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Weekend in Seattle, minus Starbucks and the Space Needle: underground tour, Pike Place Market, Smith Tower and Chihuly

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SEATTLE, Washington – Seattle may be one of the nation’s coolest cities, but on the weekend of my recent visit, it was steaming hot.

I headed underground to escape the heat.

Back in 1965, the late Seattle journalist Bill Speidel created an underground tour of long-buried streetscapes in an effort to save century-old buildings in the city’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood. More than 50 years later, the tours are still going strong, one of the most enduring and popular attractions in Seattle.

The streets were raised as much as 30 feet in the aftermath of the Great Fire of Seattle in 1889, in an effort to avoid flooding that occurred regularly in the city’s early years. Buildings and sidewalks, however, remained at the lower level, which resulted in a labyrinth of underground walkways. An earthquake in 1949 caused further damage.

“We’re walking through the abandoned ruins of Seattle,” said Rose Zeringer, a guide with Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour. “We did not have somebody come in here and redecorate.”

The tour was a highlight on a recent two-day stay in Seattle, which is more accessible to Northeast Ohio travelers thanks to just-launched nonstop service between Cleveland and Seattle on Alaska Airlines.

I’ve been to the Emerald City before, so I skipped a few first-timer must-dos, including the Space Needle and the original Starbucks. I added, instead, several new-to-me attractions, including Smith Tower, the underground tour and a water taxi ride.

And I repeated a few favorites, including Pike Place Market and the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum.

Here, then, how to spend 48 hours in Seattle:

Weekend in Seattle

A visitor wears a towel on her head to avoid getting hit by flying fish at Pike Place Fish in Seattle.

Weekend in Seattle

Fresh flowers for sale at Pike Place Market in Seattle.

Pike Place Market

Our first stop on our first morning in town was Pike Place Market, the sprawling, 9-acre shopping mecca in the center of Seattle, with hundreds of vendors hawking fish and flowers, pastries and piroshki. There’s a reason this is Seattle’s top tourist attraction – it’s a feast for the eyes, ears and mouth, with street musicians, flying fish and some great eats.

We had bagels with cream cheese and lox at Three Sisters Bakery, ate local strawberries straight from the carton at Corner Produce, and topped it off with terrific lattes from Freya Bakery & Café. Later in the day, en route back to our hotel, we returned to peruse some of the non-perishables here, including used books, old movie posters and political buttons, and rehydrated at Rachel’s Ginger Beer.

We bypassed the original Starbucks, open since 1971, mostly because we can get Starbucks anywhere – but also because pro-union picketers were out front making the case for a collective-bargaining agreement (“No contract, no coffee,” they implored.)

Indeed, there are plenty of places to get excellent coffee in this town, and I sampled several.

Weekend in Seattle

The glasshouse at Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle.

Weekend in Seattle

Winter Brilliance at Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle.

The Seattle Center

After breakfast, we hopped the monorail from downtown and headed to the Seattle Center, a 74-acre park with numerous attractions, including the Space Needle and the Chihuly museum. Both the monorail and the Space Needle were built for the 1962 World’s Fair, an event designed to put Seattle on an international stage, scientifically and culturally. It largely succeeded.

The Space Needle, 605 feet tall and 138 feet wide at the top, underwent a $100 million renovation in recent years, with new 11-foot-tall panels of glass surrounding the top of the structure, and a rotating glass floor that’s part of the new Loupe Lounge. In addition, this spring, in celebration of the needle’s 60th anniversary, the structure’s iconic saucer top got a new paint job – galaxy gold, to match its hue from six decades ago.

I might have ascended the tower again, if not for the long wait (at 1 p.m., visitors were purchasing tickets for a 4 p.m. ascent) and the steep price ($35, ages 13-64). But if it’s a clear day and you’ve never done it before, make it a priority.

We had toured the Chihuly museum before, too, but decided to repeat this stop, because who can’t use more Dale Chihuly? The famous glass artist was born not far from here, in Tacoma, and still lives nearby.

The museum, open since 2012, features eight indoor galleries of his work, with space devoted to his numerous artistic series, including baskets, towers, chandeliers and Niijima floats. New since I was here a few years ago: Winter Brilliance, a gorgeous display commissioned by Barneys New York in 2015 for its windows on Madison Avenue.

