Back in the early 1960s, the city of Seattle was still viewed by the rest of the country as a rainy logging town, a backwater stuck somewhere up in the remote and mysterious Pacific Northwest. Those assessments weren’t that far off: Airplane giant Boeing hadn’t yet made its mammoth impact here, and Microsoft was still years away from existence.
At the time, there weren’t even any sizeable skyscrapers on the Emerald City skyline. All of that changed – both the perception and reality of the once-sleepy city – with the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962. The icon of the event, the Space Needle, is now recognized all over the world, and the city is intractably connected to the towering paean to a space age future. The fair was alternately titled “Century 21,” or “World of Tomorrow.”
The Space Needle towers above the Experience Music Project, both at Seattle Center. — Photo courtesy of Smart DestinationsThe legacy of the fair is the Seattle Center, and as a visitor you can make an entire day of it exploring Seattle-only attractions, arts and dining. The city’s hub of cultural activity, the sprawling former fairgrounds is home to numerous music and arts festivals, the municipal arena, the opera house, multiple theaters for drama and dance, the Center House food court, the Pacific Science Center, the Children’s Museum of Seattle, and the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
A perfectly fitting beginning to a day at Seattle Center is to start at West Lake Center and ride the other fair icon, the monorail, right into the center station used by fairgoers. Elevated light-rail tracks now run in many parts of the world as everyday public transit, but this quaint relic is pure nostalgic fun, a short one-mile route that was a harbinger of things to come.
After entering the grounds, check out the central International Fountain and get your bearings strolling around. Help is available at directional kiosks or the information booth. Depending on what time of year you visit, you may find yourself involved in numerous festivals held on the grounds, including the multi-day music fest Bumbershoot, the Northwest Folklife Festival, the Seattle Pride Festival, and Winterfest. The center is gated and charges admission for some events, so be sure to check ahead.
New to the grounds is the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition space, which features the delicate forms and vivid colors of blown glass art by internationally renowned Seattle glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. Included are an exhibition hall, a lush garden area, a café, and the centerpiece Glasshouse.
When it’s time for lunch, myriad options are found at Center House. Called the Food Circus during the fair, the huge food court still offers a multicultural mix of cuisine, and sit-down restaurants such as the Center House Bistro Bar are another option. Or, leave the grounds to check out a neighborhood spot like Floyd’s Place for barbecue and a brew.
Located on the main level of Center House is the Children’ Museum of Seattle, so a stop here is in order if kids are in tow. Another popular spot with children is the Pacific Science Center, where there are hands-on displays for fun learning, as well as an IMAX theater.
Seattle's International Fountain — Photo courtesy of Derrick CoetzeeThe Experience Music Project, known simply as EMP, is housed in a 140,000 square foot Frank O.Gehry designed building that includes innovative galleries, the interactive Sound Lab, and Sky Church, a concert venue with state-of-the-art sound and lighting that features the largest indoor LED screen in the world. Bulbous and flowing architecture, parts of the exterior painted in multiple hues and others sheathed in shiny metal, give the attention-grabbing EMP structure the presence of a monumental sculpture, which is set against the backdrop of Seattle Center. Exhibits, performances, and music documentaries rotate. One example is the world's most extensive exhibition of memorabilia celebrating the music and history of Seattle grunge luminaries, Nirvana. Another part of the building celebrates science fiction.
If you haven’t done so earlier in the day, zip to the top of the Space Needle on the elevator and finish your Seattle Center experience in style. After checking out spectacular Puget Sound water and mountain views from the observation deck, enjoy a meal in plush comfort at Sky City at the Needle restaurant as the dining room slowly revolves around 360 degrees for an ever-changing panorama.