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Hometown Tourist: Seattle

4 things to know before visiting America's most popular (if grayest) city

By Mark Harris | November 20, 2012

We have a saying back home in England when the omnipresent drizzle turns into something heavier — something fatter, faster and somehow wetter: “Nice weather for ducks.” Then we turn up our collars, pull down our hats and dream of an escape to warmer lands with gentle trade winds and soft sunshine.
 
It is fair to say we are not usually dreaming of Seattle. Viewed through the most cynical lens, my maligned adopted hometown has the worst of everything: England’s standoffishness without its history, San Francisco’s Pacific location minus the charm, Vancouver’s modernity without its diversity. Seattle could seem, to many people, to be America’s darkest, dullest city — and not just because we see less sunshine than anywhere but Alaska.
 
Yet there’s a whole lot more to Seattle than an architectural needle, a fish market, an obsession with 1990s grunge music, a coffee shop on every corner and Microsoft's world headquarters — and a whole lot to love.

According to a recent survey from Public Policy Polling, it’s the most popular U.S. city, and over the past five years, I’ve come to know a very different Seattle — one that is full of vibrant culture and character, warm community and quirkiness. Sadly, it’s one that few out-of-towners experience, often because they blindly follow guidebooks directing them to our signature sights. 
 
Seattle grew up on two industries — lumber and fish — and watching aproned barkers at Pike Place market toss freshly caught salmon from stall to customer is a time-honored tourist tradition (kids especially love seeing gills and fins flash above their heads). Another tourist must-visit is the retro-futuristic Seattle Center, built for the 1962 World’s Fair and home to the city’s iconic Space Needle viewing tower.
 
Once these attractions have been checked off the list, woe betide the visitor who asks a local for suggestions, only to be brushed off with a cool smile and a mention of the ducks. (Like many U.S. cities, Seattle has decommissioned military amphibious vehicles that shuttle shivering tourists between attractions, quacking as they go with free plastic duck-calls.) This is the infamous Seattle freeze, a passive-aggressive unhelpfulness that residents are supposed to inflict on anyone who dares to visit us.
 
Alas, it’s not entirely a myth. But please don’t take our cold shoulders personally: In a recent survey, more than 80 percent of Seattleites reported having experienced the freeze themselves.
 
The good news is that breaking the ice is pretty easy. Get off the beaten track, express interest in our local passions, don some high-tech rain gear, and you’ll soon fit right in, even if you’re only here for a wet weekend.

(MORE: Travel Skills: Packing Light)
 
Fact No. 1: We Love Water
 
And it will be wet. If you want to see Seattle and its residents at their best, take to the water. Ride a cheap public ferry to our island suburb of Bainbridge for a glorious view of the city and the Puget Sound, or, better yet, come watch us splashing on Lake Union, the 580-acre freshwater lake at the north end of downtown. Long an industrial wasteland (Boeing started building planes here in 1916), Lake Union is now Seattle’s aquatic playground.
 
On a sunny Saturday you’ll see flotillas of sailboats, kayaks and paddle-boarders peeking into the hundreds of houseboats that crowd its shores. Even on a winter weekday, the lake is alive with floatplanes buzzing in and out, heading to isolated islands in the sound or hopping over the border to Canada.
 
The tourist ducks power across Lake Union, of course, but on a blustery October Friday, I decided to sample the more sedate charms of a historic boat rented from the Center for Wooden Boats. I’ve walked its ramshackle collection of piers and workshops many times, but I’ve never summoned the courage to take to the lake’s (gentle) waves.
 
Boatwright Dan Leach introduced me to his fleet of small wooden craft, from row boats to old fishing smacks, all painstakingly restored by a team of volunteers. For significantly less than the price of a duck ride, I rented a pedal boat and cycled merrily around the shores of Lake Union park (having pumped out last night’s rain before setting sail, of course).
 
No. 2: Come Hungry
 
The entire South Lake Union area (SLU to natives) is experiencing a renaissance as the city and Amazon engage in a redevelopment “arms race,” throwing up mirrored office blocks and studiously peculiar artworks with abandon. Seattle’s revamped Museum of History and Industry opens in an old Naval armory here at the end of 2012, but the current big draw right now is, unquestionably, food.
 
One of my guiding principles in life is to never join a line outside a shop — for iPhones or Black Friday sales, say — but I am almost always willing to join one outside a restaurant, especially here in this city of gourmet, ethical eating. In SLU, I will (and often do) stand in the rain outside the Portage Bay Café, watching lucky locavores enjoy sublime breakfast dishes, or peer through the steamed-up windows of Serious Biscuit at the tallest, fluffiest, most luxuriously smothered biscuits imaginable. 
 
