It’s been over 25 years since I lived in Seattle, and I learned on my recent visit that a lot has changed since then. If you plan on visiting Seattle, here are some things to expect, some good places to eat, and my favorite activities.
A Changing Waterfront
To be honest, my memory of downtown Seattle wasn’t perfect. First, I only lived in the Emerald City as a small child, and then again from the summer of 1994 to January 3rd, 1996. The last time I was there, we lived on the northern end of Lake Washington, quite a few miles from the city center. While I did some pretty long bike rides, I didn’t actually explore downtown that much.
Having said that, I was in Seattle for a few hours on New Year’s Eve 2015 with my dad to watch the fireworks from the Space Needle, and then again a couple months later when I spent a few weeks with a friend in Federal Way. But again, neither time I really got to explore downtown.
The first thing I noted is that I was having trouble getting my bearings around the waterfront. As it happens, the Alaska Way Viaduct that used to run from the Seattle Center to the stadiums was demolished in 2019 and replaced with an underground tunnel. The area is still in development, but it’s much more open and inviting with various steps leading down from 1st street to the piers.
In a couple years, a massive new expansion to the Seattle Aquarium will open, called the Ocean Pavilion, which will include a 325,000-gallon tank to house small sharks, manta rays, and other sea creatures. I might have to return after that opens.
Homeless in Seattle
Another massive change in Seattle, and not one for the better, is the number of homeless sprawled around the streets and in nearly every empty space large enough to pitch a tent or erect a makeshift hovel. True, the homeless were concentrated in the city center which is where we were living and working for the month we were in Seattle, but we still saw countless tents and tramps way out into the suburbs.
The current homeless crisis in the US certainly isn’t confined to Seattle, but the mild climate (particularly in winter) of the city draws in those who don’t have a permanent roof over their heads. Then again, it was even worse in Los Angeles, but that’s another story.
While it’s virtually impossible to avoid the homeless when visiting Seattle, I didn’t find the city particularly unsafe. The homeless are often riddled with drugs and alcohol, but they’re more of a danger to themselves than others. We saw more than one OD getting removed by the police. But I walked around the streets after midnight more than once and didn’t have any trouble.
Volunteering at the Green Tortoise Hostel
To help offset expenses while visiting Seattle, which definitely is not a budget-friendly city, we found a hostel to work at through Worldpackers. In fact, we found it extremely difficult to “backpack” around the US, especially after getting used to prices in Europe and Mexico. Just our groceries for the week were three times what we spend in Edinburgh, Scotland, but that’s the subject of another post too.
The Green Tortoise Hostel originally opened in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle back in 1993. The hostel moved downtown in 1997 and then moved again in 2006 when its building was demolished. The current location is just across the street from the famous Pike Place Public Market, although it’s been a fight to keep that building from being demolished too as the city continues to modernize.
The hostel was quite fun to work at, especially on the weekend shifts. There were fewer beds than some of the other recent hostels I’ve worked at, and my team routinely finished our duties much faster than expected. As I have experience as a chef, I had the pleasure of getting the staff dinner shift several times a week and cooking some of my favorite meals to everyone’s delight.
The Green Tortoise Hostel certainly isn’t a luxury experience. True, it’s not a party hostel and they do their best to keep out druggies, homeless and rabble-rousers, but probably the fanciest part of the hostel is the free dinner for everyone on Sunday. It just doesn’t compare to the luxury hostels I’ve stayed at in Europe and Asia. Having said that, the hostel was named one of the best in North America in 2009.
Some Great Places to Eat in Seattle
Working at the hostel, all our breakfasts and dinners were provided. And to save money, we cooked a lot of our lunches in the hostel kitchen. However, we did have some really good meals in Seattle. After all, you can’t visit there without trying the award-winning chowder.
Pike Place Chowder
The best place to get chowder in Seattle, at least based on all the awards they get, is Pike Place Chowder. There are two locations, one in Post Alley next to the Public Market, and another on the top floor of the Pacific Place Shopping Center. It’s no wonder I didn’t know about it when I lived in Seattle – they only opened in 2003.
To say their chowder is amazing is an understatement. Not only have they won dozens of awards across the country, Yelp reported that their chowder was the #1 reviewed and rated dish in the USA! There are eight different chowders available, each better than the last. I personally loved the smoked salmon chowder, but the New England chowder is the best-selling. You can even get a vegan and gluten-free lime and coconut clam chowder.
In addition to chowders, you can also get rolls with lobster, Dungeness crab, or both. At their second location, they also serve fish and chips. We went back a couple times, and everything we tried was delicious.
The line in Post Alley can get extremely long sometimes. Thankfully, you can easily skip the line by ordering ahead and then picking up your food when they call your name. Another option is to eat at the Pacific Place location, where they serve the exact same food, but without the line. That location also has a happy hour at lunchtime where you can get a discount on a couple of their menu items.
While in the US, we obviously needed to indulge in some American food, and what’s more American than a hamburger? For our top choice of hamburgers in Seattle, I have to mention Li’l Woody’s, which we stumbled across one day.
