Walking Tour 2: The Pioneer Square Area
Start: Pioneer Place at the corner of Yesler Way and First Avenue.
Finish: DRY Soda tasting room, First Avenue South.
Time: Approximately 5 hours, including shopping, dining, and museum stops.
Best Times: Weekdays, when the neighborhood and the Underground Tour are not so crowded.
Worst Times: Weekends, when the area is very crowded, and Mondays, when galleries are closed.
In the late 19th century, Pioneer Square was the heart of downtown Seattle, so when a fire raged through these blocks in 1889, the city was devastated. Residents and merchants quickly began rebuilding and set about to remedy many of the infrastructure problems that had faced Seattle before the fire. The rebuilding outpaced the city's plans to raise the level of city streets, and by the time streets were raised, many of the Pioneer Square area's buildings had already been constructed. Consequently, the street level of today was originally the second story for many of the neighborhood's buildings. You can learn all about this area's history on one of the tours operated by the Underground Tour.
Today this small section of the city is all that remains of old Seattle, and because one architect, Elmer Fisher, was responsible for the design of many of the buildings constructed after the fire, the neighborhood has a distinctly uniform architectural style.
While wandering these streets, don't bother looking for a specific site called Pioneer Square; you won't find it. The name actually applies to the whole neighborhood, not a plaza surrounded by four streets, as you would surmise. Do keep your eye out for interesting manhole covers, many of which were cast with maps of Seattle or Northwest Coast Indian designs. Also be aware that this neighborhood, the original Skid Row, still has several missions and homeless shelters -- consequently, expect to see a lot of street people in the area.
To get the most out of downtown Seattle's only historic neighborhood, I've outlined a walking tour that takes in shops, art galleries, and historic buildings.
Start your tour of this historic neighborhood at the corner of Yesler Way and First Avenue on:
1. Pioneer Place
The triangular plaza at the heart of Pioneer Square is the site of both a bust of Chief Sealth and a Tlingit totem pole. Also on this plaza is a 1905 cast-iron pergola that was reconstructed after a truck crashed into it back in 2001.
Facing the square are several historic buildings, including the gabled Lowman Building and three buildings noteworthy for their terra-cotta facades. In one of these buildings, at 608 First Ave., you'll find the ticket counter for:
2. The Underground Tour
This tour takes a look at the Pioneer Square area from beneath the sidewalks. The tour (tel. 206/682-4646) is a great introduction to the history of the area (if you don't mind off-color jokes) and actually spends quite a bit of time aboveground, duplicating much of the walking tour outlined here.
Running along the south side of Pioneer Place is:
3. Yesler Way
This was the original Skid Row. In Seattle's early years, logs were skidded down this road to a lumber mill on the waterfront, and the road came to be known as Skid Road. These days, Yesler Way is trying hard to live down its reputation, but because of the number of missions in this neighborhood, a lot of street people are still in the area (and they'll most certainly be asking you for change as you wander the streets).
4. Take a Break
If you skipped the Underground Tour, then cross Yesler Way to the Starbucks at Yesler and First Avenue, where you can pick up a latte to help fuel you through this walking tour. Right next door to Starbucks is Cow Chips, 102A First Ave. S. (tel. 206/292-9808), where you can get one of the best (though messiest) chocolate chip cookies you'll ever eat.
With cookie and coffee in hand, glance up Yesler Way, past a triangular parking deck (a monstrosity that prompted the movement to preserve the rest of this neighborhood), and you will see:
5. Smith Tower
This building, at 506 Second Ave. (tel. 206/622-4004), was the tallest building west of the Mississippi when it was completed in 1914. The observation floor, near the top of this early skyscraper, is open to the public and provides a very different perspective of Seattle than does the Space Needle. The ornate lobby and elevator doors are also worth checking out.
Now walk back down to First Avenue and turn left, away from Pioneer Place. At the next corner, Washington Street, look across First Avenue and admire the:
6. Maynard Building
This ornate building, which was named for Seattle founding father David "Doc" Maynard, was the site of Seattle's first bank.
Heading up Washington Street away from the water for half a block will bring you to:
7. Laguna Vintage American Pottery Shop
This vintage pottery shop, at 116 S. Washington St. (tel. 206/682-6162), specializes in mid-20th-century pottery, primarily from California. Fiesta, Bauer, and Weller are all well represented.
From here, head back to First Avenue and turn left. On this block, you'll find:
8. Fireworks Fine Crafts Gallery
This gallery, at 210 First Ave. S. (tel. 206/682-9697), sells colorful and unusual crafts by Northwest artisans.
Next, at 214 First Ave. S., you'll come to the:
9. Grand Central Arcade
Inside this small, European-style shopping arcade, with its brick walls and wine-cellar-like basement, are several interesting shops and studios.
