The city is a damp green gem, with water and trees everywhere, and on clear days, spectacular views of the Olympic Mountains across the Puget Sound to the west, and Mount Rainier and the Cascades to the east. Within the city limits, you will rarely be more than 100 yards from an espresso stand.
Seattleites nearly always describe a location in terms of its "neighborhood." This is partly because of a potentially confusing system of street addresses (see Getting Around). The breakdown into neighborhoods is informal and mutates over time, and while there are often signs on major arterial roads to let you know that you are "entering" a particular neighborhood, the placement of these signs is arbitrary.
Still, knowing what neighborhood you're looking for can be a good sanity check when you're looking for an address. A Seattleite would describe 1401 45th SW as being in West Seattle, and 1401 45th NE as being in the U District (University District), which you'll note are diagonally opposite on the map. See Getting Around for an explanation.
The map at right shows most of the neighborhoods that are most likely to interest a tourist. The Seattle City clerk maintains a better interactive map that starts with the high-level districts, but lets you click on those to get the detailed neighborhoods too.
Sodo - Originally "South of the Dome", referring to the now-demolished Kingdome. To keep some sense in the name, it is sometimes explained now as "South of Downtown".
Denny Regrade, South Lake Union, Cascade, Eastlake - As you go north and east from Belltown and then curve north around Lake Union, you imperceptably move through the Denny Regrade, South Lake Union (a.k.a Cascade), and finally Eastlake. The boundaries are vague, but you will regularly hear locals use these names to explain where something is.
Leschi and Madrona each include both part of the Lake Washington waterfront and the adjacent hills. Upper Madrona has a nice little shopping district; Leschi is mainly of interest for its waterfront parks.
The "East Side" means the region east of Lake Washington (off this map), comprising the suburbs of Bellevue, Kirkland, and Redmond.
Over the last 20 years, Seattle has become significantly more developed and less seedy with the massive influx of Microsoft money, but Pioneer Square is still the original Skid Row. (The myth says that Yesler Way was a "Skid Road" for logs being dragged from the forests down to Henry Yesler's lumber mill near Elliott Bay, although the mill was actually sited to take logs from the Bay, not from inland).
The weather can be rainy (usually just drizzly) any day of the year. Even the Fourth of July is not exempt from rain, but late July through early September are often sunny and sometimes even hot (record highs reach 100 degrees farenheit, average highs are more like 80 deg F). The short, dark and overcast winter days would be less bone-chilling if it would snow instead of drizzling a few degrees above freezing. As long as you don't kill yourself in the winter, the long, light summer days can be incredibly pleasant, and mostly make up for the depressing winters.
In approximately decreasing order of cost and convenience, from the airport to the city center, your choices are taxi, (rental) car, "super shuttle," shuttle/hotel bus, or Metro. It is also possible to bicycle.
It's about 20 minutes by car or taxi ($25 - $35) from the airport to the city center. There are $5 - $12.75 shuttle buses to the major hotels. If you're there on a weekend, you might want to shop the internet for rental cars, since they've been going for under $12/day plus roughly 18% tax (2003 through mid 2004).
Metro (city bus) routes 174 and 194 will also get you downtown. $1.75 one way, roughly 30 minutes plus 10-15 minutes waiting at the airport. Get exact change by buying a latte at the little Chinook coffee stand by the baggage claim downstairs, then exit the terminal, turn right and walk all the way to the south end of the building where you will find a couple of Metro bus stops with schedules posted.
Amtrak provides service from all along the west coast. The Amtrak Cascades runs three trains a day between Seattle and Eugene, Oregon, via Portland. The service is quicker and much more reliable than the regular Amtrak trains, which can be delayed for hours on the long (over a day) trip from California. If you're coming all the way from California, take an airplane.
Washington State Ferries connect downtown Seattle to Bainbridge Island, to Bremerton, and to Vashon Island, and connect West Seattle to Vashon Island and to Southworth (Key Peninsula). All ferries are for both vehicles and passenger except teh ferry between downtown Seattle and Vashon Island.
