How to Do Pike Place Market like a Pro
Nearly a century old, Seattle's Pike Place Market isn't just a regional icon, it happens to be one of the most sought-after destinations in North America, up there with New York's Times Square and the Las Vegas Strip. So much more than just another place to buy food, Pike Place is a Chutes and Ladders-esque jumble of memorable musts, sprawling in and out of multiple buildings, down alleyways and into well-hidden courtyards, all comprising a large historic district within Seattle's downtown.
In an era where it feels as if pretty much every American city with a couple of traffic lights has been able to raise up a public market or an upscale food hall, visitors to Seattle could be pardoned for wondering if the city's most popular attraction had become somewhat less relevant. (That's one of the hazards of being so far ahead of the curve—what once appeared groundbreaking, ahead of its time, has long felt ready for an update.)
Now, it's had one—in June, Pike Place unveiled (finally!) its first major expansion in 40 years. No less than $74 million has been poured into the effort to open up the back of the market, expanding it down towards the redeveloping waterfront, adding tens of thousands of square feet of new space, along with many new things to see. There hasn't been a better time to be here in years, and you should absolutely go. First let's talk strategy, shall we?
That place, it's so crowded, nobody goes there anymore.
Locals, some recent arrivals themselves, like to moan about the market. What they really mean is that they're mad they don’t have it all to themselves. (This is a familiar refrain in the crowd-phobic Northwest. Ignore.) True-blue Seattleites love the market, flaws and all.
If you drive here, you're going to have a bad time.
This could be said of Seattle, generally, a city where the only thing discussed more than the weather is the growing gridlock that seems to cripple the city for most of its waking hours. Some places, you have no choice but to drive, but not the market, served by a convenient light rail station, just a couple of blocks up at Westlake. It's not the largest rail network, not by a long shot, but it covers a good deal of the city between the University of Washington campus and the airport. Staying anywhere downtown? This is one of the most pedestrian-friendly cities in the West. Hoof it.
Why not just stay here?
To truly engage with the market, sleep over—ideally, somewhere with a full kitchen. Vacation rentals just steps from the action (and sometimes, almost right above it) can be booked through sites like Airbnb and HomeAway—this way, those famous flying fish become dinner, rather than just another photo shared across your multiple social media channels. More comfortable in a hotel? Two properties have been synonymous with the market for years now—the rather basic Pensione Nichols and the serviceable Inn at the Market—both trade heavily on their location and at this point are typically far more expensive than they should be. For something with more pizzazz, book in at the new Thompson Seattle; at least head up to their popular rooftop bar for a drink with a view. Of course, if money is no object, there's always the Four Seasons Seattle, one block from the center of the market.
Save all of the room for all of the really good food.
There is much to eat here—it's likely you won't know where to start. If it helps, some of the more famous food here is actually somewhat, well, unnecessary. With that in mind, here’s what to try: Ellenos, right in the elbow of Pike Place—this family-owned spot makes just about the best Greek yogurt, ever. (They do samples.) Next, try the tacos al pastor ($2.25) at Los Agaves, or the blackened salmon sandwiches at Market Grill, hot buttered you-know-whats at the Crumpet Shop on First Avenue, a slice of pizza at DeLaurenti's, smoked salmon chowder at Pike Place Chowder, fancy snacks and cocktails at the Zig Zag, anything off of the top-notch happy hour menu at Cafe Campagne (Monday-Friday, 4-6, start with the lamb sliders, 3 for $9)—the list of things you should be eating and drinking is so unbelievably long, you don't have time for second best.
A tip: If a stall or restaurant prominently displays too many signs telling you what you should not or cannot do while in their establishment for the purposes of paying them money in exchange for a good or service, you may have stumbled upon a tourist trap. Be smart.
Get into those wide, open spaces.
For years, the narrow, main market shed was hemmed in by Western Avenue below it; with the completion of the MarketFront project, the market no longer a boundary, but rather a portal—walk straight out the back and on to an absolutely stunning outdoor deck, with water and mountain views for days. It's the focal point of a mixed-use project that takes over the long-gone Municipal Market, which had for years been a parking lot. A new brewery, more food, more day stalls for farmers and local craftsmen, affordable housing—if you thought the market wasn't quite big enough before, well, now it's that much bigger.
There are better Starbucks than the original Starbucks.
Take your selfies, sure, but just say no to waiting on line (and being barked at by the impatient staff) and head instead to the company's beautifully-designed Reserve roastery and café complex, a not-too-bad walk up Pike Street. Starbucks fans will think they've died and gone to heaven. Anyone who just wants a cup of coffee should head one level down from the market fray to Ghost Alley Espresso, one of those market gems that most visitors never seem to come across.