Lucky you! Not only will the show no doubt be ridiculously amazing, but you get to hang out in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Hopefully the weather will cooperate – cool and crisp and clear – but even if it’s grey and raining (and chances are good that’ll be the case), this place rocks. Bring your boots and your raingear and lots of layers, and get ready to explore. I’ve been here for almost seven years and can’t imagine ever leaving. This is not a Pearl-Jam-in-Seattle guide, this is an oh-my-god-I-love-this-city guide.
Pearl Jam is playing Key Arena, which was both inevitable and unfortunate. The acoustics suck, there’s no way around it. It’s in the Seattle Center, so you’ll get your Space Needle fill, but just so you know, otherwise, Seattle Center is pretty weird and not exciting. That’s true of most of downtown Seattle. Pike Place Market is worth a visit (if only for the mini donuts, free samples of fruit, and the Gum Wall). S.A.M. and the downtown library are both nice places to kill a few hours, but much of the rest of downtown is shops you can find anywhere and mediocre food. There are exceptions, of course (i.e., the Pink Door for yummy food and divine wine, plus perhaps a trapeze artist dropping a toe in your pasta. Also lots of great bars/clubs such as the Crocodile – yeah, you might have heard of it) but my strongest recommendation for your time in Seattle is to get out of downtown and into the neighborhoods. The neighborhoods are where it’s at.
Getting around. Seattle is a super walkable city, despite the rain and the rather serious hills. It’s a great way to get a feel of the place, and you’ll no doubt stumble upon places you wouldn’t otherwise find. Definitely take the new (and amazing) light rail into town from the airport – it’s a zillion times cheaper than a taxi and rather fancy and efficient. The bus system in town is not rocket science, and it’s reasonably good at getting you from point A to point B. Instead of taxis, I’m a big fan of Uber, and here in Seattle they have an even cheaper (and greener) option, Uber-X, which is outstanding. Also, Seattle is a very bike-friendly city: lots of bike lanes, bike paths, and, compared to other cities, drivers who know how to behave and look out for their two-wheeled friends.
Neighborhoods. There are tons of neighborhoods and micro-neighborhoods around Seattle that are easily accessible by bus (or foot, in many cases, if you don’t mind some hills). Some of my (bigger) favorites:
Capitol Hill. Capitol Hill is the most urban of the neighborhoods. Pike/Pine is where most of the shops/bars/cafes/hipsters are – definitely check out Elliot Bay Book Company, it’s the best bookshop in the city. You can eat, drink and shop your way up Pine and then down Pike, or vice versa. Totally walkable from downtown, just be prepared: it’s called a Hill for a reason. Also nice to wile away a few hours are 15th Ave East (a little strip of bars, cafes – including Victrola – and restaurants) and 19th Ave East (an even smaller strip, but a leafy, lovely street).
Ballard. Ballard is a little bit of a trek from downtown, but so worth it. It’s absolutely charming, especially if you can hit it on a Sunday, when there is a perfect farmer’s market year round. There’s been a lot of condo-ification in the last decades, but much of old Ballard is beautiful, and there are bars, clubs (the Tractor is here), restaurants, and shops galore. Very local, very fun. If you carry on through Ballard along the water, you come to the Ballard Locks (the coolest tourist attraction in Seattle, I wager), and then further along you get to Golden Gardens, which is the beach, and it might be freezing then, but if it’s clear, the views of the Olympics are stunning.
West Seattle. I gather this is where some singer guy lives? Apart from that, West Seattle is a lovely little beach town that’s a bit off the beaten path from downtown. I don’t spend much time over here, but when I go, I hit up four things: Easy Street Records (duh), Bakery Nouveau for croissants (the second best in the city, after Honore), Alki Beach for some pretty beach time, and Lincoln Park for some quasi-wilderness.
Fremont. Ok, so this is home, so I might be biased. Fremont calls itself the center of the Universe, and there’s a rocket, a troll under the bridge, and a bigass statue of Lenin right in the middle of it (yep. That Lenin). Lots of fun bars and interesting shops; the food is pretty decent and there’s nice coffee (Fremont Coffee Company for the win!). Sunday there’s a big market that takes over one of the main streets with lots of food trucks, so good cheap eats. The Burke-Gilman bike trail goes right through Fremont, if you’re on wheels of the two-wheeled variety (and carries on to Ballard). Gasworks Park is sort of between Fremont and Wallingford, on Lake Union, and is well worth a visit if it’s sunny.
