Microguides

How to spend a day in Capitol Hill, Seattle’s trend-setting neighbourhood

This neighbourhood is one of the coolest on the US west coast, and a microcosm of modern, innovative Seattle – Richard Franks discovers superb drinking dens and a vibrant LGBTQ+ scene in the home of grunge

Thursday 07 September 2023 20:38 BST
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<p>Capitol Hill is one of Seattle’s most popular nightlife and entertainment spots </p>

Capitol Hill is one of Seattle’s most popular nightlife and entertainment spots

Our microguides series is inspired by the slow travel movement, encouraging travellers to relax their pace and take a deep dive into one particular neighbourhood in a well-loved city. Rather than a whirlwind itinerary which aims to hit up every must-see attraction, these compact, close-up guides encourage you to zone in, take your time and truly explore like a local.

A few theories exist as to how the sprightly suburb of Capitol Hill got its name. The most plausible dates back to 1901, when real estate developer James A Moore, who mapped out much of its land, supposedly named the area Capitol Hill to entice the Washington State Capitol, home of the state’s legislature, to move from Olympia to Seattle. It never worked.

Back in the mid-1980s, bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Mudhoney all lived (and drank) in the Capitol Hill area, which was once seen as the epicentre of the “Seattle sound” movement that we now know as grunge. Capitol Hill has kept its creative, liberal ethos to this day, and this hip part of town is a colour-popping LGBTQ+-friendly neighbourhood with dozens of music venues, coffeehouses and thrift stores, connected by rainbow crossings across the roads. It’s also the proud host of annual events like PrideFest and the famous Block Party music festival.

If you’re visiting Seattle, here’s what not to miss in Capitol Hill.

Do

Catch a concert at Neumos

The 750-capacity Neumos – originally opened in 1992 as Moe’s Mo’Roc’N Café – was the springboard for many notable artists, including an early-career No Doubt, whose 1995 gig saw just 40 people turn up, and Radiohead, whose free-entry show in the same year was so oversubscribed it almost caused a riot. Such was its popularity, British bands like Oasis often chose to start their early US tours here; others like Muse and Adele have played here since. With such a modest capacity you’ll be up close to the next big thing.

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Visit the Starbucks Reserve Roastery

Sip a cup of Joe not far from the original Starbucks store

One of just six Starbucks roasteries in the world (Milan, New York, Shanghai, Chicago and Tokyo), something would be amiss to skip Seattle’s roastery, considering the global brand’s very first store opened just nine blocks away. An immersive offering is in store for fans of the world’s largest coffeehouse chain, with educational experiences and roastery tours available to book, and limited-edition coffee blends to pair with pastries and local artisan chocolates.

Attend Seattle PrideFest

Visiting Seattle at the end of June? You’re in luck, for this is the city’s vibrant LGBT+ home – and it certainly knows how to put on a show. Set across Capitol Hill and the Seattle Centre, PrideFest has been running since 2007 and now welcomes a stonking 200,000 people to its two main events. Its centrepiece is the famous Capitol Hill parade, usually on the last Saturday of the month: a free-for-all celebration featuring drag shows and comedy performances that spills out of its five-block radius and into Cal Anderson Park.

Explore Volunteer Park

Black Sun sits on the eastern edge of the park’s reservoir

This 48-acre urban park is famous for many reasons but arguably none more so than in its cemetery, where Bruce Lee and his son, Brandon, are buried. Although Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco and died in Hong Kong, he went to college in Seattle and later opened a martial arts school (where he would meet his future wife, Linda Emery). She insisted on Bruce being buried in his spiritual home. It’s easy to see why she chose Volunteer Park: the vast space houses a pretty dahlia garden, botanical garden and greenhouse, plus the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Opposite the museum, Isamu Noguchi’s Black Sun sculpture is also worth visiting for the view of the Space Needle through its heart; the artpiece was reportedly the inspiration behind the huge hit song Black Hole Sun by Seattle grunge band Soundgarden – though their frontman, Chris Cornell, denied this.

Eat

Dick’s Drive-in

This place is Seattle royalty. Opened in 1954, the no-frills hamburger and milkshake joint was the second Dick’s Drive-in to open after its Wallingford location (founded the year before). Since then, it’s become a focal point not only for burger lovers but also renowned local music stars including rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot, whose 1988 song Posse on Broadway describes Dick’s as a place “where the cool hang out”. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis also filmed the video for White Walls on the roof of this very restaurant. Deluxe burger, fries, chocolate milkshake: do it.

