Seattle: An Outdoor Haven

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A city made for walking

I'm sure the executive types who staff Seattle's cluster of gleaming steel-and-glass skyscrapers show up for work in Nordstrom's finest pinstripes. But down on the sidewalks, the rest of the folks are apt to be decked out in hiking boots, down parkas, and other hardy outdoor wear. And for good reason. A budget traveler's haven, Seattle is an out-of-doors city - an exciting urban center of fine art galleries, museums, and concert halls wrapped closely by a rugged Northwest wilderness of expansive seascapes and soaring, snow-tipped mountains. Cosmopolitan pleasures here are served up with frontier flavor. In Seattle you really want to be outdoors, where the crisp air - a mix of tangy sea and icy mountain - puts a bounce in your step in any season. This is a city made for walking, and walking is the best and cheapest way for a cost-conscious visitor to explore. No need to pay big bucks to rent a car or hail a taxi; you can get almost anywhere you will want to be on foot. Too much walking for you? On downtown streets, Metro Transit buses are free. Step aboard and tour in comfort.

As in many foreign cities, Seattle's captivating street scenes - its dramatic architecture, parks, amazing collection of contemporary crafts shops, and panoramic views - are what you will remember most. And none costs a penny. You really can have a terrific time on foot, as I did recently, without spending more than a few bucks on entertainment. Inviting lodging and cozy cafes, all within the bustling city center, are easy on the budget, too.

A big-city dweller myself, I found plenty to keep me busy. On self-guided walking tours, I explored several very different close-in neighborhoods, seeking out the many free and rewarding things to see and do. Initially, I expected to spend my time at Seattle's fee-charging museums and other attractions. But the free stuff proved more interesting, and I really wanted to be outdoors more. At any point where my energy flagged, one of the city's famed coffee houses stood just a few steps away.

Architectural oddities

As I walked, I paid special attention to the pleasing architecture, both contemporary and historic, juxtaposed on the city's steep, roller-coaster hillsides. A few whimsical oddities got me chuckling.

One curious eye-catcher - a massive glass box at the REI outdoor sports store - turns out to house one of the world's tallest indoor climbing walls. Climbers inch to the top of its 65-foot summit, while a line at the bottom waits to follow. At Seattle Center, site of the soaring 605-foot-high Space Needle, the latest architectural curiosity is the futuristic structure designed by the acclaimed Frank Gehry for the Experience Music Project, a rock music museum (entrance fee, $19.95; skip it). A Technicolor mass of undulating metal, it resembles the crumpled sheets of an unmade bed. Is Gehry's style art for the future or a passing fancy like Cadillac fins? Judge for yourself.

One recent morning I strolled along the waterfront, watching cargo ships sail past on Puget Sound. A brass plaque at Waterfront Park marks the site where a ship from Alaska docked in 1897 carrying a legendary "ton of gold," sparking the great Klondike Gold Rush. Across the Sound, the 7,000-foot-high Olympic Mountains play hide-and-seek in the clouds. At Steamers (two waterfront locations), I stopped for a fresh, reasonably priced Northwest seafood lunch with a water view. A basket of prawns and chips made a tasty meal at just $7.29.

Another day, I wandered the exotic streets of Chinatown, the International District, where inexpensive cafes serve a kaleidoscope of Asian foods. Looking like a rich Chinese temple, the Ocean City Restaurant tempted with a six-course Family Kowloon Dinner. Just $9.95 with tea.

Uwajimaya, a massive Japanese food-and-gift market, is stocked with odd fruits and vegetables you won't find at your neighborhood Safeway. Recognize gobo, a Japanese turnip, or lobar, a Korean radish? Nope. Opting for a more recognizable treat, I tried an 80[cents] coconut tart from the Yummy House Bakery. In the next stall, a uniformed crew of Japanese women assembled trays of carry-out sushi and bento boxes for the lunch crowd.

Across the street, a warehouse-size shop called Eileen of China is filled with fine Asian antiques and porcelains. As if I were in a great museum, I roamed the aisles intrigued by such items as two beautifully hand-carved chairs, priced at $8,000 for the pair. Briefly I tested one for comfort. You can't do that in any museum.

Artworks in glass

As much as anything, though, I marveled at the quality of Seattle's many contemporary arts and crafts galleries, popping up in clusters almost everywhere I turned. I discovered that Seattle is second only to Venice in the number of studios creating colorful artworks in glass. Giant sculptures by Dale Chihuly, who launched Seattle's adventure with glass-blowing 30 years ago, can be easily seen at Benaroya Hall, where the Seattle Symphony plays, and in the lobby of the nearby Alexis Hotel. In and out I went, shop after shop, feasting my eyes for free.

