Summer Guide: Love Amid the Ruins

A guide to happily surviving the crowds and construction on Seattle’s downtown waterfront.

The city’s downtown waterfront is under siege. Jackhammers on Alaskan Way mute the sound of circling seagulls. There are detours here, roadblocks there, and parking is as scarce as a Seattle Republican. The traffic-roaring viaduct is on its last legs, and by early July, an unworldly six-story behemoth named Bertha will begin eating its way north, digging a new underground double-decker highway from just south of Pioneer Square to South Lake Union. Indeed, we’ll all feel the earth move.

At the same time, 188 cruise ships this summer will disgorge more than 850,000 visitors onto our beloved waterfront, where the sweet smell of waffle cones and steaming baskets of fish ’n’ chips pepper the briny air.

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Clearly the waterfront, in all its glorious chaos, its broadside walks teeming thickly with tourists, can pose an enjoyment challenge. But, dear reader, we know the perfect way to survive the waterfront, and in fact have a hell of a good time doing it.

The trick is to become a tourist yourself.

Get yourself a bum bag, strap a camera around your neck, put on some shorts and sandals with socks pulled halfway up your ankles, and let’s spend a day on the waterfront!

We will begin the journey with a free public tour, compliments of the Washington State Department of Transportation, of the construction pit, 80 feet wide by 80 feet deep, where Bertha resides, licking her bladed chops. It’s really quite a sight. The one-hour tour starts at Milepost 31, located at 211 First Ave. S. in Pioneer Square. For more information, call 888-298-5463.

Now it’s on to Coleman Dock at Pier 52, where we’re going to catch a ferry to Bremerton. On a warm summer day, few things on this good green earth are more pleasant than a 50-minute glide through the ruffled blue waters of Elliott Bay. Keep an eye peeled for orcas. On a clear day, you’ll even see 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, a white beaming beacon looming to the south. A round-trip walk-on voyage is just $7.70—now, that’s one great sightseeing deal.

Back on shore, you’ll have worked up an appetite, and that’s when you want to head up a little way to Ivar’s Fish Bar on Pier 54. Nothing says summer on the waterfront like a sourdough bread bowl ($7.99) brimming with New England clam chowder. If you’re really starved, consider the cod and chips—five pieces for $10.29.

Next up is Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, its nooks and crannies crammed with every gag gift and delightfully foolish trinket you can imagine. Pick up some sock monkeys, an occupation key ring, live Mexican jumping beans, or perhaps some gooey slime from Mars. Mustache sunglasses, anyone? Our favorite attraction here is “Sylvia the Mummy,” a glass-encased curiosity at the back of the store. She stands five feet tall and weighs about 20 pounds. The sign says the old girl—a few mangy strands of her orange-ish-tinted hair still intact—is a Spanish immigrant found in the highlands of Central America in the 19th century. She’s not a happy-looking mummy, though most mummies aren’t. Still, as the sign concludes, “She’s the perfect example of natural dehydration.”

Speaking of dehydration, the time is ripe for a brief pit stop at Oyster Elliott’s House at Pier 56. Take a seat outside, enjoy the view, and wet your thirsty whistle with a big, tasty glass of white-peach sangria—there’s no better way to cleanse your palate after sliding down your gullet a few raw oysters, nicely priced at $2 apiece.

Fortified, we march on, ever northward, to Miners Landing at Pier 57. The place is awash in seafood eateries. There’s a sourdough bread shop and a penny arcade. You’re a tourist now, remember, so have your picture taken and etched onto a gold or silver pendant. Watch the kids go round and round on the carousel. And for 50 cents, let the black-haired dummy behind the window, her smooth mannequin hands caressing a spinning crystal ball, impart your fortune.

Our fortune this fine day proves to be right as rain: “You will ride the Seattle Great Wheel.” This 175-foot tall Ferris wheel with 42 enclosed gondola-type cabins has been a soaring success since it opened last June 29. There’s always a line, though it moves fast, for the 10-minute ride (adult tickets $13) that promises spectacular views of the city skyline, Elliott Bay, and the Olympic Mountains to the west. And at night, what a beautiful light show this 280,300-pound wonder puts on.

We press on, to the Seattle Aquarium, ($19.95 adults, $13.95 juniors), where the new harbor seal exhibit opened June 1. That’s right, Siku, Barney, and Q are back in action and strutting their stuff in a new 30,000-gallon pool with seating for 100 people around the glass panels. Our favorite spot: the lower-level underwater dome for a nose-to-nose view of the orcas.

A stroll through Olympic Sculpture Park is a wonderful way to wrap up a memorable day on the waterfront. Wander through nine gardened acres of world-class sculpture, all free. Make sure to take in Alexander Calder ’s Eagle , six tons of red-painted steel, an abstraction of a bird in flight.

You have to admit it—it’s a big barrel of fun to be a tourist in your own town. There’s nothing like seeing a place, one you thought you knew so well, for the first time.

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