City Guide: Seattle

“Sleepless in Seattle” might have been the first time the world paid much attention to the largest city in Washington State, at the north western corner of the USA, just below Canada (and only a couple of hours drive south from Vancouver BC). Then there was “Frazier” that was also set in Seattle. Less well known, Cicely Alaska the setting of the classic 90s series “Northern Exposure” was in fact Rosslyn, WA just inland from Seattle.

This is the USA where industry rules. Seattle is the birthplace of Boeing aircraft, the home of Microsoft and more recently the home of Starbucks coffee. For anyone who appreciates “football” performed at glacial pace it’s also the home of the Seattle Seahawks who lost the Superbowl this year but won it last year.

Seattle is a beautiful bayside city most easily recognised by the Space Needle, built for the 1962 World’s Fair. Perhaps it’s main characteristic is that every second shop sells a wide range of coffee. Of course, Starbucks predominates but numerous contenders fills the other street corners.

The climate is such that bumper stickers have declared “People in Seattle Don’t Tan, They Rust” and yes, there is a lot of rain and sometimes winter snow. But Seattle’s downtown on a sunny day sparkles and reflects the sun glittering off the Puget Sound below. There are also some big lakes surrounded by suburbs – such as Lake Washington and Lake Union. All that water makes it a disjointed, if pretty, city - so if you are driving make sure you allow extra time.

A tourist attraction just blocks from downtown is the historic Pike Place Market that is rather like Sydney’s Paddy’s market or Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market but with salmon tossing. It’s best to go early in the day.

In the down-at-heel southern part of town is Pioneer Square and Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour. This is an unexpected highlight of Seattle. For a lateral introduction, some may recall that in the 1960 hit “North to Alaska” Johnny Horton sang  “Big Sam left Seattle in the year of ‘92” – a reference to Seattle’s important role as the stepping off point for the Alaskan Gold Rush. (It’s an interesting side note that Horton briefly attended Seattle University and went gold prospecting in Alaska.) The Underground Tour details how that, and the development of the flush toilet, produced the city we see today.

Seattle was once very much a frontier town. In fact, the term Skid Row comes from a steep Seattle street (now Yesler Way) that was coated in oil to expedite the path of logs to the harbour. It was so effective that a schoolboy was killed by a descending log while crossing the street on his way home from school. It was also unfortunate that the oil used was codfish oil so the stinking neighbourhood offered the cheapest housing in town.

The unexpected wealth provided by the Gold Rush meant a lot of newly-rich wanted flash new flush toilets. But living down on the mudflats, the toilets tended to backflush at high tide. So they were installed on pedestals in the backyard.

When Seattle burned down in 1889 (while the Fire Chief was in San Francisco lecturing on fire prevention) the city fathers decided that it should be rebuilt a level higher. Now the underground tour takes you down that original level where there are whole streetscapes – and ancient toilets on pedestals. Showing that landlords don’t change you can also see the glass panels that were placed in the new footpaths so that original shop tenants could be told nothing had changed when everything had.

When we emerged back into the daylight we knew a lot more about Seattle and had laughed a lot.

The tourist heart of Seattle is around the Space Needle. On a clear day it provides beautiful views over the city, bay and lakes. At it’s base is EMP that is an acronym for Experience Music Project. Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft created this, originally as a tribute to Jimi Hendrix (a Seattle local) but has broadened to include others like Nirvana and Curt Cobain. The building that looks a bit like Darth Vader’s helmet was designed by Frank Gehry and the foyer has a towering inverted pyramid of guitars, some playing. The sci-fi memorabilia is brilliant, too.

The place rated the top attraction is the nearby Chihuly Garden and Glass, a beautiful newish museum featuring the glass sculpture of Dale Chihuly. Just across the road is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Centre that tells of the foundation’s remarkable work worldwide to end malaria, end hunger and improve the lot of the poorest.

Certainly the biggest place to visit around Seattle is Boeing Field to the north in Everett. It’s a good idea to book for the tour in advance – and it takes you into the largest building in the world. Here you’ll see Boeing 737 aircraft begin and finish on a giant assembly line. If you’re lucky you might see a Dreamlifter (it looks like pregnant 747) disgorge the fuselage of a new 777 from a distant factory.

If you are looking for an insight into Seattle’s quirky side, head for the giant Fremont Troll under the bridge at 3405 Troll Avenue North, Seattle.