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After the relative calm and laidback attitudes of both Sacramento and Portland, arriving into Seattle on the Greyhound was a bit like the first time I visited London. I suddenly found myself in a world of tall buildings, heavy traffic and complicated looking transport systems.
Unfolding the map, I could see that this is a big city. With less than 48 hours before I had to leave to catch the ferry to Alaska, I had to plan my time carefully. Using a combination of my (already tired, but toughening up) feet, minibus tour and monorail, I somehow managed to almost see everything that I wanted to.
Every tourist town has one attraction that it is famous for. There are usually a thousand more exciting ( and cheaper) things to do there, and that one famous attraction is quite often a let down, but you have to go there just to say that you did whilst you were in ___________ (insert name of tourist town here). For Seattle, that attraction is the Space Needle. This impressive feat of engineering was built for the 1962 World’s Fair and is part of the Seattle Centre. It has over 1 million annual visitors, and it will feel like every single one of them is lining up for tickets with you. I was advised to visit the Space Needle in the evening (great if you like sunsets, plus the views tend to be clearer later in the day), so I booked a ticket for the 8pm ‘launch’ (the space theme does get a bit annoying – it’s an elevator). I didn’t get up to the observation deck until 8.45pm, and after 10 minutes I was done and wanted to come back down again. But, hey, when in Seattle…
If you want to hear, and experience, a brilliant condensed history of Seattle, I highly recommend Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour. Just like Sacramento, the streets of Seattle used to be a whole storey lower than they are today. However, unlike Sacramento, the residents of Seattle didn’t think the most logical solution to flooding was to jack-up the town. Instead, they boarded over the first storey of 33 blocks and started using the second floor as the new street level. Our guide, Rick, took us through a dramatic story of floods, fires and explosive sewers (really). And, once again, I maintain that if this were the UK we would have packed up after the first problem and moved elsewhere.
Rick also told us about some of the colourful characters from Seattle’s past. Like the traders who sold ‘gold-sniffing gophers’ and ‘snow bicycles’ to prospectors heading to the Klondike. Legend has it there was also a local entrepreneur who sold sled dogs to the gold miners, having previously trained the dogs to jump off the ship as it was leaving and swim back to shore so he could re-sell them to his next unsuspecting victim. During the height of the gold rush, a census of the city revealed an unusually high number of ‘seamstresses’ in relation to the total population. Along with a group of his closest friends, the mayor bravely set out to investigate (although there were many more male volunteers!). When it was revealed just how much money these women were earning, and where all the loggers’ and miners’ pay was going (not on adjusting clothes, I might add), they were the first to be taxed.
Anyone else who has had to watch the ‘Fish’ video as part of customer service training will know Pike Place Market and it’s entertaining fish mongers. As a veggie, I have little interest in seeing the flying fish, but I did want to see the building(s). Due to my tight schedule, the only time I had to see Pike Place was after it was closed. Seeing as I don’t like crowds, though, this is probably a good thing. I don’t think I could have handled it mid-day, and I still got a sense of how enormous the labyrinth of the market is. It makes Cardiff indoor market look like a car boot stall in comparison. There are also amazing views over Elliott Bay from out on the decking.
As it was a sunny, warm day I didn’t want to spend much time indoors. I did, however, want to visit the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Centre and I’m glad I made space for it. Above the door, signs read ‘Enter Curious’ and ‘Leave Inspired’. I totally did!
The Visitors Centre is totally free, very welcoming and instantly addictive. If I’d had the time, I could have spent hours in there playing with all the interactive exhibits. It’s totally inclusive, your 99 year old grandmother would get the same joy and education from taking part in one of the many activities as your 6 year old child would. As well as learning about the Gates/French family, and the incredible work the Gates Foundation does around the world, your are encouraged to input your own ideas. I don’t know whether or not this is true, but I felt that my thoughts would be read by someone and maybe used at some point in the future. At the end of the exhibition, you are invited to take a test to discover what kind of thinker you are and how best to use your skills to change the world. Unsurprisingly, I came out as artistic. I was then directed to a work station where I could create a poster and upload it to Facebook.
En route to my next location, I got to walk past the headquarters of the Gates Foundation. I believe there is also a tour of this building, but alas I didn’t have the time. It looked so interesting, though. I don’t think my office building would ever have such cool artwork outside.
Lake Union, believe it or not, has something in common with Cardiff Bay. It’s a man-made, freshwater lake that is connected to the salt water by locks. Just like on the River Taff back home, they also have fish ladders. Although, in Cardiff it certainly isn’t huge salmon that are returning home to spawn.
Close to the city centre, Lake Union Park is a great place to watch the seaplanes landing and taking off, take a dip in the lake on a warm day or just chill out for a while. If you’ve ever wanted to learn to paddle a canoe, it’s also home to the Centre for Wooden Boats.
At the opposite end of the lake from Lake Union Park is Gasworks Park. As the name suggests, this was once the gasworks. As you enter the park, some of the railway track used to transport coal down from the mountains is still visible. When residents realised just how dangerous the gasworks potentially were, the buildings were abandoned and left untouched for many years. In 1975, attempts were made to tear down one of the buildings. But, as it was still deemed too dangerous, they gave up, put a mound of soil over the ticking time bomb and called it a park. Apparently, the grass on the hill needs to be replaced every couple of years. It’s not somewhere I’d choose to sunbathe, but lots of people seemed to be enjoying the park whilst I was there.
Just up the road from Gasworks Park is Fremont, a very free-thinking neighbourhood that is home to cool artwork, including the Fremont Troll.
Like everywhere on this trip, I wish I could have had more time in Seattle as there are so many different neighbourhoods to explore. It’s definitely going to have to go on the list for one to come back to.
Greyhound from Portland to Seattle: from $22
HI Seattle at the American Hotel: from approx. $33 per person per night
Entrance to Space Needle: from $21
Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour: $19
Seattle Overlook Tour with Emerald City Trolley: $32.77
Monorail: $2.25 one-way