Washington State

Get to Know Seattle Inside Out

It's two tales of a city as Lotte Jeffs visits for the first time – and Seattle insider Kate Appleton heads for the outdoors

The Seattle Outsider’s View: Lotte

normally associate trips to the US with the glamour of Los Angeles and New York. There it’s all power-dressing, firm handshakes, guest lists and complicated cocktails. These cities are exhaustingly ‘on’ and I’ll often leave feeling depleted.

So last time I was in LA, I decided to bookend a work trip with a four-night wind down in Seattle, where an off-duty, outdoorsy lifestyle and quirky counter-culture vibe would send me home energised for a change.

The city certainly delivered: stimulating as a venti Americano, which is no surprise given that it is, of course, the home of Starbucks. I stayed downtown at the Ace Hotel – warm and welcoming if somewhat no frills (I booked a room with an ensuite bathroom, though most have shared facilities). Dropping my five-star pretensions felt the right way to do Seattle, which is like New York’s bohemian East Village and LA’s hippie beach town Venice before Instagram turned these pockets of authenticity into Valencia-filtered pastiches of themselves. There’s a rawness and unpretentious edge that I found entirely convincing.

Left: Vincent Camacho/Unsplash

The Ace is a few blocks from Seattle’s landmark Pike Place Market, which runs adjacent to the water and offers some scenic vantage points over Elliot Bay. The country’s oldest farmers’ market is a great place for a quick meal, or to watch the Seattle tradition of fish throwing, where your fresh salmon is chucked from the ice to the fishmonger.

Such historic practices feel quaint compared to the city’s current status as a burgeoning technopolis, home to Microsoft, countless start-ups and Amazon’s sprawling downtown HQ complete with The Spheres – three plant-filled glass pods functioning as indoor gardens-cum-offices. Visitors can enjoy a guided tour of these offices, if you can call them that, which house more than 400 different species of cloud forest plants from all over the world.

Many tech billionaires, including Bill and Melinda Gates, live in nearby Medina which is connected to Seattle by bridge – their combined worth reaching into the tens of billions of dollars and their impact on the local economy felt throughout the city.

Seattle was originally a frontier town, settled in 1851 (though Native American tribes had lived there much longer) and it became the forefront of the lumber industry. The University of Washington describes the idea of a ‘frontier’ as ‘an edge between the known and the unknown, the settled and the wild… a frontier is where you are on your own, where the rules are not yet made.’ This frontier spirit certainly survives in the city, from the innovative Space Needle built for the 1962 World’s Fair to the establishment of the Boeing factory in 1966 and its pivotal role in the space race, through to today where the chilled out, legal pot-smoking vibe (Washington became the first US state to legalise recreational use of marijuana) belies frenetic advancements in tech.

Visit the clutch of Amazon Go shops where your groceries are automatically charged to your Amazon account – no cash desks needed – for a vision of the future of retail.

In 1869, a fire ravaged the city, burning much of it to the ground – the entire business district was destroyed and new infrastructure was built on top. As a result, there’s a great subterranean tour that leads you through entombed streets and shopfronts. I wonder if in another few hundred years, after an equivalently catastrophic digital crash, tourists will be taken through the abandoned Amazon office complex in the same way.

But it’s hard to be dystopian when Seattle is just so upbeat. Not in an annoying or fake Hollywood way though, but in a pinball and picklebacks at 4pm on a Thursday kind of way. The pinball museum is the most fun you can have – as an adult or child; try your thumbs at retro games like Buckaroo. And a pickleback, for the uninitiated, is a shot of whiskey and a shot of pickle brine. Delicious? Who cares!

Every other shop in Seattle seems to cater to a rugged, adventurous life. With Mount Rainer and the Cascades close by, skiing and hiking are how locals spend their weekends. The closest I got to nature was a cycle on a Lime electric bike (download the app and pick one up wherever you spot one – there are thousands) around Olympic Sculpture Park, downtown Seattle’s largest green space, which zigzags from the pavilion to the water’s edge. There’s even a tiny rocky beach.

Interior of Oddfellows Cafe in Seattle
Credit: Cameron Zegers

I didn’t have enough time to go fully off-grid and into the beautiful surrounding mountains. Instead I trekked up Capitol Hill, which was the area in which I felt most at home, with its chic, upmarket shops such as Totokaelo selling designer clothes and home accessories. I drank a beer from a mason jar – the universal symbol of hipsterism – and ate a ‘grain bowl’ (ditto) at Oddfellows cafe. I browsed Elliott Bay Book Company and had a coffee at the Neko cat cafe. Even here, you can’t forget you’re in counter-cultural Seattle: ice cream shops have window displays declaring themselves Safe Spaces – ‘all ethnicities, genders, sexualities and everyone in between are welcome’.

The city has benefited from this welcoming spirit and has been a melting pot of cultural and culinary influences, particularly from East Asia, since the 1860s, when the first immigrants arrived by steamship and rail. In Pike Place Market, Tenzing Momo is the West Coast’s oldest and largest herbal apothecary and perfumery. Seattle’s most spectacular Asian grocer, Uwajimaya, is a great place for gifts, fantastic packaged snacks or a quick meal. But it’s at the Wing Luke Museum where you get a real sense of the impact of the Asian American community, which includes martial arts actor Bruce Lee, who lived and studied here.

