Friday, June 7, 2013

Things to Do in Seattle with the visiting Fam

It’s been a cavalcade of family lately.  My parents, his parents, my parents again, all within a month.  What to do!  Literally – what to do?  Thats a lot of tourism.  Our families are great people - and, while definitely not picky, are not as interested in trying the thrill-seeking activities we might on our own, nor as interested in 'weird' food ('weird' in my dad's lingo is anything spicy, overly flavorful, vegetarian or 'emerging'.  This is a man who, in his mid-50's, has recently 'accidentally' discovered he likes asparagus.  Trust me, that was 'weird' enough for him.).   

A good thing about lived here for a little bit and having some idea of what people want to see, is that we haven't lived here so long that we've seen everything too many times yet.  So.  What did we do and eat?

Here's what we saw!::

Pike Place Market: You kind of have to, if you or someone visiting you hasn’t been here before.  I find it much more pleasant during the week, when it’s just a normal level of crowd, than on the weekend, when throngs of people are meander aimlessly and occasionally come to a traffic-stopping halt for no apparent reason.  If you have a choice, hit this up M-F instead of S-S.  It is pretty cool of a place, honestly - I shop here even as resident.  It’s got nice views of the water and the city skyline, and plenty of snacks (Peroshky Peroshky, The Crumpet Shop, and DeLaurenti come to mind, and the original Starbucks - just take care, as there are about 4 Starbucks in the Market, so that you identify the actual first one and not just ‘a’ Starbucks). 

Seattle Aquarium and Argosy Harbor Tour: While you’re at the market, head on down to the waterfront.  It’ll get you away from overwhelming crowds to more reasonable crowds.  You can buy a special combo ticket for these two attractions, which is what we did and why I lumped them together.

The Aquarium is lovely, and the docents/volunteers are really friendly and really into marine life.  The sea life ranges from bright and beautiful to weird and lurking.  I get sad around mammals in aquariums and zoos, but the ones here were all rescued, so I feel a little less bad about it.  Special bonus unique Seattle Aquarium tidbit: you an learn a lot (a LOT) about salmon, which in my experience every good Washingtonian knows by heart already.

The Argosy Harbor Tour has plusses and minuses.  I could do without the hard sell on drinks, both on the dock and on the boat.  While you’re in line on the dock for the boat, someone is literally constantly blathering on a mic about the drinks on the ship, which gets old fast.  However, once the boat takes off and after they do one last push for your boozin’ on the water, they stop all that and focus on the tour.  The boat goes (sails?) around and a guide points out interesting things out and tells you about them.  Example: you learn that the Puget Sound is so deep the top of the tallest building on the skyline, if set on the floor of the Sound, would still be below the surface.  You learn about buildings you can see, ships, animals, history.  I won’t spoil you with too many tidbits, because that's most of the fun of the tour, so if you pay attention its trivia-tastic.

Ballard Farmers Market: This is a less touristy, more local version of Pike Place Market, so if you’ve already gotten your fill of food-tourism maybe skip this.  But if haven’t, or you just want to check out another section of town and mix with the locals going about their days, it doesn’t get much better than this.  The location is lined with shops and restaurants, so it doubles as a great spot for breakfast/lunch/brunch/coffee and getting some unique gifts.  If you've got or know some kids, there is a great toy store called Clover with adorable, European toys that are mostly pretty far removed from the overly plastic, pink-and-blue shock of a commercial toys.  A superb, simple coffee can be got at Anchored Ship Coffee Bar, and a more elaborate coffee with pastries is available at Fresh Flours.  If you want to eat market-faire, there’s a quesidialla stand with veggie quesidillas that are delicious, and a little pop-up donut manufacturer.

Fremont Market: This is not a farmers’ market (there’s little produce to buy, although there are plenty of prepared-food vendors, including some very tasty Indian and some very tasty tacos).  Rather it is a combination art and antique market.  You can get artisan marshmallows, cute old jars, paintings, hand-made tee shirts, lawn furniture, tchotskys, trinkets, jewelry, pottery… stuff.  Good stuff.  It’s in yet another fun part of town (lower Fremont), with access to the Troll, the Lenin statue, a grand bike path, and Fremont’s shops and eateries.  And it’s close to Theo Chocolate.

Theo Chocolate: A chocolate factory!  They have a tour theoretically, although I have yet to figure out how to actually get on the tour (and I’ve tried calling, signing up online, and just showing up, none of which have worked).  So… good luck with that and tell me how you did it because yes, I do want to go on a chocolate tour.  The shop is enough of a joy, with samples of nearly every kind of chocolate bar available for the tasting.  Chocolate like ‘Ghost Chili Pepper’ and ‘Fig, Fennel and Almond’ and ‘Coconut Curry’ and I could go on, but you’re either with me or against me regarding sweets, and your mind is probably made up either way.

Ballard Locks: See how ships get from a higher water level to a lower water level using nothing but gravity and hydraulics!  Watch ships go not only back and forth but up and down!  I’m no engineer.  Engineers probably love the technicalities.  I like being by the water in the sun.  There’s also something called a “fish ladder’ which was closed while I was there, but is doubtless probably pretty great to see when operational (I mean - a fish ladder?!).  The grounds of the locks are a lovely garden, and volunteers quite knowledgeable about the whole system and grounds staff the shop/information center.  Trust me, they are a hoot.  Talk to them.  They love that.

