Finding the heat in South Lake Union, Seattle’s coolest neighborhood

Bleak, techno-hip South Lake Union has some hidden warmth if you know where to look.
Bleak, techno-hip South Lake Union has some hidden warmth if you know where to look. rponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

I knew it the morning I sat down at my laptop and couldn’t type. After an early-morning dog walk, my fingers were literally too cold to move. Something had to be done. I had to find somewhere to warm up: body, mind and spirit. So I decided to find what human warmth I could in one of Seattle’s coolest neighborhoods — South Lake Union.

South Lake Union, or SLU, as it’s being called, isn’t exactly your first thought when it comes to warm and cozy. Microsoft, Amazon and the other tech giants moved in, and the brand-new buildings reflect a cool gray sameness, replacing quirky historic car dealers with the latest hip eatery/designer store/Tesla showroom and creating literal chill with their wind-tunnel streets. Progress, yes. Warmth, no.

But you still can find humanity in South Lake Union, in the form of cafes, bathhouses, art spaces and even the REI store — places where you can warm up body, mind and taste buds. You just need to know where to look.


REI may specialize in selling you high-price outdoor gear, but at the Seattle flagship store, they do it in a very cozy way. After you’ve wandered through their forested bike trail entryway, the first thing you’ll see is a complete tent set-up: sofa-chairs, cushions and all. This isn’t roughing it: It’s a glamping (glamerous camping) paradise the size of your living room, with a mock wood-stove and shag rugs. Sit down, relax and pretend you’re in California while you recover from the temperatures outside.

Then, when you can feel your fingers again, peek through the flap on the tent’s back side to the Pinnacle. This 65-foot climbing “rock” has been a Seattle icon for years, but it never loses appeal — or the ability to get you nice and warm. It’ll be cheaper if you’re a member, and it’s quicker on a weekday (otherwise reserve a spot online). Either way, you can don their climbing shoes and harness, and have an encouraging staff member belay you. Fifteen minutes will get you two climbs if you’re fast — which will warm you up nicely.

Tip: Wear stretchy pants.

If you’re not a climber, Banya 5 offers a very different way to warm up. The bathhouse across from Denny Park combines soaking pools and masochistically hot saunas with a vaguely Soviet vibe, inspired by Russian and Turkish bathhouses. Bare concrete floors, stark white tile and minimalist decor combines with the bracingly cold showers with metal ring-pulls to make you feel as if you’ve gone to 1960s Moscow, in a good way. While the cold (46 degrees), tepid (90 degrees, salt) and hot (105 degrees) pools are small — it gets so crowded at peak times they even have a ‘bather count’ phone app so you can avoid a wait — the saunas have plenty of room. One is white-tiled, filled with the aroma of eucalyptus like Australia on a hot day. The other, the ‘parilka,’ has rows of slatted wood benches and a Hansel-and-Gretel oven, complete with heavy metal door, in which bricks heated overnight bring the room to a nostril-burning 180 degrees. Regulars wear hats to protect the body’s most overactive heat sensors, and you can buy adorable Russian wool caps at reception. On Tuesday and Sunday nights (after 8 p.m.), they’ll also rent you a ‘venik’: a birch twig brush that Russians traditionally use to beat themselves over the shoulders with, for added health benefits.

If you get too steamed up, Banya 5 also has a no-frills tea room and napping room upstairs, with recliner deck chairs and yoga mats. They also offer regular spa services like massages, scrubs and wraps.

Tip: Bring your own plastic water bottle and swimsuit (it’s coed); they’ll give you towels and sandals. It tends to get crowded on Tuesdays and weekend mornings. Come Wednesday or Thursday before 2 p.m. for a discounted $25 entry.


Next, warm up your mind and soul. Offbeat art and techie hip don’t seem to go together, and it’s true that despite all the effort Amazon and other companies have made to fill their sidewalks and courtyards with good art, it ends up just slightly cold and sterile. Here’s where MadArt comes in. Long an organizer of fascinating public art pieces around outdoor Seattle, the nonprofit just moved into its SLU space a year ago to bring a dose of unexpected human warmth to Westlake Avenue. In a renovated former car dealership that still has exposed brick walls and a terrazzo floor, MadArt added vintage-looking metal beams and supports along with an office mezzanine to make a store-front space for artists to work and astonish passers-by.

