Washington plays host to classic contrasts: from hip, urban metropolis to weathered, rural farm country, or lush, cool greenery to arid, empty badlands. Each of its splendors is worth exploring, though it will likely depend on the mood and aims of the traveler which one they prefer. Generally, though, all roads lead from Seattle, where roughly a third of Washingtonians reside, a hip and perennially forward-thinking city known for its taste in coffee and gorgeous views. Seattle is situated perfectly between Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountains and the city itself is festooned in lush, natural vegetation, making every day a scenic one. Local coffee and beer brewing, an endlessly creative music scene, distinct and attractive neighborhoods, and access to absolutely stunning outdoor recreation make this a great stop for shopping, dining, and relaxed revelry.
Tack southwest from Seattle to run into smaller, vibrant state capital Olympia, a brash, plucky, and naturally beautiful town of around 50,000 people known for its pioneering contributions to punk music. It’s also the jump-off point for the vast, protected wilderness of the Olympic Peninsula, particularly its mountains and national park.
Back north of Seattle is Bellingham, a laid-back paradise for sophisticated nature lovers. Vibrant culture and incredible food coexist with Pacific Coast and mountain views, like a smaller, more stunning version of the state’s biggest city. A unique boat trip off the coast can take visitors to the off-the-grid San Juan Islands, a serene archipelago that can take you back in time with its tiny fishing villages and back-to-the-lander settlements.
One step to the east tower the Cascade Mountains, spectacular, glacial peaks dominated by volcanoes. Less than two hours from Bellingham, North Cascades National Park hosts fearsome, jagged peaks and only sees a couple thousand visitors per year. In the Ross Lake Recreation Area, walk along the impressive Ross Dam and even spend a night in the remote Ross Lake Resort. South along the mountain range, the peaks gets even higher, culminating in Mt. Rainier and the surrounding national park. There’s no shortage of breathtaking mountain views, unbelievably clear lakes and burbling brooks, and outdoor activities here, with a few modest ski resorts thrown in for good measure.
Cross just over the Cascades from Seattle to stop in Leavenworth, once a lumber town that has turned itself into an Alps-themed tourist attraction. Tacky as it may sound, Leavenworth’s ultra-focused cultural revolution has made it into a fun and comfortable base from which to explore the national parks it is nestled between. Pine-covered mountains loom over a perfectly imitated Bavarian village, with shopping and German treats galore.
All of that just covers Washington’s western half. Cross the Cascades to find another world, more Wild West than Left Coast. Wooded foothills give way to barren plains, lunar landscapes, and bizarre rock formations. Oases can be found in the Yakima Valley, an agricultural region, and near the state’s eastern border Spokane offers some resort-style sophistication and greenery sure to refresh after hours spent driving through Washington’s central and eastern plains.
Seattle is a hipster’s paradise, with its emphasis on culture, coffee, craft beer, and making the most of some incredibly beautiful natural surroundings. Most Seattle natives will direct visitors first and foremost to Pike Place Market, a public market with roots in the early 20th century. Here, Washington farmers, fishermen, butchers, and craftspeople ply their wares to a bustling crowd on the Puget Sound waterfront. Musical and other performers are ubiquitous, taking the public market experience up a notch in vibrancy. This is a great place to get a feel for Seattleites’ attitudes and way of life. Cultural attractions include Chihuly Garden and Glass, with its unbelievable glass art, the EMP Museum, for music history geeks, and the pleasant Olympic Sculpture Park with views over Puget Sound. One can’t forget the iconic Space Needle, with unmatched views of Seattle and the surrounding area. Of course, the joys of Seattle lie deeper than merely stopping in at each of its best-known attractions. Getting a sense of each of its neighborhoods, from Capitol Hill to Ballard, South Lake Union to Fremont, is a lovely and fascinating adventure of its own, particularly for those who would love nothing more than to contemplatively cradle an espresso on a foggy day, or watch a light urban drizzle behind a slightly tinted craft beer goggles.
575 Bellevue Way NE
Bellevue, Seattle, WA 98004