Get the needle on a trip to US coffee heaven

Seattle is worth a visit for its stunning architecture as well as its cafe culture


By Ruth Ellen Gruber, November 19, 2009
Follow The JC on Twitter
Seattle’s waterfront: close to the market and fronted by some of the city’s  most spectacular buildings

Seattle’s waterfront: close to the market and fronted by some of the city’s most spectacular buildings

A few years ago, Seattle tourism officials coined a new word to sum up the charms of this lively hub of the US Pacific Northwest. The slogan they came up with — “Metronatural” — evokes the way the city’s modern urban centre is ensconced in one of the most beautiful natural settings in North America ; it also reflects how this setting inspires the lifestyle and experience of residents and visitors alike.

Encircled by craggy peaks and snow-capped mountains, Seattle occupies a narrow bridge of land separating undulating Lake Washington from the Puget Sound, an inland waterway that eventually flows in to the Pacific.

Rivers, lakes, bays and artificial channels shape the shore and cityscape, and suburbs and satellite towns sprawl over lush slopes and a picturesque scattering of nearby islands.

Big, white ferry boats — part of the largest ferry fleet in the nation — connect far-flung harbours with a bustling downtown area dominated by the city’s standout symbol, the Space Needle.

A slim, soaring structure topped by what looks like a B-movie depiction of a flying saucer, the Needle is a holdover from a 1962 World’s Fair but still manages to look futuristic nearly half a century after it was built.

During a week in Seattle this spring, I savoured many of the sights and experiences that contribute to the “metronatural” brand.

The last time I had been in the area had been in the summer of 2001, when I had passed through the city briefly before sailing with some Seattle-based cousins up the Puget Sound to Port Townsend, a charming Victorian-era seaport and resort town about 60 miles to the north, near the point where the Sound opens into the broad Strait of San Juan de Fuca — which leads to the sea.

This time I was in town for a conference, and had longer there, giving me ample opportunity to reconnect more fully with a city where I had spent a memorable summer many years ago as a student.

Back in those days, an economic slump blighted the region, and much of Seattle’s downtown area was decidedly seedy. Wild blackberry bushes grew rampant along many streets and in the gardens of long-abandoned houses, and I spent many mornings harvesting the wild fruit and returning to the small apartment I shared with university friends to bake pies and make runny jam.

Pike Place Market:  from dereliction to desirability in two decades

Pike Place Market: from dereliction to desirability in two decades

Since then, urban development and an injection of resources from locally based technology giants such as Microsoft and amazon.com have attracted newcomers and wrought dramatic transformations.

I’m told that blackberries still grow like weeds in some parts of Seattle. But the downtown skyline now includes a gleaming array of skyscrapers as well as standout, almost sculptural new buildings that defy ordinary architectural definitions.

One of these is the new Seattle Central Library, a translucent, glass-and-steel construction that local commentators have likened to everything from a space craft with its landing gear extended to “a Rubik’s Cube cinched by a corset”.

Designed by the famed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the library caused a sensation when it opened in 2004 and has become a tourist attraction as well as a centre of culture. Its outer shell is a vast, shiny expanse of mirror-like glass, broken into odd angles and faceted by diamond panes formed by a silvery lattice. Inside, curving lines and bold primary colours set off stairs and hallways from the airy ambience of stacks and reading rooms; art installations merge with the architecture, and an atrium area extends upward for an astonishing 11 stories.

The conference I attended took place in another of the city’s most striking new buildings — the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum (known for short as the EMP), a shrine to pop culture that opened in 2000 at the foot of the Space Needle. Designed by Frank Gehry, the EMP resembles a cross between a smashed electric guitar and a giant, misshapen, multi-coloured clump of mushrooms.

As Gehry — famed for other curvaceous buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao — put it: “I wanted to evoke the rock’n’roll experience without being too literal about it.”

The EMP was the brainchild of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. It was conceived as a homage to the late rock great Jimi Hendrix, who was born in Seattle in 1942 and brought musical revolution before he died in London in 1970.

The EMP’s cavernous interior houses a museum dedicated to the history, influence and creativity of popular music. Its exhibits combine artefacts and information with high-tech interactive exhibits, including a lofty “Sky Church” for concerts and light shows, and a sound lab where you can enter booths and emulate your idols on a variety of musical instruments.

“Roots and Branches,” a huge musical sculpture made from 600 multicoloured guitars, dominates the entry hall, and the separate, low-lit Guitar Gallery is a Holy of Holies whose exhibit, “the Quest for Volume,” traces the history of the instrument from acoustic strum to electric scream.

