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Washington Part 6: Seattle & The Bainbridge Island Ferry

Photo: Miners Landing in Seattle

This is Part 6 of a 6 Part series focused on Washington. We will spend one very busy week traversing a wide loop around the scenic state, hitting three gorgeous National Parks (Mount Rainier, Olympic, and North Cascades); visiting the fun North Cascade Highway towns of Winthrop, Chelan, and Leavenworth; viewing a waterfall twice the height of Niagara; and even riding a car ferry across the Puget Sound to spend some time in Seattle. In this final chapter, we will take the scenic route from Bainbridge Island to Seattle to spend some time exploring this unique city.

We're nearing the end of our Washington adventure, but we have one major stop still left to make--Seattle! As we depart Olympic National Park, I look at our options, and we decide that if we can make it work, we'd like to take the Bainbridge Island Car Ferry across the Puget Sound to the city. The ferry port is about 1.5 hours from here, and it probably won’t save us any travel time by the time we park, wait for the next scheduled departure, etc.. However, it it will save us some driving/gas, I’ve never been on a car ferry before (so it will be a novelty), and it will give us the unique opportunity to see Seattle from the water.

Photos: Bainbridge Island and the Car Ferry

Our decision made, I plug the destination into our GPS, and we're off to Bainbridge Island. I am hoping to have a little time to explore Bainbridge Island before our departure, but we hit a bit of traffic on the way. Instead, we just drive through the main drag of town to check it out quickly. Bainbridge Island is cute and walkable—I hope we can make it back to explore more thoroughly someday soon!

We park in a numbered spot and wait for our turn to board the ferry. It's a very organized process of loading onto the boat and parking the car. Once that's settled, we head up to the upper deck to explore the boat and get a good spot from which to absorb the scenery.

I spend much of the 35 minute ride on the bow of the boat taking in the growing city skyline. I wish it wasn’t so overcast today, but somehow it seems fitting. This is often how I imagine Seattle being weather-wise most of the time!

Disembarking the ferry is just as orderly, and soon we find ourselves pulling onto the streets of downtown Seattle. We decide to drop our luggage at the hotel we are staying at for the next two nights—back at the Fairfield Inn and Suite--to make things easier. Once that's complete, we head to the neighborhood of Ballard to return our Toro rental car back to its owner.

As we are completing the return, we strike up a conversation with the car’s owner who mentions that the Ballard Seafood Festival is going on nearby. He points down the street and says it's only about a 15 minute walk from the house. We decide to check it out; it's a gorgeous day, and the skies have cleared a bit. So, we take the walk down to Market Street to take in the scene.

The festival is quite large with much of the downtown closed down to cars for it. We procure some local brews and then wander around a bit. There is live music and there are various vendors selling different wares. We explore some of the booths and stop to listen to the musicians. We’re starving—it’s nearly 4pm, and I haven’t eaten since breakfast—so we end up buying a chips, salsa, and guacamole special from one of the booths in the beer area. Everything tastes fresh and delicious, and we quickly demolish our snack.

After walking around for a bit, we decide to head back to the hotel to relax for before our dinner reservation. We grab a ride share for the trip back downtown. When we arrive at the hotel, our room is ready, and we pop up to our room to rest a little and freshen up.

Tonight, we are having dinner at a place I’m extremely excited about—Din Tai Fung. We ate at their restaurant in Beijing, and I’ve been thinking about their soup dumplings for a lot of years! When I happened to come across the fact that they had expanded into the Pacific Northwest, I immediately added a stop to our itinerary.

The restaurant is only 0.7 miles from our hotel, so we decide to walk over. It’s a beautiful night. Plus, it's a scenic walk, and we enjoy a quick tour of the area en route to our meal.

When we arrive at the shopping center that Din Tai Fung is located in, we head upstairs to the restaurant. We stop at the entrance to watch the chefs expertly preparing the restaurant's specialty--soup dumplings--through the kitchen's plexiglass windows. They make the complicate task look easy!

Once we're seated, we are handed an order form from which to choose our meal selection. Our focus is solely on the dumplings. We choose the chicken; pork and crab; and shrimp and pork to start. They are so decisious, though, that we soon find ourselves ordering more—they’re just so good! By the end of the meal we are extremely full and most definitely do not have any room for dessert!

After dinner, we walk back to hotel to call it a night. It's been another eventful day and we have a busy morning ahead of us. We're definitely ready for a good night's sleep!

Given our early bedtime, it's no surprise that we're up bright and early. This morning, we have two tours of the city booked back to back—both by the same company. We are using Seattle Free Walking Tours. We have taken many “free tours” in various cities and really enjoy all of the companies that we have tried. The tours operate on a “pay what you wish” basis which (in my opinion) really leads to some excellent tours. Today, we are doing the one hour Market Experience Tour of Pike’s Place Market immediately followed by their two hour Seattle 101 Tour of downtown.

