This exploration of Pioneer Square takes you through one of the most walkable neighborhoods in the city, full of character and history.
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Pioneer Square is ranked by WalkScore as the most walkable neighborhood in Seattle. This route meanders a bit to get around to the most interesting parts of the area. Street parking may be difficult, but the area is well served by buses and light rail.
Pioneer Square can get rowdy at night and is also a hub for social services, so this route will probably be most enjoyable to walk during daylight hours. The narrow vehicle lanes and rows of trees make Pioneer Square good for walking. You’ll pass by a few bars and some interesting shops in these historic buildings.
Start at 1st and James, near the historic pergola at Pioneer Place Park. The pergola was destroyed by a delivery truck in 2001. This was actually potentially a good thing, as the trucker’s insurance covered the repair, and the Nisqually Earthquake, which hit shortly afterward and would’ve surely destroyed the uninsured pergola.
Go south across Yesler Way along 1st Ave as it changes names to 1st Ave S. The traffic signals in Pioneer Square are interesting as there are no separate pedestrian signals. I’m not sure if the lack of pedestrian signals is a good thing because it treats people and traffic equally, or if it endangers pedestrians because the traffic lights change more quickly than pedestrian signals, leaving people in the intersection on a red light.
This section of 1st Ave S has old buildings like other parts of Pioneer Square, but the few tourist-oriented chain stores and fast food places give this section of Pioneer Square a different feel. As you walk along, note the old signs, including the neon “Rooms 75¢” sign – an interesting leftover from the past.
At Main St, you’ll pass the former location of the Elliot Bay Bookstore, which had been a great anchor for the neighborhood. After passing Jackson Street, the area seems a little quieter. Turn left at King St and pass by the largest surface parking lot downtown on you right – covering four full blocks – as well as a couple bars on your left.
Turn left on 2nd Street, passing the Kingdome Deli, named after the Kingdome, which would have stood in this area until 2000. Now turn around and have a good look at Qwest field, which was made from a lot of recycled concrete from the Kingdome.
After crossing back over Jackson Street, the streetscape picks up again with more mixed-use space and retail. Just after crossing the intersection, you’ll pass by the Klondike Gold Rush Museum, a no-entrance-fee National Historical Park dedicated to the gold rush that was one of the major milestones in Seattle’s growth as a city.
Continue across S Main St and turn left. On your right is the Waterfall Garden on the site of the United Parcel Service’s first office. The garden is well shaded and has several chairs for relaxing in this urban oasis, but it’s only open during limited hours during the middle of the day.
Continuing along Main St and look to your right to take note of the old advertisement for the Washington State Ferries to “Have Lunch Over Seas”. From here you can also see two buildings in Seattle that were once the tallest buildings on the west coast – Smith Tower, which at a height ranging from 462 feet to 522 feet (depending on where you look on the internet) and built in 1914 was the tallest until the Space Needle was built in 1962, and the Columbia Center, built to 943 feet, which was the tallest until 1989.
Turn right into Occidental Square, one of the best open spaces downtown. You’ll pass by the Fallen Firefighter’s Memorial, dedicated in 1998. On your left is the Squire Latimer Building, built in 1890 and beautifully covered with green vines.
Turn left at S Washington St and cross 1st Ave S and Washington St to continue westward along the north side of Washington St. This block of Pioneer Square is a little quieter, but still has the old architecture and tree-lined sidewalks that help define the area.
Turn right at the end of the block. You will have to walk for a block through a parking lot near the dated Alaskan Way Viaduct. Turn right again at the next street (Yesler Way). You’ll pass by some bars and restaurants, as well as some more plant-covered buildings down Western Ave and Post Ave to your left. Also, take note of the mural on Post Ave called Friends of Post Alley.
At 1st Ave, turn right to walk back down Pioneer Square’s main street. Based on the number of bars you’ll see, it’s understandable how it can get a little rambunctious in the evenings.
Turn left at S Jackson St and then turn left again at Occidental. The Occidental Mall here has several art galleries and cafes and leads back to Occidental Park. Continue north back to Yesler Way and turn left on Yesler. You’ll pass by Mercants Cafe on your left, which is the oldest continually operating restaurant in Seattle, established when the building was constructed in 1890.
Look back to your right at the Sinking Ship parking garage, which was built after the destruction of a grand hotel and helped to galvanize support for historic preservation in the city.
At 1st Ave, turn right to cross back to our starting point.
If you’d like a more entertaining historical narration of your time in Pioneer Square, take Bill Spiedel’s Underground Tour to see what’s below the streets.
Also, Seattle Architecture: A Walking Guide to Downtown by Maureen R. Elenga has a lot more information on the architectural history of this area.
highlights: history, architecture, tree covering, many bars and art galleries, art, public space
lowlights: other folks around may not be the kind of people you like to hang out with