Sixty years ago, tourists descended on a remote, provincial American city to marvel at its Jet Age coming-out party. The Century 21 Exposition, better known as the Seattle World’s Fair, drew thousands of visitors with its optimistic view of a new age of exploration. In a commercial for the fair, the cartoon ambassadors to this new world, the Jetsons, urged people to “skedaddle to Seattle.”
Six decades later, people have skedaddled. Today’s Seattle has international brand recognition as an arbiter of cool and hip, a tech hub with thriving dining, shopping and cultural life. But beneath that glossy surface, there remains the legacy of an out-of-the-way, blue-collar port city. A place of settlers built on kept and broken promises and treaties. A town with new money, log-rolling roots and a chip on its shoulder that, like Mount Rainier, you can see on some days.
The Space Needle’s an obvious choice to start a visit to Seattle, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one. The tallest building west of the Mississippi when it was built, the tower has lost a bit of the over-the-top glamor of its early years – there’s no longer a revolving restaurant at the observation deck, although a section of floor still revolves. But on a clear day, the views of the city and beyond, omnipresent Mount Rainier, remain worth the line to go up.
Surrounding the landmark sits the 70-acre Seattle Center. Originally created as a series of World’s Fair venues, the center today hosts a science museum, a children’s museum and MoPOP, the Museum of Popular Culture. Seattle’s opera company, ballet company and repertory theater company perform in venues here; two public radio stations broadcast. (Indie music fans might want to visit the headquarters of legendary independent station KEXP, which also has a café, record store and live music space.) There’s a food court, an amphitheater and the landmark International Fountain. And almost directly under the Space Needle sits the center’s most visually awe-inspiring stop, Chihuly Garden and Glass.
Glass artist Dale Chihuly lives in Seattle, and his home city shows off his work in an impressive way. His intricate, otherworldly sculptures lend themselves to big, bold reveals; the gallery is mostly set up as a series of darkened rooms dominated by one or two massive pieces in a way that elicits gasps. Then you exit into the garden section, where glass creations seem to grow like fantastic crops from the ground. It’s an awe-inspiring way to see the work of one of the most original artists working today.
Getting to and from the Seattle Center from the middle of downtown is also part of the fun thanks to the Seattle Monorail. Built for the World’s Fair, the monorail was a two-stop demonstration line for a proposed city transit system. That system never got built, but the retro-futuristic, chrome-and-rounded-windows monorail now ties into the transportation system the city and region eventually did get around to building.
This is, by the way, a city where you can forgo the rental car. A light rail line and two streetcar lines (plus the monorail and a good-by-US-standards bus system) go to the places tourists want to go. (The light rail also runs to the airport.) For people who don’t want to drive but also don’t want to stay right downtown, southeast Seattle provides a great option. Neighborhoods such as Mount Baker and Columbia City offer diverse cafes and bars, and a 15-to-20-minute light rail ride into downtown.
Those neighborhoods also sit on the banks of Lake Washington, which runs up the city’s east side. Just north of downtown, the smaller Lake Union fills on pleasant days with boaters and kayakers. To the west sits the Salish Sea (the name that recognizes the region’s indigenous Salish tribes and is increasingly used alongside the settler name, Puget Sound). Downtown and the West Seattle neighborhood sit on opposite sides of the Salish Sea’s Elliot Bay. In short, this is a city of water. In downtown, cruise ships, tour boats and Seattle’s most unique form of public transportation, ferries, line the docks. Whales frequent the saltwater Salish, and private ferry service FRS Clipper offers whale-watching tours with a see-a-whale-or-your-money-back guarantee. (The snack bar also serves adult beverages just in case the hunt for the great mammal goes better with Baileys.)
A short but steep walk uphill from the waterfront gets you to Seattle’s other big tourist attraction, Pike Place Market. Opened in 1907 as a place where farmers could sell produce directly to the public, the market survived the covetous eye of developers in the 1960s to grow into Seattle’s most visited attraction and possibly the only place in the world where camera-aiming tourists gather to watch people throw fish.
London has the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, Seattle has the fishmongers who call out orders and then lob fish underhand to one another. And they’re actually doing business. One of the market’s charms comes from it being that rare thing, a civic space that became a tourist attraction but still provides the civic function it was created to provide. It’s a tourist-filled place where you can buy Space Needle-inspired art and T-shirts that read “Seattle, Washington” – but if you work nearby and you need fresh fish and vegetables for tonight’s dinner, the market also provides.
