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Arts & Culture

Best Historical Tours Around Seattle

December 9, 2010 6:17 PM

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The Space Needle is viewed during dusk with Mt. Rainier in the background May 30, 2000, in Seattle. (Photo by Dan Callister/Newsmakers/Getty Images)

The Space Needle is viewed during dusk with Mt. Rainier in the background May 30, 2000, in Seattle. (Photo by Dan Callister/Newsmakers/Getty Images)

Under the cold stormy skies of late November 1851, the first white settlers came ashore from the sound and were greeted by Chief Seattle and his tribe. Mixing languages and heritages, the newcomers called their settlement New York-Alki, adding the Chinook jargon meaning “by-and-by” to the East Coast metropolis namesake. Booming lumber business soon expanded to coal, fishing and shipping and trade. After the Northern Pacific Railway Company made its way to the region, the local population’s growth became unstoppable — not even infamous fire of 1889 that burned 116 acres of the city’s business district could slow things down.
Artifacts of the industrious 19th century and progressive 20th century still lurk amid Seattle’s modern world. Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour, walks along Alki Beach, the right downtown walking tours and a couple day trip cruises are among the best ways to get up close and personal with the area’s past.

Underground Touring

608 First Ave. in Pioneer Square
Seattle, WA 98104
(206) 682-4646
www.undergroundtour.com

Below Pioneer Square is a forgotten world of Romanesque Revival architecture and wooden streets, survivors of the city’s fiery past. For about $15 (less for seniors, students and kids), the curious can catch a glimpse of these remains and learn some colorful stories about Seattle’s past. Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour itself is a bit of a living legacy, having grown out of the founder’s 1954 effort to save the ruins. One big tip: Wear comfortable shoes before going below.

Alki Beach

1702 Alki Avenue Southwest
Seattle, WA 98116
(206) 684-4075
www.seattle.gov/parks/park_detail.asp?ID=445

Here is where ocean breezes cooled Chief Seattle and his tribe more than 160 years ago. Since then, various enterprises have kept locals flocking to Alki Beach, including the first electric street railway line and a Coney Island-inspired amusement park built on pilings at Duwamish Head. The 100-year-old Alki Bathhouse was the first of its kind. Echoes of this history can still be found near the sunbathers, volleyball matches and other weekend athletes sporting here every summer.

Seattle Bites Food Tours

1300 First Ave.
Seattle, WA 98101
(425) 888-8837
www.seattlebitesfoodtours.com

While much more focused on trying tasty samples than history lessons, this popular tour departing daily from the Seattle Art Museum includes a few shout outs to the who-what-where behind today’s Pike Place Market. The $40 tour led by Jan Marie Johnson runs rain or shine and includes eating stops at about 10 different places along the way.

The World’s Greatest Seattle Walking Tour

Westlake Park (meets corner of Fourth Avenue and Pine Street)
Seattle, WA 98101
(646) 623-6868
www.theseattlewalkingtour.com

This one-man-show into downtown, Belltown and Pioneer Square offers a surprising amount of history along with the usual touts and tourist tales. For just $15 and two hours of your time, you’ll learn all about the usual suspects: the “original” Starbucks, the WTO riots, the Klondike Gold Rush, the 1889 fire, the birth of grunge rock — think of it as a crash course in Seattle lore.

Tillicum Indian Village

2992 SW Avalon Way
Seattle, WA 98126
(206) 933-8600
www.tillicumvillage.com

Much like the Space Needle, Bill Hewitt’s project on Blake Island was originally planned as a tourist attraction in connection to the World’s Fair. In the decades since, the site has aimed to preserve the traditions and culture of the tribes found throughout the Pacific Northwest region. Blake Island, considered the birthplace of Chief Seattle, is about eight miles from Seattle’s Central Waterfront. A package to get there managed by Argosy Cruises costs about $65 per person and includes a narrated 45-minute ride, a meal featuring Chinook salmon and steamed clams, and a show by dancers in Indian costumes.

Kitsap Tours

9404 East Marginal Way South
Seattle, WA 98108
(206) 764-5700
www.kitsaptours.com

While several nature tours abound, the husband and wife team of Jim and Jean Boyle offer a new off-the-beaten-path experience for amazing coastal sightseeing and exploring small town heritage around the Sound. Full or half day tours depart via the Washington Ferry across to Bainbridge Island, and from there by bus to scenic views, the Bloedel Reserve, garden tours, wineries and breweries. The Boyles are definitely worth checking out for a more mellow change of pace.

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