Seattle is a city of rich dimensions – a creative combination of cultures, histories, sights and sounds. The fabric of this vibrant city stretches well beyond the popular visitor sites like the Space Needle, Pike Place Market and the Chihuly Glass Gardens. Don’t get us wrong – these are great places we’ve loved on past visits. This time, we were looking for an off the beaten path weekend in Seattle. In planning our list of possibilities, we uncovered a whole host of cool places to see and things to do.
With three nights and four days, we planned a weekend itinerary that included dips into local neighborhoods for amazing meals and unique shopping. We explored the underground streets and buildings of downtown Seattle’s long-lost history, learned how to blow glass in a working glass studio, and absorbed the cultures of immigrants to Seattle from places far away. The history of this city is amazingly complex, and sometimes very entertaining.
With so many options to explore beyond the traditional haunts, we narrowed our list to some fascinating choices. It turns out that spending an off the beaten path weekend in Seattle is just the ticket for adventure. For those looking to discover a more real connection to the Emerald City, we’ve got some great suggestions.
Off the Beaten Path Weekend in Seattle
Coined “The Emerald City” because of its year-around lush, green foliage, Seattle delivers on this promise. Trees, plants, flowers and foliage are a constant theme, particularly in the summer months. Because we were exploring outside the normal tourist zones, we had the chance to see private homes and yards, open spaces with natural habitat, and wildflowers growing along streets lined with big leafy trees. For these boys from Southern California (which is basically a desert) all this was a welcome experience for us to be amongst all this green.
Choose Your Adventure for a Weekend in Seattle
In the 3+ days we spent in Seattle, we poked around in these areas:
- Downtown for the historic city center, an underground tour and lots of art
- International District to learn about the Asian immigrants from all over the world
- Belltown for glass blowing, art and some amazing biscuits
- Fremont for some neighborhood eats and cool vibe
See? There’s something for everybody on this list of thing to do over an off the beaten path weekend in Seattle.
Downtown Seattle is Full of History
No weekend in Seattle would be complete without a stroll around historic downtown. We headed straight for Pioneer Square, the center of the city’s origins. Here sit many buildings from the late 1800s, built to replace what had stood here until the Great Fire of 1889 burned everything to the ground.
Back then, locals struggled with the terrain and keeping the growing city protected from incoming tides. When 25 city blocks were reconstructed with buildings made with stone and brick instead of wood to prevent fire devastation, they built them at the original level. Quickly realizing their mistake, local leaders raised the street level to equal the height of the second story of these new buildings. This left the original ground floor now below grade, complete with doors, windows, sidewalks – and businesses. The second story became the street-level entrance, making the understory now obsolete. Eventually due to these difficult circumstances – and some deaths from falling – the below-street-level areas were covered over and proper sidewalks were installed above.
Today, it’s possible to take a tour of those underground spaces and view what originally had been ground-level buildings and sidewalks. They are remarkably well-preserved, if not a little creepy!
Touring Underground Seattle
Visiting this historic area with a guided tour, we joined a group of visitors and locals to descend below grade. The tour website told us to expect a humorous experience from our guide, and he did not disappoint. We were worried it might be cheesy jokes to hide a lame tour, and neither were true. The tour was legitimately interesting and our guide shared solid history and facts with a great sense of humor. We loved hearing the tour guide’s explanation of the whats. whens and whys, adding color to our active imaginations. It was eery and maybe a little otherworldly, and of course there is a ghost story or two mixed in.
During the tour, visitors walk along long-hidden sidewalks and inside buildings whose tenants have been vacated for decades. Left behind are the remnants of businesses like banks, tailors and others that could not survive when the streets and sidewalks were raised above them. Real doors, glass windows with shutters, and lots of antique detritus is gathered down there, each piece telling a story about Seattle’s buried history.
After the original businesses moved out, other types of business moved in – the kinds of businesses that prefer to stay hidden (wink wink). Actually it sounds like the brothels and bordellos were very successful, and taxes on these establishments helped the City of Seattle pay for the streets and sidewalks above. A win/win situation? Perhaps.
This tour is really worth doing, and you can contact Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour of Seattle for more information and to reserve tickets in advance online (recommended).
