Guide to Seattle

If you can beat the rain, this city has sights and culture to delight visitors, writes David Whitley.

STAY

Budget
The City Hostel Seattle (2327 2nd Avenue, 706 3255, hostelseattle.com) has to be one of the most likeable hostels in the world. There's street art on bedroom walls and the bathrooms are spotless. They keep chickens in the yard and have beehives and fruit trees on the roof. Private doubles with shared bathrooms start at $US80. The Moore Hotel (1926 2nd Avenue, 448 4851, moorehotel.com, from $US82 with shared bathroom) has flamboyant hallways that don't match the dowdy but spacious rooms, although the hotel is excellently located on the cusp of Pike Place, Downtown and Belltown. Otherwise, lodginginseattle.com is the place to go hunting for decent suburban B&Bs.

Mid-range

The Hotel Max (620 Stewart Street, 728 6299, hotelmaxseattle.com, from $US150) has plenty of energy; each floor has a different theme, bright colours hold sway and treats such as pillow menus are thrown in. The best value tends to come in the Queen Anne area, however. The Maxwell (300 Roy Street, 286 0629, themaxwellhotel.com, from $US124) is lovely, with wooden floors, rainbow rugs and coffee-makers giving the heart to balance the surprising luxuries of marble bathrooms and a small pool. The MarQueen (600 Queen Anne Avenue North, 282 7407, marqueen.com, from $US150) has a glorious vintage feel; fridges, microwaves and burgundy splashes complement the dark woods and antique furniture.

Luxe

The Scandinavian-tinged Andra (2000 4th Avenue, 448 8600, hotelandra.com, from $US184) has spacious rooms that manage to be contemporary without veering into bland. Touches such as the furry headboards and roaring lobby fires add soul. The endearing Inn at the Market (86 Pine Street, 443 3600, innatthemarket.com, from $US214) has two key points of difference: the location at Pike Place Market and the fabulous rooftop deck overlooking Puget Sound. The Hyatt at Olive 8 (1635 8th Avenue, 695 1234, hyatt.com, from $US226) offers much the same look and facilities as the Grand Hyatt around the corner but at more competitive rates. It's businessy without feeling whitewash corporate.

Lash out

Hotel 1000 (1000 1st Avenue, 957 1000, hotel1000seattle.com, from $US405) is Seattle's best top-end bet. The art in the room is adjusted to your tastes, water in the bath "pours" down from the ceiling and there's a virtual golf course downstairs. The Monaco (1101 4th Avenue, 621 1770, monaco-seattle.com, from $US317) is very much love or hate, coming across as a gaudy circus-esque palace. Wallpaper is extravagantly striped, they'll lend you a goldfish in a bowl for company and the bathrobes are leopardskin print. Less exciting is the predictable Four Seasons (99 Union Street, 206 749 7000, fourseasons.com, from $US365) — but the facilities are arguably the best in town.

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SHOP + PLAY

To market

The Pike Place Market (pikeplacemarket.org) is arguably Seattle's crowning glory. It's a chaotic affair that sprawls over many levels and working out how they interlink takes time, patience and luck. Cheese shops, Russian bakeries and fruit stalls are mixed in with buskers, fishmongers lobbing salmon around for the crowds and small-scale jewellers selling home-made bangles. Other markets in Seattle are always going to be dwarfed by this popular behemoth but the Fremont Sunday Market (fremontmarket.com), held along Phinney Avenue North, is also worth a browse for collectables and limited-edition art among an ocean of tat.

Go shop

Nordstrom (nordstrom.com) is Seattle's major department store and the flagship is at 500 Pine Street. One of its neighbours is Pacific Place (600 Pine Street), the most agreeable of Seattle's shopping malls. There's a stand-out-from-the-crowd feel and the odd local boutique alongside upmarket giants such as Tiffany and Co. If you're after gifts and souvenirs, then Made In Washington (1530 Post Alley, 467 0788, madeinwashington.com) should give you plenty of ideas. There are the predictable boxed salmon and chocolates but some of the blown-glass pieces are superb. The small vases and coasters are the best bets for those with limited luggage space.

Live music

Belltown's Crocodile cafe (pictured, 2200 Second Avenue, 441 4618, thecrocodile.com) is a scene stalwart — it's where Nirvana and a host of other Seattle bands played on their way up the ladder and the guitars are still turned up nice and loud for the new kids on the block. The Moore Theatre (911 Pine Street, 682 1414, stgpresents.org) is a flamboyant old building in which to catch the bigger acts but you'll usually need to book tickets in advance. For other genres, the Triple Door (216 Union Street, 838 4333, thetripledoor.net) is a great all-rounder. It can feature folk one night, soul the next and gospel the day after.

Nightclubs

Neighbours nightclub (1509 Broadway, 324 5358, neighboursnightclub.com) is ostensibly a gay club but it serves as that place you go to for bad dancing and guilty-pleasure pop hits after a drink or two too many. The Deep Down Lounge (126 South Jackson Street, 682 3242) has more credibility — it's a dark basement club that puts an emphasis on quality drum'n'bass and attracts kids who know what they're talking about. The Baltic Room (1207 Pine Street, 625 4444, thebalticroom.net) is a great all-rounder; it's intimate but with a surprising amount of space to dance in. The music policy diversifies from night to night.

SEE + DO

Icons

Pioneer Square is Seattle's historic district. Preservation campaigns have kept the area looking very much stuck in time and the heavily decorated Smith Tower (506 Second Avenue) is the pick of the buildings. More futuristic (or at least it was in 1962) is the 184-metre Seattle Space Needle (400 Broad Street, 905 2100, spaceneedle.com), which has an observation deck at the top. Most charming, however, is the fish ladder by the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. It was purposely built so salmon could make it to their traditional breeding grounds when the Lake Washington Ship Canal came into being. During breeding season, you can watch the salmon hurl themselves upstream.

