Spring in Seattle means a welcome reprieve from the cold, gray drizzle that oppresses the city six months out of the year. Stir-crazy locals ditch their umbrellas, the sun beams out across Puget Sound, and the city’s unsurpassed system of parks, trails, and outdoor public spaces finally starts greening up enough to justify its “Emerald City” nickname.
Forget coffee shops and rock clubs - today’s Seattle is the West Coast’s capital of outdoor recreation, eco-chic eats, and funky urban architecture. In a weekend’s worth of neighborhood-hopping, you can take in the best of the city’s “metro-natural” highlights, from the classic sights to under-the-radar curiosities.
5…Space out beneath the Space Needle
Originally the site of the 1962 World’s Fair, the Seattle Center (305 Harrison St., 206-684-7200, seattlecenter.com) is the city’s multi-modal headquarters for festivals and events. Rising up behind it is the Fair’s futuristic centerpiece, the Space Needle, and at its center is the giant, modernist sprinkler called International Fountain.
Weekends find the grassy Seattle Center plaza crowded with strolling families, sightseers, and al fresco diners. The flower and sculpture gardens attract botany enthusiasts and meditative types, and skaters shred at a top-of-the line, 10,000-foot skate park. In May, hang out around Seattle Center for the multi-culti Giant Magnet performing arts festival (206-684-7338, giantmagnet.org, individual event tickets $10–$15), which fills the Center’s performance spaces with dance, circus, and theater troupes from around the globe.
Ride the elevator up 520 feet to the Space Needle’s observation deck for an unbeatable view of the city and the Sound. Tickets are $17 for adults, $9 for kids. While you’re up there, grab a snack at the Sky City rotating restaurant (206-905-2100, spaceneedle.com, lunch entrees $25–$35). The fine-dining menu can be a bit pricey, but the famous Lunar Orbiter dry-ice-and-ice-cream dessert concoction is a sweet, smoky treat that you have to see to believe.
4…The Place to be
Fishmongers have been tossing the day’s catch around at the downtown Pike Place Market (85 Pike St., 206-682-7453, pikeplacemarket.org) for more than a century, making it one of the country’s oldest continually operated farmers’ markets. And while the flying seafood, cobblestone streets, and bohemian buskers all add to the ambience, the real appeal is stall after stall of excellent fresh fish and produce. Skip dining out for the night: Pick up dinner at Pike Place.
A stop at the Le Panier French bakery (corner of Stewart St. and Pike Pl., 206-441-3669, lepanier.com) should hold you over while you shop - try one of the stall’s knockout brioche loaves. Up the street, Pike Place Fish (corner of Pike St. and Pike Pl., 206-682-7181, pikeplacefish.com) has amazing salmon, halibut, and crab right off the boat, plus it’s where the staff famously hurls their lunkers through the air, delighting crowds of shutterbugs. Delve into the market’s basement level to find Lionheart Books (206-903-6511), an overlooked gem of a bookstore where exuberant owner David Ghoddousi will chat your ear off while digging up rare first editions from among his cluttered stacks.
Of course, if Pike Place has given us nothing else, it has given us Starbucks. The original location of the ubiquitous java phenomenon (1912 Pike Pl., 206-448-8762) is characteristically cookie-cutter, but there’s a cool retro sign, and you can always say you’ve slugged a Frappuccino back where it all began.
3…Have a gas
Gas Works Park on the north shore of Lake Union has to be one of the country’s more innovative urban green spaces. Located on the site of a former utility company’s coal gasification plant, Gas Works is a sort of open-air post-industrial fun zone. Inside the spacious play barn, families romp happily among steel pipes and boilers repainted in bright primary colors, and the big, fenced-off holding tanks take on a sort of sculptural quality.
Kite fliers gather in bunches atop the artificial mound of Kite Hill in order to take advantage of the lake winds. If you don’t have a kite, you can still pull up some grass near the sundial to ooh and ahh at the high-flying aerial maneuvers.
Gas Works is bisected by the twenty-seven-mile Burke–Gilman Trail, a former railroad grade that attracts hordes of cyclists, joggers, and inline skaters. Pick up a set of rental wheels at Recycled Cycles (1007 NE Boat St., 206-547-4491, recycledcycles.com, $20 for a half-day), just a mile from the park at the edge of the University of Washington campus. For much of its route, the trail follows the historic Lake Washington Ship Canal, so keep your eyes peeled for pleasure boats and trawlers coming in from the Pacific.
2…Journey to the "Center of the Universe"
The funky Fremont neighborhood branded itself “The Center of the Universe” sometime in the early 70s, about the same time it earned its reputation as a countercultural haven. Though the neighborhood is a bit gentrified these days, Fremont’s cool shops and offbeat public art scene make it a hotspot for pedestrian tours.
Start at the eighteen-foot concrete troll that’s tucked underneath the Aurora Bridge (corner of N. 36th St. and Troll Ave.). The two-ton sculpture was created in 1990, and yes, that’s an actual Volkswagon Beetle he’s crushing in his left hand.
From the troll, head west on 36th St. for five blocks to find a giant stone effigy of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin posed inexplicably in front of a gelato shop. A local resident bought and installed the statue at his own expense in the mid-90s. Dressing Lenin up for various holidays is a robust neighborhood tradition.
While exploring Fremont’s hip shopping and dining hub, don’t miss out on Paseo (4225 Fremont Ave N., 206-545-7440, paseoseattle.com, sandwiches $6–$8) a tiny and sign-less storefront just a block northeast of the Lenin statue. The humble façade disguises what might be the finest Cuban sandwich shop outside of Cuba, and at lunchtime, the block is crowded with locals waiting in line for hot pork masterpieces served on soft baguettes.
1…Unleash your inner nerd
Geeks of all stripes unite inside the wildly inventive Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum (325 5th Ave. N., 877-367-7361, empsfm.org, $15 admission). The institution’s rock-and-roll wing is a largely hands-on affair, where visitors practice axe-shredding and drum-soloing while picking up tidbits of pop-culture history. Spend some time in the guitar gallery to learn how rock’s most iconic instrument made its way from medieval minstrel shows to Jimi Hendrix concerts.
The museum’s sci-fi section giddily indulges in pointy-eared, robotic dorkdom. Exhibits of early dime-store novels show off the laughably space-aged future envisioned by 1950s Earthlings, and there’s an impressive collection of light sabers, phasers, and other movie props - think of it as a Smithsonian for Trekkies.
Almost as popular as the exhibits themselves is the building’s kooky metallic exterior, curved out like a collection of funhouse mirrors and designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. You’ll get an up-close look at the psychedelic structure when you ride through on the monorail, which departs every ten minutes from a terminal next to the museum. A round-trip ride costs $4 and shows off much of the city’s skyline - dramatic in the rainy season and breathtaking in the sunshine, just like Seattle itself.