It’s a common dilemma. How do you organize a stimulating family-oriented trip to a US city that will placate activity-hungry children but, at the same time, offer a glimmer of interest to accompanying adults? The short answer: visit Seattle. This is where glass orbs and second-hand chewing gum pass as intergenerational art, and squabbling families can find common ground in museums dedicated to pinball and rock ‘n’ roll.
For out-of-towners Seattle expeditions usually begin at the multifarious Seattle Center, site of the 1962 World’s Fair that’s been sporadically beautified and botoxed in the years since. Against a backdrop of futuristic architecture, a generic Children’s Museum (limited to kids under 10, accompanied by an adult) and Children’s Theater are juxtaposed with a glass sculpture gallery and the iconic 605ft-tall Space Needle.
To satisfy all tastes, hit the Space Needle, where speedy elevators zip visitors to the top of the iconic tower that adorns practically every Seattle postcard. With kids suitably entertained by the multitude of push-button devices at the summit (including powerful telescopes), parents can drag them with a clear conscience to the adjacent Chihuly Garden and Glass for something more cerebral. In the universal manner of Picasso or Tolkien, nationally acclaimed glass artist Dale Chihuly uses his playful imagination to cut seamlessly across age boundaries. Arranged in a beautifully curated collection of rooms and gardens, his surreal glass flowers and giant reflective orbs leave all-comers gaping in child-like awe.
Also lying in the shadow of the Space Needle is the EMP Museum, a generation-spanning music emporium with a strong rock 'n' roll bias. Its trump card is its interactive Sound Lab located on the third floor. While parents swoon over Hendrix’s Stratocaster guitar or ponder the rise and fall of Kurt Cobain, tween- and teenagers can experiment with distortion pedals and drum kits in the Sound Lab’s mock recording studio, or attempt a live gig at ‘On Stage’, a performance space with lighting rigs and a virtual audience. One floor below and mandatory for sci-fi geeks of all ages is ‘Icons of Science Fiction’ where you can view a dalek from Doctor Who and find out which family member nurtures a secret fetish for Star Trek memorabilia.
Zoos and aquariums are perennially touted as ideal places to pacify bored kids, though they are rarely so transfixing for parents. Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo is considered one of the most progressive in North America, recreating natural animal environments in safe and spacious enclosures. Parents can admire the zoo’s numerous green initiatives while their children feed penguins in the geothermal-powered Humboldt penguin exhibit.
Seattle’s Aquarium, strategically located on the downtown waterfront, includes the so-called ‘Window on Washington’, a huge fish-filled tank staffed by trained divers who hold daily marine life demos. A visit to the aquarium can be combined with a ride on the nearby Seattle Great Wheel, a massive Ferris wheel with covered seating pods that takes in the full sweep of the city and its surrounding mountains.
While amply loaded with predictable family attractions, Seattle also excels in less obvious diversions. Top of the esoteric list and a godsend for parents keen to wean their kids off iPads is the Seattle Pinball Museum located in the International District. This tightly-packed, two-story haven of games is full of lovingly restored pinball machines maintained in full working order. A $13 ticket ($10 for kids) gets you unlimited time on everything from a 1963-vintage Gottlieb to a 2012 AC/DC-themed Stern which blasts out tinny versions of Back in Black. Stools are provided for vertically challenged youngsters while bottled beer from the local Elysian brewery will quench the thirst of accompanying adults.
Pike Place Market
Totally unique to Seattle is Pike Place Market, a 107-year-old farmer’s market that offers a vivid slice of downtown street theater for adults and kids alike. Incidental market entertainment includes charismatic ‘fish throwers’ who lob scaly salmon back and forth with the dexterity of baseball pitchers, buskers who spin hula hoops while playing guitar, and the infamous gum wall, a communal art project open to any passing adult/child with their mouth full of chewing gum.
Even shopping can be passed off as kid-friendly in Pike Place as long as you prioritize Market Magic (grin and bear the fake dog turds), and spooky apothecary, Tenzing Momo which looks like something out of Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books. An obligatory lunch stop is Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, an artisan cheese-maker where the curds are stirred in a street-side window and creamy mac and cheese is dispensed in cartons to long lines of flagging families.
Dessert requires a mini-detour to Belltown and Top Pot Hand-forged Doughnuts where the energy-reviving doughnuts baked on the premises were good enough to provide a sweet campaign stop for Barack Obama in 2010.
Sculptures and Sand
The words 'we’re going for a walk' can provoke weary groans from kids with tired museum legs – unless the walk is around a trippy waterside sculpture park. Olympic Sculpture Park on the shores of Elliott Bay in Belltown is an outpost of Seattle Art Museum which combines giant human heads with excellent beach-combing possibilities in adjacent Myrtle Edwards Park. Should the weather cooperate, adjourn for sand-castle building on sandy Alki Beach in West Seattle, reachable by a 15-minute water taxi ride from the waterfront.
Arguably the best family day out in Seattle is at CenturyLink Field, home of the recently reincarnated Seattle Sounders soccer team. The Sounders are the best-supported soccer club in North America by a mile, but attending one of their games is about far more than 90 minutes of ball-chasing. Proceedings kick off around midday in Pioneer Square with entertainment from a live 40-piece supporter’s club band and are followed by a noisy ‘March to the Match’ amid a sea of scarves and a chorus of song. Free from hooligan elements that have often plagued soccer in Europe, the soccer experience in Seattle is atmospheric, family-friendly and, above all, fun – as long as the home team is winning!