A quick 360-degree scan of the horizon on a sunny day in Seattle will present a mesmerizing view, over the shimmering waters of Puget Sound to the snow-covered peaks of the Olympic Mountains to the west and the massive mound of Mount Rainier to the east. In between, there’s the iconic Space Needle and all the towers of downtown Seattle and, more recently, the South Lake Union area where Amazon is building its corporate world headquarters. With sights like these, it’s easy to see why people would want to live and visit here. The 1993 movie Sleepless in Seattle helped to romanticize a city that nobody saw as particularly romantic—until the tech boom brought Seattle into the national consciousness and gave the city and its residents a new edge of sophistication. It’s now Tech Central and, inevitably, is losing some of its old, gritty flavor.
Although the weather in Seattle is notoriously drizzly, the residents for the most part don’t let precipitation stand between them and the outdoors. The temptation is too great to head for the hills, the river, the beach, the Sound, or the San Juan Islands. Consequently, life in Seattle tends to revolve as much around parks, gardens, waterfronts, and other outdoor spaces and activities as it does around such traditional urban pastimes as shopping, the performing arts, and dining. And when the city’s green spaces aren’t wild enough to satisfy the craving for an outdoor adventure, there is something wilder close at hand. If you live in Seattle, you can be in a national park, national forest, or state park within an hour or two.
The region’s outdoors aesthetic does not, however, preclude a strong support of the arts. The Seattle Opera is one of the finest companies in the country (well known for its stagings of Wagner’s Ring cycle), as is the Seattle Symphony, which performs in downtown’s Benaroya Hall. Seattle also has the best theater scene on the West Coast. (Seattle is where playwright August Wilson got his start and made his mark before Broadway.)
The visual arts aren’t overlooked either. The Seattle Art Museum Museum had to add new galleries to accommodate its ever-growing collections, which provide an overview of regional art from the carved, woven, and painted objects created by native tribes of the Pacific Northwest to the shimmering Modernist canvases of the 1950s Northwest School and on to major works by world-renowned artists today. Chihuly Garden and Glass, a flamboyant museum dedicated exclusively to the work of Tacoma-born glass-master Dale Chihuly opened next to the Space Needle in 2012. The Olympic Sculpture Park, a free, open-air sculpture museum at the north end of the waterfront, features works by an international roster of sculptors.
The city supports other museums, too, and two old ones are being given new homes. The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington and the Nordic Heritage Center in Ballard are both scheduled to move into brand new museums in 2019 and 2018, respectively.
Seattle’s location amid great natural splendor and its up-to-the-nanosecond trendoid consciousness adds to the pleasures and excitement of a visit. Yes, it does rain a lot, but it’s supposed to. That’s what this northerly Pacific Northwest maritime climate west of the Cascades does: It precipitates. Without those gray, misty days with the smell of saltwater in the air, it wouldn’t be Seattle—and you might not appreciate the clear days, when the Olympic Mountains glow far across the water to the west and Mount Rainier appears majestically to the east. Nor, without the precip, would you see as much green. If you look around at the green coniferous forests that are another characteristic of this moist, temperate climate, you’ll understand why Seattle’s nickname is The Emerald City. The name has nothing to do with Oz, but there is a natural and self-made magic to the place. It’s casual and caffeinated, definitely into good food, arts, and recreation, and offers visitors plenty to see and do, along with a great big dose of fresh sea air.
It’s safe to say that when Seattle sees an opportunity, it takes it and runs, flies, jumps and builds. This opportunistic nature is what makes for its highs and lows, its booms and busts, and gives it the big city edge and push that Portland looks at half-longingly yet doesn’t quite covet. The collapse of the over-inflated real estate market was like a temporary blip in Seattle’s now-reheated economy, which has sent property values soaring even higher. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan company continues with its ambitious redevelopment of Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, now home to the world headquarters of Amazon and attracting new biotech companies. With the economy currently booming, Seattle building and development is back in full swing. Cranes rise up all over the South Lake Union area, which is quickly integrating with the rest of urban Seattle, and other building and rebuilding projects are advancing in downtown. Down on the waterfront, the new Seattle Great Wheel started spinning in 2013 and instantly became a new landmark.
The biggest building project in Seattle right now is not about construction but deconstruction. The horrible Alaskan Way Viaduct, put up in the 1950s directly next to the waterfront, effectively cutting off downtown from the harbor, is finally being dismantled. A giant tunnel will make the endless and noisy traffic along the waterfront disappear and the site of the viaduct will become a giant waterside park. This is a huge operation and will completely transform the city by bringing it back to the waterfront where it began. But what is actually happening with this highly anticipated project remains rather mysterious and the opening date is never fixed. Bertha, the huge boring machine used to create the tunnel, was damaged in 2014, and that delayed the project for months, perhaps years. In the meantime, lots of work has been done along the waterfront, including a new pavement with glass windows to let in light and help baby salmon find their way to the sea and back again.
Despite its reputation for foot dragging when it comes to public transit, Seattle finally got a light-rail system up and running (maybe taking a hint of transportation-savvy Portland) and has continued to expand it. The Link light-rail that runs between Seattle Tacoma International Airport and downtown Seattle opened a new extension north to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington in 2016. Seattle also has two new streetcar lines, one that runs from downtown to South Lake Union and another that runs north-south along Broadway on Capitol Hill. But Seattle also continues to have some of the worst traffic congestion outside of L.A. (or, now, Portland). If you visit with a car, avoid driving at rush hour or, better yet, avoid driving altogether.
The economic news has been brighter for aerospace giant Boeing, the region’s biggest employer, since the first of its new 787 Dreamliners finally took to the air in late 2009. Today, technology (Microsoft) and order-fulfillment (Amazon) are now key players in Seattle’s future.
Like any big city in a global economy, Seattle has seen its share of boom and bust. That, in fact, is what Seattle is all about. Economy aside, however, Seattleites continue to share a common interest in the outdoors, and it is this interest that tends to dominate the character of the Puget Sound region. If winters are long, gray, and rainy, well, you just put on a colorful rain jacket, fill the travel mug with a double tall latte, and head for the hills anyway.