10. Take a Break
In the arcade, you'll also find the Grand Central Bakery (tel. 206/622-3644), plus some tables and even a fireplace, which together make this a great place to stop for a pastry to nibble on while you walk.
Leaving Grand Central Arcade through the door opposite where you entered will bring you to:
11. Occidental Park
On this shady, cobblestone plaza stand four totem poles carved by Northwest artist Duane Pasco. The tallest is the 35-foot-high 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.
This shady park serves as a gathering spot for homeless people, so you may not want to linger. However, before leaving the park, be sure to notice the grouping of bronze statues, the:
12. Seattle Fallen Firefighters' Memorial
This memorial is a tribute to four firefighters who died in a 1995 warehouse fire in Chinatown.
The statues are adjacent to South Main Street, and if you walk up this street to the corner of Second Avenue, you will come to:
13. Waterfall Garden Park
The roaring waterfall here looks as if it were transported straight from the Cascade Range. The park is built on the site of the original United Parcel Service (UPS) offices and makes a wonderful place for a rest or a picnic lunch.
Continue up Main Street to the corner of Third Avenue South.
14. Take a Break
For the perfect picnic repast, stand in line for a sandwich of house-cured salami from Salumi, 309 Third Ave. S (tel. 206/621-8772). This hole in the wall, owned by celebrity chef Mario Batali's father, is legendary for its superb cured meats. Arrive early or late to avoid the longest line. With sandwich in hand, head back to Waterfall Garden Park.
Across from Salumi, at 220 Third Ave. S., you'll find another of my favorite Seattle galleries, the:
15. Foster/White Gallery
This gallery (tel. 206/622-2833), one of the largest in the West, is best known for its art glass. It's the Seattle gallery for famed glass artist Dale Chihuly and always has several of his works on display.
Now walk south on Third Avenue South to South Jackson Street and turn right. Continue to the corner of Second Avenue South, where, at 319 Second Ave. S., you'll find the:
16. Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
Not really a park, this small museum (tel. 206/220-4240) is dedicated to the history of the 1897-98 Klondike gold rush, which helped Seattle grow from an obscure town into a booming metropolis.
17. Take a Break
If it's time for another latte, cross South Jackson Street to Zeitgeist Art/Coffee, 171 S. Jackson St. (tel. 206/583-0497), which serves good coffee in a sort of vintage bookstore setting.
One block west is Occidental Mall, where you'll find a couple of art galleries, including:
18. Davidson Galleries
You never know what to expect when you walk through the front door here at 313 Occidental Ave. S. (tel. 206/624-7684). The gallery sells everything from 16th-century prints to contemporary prints and drawings by Northwest artists.
19. Grover/Thurston Gallery
Colorful, cartoonish, whimsical art -- often with an edginess to it -- is frequently featured at this gallery at 309 Occidental Ave. S. (tel. 206/223-0816), just down from Davidson Galleries. Lots of abstract art also makes it onto the walls here.
Around the corner from these two galleries, at 119 S. Jackson St., you'll find the:
20. Stonington Gallery
This gallery (tel. 206/405-4040) is one of Seattle's top showcases for contemporary Native American art and crafts. It displays a good selection of Northwest Coast Indian masks, woodcarvings, prints, and jewelry.
Continue to the corner of First Avenue, where you'll find:
21. Northwest Fine Woodworking
This large store, at 101 S. Jackson St. (tel. 206/625-0542), sells exquisite handcrafted wooden furniture, as well as some smaller pieces. It's definitely worth a visit.
Cross South Jackson Street, and on the opposite corner, you'll find:
22. Flury & Company Ltd.
This gallery, at 322 First Ave. S. (tel. 206/587-0260), specializes in prints by famed early-20th-century Seattle photographer Edward S. Curtis, who is known for his portraits of Native Americans. There's also an excellent selection of antique Native American artifacts.
Go back across South Jackson Street and walk along First Avenue South. In the middle of the block, you'll come to the:
23. DRY Soda tasting room
Maybe you've been to a winery's tasting room, but I bet you've never been to a soda tasting room. Then again, DRY Soda, 410 First Ave. S. (tel. 888/379-7632 or 206/652-2345; www.drysoda.com), doesn't make your average soda, and they feel that they should let people taste them first before they buy. Flavors include cucumber, rhubarb, lavender, lemongrass, blood orange, vanilla bean, and juniper berry. The tasting room is usually open Monday through Saturday from noon to 5pm.
24. Winding Down
If, after tasting DRY Soda's unusual beverages, you find yourself craving something a little stronger and more traditional, continue south one more block to Elysian Fields, 542 First Ave. S. (tel. 206/382-4498), which is one of my favorite Seattle brewpubs.