As we're starting to ease into good weather, grab a jacket and head to Pioneer Square to soak up some Seattle history. And have a great time doing it, too.
Walk around, wander through shops and galleries (some are open), and grab a table for lunch or a drink. This is where it started in Seattle - the area was rebuilt after the Great Seattle Fire - so don't take it all for granted.
Here are seven things to do in Pioneer Square on your next visit:
1. Meet at the pergola
Tell friends to meet you at the Pergola, it’s an easy-to-find spot, and is a great starting point for all the things to do in Pioneer Square.
Located at the triangular corner of Yesler Way and First Avenue, the Pergola was built in 1909 as a shelter for passengers waiting for the neighborhood cable car. It quickly became a popular meeting place for neighbors. Built out of iron and glass, the Victorian-styled pergola is about 60 feet long and 16 feet high and was designated a historic landmark in 1977. After a truck crashed into it in 2001, it was painstakingly reconstructed to its original design and continues to serve as a popular meeting stop in Pioneer Square.
2. Read the totem pole
Totem poles are read from top to bottom, so be sure to dive into the complex story interwoven in the woodworking.
Located near the Pergola, the totem pole was stolen by the local Chamber of Commerce from the Tlingit Indians in Alaska. The Seattle thieves gave the totem pole to the city as a gift in 1889. The Tlingit tribe sued for the totem’s return, the men were convicted of theft and fined $500, but the court allowed Seattle to keep the totem pole. In 1938, after the totem pole was vandalized, the city sent its pieces back to Alaska. Gracious Tlingit craftsmen carved a reproduction of the original totem pole and it was returned to Seattle and dedicated at a potlatch with tribal blessings. It stands as a symbol of the complicated relationship between American Indians and European Americans.
3. Honor the fallen firefighters
Four bronze statues comprise a memorial to firefighters that have died in the line of duty since the Seattle Fire Department began in 1889.
Located in Occidental Park, adjacent to the Seattle Fire Department Headquarters, this Pioneer Square monument recognizes the heroic and the harrowing. Even the most boisterous of Pioneer Square visitors seem to take on a more somber tone when visiting here.
4. Discover gold
Part of this national park is in Seattle, the other in Skagway, Alaska, and both pay tribute to the rush of people looking for gold and the role Seattle played in it.
The visitor center is located on the corner of Jackson and Second Avenue. Admission is free. While you’re there, pick up a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass – it’s one of the best buys around. There are lots more National Park in Washington State. You can also purchase a National Parks Passport and get it stamped at every National Park site that you visit.
5. Relax in the waterfall garden
In the middle of the crowded city, this Zen-like urban park provides a respite in a heavy traffic area.
The Waterfall Garden is located on the site of the original UPS. It’s a peaceful creation of concrete, wood, and water that includes a 22-foot waterfall that nearly drowns out all of the Pioneer Square traffic noise. Take a book, read the paper, sit and meditate. There are tables, chairs, and benches here and since it’s overlooked by so many people, it rarely feels overcrowded. If your Zen-like spirit needs to connect to the outside world, though, you’ll find power outlets. Location: 219 Second Avenue South (Main & Second).
6. Eat & drink at the oldest restaurant in Seattle
Merchant’s Cafe is Seattle's oldest restaurant, in continuous operation since it was built in 1890.
The restaurant has survived prohibition, ownership changes, modernization, and even a pandemic, and is still serving customers at its location at 109 Yesler Way. There are rumors that the restaurant is haunted You can be the judge of whether that's fact or fiction.
7. Fall in love with art
Pioneer Square was once considered the artistic hub of Seattle, and still remains a prominent site for numerous public galleries and art centers.
The art galleries you'll find in Pioneer Square mainly feature independent and regional artists. Various mediums and styles are represented, from print and drawing to contemporary painting, from sculpture to fiber arts.
If you’re in town on the first Thursday of the month, check out the art walk. Claiming to be the longest established art walk in the country, this is a fun way to see incredible art and meet new people. You’ll find locals and tourists at this event as art fans walk from gallery to gallery for an evening filled with culture and inspiration! While the First Thursday Art Walk is suspended during the pandemic, look for its return.
Photo credit: author