Photos: Street Sign (left); Victor Steinbrueck Park (right)

We decide to walk down to the meeting point for our tour (Victor Steinbrueck Park). The tour departs from next to the start of Pikes Place Market which is just under a mile from our hotel. We arrive about an hour early, but I want to wander the market a bit ourselves while it's quiet and get a snack and coffee before we begin.

As we stroll through the market, many stalls are still setting up. It’s pleasantly empty. I’m amazed by how cheap the flowers are selling for here—I wish I’d had these prices available for my wedding! The bouquets are gorgeous and incredibly affordable.

There are also a variety of handmade items being laid out on the various tables. It's fun to browse the eclectic selection. There is also a bounty of extremely fresh produce and fish being laid out. It's a shame we don't have a kitchen to prepare a meal in because the possibilities are endless.

As we head back in the direction of our tour starting point, we pass the oldest continuously operating Starbucks. The line stretches way down the street which seems ridiculous for the same drink I could get at home via my mobile order app. Besides, they don’t even serve food at this Starbucks location. The only truly unique identifier here is that this is the only Starbucks where you will find the original logo--a siren w/ 2 tails--as apparently people felt it was too salacious. So, we take our obligatory picture of the entrance and the original logo sign and move on.

Instead, we select an amazing smelling place a few doors down which has a line that just reaches their door and an enticing aroma beckoning us inside. As we enter, the bakery's warmth and buttery, sugary smell envelope us. We've clearly made an excellent decision. There are plenty of delicious options behind the bakery cases at Le Panier. It's difficult to decide between all of the delectable pastries but we settle on sharing a still warm ham and cheese croissant. I also order a vanilla latte and my husband gets a coffee. Everything tastes as good as it looks. As we're exiting the Le Panier, we spot some delicious sandwiches through a shop window next-door at Michou Deli (they’re not open yet) and decide we definitely need to come back this way for lunch.

Photos: Market Tour (Map of Pike's Place Market; Our Tour Guide, Chelsea; Post Alley)

We meet up with our tour group back in Victor Steinbrueck Park and are introduced to our friendly and informative tour guide, Chelsea. As we walk toward the market, Chelsea shares many interesting facts with us about the venue. The market encompasses 12 acres, 12 stories, and houses 1000 residents (low/fixed income, mostly retirement). It began in 1907 and is the oldest continuously operating market in the United States. The main arcade as built in 1917 and was called Pike Place simply because it was the place at the end of Pike Street. The Market is considered a protected historical area and is one of the most visited places in Seattle. On a daily basis, anywhere between 50,000 and 200,000 people explore it. The space only closes two days a year--Thanksgiving and Christmas.

There are some very strict rules in place for stall operators here. In order for a vendor to sell on weekends, they must be at the market at last two week days. Stall spots are assigned by seniority via roll call at 9am every morning and vendors must be there for it. All day stalls must set up and break down daily. The wares being sold must be as authentic as advertised, as well; they make visits to workshops, etc. to verify. They also do not allow chains to operate in the market. (Though one could begin here and then ultimately expand elsewhere--as is the case with Starbucks).

As mentioned earlier, the oldest Starbucks operates within the boundary of the market. However, interestingly, Chelsea says that it was not the first. That one, established in 1971, solely sold the stuff to make coffee yourself (bulk coffee, spices, etc.). In 1975, however, that location burned down, and in 1976, the vendor moved into the market. Today, there are 487 Starbucks operating in the Seattle area alone!

There are several different types of venues that make up the market, ranging from permanent buildings to day stalls to high stalls (for ice underneath). The cost to entry is nominal for stalls at such a popular location, though, with booths going for $7-11/day in winter and about $40/day in summer. This keeps the prices reasonable for vendors and consumers alike (i.e. the affordable flowers we saw earlier).

Since it's Seattle--which rains approximately 212 days a year and is overcast about 300 days of the year--the market is covered. As we begin to walk through the covered arcade, Chelsea says it is known as a "sanitary market" because people were asked not to bring in horses or livestock from its inception. In fact, Post Alley (photo a bit above), still has one of the old hitching posts that were set up outside for horses.

As we reach the famous neon Public Market Center sign, Chelsea tells us a few facts about it. The sign has been gracing the street since 1937. It is one of the oldest outdoor neon signs in the country. There are actually three dedicated neon sign people who work full time maintaining the neon signs in the market (one is a glass blower). The market sign image is so well known that it's trademarked to the Market.

