This city sculpted by Puget Sound and Lake Washington and crowned with leafy hills abounds with lively diversions, both indoor and outside. Plus, Seattle’s sunny and mild climate lasts from June through well into October, making it one of the country’s most enchanting summer destinations. It’s actually a cool getaway with year-round popularity (yes, even during the grayer, wetter winter months), with superb restaurants, offbeat shops and a mix of accommodations for all budgets. Downtown – with its dashing, postmodern skyline – contains a mix of enticing museums, historic blocks and trendy retail-entertainment strips.
The city’s many visiting gays and lesbians are often drawn to Seattle’s LGBT hub, Capitol Hill. Students, dot-commers, latter-day hippies and young families of all persuasions live in this lofty neighborhood, a 20-minute walk or short cab ride east of downtown. Cutting-edge music, liberal politics, coffeehouses and microbreweries, computer technology and environmentalism are among the ties that bind Capitol Hill’s disparate populations.
The best way to enjoy Seattle is to set aside a few hours each day, and focus on a particular neighborhood and its corresponding draws. Start by touring downtown, with its landmark Pike Place Market, a sprawling 1907 structure abuzz with fishmongers and food marketers of every ilk. If you love to eat or cook, the halls of gourmet goodies are reason alone to while away an afternoon here. You’ll also find scads of genuinely interesting shops, such as art galleries, bath and beauty boutiques, clothiers, jewelry and crafts makers and indie booksellers. Other appealing attractions downtown include the Odyssey Maritime Discovery Center and the Seattle Aquarium, which are along Puget Sound’s salt-aired piers, and the acclaimed Seattle Art Museum.
North of downtown you’ll find the loft-style galleries, restaurants and music clubs of Belltown, and beyond that, the 600-foot Space Needle, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012. This iconic beauty ranks among the nation’s most distinctive buildings—you can take an elevator to the top for breathtaking views of the skyline, Puget Sound, and the surrounding Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges.
The Capitol Hill neighborhood has few formal attractions, but several commercial pockets are excellent for shopping, club hopping, distinctive dining and people-watching. Pine and Pike streets hold many gay bars, plus some live-music halls and coffeehouses, and Broadway Avenue bustles with a youthful mix of straight and gay-popular businesses. Set aside some time to explore verdant Volunteer Park, home to an exotic-plant-filled conservatory, a 75-foot water tower affording panoramic city views, and the outstanding Seattle Asian Art Museum.
Make a point of checking out some of the city’s enchanting off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods, such as Madison Park, with its gayish beach along Lake Washington as well as the University of Washington Arboretum; the University of Washington-dominated U District; Fremont, a former hippie haven that’s now home to a mix of creative spirits and young professionals; and Ballard, whose roots as a Scandinavian fishing community are still very much evident (it’s a great neighborhood for seafood dining). This latter area has become one of the top Seattle neighborhoods outside downtown for edgy dining and diverting indie retail.
One theme that unites virtually all of the city’s most intriguing districts is delicious food – Seattleites take eating seriously, and restaurants here strive to feature local – often farm-to-table – produce, cheeses, seafood, meats, wines, jams and honeys. Two of the nation’s most celebrated openly lesbian chefs, Christine Keff and Tamara Murphy, are based here. In South Lake Union, Keff dazzles foodies with her fresh, artful creations in Flying Fish, a festive and contemporary seafood joint serving such knockout fare as spearfish with maple-sherry glaze and sautéed kale. Murphy runs Lower Capitol Hill’s much-heralded Terra Plata, which opened in late 2011 and is a fine place to sample creative, beautifully prepared market-driven dishes like sea scallops with smoked tomato vinaigrette, and roast pig with chorizo, clams, and smoked paprika.
Another of the city’s highly regarded chefs is Tom Douglas, who runs a powerful mini-empire comprising several acclaimed eateries, from diminutive Dahlia Bakery – which is perfect for artisan breads, divine sandwiches, and tempting tarts – to the more substantial Lola, whose updated Mediterranean fare (such as braised young-goat tagine with artichokes and fava beans) dazzles gourmands.
