January 5 – March 18, 2019 (Winter)
Gratitude: Thank you
Currency: Dollar ($)
Cost of living: Extreme
Who says we can’t go home? Returning to Seattle after three years abroad was, in a word, bittersweet. It’s a beautiful place, a place we loved and continue to love. Coming back allowed us to scratch itches we knew and didn’t know we had, scratch some chores off our to-do lists, and scratch our heads at the many changes. But the forces that conspired to push us out in the first place were unfortunately not among those changes. True, some things weren’t as bad as we remembered – what’s the Seattle Freeze compared to 30 different language barriers? That cost of living, though. We felt an acute pain in our wallets before we even arrived, and the throbbing wouldn’t end until weeks after we left.
For as many places↗ as we’ve been, the Pacific Northwest is still among the best. A compact and walkable city, bounded by water and mountains on both sides. A diversity of food that rivals world capitals, and an embarrassment of fresh seafood that puts everywhere else to shame. And with its distinctive terroir, Washington wine – our unrivaled favorite. But the stay wasn’t solely about simple pleasures. We had chores: passports and licenses to renew, goods to stock up on, and plenty of work to do. Our time was precious. Because as much as we wanted to stay, we simply couldn’t afford to.
Where we stayed
We found this month’s rental on Craigslist rather than our usual Airbnb↗. Familiarity with the local rental market (and language) allowed us to pin down a place in a central location for a price that, on Airbnb, would have put us in another county – or another country. A homeowner in our old neighborhood would be wintering in Mexico, and we sublet her furnished home for a couple months at a reasonable rate. For our needs, the location was ideal. Literally four blocks from our old apartment, we could slide right back in to our old lives if we wanted… for a few weeks, anyway.
Queen Anne is a relatively quiet and residential area on a steep hill just behind Seattle Center (site of the 1962 World’s Fair and home of the Space Needle). Staggeringly-expensive single-family homes are interspersed with boutique shops, bougie restaurants, and beautiful parks. It’s posh but “progressive.” The kind of place where every other house has a “Black Lives Matter” sign in the window but the all-white residents would riot if their property values were threatened. Transit connections are superb, and on a good day, much of the city is well within walking distance. If we can get down (and back up) the hill without dying of exhaustion, that is.
On arrival, we met our landlord and settled in as she prepared to fly south for the winter. The house was more spacious than any we’d had in a long time. Two bedrooms, a large living area, and a full kitchen provided plenty of room. The oven was from the 1950s but worked fine, and the Internet was plenty fast for our needs. Mostly we cherished our quiet and central location, close to all our favorite haunts and ideal for getting work done.Kerry Park, the city’s best vantage point, was just a few minutes’ walk from our rental. It’s the postcard view of Seattle – Space Needle bookended by city buildings and Rainier behind it all. It’s one of the world’s premier skylines. And we got a queen’s view of it nearly every day. Further west, the road curves around the hilltop, with lesser-known but equally-gorgeous overlooks of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. Magnolia Hill gets in the way a bit, but this is possibly our favorite panorama anywhere – ferries sail toward sunset, ships and planes filter in and out, and the sun sinks over a line of snowy peaks.
What we did
Our first objective in Seattle was to immediately skip town. By hopping a ferry to Bainbridge Island, that is! The Washington State ferry system is a local treasure and the largest in the United States. The fleet criss-crosses Puget Sound and links the Olympic Peninsula, San Juan and other islands to the mainland. Bainbridge Island is the closest and most convenient destination accessible from the downtown Seattle ferry terminal, which helps make this the most popular route in the network by ridership (third by vehicles carried). Walking down to Colman Dock and straight onto a waiting ship, watching it steadily fill with a seemingly endless stream of cars and trucks, and finally setting sail for a change of scenery is one of the unique joys of living in Western Washington. Walk-on tickets cost $8.50 per person, vehicles are more. The return leg pays for itself. Literally, in that pedestrians don’t need to buy tickets on the eastbound leg. It’s also an unbeatable show. The best time to come back is right around sundown. Nothing beats watching the Seattle skyline grow from a blotch in the distance to a soaring cityscape, seemingly grasping upwards for one last taste of sunshine during the magical golden hour.
