Quick: Who was Victor Steinbrueck? Where does the Starbucks name come from? Where is Rachel the Pig’s cousin Billy? What’s the cheap alternative to going up the Space Needle?
If you answered fewer than four out of four, then you’ll definitely learn something on the Seattle Free Walking Tours. A volunteer-based organization that began in February, the company offers a two-and-a-half-hour walk of Seattle’s downtown and waterfront every day at 11 a.m., rain or shine. It’s a comfortable way to get a smattering of Seattle history and highlights, whether you consider yourself a Seattle visitor or local. In either case, you’re likely to learn something new.
“Let’s all introduce ourselves and say where we’re from,” begins Nathan Haslip, one of two tour guides. A Seattlite who recently returned from college in Vermont, Haslip’s young, laid back and friendly. He began SFWT with a friend, and is working to get it classified as an official nonprofit. He and his website staff offer services for free, hoping to earn enough in tips on the nominally free walks to make a wage. So far, things are going well: Business was slow in winter, but on a late May weekday morning, about 10 tourists from Asia, Europe and Canada had gathered in Victor Steinbrueck Park north of Pike Place Market to join Haslip’s tour.
After explaining who Steinbrueck was (a local architect and preservationist who wanted a castle on the site that’s now one of Seattle’s best viewpoints), Haslip leads his followers through the market to the original Starbucks, explaining both the name (it’s from the novel “Moby Dick”) and why the original mermaid was topless.
The tour is market-heavy – stops at the pepper stall, Papardelle’s Pasta, the fish-throwing stall, and Pike Brewery for samples or not-so-subtle marketing – but there are some fun facts thrown in, such as the history behind Post Alley hitching horses) and the infamous Gum Wall (the theater owners scraped all of that gum off twice before the market decided in 1999 that it was a tourist attraction).
Haslip then heads up the University Street steps to Seattle Art Museum (the “Hammering Man” hammers four times a minute, the museum has 25,000 works in its collection) before leading the group down to Pioneer Place, chatting as he goes. There aren’t quite as many “who-knew?” bits of information as you’d get in some other cities’ tours, but you do get to admire some things you’d never see on a bus: the purple skylights set into the sidewalk to illuminate the underground tunnels, the back story of the totem pole at Yesler Way, the angle of the “sinking ship” parking garage. Haslip points out the Smith Tower but also advises going up to the McDonalds on the 44th floor of the Columbia building for a free view. (If you go to the top, it’ll cost you $9, still cheaper than the Space Needle.)
The tour then pauses briefly at Occidental Park to acknowledge the firefighters monument. Interestingly, Haslip doesn’t mention anything about the area’s galleries and cafes, or Seattle’s beloved Elliot Bay Book Co.
Back down on First Avenue, he detours for a bathroom break into one of the city’s newest and most fascinating mini-museums: Milepost 31, the state Department of Transportation’s explanation of the tunnel that’s being built to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Haslip explains the safety need for it, but the fascinating display speaks for itself: a history of Seattle streetscapes; the geological background (glaciers, earthquakes); Lucite pillars of soil samples including sawdust from Yesler’s mill, and the fill that lies underneath most of downtown; videos; models; walk-on maps and – the kids’ll love this – a life-size, 3-D photo of what the tunnel will look like from a driver’s-eye view, spread across the entire back wall. Haslip leads his group past the actual tunnel construction down to Alaskan Way and the waterfront. After a spiel about the ferry system (though not much explanation of what you can see across the water other than West Seattle and the Olympics), he takes the group past Ivar’s Seafood, offering some quick recounts of the pranks this restaurateur used to play on Seattlites, and the new Seattle Wheel by the Aquarium. On the tip of Pier 62/63, he points out one of the best waterfront views of Seattle before taking a group photo for the Facebook page.
If you need to finish up back at the market, Haslip will point you to the Leonora Street staircase. Otherwise the tour officially goes on another 15 minutes to the Olympic Sculpture Park, with both art and another good view.
A Seattle Free Walking Tour is definitely not jam-packed with fine details, and for the $15 tip, you could easily buy a more informative guidebook yourself. But it’s a friendly way of meeting folks and learning some new things, as well as seeing Seattle from a tourist’s viewpoint. Haslip gives a few dining and nightlife tips, as well as suggestions for other day trips and tours, and he’s always up for questions. The tours leave no matter what the weather – so dress for it – and no matter how few people show up.
It’s a truism that folks don’t sightsee in their own city, and Seattle’s no exception, especially for South Sounders who go there just for work or entertainment. Seattle Free Walking Tours do more than just offer a free guided tour – it gives you a reason to play tourist and see Seattle in a new way.
Oh, and Billy the pig? Well, if you don’t know that one, you’ll just have to take the tour.
Seattle free walking tours
When: 11 a.m. daily, rain or shine. Tour lasts about 21/2 hours.
Where: Departs Victor Steinbrueck Park north of Pike Place Market, 2000 Western Ave., Seattle. Finishes at Olympic Sculpture Park. Route is roughly 21/2 miles.
Cost: Free, but $15 suggested tip
Information: seattlefree email@example.com 253-597-8568 blog.thenewstribune.com/arts