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Why go now?
Today marks exactly 50 years of the iconic Space Needle (1), which opened on 21 April 1962 at the start of the Seattle World's Fair. Built as an architectural statement, this 184m tower has aged awkwardly. Its flying-saucer pinnacle is frozen in time – a 1960s vision of how the future might look. But its awkwardness makes it symbolic of a city that is gleefully idiosyncratic: a hard-working port that's full of culture and music. Seattle is also best explored now, as the rains that douse it in winter recede.
Seattle shares its air hub with neighbouring Tacoma. Sea-Tac Airport (001 206 787 5388; portseattle.org/Sea-Tac) sits 10 miles south of the city centre. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) operates the sole direct flight from the UK, a daily service from Heathrow. But American Airlines (0844 499 7300; aa.com) flies every day from Heathrow via Chicago, Dallas and New York (JFK) – and from Manchester via New York (JFK) and Chicago. Icelandair (0844 8111190; icelandair.co.uk) flies each day from Heathrow via Reykjavik.
A taxi ride to Downtown takes about 20 minutes, for $40 (£27) – but the Central Link light railway is a cheaper transfer. Part of the Sound Transit network that also covers buses and trains in the metropolitan area (001 888 889 6368; soundtransit.org), this easy option runs from the airport between 5am and midnight (6am and 11pm Sundays), taking 40 minutes to drop you at central stations including Pioneer Square (2). Singles $2.75 (£1.80).
Get your bearings
The most north-westerly city in the contiguous US, Seattle huddles just 70 miles below the Canadian border. Although a port, it is separated from the Pacific coast by the forested bulk of the Olympic peninsula. But, despite this, the city is framed by water – the wide expanse of Elliott Bay to the west, the pretty pocket of Lake Union to the north, the weekend playground of Lake Washington lapping its affluent eastern flank.
The key portion of Seattle overlooks Elliott Bay, rising away from the water. The Central Link cuts south to north (singles in the centre are $2/£1.35), with buses ($2.50/£1.70) plugging the gaps – but the centre can be explored on foot.
The Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau (3) has an office at First Avenue and Pike Street (001 206 461 5840; visitseattle.org), open daily 10am to 6pm. For details on Washington state, see experiencewa.com.
Visitors can save money with the Seattle CityPASS (citypass.com/seattle), which is sold at the six attractions it covers (such as the Space Needle) for $69 (£46) and is valid for nine days.
A comfortable mid-range option is the Warwick Seattle Hotel (4) at 401 Lenora Street, which has doubles from $183 (£122), including breakfast (001 206 448 1662; warwickwa.com). Cocooned in the maw of Pike Place Market at 86 Pine Street, the Inn at the Market (5) (001 206 443 3600; innatthemarket.com) has doubles from $274 (£183), room only – as well as fine views of Elliott Bay. For those seeking something a little quieter, the Hyatt at Olive 8 (6), on the east side of Downtown at 1635 Eighth Avenue (001 206 695 1234; olive8.hyatt.com), delivers wide-lobby calm. Doubles from $256 (£170), room only.
Take a hike
Begin in Pioneer Square (2), next to the bust of Chief Seattle, the 19th-century leader of the local Duwamish tribe, after whom the city was named. This is the spot where Seattle was founded in 1852, and it retains a liveliness in adjacent cafés such as Café Paloma (7), which sells lattes (Seattle is home to more than 70 roasters) for $3 (£2) at 93 Yesler Way (001 206 405 1920; cafepaloma.com).
From here, test your legs against the gradient on which Downtown perches, striding north up First Avenue. But pause at 1212, where the Cherry Street Coffee House (8) (001 206 264 9372; cherryst.com) lurks on the site of Myers Music, the shop where one of Seattle's most famous sons, Jimi Hendrix, had his first guitar bought for him in 1959.
At the junction with University Street, turn left and take Harbor Steps down to Alaskan Way. This part of the waterfront is a nest of amusement arcades and cheap eateries, but Seattle Aquarium (9), at 1483 (001 206 386 4300; seattleaquarium.org), does a splendid job of showcasing the wildlife that resides in the chill swells of the Pacific Northwest. It is open daily 9.30am-5pm, tickets priced $20 (£13), and is on the CityPASS roster.
Directly opposite the aquarium, the steps of the Pike Place Hillclimb lead up into the maw of Pike Place Market (5), which straddles the four blocks between Virginia and Union Streets.
Here, Local Color (10), at 1606 Pike Place (001 206 728 1717; localcolorseattle.com), is an emblem for an arty city that loves its coffee, selling work by Seattle painters alongside aromatic beans. A few doors down at 1532, Sotto Voce (11) specialises in gloopy olive oils of many varieties (001 800 487 0730; sottovoce.com).
