Face it, the Pacific Northwest is hip -- so hip that even though its economy's been as much in the pits as everyplace else's these past few years (and maybe worse, with unemployment hovering near 11%), people continue to move here, as if, hey, who needs a job when the place is so friendly, green, and groovy?
But I digress. Beyond hip, and beyond things like Microsoft, Intel, and governors who are all jazzed on turning their states into centers of electric car manufacturing, there's tourism, and where there's tourism -- along with large, deep, navigable bodies of water -- there's cruising. Seattle, the Pacific Northwest's largest city, is at the center of all that, set between Puget Sound and Lake Washington and a nearly straight shot up to the Inside Passage. In the past few years, the city has emerged from the shadow of neighboring Vancouver, BC, to become a huge center of cruising, home to roughly half the ships sailing north to Alaska between May and September. Good timing, too: Over the past decade, Seattle has upped its game by building two new downtown sports stadiums, a new and architecturally significant library, a new opera house and symphony hall, a phenomenal urban sculpture park, and countless new hotels, restaurants, and shops.
Cruise ships dock at Pier 66, the Bell Street Terminal, right in downtown Seattle near Pike Place Market, or at the Pier 91, the Smith Cove Cruise Terminal, located at 2001 W. Garfield St. at the north end of the downtown waterfront. See www.portseattle.org/seaport/cruise/ for maps and other information. If you're arriving by air, you'll fly into the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (www.portseattle.org/seatac/), located about 14 miles south of Seattle and connected to the city by I-5. Generally, allow 30 minutes for the trip between the airport and downtown. Seattle's downtown runs on a northwest-southeast axis along the waterfront. In that direction it's eminently walkable, but start heading northeast from the water and you'll hit hills that are nearly vertical -- Mother Nature's own Stairmaster. Seattle Metro (http://transit.metrokc.gov) provides free bus transportation within the downtown area (from Battery Street to South Jackson Street north-south and from 6th Avenue to the waterfront east-west) between the hours of 6am and 7pm. The company also operates a waterfront service using old-fashioned streetcars, some in the ride-free area, some outside. The most it will cost you is $2.50 one-way. On weekends and holidays, you can also get a 1-day unlimited-ride pass for $4 at various locations. Visitors heading from downtown to the famous Space Needle can ride the Seattle Center Monorail (www.seattlemonorail.com) for $2 one-way.
Sightseeing in Seattle's Downtown
The Seattle Waterfront, along Alaskan Way from Yesler Way North to Bay Street and Myrtle Edwards Park, is the city's single most popular attraction, which is both bad (think crowds and some tacky souvenir shops) and good, home as it is to Pike Place Market, the Seattle Aquarium, the world-class Olympic Sculpture Park, and a whole lot of waterborne scenery -- sailboats, ferries, cruise and cargo ships, windsurfers, and anglers on Puget Sound, with the Olympic Mountains providing a mythic backdrop.
Off First Avenue at Pike and Pine, the historic Pike Place Market (www.pikeplacemarket.org) was originally a farmers' market and is now a National Historic District, home to more than 200 local craftspeople and artists who sell their creations here throughout the year. It's one of the city's great destinations for both locals and visitors, loaded with excellent restaurants and shops and ornamented by street performers. The market is currently in the midst of an extensive 4-year renovation designed to shore up its century-old buildings and modernize their systems, but as of two weeks ago that work was having little or no impact on visitors' experience of the place. Highlights include the famous Pike Place Fish Market (www.pikeplacefish.com), where fishmongers hurl their wares through the air in a sort of ichthyological performance art, and The Pike Brewing Company (www.pikebrewing.com), a huge, bustling brewpub serving excellent beer and a good menu -- though you'll probably have to wait for a table.
