I GREW UP ACROSS THE WATER FROM SEATTLE, in a little crook of the great arm of the Puget Sound. As an adult, when I wasn’t traveling, I was living in Seattle’s various neighborhoods: first the U District, then in apartments in Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square, the Central District, West Seattle…I know the city’s various shades, and now after three years away, it’s all too easy to recall the parts of Seattle I so dearly love and the lessons it’s taught me.
Here are 12 things that hold true for me about the city — 12 things only someone who’s been to Seattle will understand.
1. Not all parks are created equal.
Seattle is basically surrounded by water. On the northern flanks of the city, where the thin band of water called the Montlake Cut separates Lower Montlake from the University District and Portage Bay from Union Bay, there’s a green smudge. Well, it’s a smudge if you’re looking on Google Maps, but from the ground it’s a seemingly vast, varied, and beautiful park.
It’s called the Arboretum, and it’s my fave. Large lawns, Japanese ponds, and manicured gardens mix with marshes, reedy waterways, and woods. Lots of woods.
The best is renting a canoe from the University of Washington Waterfront Activities Center (right across Montlake Cut, through the stadium parking lots and down on the water) and paddling across into the labyrinth of channels that are the outliers of the Arboretum. Ducks, turtles, cranes, and bald eagles are all easily seen in a single outing.
2. Georgetown is for beer lovers.
When I think of Georgetown, I think of bricks and the crisscrossing of rail lines and the overhead scream of airplanes. I also think of beer — casks and kegs of delicious craft brew from the small army of breweries in the area. We’ll start north and head south:
- Schooner Exact Brewing Co: Family-friendly restaurant, weekend brunch from 10-2.
- Two Beers Brewing Co: Seattle Magazine’s Best Brewery, 2014 (Readers’ Choice).
- Georgetown Brewing Company: They brew my favorite beer, Manny’s Pale Ale. No brewpub at Georgetown, but you can fill growlers and get kegs.
- Machine House Brewery: Between two big old brick buildings and under a smokestack is Machine House, brewer of English-style ales. They have a tasting room and they let you bring in outside food.
Seattle does not suffer from terrible beer, nay. And those in-the-know head south for some of the finest local suds born across the tracks in Georgetown.
3. Incredible surprises lurk under freeways.
Underneath the giant rumbling ribbons of concrete that make up I-5 lies the best urban mountain-bike skills course in the States. The I-5 Colonnade is a Seattle city park, but it was funded and built by the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance. Elevated wooden jumps, truly gnarly single track, drops, trails, and a pump track are just a few of the features of the giant, seemingly subterranean bike park.
The Colonnade is so named because it’s built around enormous pillars of concrete that support the freeway above — you feel like you’re in a cathedral. There’s a novice area and a dog park, too. Show up on the weekend and watch the more skilled fly through the air as they clear tabletops, but don’t think of trying the same unless you have a helmet, mad skills…and health insurance?
4. A scenic beach with easy city access isn’t too much to ask.
When I moved to West Seattle, I was kinda scared that I’d cut myself off from the vital energy of the city and relegated myself to a more torpid suburban life. Not so. The allure of Alki Beach, a sandy stretch of shore facing west towards the Olympic Mountains, kept me more than occupied with long walks and awesome views. And I was only 15 minutes from downtown if I needed my fix of city living.
But the truth is, the beaches of West Seattle and the bike paths that connect them to downtown are one of Seattle’s happy places, and I was always content to be out of the hum of the city and into the thrum of the gently lapping waters of the Puget Sound.
5. REI’s flagship store is all-time.
The REI flagship store is a place I’d find myself standing in without remembering how I got there, yet there I was looking at kayaks holding a freeze-dried camping meal. I’m a dork for REI. So there’s the disclaimer. And the flagship store in Downtown Seattle is an outdoor gear dork paradise. You can ascend a 65ft glass-encased climbing wall, attend a class on mountain bike maintenance or GoPro video editing basics…the amenities, classes, and services at the store are amazing.
But for this camper, the action is down in the basement, away from all the well-lit displays and majestic fireplaces. Downstairs is a gear rental department and bike shop, and in the corner under the stairs is an ever-rotating selection of returned and misfit goods at a fraction of their retail prices. I scored a worn-once pair of Vibrams for $12 here.
