Seattle’s picturesque setting, legendary musical heritage and great coffee make it an excellent place to explore, says Philip Watson

On the observation deck of Seattle’s best-known attraction, the Space Needle, there is a series of large screens that encourage you, somewhat enigmatically, to “Explore the Zoomable City”.

Tap on the “Famous in Seattle” menu at the top of the screen and the impressive panoramic view of the city will zoom in to more specific locations.

You sweep down to the houseboat on Lake Union where Tom Hanks lived in Sleepless in Seattle; to an apartment building near Kerry Park that might have been Frasier’s fictional home; to nearby Fisher Plaza, an office complex used for exterior shots of the hospital in Grey’s Anatomy; and, inevitably, to downtown’s Escala tower, site of Christian Grey’s penthouse and “Red Room” in Fifty Shades of Grey.

The virtual journey makes you realise that, not unlike some other US cities, you know quite a lot about Seattle even before you’ve been there. It’s that sense of familiarity and discovery that makes a weekend in the city such a worthwhile business add-on.

The Space Needle (400 Broad Street; open 10am-9.30pm Mon-Thurs, 9.30am-10.30pm Fri-Sat, 9.30am-9.30pm Sun; US$19 online; is an ideal place to get your bearings, and to appreciate that the sprawling city of 3.6 million is actually in an extraordinarily beautiful natural setting.

Built for the 1962 World’s Fair, its glass-walled lifts ascend to the 160-metre open-air observation deck in 43 seconds; from there, you can enjoy stunning views over the surrounding city, harbour, bays, lakes, sounds, islands and mountains.

Look west and it comes as some surprise to register that Seattle is almost 160km inland from the Pacific; the distant view is of the mountains and ridges of the vast Olympic National Park. Look south-east and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see all the way to the magnificent snow-capped dome of 4,392-metre Mount Rainier, the “Big Daddy” of the long and part-volcanic Cascade Range that provides a dramatic backdrop to the city.

The Space Needle’s promotional blurb boasts “If you see one thing in Seattle, see everything!” – and it’s certainly fun to travel there from downtown on the mile-long monorail, or dine in its revolving restaurant, especially at sunset.

But there are elevated alternatives. While it may not be as pretty, the Columbia Centre, the tallest skyscraper in the city, has a 73rd-floor “Sky View Observatory” that, at 275 metres, is significantly higher (701 Fifth Avenue; open 10am-8pm; US$14.25 from May 1; There is also a Starbucks on the 40th floor open on weekdays.

Still, visiting the Needle also allows you to catch other attractions in the surrounding 30-hectare Seattle Centre complex. The Pacific Science Centre (open 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun 6pm; US$19.50;, for example, houses a tropical butterfly house, planetarium, two IMAX cinemas and hundreds of interactive exhibits.

Best of all, perhaps, and probably more definitively Seattle, is the EMP Museum (open 10am-5pm; US$20 online; Housed in a curved and concertinaed aluminium and stainless steel-clad structure designed by Frank Gehry, it celebrates the city’s many and various contributions to global music, sci-fi and popular culture.

You could spend hours inside the lively 13,000 sqm museum, strolling between permanent displays such as the Guitar Gallery, with its extensive range of vintage and iconic guitars from the 1770s to the present day, to temporary exhibitions largely devoted to such local heroes as Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana (the latter even has the first guitar Kurt Cobain smashed on stage).

Those inspired by the musical energy and do-it-yourself ethic at the EMP Museum could do little better than to hit the city’s vibrant music scene (EMP, after all, stands for “Experience Music Project”).

There are numerous live venues catering to every taste – try the legendary Showbox near Pike Place Market (1,426 First Avenue; or hipster Neumos up in Capitol Hill (925 East Pike Street; for rock and alt-rock, or the Tractor Tavern (5,213 Ballard Ave NW;, in the easy-going northern suburb of Ballard, for more traditional Americana sounds.

