20 minutes.
When to go
Seattle is saddled with the nickname ‘Rainy City’, which seems fair considering it’s in the top five US cities for days of precipitation (150 a year). However, from June to September, it also basks in dry summers, and with temperatures hovering in the mid-20C, they’re far from oppressive.
Need to know
Visas: British nationals need an ESTA permit to visit the USA ($14/£9)
Currency: US dollar. £1 = $1.56.
International dial code: 00 1.
City code: 206.
Time difference: GMT –8.
The Rough Guide to Seattle by Jeff Dickey. RRP: £10.99
Lonely Planet: Seattle by Brendan Sainsbury and Celeste Brash. RRP: £13.49
elephantineblog.com: This City Of Mine (A Guide to Seattle)
How to do it
British Airways Holidays offers seven nights from £1,428 per person (two sharing) at the Hyatt at Olive 8, including direct flights.
America As You Like It has a 10-day ‘Washington State-Olympic Peninsula’ road trip, with three nights in Seattle. From £1,157 per person, including flights, hotels, car hire.
Published in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)