Hidden Washington: Spokane Stands Out
Lively times in the Lilac City
By Natalie Compagno and Greg Freitas September 14, 2023
Washington’s Second City, Spokane, is topping the charts these days. National Geographic named it one of the 30 best small cities in the country. In 2021, Spokane was named a top 10 hipster city in the world, somewhat comically, by MoveHub, in a ranking that counts things like thrift shops and microbreweries per capita. This year Spokane features again on Livability’s Top 100 best places to live.
What makes Spokane stand out? It’s a college town, with more than 40,000 students at multiple universities. Commercial rents are low enough that independent businesses can still thrive. Access to local farmlands makes the food and beverage scene dynamic and delicious. It is the only place in the country where visitors can skate around, and ride a gondola over, a spectacular waterfall in the middle of the city.
Spokane is a city of neighborhoods, with distinct districts offering discovery for curious travelers. Put on your walking shoes, bring your appetite and an empty suitcase, and you’ll be prepared to take in Spokane’s subtle charm.
For coffee lovers, beer nerds, indie shoppers, history buffs
One of the most decadent experiences in Eastern Washington is checking into a plush, turn-of-the-previous-century Autograph Collection hotel at Spokane prices. The Historic Davenport Hotel opened to acclaim in 1914 and was the first to feature air conditioning and housekeeping carts. It received a multimillion-dollar renovation in 2002. Even if you don’t stay there, be sure to step into the Peacock Room Lounge for an apéritif and a peek at the shimmering violet and azure décor.
Spokane is known as a great coffee town, so start the day with a cup or two at First Avenue Coffee. They feature ten different free trade and organic coffees, which is substantially more than just about everywhere. Pair your caffeine buzz with retail therapy at Atticus Coffee & Gifts. The shop carries an eclectic collection of fine gift items and home accoutrements — books, art, T-shirts, and cards — making it one of the best curated stores in the state. Peruse the latest tomes at Auntie’s Bookstore, with 45 years as an indie bookseller (we love books!), and Uncle’s Games to add to your game shelf. The experienced staff can recommend something new and competitive even for hardcore aficionados. Boho thrifting also abounds downtown; don’t miss Echo Consignment to add some style to your closet.
For a stimulating night out, try the perfectly matched combo of Ruins and Hunt. Ruins serves craft cocktails in a bright, casual-chic environment at street level. Then head downstairs to Hunt for “elevated camp cooking” in a 115-year-old building. Think elk, quail, wild boar, and mushrooms, surrounded by antlers and beautifully patinated vintage wood beams. Chef Tony Brown was a 2023 James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef in the Northwest and Pacific, one of only six from Washington.
Spokane is dotted with culinary discoveries. Check out fellow Beard nominee Chad White’s cevicheria Zona Blanca, which manages to be both a high-quality fish emporium and a slightly insane take on whimsical snack foods. Sample the Dorilocos (it’s loco for sure) — Doritos, pork rinds, Gummi Bears? — served in the iconic metallic Doritos pouch. Somehow, it works: “It’s like a High Five in the Mouth!”
Like an Eastern Washington Ballard, the West End Brewery District has half a dozen top breweries located within just a few blocks of each other. Standouts include Brick West, Iron Goat, Whistle Punk.… You might as well try them all.
South Perry District
For urban hikers and fashionistas
Just south of downtown, South Perry Street and the adjoining area have transformed into one of the grooviest and most diverse sections of the city. Ask anyone for fashion finds and they will point you toward Veda Lux for high-end vintage. Walk the street in search of more treasures, then go to The Grain Shed for lunch. They prepare healthy sandwiches from their own freshly baked bread, and the on-site brewery continues the grain theme beautifully. They recently opened a second location downtown, and their slogan, “Brewer, Baker, Social-Bond Maker,” is right on.
Perry Street Brewing is an inviting neighborhood meeting place, so grab a beer and chat with the locals. The brews are excellent. Try a No Name IPA. Finding yourself in such a chill, friendly, and inexpensive neighborhood, you just might consider relocating. Or at least staying for a second beer.
For foodies and urbanists
Kendall Yards is one of Spokane’s newest neighborhoods, with an emphasis on mixed-use buildings and walkable sustainability. Off the Centennial Trail with river views, the district invites revelers with wine and beer, high-end pizza and ice cream, and a smattering of boutiques, all steps away.
For a special date night, make a reservation at Sorella, Spokane’s hottest restaurant du jour. Locals say you’ll need to book two to four weeks in advance to sample the homemade pastas and espresso martinis.
For floraphiles and bookworms
Wanna get away from it all? For a small town, Spokane has some hubbub to it. After all, I-90 bisects the city. Opt for peaceful Manito Park, a 90-acre public park with botanical gardens and a conservatory. Bring a book and choose from five serene gardens. We recommend Duncan Garden for a manicured, classic European Renaissance-style, which pairs nicely with a Henry James novel. Go in the fall for prime leaf peeping, then return during springtime to watch the lilacs bloom in The Lilac City.
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.