Others? If you have time and motivation, I highly suggest checking out some of the smaller neighborhoods, like Georgetown, Madrona (Hi Spot is great brunch), Green Lake (a wander around the actual Green Lake will do you good), Phinney/Greenwood, and Columbia City (La Medusa is some delicious eats).
Coffee. If you like coffee, you are in so much luck I can’t even tell you. And if you don’t like coffee, they might not let you off the airplane, because seriously: who are you? How can we trust you? Stay away from the big guys: Starbucks, Tully’s, the oh-so-inappropriately-named Seattle’s Best, and seek out the best of the local roasters. My faves are Lighthouse, Victrola, Vivace, Caffe Vita, and Diva Espresso. There are tons more. Downtown is a bit of wasteland, but Cherry Street Coffee, Caffe Ladro, and Uptown Espresso are all good.
Food. Yum. I’m an unabashed foodie, and I think it’s hard to live in Seattle and not be one because there is just so much good food everywhere in the city. If you’re vegetarian, vegan, pescetarian (ding ding ding), or gluten free, you’re in luck because this city caters to you. I’m also pretty willing to spend money on good food, so some of these places wouldn’t be super great options if you’re trying to pinch pennies, though I don’t think food here is as expensive as some other cities on the coasts. If you’re looking for a specific kind of food, hit me up, and maybe I can recommend somewhere. I eat out a lot. My favorites:
- “Pacific NW” cuisine (which really is a thing – think lots of farm-to-table ingredients, delicious seafood, everything fresh fresh fresh): The Whale Wins (my current favorite restaurant in Seattle) in Wallingford, or the same chef’s Boat Street Cafe in Lower Queen Anne. Also superb are Tilth in Wallingford, any of the (rather posh) Ethan Stowell restaurants (especially Staple & Fancy in Ballard), and Lark up in Capitol Hill.
- Best sandwiches in the city: Paseo, Cuban sandwiches, in Fremont and Ballard. So good there’s usually a queue halfway up the block BUT IT’S TOTALLY WORTH IT. If they run out of sandwiches (and they do, all the time), the plates are also good.
- Cafes: I mean cafes that serve smallish meals, sandwiches, salads, etc. and also have alcohol to go with the coffee. A few good ones: Cafe Presse on Capitol Hill (French – amazing – get the sardine sandwich), Oddfellows Cafe on Capitol Hill (go for the hipster watching; the food is also good), Vios, also up on Capitol Hill (Greek and SO GREAT), Le Pichet downtown (very simple French), and Skillet Diner (they also have a food truck that is well worth tracking down) on Capitol Hill and in Ballard. A more basic, but still delicious, cafe (no alcohol, great for lunch and breakfast) is Essential Baking Company in Wallingford, Georgetown, and Madison Valley. Opaline and Macrina Bakery, both in Belltown, have delicious sandwiches.
- Seafood: A lot of the places already listed serve fantastic seafood, but here’s a few more, since this is Seattle and everything. For cheap, fresh fish sandwiches on a delicious Macrina roll, try Pike Street Fish Fry up on Capitol Hill. Another fish sandwich option, virtues extolled by @PJStickers, is the Market Grill, in Pike Market. For more upscale seafood options, try Flying Fish in South Lake Union, Etta’s near Pike Place, or Anchovies and Olives up on Capitol Hill. Anthony’s and Ivar’s are both Seattle institutions. For oysters, the Walrus and the Carpenter in Ballard is very tasty and very hip, and Elliot’s Oyster House on the waterfront has a ridiculously cheap (and tasty) oyster happy hour.
- Burgers: Ok, so I don’t eat meat, but le husband does, and there are a few good burger joints that cater to both of us. All these places have interesting burgers (meat and non), good sides, and I think all of them serve milkshakes. Yes! Lunchbox Laboratory in South Lake Union is pretty epic, Uneeda Burger in Fremont is outstanding, and Blue Moon Burgers (in both Fremont and South Lake Union) isn’t quite as good, but still tasty, and probably cheaper. Also (added else I’ll get smooshed by @PJStickers), Dick’s Drive-In is a Seattle institution: they serve cheap burgers, fries, and milkshakes that their loyal fans adore, and have a few locations around town (on Broadway in Capitol Hill, in Lower Queen Anne, and in Wallingford). Plus, you might run into Macklemore on the roof, and they treat their employees ridiculously well. The Queen Anne location is super close to Key Arena, and will no doubt be open after the show (note they’re a cash only establishment!).