The Market actually began due to middle men price gouging produce. Nicknamed the onion wars because produce resellers were selling onions for the equivalent of $35/pound, the market was established to cut out the "middle man." Here, consumers could buy their produce direct from the growers.

While living livestock is not allowed within the market, there is one famous pig there--the market's mascot, Rachel. Rachel is a functioning "piggybank" statue. She collects about $25K per year which goes toward funding a daycare, foodbank, and retirement. Those who really wish to make a bigger impression, can actually buy a pig footprint in the market for $2500.

We stop at Pike's Place Fish Co. to see if they are doing any of their famous fish throwing. However, that only occurs when a whole fish is bought (a pricy purchase). Unfortunately, it appears that none are being bought at the moment. Maybe another time!

As we head toward the market's famous gum wall, I can quite literally smell the sugary sweetness before I can see it. It's equal parts enthralling and disgusting. The initial "gum wall" was created when the theater here didn’t want people bringing in their gum. They would stick it on the wall outside. However, at some point, it became to function more as an icon than serving a functional purpose. Once a year, the walls are cleaned off. However, they have not cleaned the alley floor. It's estimate that there is gum as thick as 1.5" in spots. It's definitely a bittersweet spot from which to end our time together.

With tour one complete, we head back to Victor Steinbrueck Park to meet our second tour guide for the morning, Joe. Joe is an energetic Seattle native who seems to genuinely love his job and his city. While 2/3 of the people who live in Seattle were born elsewhere, he tells us that his family has lived in Seattle for 139 years.

Joe informs us that Seattle is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States with over 1,000 people moving here each week. They have offices for some of the biggest tech giants--Google, Facebook, Amazon. Additionally, the city has over 50,000 commuters per day (80,000 pre-Covid). That's not to say that the area doesn't house its share of nature, as well, though. Puget Sound*, stretching before us, is over 300 km long and serves as home to 5 species of salmon, 75 orcas, 3 kinds of dolphin, and the giant pacific octopus (which can grow to over 300 lbs with a 5 meter arm span).

*Note: The sound was named by George Vancouver, who famously explored the area. Peter Puget was a second lieutenant on his ship. (Interestingly, he also named Mount Rainier after another of his friends, Peter Rainier).

While our first tour covered the Pike's Place Market, this tour covers a lot more ground across the city, and Joe points out various sights as we walk through the bustling metropolis, spouting off various interesting facts. He points out a manhole cover with a city map on it. Joe says that if you ever find yourself lost in the city, you can look to the manhole covers. One out of every ten in the city has a map on it was a "you are here" marker on it--a very useful tip!

It's cloudy at the moment (as is typical in Seattle), but Joe says this is the best time of the year. In winter, the sun doesn't come up until around 9am, it's down by about 4pm, and between the two is a sky full of clouds. The weather, though, encourages some great happy hours at the local restaurants.* Apparently, gloomy weather can have its advantages.

Speaking of happy hours we pass by the Pike Pub & Brewery, a working brewery. Joe says that the state of Washington grows 80% of the hops in the United States. There are over 70 breweries in Seattle and 170 in the state! (Ballard alone is home to 15 breweries within 12 blocks.). In wine making, though, they don't slack, either. Washington state is also home to over 100 wineries.

Note: Joe says that the Umi Sake House has a 4pm-6pm happy hour with some of the best sushi in the city. Sam's Tavern is known for their burgers and has a happy hour that starts as early as 11am and goes until 6 or 7pm.

We stop for a moment in front of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) to see the famous Hammering Man. The artwork looms over the museum entrance continuously swinging his shadowed hammer. Constructed in 1991, the installation was ridiculed for years but eventually became a beloved city icon.

Shifting gears a bit, Joe tells us about the city's beginnings. 180 years ago, where we are standing was a beach at high tide. The 1000 year old trees here initially made it essentially a lumber town. Everything in the city was made out of wood—roads, sidewalks, buildings... The log sewers were actually constructed for the water to cross over them at high tide to sweep them clean. Unfortunately, on June 6, 1889, a fire stared at a wood construction shop. A young Norwegian apprentice heating wood glue accidentally started the pot on fire. He made matters significantly worse, though, when he threw a wet bucket over it in an attempt to quench the flames. The city's horse-drawn fire engines couldn't handle the blaze, and the townspeople passing buckets was equally no match for it.

After the fire, 98% of the permanent buildings in Seattle were destroyed. However, miraculously, no one died. The man who started the fire was put on trial for arson but acquitted. However, he was forced to move back to Norway in the aftermath. Additionally, Norwegians were discriminated against as a result of the conflagration and many relocated 5 miles north to Ballard where we today can find the Nordic Museum.

