Pioneer Square is one of the greatest areas of Seattle. This historic district offers you the chance to explore numerous galleries, try a wide variety of international cuisine, and even let you take a walk to catch a baseball or football game. There aren’t any really defined boundaries for Pioneer Square, but you’ll know that you’re there thanks to the brick buildings that tower above you, some dating back to 1890.
If you’re visiting Seattle, the former heart of the city must be part of your trip. Here’s what makes Pioneer Square such a special place to be.
|History||Attractions and Tours||Art Galleries||Restaurants||Hotels|
The History of Pioneer Square
Seattle was founded in 1852 when a lumber mill was placed on the shores of Elliott Bay. The edge of the ferry dock now stands where this original mill was placed. As the pioneers began to travel to the area to settle it over the next three decades, the growth began to expand around the shore as this was where all the employment happened to be. By 1889, more than 40,000 people had come to call Seattle their home and Pioneer Square functioned as the downtown area.
Then on June 6, 1889 everything would change. The Great Seattle Fire would destroy all of Pioneer Square and the central business district. A cabinetmaker named John Back was heating up some glue that boiled over, caught some wood chips and turpentine on fire. The fatal mistake was trying to douse the fire out with water. The fire spread to the liquor store, which exploded and caused the saloon to catch on fire as well.
It only took two hours for the downtown district to be consumed, but the fire didn’t begin burning out until early the next morning. There was only 1 documented fatality from the fire, which makes the Seattle Fire unique because more people were actually killed cleaning up the fire. Over 5,000 jobs were instantly lost. The city was at a crossing point because 25 city blocks had been completely burned. Would the businesses stay or would they go?
Everyone decided to stay and rebuild. The current Pioneer Square was built on top of the ruins of the first settlements, which raised the street level of the area by over 20 feet. Seattle refused to be defined by this tragic event and that determination is still on display to this day.
The Attractions of Pioneer Square
Pioneer Square today is more about dining and shopping than it is for recreation, but there are still a few attractions for you to enjoy.
|Beneath the Streets||Milepost 31||Seattle Ducks||The Underground Tour||Waterfall Garden Park|
Beneath the Streets
This tour is similar to the official Underground tour, but the settings are more intimate and exploration is emphasized more than the stories.Book Tour
You get to go through the tunnels and areas that are not typically open to the public.
Five total blocks are offered on the tour during the 60 minute tour and if you want a great story, you can still get one – you’ll just have to ask.[Picture courtesy of TripAdvisor]
You’ll notice a tiered highway carving its way through the waterfront and downtown area of Seattle. This is the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Department of Transportation lets you have a free public tour of how the roadway is being improved. Maybe you’ve heard of Bertha, the largest tunnel digging machine in the world?
If you sign up for a tour online, you can get the tour to fit into your visit. Except for Saturdays, only 1 tour per day is offered and spots are limited.
The tour can also be canceled at any time. It’s a 0.5 mile trip and it happens even when it rains, so plan accordingly.
You have to catch your ride near the City Center, which is a few minutes outside of Pioneer Square by vehicle, but it is one of the best ways to explore the city.Book Tour
Experiencing Pioneer Square from the ducks is a unique experience and you’ll even get to see Seattle from the water on this tour.
Every Captain on the tour has a USCG Master’s license, so it’s a fun and safe experience for the whole family.[Picture courtesy of TripAdvisor]
The Underground Tour
You can still experience what downtown Seattle was like with the underground tour that is available. Some of the areas have been fully restored, such as the Public House, and the tours are fully guided.Book Tour
About 3 full city blocks, including the old streets, are open for wandering. Make sure to take a picture around one of the few remaining Crapper toilets still in existence.
Waterfall Garden Park
It’s true. There really is a 22 foot waterfall that is located in Pioneer Square.
It was originally created as a private park, so it’s more of a pocket park environment than a large green space.
It’s hugely popular, so if it’s a nice day, this place is going to be packed.
Discovering the Art of Pioneer Square
A visit to today’s Pioneer Square is a journey through local art and it’s been this way for over 50 years. There are 30+ galleries to explore in the area, so a hidden gem is sure to be found. If you’re in Seattle on the first Thursday of the month, an art walk is offered from 6-8pm. It’s free and self-guided, so you are free to explore at your leisure. Free parking is available for the art walk from 5-10pm as well, making it the perfect time to get out and explore.
You can literally spend an entire day down in Pioneer Square just exploring the art galleries. You’ll find Egyptian antiques, photographers willing to take your portrait, and a distinct international flavor that still provides a heartbeat to the rest of the city.
Here are just a few of the galleries you’ll find open and waiting for you to explore every day of the week.
This unique gallery features local artists that have no commercial representation anywhere else. Artists must reside in King County [which is the greater Seattle area] to have their work featured here.
This art gallery sits on the foundation of Seattle’s first library and hospital. It was also the home of one of the early settlers of Seattle, Doc Maynard. You’ll find the location is just as interesting as the artwork that is on display.
The Japanese influences are strong in Seattle and throughout the Pacific Northwest. This gallery showcases the work of this culture with a local flavor, offering handmade baskets, ceramics, and traditional prints.
If you love modern art, then this is the gallery for you.
This gallery is a fixture of Pioneer Square, having been founded in 1972. The artist teams may have changed over the years, but the techniques developed from the NW Glass Movement more than four decades ago are still stunning visitors to this day.