Seattle's street designations make sense once you understand them, but unless you do understand them, you can end up many miles away from your destination. Can you find NE 45th Street and 45th Avenue NE? What if it were written more compactly and confusingly as "NE 45th and 45th NE?" How far would "1401 45th SW" be from "1401 NE 45th?" (answer: 11 miles and 20 minutes driving)
All North-South streets are labeled "Avenues" while East-West streets are labeled "Streets". Streets that wind, meander, or run diagonally are typically labeled "Blvd", "Road", "Place", etc. From a high elevation the streets may appear to be laid out on a fairly consistent grid. However as in any city with a topography as varied as Seattle, most locations contain a spaghetti-like collection of roads that wind and run at arbitrary angles. If you're from, for instance, Phoenix, this can be disorienting but fun.
The city is roughly divided into a 3 by 3 grid (the ellipses indicate downtown):
NW | N | NE
W | ... | E
SW | S | SE
Street addresses in each sector are written with the area name BEFORE the street's number, e.g. NE 45th Street or NE 45th.
Avenue addresses in each sector are written with the area AFTER the avenue number, e.g. 45th Avenue NE or 45th NE.
So NE 45th and 45th NE is an intersection, does exist in the northeast part of the city, and turns out to be on the edge of Laurelhurst Park.
Note that downtown streets and avenues have no directional
If that were not complicated enough, the above discussion is actually inaccurate. For starters, there is no SE section (S is extra wide). But the real tricky thing is that there are two other sections where the roads going in one direction have directional designations, but the roads going in the other do not. East of downtown, avenues have no directional designation, but streets are preceded by 'E'. So, if you went east on Cherry Street from downtown, you would eventually hit the intersection of E Cherry and 23rd Ave (even though the expected intersection would be E Cherry and 23rd Ave E)
Similarly, just north of downtown (between Denny Way and the ship canal), streets have no directional designation, but avenues are followed by 'N'. So if you went north on 5th Ave from downtown, you would eventually reach the corner of 5th Ave N and Mercer Street (near the northeast corner of the Seattle Center).
If we call these two special areas 'north' and 'east', then the grid is actually 3 by 4, with no SE section and nothing west of downtown (there being no streets in the middle of Elliott Bay):
NW | N | NE
W | north | E
SW | S
You might also find your navigation complicated by a body of water (canals, lakes, the Puget Sound), the lack of a freeway overpass (I-5), or a steep hillside.
All in all, it's probably worth a few bucks to carry a map when you're trying to find an address (any good map of Seattle will have a diagram of the directional divisions). The important thing to remember if you venture out of downtown is to pay attention to the directional designations (or lack thereof) of any street address.
Metro Transit (electric or diesel city buses) actually works pretty well. The web trip planner is straightforward and accurate, as long as your bus is on time.
Buses in downtown Seattle are free between 6am and 7pm in the downtown core of Seattle. Just get on and get off. To read the details refer to Metro Free Bus info.
On weekends, you can often rent cars at locations throughout the city for well under $20/day. Look for $9.95/day weekend specials from Enterprise.
Bicycling is better than in most cities, except for the damp roads and frequent rain. Buy yourself some Gore-Tex raingear at REI's Flagship Store (222 Yale Ave). Many major roads in Seattle have properly maintained bicycle lanes, and drivers don't actively try to kill you as in, e.g., Pittsburgh.
Bicycle transportation in the greater part of Seattle is facilitated further by the Burke-Gilman Trail. This is a paved walking/jogging/cycling trail that winds its way from the north end of Lake Washington, down around the University of Washington, then west towards Ballard. The trail is on an old railroad right-of-way, so it maintains a very consistent elevation and is excellent for commuting or a casual day's touring.
All Metro buses are equipped to carry two bicycles on racks on the front, at no extra charge.
Space Needle - the most expensive elevator ride in America. You can get a comparably good view for free from Bhy Kracke Park (pronounced "By Crackie") atop Queen Anne Hill. There is an (also expensive) restaurant near the top that completes one revolution per hour as you eat. The sensation of looking up to discover a different view than when you looked down a few minutes ago doesn't nauseate most people.
Monorail - Not as expensive as the trip to the top of the Space Needle. If you need to get between Downtown and Seattle Center, it's perfectly good transportation and kind of cool, but it doesn't go anywhere else. The 1962 Alweg monorail probably won't be there much longer, because it's scheduled to be torn down to build a more extensive monorail system.
