It’s 8am and Pike Place Market is yawning to life. On the corner of First Avenue and Pike Street, under the watchful clock face of the iconic market sign, a busker diligently tunes his guitar. The staccato rumble of tires over cobblestones punctuates the quiet morning air as box trucks roll down Pike Place to offload their wares: crates of blackberries, bunches of rhubarb, trays of artichokes.Inside the Main Arcade, flower vendors swath bright blooms in butcher paper, setting each arrangement out for display among the sea of bouquets. Produce sellers painstakingly build pyramids of apples and carrots just so, while fishmongers in rubber boots and overalls toss shovelfuls of ice over rows of Dungeness crab and king salmon fillets.At the Virginia Street end of the North Arcade, craft vendors are gathering for the daily 9am roll call to stake their claim on a booth. A ferry horn echoes up from the waterfront piers below, where morning commuters file off a vessel fresh from Bainbridge Island. Gentle winds skim the surface of Elliott Bay, tingeing the air with the smell of salt water. It’s the calm before the storm. In another hour or so, the market will be bustling with people, all eager to explore its endless depths.
Now one of the oldest continuously operating farmers markets in the country and one of the city’s most popular attractions—10 million people visit each year—Pike Place Market began with eight farmers in August 1907. Tired of price-gouging middlemen, the small group decided to sell their goods directly to consumers. The idea was an instant hit. The farmers sold out before noon that first day, and some three months later the market had grown to encompass 76 produce stalls. Pike Place Market continued to expand until 1922, when the finishing touches were put on the market’s present-day footprint: 11 buildings along the downtown Seattle waterfront.
The market continued to flourish until World War II, when Executive Order 9066 forced the internment of all Japanese Americans. Two-thirds of the market’s vendors were of Japanese descent. Things never quite recovered postwar, and by the 1960s, plans were under way to tear down the market and build skyscrapers in its place. Luckily for today’s patrons, architect and civic activist Victor Steinbrueck led a successful charge to establish a 17-acre historic district in 1971, protecting the market.
Today, Pike Place Market is as much a part of Seattle’s identity as the evergreens, the mountains, and the water. To truly experience the market is to get lost in its nooks and crannies, to wander its maze of arcades and storefronts with eyes wide open, to imagine the decades of buskers, farmers, and fishers who have walked its hallways and narrow lanes. It can be easy to get lost here, but that’s entirely the point—in Pike Place Market, there’s no such thing as a wrong turn.
Pike Place Market sprawls across nine acres, with 11 buildings and six levels of approximately 500 shops, restaurants, and vendor stalls. It can be a lot to take in, but seeking the highlights is always a good way to go.
Start at the famous Public Market Center sign on the corner of First and Pike, which dates back to 1927 and is one of the oldest outdoor neon signs on the West Coast. The gleaming icon is always primed for a photo op, but head a block east up Pike Street for a selfie on the less-crowded sidewalk.
Just under the sign at the entrance to the Main Arcade, Rachel the Pig, a 550-pound bronze piggy bank, is always ready to pose for a photo and to collect donations for Pike Place Market’s nonprofit social services. Behind the prized hog, the “fish guys” of Pike Place Fish Market don colorful high waders as they toss orders to waiting hands behind the counter. Place an order to see the seafood toss in action, or visit on a weekend, when the mongers sometimes throw for show. A few steps away, a narrow staircase plastered with indie-rock posters leads down to a gently sloping cobblestone street called Post Alley, home of the infamous Gum Wall. The now-54-foot-long attraction got its start when the adjacent Market Theater asked patrons to leave their gum outside, which they did—literally. Today gobs of gum in practically every hue coat the wall, with visitors continuing to contribute to its many sticky layers.
The original Starbucks—on Pike Place between Stewart and Virginia Streets in the Soames-Dunn Building—draws a line out the door by midmorning. Want the inside scoop? The coffee giant actually opened its first store in 1971 a block north on Virginia but moved to this location in 1975, when the first building was demolished. Either way, brave the line to say you ordered a latte from the cafe that started it all, where original logos are still on display and visitors can score exclusive Pike Place Market Starbucks swag that’s available only at this location.
For the hungry, Pike Place Market is a land of promise—a dizzying array of lunch counters, restaurants, coffeeshops, and bakeries around every twist and turn.
To taste it all, try the stroll-sip-eat-repeat routine, grazing your way through the likes of beef-and-cheese-stuffed pastries at Piroshky Piroshky, cinnamon-and-sugar-coated doughnuts from Daily Dozen, guava-ginger soda from Rachel’s Ginger Beer, barbecue pork buns from Mee Sum Pastry, wedges of lemon-curd scone from The Crumpet Shop, freshly baked croissants from Le Panier, and creamy mac and cheese from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese.
Prefer a sit-down affair? A market fixture since 1997, Maximilien serves French cuisine in a fine-dining atmosphere, with a view to boot—see sweeps of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains from the windows. Meanwhile, chef Shane Ryan draws inspiration—and ingredients—from market vendors for upscale Northwest dishes at Matt’s in the Market. The restaurant is continually one of the most respected in the city.