On the other end of the route, the town of Winslow leans into its role as an ideal weekend getaway from the big city. The Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, strategically placed near the ferry dock, has only been open since 2013 but makes an outsize impression with great temporary and permanent exhibits, and no entrance fee. Tasting rooms for various local wineries are also a common sight. Unfortunately, we were dismayed to see tasting fees had risen exorbitantly since we last came. Instead we snacked on pastries and coffee at the always-crowded Blackbird Bakery and paid a visit to Eagle Harbor Books. Finally, we stopped at the Historical Museum (also free). Themes include the island’s logging and fishing past and rich history of Japanese immigration, but also the painful reality of Japanese-American internment camps during World War II.
No matter how many times we visit, we never tire of the Seattle Art Museum. It’s not the largest museum out there (it’s small enough to see in a day), but the familiar permanent collection has a special place in our hearts. A stunning Pacific landscape by Albert Bierstadt and vivid portrait by Kehinde Wiley remain our personal favorites, alongside impressive rooms of Northwest indigenous, Australian aboriginal, and East Asian art and civilization. It also manages to punch above its weight with fabulous special exhibits. This time we got to see “Peacock in the Desert,” an exhibition of art from Jodhpur, India. Brightly colored decorations from royal wedding processions, paintings with details so fine magnifying glasses were provided, and entire outdoor pavilions decorated in gold and silks displayed the wealth and power of Jodhpur. A smaller but no less striking exhibit titled “In this Imperfect Present Moment” showcased artists’ works tackling current social issues.
The biggest downside of visiting Seattle in the dead of winter is missing out on all our favorite hikes. Mt. Rainier, North Cascades, and even Olympic National Park get buried under feet of snow – sometimes well into June. Luckily, Discovery Park exists to provide an abridged version of that “escape to nature” we craved. Though a wayward whiff of the nearby wastewater treatment plant can be off-putting, the park is worth visiting for its network of beautiful trails. A loop path is most popular, always full of runners and dog walkers. Descending from the sandy cliffs to the pebbled waterfront – where tubes of seaweed bake in the sun and sea-bleached driftwood lines the shore like an elephant graveyard – gives a more intimate view of the glittering blue sound. The fishy, salty breeze never fails to scatter our worries away like sand flies. Cargo and cruise ships stream by frequently, dwarfing the minuscule but charming lighthouse that sits at the very end of the beach.
Central Seattle has plenty of attractions to keep visitors busy. Pike Place Market (NOT Pike’s Place – it’s named for its location on Pike Street, not owned by some guy named Pike) is one of the city’s main tourism hubs. Locals often avoid it. The market options – from seasonal produce to the famous seafood stalls – are legitimately good, but comparable ingredients can usually be found for better prices elsewhere. The best bets for quality affordable dining are Piroshky Piroshky and the award-winning Pike Place Chowder. Even in winter, lines for either can stretch out the door and up the block. The coolest shop in the complex (for a couple of travel geeks anyway) has to be Metsker Maps, purveyors of fine maps and globes since 1950.
Of course, the other huge draw is Seattle Center, specifically the Space Needle. It was built for the 1962 World’s Fair, and remains the most iconic feature in the skyline today. However, the view from the top falls short compared to Kerry Park. For one thing, it costs an arm and a leg, and pictures taken from inside the structure lack an important element – the Needle itself! The rest of the complex is dotted with theaters, museums, restaurants, and play areas. The musically-inclined International Fountain is a favorite for families, especially on a hot summer afternoon. Another good option for relaxing and sightseeing is the University of Washington. The buildings are impressive (especially the library’s stunning reading room), but the designers rightfully built the campus to cede the best sight lines to the natural beauty of Mount Rainier. Other notable spots around town include Amazon’s new “spheres,” the International District, and Pioneer Square, the city’s oldest neighborhood. Especially check out the Klondike Gold Rush national historical park (free, a small wing of a much bigger national park in Alaska) and Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour (not free, but well worth the price).
