My visit to Seattle originated with a need to see the Dave Matthews Band at The Gorge, a spectacular outdoor concert venue on the Columbia River about two-and-a-half hours southeast of the city (Yes, it was a need. Dave fans get it.) But I didn’t want to camp out there alone, and there were no hotels available. Expand the map view, and one of my bucket-list cities pops up.
Kermit was wrong: It is easy being green. You laugh, but being green is a way of life in Seattle. I don’t think that’s why they call it the Emerald City, but it fits. Not in a “Gosh, we’re trying really hard to do this trendy thing” kind of way, but in a “It’s the right thing to do, so why would we do any different?” kind of way.
Seattle also is green in a lush, verdant sort of way. The Midwest is green with vast mowed lawns and fields of soybeans and corn. But Seattle is green with towering pines and leafy trees and thick forests that seem to conceal quiet secrets, creeping right up to the edge of civilization. I didn’t have a chance to explore the forests of the Pacific Northwest on this trip (I’ll never find the bottom of my bucket list), but even urban spaces are a tangle of green growth.
It may have a little something to do with all that rain.
Apparently it’s usually relatively dry and sunny in early September in Seattle. One resident claimed that they enjoy about 58 nice days a year, and this was prime time. But my experience was more like the other 307 days. The sky was usually gray, it was usually raining, and the air was downright chilly. Many mornings, while waiting for the train, I could see my breath.
It’s no surprise that Seattle is famous for coffee, because for me, it was hard to get out of bed.
There’s a certain mystic beauty to the gray, enhanced by the polite and considerate calm of most everyone I encountered. People on the train were conscientious, picking up litter, sharing seats, obeying the rules. Trains and buses ran on time in a very civilized way. Public-facing workers — servers, tour organizers, retailers — were cordial and helpful.
The one exception was the population of unhoused people, which was omnipresent and, at times, somewhat assertive or disturbing. Of course all large cities struggle with this sad social issue and its ever-evolving nature. Seattle’s homeless population was in the news again while I was there, the subject of another new initiative to disperse the tent cities. From my inexperienced perspective, however, the greater challenge was the dispersed nature of people struggling with mental illness and addiction seemingly at every turn downtown, caught in the swirl of businesspeople and tourists.
I mention the train often because I managed to spend a week in Seattle without renting a car, except to drive to The Gorge one day. My VRBO — a super-cute, clean, well-equipped cottage in the Columbia City neighborhood — was just a block and a half from a Seattle Link stop. I took the train there from SeaTac Airport, and I took it to all the popular tourist destinations downtown. I had to navigate the bus system to rent my car and for a few other destinations. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re better at figuring out timetables and routes than I. (See our blog on using public transportation for some helpful tips.) But the train is the berries.
Seattle is very hilly, so be prepared if you plan to walk a lot, as I did. Bring comfortable shoes and get ready to work those glutes.
Seattle is also wonderfully diverse, which may come as a surprise to anyone expecting only Bill Gates clones. In particular, there’s a large Asian population and a vibrant International District, including Chinatown. Seattle also is home to a significant gay and lesbian population; in fact, the tourism brochure that I ordered in advance of my trip led with that. And there’s the techie scene and the urban beard dude scene and the granola scene.
I got my hustle on to see as much of the city as possible in my brief visit. While I didn’t do it all (so I didn’t get to the EMP — yes, I’m forevermore a loser), here’s what I did wedge in:
Pike Place Market. I just gave my whole day to it, and I was glad I did. Go hungry — there are culinary delights of every kind. And eat up, because you’ll need the energy to cover every nook and cranny, the little warrens of shops underground, the crowds of produce stands, the acres of gorgeous flowers. I was overwhelmed and lost till I stumbled upon an information stand and grabbed a map. Highlights:
- Discovering a Starbucks just down the block from the original where I wouldn’t have to wait in line for hours. You can admire the original from the outside.
- Watching cheese being made in a vat the size of a small swimming pool and sampling the results.
- Reading the quirky, funny signs on the produce: “For the love of God, don’t touch it, really. Someone’s gonna eat that.”
- Getting a breath of fresh air (tinged with a tiny whiff of pot) on the plaza on the north end when the sun made a brief appearance.
- Learning that Made in Washington would ship any size package for $4.99. My college kid loved that box of gourmet goodies.
- Smelling bucket after bucket of fresh blooms along an entire city block.
- Eating fresh oysters while watching the guys throwing the fish.
The Gum Wall, to be honest, was something of a lowlight. It was actually pretty disgusting. (This girl travels with Lysol Wipes.) But you should at least take a peek.
The Bainbridge Ferry. What a bargain at just $9.25 round trip! The ferry runs frequently and on time. It’s just a half-hour trip each way but long enough to relax. The view, of course, is stunning, looking back at all of Seattle on the shoreline. But the ferry itself is pretty fascinating too. It’s huge. It holds hundreds of cars, hundreds of people, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and it moves fast. Bainbridge itself is a cute little tourist mecca, with lots of pricey boutiques and not enough restaurants along the main street.
The Seattle Great Wheel. Surprisingly, this giant Ferris wheel was one of the highlights of my trip. It’s a simple thing — you board down in the heart of the touristy waterfront and ride around three times. But the views were amazing, and it was so peaceful. Maybe I’m biased because I rode it at sunset during one of the only sunsets I saw during my trip.
The Space Needle. I can say I’ve been there and done that. You kind of have to, if you go to Seattle, right? And you can get a discount pass if you choose to visit both the Space Needle and the Chihuly Museum…
The Chihuly Gardens and Glass. I’m a big fan of the glass artist’s work. And the museum was filled with prime examples, rather gaudy and glossy like Vegas. But my favorite was the garden, where his organic forms and brilliant colors were perfectly, artistically woven into natural settings — flowers, plants, trees, grasses. I could hardly believe how wonderfully each enhanced the other.
Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour. Frankly, there’s not a lot to see in the tunnels. But our tour guide was hysterical. If one could win an award for funny poo puns, she’d be a gold medalist. Because there’s a lot of poo (and sex) in Seattle’s pioneer history, and keeping it clean and entertaining for a family audience is a feat.
I was traveling alone, so I didn’t eat at many restaurants. But I did enjoy several dinners and picked up lots of breakfasts at PCC Natural Food Market, much like a Whole Foods. It kinda fit with the green Seattle vibe anyway.
The Emerald City was a great adventure. There was something wonderful about being surrounded by environmentalists and conscientious thinkers. Green is good, my friends! Now, if we could only do something about that gray…
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