Explore Seattle

An Underground Tour Guide's Look at Seattle

Explore historical and present-day Pioneer Square with tips from Dean Najarian.

Dean Najarian leads tours through Seattle’s underground, the sidewalks beneath the sidewalks, with the Underground Tour and Underworld Tour. He also leads the SubSeattle Tour. The underground was created after the Great Fire of 1889, after which Seattle rebuilt atop itself. Where sat down with him in part of the underground at Cherry St. Coffee in Pioneer Square (just head downstairs after grabbing a coffee) to chat about Seattle’s interesting history, his favorite neighborhood spots and where all visitors should go. 

What do people on the Underground Tour get most excited about?

The ah-ha moment of getting what’s going on with the underground—the underground walkways, the sidewalks, and seeing a window and saying, "If there’s a window there, that means that someone was looking out this window onto a street that must have been the open street. Sky was there." There’s this moment of recognition that’s fantastic. … Other visual things that often are remembered are a crapper on a raised platform to combat the upper flushing problems of the day; the bank vault, which is creepy and cool; and the feeling of possible paranormal activity.

Pioneer Square
Pioneer Square's iron pergola and, just beyond, the Underground Tour (©Isaac Arjonilla)

Have you seen ghosts down there?

I can’t say I have. I had one couple come up to me after the tour; they had a black-and-white photograph of themselves in the underground in an identifiable spot. [It was] two women, and they show me this picture, the two of them in the foreground, and there is a person in the background right behind them, I mean, like photobombing. The woman appears to be a three-dimensional, corporeal woman in Victorian-era clothing. And they say, "She wasn’t there when we took this photograph." Isn’t that insane?

What are some of your favorite places in Pioneer Square?

In terms of restaurants—Bakeman’s, in the bottom of the Hogue building. The Hogue building was, for a short time, the tallest skyscraper in Seattle. The bottom is just a diner.

If you want a little bit nicer kind of thing, if you go across the corner where Yesler and First Avenue intersect, there’s a place called Delicatus, and they do really great deli sandwiches.

There are fantastic bars. Merchants Café is the oldest restaurant in the city, continually operating since 1890. That’s pretty darn cool. Also, it’s supposed to be haunted. There were apparently women plying the seamstress trade up above there at one point or another, and people believe certain of those characters hang out at the bar still. Two of the also-incredibly-old and great places—the J&M Café and the Central, two great old saloons that go back, way, way back, I believe 1892 for both.

What is your favorite landmark?

It’s not a Seattle landmark to everybody else, but it’s a landmark to me. And that is at the intersection of Washington Street and Second Avenue Extension. There is a dull-looking gray building with a funky balcony up top, built just after the Great Seattle Fire, when that was the most sinful strip of land in Old Seattle. Madame Lou’s parlor house, which stands to this day and is now part of the Union Gospel Mission, is about 90 feet away.

In this dull, gray building, another German immigrant set up a business there. He came to Seattle in 1891 to set up a business. Looked around, saw the money was in pleasure—meaning gambling, drinking, access to sewing services. He sets up a restaurant business in that building. He gets the inside scoop, I’m sure, from Madame Lou. He would not be able to do so without her blessing and possibly her guidance. He does very, very well, works there for a couple of years, becomes a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Then the Klondike gold rush hits. He goes up to Canada, sets up there, becomes incredibly successful; becomes very, very wealthy. Decides to go back to Germany. He meets a woman, they go to settle down, and Germany has a little something to say about this. They were upset because he had run away to avoid his military service and to avoid taxation. So now he’s a tax cheat, a draft dodger and an illegal immigrant. They said you’re either going to pay us a lot of money to become a citizen here again and make nice about these things or you’re going to pay us some money and we’re going to deport you as an illegal immigrant. He takes the latter route, comes back to the United States. Eventually, he gets into real estate. He dies; his family business continues in real estate and does very well.

The name of that person was Frederick Trump. Grandfather of Donald Trump. The money for Donald Trump got his start here, in this city, 90 feet from Madame Lou, operating a brothel.

What is your favorite museum?

Well, for our purposes, MOHAI [Museum of History and Industry] is fantastic. Because it’s beautiful, it’s right there on Lake Union. Inside, there are all kinds of pieces of Seattle history preserved, including what may have been the original glue pot that caused the Great Seattle Fire. And you can see fragments of things salvaged from the fire like burned plates that have been fused together and other things. It’s a fascinating museum.

Museum of History & Industry
Museum of History & Industry at South Lake Union (©Isaac Arjonilla)

Where do you always take visitors?

Well, all of my people are going to come to the Underground Tour … certainly you have to go to Seattle Center, you have to go to Pike Place Market. I tend to have an age group, with my daughter and my niece, that love the Ferris wheel [Seattle Great Wheel]. I love the ferry over to Bainbridge Island or over to Bremerton. I think Alki Beach is awesome. Take the West Seattle Water Taxi and before you know it, you’re on a sandy beach in a beach town. I love the fact that you can move a very short distance and be in a radically different environment.