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A city guide to Seattle's artistic side

Today, the restless, rain-drenched birthplace of grunge and Starbucks is home to artists, creatives, geeks and iconoclasts. It also boasts natural assets galore, from Puget Sound’s islets to two mountain ranges ripe for exploration

By James Draven
Published 24 May 2019, 16:11 BST
Gas Works Park
Gas Works Park
Photograph by Wesley Verhoeve

“And I will always love you-oo-oo,” comes a crumpled voice, bouncing off the buildings of the gritty, hipster, Belltown neighbourhood. I round the corner to its source: the side entrance of The Crocodile, a live music venue that became an icon of the city’s grunge scene. Pacing by the door is a punk-looking woman in her late 20s with a finger stuffed into an ear. She’s trying to hit Whitney Houston’s highest notes, but can’t quite get there; her voice cracks and she starts cursing. As I pass her and head inside, she shoots me a suspicious sideways glance.

The bar’s dimly lit backroom is crammed with drag artists in sequinned gowns, groups of bespectacled young women sporting crew cuts and fishermen’s jumpers, and a few elderly gents dressed like 1970s TV pimps — complete with indoor sunglasses and canes topped with golden dollar signs. All are waiting for their turn to belt out a pop tune or an ’80s power ballad as part of a regional karaoke competition. 

It’s not what I was expecting to find at this rock venue. When I arrive at my hotel later, I find the words ‘Seattle Doesn’t Settle’ emblazoned on the wall, a self-referential nod to the city’s ephemeral spirit. The only constants here are the landmark Space Needle observation tower, and heavy rainfall.

The profile of this geographically removed city, tucked away on a finger of land in the top-left corner of the US, soared in the early ’90s, when it was the screen home of a neurotic psychiatrist called Frasier Crane and an insomniac Tom Hanks, and a trio of local names — Nirvana, Starbucks and Microsoft — went global. It evolved quickly from an industrial hub to a burgeoning rock city populated by software giants, aerospace companies and espresso-fuelled hipsters. 

But restless Seattle refuses to be defined by its former glories; it’s always been a confidently off-kilter city, full of artists, creatives, geeks and iconoclasts who are unafraid to bend the rules, subvert the mainstream, and elevate the underground.

Seattle’s myriad neighbourhoods jostle for the crown of countercultural cool too, from boho-meets-boutique Capitol Hill, to artsy, self-proclaimed ‘Center of the Universe’, Fremont. Elliott Bay, meanwhile, is filled with boatloads of yachties, while  tech behemoths erect their gleaming, Brobdingnagian bases downtown. Seattle is an offbeat city at heart, but it belts out some crowd-pleasing hits.

Local artist Victor in the hidden Pike Place Market
Photograph by Wesley Verhoeve

See & do

Museum of Pop Culture: MoPOP elevates rock, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror to velvet-rope status. Designed by Frank Gehry to look like a smashed guitar from above (check it out from the Space Needle), it appropriately houses a collection of Kurt Cobain’s instruments — including his Mustang guitar from the Smells Like Teen Spirit video — in its Nirvana exhibition. Elsewhere, you’ll find Deckard’s Blade Runner gun, Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, Indiana Jones’s fedora, Jack’s axe from The Shining, a Terminator, some Aliens, and a six-fingered glove from The Princess Bride. Nerd nirvana.

Freeway Park: Opened in 1976, this masterpiece of brutalist architecture was the first park to be built over a motorway. Designed as a lid to cover the sunken Interstate 5, which bisects the city, its imposing mix of greenery, spiked by angular, concrete-block landscaping, creates the kind of picnic area in which you might imagine Big Brother watching over you.

Fremont sculptures: The quirky Fremont neighbourhood is fun to explore for its public sculptures. These include an 18ft stone troll that lives under the Aurora Bridge; a Lenin statue that was originally on display in communist Czechoslovakia; a Cold War rocket incongruously punctuating a shopping street; and Waiting for the Interurban, a life-sized sculpture of six people and a human-faced dog eternally awaiting public transport. 

Pioneer Square: Today’s Seattle is built upon the remains of the original town, which burned to the ground in 1889, but visitors can still descend beneath the historic Pioneer Square neighbourhood (where the term Skid Row was coined) to see the shops and bars entombed under the city’s streets. A great escape on rainy days.

Gum Wall: Seattle’s most unsanitary attraction, the Gum Wall, began life (indeed, it must be teeming with bacteria) when theatre-goers started sticking used chewing gum on the wall while queueing for a show. Since then, the alleyway has become a local landmark, crammed with tourists admiring the vivid, Wonka-esque bubblegum fresco, as well as adding their own contributions.

The great outdoors: Seattle is blessed with an exceptional setting, nestled between the Olympic and Cascade Mountains. Try kayaking between Puget Sound’s islets, or hiking in Olympic National Park. Winter visitors will find ski slopes an hour’s drive away at Snoqualmie Pass. This is the location of the 70-ft Snoqualmie Falls, which appear in the opening credits of David Lynch’s ’90s TV cult classic, Twin Peaks. There’s a stand in the attraction’s car park selling damn-fine coffee.

Pike Place Market
Photograph by Wesley Verhoeve


Pike Place Market: The city’s original farmers’ market, established in 1907 and overlooking the magnificent Elliott Bay, is a Seattle icon, seen in countless travelogues and films, including Sleepless in Seattle. Its labyrinthine levels are crammed with farm shops, craft stalls, cafes, bakeries, restaurants, and — famously — fishmongers throwing their wares around.