Just north of Queen Anne is the bohemian neighborhood of Fremont. We’ve compared other places to it in the past, notably Vilnius’s Užupis↗ district, so we of course had to pay a visit to the OG on our return. The neighborhood is an Atlas Obscura goldmine, stuffed with many of the city’s quirkiest spots. Like the IRL easter egg under the Aurora Bridge, where a massive troll clutches a VW Beetle in its concrete hand. A Cold War rocket towers off the corner of a building on N 35th St. One block north, a controversial statue of Vladimir Lenin, salvaged from a scrapyard in Slovakia, inspires reflection on the nature of art and the preservation of history. Bright murals dotted with fantastical creatures by local legend Henry are common sights, adorning businesses, vehicles, and even a marijuana dispensary.
A bit south, Fremont’s historic drawbridge opens for ships passing to and from Lake Union. Cozy little shops, like the charming Ophelia’s Books, dot the commercial area nearby. Tech companies occupy most of the area along the waterfront, but every weekend the street is taken over for the Sunday Market, an eclectic bazaar of artisans and artifact dealers, food trucks and herbal supplement peddlers. And of course, the neighborhood has its fair share of bars and brewpubs. Perhaps the best known is the eponymous Fremont Brewing. A family- and dog-friendly establishment, their lineup is heavily reliant on pale ales, but the occasional oatmeal stout breaks up the hop-monotony.
North of Interbay, Ballard used to be the heart of the local maritime community. Now it’s gentrifying and growing its own crop of breweries and high-end apartments. The Ballard Locks are probably one of its more unique attractions. It’s not exactly Panama, but watching the waterworks lift vessels to the Lake Washington Ship Canal, or down to exit into Puget Sound, is always interesting. On one side, fish ladders allow wild salmon their own access channel. The locks also have pedestrian crossings and some park space on both sides. Elsewhere along the northern shore, the Nordic Museum delves into the strong Scandinavian history of the neighborhood and the Pacific Northwest in general. We saw plenty that brought us back to our stay in Sweden↗.
Off to the east, the Woodland Park Zoo houses northwest natives like wolves, elk, and brown bears. They didn’t mind the chill when we visited, but tropical animals seemed a bit sullen by the unsavory weather. The most interesting exhibits have to be the immersive aviaries. Inside the double-layered doors, flocks of birds fly freely up to and above visitors – from cockatiels to ducks to the swollen-headed cock-of-the-rock.
The Museum of Flight is probably the best museum in Seattle, and easily one of our favorites anywhere. The stunning great hall is unlike anything else – dozens of aircraft hang throughout, representing an incredible cross-section of the history of flight. Various other halls dig into specific eras of aviation, from its beginnings in the Red Barn, to fighters from World War I and II, to the modern Space Age. While Seattle didn’t wind up with any of the Space Shuttle orbiters, we did get a pretty great consolation prize in the full-sized astronaut trainer. Visitors can stroll the cargo bay to get a feel for the scale of the place, and for an added fee can even tour the cabin. Behind this building is the pièce de résistance, the Aviation Pavilion. A massive covered yard plays home to many full-sized planes – a Concorde, a Dreamliner, even a former Air Force One – all free to tour, inside and out. But that’s not all. Possibly the best part of the museum is their incredible docents. Often former pilots or aerospace engineers, it isn’t uncommon to meet someone who built or flew the very machine on display. On a previous visit we met a man who worked on the Hubble space telescope. And this time we were similarly lucky to meet an experienced Boeing engineer that saw the company through generations of airliner advances, and who happily discussed the SR-71 Blackbird looming over our heads without the discussion going over our heads.
Another excellent educational attraction is the Seattle Aquarium. It shows off a rainbow of creatures who live right outside as well as a smattering of species native to warmer climes. Many fishes’ and corals’ vibrant colors and textures are simply otherworldly. A suspiciously intelligent giant octopus wants to be the star. Others specimens are so delicately-shaped it seems impossible they’d survive in the wild. Touch pools let us (gently) feel squishy sea cucumbers and anemones and spinier urchins. (Don’t worry, they’re pretty hardy creatures. Nothing a human hand could do to them that’d be rougher than the pounding Pacific surf.) Large fish like sturgeon and dogfish swam around an underwater dome – a different perspective compared to the flat-sided tanks common in most aquariums. Outside, seabirds like oystercatchers and puffins live next to gracefully swimming seals. But the sea otters – fuzzy and overwhelmingly adorable – are the clear crowd-pleasers. It doesn’t matter if they are zipping back and forth, floating sleepily, or cracking open a mussel morsel, they are the epitome of cuteness.