The Seattle Art Museum (SAM)
We’ve visited the stunning SAM on two previous visits, and this third time did not disappoint. One of the things we love about this museum is its size. It’s large enough to accommodate a diverse collection and very, very large installations. And it’s small enough to be manageable in one visit and not get lost in a labyrinth of galleries.
We came here specifically to see the exhibition of stunning works by Amoako Boafo, an artist enjoying growing acclaim globally. The exhibit is entitled Soul of Black Folks, a fitting name because his paintings are luminescent portrayals of people using squiggly lines, bright colorblocks and busy designs. We recognized the artist as the painter of Michelle Obama’s White House portrait, and his works all deserve that kind of attention and glory.
Other exhibits throughout the museum are very impressive as well. It’s just that this one moved us greatly, drawing us in to stay way longer than we intended.
The Seattle Art Museum is located downtown. (Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.)
The Cultures of Asia Unite in the International District
There are many cultures from throughout Asia that immigrated to Seattle to settle, work and raise their families. The city’s International District is filled with interesting residents, businesses, cultures and foods. With a trolley stop at its base, the streets in this District are lined with things to see, do and taste. This is certainly a more varied experience than the previous Chinatown name would have denoted.
We started our visit in the morning, walking past bakeries and restaurants already full with people enjoying the day. Peering in as we moseyed up the sidewalk, there was a large assortment of foods being served. We are suckers for dim sum of any kind, and spied a couple of very authentic-looking spots we want to try out another time.
Wing Luke Museum of Asian Cultures
Our destination was the Wing Luke Museum at the top of the street. Here the Asian cultures of Seattle tell their history through first-hand stories. Dating back more than 100 years, these stories inform visitors about the experiences of Asian immigrants here. Through wars, persecution, ethnic prejudices and injustices, these people and cultures persevered.
In the section about Japanese internment during WWII, the interactive exhibit taught us about their pride, quiet resolve and tremendous strength. Parts of these stories brought tears to our eyes as they described their experiences and resistance. At the end, we sat quietly and folded origami cranes from colored papers, placing them together with the rest of the flock. It helped us better understand, appreciate and contribute through a shared experience.
Upstairs, we wandered through the exhibition called Guma ‘Gela’: Part Land, Part Sea, All Ancestry. This is a colorful collection of queer local works made by artists living in the Pacific Northwest.
Visit the Wing Luke Museum website for hours and ticket information. Adults are $17, Students are $12.50. kids are $10, and under five years old are free.
Hip and Cheery Lunch at Hood Famous Cafe & Bar
After the museum visit we walked down the hill to try out the celebrated Filipino cuisine at Hood Famous. Literally famous in the ‘hood, this restaurant began as a hobby of making ube (purple yam) cheesecakes to share with the local Filipino community. From this popularity, they grew into a full-scale cafe and bar operation. It’s located within the historic Publix Building, which was home to migrant workers who moved from the Philippines to work in canneries and farms.
Now a bustling cafe and storefront, Hood Famous serves a variety of tasty Filipino cuisine. In addition to several dishes made from ube, there is much more to choose from. We loved the Chicken Arroz Caldo, served in a flavorful bowl of glutinous rice, ginger, scallions, garlic and a soft-boiled egg. The iced ube latte was also a hit, sweet and rich similar to a Thai iced tea. Of course, the ube cheesecake and cookies were delicious an dramatic-looking in their purpleness. We could have eaten 10 more of each.
Check out the Hood Famous menu here. If you are serious about trying the ube cheesecake you should pre-order it or get there early! It sells out every day.
Belltown is Famous for Glass
Belltown is a large neighborhood just north of downtown Seattle that encompasses much artistic territory. Many galleries and art studios are located within its parameters, as well as music venues, performance spaces, interesting restaurants, wall murals and street artists. The area used to be a little sketchy and is now cleaned up and very welcoming. It’s definitely worth a stroll through for an afternoon viewing or evening on the town.
It’s also home to some interesting glass artists, galleries and even a museum.
Glass Blowing Experience
The fact that famous glass artist Dale Chihuly chose Seattle as the site for his studio has spanned an entire glass industry here. There is even the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum here as testament to his stature and influence. Now there are dozens of glass artists perfecting their craft and showcasing their artworks around town. At Seattle Glassblowing Studio, their gallery of stunning glass creations is paired with a unique public experience.
