The Emerald City: A Beginner’s Guide to Seattle

By: Crai S Bower

January 24, 2014

The best strategy, when exploring a new city, is to follow the locals into stores, cafés and neighbourhoods. Step into Seattle’s Pike Place Market or peruse the bargains at Nordstrom Rack and you’re as likely to bump into someone from the adjacent Capital Hill neighbourhood as you are a tourist from Boston. Call us provincial, but we love our icons here in the Emerald City. We’ll gladly take visiting friends and family to the top of the Space Needle, hop on a ferry to Bainbridge Island for lunch or wander the colourful warren of books inside the fabulous Rem Koolhaas-designed Central Library.


Seattle Market | A Beginner's Guide to Seattle

Ballard Farmer’s Market © Crai S. Bower


Though known today for technology and aviation, Seattle was originally settled for its potential to move timber from mill to sea to San Francisco. Founded in 1851, Seattle’s Yesler Mill cut most of the wood used to build San Francisco homes, including the mansions constructed by those who’d profited mightily from the 1849 California Gold Rush.


Seattle almost lost its “Big City” status to neighbouring Tacoma in the late 1870’s when the Northern Pacific Railroad announced plans to build the terminus there. By 1883, a connector to the Tacoma line re-established Seattle primacy in the region and the city’s boom and bust economy took root. 1,000 people per month moved into the region, diversifying the economy, the population and the culture.


Though distinct multiethnic communities have blurred in the 20th and 21st centuries, a visit to Seattle’s neighbourhoods remains the best way to understand local culture. Ballard, founded by Scandinavian fishermen, was the last town to join Seattle, in 1907. The boats, including those made famous by “The Deadliest Catch“ hit reality series, still file home through the Ballard Locks at the end of the Alaska fishing and crabbing seasons. Modern Ballard has recently become Seattle’s hottest neighbourhood. Cobblestoned Old Ballard Avenue now teems with boutiques, restaurants and bars where marine supply stores once stood.

Fremont Boutique | A Beginner's Guide to Seattle

Fremont Boutique © Crai S. Bower

The adjacent Fremont neighbourhood, self-described “Center of the Universe,” has lost some of its paisley bohemian lustre, but remains a go-to locale for funky boutiques, music venues and curios. Bourbon and Bones, a recently opened “Southern Fried” restaurant specializing in snout-to-tail smoked meats and fine whiskies, epitomizes this perpetually trendy “˜hood. Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Co, a pop-up garage microbrewery, resides in the alley next door.


Bourbon & Bones | A Beginner's Guide to Seattle

Bourbon & Bones © Crai S. Bower


The days of grunge may be behind us, but plenty of endemic Northwest culture remains for the curious to sop up. Zoo Tunes at Woodland Park Zoo features a great roster of international musicians who perform in a meadow beside the penguins. The Capitol Hill Block Party provides a major stage for the next “Death Cab for Cutie” or Macklemore, to name just two local acts who’ve gone global. Bumbershoot remains the largest arts festival in America, with over 2,500 performers playing during the three-day festival. Neighbourhood bars like Ballard’s Sunset Tavern and Wallingford’s Sea Monster Lounge can be counted on to book outstanding musicians throughout the year.


Sea Monster | A Beginner's Guide to Seattle

Sea Monster, band ‘F2D’ © Crai S. Bower


Once left for dead, downtown thrives today thanks in large part to the Nordstrom flagship, its 1998 renovation invigorated the previously slack retail environment. Several other lesser known flagships can be found in or near the urban core, including the outfitters Filson, Outdoor Research and REI, each considered a pioneer in high end outerwear of such quality, the garments are guaranteed forever.


Filson | A Beginner's Guide to Seattle

Filson exhibit © Crai S. Bower


One can’t script an “Insider’s Guide” to Seattle without mentioning coffee. The original Starbucks, located in Pike Place Market, is a favourite tourist stop, but other local brewers like Caffé Vita demonstrate that there’s more room in the roaster in this caffeine-fuelled society. So grab that mezzo soy latte and enjoy exploring one of America’s most inviting urban landscapes.


Header photo: Seattle skyline © Crai S. Bower


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Have you visited the Emerald City? Where are your favourite paces in Seattle? Share your thoughts with us below.

Written by Crai Bower


Crai S Bower

Award winning travel writer, photographer and broadcaster Crai S Bower contributes scores of articles annually to more than 25 publications and online outlets including National Geographic Traveler, Journey, American Way magazines and T+L Digital.

Categories: Our Places