Writer Hanna Brooks Olsen guides CityLab through the Emerald City.
Travel Like You Live Here is a series in which wonky locals show CityLab around their home turf.
When CityLab wanted to visit Seattle—that laid-back outpost transformed by a white-hot housing market and influx of tech riches—we tapped the local writer Hanna Brooks Olsen to show us around. From 2013 to 2017, Olsen was the editor-in-chief of Seattlish, which went deep on wonky, hyper-local issues from housing to land use and ballot initiatives.
On Twitter, Olsen is a big-time Seattle booster, nudging folks to read up and get involved in local politics. “In a city as small as Seattle, we have the option to know exactly who is putting money into campaigns we don’t agree with,” she says. The site—which has currently scaled back its operations—helped kindle community around projects like the Compassionate Business Index, a collaboration that rounded up outposts with an eye for social good.
Here are Olsen’s picks for what CityLabbers should do in the Emerald City.
“The Museum of History and Industry (860 Terry Ave N) is the best place to start on city history,” Olsen says. “Read all the plaques!” Don’t miss the chronicles of the Seattle fire and a staggering infrastructural undertaking that spanned decades. In 1892, engineers began leveling and regrading portions of the city. Work wrapped 32 years later.
Then make your way to the Burke Museum (corner of 17th Ave NE and NE 45th St.), a natural history collection with particular emphasis on the area’s indigenous population. Artifacts include Coast Salish baskets and masks, brought into conversation with work by contemporary artists who are keeping traditions alive. “Seattle is very much Indian country. We are here in Seattle because of a broken treaty,” Olsen says.
Designed by Rem Koolhaas, the Seattle Public Library’s Central Branch (1000 Fourth Ave) is a glass-paneled showstopper. In addition to being an architectural monument, Brooks says it’s also a place to take in sweeping views of the city. (Plus: They have books.)
Coffee shops are a great place to curl up and wait out the drizzle. For a taste of old-school PNW grunge, try Bedlam (2231 2nd Ave) which “feels like Seattle used to feel in the ‘90s,” Olsen says. “Mismatched furniture, overstuffed couches with rips, everything smells vaguely like coffee and cigarettes, weekly papers all over the ground, baristas are kind of crabby but you love it.”
For beer and pizza, Olsen recommends heading over to Bill’s Off Broadway (725 E Pine St), which withstood redevelopment in a wacky way. The watering hole shuttered for two years while its row house was transformed into a mixed-use building with 200 apartment units. It reopened in 2015. “A lot of times, with development, we don’t get stuff back, and we got this back,” Olsen says. “It’s totally back to being part of the neighborhood.”
If you need to bang out some emails, head over to the KEXP headquarters (Seattle Center). The indie public radio station’s digs include a buzzing room open to everyone. “They have this space with couches that’s also a coffee shop, and it’s a cool way to integrate the radio station with the city,” Olsen says.
For readings, comedy nights, or shows, Olsen suggests the Jewelbox Theater (2322 2nd Ave), tucked behind The Rendezvous. “It’s beer-soaked and sticky, and the green room is covered in writing,” Olsen says, and it’s a solid choice for film screenings or burlesque performances.
The Vera Project (Seattle Center) is the go-to for all-ages shows, and also hosts community organizing workshops and silkscreen classes.
Seattle’s bus (and streetcar) system will help you traverse the city’s arteries. But don’t forgot about the vintage Monorail, built for the 1962 World’s Fair. “People don’t think of it as our method of transportation, but it totally is,” Olsen says. Hop on at Seattle Center or Westlake Center.