Li’l Woody’s is located on Capitol Hill next to the I5 Freeway. In a nutshell, they serve one of the best gourmet burgers in a fast-food setting. Think Shake Shack or Five Guys, but way better. I went with the standard Big Woody, but Vanesa got something particularly special – The Fig and the Pig, topped with pickled figs, Hills bacon and crumbled blue cheese. She also agreed it was one of the best burgers she’s ever had.
Finally, I’ll mention one more food stand along the harbor selling an all-American favorite. Well, kinda. Frankfurter might look like a hot dog stand, but they don’t serve American hot dogs. Instead, you can choose between a German Bratwurst, a Polish Kielbasa, a German/Swiss Bockwurst, etc.
Having had each of these sausages in their respective countries, I can attest the quality at The Frankfurter is spot on, and the prices are really good too. I’d even say it’s one of the few meals reasonably priced on the waterfront. Their fresh-squeezed strawberry lemonade is fantastic too.
Activities in Seattle
I don’t actually remember doing a lot of activities in Seattle when I was a kid, at least not around downtown, except for the Seattle Center. My family preferred the outdoors to the city, and I was more likely to be skiing in Snoqualmie, hiking Mount Rainier, or, my personal favorite, exploring Orcas Island.
I remember going to the Seattle Center often when I lived in Seattle, but usually just to enjoy the open space and views or a bite to eat in The Armory, not for the attractions. In fact, I never went up the Space Needle! But I loved the Pacific Science Center and was fascinated with the interactive displays and information there.
Since I moved away, the Museum of Popular Culture (MoPOP) and the Chihuly Gardens and Glass opened in the Seattle Center. More recently, the Pacific Science Center temporarily closed (I’m not sure if this is due to the pandemic or not, as all the other attractions are open). Either way, there are plenty of activities for spending an entire day at the Seattle Center.
Although most of the Seattle Center was built for the World Fair in 1962 and looks a bit dated, it’s still a very popular attraction. Vanesa and I had the chance to go up the Space Needle, and also visited the Chihuly Gardens, both of which we thoroughly enjoyed, although Vanesa was a bit afraid of heights at the Needle.
Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo
The Woodland Park Zoo is one of my favorite zoos around the world. I’m pretty sure my family had an annual pass when we lived in Seattle, and I remember riding my bike there often to learn about the animals. For it’s that kind of zoo – focusing on conservation and education over just being a tourist attraction.
The name of the zoo is very apt. It’s located in the large wooded park next to Green lake. I don’t think a lot has changed at the zoo over the years, other than the baby animals that have been born there. I know there are some people who don’t like zoos, but I think this one is still worth a visit.
Pike Place Public Market
Pike Place is so much more than a Farmer’s Market. It actually covers 9 acres along the waterfront in downtown Seattle and is one of the most visited attractions in the world, not to mention the most photographed spot in the Pacific Northwest. Of course, I didn’t know any of that when I lived there 25 years ago.
This time, I had the pleasure of taking the free Market Experience Tour wherein I learned all kinds of interesting facts about the market, how it got started in the early 1900s (that’s a fascinating story), and how to maximize your dollar when shopping there. You don’t have to take a tour of the market, but I’d highly recommend one if you want to get the “inside information.”
Another interesting and lesser-known attraction unique to Seattle is the Fremont Troll. As it should, the troll lives under a bridge on the way from the city center to the zoo. It was carved in 1990, is 18 feet high, and is clutching a real VW Beetle (which I completely missed when I was there).
Seattle’s Tall Ship
Finally, we come to my favorite activity in Seattle, and certainly one that wasn’t there 25 years ago. In fact, the schooner only arrived in Elliott Bay earlier this year. Seattle’s Tall Ship is an 85-foot schooner that has two-hour tours three times a day, including a wonderfully romantic sunset cruise.
The cruise leaves from Pier 66 next to Anthony’s Diner (you get a free small chowder there with your Tall Ship ticket). You can and should bring your own meal and drinks (alcohol is allowed) on the schooner, as it’s the perfect setting for lunch or dinner.
I didn’t have time to eat on the cruise as I was busy trying out my new drone, although I sadly lost most of that footage. I’m just grateful I was able to land the drone back on the deck of the moving vessel despite all the halyards (ropes) before the battery died. Probably not the best filming location for a noob.
Using the Seattle City Pass
To save money visiting most of the key attractions in Seattle, I’d highly recommend getting the Seattle City Pass. There are currently six attractions included for $111 ($109 plus a processing fee). They are:
- Space Needle
- Seattle Aquarium
- Woodland Park Zoo
- Chihuly Gardens and Glass
- Argosy Cruise
The first two attractions are standard, and then you get to choose three of the last four. You can also do the final one for an additional $3 or $5 (depending on the attraction). The only stop we didn’t make it to was MoPOP, which is a shame considering the research I did on the museum afterward, and how cool the SciFi Hall of Fame sounds.