Flying Fish’s short but surprisingly affordable happy hour occasionally features its stunning signature sister-in-law mussels and Thai crab cakes. But watch the clock like a hawk if you don’t want to feel the Seattle freeze when it comes to paying the bill. Staff here are deadly serious about charging full price even a few minutes past the tick of 6 p.m.
 
While restaurants come and go like the tide, there are some wait-list stalwarts, including Paseo, in Fremont, known for its Cuban sandwiches (average queue length: 15 slavering carnivores), Molly Moon’s imaginative ice creams in Wallingford and Capitol Hill (half a dozen rail-thin hipsters, half a dozen guilty suburbanites) and Ivar’s fresh fish and chips downtown (a host of bewildered tourists).
 
It might be crazy to single out one person for Seattle’s diverse, egalitarian and affordable dining scene, but I’m going to anyway. Back in the 1980s, when Seattle was suffering the worst of its crack epidemic, Tom Douglas, opened his first restaurant, the Dahlia Lounge, in the heart of downtown. Melding fine dining with a welcoming atmosphere and reasonable prices, the lounge was an oasis of calm, and fabulous food.

Douglas has since launched a dozen more eateries, mostly within “borrowing a cup of vanilla sugar” distance of the Dahlia Lounge. His outlets now include a micro-chain of artisanal pizza joints, a bare-bones burger bar and a mo-mo (Tibetan dumpling) food truck.  
 
“I have so many places in just a few blocks because the more vibrant it is down here, the more people will want to come,” he tells me above his Palace Kitchen bar in the shadow of Seattle’s monorail, which shuttles tourists from downtown to the Seattle Center.
 
“Our raw ingredients, especially our fantastic seafood, are unlike anywhere else,” he says. “In Seattle, we have learned to get out of the way and let the pristine quality of our salmon shine through. We recognize the different species and their individual flavors. We also recognize when to stop fishing and let these poor creatures survive.” (While Seattle itself no longer has a commercial fishery, Native Americans still enjoy fishing privileges, even within Lake Union itself.)

(MORE: Take Your Dream Culinary Vacation Now!)
 
No. 3: We've Got Culture From High and Low
 
If Seattle’s dining culture is fully gassed, its higher culture (no, that’s not a veiled reference to the state’s recent legalization of you know what) can sometimes struggle. The Seattle Art Museum has a permanent collection that covers the Renaissance to modern conceptual exhibits, with rotating shows that feature some of art’s biggest names.  But I think the city’s character is better reflected in the Asian Art Museum, an Art Deco jewel perched on the city’s Capitol Hill in Volunteer Park. Exhibitions here could focus on Japanese screen prints, Mongolian textiles or Indian religious art — neat, compact and unfailingly interesting shows to keep you thinking for days.
 
The park also has a well-preserved conservatory and a rather gloomy water tower to climb for close-up views of the city’s equally permanent collection of altostratus and cumulus clouds.
 
Seattle is not really the place to dwell on the past, though. The success of Boeing has spawned a fascinating Museum of Flight on the city’s outskirts, and Microsoft’s decades-long dominance of computing allowed co-founder Paul Allen to finance the Frank Gehry–designed Experience Music Project. Both venues are tech-chic enough to bring out anyone’s inner artsy nerd.
 
No. 4: Plan to Have Barrels of Fun

Seattle’s newest breed of geek, however, can be found lurking in the emerging Ballard Beer Triangle, an old light-industrial neighborhood whose dilapidated fishing warehouses are now redolent with the aroma of malt and hops. The area is home to at least five small-scale micro- and nanobrewers, with three more due to pull their first pints any day now. All open their doors, and casks, for just a few hours each week to share their latest concoctions and brewing arcana with the growing ranks of aficionados.
 
On a recent bone-chilling Friday evening, I set out with a few friends to explore the Triangle — and hopefully not get too lost in its dark streets and equally obscure brew talk. At Hilliards, we hear from the young founders — a former flight instructor, architect and furniture salesman — that it takes just nine hours to can 15,000 Belgian-style saison beers. At NorthWest Peaks we learn how each batch of IPA comes out a little different, and feel the need to try them all just to make sure.

At Reuben’s Brews, the third and final stop of our craft-beer pub crawl, we discover ... Actually, I can’t remember exactly what we discovered, although the cheesy grits on my shirt indicate a Southern-style food truck may have been involved.
 
So welcome to Seattle, a city you will almost certainly leave wetter, heavier and slightly more befuddled than you when you arrived. Unless like this happily displaced Brit, you don’t leave at all.

Mark E. Harris is a British science, technology and lifestyle journalist based in Seattle. He also writes for The Economist, The Sunday Times and Wired UK. He tweets from @meharris.

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