We made a day out of visiting the aquarium, followed by the the Museum of Pop Culture, or MoPOP. Formerly the Experience Music Project, this museum focuses on musical history (especially Northwest icons like Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix) and pop culture artifacts. We spotted hoverboards from Back to the Future, weapons from the Lord of the Rings, and a very creepy Gremlin. A temporary exhibit on indie games prominently showcases work from gaming’s lesser-known creators. But the coolest attraction has to be the Soundlab. Interactive and instructional kiosks for guitars, pianos, drums, and mixing booths, all ready for experimentation. Lots of fun to play with, but we probably won’t be quitting our jobs (again) to become rock stars.
When we left Seattle in 2015 to begin our travels, the project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel had already missed its originally scheduled opening. More than three years later, after numerous delays, breakdowns, and cost overruns, we just happened to be in town for the triumphant grand opening. Pedestrians were allowed in to walk the tunnel on February 2nd, two days before it opened to traffic. We followed the crowds through the 2-mile tunnel and emerged near the stadiums, where a fleet of buses waited to cart us back to the north entrance. The viaduct was similarly opened to pedestrian traffic. It seemed like the whole city turned out to bid it farewell. Artists filled the former roadway with a kinetic sculptures, poetry, and music. Thousands of people ruminated on the storied but unsafe structure, and took in the elevated views one last time. Predicted traffic problems – Viadoom – set to plague the city between the viaduct’s closing and the tunnel’s opening never materialized. Maybe the absurdly expensive replacement was never really necessary? In any event, we were witnessing history.
Food & Drink
Everywhere has some food or another worth mentioning, but nowhere does seafood like Seattle. We’ve fondly missed wild-caught salmon and crab since the day we left, and greedily made up for lost time on our return. Despite generally-high prices for groceries, crab was a deal at $6/pound. Dungeness crab is an absolute delicacy – sweet and meaty, with big legs and and easy-to-disassemble bodies. One is usually enough for us to share, but buying two allowed us to set aside enough meat for an indulgent dish of crab mac & cheese. Steelhead, a seagoing form of trout, isn’t as celebrated as salmon but is tender and cheaper. Sockeye, coho, and king salmon are pricier, but each delectable in their own ways. We tried our hand at making nigiri sushi for ourselves with ingredients from Uwajimaya – tuna, eel, and surf clam – and picked up some other hard-to-find Asian goodies.
Since eating out is wildly expensive, we only visited a handful of restaurants. Taylor Shellfish🌐 has the city’s best oysters, served fresh from saltwater tanks. They taste like the Pacific – salty and crisp and wild. Ivar’s Fish Bar is a low-cost institution and their fish and chips are best way to fill up fast before a ferry ride. Orrapin offers some of the best Thai food in Queen Anne. And while we didn’t splurge for the incomparable Shiro’s Sushi this time (or the newer Sushi Kashiba), we did visit a more modest but still very delicious old favorite – Sora Sushi – while wine tasting in Woodinville.
Our staple grocery was Safeway, with side trips to Fred Meyer, Metropolitan Market, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods (now owned by Amazon). Met Market was the most expensive but has an incredible selection of higher-quality and harder-to-find ingredients, and the only poke bar at a grocery store we trust. But some things can’t be found in any brick and mortar, least of all the many new tastes we’ve acquired over the last few years. Luckily the internet came through, and we had ajvar and khao soi (!) mix delivered right to our door.
Though we had plenty of American-style snack foods in Canada↗, we figured we’d have no better chance to indulge than here in Seattle. Girl Scout cookies and chip flavors classic and new all found their way home with us. Sriracha popcorn was an unexpected discovery, and oddly delightful. Sadly, Snoqualmie Ice Cream stopped making Danielle’s favorite flavor, crème fraîche, during our absence – a fact she took particularly hard. Too bad she couldn’t eat her sadness with a pint of it! Theo’s Chocolates are about as local as it gets, but their bars don’t come cheap. Finally, we simply had to scratch our burger itch, and there are no better options than Fatburger and Five Guys. As hard as the rest of the world tries, their burgers just don’t stack up against a true American grease bomb.