Skillet

Skillet slings comfort food into hungry mouths for fun. This diner regularly rotates its menu to include seasonal veggies and is known beyond the city for its famous fried chicken; arrive early, order the chicken breakfast burrito, and don’t sleep on the moreish sharing dishes either.

Melrose Market

If you can’t decide or fancy a few small plates, head to Melrose Market. Home to a small selection of Seattle’s brightest restaurateurs and retailers, ranging from French bites and artisan wines to sandwich-soup combos and fresh oysters.

Drink

Linda’s Tavern

Linda’s has links with Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain

If only the walls could talk. Though Kurt Cobain’s final days are speculative, it’s thought that this dive bar was the last place Kurt Cobain was seen alive before his tragic death on 5 April 1994. Linda’s was originally opened just two months before then by the founders of Sub Pop Records and had nothing more than four beers on tap. It quickly became a hip spot for passing rockers, and today keeps much of the same feel – except for the addition of a full liquor licence and the kitchen. A must on any Nirvana fan pilgrimage; ask staff where Kurt sat.

Unicorn

If it’s a whimsical night you’re looking for, look no further than Unicorn. This carnival-themed gay bar (along with its sister spot, Narwhal) on East Pike Street bills itself as a home for eccentrics. With Mimosas Cabaret, Seattle’s number one drag brunch every Sunday, it’s easy to see why. Visit during the week for lively karaoke and drag bingo, too.

Unicorn has a carnival theme

Canon

Is this Seattle’s best cocktail bar? The locals seem to think so. Expect way more than Jack Daniel’s at this whiskey and bitters bar – which, with more than 4,000 labels, claims to have the world’s largest spirit selection. There’s prohibition-style atmosphere inside this booze emporium, which peaked at number six on the renowned World’s 50 Best Bars list.

Espresso Vivace

If you’ve enjoyed some latte art in your cup lately, you can probably thank Espresso Vivace for that. Founded in 1988 by owner David Schomer, the coffeehouse and roastery is credited with introducing latte art to the United States. Its flagship branch on Broadway remains one of Seattle’s top coffee spots.

Shop

Lifelong Thrift Store

Lifelong usually has a queue down the street, so arrive early. Here you’ll find everything from pre-loved clothes to vinyl, kitchenware to books and furniture. Levi’s jeans, vintage cameras, handbags and jewellery are hot property at this non-profit enterprise that aims is to support people with HIV/Aids.

Spin Cycle

The vinyl countdown: records galore at Spin City

Spin Cycle is home to the “best collection of vinyl this side of the Hudson River” – their words – along with an epic collection of old-school DVDs, VHS and classic consoles. If you’re into all things retro, don’t skip this place.

The Elliott Bay Book Company

Elliott Bay remains one of Washington state’s finest bookstores – and 2023 marks its 50th birthday. With more than 150,000 titles in stock across its sprawling shop floor, you really could spend the day here (it doesn’t close until 10pm, which is handy). Regular author events and a popular cafe give you all the more reason to visit.

Stay

The Seattle Gaslight Inn

Capitol Hill isn’t blessed with hotels, but the Seattle Gaslight Inn provides a quaint option. Dating back to 1900 and originally built as a home for prominent Seattle businessman Paul Singerman, the inn houses eight cosy individually styled rooms varying from period to modern interiors, and there’s also an outdoor pool. You’re just a few blocks away from Cal Anderson Park and the famed Jimi Hendrix statue, too.

The Edgewater

Why not tie in your visit to the home of grunge with a music-themed stay? Many of those who cut their teeth in Capitol Hill venues like Neumos would have stayed at The Edgewater; just 10 minutes away by cab, this place is Seattle’s only overwater hotel and, unsurprisingly, its water view rooms with vistas across Elliott Bay and towards the Olympic Mountains are glorious. Double rooms featuring super comfortable beds, gas fireplaces and executive writing desks are more than enough, but to indulge in opulence (and pretend you’re in Pearl Jam), book the penthouse suite for all of the above plus a spacious two-tiered living room and your own private deck.

Getting there

Return flights with American Airlines from London Heathrow to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport start from $589 (£467).

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