Travel

Hidden Washington: In Olympia, it’s still the water and a lot more

Enjoy the bounty of the South Sound with a visit to the state capital

By Natalie Compagno & Greg Freitas September 28, 2023

Harbor Days in Olympia, Washington

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

Olympia is a taste of Americana with a slice of history nestled at the south end of Puget Sound.

Yes, it’s home to our capitol building but Olympia also offers a weekend of exploration beyond government architecture. Those who venture in will find quirky shops, fine food and drink, water adventures, and a stunning historic garden.

Like other smaller towns in our state, Olympia is one of the most livable cities in the country, with lower prices and good employment opportunities. Creativity blooms in the art and music scenes, along with some of the first cherry blossoms in the state each spring. You’ll find outdoor activities, including boating, water sports, and parks. Capitol State Forest has more than 80 miles of nonmotorized trails for hiking and biking.

Washington State Capitol Building

Photo courtesy of Experience Olympia & Beyond

Olympia

Downtown Olympia is hopping, a pleasantly jumbled mishmash of PNW favorites all within walking distance. High-end pizza and craft cocktails can be found next to killer coffee, delicious salmon burgers, thrift shops, and lively local pubs. Frequent peeks at the Sound and our state’s elegant, tasteful capitol building punctuate the view. Free daily tours of the legislature are open to the public, and the Governor’s Mansion is scheduled to reopen for tours in September 2023. After government 101, take time to smell the flowers. The historic garden, just in front, is not to be missed. Cherry trees, the Pollinator Garden with bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, and the Sunken Garden designed by the Olmsted Brothers with its famous roses, make for intense sensory pleasure.

 

In 2022, The Evergreen State College launched a series of self-guided walking tours called Olympia’s Hidden Histories. Learn about the Indigenous people who populated the area, the immigrants who came, and the abundant local ecosystem. For more learning, try Sail Olympia, a luxury sailing and adventure school. If enjoying the wind in your sails without the work is more your speed, sign up for one of Olympia Sailing Company’s creative tours such as History and Haunted Folklore Nautical Tour, or Full Moon Cruise.

 

Check into DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Olympia for max walkability. Grab a coffee at Olympia Coffee Roasting and peruse Browser’s Bookshop, the town’s indie bookseller since 1935. Olympia is filled with treats, from Oly’s Masadas to Left Bank Pastry. The Marie Bed & Breakfast, set in an 1892 Queen Anne-style house is a comforting place to sleep and roll back in time. Breakfasts are scrumptious and the rooms, some stand-alone cottages, are lovely. Request one with a claw-foot tub for a self-spa day.

Filled pastry treats at Oly’s Masadas

Photo courtesy of Experience Olympia & Beyond

Treasure hunters will love Poppy Markets, the eclectic shop opened in 2023 with artisan jewelry, upscale consignment, candles, art, and more. Thrifters rejoice! Olympia seems to have a perfectly curated resale shop every few feet. With names like Peacock Vintage, Hot Toddy, and Fun Junk & Licorice Boutique, magical accoutrements are sure to be discovered within. Then when it’s time for lunch or happy hour, step into The Cove, a locally owned family-friendly pub and grill that just opened in 2022.

Shopping at Olympia’s Poppy Market

Photo courtesy of Experience Olympia & Beyond

If you’re there on a weekend, don’t miss the Olympia Farmer’s Market, with over 100 vendors on hand Thursdays through Sundays. After a grassroots revival in the 1970s, it became one of the only vendor-owned markets in the state. The sense of community provides a gathering place of nourishment just as it did for the original Coast Salish inhabitants. Nearby, The Wine Loft is a wine cellar, tasting room, and patio as well as a lovely way to end an afternoon.

 

For dinner, Olympia is bursting with options just a short walk from the hotel. Cascadia Grill delivers divine fresh seafood in a whimsical Sasquatch-inspired setting. Pizzeria La Gitana has some of the best pizza in the state, legit thin-crust wood-fired oven pies that have been awarded best in the region every year since 2011. The Olympia Oyster House is where everyone goes at some point, whether for sports, brunch, water views, or musical entertainment. Pop in for that local vibe.

 

A secret evening of elegance beckons. The Mark Olympia is a hidden garden, a speakeasy with pizza alla Romana, and a concept that thrills upon entering. Owner Lisa Scott Owen explains her mixology as a “cocktail menu that celebrates the balance of health and decadence.” Almost all the ingredients on the menu, food, and libations are certified organic. Owen travels to Rome annually, perfecting her pizza dough so that it is crisp, light, and easily digestible. Mangia bene!

 

Thurston Bountiful Byway

What’s more American than pumpkin and apple pie? The Thurston Bountiful Byway is a 60-mile driving exploration of the country roads around Olympia, in search of cultural and culinary adventures. In the fall, gold, red, and copper leaves line the route, along with myriad activities and sights. Drive by Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge to watch peregrine falcons and bald eagles soaring over the trees. Tolmie State Park offers views of Mount Rainier, along with more autumn color explosions.

Get the sweaters and blankets ready to cozy up for Halloween. Thurston County is the place for apples, pumpkins, farm visits, and everything fall. Get lost in the Rutledge Corn Maze, or indulge in cider doughnuts at Schilter Family Farm. Lattin’s Country Cider Mill & Farm hosts the Pumpkin Festival in October with outdoor games, hayrides, and of course, fresh apple cider. Hunter Family Farm is another great place for fall treats and fall-themed activities for the whole family.

Biking along the Byway and trails is a relaxing way to take in the fall colors. Many of the trails are flat, such as the Chehalis Western Trail that runs 22 scenic miles south of Olympia. This trail also hosts  Monarch Sculpture Park near Tenino, with its unique collection of massive outdoor art.

Craft beer enthusiasts and home mixologists should make a beeline for Talking Cedar. The Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation worked for years to overturn the Indian Intercourse Act of 1834, which made Indigenous-owned distilleries illegal. Opened in 2020, the immaculate 35,000 square-foot facility serves excellent burgers alongside great beers and is the only distillery on reservation land in the entire country.

The beloved Old Olympia Brewery no longer functions in its original capacity. But just four miles down the Deschutes River from Capitol Lake, suds lovers will find its spiritual descendant at Matchless Brewing in Tumwater. The hops-focused brewery has 12 taps, an outdoor patio, and is a frequent medalist at the Washington Beer Awards.

 

Natalie and Greg have written for Travel + Leisure, Fathom, and Food52 in addition to Seattle magazine. Lifelong travelers, they have visited 117 countries combined. In between trips, they live in a houseboat on Seattle’s Lake Union.

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