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Pike Place Market is heart of Seattle culture

By CARY ORDWAY

If you've watched a Seattle football game on TV anytime in the past century or so, you already know something about the Pike Place Market. No play-by-play announcer worth his salt would call a Seattle game without hamming it up at the market.

The fish guys get all the publicity. There they are, pitching salmon across the counter like a softball pitcher thrusts a ball toward the home plate. There is the yelling, the crowd roar, the general hubbub that tells you, yes, this is Seattle all right: Home of fish, land of the fish market.

But the market is much more than fish – it's about as distinctive a place as you'll find anywhere in the country and it offers its own brand of tourist hype and hoopla.

The thing a lot of people don't realize about Pike Place Market is that it's as much a local attraction as it is a picture-postcard for visitors. The market is where Seattle residents – or those working in Seattle, but residing in the 'burbs – come to get fresh fish and produce, or to sample interesting and unique restaurant fare, or to enjoy a few minutes of lunchtime in the park where the people-watching is every bit as entertaining as going to a movie (and, these days, a lot cheaper). The market is an experience that both locals and visitors savor, a ritual that bears repeating on a regular basis.

On our most recent visit, we did something we always wanted to try: we stayed overnight at the Inn at the Market, a boutique hotel adjacent to the market – so close, in fact, that guests can stroll out to a deck area to sit and relax while watching the throngs of people visiting the market. Yes, this is a great location for market-goers, but it's also an ideal location for any visitor to Seattle because the Pike Place Market is situated both near the waterfront and close to some of the most popular shopping streets in downtown Seattle.

If you stay at the Inn on a sunny weekend, be prepared to navigate a torrent of human beings walking en masse to the market. You may have heard the weather in Seattle can be a bit cloudy so whenever the sun comes out, the locals come out of hibernation, emptying the downtown office buildings and filling the streets with swarms of humanity. Many of those people make their way to the market and, while it's possible to drive a car directly next to the market, it's highly inadvisable unless you have a couple of spare hours to spend in traffic. The better approach is to give the Inn at the Market a call and let them give you precise instructions on how to get into the area quickly, leave your car with their valet and get on about the business of soaking up the culture of the Pike Place Market.

The Inn at the Market promotes itself as a hideaway, and that it is. It's tucked into a vibrant neighborhood of eclectic shops, ethnic restaurants and, yes, tourist attractions, all within a couple-minute walk from the hotel. The hotel features 70 nicely-appointed rooms as well as the aforementioned deck that seems to be a favorite place for guests to hang out. Our room looked out over the Pike Place Market sign and had an expansive view of Elliott Bay where we enjoyed watching the Washington State Ferries pick up and deliver downtown commuters who live in idyllic, upscale spots like nearby Bainbridge Island.

The rooms at the inn are quite homey, offering luxury touches such as Temper-Pedic mattresses, signature robes and a selection of fine toiletries. Our room was large by boutique hotel standards and featured a refrigerator and honor bar and a spacious bathroom area as well as the normal extras you would expect such as complimentary Wi-Fi, in-house movies and TV and a Nintendo game system. But the best part of the room was the double-paned, floor-to-ceiling windows and a view that really made us feel like we were in the heart of Seattle.

After we checked in, we wasted no time in heading for the market and walking our way through the myriad of vendors that offer any kind of arts, crafts and household decorations you can imagine. The flowers were everywhere – fragrant, colorful fresh-cut flowers that just kind of reminded us that the market is about all things natural and offers a kind of communion with the elements. Produce and, of course, fish were piled high on tables stretching the length of the market, and there was a flock of visitors so thick you could only crawl through the market's narrow passageways. But that was all part of the charm – it wouldn't be nearly as much fun if you were seeing it all by yourself.

The individual discoveries we made were far too numerous to mention, but we have to give a special shout-out to Piroshky Piroshky, a Russian bakery famous for its piroshkies and other bakery items. The piroshky is a pastry filled with a meat or some other filling and these particular ones are always fresh and tasty. Their bakery items are heaven.

Right next door to the bakery is the original Starbucks – the one that started it all. Nowadays on a pleasant afternoon, it's common to see live musical groups playing in front of the Starbucks. In fact, the street entertainers are another big part of the market's charm. Just a short walk from Pike Place Market is the Seattle waterfront, a place we thoroughly enjoy when we want to grab a quick bite to eat and soak up the sights and sounds of the maritime community. It's down here that you'll find such Seattle icons as Ivar's, a restaurant that serves probably the best clam chowder in the city and makes many of its tasty fish combinations available to walk-up customers at Ivar's Fish Bar.

Strolling the waterfront, you'll find a number of good restaurants as well as unusual shops and up-close views of lots of boats and ferries as well as the Victoria Clipper, which travels between Seattle and Victoria. When you're ready to call it a day, it's a quick walk back to the Pike Place Market. If you're lucky enough to be staying at the Inn at the Market, you never have to leave the action – or the gorgeous picture-postcard views.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: The Pike Place Market is in the heart of Seattle and is an ideal location for sightseeing the city. Just east of the market, you can walk a couple of blocks and be in the center of the best shopping area in downtown Seattle. A block or two to the west is the Seattle waterfront and all of its many activities and attractions.

WHAT: Pike Place Market is the best place to soak up the culture of Seattle and offers, in addition to fresh fish and produce, a variety of unique shops including antique dealers, comic book sellers, bead shops, arts-and-crafts stalls and excellent restaurants. Within easy walking distance of the market are blocks of interesting businesses that are fun to peruse.

WHEN: Pike Place Market can be fun anytime of year as long as you're prepared for the weather. Keep in mind you'll be outdoors as you see the sights near the market, and some of the market itself is not heated. So dress warm in winter when you're apt to get 40-degree temps and lots of clouds and rain. Spring and fall are excellent times to visit but perhaps the best time of all is from mid-July through mid-September when you're almost guaranteed sunshine.

WHY: Visiting the Pike Place Market is a cultural experience – it's a place where you can spend hours people-watching and find many foods, products and wares that are unique to the Pacific Northwest. It's the best place in Seattle to see the real Seattle.

HOW: For more information on Pike Place Market, contact the Seattle Convention and Visitor Bureau at www.visitseattle.org or phone 206.461.5840. For more information on Inn at the Market, visit www.innatthemarket.com or phone 206-443-3600.

Photos, from top: Famous fish market at Pike Place Market; Inn at the Market is right next door; Market is best place to find fresh flowers; Seattle waterfront is close by

Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway



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