This might be the most recognizable market in the world. Seattle’s venerable Pike Place Market opened in 1907, and has been continuously operating ever since. A mix of fruit stands, crafts, specialty treats, restaurants, and the famous seafood vendors who will throw a fish over your head, it is one of the most visited attractions in the city. It is a fantastic mix of sights, smells, and tastes. But it is only one of a whole host of attractions that make up Seattle’s waterfront district.
Seattle is located along Elliot Bay, an inlet of Puget Sound, which in turn connects to the Pacific. It has been – and likely always will be – a shipping mecca, with one of the largest container ports in North America, as well as one of the most trafficked cruise terminals, despite only being in operation during the summer and only offering cruises to Alaska.
The connection between the waterfront and Alaska goes well beyond the cruise terminal. In 1897, the ship Portland arrived in Seattle carrying two tons of gold from the Klondike. Gold fever was sparked, and an estimated 70% of the more than 100,000 fortune-seekers used Seattle as their jumping off point. As a result, the harbor grew significantly, so much so that the waterfront street is still named Alaskan Way. (If you want to know more about the gold rush, there is a great visitors center run by the National Parks Service located near Pioneer Square. Fun fact: of the more than 100,000 who tried, only about 300 made a “fortune” in gold, a fortune being defined as $15,000 or more – roughly $300,000 in current money.)
Between gold, timber, and fur, Seattle quickly became an important port city. (Today, the largest export is grain from the Midwest bound for Asia. The container port is a net import entry point.) The best way to explore that aspect of the city is from the water. With my Seattle CityPass – thank you to Visit Seattle for providing it for me – I am able to book a one hour harbor tour with Argosy Cruises. We sail along the waterfront, and then tour the port itself. On a beautiful day like this, you can’t beat the feeling of the salty wind on your face and an incredible view of one of the most gorgeous cities in the world.
Walking along Alaskan Way, one truly gets an idea of the scale of the early Seattle port. More than 60 piers line the way, nearly all of which are now shops, restaurants, and other establishments catering to tourists seeking a nice stroll along the blue waters of Elliot Bay. You’ll pass the Seattle Great Wheel, a Ferris wheel that is probably fun but more expensive than it’s worth. (It is pretty, though.)
If you are hungry, you’ll have your choice of seafood restaurants to pick from. After all, fresh seafood is one of the perks of being in Seattle. I enjoy lunch at Ivar’s, my personal favorite spot. Their salmon chowder is pure bliss, although for a more interactive experience, order fish and chips. The restaurant has outdoor seating along the side, and it is constantly full of seagulls waiting for diners to feed them fries. The soundtrack of their calls is a bit deafening at times, but it is bound to make you smile. (They are much less fond of the crackers that come with a bowl of chowder.)
One of the piers is home to the Seattle Aquarium, another site I have entry to via my CityPass. It seems small from the outside, but is much larger on the interior, and you’ll need a good two hours to leisurely explore it. Most of the animals on display are local, and nearly all will be released back into the wild. While the touch tanks are awesome, and of course I marvel at the jellyfish and colorful fish in the various exhibits, the highlight is the marine mammal section outside. Sea otters, river otters, fur seals, and harbor seals all enjoy their time here, and I sit for a good while at each spot watching them.
After an afternoon of fish watching, it is time for dinner. I opt for The Fisherman’s Restaurant, partially for its outdoor patio overlooking the water, partially for its menu of great looking local seafood, and partially for its weekday happy hour of a half dozen local oysters (Seattle has some of the best in the world) for only $10. Score! My king salmon dinner is also incredible, although the highlight is my server, Stacy. Seriously, ask for her.
Seattle, as you are probably aware, is built on hills, and while Pike Place Market is just a couple blocks from the water, it is up several flights of stairs. It is fitting that such a place exists along the waterfront, highlighting local produce, seafood, and other wares that merchants of early Seattle would be looking for. Today, is is overrun by tourists. As far as I’m concerned, that isn’t such a terrible thing, as it means this farmers market will continue to thrive, even in a world of big box stores.
Pike Place Market does not allow chains. Each restaurant here is a small one-off. There is, however, one notable exception. In 1971, a coffee shop opened here at the market. At the time, it was the only one (it is technically the second location, but the first closed prior to this one opening), so it fulfilled the market’s rule. You guessed it, that place is Starbucks. Starbucks #1, as this is known, is perhaps the most overrated spot in the market. The line to enter can reach an hour or more, and the coffee is the same as the more than 20,000 other locations. Unless you are a devotee of Starbucks, skip it. But walk past and marvel at the people willing to wait in line to get that same Frappuccino.
Without a doubt, the Seattle waterfront is the highlight of a visit to the city. From pleasant meandering along Alaskan Way (despite the current construction going on) to amazing local seafood, from a harbor cruise to an aquarium, and from small souvenir shops to the huge Pike Place Market, you’ll want to spend at least a day here. And do take some time to reflect on the history of this place.
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