It includes more than 50 guitars dating from the 18th century until the present. One large EMP exhibit focuses specifically on the evolution of rock and pop music in the Pacific Northwest. Besides Hendrix, the region also gave birth to Nirvana-style 1980s grunge music and stars such as Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam, Quincy Jones and The Kingsmen.

The Science Fiction Museum, which occupies one wing of the building, pays tribute to the enduring and multifaceted worlds of the imagination as portrayed in movies, television, literature and pulp comics.

As a life-long fan, I found it exhilarating to immerse myself in the genre, examining rare, iconic and sometimes lurid artefacts such as original Star Trek sets, robots, books, space ship models, tricorders, phasers and even a Star Wars Death Star.

A science fiction timeline charts more than a century of speculative fiction, marking milestones, events and personalities, and other exhibits detail science fiction’s sometimes prophetic relationship to the “real” world.

The EMP and Space Needle form part of the Seattle Centre, the site of the 1962 World’s Fair and now a park combining cultural venues with leisure activities from skateboarding to amusement park rides.

It is an easy walk from here to another of Seattle’s major attractions — Pike Place Market, a sprawling, five-storey warren of shops, booths, stalls and stands selling a rich variety of fresh foodstuffs, souvenirs, crafts, clothing, antiques, and all sorts of other odds and ends.

The market, which celebrated its centennial last year, had fallen into disrepair (and disrepute) by the late 1960s, but a painstaking restoration project in the early ’70s gave it new life. The entire nine-acre space is now listed as a historic preservation zone.

It’s a treat to pick your way past the towering mounds of produce, glistening displays of fish on crushed ice, and colorful banks of flowers, T-shirts and collectables. Many stalls offer samples of local wares; don’t miss the dried, chocolate-covered cherries.

Coffee-lovers visiting the market can pay homage at another local landmark — the first Starbucks coffee shop.

Starbucks opened as a market stall in 1971 and moved across the street in 1976 to 1912 Pike Place. The humble-looking little shop gave birth to a global caffeine empire that today encompasses more than 15,700 outlets worldwide.

Since it is within the Pike Place historic district, the Pike Place Starbucks retains its original exterior décor, complete with overhanging porch and the original Starbucks logo, which incorporates the twin-tailed mythical siren. On the day I was there, staff were handing out free samples of a new Starbucks blend, called Pike Place roast, which pays tribute to the chain’s origins.

It’s only a few steps from the Market to Seattle’s waterfront. Here, you can walk or cycle for miles along well laid out paths that skirt the shore of Puget Sound.

It’s pleasant enough just to stroll along and take in the striking scenery and dramatic contrasts between the city’s highrise skyline, the Sound and the lush islands, hills and peaks beyond. But the route is studded with waterfront restaurants, parks, piers and lookout points where you can pause to watch the constant back and forth of ferry boats and cruise ships.

There’s even a fascinating waterfront sculpture park, which features huge pieces of sculpture by leading modern artists, set in the outdoor environment.

A particularly special piece is Richard Serra’s Wake. Composed of five massive, undulating elements, it evokes images of both steam ships and the ever-changing sea in which they sail.

It would be impossible to talk about Seattle, without also mentioning the weather. Famous — or perhaps that should be infamous — for the cloudy skies, fog and rain that make it one of the wettest cities in the United States, Seattle is awash in jokes about its climate. “What do you call two straight days of rain?” runs one: “A weekend,” runs the answer.

The jokes, of course, are a bit overblown. Mist and cloud do shroud the city and its surroundings for much of the year. But the summer months can be glorious, and the dampness fosters the lush green environment that led to another of Seattle’s nicknames, “the Emerald City”. And when the fog does lift, it’s like a curtain suddenly rising on the dramatic landscape that surrounds the city.

Jewish Seattle

Thirty seven thousand Jews live there. The metropolitan area has around 20 synagogues, of all denominations. There are kosher facilities and cultural events including an annual Jewish film festival. Find synagogues, kosher restaurants and shops and other services at www.jtnews.net/guide. Seattle’s Jewish newspaper has listings for cultural events on its online edition at www.jtnews.net. The Jewish Federation maintains a useful web site: www.jewishinseattle.org

Getting there

Colletts Travel (020 8202 8101; holidays@collettstravel.co.uk) offer a 7-nightpackage at the elegant Warwick Seattle, well located for most Seattle attractions. The cost is £955 per person, based on two sharing, and includes British Airways flights. Upgrade to World Traveller Plus from £189 per person each way.

    Last updated: 1:08pm, November 19 2009