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I’ve always been drawn to the old rather than the new – I majored in history, love old brick buildings, wear my clothes and shoes to pieces before buying new ones, and have always thought I was growing up in the wrong couple of decades for some reason. In cities, areas that are older – and often grittier – are usually more interesting to me than shiny downtowns and commercial districts, which is one of the reasons I enjoy wandering through Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood.
The west coast of the United States is still relatively ‘new’ – Washington only became a state in 1889. Even traveling to the east coast, there’s so much more written history, old buildings and a sense of establishment than out west. Here most things are pretty new and modern, and no buildings have been around for centuries.
For us, Pioneer Square is about as old and historical as it gets. The ‘birthplace’ of Seattle, Pioneer Square was founded in 1852 on the south side of town along the waterfront. While the original structures burned down during the Great Seattle Fire in 1889, the brick and stone buildings that were erected afterward (and raised from sea level) are still standing – and they’re gorgeous.
The area has always had a bit of a rough reputation. When first settled it was home to lumberyards, bars and brothels…then came the Klondike Gold Rush, with Seattle as the last stop on the way north to Alaska, and Pioneer Square became even busier filled with theaters, pawn shops, more brothels, saloons, drug and gambling houses. Today there are a number of shops, art galleries, start ups, bars and restaurants, and homeless shelters located around the actual ‘Pioneer Square’ at the corner of First Avenue and Yesler Way. While recently there’s been a push to bring more money and commerce into the area, it still is a bit grimy. That’s what helps connects it to its racy past though – it’s not as genteel as other parts of Seattle, but it has character.
I worked in the area for a couple years after college and never got tired of roaming the streets on my way to and from the office – there was always something to catch your eye.
Walk – Chances are you’ll be making a stop at Pike Place Market on First Avenue…keep moving south until you get to Pioneer Square (about ten blocks) and simply walk around. Much of the neighborhood’s charm and appeal comes from the old, decorative and ivy-covered buildings.
First Thursday – Pioneer Square is home to many art galleries and studios which open up, for free, from noon to 8:00 p.m. the first Thursday of every month. Most people head over after work to stroll around.
Smith Tower – Built in 1914 as the tallest building west of the Mississippi, the Smith Tower is a surprisingly interesting attraction. After walking by it every day for 2+ years, I didn’t give it much notice, but you can actually go up to the top for a view of the city looking out over the historical neighborhood and Puget Sound. Walking in, you quickly realize this is no ordinary building with its elaborate elevators, polished brass fixtures and shiny marble walls.
Underground Tour – Check out the Underground Tour, exploring the hidden walkways and broken buildings underneath the neighborhood.
Eat – Tat’s Delicatessen with East coast subs or the famous Salumi, which is owned by the father of chef, Mario Batali and churns out some of the best artisan cured meats (think salami cured with citrus and cardamom), are hot lunch spots. (Note: Salumi is only open until 4:00 p.m. and almost always has a line out the door. It’s that good.)
Drink – There are several bars and clubs sprinkled throughout the area, though I have never gone to any past happy hour. Many have outdoor seating in the warmer months, so as you’re wandering around just pick a place you’d like to rest for a while and people watch. For coffee, however, skip the standard Starbucks and head to Zeitgeist Coffee or Caffé Umbria, both located south of Pioneer Square, for a real latte or espresso.
Have you spent time in Seattle’s Pioneer Square? What did you think?
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