The Absolute Top Ten Best Things to Do in Seattle (The City of the Century)

Prior to moving to Seattle in 1996, I’d lived in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, and had traveled to many of the major cities of the world. By comparison, Seattle seemed beautiful, but small, provincial, and a little isolated…a pre-teen of a city.

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But, somehow, in the intervening years, Seattle grew up, came of age, blossomed to full flower. What makes Seattle’s leap so unique is that it sprouts from a foundation rooted in the land and the long-held values of its people. Unlike other cities, Seattle seeks diversity and experiences that respect its past, and seed its future. Its evolution is singular, and maps to organic maturation timelines, like a century plant, or a Himalayan lily, or desert sage after a rain. Nothing seems to happen for a long while, and then, all of a sudden, when the timing and conditions are just right: a growth spurt, a brilliant bloom, and a metamorphosis – all enabled by the same DNA.

From philanthropy to tech, life sciences to art and architecture; from progressive social initiatives, to sustainability, and even from coffee, craft beer, and ground-breaking dining, Seattle not just bends the light today, but thrusts it to a better future.

I now live in Los Angeles, and have for a decade, but I head back to Seattle regularly to see my eldest son and old friends, and each time I am pleasantly shocked by how much fruit the city has borne. It is a city worth seeing. It may be the city of the century. So, after probing about, and asking many friends, here are the top ten things to see and do in Seattle today:

I met the architect Rem Koolhaas in 2003, and he modestly described his design for the Seattle Public Library. When it opened a year later I was dumbfounded. It stands today as one of the most innovative library projects in the world. Of glass and steel, it is 11-stories high, with a stunning original construction, consisting of several discrete “floating platforms” seemingly wrapped in a large steel net around glass skin. It can hold about 1.45 million books and other materials, and includes over 400 computers open to the public. Paul Goldberger, writing in The New Yorker, declared the Seattle Central Library “the most important new library to be built in a generation, and the most exhilarating.” My favorite section of the building is the “Books Spiral,” (designed to display the library’s nonfiction collection without breaking up the Dewey Decimal System classification onto different floors or sections). The collection spirals up through four stories on a continuous series of shelves. This allows visitors to peruse the entire collection without using stairs or traveling to a different part of the building. Pretty impressive. Architectural tours of the building are offered daily.

2) Mbar

The Damask rose of city restaurants is the newly opened rooftop mbar, a dialectic with a view, virtuoso fare, and a purpose. I supped recently with proceeds going to help Syrian refugees, so the experience had heightened meaning.

You can see the future here (the space sprawls the 14th floor; two-thirds of it outside).

Amazon, in all its glory, has a flock of cranes crafting new buildings as you dine, and beyond is the backdrop of the Space Needle, the MoPop museum, South Lake Union, and much of the Seattle skyline.

Syrian-born Wassef Haroun and his wife, Racha, own mbar, and have infused it with hints of their Middle Eastern backgrounds, but the magic is performed by
Top Chef alum Jason Stratton. He has authored a menu filled with Northwest ingredients enhancing dishes that span the map from Italy to Lebanon to China. If there is one restaurant to experience while visiting Seattle, this is it.

Everyone in my family dies for chocolate, so this is a fav. In the Fremont neighborhood, not far from the infamous sculpture of a troll beneath the Aurora Bridge, is Theo Chocolate, a Willy Wonka-esque golden ticket offering up one of the most delicious factory tours outside of cinema. Silver pipes flowing with chocolate are everywhere. Everybody dons a hair net to keep it all as sanitary as possible. The tour dives into the history of cocoa, including the transformation of the football-sized cocoa fruit into eatable decadence. The Latin name for the cacao fruit is Theobroma cacao, which means ‘Food of the Gods.’

The tour also features the social and environmental issues related to cocoa and cocoa farmers. Theo Chocolate was the first U.S. company to make organic fair trade chocolate, with payments to farmers 2-3 times higher than the market rate. The first half hour of the tour is seated; the second is a guided walk where you witness the magic transmutation of bean to bar. It’s a bit like a coffee factory or micro-brewery, in that the process goes from giant tubs of beans into an array of machines, including winnowers, roasters, mixers, mills, and refiners. Of course, you exit through the gift shop, but this is one time when the detour is welcome.