Or, as one of the fish throwers announced to a recent crowd that stood watching without reaching for wallets: “You can buy them too, you know.”
If you’d rather have somebody else do the meal prep while on vacation, Seattle can help. The many high-end options include fun Italian spot The Pink Door, creative modern steakhouse Bateau and Canlis, the Pacific Northwest cuisine restaurant that opened in 1950 and still stuns with its menu, wine program and Mid-Century Modern building with a spectacular view of Lake Union.
But also spare a thought for an older, more wallet-friendly side of Seattle dining. Few Pike Place Market joys are more pure than a visit to Emmett Watson’s Oyster Bar followed by dessert from the Daily Dozen Doughnut Company. Named for the popular longtime newspaper columnist who co-founded it in the late 1970s, Emmett Watson’s offers characterful, no-frills Seattle food (if oysters aren’t your thing, try the clams) and plenty of local beers. The Daily Dozen, a tiny stand around the corner from the fish-throwers, sells still-warm little doughnuts in brown paper bags. They’ve got different flavors, but give the simple cinnamon-sprinkled ones a try first.
Down the hill at the waterfront sits another Seattle food staple, Ivar’s Fish Bar. There are actually Ivar’s scattered around Seattle, but Ivar Haglund’s first food venture opened in 1938 at Pier 54. Today if sit-down restaurant Ivar’s Acres of Clams is busy, just go next door to the takeout fish bar and covered outdoor seating area. Few finer meals exist than a bowl of Ivar’s clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl eaten while overlooking Elliot Bay.
If you’re looking for turf more than surf, head to Dick’s Drive In, Seattle’s classic burger spot – and a fast-food chain that offers full employer-paid healthcare and a starting salary of $20 an hour. Dick’s are scattered around the city; the easiest one to find is around the corner from the Space Needle. Or for a classic diner experience Pacific Northwest-style, take the light rail to Tukwila International Boulevard Station and walk five minutes’ north to the Pancake Chef. Old photographs of Boeing airplanes line the walls and give a good idea of who employs many of the people who have been regulars since this purveyor of Swedish pancakes, gut-busting breakfasts and massive burgers opened in 1959.
Those Pancake Chef regulars could likely tell a few tales about exhibits at the Museum of Flight, home to the Red Barn, Boeing’s original production facility, and a collection of historic airplanes including a retired Air Force One and an Aerocar International Aerocar, a prototype flying car of which only six were ever made.
Just north of downtown on Lake Union’s south shore, the Museum of History and Industry tells a more Seattle-specific story of innovation. As the name suggests, it’s part civic history museum, part chronicler of the things a city of industry has built. Airplanes, computers and shipping are all covered in fascinating detail here, as is an admirable amount of people’s history, protests and activism. (There’s also a surreal short musical film about the Great Seattle Fire of 1899 which includes, among other things, a singing glue pot with a Swedish accent. You probably have to see it.) Admirably, it’s a history that doesn’t start with the Denny party, the first white settlers, who arrived in 1851 and named it New York Alki (In Chinook, “alki” means “by and by.” The settlers were having a little joke about the metropolis they planned to build, eventually.) Energy has also gone into the history of the Coast Salish indigenous tribes who called the region home long before whites first settled in the area. The museum also uses the names given to various landmarks in the area before the British Royal Navy’s Captain George Vancouver charted the area and named the things he saw for pals like Second Lieutenant Peter Puget, Alleyne FitzHerbert the First Baron St. Helens, and Admiral Peter Rainier. This is history told from ground level.
In addition to its sometimes tortured past, the region’s first people are also an important part of what makes its present so vibrant. In Pike Place Market, native-owned shop Eighth Generation sells beautiful things and tells a story. Founded by Nooksack artist Louie Gong and owned by the Snoqualmie Tribe, the shop takes aim at non-native artists who profit off native art’s popularity by billing itself as “Inspired Natives, Not Native-Inspired.” It sells everything from wall art to textiles to jewelry and includes work by native artists from across much of North America. Knowledgeable staffers give items’ backgrounds and artist stories as if they’re museum curators. If you’re looking for something beyond the usual tourist souvenir, do not miss this place.
Seattle’s history and present are complicated. It’s a city that conjures images of innovation and culture, but also gentrification and colonialism. Sixty years ago, it sold tourists a tale of Jet Age optimism and endless possibility. For today’s traveler willing to look deeper, it’s a place that tells more than one fascinating story.