Overview

The combination of water, hills and lush greenery in a mountain setting on the shores of Puget Sound make Seattle, Washington, one of the most beautiful urban areas in the U.S. With its efficient bus system and compact downtown district, Seattle is also user-friendly.

Seattleites have plenty to brag about: There's the Space Needle and Pike Place Market, plus the Mariners, Seahawks and Sounders FC sports teams. There are fine restaurants, good museums and a vigorous arts scene.

Even Seattle's infamous rainy winter weather has a good side. All that rain helps make Seattle the evergreen "Emerald City" and produces wonderful flowers. And Seattle is where Starbucks got its start, in 1971, at Pike Place Market.

Geography

Seattle borders Puget Sound, the salty inland waterway that flows through the Strait of Juan de Fuca into the Pacific Ocean. Several freshwater lakes also shape the city. Lake Union is home to the houseboat community spotlighted in the movie Sleepless in Seattle, and more recently has been home to massive redevelopment projects, including the site of Amazon's headquarters. Gigantic Lake Washington, spanned by two bridges, separates Seattle from Bellevue, Redmond (home to Microsoft), Kirkland and other suburban cities on the Eastside.

Seattle's waterfront hugs the curve of Elliott Bay. Pioneer Square, the oldest part of the city, is to the south, just up from the Alaskan Way waterfront, and comprises the southwest corner of downtown Seattle. Two massive sports stadiums stand just south of the neighborhood: CenturyLink Field houses the Seahawks football team and the Sounders FC soccer team; Safeco Field is home to the Seattle Mariners baseball team. Directly southeast of Pioneer Square lies the multiethnic International District, filled with Asian grocery stores and gift shops.

Pike Place Market enjoys a central location in downtown Seattle above the Seattle Aquarium and waterfront. North of the Market is trendy Belltown. Seattle Center lies even farther north, about a mile/kilometer from the downtown core, at the foot of elegant Queen Anne Hill. Hip Capitol Hill rises to the east, on the other side of Interstate 5. North of the Ship Canal and Lake Union, the funky neighborhoods of Ballard, Fremont, Wallingford and the University District run west to east.

History

Seattle got its start in 1851, when a small group of courageous pioneers dropped anchor at windy, inhospitable Alki Point in what's now West Seattle. Soon the settlers moved to a better location across the water on Elliott Bay. They built a town in present-day Pioneer Square and called it Seattle after a friendly Native American, Chief Sealth of the Duwamish tribe.

The first business, a lumber mill at the foot of Yesler Avenue, fed the demand for timber created by the California gold rush. The town survived the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, which nearly gutted the wooden business district. Optimistic residents built over the ashes, creating the handsome redbrick structures that still grace Pioneer Square.

Seattle boomed in the late 1890s, when prospectors struck gold in the Alaska-Yukon fields. The city became a major transit point for fortune hunters heading north. Merchants grew rich outfitting the gold rushers, and shipbuilders raced to create boats for the Seattle-Alaska route.

The city became an important shipping and industrial center in the early 20th century. World War II strengthened the logging industry and sparked shipbuilding, aviation and other war-related activities. The Boeing Corporation fueled the city's economy in the postwar decades. Seattle hosted the 1962 World's Fair on what is now Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle.

In 1971, the world's first Starbucks opened in Pike Place Market, and Seattle soon became the espresso capital of the country. The city became a major player in the tech industry when Microsoft, Amazon.com and other companies set up shop in the 1980s and 1990s. Although Boeing, once a major employer, has moved its headquarters to Chicago, the Seattle metropolitan area remains home base for such big names as Nordstrom, Costco and REI. Seattle is also a major port for foreign trade.

Sightseeing

To get a bird's-eye view of the area, ride to the top of the Space Needle, the city's most famous landmark, which rises from Seattle Center. If the clouds cooperate, the view is great. Back at ground level, see three other attractions in the vicinity: the Experience Music Project, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, and the Pacific Science Center, one of our favorite science museums in the country.

Another standout is the downtown Seattle Art Museum (SAM to the locals), which has grown to be more than double its original size. The main building is about a mile/kilometer from Seattle Center—you can hoof it or catch a ride on one of the city buses along Second or Third avenues. The museum has a spectacular collection of African, Native American and European works, as well as changing exhibitions.