This began as a vanity tribute to Jimi Hendrix, conceived and marshalled by uber-fan Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder and billionaire club member. He hired Frank Gehry, who bent the sheet-metal exterior to look like liquid music, or a smashed guitar, depending upon your perspective. When it opened in 2000, it was controversial, to say the least…some saw it as a blight on the land. New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp described it as “something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over, and died.” But, now it is an icon of the city scape, and a must-see when in town. The outside of the building features a fusion of textures and colors, including gold, silver, deep red, blue and a “shimmering purple haze.” The interior is filled with interactive exhibits spanning the range of pop culture, and is worth a full-day exploring.

Often when friends and families visited, my first stop when showing them around was Pike Place Market. Since 1907 this flamboyant waterfront public market has been tossing around its wares. It’s a perennial fish-mongers market, a sensory rumpus of foods and flowers, along with gewgaws, gimcracks, bric-a-brac and even objets d’art. Merchants enthusiastically pitch salmon to one other, as much for the crowds as for expediency. Down the stairs is a vintage Starbucks, claiming to be the original.

I took my 8-year-old son on a Duckboat Tour, and he quacked up with delight. One of the best parts of these tours is the non-stop bill of bad jokes and banter issued by the driver/guide. The yellow contraptions are restored World War II amphibious vehicles, and they pass many of the great sites of the city before plunging into Lake Union for a paddle around the lake, past the famous houseboat of “Sleepless in Seattle” fame. No down about it; it’s big fun.

One of my first outdoor excursions when I moved to the Seattle area was climbing Mount Si, a short drive east of the Microsoft campus, where I worked. I was testing a new communications satellite system for use in Africa, and needed altitude and a clear landscape, so took the 4-mile vertical hike. From the summit, I could see clear across Seattle to the Olympic Mountains. I went on to trek the peak another dozen times, sometimes with my then infant son on my shoulders, sometimes up and back before a summer brunch. It is one of the most satisfying urban hikes anywhere.

It’s a classic, but still tops the list. My elder sister attended the 1962 World’s Fair, and came back telling tall tales of the rotating spaceship that scrapes the sky. Then I saw the 1974 Warren Beatty film, The Parallax View, which features the Space Needle in a critical scene, and I knew I had to make the pilgrimage. It doesn’t disappoint. The Pacific Science Center at its base has a Children’s Museum, two IMAX theaters, a tropical butterfly house, and now a Chihuly glass display (another connection…I was the minister who married Dale Chihuly and his wife Leslie some years back). When Expedia went public, we celebrated on top at the Skycity Restaurant, and I arranged for an Expedia-logoed seaplane to circle around us.

One of my favorite excursions with family and friends is the tour to Tillicum Village, on tiny Blake Island, reached by a short boat ride across Puget Sound. It offers up a dinner of alder wood-roasted salmon and an evening of ancient Salish stories told by dancers in traditional native wooden masks all inside a huge cedar longhouse.

The island was the birthplace of Chief Sealth in 1786, for whom Seattle was named.
Today the traditional longhouse, where dinner and the show are presented, is awash in artwork from Washington and Alaska coastal tribes. Dinner begins with clams in nectar followed by fire-roasted salmon and venison stew.

The four-hour cruise to the meal and show leaves from Pier 55 in downtown Seattle, but it is also possible to kayak over, and then camp for the night in the 475-acre park, with a sparkling backdrop of the Seattle skyline.

With the rise of Seattle comes success and money, and with success and money, comes wine. When I first moved to Seattle in 1996, there was little in the way of a wine industry, the exception being Chateau Ste. Michelle, opened in 1976. Now, less than a half-hour drive from downtown Seattle, there are nearly 100 wineries, wine bars, tasting rooms, cooking and wine pairing classes, and they can be sampled in a host of tours, from vans, to self-drive to bicycles to limos. Most are in the bushy hamlet of Woodinville, and almost all get their juice from Eastern Washington’s fabled growing regions. It sits at the northern tip of the Sammamish Valley, a cradle for local farms with beautiful flowers, lavender, and fabulous fresh produce. And there is live music almost every night. Washington is the second biggest wine-producer in the country but exports only 1% of its wine. Note, it’s impossible to hit all the pourings in a day, but worth the try.