Seattle has always been a craft beer capital, but has admittedly lost a bit of luster for us after places like Poland and Lithuania↗. Still, we found plenty to keep us happy, from old favorites (Elysian and Red Hook) and new (Queen Anne Beerhall and Reuben’s Brews). Optimism Brewing🌐 on Capital Hill has a spacious brewpub where we attended game developer socials hosted by Seattle Indies. They had plenty of tasty and varied options on offer. Kevin was glad to have the option of hop-heavy IPAs again, but non-hop-heads needn’t worry. The craft beer scene has backed off the hopsanity of past years to make room for a new fad: sours.
But there was one more love of ours that remains untempered by a world of alternatives, and that’s Washington wine. To our palettes, nowhere else matches our overwhelming and indescribable terroir. It’s confident, dusty, vegetal, and oh-so-good. And there was no better way to catch up on the whole category than a day at the annual Seattle Wine and Food Experience. For four hours, we wined and dined and wined some more, sampling dozens of local varietals and vintages and even a few imports from as far away as Uruguay↗. The most memorable wines were from Armstrong Family Wines, Gård, and LUKE. Fortunately, local restaurants served up tasty bites to help absorb some of the alcohol. Tulalip Resort dished out a filling Guinness Beef Stew, while No Anchor Bar’s smoked and pickled mussels proved oddly delicious. White Swan Public House’s seafood chowder was every bit the equal of Pike Place Chowder, while Beecher’s Cheese’s ‘world’s best mac & cheese’ frankly didn’t hold a candle to our own.
Across the lake, colloquially known as the Eastside, the town of Woodinville is the headquarters of wine tasting in Western Washington. Hundreds of wineries and tasting rooms are clustered into subsections like the “Downtown District” or “Warehouse District.” American transit being what it is, it took us several buses and an Uber↗ to reach the “Hollywood District,” centered around an old schoolhouse and current event venue that also houses Alexandria Nicole Cellars (one of our favorites). We went though their standard lineup – the Jet Black Syrah was best, but Quarry Butte is a classic – plus extras including an unusual 100% Lemberger. Across the lot we stopped in to Market Vineyards, a newer winery started by former finance workers. And across the street, Patterson Cellars greeted us with a tasty lineup that we hadn’t fully appreciated during the Wine and Food show.
We couldn’t see everything in one day of tasting, nor did we need to. Our favorite table wine from Bookwalter can be found at QFC, and Dusted Valley is well-distributed in the city these days. But truth be told, the whole trip was just set dressing for our most anticipated stop, Northwest Cellars🌐 in Totem Lake. Bob’s wines are simply incredible. From masterful blends like Intrigue and Oscuro to pure expressions of malbec, merlot, and especially carménère, every sip was bliss. There’s a reason it’s been our favorite winery for a decade. We sipped and reminisced and went home very happy and with a few bottles for later. The next morning never crossed our minds, but if it did we would have no trouble recovering over a cup of the city’s other great beverage of fame – coffee.
Walking was, as usual, our preferred way to get around. But the city’s incessant growth and propensity for block-max buildings made it something of a chore at times, as dozens of construction sites closed sidewalks and streets unpredictably. But public transit is also an option, quite good in Seattle by American standards. Payment can be made in cash or by contactless card. ORCA cards↗ cost $5 to purchase (though our old ones were still perfectly functional) and a bus ride costs $2.75. Not cheap but, considering the cost of gas and tolls, fair. Our only real gripe was with ORCA’s antiquated online payment system. On one occasion we added credit to our cards, but the transaction didn’t process before our next ride. Our cards weren’t rejected – instead they overdrafted, auto-filled themselves for another $25, and then locked us out of paying online until we settled this new charge… over the phone! The support staff seemed just as bewildered by the whole song and dance as we were.