On I strolled during my penny-pincher's tour. A prime (indeed, indispensable) destination for any visitor afoot is the sprawling Pike Place Market, reputedly the nation's oldest continually working farmer's market (since 1907). Overlooking the harbor, it's a crazy, crowded scene where fishmongers play catch with salmon, vendors sing the praises of their fresh produce, and street musicians serenade with Mozart airs. Out front, the life-size bronze pig called Rachel is an example of Seattle's trove of public art, all viewable for free to foot travelers. For a cheap meal, enjoy a hearty buffet breakfast or lunch at the aptly named Sound View Cafe, for only about $3.50.

Also at the market, check out Ticket/Ticket, the half-price, day-of-show ticket booth. Seattle loves theater, ranking third (Seattle claims) behind New York and Chicago in the number of professional theaters. When I stopped by, the booth listed two dozen choices, including an acclaimed production of Macbeth by the Seattle Shakespeare Company. Tucked into a nearby alleyway, the popular Market Theater features improvisational comedy for just $10 (full-price) Friday and Saturday, $5 Sunday. The young crowd from two nearby hostels loves the place.

The Klondike boom

Seattle's frontier past unfolds on a walk through Pioneer Square, a neighborhood of more art galleries, boutiques, and pubs displaying a fine Victorian face. Period street lights are decorated with baskets filled with flowers, a pleasant setting for outdoor cafés. Pause at the Visitor Center of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park; the little museum features exhibits and movies detailing Seattle's role in the Klondike gold rush. Thousands of adventurers poured into town en route to the gold fields, giving the young lumber center a major economic boost. The museum is free, as are the almost daily readings by notable authors at the Elliott Bay Book Company just up the street. All rough wood beams and odd nooks and crannies, the huge store is so cozy I stopped by to browse every afternoon.

Almost everywhere, glorious views of Puget Sound boost your spirits. And so, like me, you'll want to get on the water. The budget way is to board one of the Washington State Ferries for a round-trip cruise to a nearby island. The 35-minute ferry to Bainbridge Island, a popular choice, departs almost hourly, costing just $4.50 each-way. My head spun as I relished the Olympic views ahead and Seattle's thrilling skyline in our wake.

More information

Getting There: Budget-priced Southwest, JetBlue, and Frontier airlines serve Seattle, getting your trip off to an economical start. To reach downtown, catch Metro Transit bus 194, about a 25-minute ride costing $2 rush hour, $1.25 non-rush. The Airport Express bus (206/626-6088) charges $8.50 one way; $14 round-trip. Before leaving the airport, stop at the visitor information booth for a free booklet of discount coupons to many of Seattle's most interesting attractions.

Lodging: A year-round destination, Seattle boasts a mild climate that tends to be cooler and damper in winter. Bring that parka in any season. But hotel and motel rates are generally cheaper from November through April, dropping as much as 50 percent. High-season rates are provided for these recommended lodgings:

  • Least expensive: Near Pike Place Market, the 193-bed Hostelling International facility (888/622-5443), $19 to $26, or the 37-room Green Tortoise Backpackers Hostel (206/340-1222), $20.
  • Best buy for families: Also near the market, the well-kept Moore Hotel, a historic 120-room property (800/421-5508), a real find at $67 for two.
  • Intriguingly funky: Near the International District, the historic, mostly restored 100-room Panama Hotel (206/223-9242), $65 for two with shared bath.
  • Chic boutique: In Belltown near the Space Needle, the hip 30-room Ace Hotel (206/448-4721), starting at $65 per room with shared bath.
  • Motel country: Also near the Space Needle, the 68-room Kings Inn (800/546-4760), $75 per room weekdays/$85 weekends, or the 73-room Travelodge Downtown (800/578-7878), $89.
  • Dining: For a wide choice of Asian meals under $10, head for the International District and scan the menus in dozens of windows. Closer to city center hotels, Belltown bustles with well-priced cafes, many serving contemporary Northwest menus. Try the neighborly Belltown Pub & Cafe (salmon-cake dinner, $11.95); the similarly cozy Virginia Inn (crab-cake plate, $10.50); Sonya's (beer-baked fish and chips, $9); Zeek's Pizza (the gourmet "tree-hugger" for two, $13.50); and the stylish little Noodle Ranch (grilled pork with Vietnamese marinade, $8.50).

    Information: Seattle Convention & Visitors Bureau (206/461-5840, seeseattle.org).

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