6. There are mountains everywhere you look.
Think of Seattle’s natural landscape and you probably picture water, but the city is surrounded by mountains as well. The giant edifice of Mt. Rainier dominates the skyline to the south, a 14,400ft peak looming black in the sunrise against the brilliant dawn-lit clouds, throwing a massive shadow onto the sky like an inverse lighthouse. Rainier (a 2.5-hour drive from Seattle and an easy and rewarding day trip) is the tallest point in the Cascade Range, the long band of mountains that runs from BC to Northern California.
Across the tangle bays, canals, inlets, and islands of the 100-mile-long Puget Sound is another mountain range: the Olympics. From Seattle, the Olympic Range looks like a foreign land peopled by elves and giants. It has a distant majesty; when you venture over, you’ll find some of the best camping and hiking you could hope for. Crossing the Puget Sound by ferry — one of the best ways a visitor can spend less than $10, in my humble opinion — allows you to experience the full impact of Seattle’s panoramic proximity to both mountains and salt water.
7. The sports culture here is epic.
Living in a brick-and-mortar loft in the downtown neighborhood of Pioneer Square put me in close proximity to the city’s various sporting festivities — the clamor of a Sounders pre-game march, the invasion of Mariners fans on home-game days, and the rowdy rumbling of post-game Seahawks fans who’d bring their 12th man mojo into the alley behind my kitchen.
One sporting tradition that many locals love is stopping by Owl ’N Thistle Irish pub at the tail end of Post Alley. They serve up free hot dogs before games and often have a fully legit, rocking Irish band jamming on drinking songs and old folk tunes post-game. It’s an institution.
8. Sometimes cemeteries cater to the living.
Founded in 1872, the monuments of Lake View Cemetery evoke a bygone era of funerary opulence. Many visitors come to see Bruce Lee’s grave, but there’s so much more if you have the patience to walk the grounds. In college I’d come here and take moody photos against the rain-worn gravestones. You can see the resting places of the founding families and Princess Angeline, Chief Seattle’s daughter. It’s the kind of place you walk through slowly and spend way more time in than you originally intended.
9. The floating dock at Madison Park is what summer is all about.
When summer heats up, the place to be is Madison Park. Find a patch of sunshine to lay your towel on and take advantage of the best summer swimming experience Seattle has to offer. The floating dock, complete with two diving boards and a view of the Cascades, is where it’s at. Swim out at night and watch the traffic silently sweep over the 520 Bridge into Bellevue.
10. The city is easy to explore on foot (or bike).
If you’ve never been to Seattle, you most likely assume it’s much larger than it actually is. We’re talking 142.5 square miles (only 83 of which cover land) and a population around 700,000. Downtown (where a visitor will spend most of their time) is easily explored on foot or by bike. Yes, Seattle may be the 20th most populous city in America, but it’s also the 113th largest by area — it’s really not that big.
And that’s great! That means there’s no sprawl, points of interest and the various neighborhoods are easily reached, and you don’t feel like you’ve been swallowed alive by the city. It feels accessible because it is: You can walk from the Space Needle to the Stadiums in less than an hour. You can step off the ferry and hoof it to Capitol Hill for a beer in under 30 minutes. For me this meant getting to know all the nooks and crannies better, exploring the idiosyncratic foibles of Pioneer Square, Belltown, First Hill, and the International District.
11. Sunset during a home game is magical.
I’m not baseball’s biggest fan, but I love going to Safeco Field. I love the experience of the ballgame, the ritual and the bonding and the beer. I couldn’t care less whether we win or lose, I just like being there — especially on a sunny day when the retractable roof is open and from the nosebleeds you can see downtown and Elliott Bay.
But it’s the sunsets from Safeco that I love best. Finding an excuse to get out of my chair to watch the sky turn red over the Olympics, Seattle reflecting the red light back — it’s one of the best views in the city.
12. Touristy places are touristy for good reason — they’re rad.
There are some very cool experiences to have in Seattle that are super touristy but still completely awesome. The Underground Tour of Seattle’s historic subterranean tunnels has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. I also love Pike Place Market — there are so many layers to the place that I continue to stumble across new shops even after three decades of visits.
And no, I’ve never gotten jaded on the Space Needle. It’s awesome from the ground, especially standing directly under it at night, and it’s awesome from the top at the revolving observatory and restaurant. I won’t feign Space Needle ambivalence to seem cool. I won’t pretend not to love to ride the monorail to EMP and the Seattle Center. In Seattle, even the touristy stuff is pretty rad.