Capitol Hill has several notable restaurant faves, among them openly gay rising-star chef Jason Stratton’s Cascina Spinasse, a stellar neighborhood trattoria serving boldly flavorful Piemontese cuisine; Poco Wine Room is scoring high marks for its terrific wine list and well-conceived American cooking; and the gastropub Quinn’s, which can be counted on for tasty, modern takes on stick-to-your-ribs classics, like crispy-skin half chicken served with a toasted brioche, wild mushrooms, spinach, and chicken-liver mousse. Grill on Broadway has for years been a gay tradition for brunch, afternoon cocktails, and late-night dining on eclectic American cuisine. Just down the hill in Madison Valley, stylish Cafe Flora virtually redefines vegetarian food with its complex, sophisticated cooking.
Most of the city’s gay nightspots are in lively Capitol Hill, including the ultra-popular and brand-new (as of May 2012) Social nightclub, a swanky gay dance club that adjoins a stylish restaurant and lounge called Evo. Longtime mainstays of the gay scene include R Place, great for dancing and drag shows; the cruise-y Cuff Complex, which draws a masculine, bear-ish bunch; the leather-themed Seattle Eagle; and Neighbours, a favorite dance club. Lesbians favor the Wildrose Tavern, a spacious bar with DJs and dancing that’s been going strong since the mid-’80s.
A quirky, retro-glam hole in the wall, Pony plays fun music and attracts a diverse bunch, from gay hipsters to students to older dudes who appreciate the throwback-to-the-’70s gay-bar aesthetic. CC Attle’s, which moved to a handsome new space in 2011, is a friendly spot drawing an eclectic, mostly 35-and-older crowd, and cozy and fun Diesel is Seattle’s newest bear bar. The stylish, mod Lobby Bar is a top happy-hour pick with a kitchen turning out tasty victuals, as is trendy and new-ish Saint John’s Bar, which serves drinks all evening and dinner late, plus an excellent brunch.
Accommodations in Seattle include a high number of spirited, avant-garde boutique hotels. Among these, consider the playful, art-themed Hotel Max, a snazzy yet moderately priced hotel whose public areas and guest rooms feature the artwork of more than three dozen provocative Pacific Northwest artists. On the ground floor, the Max’s restaurant, Red Fin, can be counted on for expertly prepared sushi and tasty Pan-Asian cuisine. The intimate Hotel 1000 (hotel1000seattle.com), with its verdant rooftop garden and minimalist, high-tech rooms done in tranquil, muted hues, has quickly is a magnet among travelers.
Just a 10-minute walk from the gay-bar scene on Capitol Hill, the discreetly elegant Hotel Sorrento (hotelsorrento.com) is one of the Northwest’s grande dames. The ornately decorated Italianate Revival building contains 76 rooms, each with a different layout and décor, the live music, readings, and similarly arts-minded events are staged regularly in the classic wood-paneled lobby. In up-and-coming South Lake Union, a short walk from the Space Needle, the stunningly designed Pan Pacific Seattle (panpacific.com) has spacious rooms with tall windows, HD Plasma TVs, and deep soaking tubs; it’s in a modern complex with a Whole Foods, the super Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar, and the full-service Vida Spa.
Many of the city’s gay visitors regularly stay at one of the three properties downtown run by the hip and LGBT-supporting Kimpton brand, including the whimsically decorated Hotel Monaco, the plush Alexis Hotel and the wine-themed Hotel Vintage Park (hotelvintagepark.com). The Hyatt Olive 8, a soaring eco-friendly tower at the base of Capitol Hill, has alluringly modern rooms and beautiful fitness center, 65-foot saline pool, and spa. A more affordable but quite hip option is the Ace Hotel, a fun, frugal, Euro-inspired lodging with futuristic-looking rooms – it’s one of the best, and gay-friendliest, bargains in the Pacific Northwest.
Andrew Collins covers gay travel for the New York Times-owned website GayTravel.About.com and is the author of Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.