Sightseeing in Seattle

| Wednesday, 05 Mar. 2003

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A century ago, steamers leaving Elliot Bay's docks carried prospectors north to the Klondike in search of gold. Today, Seattle is once again a starting point for adventures to America's last frontier, with cruise lines basing ships here for summer Alaska sailings.

It's never too soon to begin planning next summer's trip, and when you do, consider that a few days exploring this fascinating city is the perfect coda to an Alaska cruise. Despite what you've heard, don't fret about the weather. From May through October it is usually gorgeous.

Things To Do in Seattle

Seattle has something for everyone, including the kids: distinctive neighborhoods, lush parks, a Japanese garden at the Washington Arboretum, theater, music, art and antique galleries, shopping, fabulous seafood, sports, game arcades, an aquarium and the marvelous Woodland Park zoo barely scratch the surface. The city's museums cover everything from the history of flight to wooden boats, Asian Art and Native American culture.

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And it's easy to get around. Seattle's downtown buses are free until 7 p.m. within a designated area. Beyond that it is $1.25 during off-peak hours, exact change required. A brochure called "Browsing the city by bus" lists major attractions and how to reach them. Downtown Seattle is very compact and walkable. And from Pioneer Square, in the heart of old Seattle, restored Australian trolley cars follow a route along the waterfront--a delightful ride for just $1.50.

Vibrant and colorful, the Seattle waterfront is exhilarating, especially at sunset and preferably from a waterside restaurant, where you can savor some luscious Penn Cove mussels or fresh-caught, perfectly prepared salmon, perhaps with a glass of fine Northwest wine. As the sun sinks behind the Olympic Mountains, Puget Sound and the distant peaks take on an ethereal glow, bathing everything in golden light. The seagulls offer a counterpoint to the blasts of ferry horns as the plump ships glide back and forth across the bay. One of my favorite activities is the ferry ride to Bainbridge Island. The one-hour round-trip is an inexpensive ($5), serene getaway offering a wonderful tableau of the city skyline, ever-present sailboats and the awesome presence of Mt. Rainier.

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This revitalized part of town includes bustling ferry docks, restaurants, shops, arcades, tour boats, parks, the Aquarium and Omnidome Theater (watch Mount St. Helens explode!), marinas, apartments and Bell Street Pier, where the cruise ships dock. The Aquarium recently installed "touch pools" for hands-on experiences with starfish, shrimp and sea cucumbers, a real child-pleaser. Just 20 minutes from downtown on the #5 bus, the city' zoo is a treat for everyone. Who could resist the baby elephant, not to mention the hippos and bears in their open habitats? You might even see a wild bald eagle perched in the trees. Save money with a "CityPass" ticket, which virtually halves the cost of admission to six attractions, including the Space Needle.

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No visit to Seattle would be complete without a stroll through the landmark Pike Place Market, an excursion in itself. The oldest continuously operating farmer's market in the country, Pike Place's fishmongers are notorious for the show they put on tossing salmon. Artfully laid out produce, fresh flowers, and vendors selling things like hand-crafted jewelry, pottery, T-shirts, sheepskin slippers and Snoqualmie honey complete the picture. Three levels of shops lead to a stairway down to the waterfront. Or you can browse the funky shops along First Avenue until you reach the Seattle Art Museum and descend the elegant Harbor Steps, right next to the Wolfgang Puck restaurant.

Walk back downtown from the market, about four blocks, and you're in shopping heaven. There's Eddie Bauer, FAO Schwartz, Niketown, Coldwater Creek, Tiffany's, Nordstrom's and the Pacific Center Mall. The Made in Washington stores are an outlet for local artisans. Need a rain suit or hiking boots for Alaska? At the huge REI store, you can test those boots and give that suit a tryout in a rain room before you buy it. By now you may require a shot of caffeine. Never fear, coffee is available on practically every corner! This is, after all, the home of Starbucks, Tully's and Seattle's Best Coffee.

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Seattle Center, built for the 1962 World's Fair and connected to downtown by the monorail, is where you'll find the Pacific Science Center, the Music Experience Project (in its fantastical Frank Gehry designed building) and the Space Needle, one of the city's most famous attractions. From the observation deck you'll have a panoramic view of the city, the Olympic and Cascade ranges and Mt. Rainier. Indulge your tourist impulse and dine in the revolving restaurant just below, then enjoy the amusement park at the needle's base that springs to life when the sun sets.

A visit to Mt. Rainier is a perfect day-trip and prelude to Alaska. Drive down yourself or take a one-day tour. As soon as you reach Paradise you'll understand why it was named thus. During August, when the slopes are awash in wildflowers, the word "spectacular" doesn't begin to describe its beauty. So much to do, so little time - plan ahead.

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