Tucked in the courtyard of Inn at the Market is Chan, a Korean-fusion restaurant that packs a lot of flavor in its intimate space. Inventive dishes like bulgogi beef sliders and chicken wings soaked in a chile caramel glaze are modern twists on traditional fare. Pair plates with a flight of house-infused soju, a Korean rice wine.
At Steelhead Diner, Pacific Northwest seafood is fused with a Southern twang, with indulgent standouts like the soft-shell crab po’boy, plus classic Southern fried chicken. And in Post Alley, French bistro Cafe Campagne is as classic as they come, with coffee and pastries served alongside chicken liver pâté, French toast brioche, and vodka-cured salmon rillettes.
Original art, jewelry, and a myriad of artisan wares—from metal belt buckles to handmade soaps—are on display throughout the North Arcade and the Desimone Bridge overlooking Elliott Bay. Spots are assigned during a 9am roll call based on a combination of seniority and first-come, first-served practices, so the mix is a little different each day.
Peruse for a while, then follow an illuminated sign pointing downstairs to more shops beneath the market’s stands of fruit, flowers, and fish. The din of the Main Arcade fades away to a dull echo in the lower levels, where many of the shops have been for decades.
That’s the case with America’s oldest comic shop, Golden Age Collectables, and Hands of the World, which has sold fair-trade goods from around the globe since 1982. At the Market Magic & Novelty Shop, staff members demonstrate neat sleight-of-hand tricks for shoppers. And next to the quirky Giant Shoe Museum (where you can peek at a pair of kicks worn by the world’s tallest man), Old Seattle Paperworks sells scores of vintage ads, posters, and magazines for lovers of all things print.
Back above ground, market buildings house an impressive collection of shops: Ugly Baby and La Ru (LaSalle Building) for quirky shower art and unique jewelry; The Paper Feather (Fairley Building), where artist Jennifer Cullin sells handmade cards, postcards, journals, and other paper products; the first Sur La Table store (Seattle Garden Center Building), stocked with the requisite tools and kitchenware for chefs; and Metsker Maps (Sanitary Market), for everything from globes to travel books.
Those in search of a little expert guidance are in luck—a number of companies specialize in tours all about the market. Public Market Tours weaves stories of market history with stops at some of the top sights, plus a detour down to the lower levels. For the alleyway less traveled, Friends of the Market leads guests down the market’s lesser-known passages, studding tours with historical facts and glimpses of unique public art. And Seattle Free Walking Tours mixes in anecdotes, samples, and one-on-ones with vendors for a slice-of-life stroll.
Other companies, like Savor Seattle Food Tours, cater exclusively to foodies—and equal-opportunity eaters—with leisurely walking tours heavy with sips and bites from some of the market’s most popular eateries. Meanwhile, Market Ghost Tour leads spooktastic nighttime tours through the empty market, featuring tales of the area’s less-than-savory past and famous ghouls.
Pike Place Market’s hillside perch affords visitors unobstructed views of Seattle’s waterfront, dominated by the flashing lights of the Seattle Great Wheel, ferries and tugboats gliding along Elliott Bay and Puget Sound, and the distant spires of the Olympic Mountains.
Look for the two 50-foot-tall cedar totem poles situated in Victor Steinbrueck Park, where photo ops of the bay abound. Inside the market, Lowell’s Restaurant touts three floors of views. Take a break with a cup of coffee on the third floor, where windows frame the waterfront. And the patio at The Pink Door—named so for its salmon-colored Post Alley entryway—is a lovely, romantic spot for a cocktail and a view of the market. Dine there on a Sunday or Monday evening for free cirque-cabaret performances.
Amid the midday masses, it may be difficult to believe, but a few improbable quiet spots do still exist in the market. The Sanitary Market, between Pike Place and First Avenue, houses a collection of shops and restaurants that largely manage to avoid being overrun. Cozy up to the fireplace with an espresso at Storyville Coffee, or opt for a seat by the window looking down on the market sign and the crowds below. Next door is Radiator Whiskey, where its namesake spirit (plus bourbon, scotch, and rye) are pulled from an impressive barrel-tap display. The daily happy hour includes favorites like the bourbon margarita and discounted seasonal menu offerings.
Wanderers’ Mail Service, tucked inside the Soames-Dunn Building between Stewart and Virginia Streets, has been in business since 1909, when it opened to serve sailors and gold prospectors who were passing through town. The small shop assists visitors with mailing souvenirs—including that fresh salmon—home in advance.
On the roof of the LaSalle Building, next to the Maximilien terrace, sits the Pike Place Urban Garden, where 600 pounds of lettuce, tomatoes, and other fruits and veggies feed 300 low-income families and seniors living within the market’s boundaries. The raised garden beds and inviting benches of the hidden spot feel a world away from the din of the market arcades. (There’s a view here, too.)
And for a quiet view right in plain sight, ascend the Pike Street Hillclimb, a series of steps leading from Western Avenue at the market’s lowest level to the Main Arcade. Be sure to pause midway for a glimpse of the bustling crowds, the vendors hawking their colorful wares, and the signature neon sign, dutifully shining bright as a beacon for the millions looking to experience the magic of Pike Place Market.