We spent our entire first day in Seattle at Pike Place Market, undoubtedly the city’s most popular attraction. Founded in 1908, the market is one of the longest continuously running public farmers’ markets in the US. It occupies a large multi-storey building overlooking the water at Elliott Bay, as well as a few blocks on the opposite side flush with colourful shops and stalls.
The iconic Public Market Center sign and clock stood tall, welcoming our arrival on this Good Friday.
Since it was the Easter holidays, the market was absolutely packed, with locals and visitors filling up the place as far as the eye could see.
Every stall owner was on top of their game, and you couldn’t walk a few feet without being offered some samples of fresh fruit, healthy snacks, or artisanal jams and spreads. It was sensual overload.
The general lay of the land is as follows. As you walk through the main building from southeast (where you’ll find the sign at the entrance) to northwest (where you’ll find the signpost pictured in this article’s cover photo), you’ll encounter:
- Hot lunch vendors featuring a variety of cuisines
- Handmade clothing, accessories, and arts and crafts
- Fresh meats
- Fresh fruits and produce
- Lowell’s Restaurant, a three-storey seafood eatery with great views of Elliott Bay
- Chukar Cherries, a sweet shop specializing in chocolate cherries (I highly recommend the Pinot Noir Cherries)
- Fresh fish and seafood
- Flowers; artisanal jams, spreads, and sauces; and more arts and crafts
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A personal favourite of mine was the ready-to-eat seafood cocktails, in particular the oyster shooters. Freshly shucked oysters with a generous helping of cocktail sauce, 2 for $5. Can’t beat that. If you’re not an oyster lover, there’s larger portions of king crab and fish as well, which make for a great snack.
Pike Place Market is almost built into the side of a hill, with a major highway separating it from the waterfront. There are a couple of footbridges that lead you out over the highway, from which you can get some great views of Elliott Bay.
The street opposite the main market building is a food lover’s paradise. Every store has something to eat or drink that was special and unique in some way, from the funky Jack’s Fish Spot and its live crab and shellfish tanks to the giant glass-walled cheesemaking kitchen of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese.
Of course, the most famous storefront on this street is indisputably the Original Starbucks. The brand that has since come to dominate global coffee was established at this modest location in 1971. Given the historical significance, the original store exterior is still preserved. You can try and buy the Pike Place Special Reserve, which is a coffee roast exclusively sold at this store.
The store is hugely popular among tourists, and there’s usually a wait to get inside, as you can see below. I call this the “pumpkin spice pilgrimage”.
Another side note here for Starbucks lovers visiting Seattle: you should also definitely check out the flagship Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room, located about ten blocks up Pike St. It’s an awesome 15,000-square-foot “museum” of sorts dedicated to the Starbucks brand, where you can try out dozens of coffee roasts, purchase all sorts of Starbucks merchandise, and watch the roasting process take place live. We didn’t check it out this time around, but last time we were in Seattle we spent a solid couple of hours there getting our full Starbucks fix.
Further down the street, there’s Piroshky Piroshky, a tiny shop that sells freshly baked pirozhki, a type of Russian bun with sweet or savoury fillings.
We were skeptical about this place at first, but there had been a long line in front of the store for the entire day, so at about 5pm we finally decided to give it a go. Unsure if we were having afternoon tea or dinner, we ordered three pirozhki – potato and cheese, smoked salmon pate (shaped like a fish), and a sweet chocolate variety.
They were certainly very tasty, though personally I wasn’t sure whether the consistently long lines – which, at some point, rivalled those outside the Original Starbucks – were justified.
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Walk a block from the main street in front of Pike Place Market and you’ll find Post Alley, a charming little backstreet with yet more shops and restaurants.
Chief among these is Pike Place Chowder, a beloved Seattle seafood institution. This place has made quite a name for itself, and appears at the top of every Seattle must-do or must-eat list you’ll find.
Pike Place Chowder is another establishment that’s long been overrun by tourists, but nevertheless, the chowder they serve up is indeed impeccable, and is well worth the wait. I suggest having one member of your party wait in line while the remaining go wander around the rest of the market, and taking turns.
The award-winning soup joint has eight varieties of chowder ready to go, all served on the spot piping hot. You can get your chowder in 8oz, 12oz, 16oz, and 32oz bowls, or you can get a sourdough bread bowl.
Lastly, you can choose the chowder sampler, which lets you pick 5oz cups of any four varieties of chowder for $13.95. Given the seemingly impossible choice among the eight tantalizing options, that’s exactly what we did.
As you can see below, we ordered (from top-left, clockwise) the Crab, Oyster & Chorizo Chowder; the Seafood Bisque; the New England Clam Chowder; and the Seared Scallop Chowder.
Disclaimer time: I won’t put too many words into describing the foods I encounter on my travels – many travel bloggers out there already do a great job at that – but I can’t deny my innate love for food and gastronomy, which is only amplified by all the variety I encounter out there when I’m travelling.
Hence, excuse the faux foodie-speak when I say that I loved the crab & oyster chowder for its delectable seafood combination and hint of corn, I wasn’t a big fan of the seared scallop chowder’s dill and lime undertones, and I liked the classic taste of the seafood bisque and New England variety.
With our stomachs full, it was time to stimulate our minds, and with the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) located just a few blocks away, there was no better place to spend a few hours digesting some fine art. Regular admission is US$25 and the student price is US$15.
The display in the museum’s central Brotman Forum was particularly stunning. The Middle Fork, as it’s known, is a large-scale sculpture made by creating a full-sized plaster cast of a 140-year-old hemlock tree in the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle.
The cast was then used as a mold to create the structure out of reclaimed wood piece, recreating the form of the original tree. Dozens of volunteers helped out the artist, John Grade, in the Jenga-like process of putting the exhibit together, adding a touch of local individuality to the art piece.
The museum had two full floors of exhibits, and we spent a good couple of hours browsing the collections. I found the SAM’s collection impressive, including works by such renowned artists as Monet and Matisse.
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The day we spent in the Pike Place Market neighbourhood was close to the perfect day. The market itself is packed to the brim with fresh ingredients, made-to-order lunches, and novelty items and trinkets to keep you occupied for hours on end. The same can be said of the streets surrounding the market, where food joints of all kinds, from cheese to chowder, will leave you carefully rationing the room in your stomach.
Out of the places in North America I’ve been, I can’t think of a single city block that offers a more all-encompassing food experience. And once you’re full, the Seattle Art Museum, just a few minutes’ walk south, is the perfect place to round out a fulfilling day.