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What's New & What's Next in Seattle

Charity Lynne Burggraaf

Photos by Charity Lynne Burggraaf

Pike Place Market.

Half a century ago, Seattle was the future. As the 1962 World’s Fair opened in the burgeoning West Coast city, the monorail zipped through downtown and the Space Needle, a mod UFO on stilts, shot into the sky. The World of Tomorrow exhibits offered wondrous glimpses at a future of gyrocopters, disposable dishes and a great glass elevator called the Bubbleator. It was almost 40 years before the turn of the century, but the event was labeled “The Century 21 Exposition.”

Now Seattle is well into the actual 21st century, and it’s still the city of the future. In fact, its gleaming glass towers are made all the more stunning for how they reflect the natural splendor of the Northwest—the sun that sets behind the snow-sprinkled Olympic Mountains, the choppy waters of Elliott Bay. It’s right there on the left edge of the country, a few feet from sliding right into the water, with one shoulder in the Asian Pacific Ring of Fire. The city exists as a bridge between what’s natural and what’s next.
 

IN THE AIR & UNDERGROUND

       
Seattle's monorail, Space Needle and the EMP Museum.        

The Seattle Center Monorail, now pushing 52, shimmies along a mile-long raised concrete track through downtown Seattle. Though it carries more than 2 million riders a year, it’s more nostalgic than practical, a trend that never caught on.

But rumbling even louder is the birth of Seattle’s newest transportation marvel, a tunnel being dug under the city by the biggest digger in the world. The boring machine, Bertha, is longer than a football field, five stories high and 7,000 tons of excavating might, a behemoth that cost more than $80 million.

Once Bertha finishes her 1.7-mile path under Seattle’s waterfront, the car tunnel will replace the raised Highway 99 viaduct, a stacked roadway that makes earthquake experts nervous. The massive project even includes a visitor center, Milepost 31, near where Bertha nosed her way underground, featuring a boring machine model and some of the historic relics unearthed during her slow progress. See, boasts the city, even our construction detours are groundbreaking.

Aboveground, the monorail’s more direct descendant is the South Lake Union Streetcar, tracing its way past the offices of retailer-turned-tech giant Amazon. Last year, the company announced that it will realize one of the world’s fair future promises—not a gyrocopter, exactly, but unmanned drones that deliver packages. The Seattle skyline is about to look even more like The Jetsons.

Already in the air are the revolutionary Boeing 787 Dreamliners constructed 25 miles to the north. Visitors can tour the airplane factory inside the biggest building in the world, a behemoth the size of Disneyland that would create its own weather if the AC was switched off. On a clear Seattle day, the airliners, made of lightweight composite material, can be spotted by their hooked wings the shape of shark’s teeth.

Visitors flock to the 73rd-floor Sky View Observatory in the Columbia Center for the highest public view in the West (not found in an airplane), but what’s the real prize when you’re up there, 33 floors above the tallest Starbucks in the world? The distant peaks of Mount Rainier and Mount Baker and the maze of islands in Puget Sound below. (Breath taken away? Stop at floor 40 for that sky-high latte on the way down.)
 

INVENTING THE NEW

       
The Museum of History and Industry.        

At the foot of the now-retro Space Needle are the towering arches of the building designed by Minoru Yamasaki that once hosted world’s fair rides, space-age exhibits and a visit from Elvis Presley. Now it’s the Pacific Science Center, an IMAX theater, an opera house—and the world’s only museum dedicated jointly to the twin nerd-kid pursuits of music and science fiction, the EMP.

Shaped like Jimi Hendrix’s smashed guitar, or maybe like a giant skateboard park, the EMP looks different from every angle. Inside are working recording booths, an animatronic fantasy dragon, Star Trek artifacts and rock ephemera. That’s Seattle under a single roof—a city that dreamed up spaceships and grunge music at the same time.

Half a mile northeast, the Museum of History and Industry transformed a 1942 Naval Reserve armory into a whizbang celebration of Seattle invention, using interactive exhibits to show off the city that pioneered planes, computers, video games and the bone marrow transplant. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos got his name on the museum’s center for innovation in return for funding the $10 million endeavor, home to lectures and competitions that spur technological advances.

The city is so breathless with its innovation that even non-museums throw open their doors to show off the newest and greatest. The save-the-world Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation opened a free visitor center right across from the EMP, showing off some not-so-glamorous tech to improve the developing world—including a fancy new kind of toilet. Up atop Capitol Hill, the $18.5 million Bullitt Center offers tours of the building, showing off the “greenest commercial building in the world,” complete with solar panels and water treatment systems.
 

TOMORROW, MEET YESTERDAY

       
From left: Miller's Guild; Whale Wins; Canlis.        

 

As Seattle grows taller, with LEED-certified glass buildings and billion-dollar public transit, there’s something quiet happening in the land of tomorrow. It’s a hunger as strong as the tech innovation of Microsoft and Amazon: a return to Seattle’s roots, the knotty ones deep in the Northwest’s wet soil. It’s in Pike Place Market, where the fish market still delivers salmon the old-fashioned way—by tossing it from one orange-bibbed fishmonger to the next. It’s a few blocks farther down on the waterfront, where the city’s newest attraction is a simple Ferris wheel; the Seattle Great Wheel dangles over Elliott Bay from its pier perch, delivering all the childlike wonder of the fair that first hit the tech-mad city.