Pike Place Market - An enormous working public market and popular tourist draw. Much good food to be had. The selection of fresh flowers and vegetables is excellent. And yes, they really do throw the fish around. Look for big blond Johnny Hahn on his portable piano, or one of the other regular street musicians on a more conventional street instrument. Leave the more trafficked areas behind and go downstairs to explore the creepy, dusty corridors full of obscure little shops. The weird, cramped Parrot Store even further downstairs (on 1st Avenue) is worth the $0.50 admission if you like parrots.
The Seattle Public Library's Central Library - a dramatic glass and steel structure at 1000 Fourth Avenue in the heart of downtown Seattle, designed by Rem Koolhaas, that opened in May 2004. This is not an average public library. Seattle Public Library's neighborhood branches are good, too, but not tourist attractions.
Seattle Art Museum - Just down the street from Pike Place Market, with an expansion underway (began 2004; expected opening Spring 2007) that will increase gallery space by about 75%.
Museum of Flight, near Boeing Field. The name tells you right away whether you personally will find this interesting; at minimum, it will get you inside on a rainy day. The collection includes 131 aircraft and spacecraft ranging from wood and fabric crates to the SR-71 and, parked right in the front (car) parking lot, sleek Concorde. Don't bonk the landing gear with your car door!
The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (a.k.a. Ballard Locks): boats, a salmon ladder, and beautiful gardens, just west of the built-up center of the Ballard neighborhood. Buy greasy but delicious fish and chips at The Totem House (3058 NW 54th St, (206) 784-2300), then walk across the street and railroad tracks to the locks and feed your extra fries to the gulls.
Woodland Park Zoo (South Gate at N 50th St and Fremont Ave N, on Phinney Ridge), $10 for adults, is open 9:30am to four p.m in the winter,, five p.m. in the spring/fall, and six p.m. in the summer. It has mostly realistic and spacious habitats for the animals, unlike the animal jails of places like the London Zoo. The Raptor Show at 3pm on non-rainy weekends is particularly entertaining if you get the bird handler with the Bronx accent: "If dis boid's head were da same size as youses, its eyes would be da size of sawftbawls."
The Fremont Troll (in the Fremont neighborhood, under the north end of the Aurora Bridge). (The bridge is officially the "George Washington Memorial Bridge" but no one will know what you're talking about if you call it that.) The Troll is a concrete statue eating a full size Volkswagen Bug. Fremont itself is a worthwhile place to walk around and browse/eat.
Seafair runs in August, with the unpredictable Seafair Pirates kidnapping women (seriously) and plundering the town, starting with the Torchlight Parade (scheduled for July 31 in 2004). The hydroplane races and the Blue Angels bring fast boats and fast planes to Lake Washington.
Golden Gardens Park is a wonderful salt-water beach park in Ballard, past the locks and Shilshole Marina. Water around here is too cold to swim except for crazy and determined kids during the hottest months, but you can wade a little, walk the beach, make sand castles, claim a fire pit, watch wind surfers and ships go by. If it's clear there is a magnificent view of the Olympics on the other side of Puget Sound. Kids of all ages have endless muddy fun trying to dam up or re-route the fresh water stream flowing across one end of the beach.
Greenlake, north of the University District, has a 4km (2.75 mile) jogging trail around a lake (green, due to algae) and several sports fields. There's also an indoor swimming pool, which is much cleaner than the lake. If the signs warn that the lake is closed, don't ignore them - you can get "swimmer's itch" from the plentiful parasites spread through duck feces.
Gasworks Park in Wallingford is built on the former site of the city gas facility, and a few hulking tanks and pipes are preserved, giving it a slightly eerie feel. The hill at the center has a sundial on top, and offers a specatacular view of downtown across Union Bay. Don't eat the carcinogenic dirt!
Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill has a botanical conservatory and is the site of the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Bruce Lee and his son Brandon are buried in the adjacent Lakeview Cemetery.
Mountain biking. Try riding "The Tapeworm" in Philip Arnold Park in Renton, southeast of Seattle. Other trails are in this park, as well.
Visit the Center For Wooden Boats (1010 Valley St at the south end of Lake Union, (206) 382-2628) and poke around boats in various stages of restoration, from big broken hulks to gorgeous polished speedsters. Rent an antique boat and go for a row or a sail.