Culture

The Seattle Symphony (215 4747, seattlesymphony.org) does a great job in reaching beyond the traditional orchestral music audience, with highlights including classic film screenings for which the Symphony plays the soundtrack live. The Seattle Art Museum (1300 First Avenue, 625 8900, seattleartmuseum.org) is equally refreshing — it's far more about big set pieces and new works than room after room of old paintings. Music lovers should head to the Experience Music Project (325 Fifth Avenue North, 770 2702, empmuseum.org) next to the Space Needle. It's visually impressive and does a great job of covering the history of the Seattle scene.

On foot

You could happily spend a day walking through Pioneer Place and Pike Place Market, then up to Belltown and the big-ticket attractions at Seattle Center. The best route will take you past the Olympic Sculpture Park (2901 Western Avenue). Discovery Park in the north-west offers a more peaceful alternative, with a series of walking trails cutting through this big green public space. Savor Seattle Food Tours (888 987 2867, savorseattletours.com) runs a series of gourmet-inclined tours, including walks around Pike Place Market or the city's chocolate shops, and foodie ambles around the fashionable Capitol Hill district. Prices start at $US39.

Follow the leader

Seattle has a not-so-secret subterranean city that lurks below Pioneer Place, the result of raising the street levels following the Great Seattle Fire in 1889. Bill Speidel's Underground Tour (682 4646, undergroundtour.com) takes you down into the depths. Considerably less claustrophobic is the two-and-a-half hour Seattle Locks Cruise offered by Argosy (622 8687, argosycruises.com, $US33.50) — it does a circle through Puget Sound, the Chittenden Locks and Lake Union. To get acquainted with the massive Pacific Northwest microbrewing scene, head off on the sampling-heavy three brewery tour with Road Dogs (249 9858, seattlebrewerytour.com, $US79).

EAT + DRINK

Cafe culture

Lowell's (1519 Pike Place, 622 2036, eatatlowells.com) is a somewhat basic diner and claims to have been "almost classy since 1957" but it's right in the heart of Pike Place Market and serves fish, meat and cheeses sourced from the stallholders. Nearby Cafe Campagne (1600 Post Alley, 728 2233, campagnerestaurant.com) has a relaxed French bistro vibe that matches the menu. Further afield, the Tamarind Tree (1036 South Jackson Street, 860 1404, tamarindtreerestaurant.com) is a real find. This regional Vietnamese specialist is at the back of a car park but it oozes contemporary class and has a great outdoor seating area. The $US5 lunchtime specials tend to include a killer pho.

Snack attack

The Dahlia Bakery (2001 Fourth Avenue, 441 4540, tomdouglas.com) is tiny but a brilliant spot to pick up salad boxes, cookies, baguettes and sandwiches made from a bewildering array of artisan breads. For anyone with a sweet tooth, the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory (1491 First Avenue, 262 9581, rmcf.com) and its range of chocolate-covered apples, truffles and other calorie-packed goodies should prove an irresistible draw. Down at Pioneer Square, the queues outside Salumi (309 Third Avenue South, 621 8772, salumicuredmeats.com) should give ample proof of the quality of soups, pastas and sarnies. Get there before the lunch rush if you are hungry.

Top of the town

In a city where casual is the norm, the Georgian restaurant (411 University Street, 621 7889) inside the Fairmont Olympic Hotel is the grandest dining room for those who fancy dressing up. The French cuisine is mighty good, too. Rovers (2808 East Madison Street, 325 7442, thechefinthehat.com) comes near the top of just about every Seattleite's dream dining list for its quality local ingredients and Gallic twist. Tom Douglas, meanwhile, is Seattle's ubiquitous celebrity chef and the Dahlia Lounge (2001 Fourth Avenue, 682 4142, tomdouglas.com) is arguably the best in his widespread collection of eateries. Steaks and seafood are the menu choices to get excited about.

By the glass

For a drinking joint that sums up Seattle's warmness, try the Whisky Bar (2000 Second Avenue, 443 4490). It has knowledgable staff, a massive beer and spirit selection and everyone sits round the bar chatting to strangers rather than slinking away to the booths. The sprawling Pike Pub (1415 First Avenue, 622 6044, pikebrewing.com) brews a massive selection of largely excellent beers on-site and the food is surprisingly good for anchoring a session. To learn about the wines of Washington State (and drink them, of course), try tucking into the generous tasting flights at 106 Pine (106 Pine Street, 443 1106, 106pine.com).

Hot tip

A standard Seattle joke runs something like this: "We have two seasons, winter and August." This is an exaggeration, of course, but it really is one of those cities best visited in or near peak season. Seattle is notoriously rain-soaked but the rainfall decreases dramatically between (about) mid-May and mid-September. Also, while there's plenty to keep you occupied around Pike Place Market, Downtown and Pioneer Square, areas such as Capitol Hill, Belltown and Queen Anne are worth visiting to get an idea of the city's numerous — and hugely likeable — personalities.

Getting there

Return fares from Sydney to Seattle via Los Angeles with Qantas (qantas.com.au) cost from about $1770. The leg from Los Angeles to Seattle is on a code-share basis with Alaska Airlines.

Visas and currency

Australians need to register through the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation — a visa by any other name. Fill in the forms and pay the $US14 fee at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta at least 72 hours before departure. Currency is the US dollar and $US1 = $0.95 at time of writing.

Calling Seattle

The US dialling code is +1 and the Seattle city code is 206. To phone any seven-digit number listed in this guide from abroad, add +1 206 to the front. Any non-Seattle numbers are listed in full.

Further information

visitseattle.org.

David Whitley was a guest of the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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