The indoor galleries lead into a glasshouse with a stunning, suspended 100-foot-long sculpture in vibrant reds, oranges and yellows.

And finally, the outdoor gardens, where art and nature come together in perfect harmony.

There are glass-artist demonstrations, movies that cover the Chihuly team’s creative process and a terrific gift shop (note: Collections Café is closed and has no reopening date). Don’t miss it.

Also at the Seattle Center: the Museum of Pop Culture – with its vast collection of music, movie and pop culture memorabilia – which I toured in 2017 and enjoyed, but decided I didn’t need to repeat. Also on site: the Pacific Science Center, several theaters, sports venues, a food hall and more.

The entire space has a fun, festival atmosphere on weekends, with caricature artists, psychics, buskers and more.

Weekend in Seattle

Eagle, by Alexander Calder, at Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, frames the Space Needle in the distance.

Weekend in Seattle

Skyline view from the water taxi en route to West Seattle.

Olympic Sculpture Park and water taxi to West Seattle

From the Seattle Center, we walked west toward the waterfront via the (free) Olympic Sculpture Park, operated by the Seattle Art Museum. Several large-scale pieces, including works by Alexander Calder and Jaume Plensa, provide artistic appeal along a paved path, which zigzags down toward Elliott Bay.

When we reached the water, we headed south past kitschy souvenir shops and seafood restaurants, the Seattle Aquarium and Great Wheel, and the massive Norwegian Bliss, preparing to depart for Alaska.

We were headed for the King County water taxi at Pier 50, which transported us across Elliott Bay to the neighborhood of West Seattle, offering gorgeous views of the Seattle skyline along the way.

Plenty of others had the same idea – I overheard a water taxi employee say that our 15-minute ride represented the first full boat since before the pandemic.

West Seattle is one of numerous city neighborhoods outside the downtown that’s worth exploring. Kayak and paddleboard rentals are available a short walk from the dock, or hop a shuttle or scooter to Alki Beach about 2 miles away, which offers the city’s largest stretch of sand.

There’s also a terrific, casual restaurant here, Marination Ma Kai, offering Hawaiian-Korean fusion fare that ranks among the city’s best. Prepare to wait in line, but the pork sliders are absolutely worth it.

Weekend in Seattle

View from the top of Seattle’s Smith Tower, the city’s first skyscraper; note Mount Rainier in the distance.

Smith Tower and Klondike Gold Rush park

On day two, we headed south from our hotel into the city’s historic core, Pioneer Square, home to the city’s oldest buildings.

Inside the former Cadillac Hotel is the National Park Service’s Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park – half of it, anyway. The other half is 1,500 miles north in Skagway, Alaska. The two sites commemorate the Klondike Gold Rush, which brought 100,000 prospectors to the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon Territory in the late 1800s.

First, though, the gold seekers came to Seattle to get fully outfitted for their adventures.

“The gold rush made Seattle rich,” said guide Zeringer. “Not the gold — but the thousands showing up in Seattle to buy mining supplies. If that gold rush hadn’t happened, Seattle wouldn’t be the city it is today.”

The park site also touches on one of the darkest periods of American history, the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, including many in the Seattle area.

After the gold rush, there was tremendous interest in investment in Seattle. Among the investors: New York industrialists Lyman C. Smith and son Burns Smith, of Smith Corona typewriter fame, who commissioned a new skyscraper for the city. When the Smith Tower opened in 1914, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi, with eight manually operated Otis elevators and a terrific observatory on the 35th floor.

At 462 feet tall, the tower is shorter than the Space Needle (605 feet) and Columbia Center (933 feet), both of which also offer sky-high Seattle lookouts.

But the view from 462 feet is plenty spectacular, with a still snow-covered Mount Rainier and Lumen Field to the south, the Olympic Mountains and Elliott Bay to the west.

