With its seamless blend of shrewd commerce, uncompromising luxury and countercultural abandon, all set against a dramatic mountain backdrop, Washington's capital of cool is a study in complementary contrasts
Author Michael Kaplan Photography Nick Hall
DAY ONE | Seattle is known for its overcast skies, but there’s nothing dull about the Hotel Monaco, a downtown establishment whose décor veers between velvety opulence and pop-art excess, where each room comes with its own plump goldfish. You take a moment to say hi to your little guy, whom you name Kurt, and head out into what’s shaping up to be an unusually sunny day.
Maybe it’s the portly fish, but you opt to start your trip with a touch of light exercise at nearby Volunteer Park, a 48-acre sprawl of winding paths and towering cedars that comes with a soundtrack of buskers and birds. From here, you speed-stroll to the Volunteer Park Café.
The café is a blend of the rustic and the urbane: roosters crowing, laptops clicking. Sunlight dapples the weathered wooden table upon which you heap a week’s worth of baked goods. Then, confident that you’ve covered the major food groups—buttery, gooey, chewy, chocolatey—you tuck in. And when a woman walks by with a tray of blueberry muffins, you ask for one of those as well—albeit in a to-go bag.
Breakfast accomplished, you scoot down to trendy Capitol Hill for a spin through the Warren Knapp Gallery, with its portraits of scary Gothic children and splashy Seattle cityscapes. A few steps away is Melrose Market, a neatly arrayed assembly of stalls offering everything from recycled-glass terrariums (Butter Home) to classes in cleaver craft (Rain Shadow Meats).
From here, it’s a short hike to the monorail that zips above the city and stops within earshot of EMP (formerly the Experience Music Project), the undulating, shimmering museum built by Frank Gehry and bankrolled by Microsoft’s Paul Allen. The highlight is a survey of Nirvana: Kurt Cobain’s raggedy cardigans, battered guitars and artfully scrawled flyers for shows at ratty little clubs.
Humming “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you cab it to the waterfront, which is dotted with seafood joints jutting into Puget Sound. You settle on the shack-like Ivar’s on Pier 54, a bit of a tourist trap but also one of the oldest eateries in town. After a cup of creamy seafood chowder and a couple of crab cakes (with a heavy emphasis on the crab), consumed at a table with a sweeping view of the sound, you know you made the right call.
Fortified, you hotfoot it to the Olympic Sculpture Park, a waterfront space that is home to a bunch of oversize objets d’art. You plant yourself on one of the eye-shaped benches and contemplate life, the universe and your next meal. Before dinner, you’ll double back to the Monaco for an anti-preen. You will, after all, be venturing into the Ballard district, which boasts one of the highest piercings-per-eyebrow ratios in the world.
But there’s more to Ballard than ear tattoos and outré facial hair. The area is known for stripped-down eateries serving excellent food, like The Walrus and the Carpenter, where you team up with another lone diner and order a load of stuff to share: Olympia oysters, grilled sardines, smoked trout and ample amounts of pinot grigio. You amble out into the mild evening caught between a “yum” and a yawn.
Hankering for a nightcap, you head to Rob Roy, a low-lit throwback with a hi-fi in the rear and dudes at the bar having a philosophical discussion about Samuel L. Jackson. You sidle along the bar and enjoy a perfect Blood and Sand—Islay scotch, sweet vermouth, cherry brandy and orange juice—then retire to your hotel, where Kurt awaits.