It’s in one of downtown’s newest eateries, Miller’s Guild, where young, James Beard-wining chef Jason Wilson opened a nose-to-tail butchery operation in a building stripped down to its crumbling, ornate molding and lofty beams. He cooks meats on a nine-foot grill powered by the least futuristic of fuels—wood logs, stacked next to the artisan-crafted tables. The fire gets so hot that the kitchen staff, like medieval blacksmiths, has to wear welder’s aprons in front of the roaring orange fire.

This, in a city that gave the culinary world molecular gastronomy. In 2011, ex-Microsoft innovator Nathan Myhrvold and his team released the six-volume, 2,400-page Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, an encyclopedia of the science-y style of cooking. It introduced words such as centrifuge, emulsifiers and sous vide to the culinary lexicon. And yet at Seattle’s grand dame of fine dining, Canlis, the signature salad is made exactly as it was when the world’s fair was opening, by coddling the egg and assembling the greens tableside. Sometimes, even in the city from space, it’s more about yesterday than tomorrow.

Seattle does classic and Seattle does simple, but sometimes it’s actually building the future without looking very tech-crazy at all. On a weeknight in Ballard, there’s a quiet hum to the bars and restaurants. The roots of this north-of-downtown neighborhood are steeped in Scandinavian fishing culture, and some drinking holes still feature grizzled locals with nonironic tattoos. Yet the cocktail culture and artisanal eating scene have invaded, prettying up an area that is still blasted by boat horns and the salty aroma of seawater.

At the grubby Tractor Tavern, a small stage is only a few feet above the crowd. It is cash-only at the door, and the acts that crowd the bill are no-name folk, country and singer-songwriter types. Seattle has been almost every kind of city—a jazz city in the 1950s, a grunge city in the 1990s. It produced rock god Jimi Hendrix in the 20th century and rapper Macklemore in the 21st. The 20-year-old Tractor might produce the city’s next great musical leap; it’s hard to tell on a night when it costs only a few bucks to get inside and a few more for a beer. Here, among tallboys and steel guitars, miles from space needles and drone deliveries, it’s a different kind of Seattle—but it just could be building tomorrow, too. //
 

MORE FROM THE NORTHWEST


Portland: Eat up!

Forget what Portlandia told you: Portland isn’t defined by riding a fixie bike, composting your own trash or “putting a bird on it.” It’s about eating. In a city where 60 food carts crowd a single downtown block, menu choice is the city’s most abundant resource. Bratwurst is sold next to tacos, BBQ next to Thai food.

On Saturdays, the South Park blocks downtown get packed during the city’s Farmer’s Market. Produce, flowers, meats, snacks—the stalls have everything but trash cans (composting is strongly encouraged).

But Oregon’s biggest city has more than quirky takeout; chef Andy Ricker turned Thai and Vietnamese street food into the city’s most popular restaurant at Pok Pok, then exported his concept and sticky, sweet chicken wings to New York City. Also gaining a national footprint is homegrown coffee company Stumptown, whose pour-over techniques are free to witness (and taste) at the company’s Portland headquarters.

What is Portland besides good food? Good beer, perhaps, since the riverfront city has more breweries than any city in the world. Most serve tastes, pints and food, and stalwart Widmer Brothers Brewing invites all the breweries to the annual Oregon Brewers Festival in summer.


The San Juans: Get Active!

The San Juan Islands are largely serene and rural—but they feature some of the state’s best adventures. Sure, you could take the ferry to the archipelago, but seaplanes take off daily from Seattle’s Lake Union.

On Lopez Island, miles of country roads and few cars make for excellent cycling, especially during the spring Tour de Lopez. On Orcas Island, ambitious hikers head up Mount Constitution, a 2,409-foot rise topped with an observation tower.

Strings of kayaks depart San Juan Island, looping around its straits and satellite islands in search of resident orca pods. The killer whales can break the choppy Puget Sound waters with little notice. In San Juan’s Friday Harbor, The Whale Museum treats nonpaddlers to up-close views of orca skeletons and models.

It’s easy to keep moving in the San Juans, but tiny Shaw Island has space for serenity at Our Lady of the Rock Benedictine Monastery. Visitors are invited to work alongside nuns on their self-sustaining farm or to attend Latin Mass.


Vancouver: Travel Globally
Some call it Canada’s Hollywood, but Vancouver’s biggest claim to fame is its global culture.

Chinatown’s summertime Night Market lights the streets after dusk with vendor stalls and vibrant performances, while Japanese heritage gets fêted in the spring Cherry Blossom Festival.

Line up early for dinner if you want a seat at Vij’s, a ridiculously popular Indian joint. The marinated lamb popsicles—meat in fenugreek cream curry—are well worth the lines. Want to try an izakaya, a Japanese pub? There are dozens.

And at the Museum of Anthropology, the main exhibit hall holds dozens of totem poles. The light-filled room is a cathedral to the signature piece of the First Nations tribes—the very first culture-makers in Western Canada’s culture hub. //


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