You’ve got to make an appointment to tour this stairway gallery, but it is definitely worthwhile. A featured artist cycles through the gallery for about a month at a time. Most of the art tends to explore dynamic, modern techniques.
Where To Eat in Pioneer Square
The international flavors of Pioneer Square are definitely seen in the numerous restaurants, fine dining options, pubs, and small cafes that line the streets. Even a stroll during the morning will offer you a wide variety of smells that will make you hungry. Grab a cup of local coffee and enjoy one of these incredible dining options.
If you love a delicatessen for a quick bite to eat, then this will become one of your all-time favorite places in the world.
With specials happening daily, access to a wine bar, and handmade classic sandwiches, you won’t have to spend a lot to get something amazing.
If you can only try one thing, get the Seattle Cure. With albacore tuna, lemon-caper aioli, and salmon lox, it’s a definite taste of the Pacific Northwest.
The service at this restaurant is ridiculously fast. Your sushi will be served to you in 2 minutes or less.
Everything on the menu is also less than $10. You can even have your sushi made with brown rice if you prefer… but that’s more of an acquired taste.
The Flaming Crab roll is simply amazing.
Love sushi? Seattle certainly has what to offer in this area! Read our guide to the best sushi places in the city.
Hole in the Wall
This barbecue joint is exactly what Pioneer Square is all about. It really is just a hole in the wall on James Street, but the food is worth the wait.
It’s one of the only places in town you can pick up an authentic brisket that is slow cooked. Chuck’s Championship Chili is outrageously tasty.
It’s only open for lunch on weekdays, so plan ahead and get there early.
Main Street Gyros
This is a no nonsense kind of place. It’s a small cafe with just a couple seats inside and out, but you can pick up a gyro or your preferred Greek favorites for a fair price.
They open early on game days as well, which means you can grab a gyro for breakfast if you want. It is a definite favorite of the locals.
This is a new favorite in Pioneer Square, but it has lasting appeal. Authentic creole food featuring local seafood and Louisiana crawfish will make you want to keep coming back. You won’t find a better jambalaya in the Pacific Northwest. You can also take cooking classes during the week if you reserve space ahead of time.
With an open, airy, and very inviting interior along with a range of delicious cuisine, Bar Sajor is a fantastic place to enjoy a pleasant meal with friends or family. The menu has plenty of choice available, including seafood, steak, chicken, pork, and vegetable options, all of which can be seen as they are prepared in the open plan kitchen in the restaurant.
The food is prepared using a wood fire oven to provide a truly unique but no less delicious taste. The dishes come in a number of different styles, from European to African, and an expansive drinks menu features a fine selection of top quality wine, cocktails, ciders and beers.
McRory’s Steak Chop and Oyster House
Situated in the historic Pioneer Square McRoy’s Steak Chop and Oyster house has been a staple in the Seattle restaurant scene since it first opened in 1977.
The bar and restaurant has become a favourite for many heading off to the game for Seattle’s favourite sports teams, and you can find typical bar food available from the menu, including burgers, steaks, sandwiches, soups and salads not to mention their famous oyster menu.
There is also a wide selection of drinks available too, as you would expect from any good bar. Of particular note is their fantastic range of spirits with over 1600 different brands available.
Il Terrazzo Carmine
Ill Terrazzo Carmine is easily one of the best places to visit in all of Seattle for an authentic Italian fine dining experience. Located in Merrill Place, you won’t many other restaurants in the city that do Italian cuisine quite like Il Terrazzo Carmine, with lunch and dinner menus both available.
Starters, mains, and sides are all based on Italian classics, such as antipasto, pasta and risotto. Salads, soups, seafood, and entrees all consist of authentic Italian recipes and are made using the freshest and high quality ingredients.
Like any good Italian restaurant, there is a fantastic wine list available too, as well as various tasty desserts and gourmet coffees.
If you are looking to enjoy the best turkey sandwich in all of Seattle, look no further than Bakeman’s. Located at 2nd and Cherry Street, the restaurant has become renowned for a wide selection of delicious sandwiches with freshly baked bread, but there is also a wide variety of soups, salads, and desserts.
While the turkey sandwich remains the big seller there is no shortage of options when it comes to tasty sandwiches, with fillings including ham, meatloaf, beef, tuna, and more. You can opt for additional toppings such as cheese, tomatoes, and pickles to create a custom sandwich just the way you like!
Located in downtown Seattle at the heart of Pioneer Square, Salumi offers some of the most authentic Italian and Mediterranean cuisine you are likely to find in the Pacific Northwest. This can be credited to the authentic curing process taken from the traditional Italian Salumeria.
Here you will find an amazingly selection of cured meats and other meals that provide a real taste of Italy. Weekly specials are varied too, and include most of the staples from the menu, including soups, pastas, and special sandwiches. The fantastic range of cured meats can be purchased individually to take home!
Founded in 1934, this bar is arguably the oldest continually operating establishment catering to the LGTBQI community in the United States. There’s a full menu available, but a few snacks and a favorite drink during happy hour while sitting outside is a great experience.
The culinary experiences that Pioneer Square has to offer will give you something new to try for every meal for your entire stay in Seattle. This is one of the few places where you can literally forget the guide at home. Take a walk, enjoy the atmosphere, and stop in at a place that tempts you.
Pioneer Square perfectly blends its history together with modern grooves to provide one unique Seattle experience. It always seems like there is something new to find as you explore this historic area just off of the modern downtown. Plan your trip using these options or your choose your own adventure during your stay in Seattle and you will have an amazing time.