After the fire the newly constructed city was raised up; where we are standing now is 15 meters higher than it was pre-fire. The city was also rebuilt in a staggering six months. Initially, they raised the streets only but left the sidewalks low. To get up to street level, one had to climb ladders to go over the street. This left space under the sidewalk open to work on it and buildings had underground ground floors. Now, many of those areas are sealed up, but Joe points out a few remaining examples to us along the way.

In 1989, to celebrate the centennial after the fire, the city had a monument built. However, the monument is rather non-monumental in size. It is up on a pole, barely visible from the street if you don't know what you're looking for. It is essentially a bucket of glue; and lithographs which held newspaper stories about the fire.

Understanding the true origins of the area, though, requires going back significantly farther--to the Native American inhabitants. Thirty different tribes once lived on Puget Sound. They were united by a common language and lived off salmon in abundance. Most lived along the rivers in longhouses. These houses truly lived up to their name, many the size of a 6 story apartment building sliced up and laid along the ground with families living in apartment-type spaces. The inhabitants would move downriver in winter and upriver in the mountains in the summer during spawning.

However, that way of life all changes in 1851 when the first American settlers got out here (mainly from the midwest). After some power struggles and broken treaties (Joe tells a great story that I wouldn't do justice), ultimately, the War Department sent the USS Decatur to take control of the area. With no warning, the ship opened fire with canons at 6am one morning on a native settlement, leading to the "Seattle Indian Wars" which, like much of modern United States History, ultimately did not end well for the Native Americans.

We stop for a brief history and architecture lesson in Pioneer Square and then continue our walk. Joe points out the 38 story Smith Tower which, when built in 1914, was the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Today, the tallest building in Seattle is the Columbia Tower (you can see 50 miles in any direction on a clear day). Joe says Kerry Park still has the best view of Seattle from land, though.

As we continue to walk, we pass a lock covered fence which reminds me a bit of the bridge in Paris (apparently these are cut off more often). He also mentions the various ferries* that you can take from this part of the city. Bainbridge Island (which we came from yesterday) is wonderful, Joe says, because 90% of the things you want to do are walkable from the ferry port. There are apparently also 9 wineries on Bainbridge Island--perhaps we will need to come back for a follow-up visit.

*Note: He also mentions the Bremerton Ferry but says that is more well known for its naval shipyard than tourism.

We end our tour with a story about one of Seattle's famous inhabitants, Ivar Hoagland. Born in Seattle in 1905, Ivar's parents owned much of the city. They had a real estate income equal to approximately $25K/week today. As their only child, Ivar inherited it all. He was a bit of a character, known to play music around town. He also opened Seattle’s first aquarium--and opened a fish and chip shop right in front of the aquarium. When he died, having no wife children of his own, he left everything to Seattle and the state of Washington.

Photos: Seattle Waterfront (left); Statue of Ivar Hoagland (center); Miners Landing (right)

Our tour was highly informative and entertaining and we thank Joe for a lovely morning. After our tour, Joe shows us the elevator across the street that will get us straight back up to Pikes Place Market--very convenient. We get lunch at Michou Deli—sharing two amazing paninis that are as good as they looked through the window earlier--chicken goat cheese and Tuscan chicken. For dessert, we also purchase the cinnamon sugar zeppoli.

We take our food out to the stand up tables overlooking the sound in front of the market. It's a perfect spot to eat. Lunch with a view of the ground we've covered so far today.

Photos: View From Lunch (left); Space Needle from Below (center); Space Needle (right)

After lunch, we decide to walk down to the Seattle Museum of Pop Culture.* The museum is chocked full of famous memorabilia and interesting exbits. However, even before setting foot inside, the building is a sight in itself! Plus, the walk over affords us some great views of the Space Needle from below. We debate taking the ride to the top, but we'd rather spend our limited afternoon time exploring the museum since we already got some great views of the city from the water on our ferry ride over.

*Tip: The museum offers timed ticketing and plan ahead pricing. We lucked out and were able to get same-day tickets, but you can buy tickets ahead of time online to save some money and avoid disappointment here.

The museum covers everything from music to movies to modern culture. Some of the music themes include: Jimi Hendrix, Hip Hop, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana. There is an entire area dedicated to horror movies (including the Michael Meyers costume), Star Wars memorabilia, Harry Potter, Indian Jones, The Wizard of Oz, and Afro Culture costumes (including Eddie Murphy's "Coming to America"). I’m personally most excited for the Wizard of Oz items (my favorite movie as a child), which include the Cowardly Lion costume, but I’m sad Dorothy’s dress has been packed away for preservation and replaced by Buddy the Elf’s costume—it's still neat to see that one, and I understand the need to preserve the delicate garment, but it's still a slight disappointment in an otherwise amazing visit.