Just two blocks north of SAM is Pike Place Market, which was built in 1907. Its vendors sell tons of fresh local food, flowers, crafts and more. Be sure not to miss the seafood stand at the main entrance: Fishmongers toss huge sea creatures from the display tables to the sales counter, over the customers' heads.

Down the hill from the market you'll find the waterfront. Near Pier 70, look for the Olympic Sculpture Park, a must-see addition to the Seattle Art Museum. Head south to Pier 59 to visit the Seattle Aquarium, which specializes in Pacific species. Next door, The Great Wheel, a giant 17-story Ferris wheel, offers sweeping views of Elliot Bay. Farther south is Pier 52, where you will find the Washington State Ferries that provide transportation to the many islands and towns along Puget Sound. Take the 35-minute hop to Bainbridge Island for an unforgettable view of the city and its matchless setting.

Turning inland at Pier 52 you'll arrive at Pioneer Square, a restored historic district where honky-tonk taverns, brothels, opium dens and speakeasies once flourished. While there, be sure to take the Underground Tour along what were once old Seattle's main streets: Guides take you to a subterranean level of abandoned storefronts in the Pioneer Square area.

Consider buying a CityPass. It offers significantly reduced admission fees to select attractions: The Space Needle, Seattle Aquarium, Argosy Cruises Seattle Harbor Tour, your choice of either the Experience Music Project or the Woodland Park Zoo and your choice of either the Pacific Science Center or the Museum of Flight. It's good for nine days from first use, and pass-holders are able to skip the line at most attractions. US$74 adults. Purchase the pass at any of the participating sights or online at http://www.citypass.com.

Nightlife

The heyday of grunge, Seattle's best-known musical export, has long gone, but the city's active music scene still supports a wide array of small concert venues. The Ballard area (northwest of downtown) and Capitol Hill are the top spots for catching soon-to-break musical acts, particularly at Ballard's iconic Tractor Tavern or Chop Suey on Capitol Hill. The renovated Crocodile in Belltown is another good bet. Larger productions take the stage at The Paramount, The Showbox or The Moore theaters downtown. The historic Neptune Theater, an intimate single-screen cinema in the University District, has been renovated as a multipurpose arts venue that hosts live music, comedy and independent film.

If you're looking to groove to the latest DJs, head to Pioneer Square, Capitol Hill or Belltown. To find out what's playing where, check out the listings in the city's two alternative newsweeklies, The Stranger (http://www.thestranger.com) and Seattle Weekly (http://www.seattleweekly.com).

Many music fans make the pilgrimage to Seattle to see the city's musical sites, especially those made famous by Nirvana and local hero Jimi Hendrix. Find them on the Seattle Music Map (http://www.seattle.gov/music/map). Highlights include Viretta Park, across the street from Kurt Cobain's last home, and Garfield High School, where Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones went to school. Don't miss the Experience Music Project, the odd-looking Frank Gehry-designed building under the Space Needle.

Those looking for a relaxing place to enjoy a drink will be glad to know that Seattleites love to dawdle over designer beer almost as much as designer coffee: Microbrewery pubs are everywhere, offering an endless variety of tasty local ales and lagers.

Dining

Perched on the Pacific Rim and home to a diverse population, Seattle offers everything from Afghan and Ethiopian food to Hawaiian, South American and, well, you name it. But it's best known for its fresh seafood, and Asian and Northwest cuisines. The latter is a tasty mix of cultural influences (Asian, northern Italian, French and Californian) with fresh ingredients—locally caught seafood as well as vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices.

When ordering seafood, make sure you're getting fresh local fare, not frozen. Snow crab and mahimahi are usually not local, for instance; Dungeness crab, clams, oysters, halibut, cod and snapper (actually rockfish) are. The best salmon are sockeye, king (chinook) and coho (silver).

Of course, Seattle is the coffee capital of North America, and residents like their coffee strong. Sample some from the hundreds of espresso carts and coffee shops.

From Belltown to Pioneer Square, the city offers more than 600 restaurants. Locals typically hit the restaurants for dinner 6:30-9 pm, but it's not unusual to see International District eateries open and packing in the crowds until the early hours.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a single dinner, not including tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than US$20; $$ = US$20-$35; $$$ = US$36-$60; and $$$$ = more than US$60.

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