At 92 Pike Street, Left Bank Books (12) injects a note of studiousness with its thick biographies and second-hand tomes (001 206 622 0195; leftbankbooks.com). And Beecher's Handmade Cheese (13) sells all manner of enticing companions to crackers at 1600 Pike Place (001 206 956 1964; beechershandmadecheese.com).
For those seeking mainstream chances to spend, the Westlake Center (14) (001 206 467 1600; westlakecenter.com) does the classic American mall experience at 400 Pine Street.
Lunch on the run
A market stalwart at 1517 Pike Place, Athenian (15) revels in a menu heavy on seafood (001 206 624 7166; athenianinn.com). Its Northwest sockeye salmon with mango salsa ($17/£11) is bettered only by its views of ferries inching across Elliott Bay.
A walk in the park
Forge north along Western Avenue until you hit the Olympic Sculpture Park (16). Pinned to the waterfront between Broad and Bay Streets (001 206 332 1377; seattleartmuseum.org; daily, sunrise to sunset; free), here is a grassy pocket where installations such as Alexander Calder's giant red steel Eagle are eyed by huge tankers idling in the bay.
Seattle is stuffed with watering holes – not least in gentrified Belltown. You can sup $5 (£3) beers at Frontier Room (17) (001 206 956 7427; frontierroom.com), 2203 First Avenue – and at 2200 Second Avenue, where The Crocodile (18) keeps its cool as a music bar where Nirvana once played (001 206 441 4618; thecrocodile.com). Skip up to 619 Pine Street, where Von's (19) (001 206 621 8667; vonsroasthouse.com) claims to make "Seattle's best martini" for $3.50 (£2.30).
Dining with the locals
Carnivores should head to Icon Grill (20) at 1935 Fifth Avenue (001 206 441 6330; icongrill.com) for flat iron steak ($23/£15). There is competition from the Metropolitan Grill (21) at 820 Second Avenue (001 206 624 3287; themetropolitangrill.com), where a wide range of steaks includes the 14oz prime top sirloin for $40 (£27). Wild Ginger (22), 1401 Third Avenue (001 206 623 4450; wildginger.net), serves Asian cuisine – the Thai beef curry is $18.50 (£12.30).
Sunday morning: go to church
St James Cathedral (23) at 804 Ninth Avenue (001 206 622 3559; stjames-cathedral.org), in the south-east of Downtown, is a haven of piety in this often rock'n'roll city. Completed in 1907, its broad doors swing on to a calm interior of intricate mosaics and dark-blue stained glass. Sunday Mass is at 8am, 10am, noon and 5.30pm. Open 7am to 7pm Sundays, 7.30am to 6pm Monday to Saturday.
Out to brunch
East of Downtown, Capitol Hill is a riotous zone of bars and eateries that buzzes at night – but lunch is served with equal panache. The Other Coast Cafe (24), at 721 East Pike Street (001 206 257 5927; othercoastcafe.com), serves a juicy roast beef sourdough sandwich for $8.50 (£5.70).
Operating from 608 First Avenue at Pioneer Square (2), the Underground Tour (001 206 682 4646; undergroundtour.com) takes visitors below the streets to the ruins of the Seattle that was burned in the "Great Fire" of 1889, and buried in the subsequent reconstruction. Three blocks are explorable, and tours leave on the hour, daily 10am to 7pm, for $16 (£10.70).
Just up the hill at 1300 First Avenue, the Seattle Art Museum (25) is the city's high brow (001 206 344 5275; seattleartmuseum.org; $15/£10). Open 10am to 5pm on Wednesdays and weekends, and 10am to 9pm on Thursdays and Fridays (closed Monday and Tuesday), it offers a sweep of styles: Korean sculptor Do-Ho Suh's Some/One, where 40,000 dog tags are conjoined as a metaphor for the subjugation of self in the military; Jackson Pollock's 1947 Sea Change; 19th-century watercolours depicting the young US.
Take a ride
Another World's Fair relic, the Seattle Monorail (001 206 9052620; seattlemonorail.com) runs every 10 minutes (Sunday 8.30am to 9pm; Monday to Thursday 7.30am to 9pm; Friday 7.30am to 11pm; Saturday 8.30am to 11pm) from the Westlake Center (14). It covers the mile to the Seattle Center in three minutes ($2.25/£1 single). Here, the Experience Music Project (26) at 325 Fifth Avenue North (001 206 770 2700; empmuseum.org; daily 10am to 5pm; $18/£12) cements Seattle's rep as a sonic city with exhibitions on great acts (AC/DC is due on 28 April, and Hendrix coming up later in the year on 17 November) – in an outlandish metal structure by Frank Gehry.
The icing on the cake
Next door, the Space Needle (1) provides glorious city-wide panoramas that transcend tourist cliché (001 206 905 2100; space needle.com). Lifts to the observation deck cost $19 (£12.70), and operate Sunday 9.30am to 9.30pm, Monday to Thursday 10am to 9pm, Friday and Saturday 9.30am-10.30pm.