Rent a canoe from the WAC (Waterfront Activities Center, (206) 543-9433, at the University of Washington, a quarter mile south of Husky Stadium) where parking will suck except after noon on Saturdays. Open to the public (cheap, under $2/hr) and students (super-cheap). Paddle across the Lake Washington Ship Canal into the Arboretum and watch ducks, geese, swans, random migratory birds, and lots of other boats. If you're an experienced sailor, you can also rent a sailboat after a checkout with their staff.
Seattle is the home of Starbucks, SBC (now owned by Starbucks), and Tully's, but you can do a lot better for both coffee and atmosphere. There are over a hundred good locally owned coffeehouses, which contribute greatly to making Seattle what it is. See the district articles for more listings:
Zeitgeist at Second Avenue Extension and Jackson Street in Pioneer Square (+ three other locations). Elegant and arty.
Zoka, in what is variously known as the Meridian District or Tangletown, between Wallingford and Green Lake. Studenty place, great desserts, and they roast their own coffee.
C & P Coffee Company (in West Seattle, (206)933-3125). Offers awesome coffee from Lighthouse Roasters, free wireless access and live music.
Cafe Allegro, (4212 University Way). Fifty years ago they were beatniks, thirty years ago they were hippies, who knows what they're called today, but they still hang out here. Great for philosophical discussions, working on your Ph.D thesis, and wireless internet access.
Bars and Taverns
In Washington, "bars" have a full liquor license, "taverns" are restricted to beer, wine and cider. These are bars, unless otherwise noted. See the district articles for more listings.
Cyclops, 2421 First Ave (Belltown), good, hip (but not ultra-hip) bar, and not a bad restaurant either. Interesting neo-retro decor. The Ace Hotel is upstairs.
The Pink Door, 1919 Post Alley (Pike Place Market), reasonably good Italian restaurant, but it's a better bar, with a rather European market ambiance and a trellis-covered outdoor deck. Occasional cabaret-style live entertainment, no cover.
The Knarr Dive Bar (North end of University Ave. in the U District, before Ravenna Park). A refreshing alternative to the frat-bars further to the south. Popular with neo-hippies (there's a Grateful Dead cover band night). Pool tables and an Alpine-style shuffleboard.
Ivar's Salmon House, north of Lake Union. Various seafood entrees served in a neo-longhouse replete with totem poles and various other carved cedar adornments. Meals can be moderately expensive (~$25).
Ivar's Acres of Clams, north of Lake Union, attached to the outside of Ivar's Salmon House. Smoked salmon plate-lunch and fish-n-chips served outdoors (with a small indoor eating area) at a scenic downtown waterfront location -- share your meal with the seagulls! Ordering at the walk-up counter outside is inexpensive (~$7).
Ray's Boathouse and Ray's Cafe, on Shilshole Bay west of Ballard; great views and, in the downstairs Boathouse restaurant some of the best seafood cooking in the city, priced accordingly. Upstairs, the Cafe is more casual, the food is good but not comparable to downstairs, and you can keep it to $20 a person.
Upmarket Asian fusion food at Wild Ginger (just north of the Symphony Hall at 3rd and Union) and
Monsoon (obscurely located on 19th E, on the far side of Capitol Hill from downtown).
Both noisy, both great.
The Little Saigon area centered at 12th and Jackson east of Chinatown has plenty of inexpensive Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian eateries.
Pho Bac (1240 S. Jackson St.) is an oddly-located pink shack serving Vietnamese noodle soup. Don't ask for a menu; the only choices are regular or large, and what kind of beef you want.
Other Asian fare in the International District:
Canton Won Ton House (608 S. Weller) for Hong Kong noodle soup. Great with a side order of Chinese donuts.
Phnom Penh Noodle House (414 Maynard) has Cambodian noodles and rice dishes.
Szechuan Noodle Bowl (420 Eighth Ave S) for spicy beef noodles. The name of the shop in Chinese means "Great King of Beef Noodles".
Chinese seafood restaurants are a Seattle institution popular with locals, many with "live tanks". Not particularly elegant, but the food is great (if a bit venturesome for some tastes). They're closely clustered in or near the ID (International District), also known as Chinatown. (Seattlites have long called it the "International District" or simply "ID", but when the city put up signs, they didn't want to confuse the tourists, so "Chinatown" has been coming into use."