Jazz fans should head downtown to Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley (2,033 Sixth Avenue; or Tula’s (2,214 Second Avenue; Independent newspaper The Stranger has weekly listings (, and the easiest way to get around the city by bus, train and ferry is to buy an ORCA travel card (

Music, you soon appreciate, is the lifeblood of Seattle. Songs seem to be playing everywhere, from every hip café and cultured coffee house to cavernous yet reassuringly busy record shops such as Everyday Music in Capitol Hill (1,520 Tenth Avenue) and Bop Street Records in Ballard (2,220 NW Market Street) – the latter claims to have more than 500,000 vinyl records in stock.

Downtown, the buzzing music-themed Hotel Max (620 Stewart Street; has an entire floor dedicated to legendary record label Sub Pop.

Even Seattle-Tacoma International airport has got in on the act with a recent scheme that promotes music throughout its terminals, via videos, a web radio player, and local acts playing daily.

The airport initiative seems the perfect embodiment of a certain Seattle vibe – a mix of the corporate and independent, of big business and progressive politics. Seattle, after all, is at once home to the headquarters of Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Starbucks, Nordstrom and Expedia, and to countless artisan food producers, microbreweries and tattoo parlours.

It’s the city of Bill Gates and Irish Catholic gay mayor Ed Murray, and of shops selling fine estate wines and recreational (legalised) cannabis. It’s relaxed, liberal, cultural, unpretentious and Democrat-leaning, yet pragmatic and hard-working too.

You rapidly detect that in Seattle there is always an alternative way to experience the city. The one-hour Argosy Cruises Tour (1,101 Alaskan Way/Pier 55; US$23; is a fine and informative way to see the harbour, port and cityscape from the water, but if the incessant running commentary (“So, who’s ready to have some fun?”) is not to your liking, you can always opt for the peaceful 35-minute ferry ride across Elliott Bay to beautiful Bainbridge Island (801 Alaskan Way/Pier 52; US$8 round-trip;

If the revitalised Capitol Hill neighbourhood, just north of the city centre, seems too self-consciously trendy – although it’s worth visiting for the Elliott Bay Book Company store alone (1,521 Tenth Avenue; – then head to historic Georgetown, home to cafés, galleries, vintage emporia and weekend-only “restaurant/microfarm/oasis” the Corson Building (5,609 Corson Avenue South;; or the more edgy and upcoming Belltown district, especially the bars and restaurants along Second Avenue.#

Frequent travellers, meanwhile, shouldn’t miss the fascinating Museum of Flight (9,404 East Marginal Way South; open 10am-5pm; US$20;, 8km south of the city (past Georgetown).

Located beside the huge Boeing Field cargo airport, it houses more than 150 classic and modern planes, a space gallery, and an airpark where you can climb aboard a 1978 Concorde, a presidential 1958 Boeing Air Force One, and a 2009 B787 Dreamliner, the third ever built.

In the Great Gallery, there are also four state-of-the-art flight simulators that, for an additional US$15, allow you to test out one of nine wartime modern jet aircraft. A nearby display board enthusiastically urges you to “Choose Your Thrill”. Much like Seattle itself.

Check out for savings on admission prices if you’re visiting multiple attractions.



It’s hard to avoid the coffee giant in its hometown, but two outlets worth seeking out are the “original” Starbucks café at 1,912 Pike Place, which opened in 1971 and retains its original modest frontage, and the vast new Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room in Capitol Hill.

This feels more like a cross between a post-industrial nightclub and a factory designed by Heath Robinson (or Willy Wonka) than a traditional coffee bar. 1,124 Pike Street;


Famed since 1995 for its farm-direct beans and small-batch coffee roasting, resolutely independent Caffé Vita is a long-running Capitol Hill institution. Grungy interior; cool baristas; great coffee. 1,005 East Pike Street;


An arty and airy warehouse-type space serving fine coffee, pastries and sandwiches, Zeitgeist is a perfect stop-off if you’re exploring the quirky galleries and shops around historic Pioneer Square. 171 South Jackson Street;


Funky Bauhaus is another popular Capitol Hill spot offering excellent strong coffee, books, views of the Space Needle, and “ding dongs” – chocolate cakes with a creamy white centre.

There is also a branch in Ballard (2,001 Northwest Market Street). As it says on the Bauhaus website: “Awesome coffee, quintessential Seattle vibe.” 414 East Pine Street;