ORCA can also be used to pay for the Link Light Rail, which connects SeaTac Airport to the city center and is currently expanding with several new routes. A ride from downtown cost just $3 each. From the airport terminal, the station can be a bit confusing though. Just head out to the parking garage, turn left, and continue down the long corridor. Tickets can be purchased from kiosks at the bottom of the stairs. Ticket verification by security officers is commonplace. If using an ORCA card, be sure to badge in getting on and off. Tickets come with a 2-hour transfer window – we used ours to connect to the 2, 3, 4, or 13 bus to Queen Anne.
Flying in to and out of SeaTac is always a treat. The north/south runways and flight paths mean approaches frequently give stunning areal views of the city, Puget Sound, the Cascades, and even Mount Rainier.
Stuff of interest
Our AT&T SIMs↗ carried over from our earlier stop in Connecticut. Not gonna lie, continuing to pay $70+/month stung. But this was an okay deal for US coverage, and an absolute steal for Canadian. Still, we were thrilled to drop AT&T like a sack of bricks as soon as we left.
Other errands during our stay included trips to the Department of Licensing (to renew our expiring driver’s licenses and update voter registrations) and sending away for new passports (so we can keep traveling). We also paid a visit to our storage unit. Thankfully, after three years all our stuff was still safe and sound. It boggled us a bit to see how many possessions we had. Downsizing had seemed so complete and final, but after living out of backpacks for years, a few pieces of furniture seemed like the height of luxury.
Seattle has one of the world’s great concentrations of indie game developers, and nowhere is this better represented than the many great events put on by the the nonprofit organization Seattle Indies↗. Monthly socials are a great opportunity to network while unwinding over a beer, and the talent pool is a fantastic resource for feedback, insights, and support.
As an incredibly literate and educated city, Seattle boasts one of the best public library systems we’ve ever seen. The Central Library is a glass-and-metal modern marvel of angles and overhangs. Very unlike the historic Carnegie branch in Queen Anne. Their museum pass program let us access many of the museums we visited for free. Additionally, Little Free Libraries have taken the city by storm, popping up on nearly every block. Bookstores abound, even in Amazon’s backyard.
What Seattle isn’t good at, meanwhile, is snow. The mild, ocean-moderated winters mean snowfall is rare. Extremely high-grade hills and little snow-clearing infrastructure adds to the trouble when it does occur. So, when we were socked by a blizzard in early February, the city simply shut down. Best to wait it out. School was universally canceled, and even adults became kids in awe of the winter wonderland. The steep counterbalance road up Queen Anne hill became toboggan central. And with few sleds in the wild, people turned anything and everything on hand into impromptu vehicles. Broken suitcases, cardboard boxes, even cookie sheets (that one was us – surprisingly effective!), you name it. It only took a few days for the miserable subarctic sun to burn away the snowpack, but for that brief little window, our frantic workaholic city played.
Speaking of work, we actually extended our stay a few days to attend Emerald City Comic Con. Kevin had an opportunity to showcase his new game Unnatural Disaster↗ there for the first time, testing audience reaction and receiving player feedback. This was invaluable for us, but video games were just a tiny part of the show overall. Board and card games, cartoons, superheroes, cosplayers, creator panels, vendors, artisans, and of course comic books are the headlining attractions. It sprawled, filling the Washington State Convention Center and nearby venues for four days. We were blown away not just by the event and its attendees, but by the incredibly positivity on display. Everyone there was a fan of something, and nobody looked down on anyone else. Danielle attended informative talks from successful and up-and-coming authors, and Kevin had the distinct pleasure of watching a fun and genuine reunion with the cast of Boy Meets World.
What we learned
Seattle is a conundrum. It’s an incredible city, young and vibrant and growing, in a stunning natural setting that inspires joy. Good food, good wine – it’s a great place to live well. But the price tag on it all can inspire heart attacks. Which is not something you want in a place with the highest healthcare costs in the world! News cycles dominated by American politics certainly didn’t help either. Even in a liberal bastion, things just felt sadder, angrier… worse. Putting distance between us and that doesn’t solve the problem, but it’s hard to argue against the benefits to our mental health.
So as quickly as we slid into our old lives, we slid back out of them and returned to our “new” ones. What an absurd and privileged position to be in, to come from a place so costly that endless world travel saves us money! That’s what Seattle is to us now. Was it as nice as we remembered? Sure. We could definitely be happy here. But, we don’t need to be here to be happy.