This month, Rick Araluce constructed a replica of the Great Northern Tunnel, a piece of Seattle railway history of which very few have seen the inside. Working from photographs and a few folks’ memories, Araluce has built an astonishingly real-looking tunnel mouth, surrounded by chiseled “stone” and leading back into a murky darkness. As Araluce points out, the tunnel metaphor is strong in our collective consciousness, symbolizing all kinds of things, and the ability to stand inside one in the middle of an urban street, while knowing it’s just art, plays on your imagination in a fascinating way.

Tunnels are so evocative, pregnant with ideas...I’m intending to create an immersive experience with a forgotten Seattle landmark.”

Rick Araluce, artist at Madart

Further down Westlake is the Museum of History and Industry, which is toasty warm and somehow engagingly intimate, like a friend’s rather random collection of artifacts. You can walk through the history of Seattle, explore ethical ramifications of all the data we’re producing or discover the roots of the local hip-hop scene in the current exhibitions (and the DIY mixing station will keep youngsters occupied for quite a while).

On exhibit this month, in the Winston Wächter gallery over on Dexter Avenue, is an installation by Seattle’s elder statesman of quirky, warm-hearted art: Trimpin. Inspired by his work with the Seattle Symphony, the sound sculptor fills the space with visitor-activated listening and play stations from record players to a bass made of cigar boxes and a xylophone made of vodka bottles.


There are many eating options in SLU, from lunch cafes to bars, but two really warm up your tastebuds.

Kakao, originally from Portland, is as far from your average hot chocolate as Jamie Oliver is from McDonald’s. Don’t be put off by the barn-like interior. The point of coming here is the incredibly rich “sipping chocolate,” richer and denser than regular hot chocolate and served in a 3-ounce cup for maximum savoring. Three varieties with differing cacao percentages are offered. The Michel Cluizel (a blend of 65 and 85 percent cacao) was an intense mouthful of flavored heat, dark and creamy in every corner of your mouth. They also have melty Parisian macaroons, affogato (espresso over ice cream) and gourmet chocolate bars from Mexico, Peru and Belize.

Tip: It’s closed weekends, but open early weekdays.

Spicy foods warm you up by exciting the receptors in the skin that normally repond to heat. Scientific American

Royal Palace Bar and Grill is an Indian restaurant that has somehow lasted through SLU’s transition, hanging onto its corner like the “Up” house while the rest of the block goes mad in a chaos of cranes and construction. But business is still great, mostly because the food is too. The lunch buffet offers a thick, lentilly dahl maharani, a rich butter tofu masala, an aloo-eggplant curry with a kick, and fresh, soft naan. There’s also tandoori and chicken tikka for meat-eaters. The mango custard tastes disappointingly out-of-a-tin, but the chai makes up for it: spicy with a hint of pepper. Nab a certain window-seat and you might even get your own personal space heater.

Tip: The lunch buffet is the best value.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Where to go in SLU

Banya 5 Turkish/Russian baths: 217 N. Ninth Ave (near John Street); 4-11 p.m. Tuesdays, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; $40 entry; $32 student and military; $25 with spa service and before 2 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; and $20 on your birthday. 206-262-1234, banya5.com.

REI Pinnacle climb: 222 Yale Ave. N.; 1:30-6:30 p.m. (walk-ins), 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (reservations); 15-minute climb $15 for members and $25 for nonmembers, 30-minute climb is $30 members and $50 nonmembers; age 5 and older. 206-470-4083, rei.com/stores/seattle/climb-class.html.

MadArt Seattle: 325 Westlake Ave. N.; noon-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays through Feb. 27; free. 206-623-1180, madartseattle.com.

MOHAI: 860 Terry Ave. N.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays, AntiFreeze social 6-7 p.m. second Thursdays. 206-324-1126, mohai.org.

Winston Wächter Gallery: 203 Dexter Ave. N.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays (Trimpin installation through March 9). 206-652-5855, winstonwachter.com.

Royal Palace Bar and Grill: 234 Fairview Ave. N.; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, noon-10 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. 206-40-7294, royalpalacebargrill.com.

Kakao Chocolate: 415 Westlake Ave. N.; 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Fridays. kakaoseattle.com.

More info: For more ideas on where to go, eat and play in South Lake Union, go to visitseattle.org/neighborhoods/south-lake-union.

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