Aside from the seafood places, try Top Gun for dim sum lunch even on weekdays. (Many restaurants only serve dim sum on Sunday midday.) Roving waitresses bring carts of exotic (e.g., chicken feet) but often delicious food, then stamp your meal ticket each time you select a dish. When you're done, take your ticket up to the register and pay-per-dish. If you aren't a complete master of chopsticks, bring your own fork for the slippery shrimp and rice noodles, because the staff will rarely get around to bringing one.
Seattle is not known for Mexican food, but...
Agua Verde, (Boat Street) on Portage Bay between Lake Washington and Lake Union, just south and west of the University of Washington is a standout, attractive but informal, with creative, contemporary Mexican cooking, including a lot of great vegetarian and seafood options.
Mama's Mexican Kitchen (2234 2nd Ave between Blanchard and Bell) is not as innovative, but has plentiful portions of decent food and a fun, festive atmosphere.
Artisan bread abounds in Seattle. One of the best sources, Grand Central Bakery, also offers an excellent lunch in the arcade between 1st Avenue and Occidental Park, just off South Jackson. Cafeteria style (but stylish!). Not open on Sundays.
Lots of good Ethiopian food with entertaining names ("Yemisser Wat," "Atakilt Aleecha," and "Niter Kibeh") in the Central District.
Taste of India (Roosevelt Way around 55th Ave NE) is in a funky building that has been amateurishly expanded, but the food is quite good.
Best Western University Tower Hotel, 4507 Brooklyn Ave NE, 206-634-2000 or 1-800-899-0251. Formerly called the Meany, a mid-price hotel in the University District with a long history.
W Seattle, 1112 Fourth Ave. 877-W-HOTELS or 206-264-6000.
For the terminally hip traveler. Decorated in a stunning palette of black, black, silver, cream, and black.
The Edgewater, Pier 67, 2411 Alaskan Way, 1-800-624-0670 or 206-728-7000. Near the Pike Place Market, and famous for two things: you can literally fish right of out your window, and it was Led Zeppelin's favorite for trashing rooms.
Seattle Green Tortoise Hostel, 1525 Second Avenue, (206) 340-1222 or 1-888-424-6783. A Seattle backpacker institution which also runs festive low-budget bus tours to Mexico and Central America.
If you're staying anywhere near downtown, the ferries hardly seem like "getting out" since they leave from a pier at the south end of the waterfront, an easy and interesting walk from downtown.
Take a ferry to Bremerton and back. Almost 2 hours on the water, in a place as scenic as the Aegean Sea, walk-on passengers a little under $6 round trip.
Or, take the ferry to Bainbridge Island (30 minutes one way). Get off on the other side, walk ~1/2 mile into town for lunch or dinner, walk back to ferry to come home. Good clam chowder served on the boat.
Snoqualmie Falls (east of Seattle on I-90). The falls are scenic, and if you want to stay longer than it takes to just gawk, the Salish Lodge is pricey but incredibly romantic, with in-room jacuzzis and fireplaces.
North Bend (also out I-90) is the town where parts of the 1990 David Lynch TV series Twin Peaks were filmed. West of "downtown," there are hundreds of old railroad cars and engines quietly rusting away, with a cute railroad depot/museum closer to town. Rides are offered April - October, as well as a "Santa Train" in late November and early December.
Snoqualmie Pass Ski Area consists of two discrete ski resorts. The Summit At Snoqualmie offers mostly terrain that varies from beginner to intermediate. Alpental offers everything from beginner to deadly (quite literally) terrain. The in-bounds area at Alpental contains a several-hundred foot tall cliff that's pretty great to ski off of, but check the landing for plenty of snow first, and do this only if you're an expert skier. Pay attention to, and believe the double black diamond signs. The Alpental backcountry is quite impressive and readily accessible; make sure to obtain a Backcountry Pass from the Ski Patrol (at their Shack atop Chair 2) before exploring. Drive east on Interstate 90 from Seattle, approximately 1 hour. The road is an active interstate highway, and is therefore plowed and sanded all winter long, but snow tires or chains may be required.
Mount Baker is a bit further (north near Bellingham) has yet again more, with a lot of terrain. Had (and may still have) the fastest rope tow in the world (27 mph) for a while. Bring your leather gloves!