Nordstrom Rack: Department store Nordstrom has over 100 US branches. Next to the super-chic flagship store at 500 Pine Street is Rack. Here you’ll find all the designer brands stocked by its neighbour, but at knock-down prices. Bring an empty suitcase.

Amazon Go: At the retail giant’s chain of grocery stores, the gimmick is that with its app installed you can simply grab shopping and go. Seattle has four locations, but the first is located in Amazon’s impressive Day 1 building.

Jupiter bar
Photograph by Wesley Verhoeve

Like a local

Pinball paradise: Seattle’s bars and venues are crammed with pinball tables. Shorty’s, a rock dive with a carnival vibe, has around 20; slick, graffiti-covered bar Jupiter, a block away, has about 30. Seattle Pinball Museum, meanwhile, has over 50 free-to-play machines from the 1960s to the present day.  

Caffeine buzz: Tourists flock to the original branch of Starbucks, in Pike Place Market, but brand aficionados tend to be more impressed by The Seattle Roastery, Starbucks’ flagship tasting room, opened in 2014. It’s a wonderland of copper casks and coffee cocktails.

Cruise control: There are numerous cruises around Elliott Bay, offering stunning views of the historic waterfront and skyline. Alternatively, jump on a Washington State Ferries boat to Bainbridge Island for a spot of wine tasting at one of the seven wineries ($8.50 [£6.40] return).


Hotel Max: Dedicated to music and art, this is the creative address to bed down in. A signed bass that belonged to Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic hangs in the lobby, while rooms on the Sub Pop floor — where Charles Peterson’s iconic grunge photography adorns the doors — feature bedside turntables.

Kimpton Palladian Hotel: This boutique hotel, set in a landmark 1910 beaux arts building, stands out with its dark, masculine styling, complete with exposed brick, copper ceiling tiles and antique maps. Opposite the Moore Theatre, it’s within walking distance of the Space Needle, Pike Place and the waterfront.

The Edgewater Hotel: In 1964, when the Beatles were famously photographed fishing from their hotel room window, this is where they stayed. Perched on Elliott Bay, The Edgewater’s interior has a hunting lodge vibe, complete with river-rock fireplaces and antler chandeliers.

Waiter at Biscuit Bitch
Photograph by Wesley Verhoeve


Biscuit Bitch: Bragging a ‘trailer park to table’ ethos, Biscuit Bitch’s intentionally offhand staff serve traditional breakfast biscuits (a bewildering abuse of the humble scone, to us Brits), slathered in a variety of artery-clogging toppings, such as gravy, cheese, bacon, maple peanut butter, and spam.

Il Corvo pasta: Only open from 11am to 3pm, Monday to Friday, this diminutive Italian serves a small, daily-changing selection of freshly made artisan pasta, sauces, and focaccia. Queues are, unsurprisingly, lengthy, and you’ll not have long to linger over your meal, but Seattleites don’t seem to mind.

JuneBaby: This restaurant specialises in Southern soul food — a cuisine born of the slavery era that fuses West African, North American and European culinary traditions. Locally renowned chef Edouardo Jordan creates dishes with a reverence more commonly reserved for haute cuisine.

After hours

The Crocodile: Once co-owned by REM guitarist Peter Buck, the Croc was a cornerstone of Seattle’s grunge scene — hosting the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam — until it closed in 2007. Reopened two years later, it continues to host live music, alongside karaoke nights, which are taken very seriously by Seattle’s pop wannabes.

Unicorn: Decorated like a kaleidoscopic big top, this funfair-themed pub serves up a menu of carnival-based staples, including corn dogs and candy-flavoured cocktails, which you can knock back in the photo booth, or while playing skee-ball, a vintage arcade game.

Neumos: In its previous incarnation as Moe’s, this was one of the grunge scene’s legendary venues. After a six-year hiatus (and a rebranding, pronounced ‘New Moe’s’), it reopened in 2003 and quickly re-established its reputation. As well as hosting top indie acts, there’s a regular ’90s hip-hop night, which is more Fresh Prince than Public Enemy.  


Getting there & around

From Heathrow, Virgin Atlantic flies daily; British Airways up to 11 time a week; Norwegian has four flights a week from Gatwick; and Thomas Cook Airlines has seven a week from Manchester. American Airlines flies daily from Heathrow via Chicago, JFK, Miami or Dallas.

Average flight time: 10hrs.

The Seattle Center Monorail provides a quick link between downtown Seattle and the Seattle Center, home to the Space Needle, the Museum of Pop Culture, and The Children’s Museum. The city is walkable, with plenty of public transport options. An all-day regional transit pass is available for visitors for $8 (£6). These are loaded onto regional transit cards that cost $5 (£3.80) and are available at all ORCA vending machines, for unlimited use on public transport.

When to go

To avoid the frequent drizzle, visit in summer, when temperatures average around 15-18C. Or, to avoid the crowds and peak-season prices, head there in spring or autumn, when the mercury hovers around a mild 10-12C.

More info

Lonely Planet Seattle. RRP: £14.99

How to do it

America As You Like It offers five nights in Seattle from £989 per person (based on two sharing), with return Virgin Atlantic flights from Heathrow and five nights at The Edgewater Hotel, room only.


Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller UK

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