Golden Gardens: A little down the road from the Locks is Golden Gardens park.  It’s one of the only real beaches in Seattle, as far as I know which is not super far so if you know of any more please let me know.  So.  It’s a beach and across the Sound you can see the Olympics, and in the evening you can see the sun set behind them, and if that’s not one of the most magnificent things you’ve ever seen you can start taking me on vacation with you to these so-called more-wonderful places.   Boats bobbing around in the water, kids and dogs and whales and dolphins splashing around in the waves, and fires in fire pits on the sand, and sunsets over mountains.  It’s a heck of a picnic spot. Technically there are no dogs allowed, but I have yet to see any fewer than 5 dogs there at any given time.  Booze seems to be okay too, although I don’t know if that’s official or not and I certainly wouldn't bring glass.  Definitely no fires out of fire pits, though – I’ve seen firemen wandering around kicking sand on them.  Even if you just stop by and it isn’t sunset, it’s still a gorgeous spot. Note: there is no actual garden.  Ironic.

Volunteer Park: This city is drenched in parks and plants.  Plants are growing everywhere a plant can grow, which is most places - even cracks in the concerete.  Plants are coming out of mailboxes, sprouting out of hats, appearing in your shadow when you turn around.  Volunteer Park is high up on a hill in the Capital Hill neighborhood.  It’s huge and there are gardens, trees, playgrounds, museums, and the Conservatory.  You can wander around and get a great view of the Space Needle with the sun setting behind it (I would also say that this city is lousy with sunset-gazing viewpoints).  It’s also next to the graveyard where Bruce Lee is buried if you’re into grave visiting. 

Conservatory: Inside the Pacific Northwest, one of the most beautiful landscapes in America, is Seattle, one of the most garden-friendly cities in America, which houses Volunteer Park, one of the most picturesque parks in America.  In this park there lies a special place where even more special plants are specially cultivated.  It’s the Conservatory.  Here you can actually learn what plants you’re looking at, through signs and, again, well-informed docents/volunteers.  The upside to the Conservatory, as opposed to simply being in Seattle in general which is pretty great, is that its wings house an even larger diversity of plants than the outside itself (which has an amazing array).  I learned that air plants need to anchor onto something to grow, instead of just sitting in a dish, where they can survive but not bloom.  Who knew?  The succulents wing made me pine a little for Austin.

Asian Art Museum: Also located in Volunteer Park, the Asian Art Museum is… well, it’s pretty self-explanatory.  It’s free the first and of the month.  In the 8 months I’ve lived here I’ve seen three different special exhibitions here and they were all really stunning, so I’d anecdotally say they get new stuff often and have a rad curator.  The permanent collection contains a delightful, beautiful statue called “Monk at the Moment of Enlightenment” that is so perfectly named, you’ll know it as soon as you see it.

Chihuly Garden and Glass: I was skeptical, I admit.  Glass museum sounds boring, like I’m going to be looking at a bunch of vases and some chandeliers and fall asleep while my mom examines them thoroughly.  Boy was I wrong.  This stuff is epic in scale and color and is about as artistic as glass can get.  There is a boat so big I could lie down in it twice, and it’s filled with glass balls and pillars and organic sculptures.  The glass pieces are part indoors and part outdoors (I’m partial to the indoor displays myself, although I like the way the outdoor sculptures are integrated with the landscaping (you perhaps thought a glass museum would remove you from the garden scene but oh no, friend. No.)).  

Washington Park Arboretum: Guess what?  A park!  It’s big!  It’s got trees!  There’s a Japanese garden (which is the only part that has an admission fee).  You can walk on a trail to Elliot Bay to marvel at those boats, and the University of Washington campus across the way.  Maybe you live here and you want to check out something new.  The grounds are a great for biking or jogging, too.  You can bring a dog on a leash!  I love that.

Here's what we ate!::

Bizzarro Italian CafĂ©: My parents really love Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and this place was featured on that show, so they were really excited to eat here.  I don't see how it's a diner, a drive in, or a dive, but based on Bizzarro, I’m guessing that title is purely for alliteration and not a true descriptor of all the places they feature.  Bizzarro looks like a cheesy place, with ‘cool stuff’ all over the walls and floors and tables and surface, but the food is the real deal.  It’s some great Italian food.  It will please foodies without being intimidating to sensitive tasters.  It is magically good for both families and dates.  

Elliot's Oyster House: Down on the water, downtown, near Pike Place, the Aquarium, the Argosy, and a bunch of other sites not listed here, is Elliot's Oyster House.  It’s huge so I can't imagine there's ever an extremely long wait, its on the water so that pleases visitors, and it’s nice to have seafood when you’re in Seattle.   I would describe Elliot's as a more traditional nice seafood place, where you can get seared tuna sliders, raw oysters, fried fish sandwiches, salmon salad, etc. 

Ballard Annex Oyster House: Near the Ballard Market, this is a newer spot that has more modern-type fare in a restaurant that looks like a boat.  It partially looks like you’re looking at a boat and partially feels like you’re on a boat, which sounds more confusing than it is.  Perhaps just imagine ‘generally nautical’ but without imagining ‘theme-y’.   This is the type of place that instead of fried calamari, there’s steamed calamari in a delicious broth.  You might get a whole trout here with the head and tail on, but you can still get fish and chips, too. 

Citizen: A great small coffee-shop/restaurant a short walk from the Seattle Center (which houses the glass museum, Space Needle, and EMP Museum, among other things).  They have sandwiches, tacos, breakfast all day, truly delicious chai, and an accommodating happy hour.  They have an extensive crepe menu, too.  I have a soft spot for this place that is not purely because they have breakfast tacos, but is at least partially related to that.

So, these are some things visitors can do that I would recommend.  They proved to be a solid overview of the city for our visitors (SEATTLE = PARKS + FOOD).  What are some of your favorite places to visit or take visitors to in Seattle?  Do you know of any off-the-beaten-path places worth exploring?