- Thai: there are tons of Thai places in Seattle, and most of them aren’t super great (I lived in Thailand for four years, I have standards). BUT an amazing place just opened last year in Ballard, called Pestle Rock. It’s outstanding. Little Uncle, on Capitol Hill and Pioneer Square, is a cheap little hole-in-the-wall place with a very small, regularly changing menu.
- Vietnamese: there are lots of good Vietnamese places in Seattle. Three favorites: Green Leaf (in the International District and Belltown), Monsoon (way fancier, one of the best brunches in Seattle – dumplings AND french toast?!?) up on 19th in Capitol Hill, and Tamarind Tree in the International District. Ba Bar (run by the same folks as Monsoon) is also pretty good, in Capitol Hill.
- Mexican: I don’t think of Seattle as a serious Mexican food destination, but both La Carta de Oaxaca and Senor Moose (which has a really good brunch) in Ballard are delicious.
- Downtown/Belltown: You probably WILL want to eat downtown or in Belltown if you’re staying near Key Arena, and there are definitely good options. A few: Serious Pie (interesting thin crust pizzas), Mama’s Mexican Kitchen (cheapish, decent TexMex), Home Remedy Deli (oh man, the BEST indian burritos – who knew?), Local 360 in Belltown/Downtown (Pacific NW yum), Toulouse Petit (in Lower Queen Anne, but close to Seattle Center), and Shiro’s (arguably the best sushi in the city, and them’s strong words). Also Blue C Sushi, which is a relatively cheap and super quick sushi train downtown (a cheaper sushi train is Sushiland in Lower Queen Anne).
- Food trucks are exploding here, and they are well worth your time. Tons of interesting, exciting food tooling around the city. There aren’t big corrals of them *yet* but hopefully that’s coming soon. This is a great resource for tracking down the best in cheap, mobile food.
Parks. Seattle is a crazy beautiful place: if you get to see Mount Rainier, and the Olympics, and the Cascades, and Mount Baker, you probably will never leave. Mountains and water on all sides (and in the middle) means this is a seriously outdoors-oriented city and the populace spends a lot of time enjoying the glories all around. There are some gorgeous parks in the city that you can get to by bus easily. A few recommendations:
- Discovery Park, in Magnolia. This is the absolute wildest park I’ve ever seen in a city. It’s up on the bluff, overlooking the water and the Olympics. You can hike down to the beach and the lighthouse. It’s extraordinary (and I think is where the “Hunger Strike” video was filmed, if you need the added incentive).
- Arboretum, Madison Valley/Madison Park. This is a lovely tamed wilderness that stretches for quite a distance along Lake Washington Blvd. It’s big enough that you can get properly lost. There are boardwalks on one end for checking out Foster Island. You can even rent canoes and kayaks at the WAC at UW and go exploring that way.
- Golden Gardens, Ballard. This is way out in Ballard, even way out of Ballard, but it’s worth the adventure. It’s a beach overlooking Puget Sound, with islands and the Olympics across the water. It’s breathtaking on a clear day, and you might get lucky and see some psychopaths swimming in the icy water.
- Lincoln Park, West Seattle. Another big park that lets you wander around, get a little lost, and walk down to the beach.
- Magnuson Park, Sand Point. This is a trek, but if you’ve got a bike, you can take the Burke-Gilman all the way out here, and it’s so worth it, especially on a sunny day. Some of the best views of Mount Rainier you can possibly hope for, right on the water, just perfect. Also, I think this is where the Drop in the Park show was in 1992.
Record stores. With thanks to @PJStickers, who pointed out that this section was woefully lacking in the first version of this post. So, without further adieu, here are some of the best independent record shops in town, which you should frequent and support while you’re here. I already mentioned Easy Street Records, in West Seattle, and it’s a bastion of recorded music (plus has a cafe that’s not bad at all). Make sure and check out the vinyl upstairs. More outstanding vinyl (mostly used) can be found at Bop Street Records in Ballard, Georgetown Records in Georgetown, and at Jive Time Records in downtown Fremont. Sonic Boom is a great place for new and used CDs (and some vinyl as well), also in Ballard. Everyday Music, across from the Elliot Bay Book Company on Capitol Hill, is especially nice in that they just mix the new and used together, making it easier to find the deals you want. Silver Platters is another nice record shop, though I just discovered that their shop in Lower Queen Anne is now closed, so you’ll have to bust it to SoDo (or Northgate or Bellevue, if you’re really desperate).
That’s it! If you have other things you’re wondering about in Seattle, I’d love to help if I can! And if I’ve forgotten something amazing, shoot me a note for that, too.
With thanks to @PJStickers for helping me identify some oversights! Any errors or miscalculations are mine.