Before ascending, visitors are asked to select a real-life character to follow to the top – bootlegger Roy Olmstead, shady lawyer Jerry Finch or switchboard-operator-turned flapper Hattie Freeman – in an attempt to bring the building to life. (Spoiler alert: Both Olmstead and Finch end up doing prison time.) At the top of the tower is the Observatory Restaurant and Bar, a swanky, retro space originally called the Chinese Room, with a gorgeous teak ceiling, high-end cocktails and an elaborately carved Wishing Chair that promises marriage to young women who sit for a while.

Weekend in Seattle

Underground exploration in Seattle, on Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour.

Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour

It was this historic neighborhood that Speidel set out to save back in the 1960s.

The city had plans to raze many of its late-19th century buildings, which had fallen into disrepair.

Speidel dug into the neighborhood’s history, launched his tours and put up a fight. In 1970, the 16-square-block neighborhood was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

While underground, Zeringer told us this fun Cleveland-Seattle connection: If not for former Clevelander David “Doc” Maynard, who relocated to the Oregon-Washington territory in the early 1850s, Seattle would not be the city it is today. Maynard advocated to change the city name from Duwamps to Seattle (after Chief Seattle, leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes), and also helped lay it out, reportedly patterned after Cleveland (although I had a hard time seeing any resemblance).

As we wandered through the ruins – past former saloons, music halls and hotels – we learned about the city’s early experimentation with gravity plumbing (it was messy); Lou Graham, who ran the city’s best-known brothel and also financed much of the city’s development; and the fire that destroyed blocks of the city on June 6, 1889.

“They call it the Great Seattle Fire because it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to the city,” Zeringer said.

Businesses quickly rebuilt, this time out of fireproof stone and brick.

The city, however, decided to raise the streets to prevent future flooding, which left storefronts and sidewalks 30 feet below, accessible only via ladders. Eventually, the sidewalks were raised too, after one too many saloon-goers fell off the ladders following a night of drinking.

After the sidewalks were raised, second-floor windows became doorways, below-ground rooms became basements.

Eventually, the underground passageways gave way to more illicit and unhealthy activities – opium dens, speakeasies, brothels and infested with rats, according to Zeringer. The fear of spreading bubonic plague closed the underground for good in 1907 – until the mid-1960s, when Speidel’s operation reopened it.

And lucky for us it did – one of the coolest attractions in Seattle, especially on a hot summer day.

Weekend in Seattle

Seattle waterfront on a summer evening in June.

Weekend in Seattle

Kayaks for rent in West Seattle, across Elliott Bay from downtown.

Seattle: If you go

Getting there: Alaska Airlines offers new, daily nonstop service between Cleveland and Seattle; other carriers in Cleveland, including United, American, Delta and Southwest, also offer travel to Seattle via one-stop service.

Getting around: We didn’t have a car in Seattle and got along just fine for a couple of days. We used numerous public transportation options, including the Link light rail (to and from the airport), the Monorail (to the Seattle Center) and the water taxi (to West Seattle). With a car, we could have done more neighborhood exploration – to Ballard, for example, and the Chittenden Locks; or to the Museum of Flight, south of the city.

Where to stay: Hotels in Seattle are among the priciest in the nation, according to travel data firm STR, thanks to the city’s growing tourism economy and the large numbers of Alaska-bound cruise ships that depart from here. Rates are generally higher on the weekends; I paid about $300 per night at the well-located and well-appointed Motif Seattle, part of the Hyatt chain.

Where to eat: Our restaurant choices included Marination Ma Kai in West Seattle; Dough Zone Dumpling House, with several Seattle locations; Elliott’s Oyster House on the waterfront; and numerous vendors at Pike’s Place Market.

More information: visitseattle.org

Final thought: The last time I was in Seattle, in 2017, the city’s homeless population left a lasting impression, primarily via the large tent encampments in parks and other public spaces. It was a less noticeable issue this visit, which surprised me, given that the pandemic has exacerbated so many social problems. Public and private leaders in Seattle (and elsewhere, particularly along the West Coast) continue to struggle to develop lasting solutions to the intersecting problems of homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction. An inability to compassionately handle the crisis affects the quality of life not only for residents, but short-term visitors, as well.

Read more:

First flight on Alaska Airlines from Cleveland to Seattle: legroom, outlets, movies and more



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