If you simply attempt to enjoy Seattle by staying in or around the Sheraton Hotel and the Washington State Convention Center you will miss a key feature of Seattle: its neighborhoods. The topography of Seattle lends itself to the creation of unique spaces defined by a variety of hills, valleys, and waterfronts. The long-standing patterns of ethnic and racial segregation, migrations, and new economic dynamics uniquely define a variety of historically distinct, well-established, and also emerging features of the social and built landscape of the city. The Sheraton and Convention Center are located in the downtown shopping core. Restaurants, theaters, and iconic landmarks such as the Pike Place Market, the Seattle waterfront, Seattle Center, and the Space Needle are all within walking distance (stop by the Market to visit the world’s first Starbucks and pick up a fresh bouquet of flowers). Radiating from this downtown core are a variety of must-visit neighborhoods.
Venture Out and Discover
Capitol Hill. This neighborhood is due east of the Convention Center, just a 10- to 15-minute uphill walk along Pike Street puts you on Broadway. Before it was named Capitol Hill in 1901 by its designer, James Moore, it was called Broadway Hill for its main thoroughfare, still present today. Broadway Avenue (in addition to 10th, 12th, 15th, and 19th Avenues) continues to sustain much of “the Hill’s” cultural and economic engines. This neighborhood is one of the city’s most bustling and densely developed residential and commercial districts. Unique restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and non-chain retail storefronts are main features and the east-west Pike-Pine Corridor epitomizes much of the community’s vitality. The neighborhood attracts young service-industry professionals, educated bar-goers (fed by local universities), and a burgeoning population of high-tech workers. Capitol Hill has housed the countercultural element of Seattle from the 1950s and ‘60s through the Kurt Cobain grunge period and into the current eclectic and modern music scene. You will find multi-color bows and banners that read “You Are Welcome Here” and similarly-styled crosswalks that celebrate solidarity with the LGBTQIA community. The neighborhood wrestles over issues of affordable housing, income inequality, and gentrification. The area is marked by key landmarks including two original Olmsted greenbelt projects (Volunteer and Cal Anderson Parks), Lakeview Cemetery with its notable residents Bruce and Brandon Lee as well as Kikisoblu (Princess Angeline), the Seattle Asian Art Museum, St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, Seattle Central Community College, and Cornish College for the Arts.
Columbia City. About four miles southeast of the Convention Center is Columbia City (take Seattle’s Link Light Rail), a trendy and gentrifying old neighborhood located in one of the most ethnically diverse zip codes in the U.S. Originally one of the main locations for the indigenous Salish people, the Rainier Valley Electric Railway linked Columbia City to downtown Seattle in 1891 and brought new (white) settlers into the valley. Restrictive covenants elsewhere in Seattle mostly bypassed Columbia City, keeping the neighborhood ethnically diverse. Through most of the 1900s this area was the home of various immigrant groups. Early European waves of immigration, as well a largely post-WWII African American migration, settled in Columbia City. In the latter part of the 1900s it became a destination for Asian and South Pacific migrants as well as recent African immigrants and refugees. Economic depression and increasing crime between the 1960s and ‘80s drove many out of the neighborhood. A strong grassroots organizational movement formed to reverse the neighborhood decline, building safer streets, improving local businesses, and designating historical status to part of the main North-South corridor (Rainier Avenue). Affordable and classic housing stock brought minority professionals, artists, gay and lesbian couples, and “urban pioneers” in the 1980s and ‘90s to create one of the most unique neighborhoods in Seattle. Gentrification and rising housing costs in Seattle have altered some features of the neighborhood, yet Columbia City remains a true melting pot.
Central District. The Central District (CD) is a diverse and rapidly changing neighborhood, located in the middle valley bounded by First Hill and Capitol Hill to the west and Madrona and Leschi to the east (about two miles on Bus #27 which you can pick up near the Convention Center). In the late 1800s the CD was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. It has also served as a long-time home to Seattle’s African American community, which grew rapidly immediately post-WWII. In the 1960s, civil rights activists like Edwin Pratt fought to end segregation in schooling and housing in Seattle. Community organizations like the Central Area Motivation Program (now called Centerstone) date from this period and continue to be active. The neighborhood has more recently become home to Seattle’s thriving Ethiopian community, now among the largest in the United States. The Central District is primarily residential, with a variety of wood houses that are among the oldest in the city. The recent economic booms in Seattle has led to gentrification in the neighborhood, with the pace and visibility of change and issues of affordability for long-time residents increasing in recent years. Small businesses line the thoroughfare of 23rd Avenue, with soul food and Ethiopian restaurants along Cherry Street. Cultural institutions include the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute housed in a landmark building and former synagogue, the Pratt Fine Arts Center, and the Northwest African American Museum.
Belltown. Belltown lies between the iconic Space Needle and Pike Place Market. It is a 10- to 15-minute walk from the Convention Center to its southern starting point. Originally Denny Hill, the hill was sluiced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to a much lower height and developed into a low-rent, semi-industrial district. In the early 20th century, Belltown became a hub for screening rooms and movie-distributors. By 1910, Virginia Street and Third Avenue came to be known as “Film Row.” The film industry in Belltown remained a central feature of this neighborhood through the 1960s. The only remaining screening room is the Jewel Box Theatre opened in 1926 and located on 2nd Avenue in the Rendezvous Bar. Currently undergoing massive redevelopment, Belltown has seen triple digit population growth since 1990. New apartment buildings and high rises are continuing to emerge as the city experiences vast economic growth and a resurgence of downtown living. With this neighborhood revival brings new boutiques, top rated restaurants, and pubs. Belltown’s Olympic Park along the waterfront on the Western span of the neighborhood offers sweeping views of the Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains and hosts a sculpture exhibit run by the Seattle Art Museum.
Ballard. Northwest of the Convention Center (about three miles from downtown and a #40 bus ride through Fremont) sits Ballard on the Lake Washington Ship Canal waterway. Formerly the home of the Shilshole people of the Duwamish Tribe, Ballard was originally known as an erstwhile Scandinavian fishing town. The first recorded European migrants arrived in 1862 and Ballard incorporated as an independent town in 1890 and was annexed by Seattle in 1907. Ballard’s original population migrated to work in lumber and fishing. Once considered the “shingle capital of the world,” deindustrialization brought economic hardship to the area in the 1970s and '80s, before it rebounded with Seattle’s burgeoning tech industry of the 1990s. Today’s Ballard has many of the markers of an established, in-demand neighborhood: good restaurants and bars (found on Ballard Avenue or Market Street), a year-round Sunday farmers market, and new high rises (with high rents). Ballard has a vibrant Folk and Americana music scene mixed with local Seattle indie rock at the notable Tractor and Sunset Taverns. It is also the home of the Hiram M. Chittendon (Salmon) Locks—where it is possible to observe salmon on their annual migration “run” and a fair number of non-migratory weekend kayakers from mid-June through September.
Of course there are many other notable neighborhoods to explore, including Fremont (or “The Center of the Universe” complete with a bridge troll and an authentic Soviet-era statue of Vladimir Lenin), Pioneer Square (Seattle’s first neighborhood known for its Renaissance Revival architecture and home of the Seattle Underground), the International District (the center of Seattle’s Asian Community and the Panama Hotel, featured in the novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet), and South Lake Union (home to the Gates Foundation and Amazon). There is no subway (mass transit was defeated in the late 60s) but the bus system isn’t bad and it’s a great place for a walk on either a sunny or typical Seattle nearly rainy day.