Making a Base
Next step is to find a room that will aid seamless cultural immersion. Lonely Planet has a range of apartment options in the city, as do other online homestay companies, but to help simplify matters let’s break down your options. Firstly, avoid clamorous downtown and choose a neighborhood where the local life is self-contained and inclusive. Wallingford, a salt-of-the-earth but quietly hip quarter just north of Lake Union, has some of the most affordable deals. Proudly outlandish Ballard and Fremont, abutting the Lake Washington Ship Canal, are similarly well-endowed. More central picks include hilly Queen Anne with its opulent mansions or fashion-setting Capitol Hill, both within walking distance of the city center.
Now you have a room and your temporary disguise, you are ready to go out and explore the city. First, cross all those ‘must-see’ tourist sights off your itinerary. The Seattle Center and its curvaceous Space Needle, despite frequent makeovers, is classic tourist terrain; while downtown with its generic amalgamation of big-name retailers differs little from the downtowns of other big US cities. For one of Seattle’s more unsung glories, head to Pier 52 on the Waterfront, departure point for ferries (wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/) to Bainbridge Island. These no-frills commuter boats cross Puget Sound and have long been a secret pleasure for water-surrounded Seattleites who climb aboard at weekends just for the joy of the journey – and the city skyline views.
More than one market
Set back a couple of blocks from the waterfront, Pike Place Market is Seattle’s much-loved outdoor living room. True, there are logjams of tourists posing for selfies outside the world’s oldest Starbucks, but their presence is merely incidental. Despite a massive recent expansion, Pike Place is still an authentic farmers market that lives up to its popular mantra of ‘meet the producer’. Aside from its famous fish throwers, nothing here is for show. Arrive early to avoid the crowds and watch as the market awakens amid the clatter and chatter of vendors setting up their stalls. Drag yourself to the North End by 9am (10am at weekends) and you’ll be exposed to ‘market roll-call’, a kind of local lottery meets cattle auction when temporary vendors are allocated trading slots. Not everyone gets lucky.
As any conscientious Seattle restaurateur will tell you, Pike Place isn’t the only place to buy super-fresh produce. On Saturdays, savvy locavores head to the U District Farmer’s Market (seattlefarmersmarkets.org) close to the University of Washington where food-only stalls peddle 100% Washington State goods. On Sundays it’s the turn of Ballard where steam rises from aromatic food stalls.
Seattle, like most leading US cities, has a prestigious art museum, but it can get uncomfortably busy at weekends when out-of-towners pile in for the excellent temporary exhibitions. For a more authentic experience, check out the city’s neighborhood art walks, self-guided strolls around selective private galleries where nibbles and drinks are sometimes offered and arty new friendships can be forged over Monet and a merlot. Art walks are a dime a dozen in the US these days, but they were supposedly invented in Seattle’s Pioneer Square in the early 1980s. The neighborhood’s original First Thursday Art Walk (pioneersquare.org) is still one of the city’s most inspiring, offering printed maps and free parking.
By now you’ll have started to realize that local life in Seattle revolves around its neighborhoods. Fremont, three miles north of downtown, is a proud and conveniently self-contained enclave with an unorthodox motto: ‘freedom to be peculiar’. The Fremont Arts Council is one of the city’s most envied and copied community organizations whose feisty activism promotes eccentric public sculpture and an annual nude cyclist parade.
First, take in Fremont’s bizarre Lenin statue before following the smell to the neighborhood’s hard-to-resist Theo Chocolate Factory. Then go undercover and absorb the area’s independent bars and cafes. You can take a litmus test of Fremont’s quirkiness in Milstead & Co (milsteadandco.com), one of a new breed of coffee multi-roasters (cafes with a rotating menu of carefully sourced beans), or decamp to the tasting room of Fremont Brewing, a strong contender for the city’s best microbrewery.
Grunge, Seattle’s beautifully dissonant DIY music, first roared out of the clubs and pubs of Belltown and Capitol Hill in the early 1990s, though little of its erstwhile rowdiness remains. Belltown, sandwiched between downtown and the Seattle Center, gets an eye-roll from nostalgic Generation X-ers these days due to creeping gentrification, but hunt hard and you’ll uncover a couple of musty throwbacks. Shorty’s is a dive bar where pinball is washed down with alcoholic slushies to a punk rock soundtrack. Five Point is a 24-hour bar and café where the window sign ‘cheating tourists and drunks since 1929’ deters tentative out-of-towners.
Run to the Hills
Citizens of the Emerald City certainly adore the outdoors and Seattle’s ethereal Pacific Northwest surroundings are replicated in a network of urban parks. To join locals at play, head to Green Lake Park to watch the masses jogging, rollerblading or getting bullied by their personal trainers on the lakeside path. If you’re serious about cultural immersion, purchase some all-terrain running shoes from home-grown REI and get out and share breezy ’good mornings’ with your temporary neighbors in outdoor havens such as Washington Park Arboretum or post-industrial Gas Works Park in Wallingford where regulars fly kites.
Built on seven hills like Rome and overlooked by glacier-covered 14,411ft Mt Rainier, Seattle is littered with expansive views, but you don’t need a Space Needle to enjoy them. Who knows how many Seattle marriage proposals have been made in Queen Anne’s Kerry Park, but the view on a clear evening with Rainier free of cloud is the most romantic in the city. Go local and bring a picnic.