Food & Drink

New to Seattle? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

For the city’s thousands of new residents, Knute Berger offers a few tips on how to better enjoy life here.

By Knute Berger September 18, 2017


This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Seattle magazine.

No one needs to tell Seattle old-timers, or newcomers for that matter, that the city is growing. Fast. The numbers tell the story. We gained 21,000 new residents between July 2015 and July 2016, according to a Seattle Times story reporting on a U.S. Census Bureau estimate. 

That’s about 400 people per week, which makes Seattle the fastest-growing major city in America. The city’s population is estimated to be 704,000. By the time you read this column, another 5,000 people or so will have become your neighbors.

What that means is lots of newcomers. During the boom years of the Klondike Gold Rush, those folks were called cheechako, which is a Chinook word for a tenderfoot, or as we would say, a newbie. These newbies come ready to experience Seattle, but could use some guidance on the on-the-ground culture and geography. So, as a Seattle mossback, I’m happy to offer some tips that might help cheechakos settle in quicker.

Don’t be fooled by sunny skies in late summer or early fall. It rains. Last year, the rains from October to May were epic—we got nearly 4 feet of precipitation! June is often jokingly, but not inaccurately, referred to as Juneuary—gray and cool. Keep flannel handy year-round, dress in layers and don’t say you weren’t warned. Besides, fresh drinking water and greenery are the upsides of the moisture. Climate change is real, but here it may mean that our winters get warmer, and also wetter.

Locals are friendly, but not necessarily neighborly. Hence the cold shoulders you might feel from locals. People here do their own thing, enjoy the outdoors, want some privacy. That’s changing. The sheer number of newcomers means people are creating more ways to connect, thawing the freeze a tad, offering fellow newbies mutual support. Don’t be discouraged if you have a tough time making friends. It’s not you, it’s us.

It’s a 10,000-year-old problem. Blame the glaciers that were retreating back then, gouging the land in the process. Seattle’s ridges and valleys run north to south, so it’s tough to travel east and west in this town. In addition, the ice left lakes and an inland sea, Puget Sound, behind. So, the landscape defies typical urban grids and easy navigation. It’s made worse by a culture of driving whereby half the folks drive in a casual, laid-back way, and the other half as though they’re playing Grand Theft Auto.

Bottom line: Despite improvements (such as more light rail), we’re still in transition, and road geography will never make it easier. Learn to love the bus, move into a walkable neighborhood or, if you’re brave and hearty, join Seattle’s throngs of bike riders. Leave your car behind.

The best way to get the lay of the land is to go up to the top of the Space Needle or Columbia Tower. Such views can show you the relative positions of mountains, lakes and hills. They’re better than Google maps at forming a picture in your mind. Other views that help: Discovery Park offers a great view of Puget Sound looking west; Gas Works Park, on Lake Union, and Volunteer Park, on Capitol Hill, are excellent places to see the city itself. Seattle has plenty of high ground—get up on it. Here’s a more complete list of the best views in Seattle.

The viewpoints reveal our great asset: the natural setting. If you are jonesing for the wilds but don’t want to go far afield, find a city park or beach and meet the critters that live there.

City parks, like Seward, have trees as old as 400 years. From my apartment near Lake Washington, I’ve seen beavers, otters, eagles, blue herons and vast flotillas of winter ducks. Ferry riders can sometimes spot orcas. 

Get to know the city. The Underground Tour in Pioneer Square is fun and informative. The Gold Rush Museum nearby, run by the National Park Service, tells the story of the seminal boom in our frontier days. Down the street in the Chinatown/International District is the exceptional Wing Luke Museum, covering the city’s extensive Asian history.

For natural and Native American history, the Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus, now undergoing a major rebuild, is an important stop. Our Museum of History & Industry, which sits on the water at South Lake Union, is a must for anyone wanting an overview of how we came to be and the innovations that have sprung from Seattle minds, from Boeing to Amazon.

Seattle used to be a Boeing town, but now Amazon rules the roost. Many newbies have come to the city to work for that company, and the heart of its operations is in the heart of urban Seattle. There are more than 30,000 Amazon employees in Seattle, and some 10,000 Amazon job openings in town, and more growth is planned. Amazon, however, is seen by many as a mixed blessing because some communities are being displaced by gentrification, and well-paid Amazon workers are often blamed. Which brings us to…

Many visitors and newcomers to Seattle are shocked by how many homeless people are on the streets and in encampments, legal or otherwise. How can a booming city have such poverty? That’s a question Seattleites are desperately trying to understand, and solve. In a recent poll, 86 percent of Seattleites said homelessness was a major problem or crisis. Emblematic of that crisis: At the Whole Foods Market on Denny, near Amazon’s HQ, you will see people sleeping on the sidewalk. 

A good way for newcomers to make a home here is to become civically engaged, such as helping to figure out how the current prosperity can help solve the problems exacerbated by that very prosperity. We can use your help.

With that, welcome to town.

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