Visitors can sign up for a glass blowing class led by a local expert. We did just that, and had a really fun time learning about how to make vases, bowls, spheres, holiday ornaments and more. It all starts with a long, hollow metal rod with a glob of molten glass on the end. Our instructor taught us how to roll the rod inside of an oven burning at more than 2,000-degrees Fahrenheit. No, you don’t get burned and they monitor safety with diligence. And yes, the furnace puts off some serious heat! You coax this glass glob until it reaches its desired size, shape and temperature. Then with a puff of air, the ball expands into a balloon shape at the end of the rod. This is what you work with to create your final masterpiece.
Our creations turned into an orange and yellow-swirled bowl, and a green and white speckled globe. After we created them in the studio, they were carefully cooled overnight to avoid cracking. They even shipped the final products to us so we didn’t have to carry them home.
For more information on private or group glassblowing lessons, check out Seattle Glassblowing Studio for details. This was one of our highlights from our weekend in Seattle.
The Eclectic Vibe of Fremont
A very hip and happening neighborhood north of Seattle, Fremont has a bohemian vibe that welcomes anyone and everyone. Locals call it the Center of the Universe, probably because there is so much going on here at all times. Walking the streets can be both peaceful and stimulating. The residential neighborhoods sit under a canopy of trees, and during the summer there are beds of flowers and greenery everywhere. On the busier streets like Fremont Avenue, indie shops are interspersed with cool eateries, coffee shops and cafes. A ton of public art makes the streetscapes interesting, and everything is reliably walkable.
Shopping for Days
If you go, check out the whimsical finds at Fremont Vintage Mall where odd collectibles cozy up to vintage couture clothing and accessories. It’s a wonderful mix of color and appeal that made us rethink our personal style. Music fans will love shopping the vinyl options at Jivetime or Daybreak Records, where you can peruse old favorites to add to the collection. Portage Bay Goods carries a wide variety of fun gifts, many of which are created by local artists and craftspeople. We could spend hours here sorting through all the cool stuff and calculating what we could fit into our luggage to take home.
One of Seattle’s Best Restaurants
We were blown away by the casual elegance of RockCreek Seafood & Spirits. The vibe here is comfortable but chic, down-home but elevated, favorites dishes but with interesting twists. Honestly, the menu here is inspired, and we sent compliments to the kitchen because every single thing we sampled was outstanding. Kudos to the mixology team here as well for serving up new flavors that compliment the menu perfectly.
We started our evening with the Mussels Bruschetta, served with saffron aioli, garlic confit and fresh dill. It was transcendent – we are still talking about how delicious this dish was. Another fav was the Chilean Seabass ‘Provençal’, with, caramelized shallots and provencal herbs in a sherry sauce. If all this doesn’t sound delicious enough, consider adding a side of the Old Bay Smashed Potatoes with a horseradish-cheddar fondue. Conversation fell to nearly silent at the table as we made happy noises with our mouths full of goodness.
Can you tell we like this place? Make a reservation at RockCreek Seafood & Spirits now. You will not be sorry.
So Much To Do, Not Enough Time
Our recent weekend in Seattle left us wanting more. By going outside the normal visitor experiences, we were fortunate to sample some of what locals brag about. If you go, consider booking a room at the Hotel Theodore. It’s centrally located and all the areas we’ve touched on are easily reachable by foot, car or metro. Inhabiting a historic building that is living a new life as a boutique hotel, the Theodore offers big spaces, well appointed rooms and tons of style.
We especially loved the high ceilings and combination of modern amenities and historic details. We felt instantly comfortable in our large king suite, which was luxuriously appointed and designed. The bathroom in our room was enormous, with separate enclosed room for shower and bath which was open-concept. Another enclosed room held the toilet and sink. Both are interestingly tiled, sleek, modern and stylish. Our bedroom was bright with several windows since we were in a corner room (highly recommend) and we even had a bay view.
Although we did not sample the restaurant menu at Rider, we did visit for cocktails and loved the cozy neighborhood vibe. The food here did look fresh and delicious.
Check out the Hotel Theodore here for more information and rates (rooms start at around $200/night). We’ll be back to enjoy another weekend in Seattle, for sure.