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Originally published May 31, 2014 at 7:03 PM | Page modified June 1, 2014 at 4:05 PM

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Seeing Seattle: Five favorite, five even better sights

A newcomer takes an opinionated look at some top attractions and tells you where else to go.

Seattle Times Assistant Features Editor

Map of the attractions

Editor’s note

About the photos

Staff photographer Bettina Hansen chose to use tilt-shift lenses for this story to give a novel, different feel to the sights for which Seattle is known.

The photos were made with a variety of tilt-shift lenses for a selective focus effect. The movement of the lenses slightly distorts perspective and can yield a very shallow depth-of-field. They are commonly used in architectural photography to straighten lens distortion in tall buildings, but when used “improperly,” they can make subjects appear miniature and toylike.

From the photographer

In defense of the Ducks

See more photos and read about photographer Bettina Hansen's experience capturing the attractions.

More on Picture This →


There’s no question Seattle is a many-splendored place to visit. The majestic mountains, bodies of water in almost every direction, and a rich civic history and sights. But why are all the out-of-towners waiting in line to do the same things?

After moving to Seattle a little more than a year ago, I set out to experience the city’s top tourist attractions — a tour of tours, if you will. I’ve put together a list of five of the most popular, along with five alternatives that I like much more.

The tourist standard:


If you enjoy seeing majestic ocean creatures hurled through the air by carnival barkers, this is your spot. Yes, the famous fish flingers are a crowd-pleaser at the seafood stall. But I wonder about the person who first thought, “I know, this would be much more enjoyable if we threw this salmon.”

Add what sometimes seems like a convention of the world’s slowest walkers and gawkers, mix in a panoply of loosely Pacific Northwest-themed tchotchkes, and you’ve got Seattle’s most popular destination, the historic and undeniably photogenic Pike Place Market.

Sure, the Rachel’s Ginger Beer, Beecher’s cheese curds and Oriental Mart chicken adobo are delicious, but you’ll have to wade through about 3,000 people to reach them. By the way, the Starbucks coffee shop at the Market (at 1912 Pike Place) isn’t really the first store in the world-dominating chain (the very first was nearby and then moved here), so spare yourself the long wait for bad coffee. or 206-682-7453

But try this:


There are few better ways to spend a sunny Sunday than browsing the seasonal food stalls at the street market in this old-time neighborhood. Stretching for a block past more than a dozen tasty restaurants, the market makes it easy to go from farm-to-table, so to speak. If it’s raining, duck into one of the nautically themed drink dens nearby for a toddy.

The tourist standard:


Where to start? The often formidable line to ascend this iconic Seattle spire? The next line inside that they don’t tell you about until you have cleared the first line? The fact that at $19, it’s probably the most expensive elevator ride on the West Coast? Or the fact that you can buy your way out of that second line for an additional $15, which gets you VIP status.

Do you feel very important? Well, you won’t once you get up to the top of the Space Needle and it smells like a concession stand in the sky. At least the ride up was thrilling. or 206-905-2100.

But try this:


The French writer Guy de Maupassant, who detested the Eiffel Tower, said he liked to eat dinner in the tower’s restaurant since it was the only place in Paris he didn’t have to see it. The reverse of this logic is that if you are in the Space Needle, you don’t get to see it.

But you can see the Space Needle — and everything else for about 100 miles around — from the serene 73rd-floor aerie atop Seattle’s tallest structure (the Columbia Center office tower). And it’s about twice the height of the Space Needle’s observation deck. On a clear day, the view is stunning. or 206-386-5564.

The tourist standard:


If you have even the slightest bit of secondary social anxiety, this amphibious-truck tour is going to give you fits. The driver telling bad jokes and encouraging you to quack at people on the streets. The other riders singing along to pop songs of yesteryear. The spontaneous eruptions of cheering. The cringe quotient is off the charts.

Once the vehicle lumbers off the streets and into Lake Union for the watery part of the tour, and the hull starts to shudder, you’re going to be glad the life jackets are within arm’s reach. or 206-441-3825.

But try this:


Considerably more civilized than the Ducks (no singing and you can get a glass of wine aboard), this boat tour around Lake Union and onward to Lake Washington is a very pleasing way to pass a few hours. Plus you get to glimpse Bill Gates’ house and private beach. (Other boat tours cover the downtown waterfront and Ballard Locks.) or 206-623-1445.

The tourist standard:


This shop, a conglomeration of oddities, is the centerpiece of a complex on the downtown waterfront that includes a carousel and Ivar’s Acres of Clams.

I’ve never much gone in for grotesqueries as tourist attractions, but judging by the popularity of the 19th-century mummy at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, I’m in the minority. There is, however, something a little troubling about a place that proudly declares its selection of “gifts, novelties, gaffs, jewelry, and Native American art and homemade fudge.” Nevertheless, the market has spoken: This joint has been open since 1889. 206-682-5844

But try this:


With pieces by Richard Serra, Alexander Calder and Ellsworth Kelly, among others, this outdoor sculpture park is hands-down the best place to stroll and have a picnic — not to mention the bonus view of the Olympic mountains. Sure, you can’t buy any “novelties” here, but what you see — both man-made and natural — is infinitely more enriching. One caveat, the experience is markedly better on a sunny day. or 206-654-3100

The tourist standard:


You’ve got to hand it to Bill Spiedel, the late civic activist and Seattle Times writer, who started the Underground Tour in 1965: Few have made such a going concern out of a junk-filled basement (the Curiosity Shop aside).

That said, it is quite a fascinating basement. The dank below-street halls in Pioneer Square were once Seattle storefronts and sidewalks (at ground level in the 19th century). Populated by turn-of-the-century artifacts, they have a spectral charm. The tour is worth doing, even if the guides generally have the air of unemployed actors. or 206-682-4646

But try this:


The 2-hour “Greatest Hits” walking tour around downtown is a fascinating combination of historic buildings — such as the elegant Rainier Club and the former First Methodist Church — and more modern structures — including the Rem Koolhas-designed Seattle Central Public Library. 206-667-9184 or

Brian Thomas Gallagher:

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