Seattle: 'Fifty Shades of Grey' and beyond

Seattle is drawing fresh waves of visitors. Rosamund Urwin discovers its attractions

As my cab pulls up at the traffic lights on one of Seattle's streets, a man approaches. He whips open his jacket to reveal a message on the T-shirt underneath: "Suga Momma Wanted". It's as close as I get to finding my own Christian Grey in his fictional home.

Since the Fifty Shades trilogy was published, obsessive fans have descended on Seattle. And with the film adaptation opening in cinemas next Friday, their number is expected to swell. It doesn't seem to matter that filming took place in nearby Vancouver, or that the author, E L James, hadn't actually visited Seattle before writing the novels. The latter is obvious, incidentally: Seattle is more a city of nerdy tech entrepreneurs than whip-wielding billionaires; it's also windswept and drizzly – less hot sex than hot water bottle.

It sits on the west coast of the US in Washington state, further north than Toronto and Montreal. The city's most famous landmark is the Space Needle observation tower, while the Great Wheel (001 206 623 8607; seattlegreatwheel.com) on the waterfront also offers good views of the city. You can explore subterraneously too, taking a tour in Pioneer Square of the ruins from the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 that the city is built over (001 206 682 4646; undergroundtour.com). Pretty neighbourhoods include Ballard and Fremont, both packed with boutiques, bars and hipster beards.

Fifty Shades fanatics have a checklist of spots to visit during their "Sex in Seattle" trip. There's Pike Place Market (001 206 682 7453; pikeplacemarket.org) on the waterfront, the city's answer to London's Borough Market, and the Columbia Tower, downtown Seattle's tallest skyscraper, where Christian takes the heroine, Ana Steele, to dine and which has a 73rd-floor observation deck (001 206 386 5564; skyviewobservatory.com). Another place for fans to tick off is, err, Seattle Tacoma airport (there's a lot of jumping on planes in the books).

The top Fifty Shades destination, however, is the Escala, the condominium that in E L James's imagination is Grey's home. Women turn up from all over the world to see this swanky apartment block. One enterprising resident briefly capitalised on the hype by listing her home on Airbnb as "50 Shades of Grey at The Escala" (£170 a night), although it was swiftly removed after a raft of publicity.

Those who don't swoon for Grey will still find plenty to do in Seattle. And for most of it, they can even keep their clothes on.

UNPACK

Hotel Ballard (001 206 789 5012; hotelballardseattle.com) is named after the pretty neighbourhood where it opened in 2013. It has just 29 rooms – all beautifully decorated. Its restaurant, the Stoneburner, serves hand-made pastas and pizzas. Guests can use the Olympic Athletic Club in the same building free of charge: there are two swimming pools, yoga classes and a sauna. Doubles from $179 (£119).

THINK LOCAL

Bainbridge Island is just 35 minutes by ferry from Seattle, but is the rural antithesis to skyscraper-heavy Downtown. Hikers will enjoy Bloedel Reserve (001 206 842 7631; bloedelreserve.org), a 150-acre public garden. After a walk, make a trip to the farmer's market (bainbridgefarmersmarket.org; open from 11 April), before heading to ice cream parlour Mora (001 206 855 1112; moraicecream.com) – flavours include cheesecake with brownies and whiskey with hibiscus flowers.

EAT

You don't have to spend vast sums to eat well in Seattle. Paseo (001 206 545 7440; paseoseattle.com) is a tiny shack in Fremont that optimistically calls itself a restaurant; you can spot it at lunchtime by the snaking queue outside. It reopened last month under new management after its sudden closure in 2014; locals were so devastated they kept vigil outside and left candles and flowers. The best thing on the menu – actually, the best thing I can ever remember eating – is the "Caribbean roast" sandwich with pork shoulder ($10/£7). It's a five-napkin affair, the juice dribbling down your chin as you eat.

DRINK

Microbreweries are dotted all over Seattle and its surrounds, but if you want imaginative cocktails, head to Damn The Weather (001 206 946 1283; damntheweather.com) which opened last summer in Pioneer Square. The bar is in a beautiful building with vast windows and exposed brick, and the food is moreish; try the chicken-fat fries or the caesar salad sandwich, which has egg cooked into the bread.

DON'T MISS

Take a trip up the Space Needle (001 206 905 2100; spaceneedle.com) – go to the restaurant to avoid long queues and take the lift free of charge. Next, head to the EMP Museum (001 206 770 2700; empmuseum.org) next door. Dedicated to pop culture, it was funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and its newest exhibition, which opened last month, is Star Wars and the Power of Costume, featuring C3-PO's gold suit and Princess Leia's bikini. It runs until 4 October.

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SPEND

Fremont, just north of Seattle's centre, is full of quirky shops. Atlas Clothing (001 206 323 096; 3419 Fremont Place North) is a dream dressing-up box for vintage enthusiasts. Upstairs, there's a show space for live music, comedy and art. For more contemporary clothes (think holographic loafers and asymmetric skirts), head to Pipe and Row (001 206 632 0720; pipeandrow.com).

Eyes on Fremont (001 206 634 3375; eyesonfremont.com) is an independent glasses shop "taking a stand" against the "giant evil empire companies" that make most frames. While in Fremont, be sure to pay a visit to the troll – a sculpture built in 1990 under the George Washington Memorial Bridge. The troll may not be quite so handsome as Mr Grey – but he also found fame on film, appearing in the 1999 movie 10 Things I Hate About You.

GETTING THERE

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies daily from Heathrow to Seattle. Return tickets start from £580. Upgrade to First one-way when you book a Club World return before 13 March, for travel up to 11 April; from £3,738.

STAYING THERE

Crowne Plaza Seattle Downtown (001 206 464 1980; cphotelseattle.com) has double rooms from $179 (£119) a night.

MORE INFORMATION

visitseattle.org

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