For most of its history, Seattle has existed off the country’s radar—but no more.
While Starbucks, grunge rock, Microsoft and “Frasier” did their part to elevate the Emerald City’s profile, an unprecedented tech boom has made it one of the five fastest-growing cities in America. That’s 15,000 new neighbors last year alone, on top of the 37-million-plus tourists who visit every year.
Thankfully, you don’t have to share it with every one of them. Seattle’s unique culture of adventure and introversion has given rise to a city full of secrets—off-the-map bars and restaurants, hidden parks and beaches, and fantastic arts and culture still thrive far off most travel itineraries—if you know where to look. That’s where we come in—we’ve interviewed local experts and slinked through the vibrant city to uncover some of the best sights for solitude, wonder and fun away from the crowds.
In such a dynamic, growing city, it’s no surprise that Seattleites prize access to green spaces and fresh air. But sometimes it feels like the whole city is there, too.
“What’s great about Seattle is that it’s a city of outdoors freaks—you can go to Golden Gardens on the worst weather day and share it with a hundred other people,” said Seattle resident Amelia Urry. “But if you know where to go, you can step off the road and have all that same ocean to yourself.”
Seattle’s 200 miles of shoreline offer ample opportunity to get on the water. While the majority of visitors congregate at parks like Magnuson or Lincoln, 149 streets end in “shoreline street ends"—pocket parks that offer access to water and beaches. Secret Beach off 39th Avenue East near Denny Blaine Park offers the best Lake Washington access, with a soft-sand beach and a cove with views of Rainier and the Cascades. To get to the impressive West McGraw Street End, located at the bottom of a bluff, visitors can take either a precipitous stairwell from Magnolia Boulevard or drive dark, twisty Perkins Lane West. A gravel path leads to a rocky beach with views of the Olympics, Rainier and the city skyline, while a concrete jetty lets visitors walk out into Puget Sound toward Fourmile Rock, where eagles sometimes perch.
Those secrets extend inland, too. Historic Pioneer Square is one of the city’s busier places but Waterfall Garden Park (219 Second Ave. S) offers a quiet sanctuary mere steps away. Here, an impressive 22-foot-tall manmade waterfall cascades down boulders, drowning out city sounds. A two-tiered patio with tables and chairs gives visitors a place to read, rest or contemplate.
Visitors journeying from downtown to Capitol Hill can just walk up Pike or Pine—but they’ll miss one of the best outdoor secrets in the city. Freeway Park (700 Seneca St.) offers a unique combination of greenery and brutalist architecture straddling I-5. Concrete pathways lined by hydrangeas and rhododendrons culminate in giant blocks of concrete stacked like Legos.
Secret Bars and Speakeasies
Seattle’s history as a bootlegging hub during Prohibition meant it was a town of speakeasies. That tradition continues to this day—though purveyors’ wares are thankfully legal now. Secret bars and restaurants dot the city, offering craft cocktails to in-the-know diners. Knee High Stocking Co., accessible through an unmarked door, finds bartenders spicing up Prohibition-era cocktails with rare cordials.
Needle & Thread (1406 12th Ave.), hidden inside Tavern Law, is one of Seattle’s better-known speakeasies, but the novelty of getting in never wears off. Visitors phone ahead for reservations, and, if successful, they enter the 25-seat bar by calling in from a phone next to the steel safe door that conceals the spot. Inside are great craft cocktails and bites.
Back in Pioneer Square, E. Smith Mercantile is a dry-goods store celebrating the artisanal craftsmanship that reigned when the Square was first built— and the hidden, speakeasy-style communal bars that were often tucked in back.
“This is a new take on an old idea—it’s always existed, from a time when there was only one store in town or on the block,” said Jessie Poole, E. Smith Mercantile co-owner. “My great-grandfather [and store namesake] Elmer Smith was a gold miner—he had that Americana backbone. I wanted a place that could curate heirloom products, crafted by hand, along with natural wellness products and pre-Prohibition medicinal cocktails.”
Favorites here include the Miner’s Campfire (Scotch whisky, tequila, grapefruit, honey and smoke bitters).
The Hottest Secret in Seattle
Seattle is famous for the Vietnamese noodle soup pho, but it also boasts an impressive selection of another soup—the Asian hot pot. It’s a little bit like fondue; a giant bowl of broth gets brought to the table to share and diners cook meat, seafood, vegetables, tofu or noodles in it before spooning out spicy bowlfuls of mix-and-match stew.
“I love going to get hot pot in the International District,” said Seattle native Sam Horn. “It’s like pho on steroids.”
Best of all, hot pot extends to many cultures—there’s Korean hot pot, Japanese shabu-shabu and Chinese varieties. At the International District’s Sichuanese Cuisine, diners dip beef, lamb, fish, broccoli, cabbage and glass noodles into a broth featuring mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns.
“You can’t come to Seattle and not have hot pot,” said musician Jonathan Pease. “It might just be my favorite meal in town.”