Just steps away at Pier 59, the Seattle Aquarium, 1483 Alaskan Way (www.seattleaquarium.org), has well-designed exhibits dealing with the water worlds of the Puget Sound region. The underwater dome is the aquarium's largest and most amazing exhibit, a round undersea room (accessible via a short tunnel) where visitors are surrounded by a fish-filled 400,000-gallon tank. Admission is $16 adults, $11 kids, plus extra for special exhibits.
About a mile northwest of Pike Place (and only a few blocks west of the Bell Street Cruise Terminal), the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park, 2901 Western Ave. at Broad Street (www.seattleartmuseum.org/visit/OSP), is a 9-acre outdoor site, opened in 2007, where world-class sculpture by the likes of Richard Serra, Alexander Calder, Mark Di Suvero, and Tony Smith sits amid lawns planted with native ground cover, all with wide views of the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound. It's a stunning spot, and admission is free. Be sure to check out Mark Dion's Neukom Vivarium, which sits at the corner of Elliott and Broad. Mixing art with botany and conservation, it's an 84-foot greenhouse that houses a decaying 60-foot tree trunk, on which is growing a huge panoply of plants, lichen, and fungi. Why's it art? Because "its ongoing decay and renewal represent nature as a complex system of cycles and processes"? Because Mark Dion says it is? Who knows. Argue about the aesthetic theory some other time, but do visit, 'cause it's very, very cool.
About five blocks to the northeast along Broad Street, the Seattle Center was the epicenter of the 1962 World's Fair and is still home to the fair's futuristic Space Needle, 203 Sixth Ave. N. (www.spaceneedle.com), a 607-foot tower that's become the symbol of Seattle. At 518 feet above ground level, the views from its observation deck are stunning. High-powered telescopes let you zoom in, and there's a lounge and two very expensive restaurants inside. Admission is $16 adults, $9 kids ages 4 to 13. Next door, the Frank GehryÂ?designed building that looks like it's in the process of melting is home to the Experience Music Project and the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame (www.empsfm.org). Inside, the music part of the building has displays, interactive music rooms, performance spaces, galleries, and research facilities dedicated to all phases of American popular music, while the Sci-Fi Museum holds artifacts spanning the history of science fiction, in print, film, and TV. Admission is $15 adults, $12 kids ages 5 to 17, free for kids 4 and under.
Back south of Pike Place, the Olympic Sculpture Park's parent, the Seattle Art Museum, sits inland at the corner of First Avenue and Union Street (www.seattleartmuseum.org). Hugely expanded in 2007, it's a repository for everything from old masters and Andy Warhol to African masks, and has one of the nation's premier collections of Northwest Coast Indian art. Its entrance is unmistakable, fronted by Jonathan Borofsky's giant, kinetic Hammering Man sculpture. Admission is $15 for adults, $9 for teens 13 to 17, free for kids 12 and under.
Along the waterfront at Pier 57, the Bay Pavilion (www.pier57seattle.com) has a vintage carousel and a video arcade nestled among shops and restaurants. At Piers 55 and 56, boats leave for 1.5-hour harbor cruises, and at Pier 54, you'll find companies offering sea-kayak tours, sport-fishing trips, jet-boat tours, and bicycle rentals. Pier 54 is also home to Ye Olde Curiosity Shop (www.yeoldecuriosityshop.com), a cross between a souvenir store and Ripley's Believe It or Not. It's weird! It's tacky! It's always packed! See Siamese-twin calves, a natural mummy, the Lord's Prayer on a grain of rice, a narwhal tusk, shrunken heads, and a 67-pound snail. The collection of oddities was started by Joe Standley in 1899. Oh, and they sell a lot of wacky stuff, too.
South of downtown but before you reach the enormous Quest Field and Safeco Field, the historic Pioneer Square area has the country's largest concentration of Victorian-Romanesque architecture, the city's greatest concentration of art galleries (some of which specialize in Native American art), cobblestone plazas, a great bookstore (the Elliot Bay Book Co.; www.elliottbaybook.com), and lots of bars.
Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Washington State Forum today.