I can’t visit anywhere in the US without seeking out a retro diner. So before leaving I had a breakfast of veggie hash and eggs at The 5 Point Cafe. This Seattle institution is open 24 hours a day. As I drank coffee at 7:30am, alongside the techpreneurs tapping away on their laptops, the previous night’s revellers were still knocking back whisky on the other side of the bar. This rock’n’roll diner encapsulates the spirit of the city: quirky, stimulating, a little edgy and unexpected. A note on the menu reads: ‘We welcome all types of people including those in various states of inebriation, and with sometimes extremely different political, religious and social ideologies… we are sorry if you are offended but these are our people and we love them, so love them too or leave’. How very Seattle.

The Seattle Insider’s View: Kate

Go west: that was the rallying cry of my childhood summers. For two glorious weeks, we’d trade New York’s concrete heat for the crisp air of my father’s native Washington state. At 10, I took my first solo flight to attend what we jokingly called ‘Camp Margi’, a stay at my aunt’s house in Seattle’s Madison Park, where I brushed up on swimming, sailing and all things outdoorsy with my cousins Jimmy and Chris.

Even now, whenever I land at Seattle’s airport, surrounded by towering firs and distant snowcapped Mount Rainier, I feel the tingle of adventure. Sure, it looks more like a true city these days – with an expanding light rail system, glass office towers and an influx of new residents lured by tech dollars. But amid the ensuing soul-searching, one thing remains uncontested: Seattle is a remarkably green place whose beaches, waterways and forests will bring out your inner nature lover.

A good place to start is the Center for Wooden Boats, a hands-on maritime museum on the docks of South Lake Union, not far from Amazon’s new campus. It offers rentals, workshops and free sailings on Sunday, a tradition going back 40 years. Volunteer skippers take groups of four to 15 out on antique vessels; show up by 10am to get a first come, first served timeslot on your preferred boat (steam, sail or electric).

A fleet of water taxis and the country’s most extensive ferry network make it easy to continue zipping around with a sea breeze in your hair. I caught the 10-minute ride across Elliott Bay to West Seattle with my husband and daughter. Instagrammers, take note: as it pulls away, the taxi leaves in its wake a skyline panorama, including a Ferris wheel, the 21st century’s improbable big-city status symbol.

We spilled out of the ferry and onto the dockside patio of Marination Ma Kai. The Hawaiian-Korean fusion spot, which began as a roving food truck, serves piquant combinations such as kimchi pork quesadillas, pork katsu sandwiches and kalbi beef tacos. Lunch fortified us for the 30-minute walk to Alki Beach along a bungalow-lined waterfront path that we shared with joggers, cyclists and rollerbladers enjoying the brilliant sunshine. If you think it sounds like a scene out of Southern California, you’re right – complete with beach volleyball, stand-up paddleboard rentals and palm trees.

Alki Beach, a Seattle insider tip for summer visits
Credit: Kate Appleton

Bainbridge Island, however, feels thoroughly Pacific Northwest, with its evergreen hills and rocky shorelines. It’s a 35-minute outing by ferry and entices with a mix of pursuits: get to know local talents at the contemporary Bainbridge Island of Art; stroll the forests and gardens of the 60-hectare Bloedel Reserve; rent a bike and then treat yourself to a scoop of Mora Iced Creamery’s blackberry flavour made from local berries.

I explored Bainbridge between bridesmaid duties for my sister’s wedding one August, making it back downtown in time for welcome drinks at Hotel Sorrento’s swanky fireside bar. The rehearsal dinner was an intimate evening reunited in Aunt Margi’s backyard garden: one cousin floated the idea of ditching the East Coast for Seattle while an uncle in Arizona shared plans to split his retirement there. It was easy to appreciate the appeal from our setting in the bucolic Madison Park area, close to a public beach on Lake Washington and an arboretum.

Another morning was spent at Ballard Locks, an engineering feat that allows ships – and migrating salmon – to move from the salty Puget Sound to the freshwater Washington and Union Lakes. Summer is the peak season to come face to face with chinook or sockeye salmon.

An English-style botanical garden is part of the Ballard Locks complex, and it makes a manicured contrast to the untamed woods, driftwood-strewn beaches and meadows of nearby Discovery Park. A former military installation, as of 2011 it’s the largest park within Seattle’s 2,595-hectare system – laced with trails and a few historic landmarks (a Victorian-era lighthouse and Fort Lawton). More than 270 bird species have been documented here, along with seals, sea lions and the occasional coyote.

Even with all my time in Seattle, there are still wild corners that I’ve yet to experience. Take Golden Gardens on the Puget Sound, in the north end of artsy Ballard. Or Seward Park, which juts into Lake Washington in the shape of a thumbs up. On a clear day, you can walk the four-kilometre loop and see practically forever: downtown, the I-90 floating bridge, Mercer Island and Mount Rainier. Bald eagles live within the park, thick with old-growth Douglas firs, red cedars and madrones.

Seward Park has become a beloved refuge for my friend JD, who moved to Seattle about a year ago. When I asked for recommendations, she rattled off favourites in Columbia City, an off-the-tourist-radar neighbourhood in south Seattle. She compared it to Brooklyn, raving about La Medusa’s Sicilian comfort food, Empire Espresso’s coffee and weekend waffle bar, the craft cocktails at Lottie’s Lounge and the Royal Room’s live music.

Not long ago, this was a provincial place, infamous for the ‘Seattle freeze’, as in the chilly reception that tended to greet outsiders. So I was heartened to sense that JD has already developed the opinionated loyalties that come with belonging. Maybe that’s the upside of Seattle’s boom – a warming of the climate that benefits locals and visitors alike.   

Cathay Travell Book


Discovery online brings together all the inspirational travel writing from our two inflight magazines, Discovery and Silkroad. Be sure to look out for the print editions when you next fly with Cathay Pacific or Cathay Dragon.
Discovery Book Silkroad Book