Of course, Seattle's most famous architectural landmark is the Space Needle, which, when it was built for the 1962 World's Fair, was envisioned as the look of things to come. Now that the 21st century is upon us, the reality of 21st-century architecture is far stranger than was imagined. Frank Gehry's design for the building that now houses EMP/SFM (Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum;) is one of the city's most bizarre buildings, but it faces stiff competition from the skewed glass-cube architecture of the Seattle Central Library.
Space Needle Alternatives
If you don't want to deal with the crowds at the Space Needle but still want an elevated downtown view, you have some alternatives. One is the big, black Columbia Center (tel. 206/386-5151), at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Columbia Street. At 943 feet, this is the tallest building in Seattle (twice as tall as the Space Needle), with more stories (76, to be exact) than any other building west of the Mississippi. On the 73rd floor is an observation deck with views that dwarf those from the Space Needle. Admission is only $5 for adults and $3 for seniors and children. It's open Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 4:30pm. For a view that will only cost you the price of a cup of latte, head to the Starbucks on the 40th floor of this high-rise. The view isn't quite as good as it is from the observation deck, but it comes close.
Not far from Columbia Center is the Smith Tower, 506 Second Ave. (tel. 206/622-4004; www.smithtower.com). Opened in 1914, this was Seattle's first skyscraper and, for 50 years, the tallest building west of Chicago. Although the Smith Tower has only 42 stories, it still offers excellent views from its 35th-floor observation deck, which surrounds the ornate Chinese Room, a banquet hall with a carved ceiling. A lavish lobby and original manual elevators make this a fun and historic place to take in the Seattle skyline. Deck hours vary with the time of year and scheduled events in the Chinese Room; check in advance to be sure it will be open when you want to visit. Admission is $7.50 for adults, $6 for seniors and students, and $5 for children 6 to 12.
If you've ever seen a photo of the Space Needle framed by Mount Rainier and the high-rises of downtown Seattle, it was probably taken from Kerry Viewpoint, on Queen Anne Hill. If you want to take your own drop-dead gorgeous photo of the Seattle skyline from this elevated perspective, head north (uphill) from Seattle Center on the very steep Queen Anne Avenue North, and turn left on West Highland Drive. When you reach the park, you'll immediately recognize the view.
Another great panorama is from the water tower in Volunteer Park, on Capitol Hill at East Prospect Street and 14th Avenue East.
Pole to Pole
Totem poles are the quintessential symbol of the Northwest, and although this Native American art form actually comes from farther north, there are quite a few totem poles around Seattle. The four in Occidental Park at Occidental Avenue South and South Washington Street were carved by local artist Duane Pasco. The tallest is 35-foot-tall The Sun and Raven, which tells the story of how Raven brought light into the world. Next to this pole is Man Riding a Whale; this type of totem pole was traditionally carved to help villagers during their whale hunts. The other two figures that face each other are symbols of the Bear Clan and the Welcoming Figure.
A block away, in the triangular plaza of Pioneer Place, you can see Seattle's most famous totem pole. It is a replacement for the plaza's original pole, which was damaged by an arsonist's fire in 1938. Seattle businessmen on a cruise to Alaska stole the original pole from a Tlingit village near Fort Tongass, Alaska, in 1899. According to local legend, after the pole caught fire in 1938, the city fathers sent a check to the tribe with a request for a new totem pole. The Tlingit response was, "Thanks for paying for the first one. Send another check for the replacement." The truth is far more prosaic: As part of a Civilian Conservation Corps program, the U.S. Forest Service paid Tlingit carver Charles Brown to create a new totem pole.
Up near Pike Place Market, at Victor Steinbrueck Park, which is at the intersection of Pike Place, Virginia Street, and Western Avenue, are two 50-foot-tall totem poles. To see the largest concentration of totem poles in the city, visit the University of Washington's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. If you take the Tillicum Village tour, you'll also see totem poles outside the longhouse on Blake Island where the dinner and masked-dance performances are held.