Seattle, chief city of the state of Washington, U.S., seat (1853) of King county, the largest metropolis of the Pacific Northwest, and one of the largest and most affluent urban centres in the United States. A major port of entry and an air and sea gateway to Asia and Alaska, Seattle lies alongside Puget Sound, a deep inland arm of the northern Pacific Ocean, and is at the centre of a conurbation that is defined roughly by Everett to the north, Bellevue to the east, and Tacoma to the south.
The city was settled on November 13, 1851, at what is now West Seattle. It was relocated the following year to a site across Elliott Bay near a Duwamish Indian village. It owes its name to the Native American leader Seattle, chief of the Duwamish, Suquamish, and other tribes of the Puget Sound area. Areas of great natural beauty, including the densely forested Olympic Peninsula and the Cascade Range, surround the city. Its urban centre, dominated by tall skyscrapers that overlook Elliott Bay and enhanced by the city’s abundant parks and neighbourhoods, also offers a handsome prospect.
Like other western cities in the United States, Seattle commands the resources of a broad hinterland, one that extends far east to the Great Plains of Montana. Linked by road, rail, ship, and air to global distribution networks, the city has grown to take on international economic importance, a development that owes much to Seattle’s role as one of the world’s leading centres for the manufacture of high technology and for Internet-based commerce. Inc. town, 1865; city, 1869. Area 83.9 square miles (217.3 square km).
Character of the city
Seattle is a city of distinct neighbourhoods and urban districts that, though close to one another, change from one street to the next. Some neighbourhoods, notably those near the Duwamish Waterway to southwest of the city centre, are industrial in character, marked by rail yards, wharves, cranes, and low-income housing projects. Others, largely outside the city centre, are showcases for the opulence wrought by Seattle’s booming high-technology sector.
Seattle’s districts have a comfortably prosperous but not ostentatious feel, characterized by neat family homes and townhouses occupied by industrial workers, artists, academics, professionals, and that odd class of technology workers whom the novelist Douglas Coupland branded “microserfs.” The city is more closely connected to its downtown area than most of its counterparts in the American West, and considerable effort has been given to promoting the city centre as a place in which to live and work.
Seattle is a bustling place that thrives with industrial, commercial, and cultural activity around the clock. Its waters teem with great oceangoing ships, its streets with automobiles, its rail lines with transcontinental freighters and passenger trains, and its skies with aircraft of every description. Although the city’s image is of a financial and commercial centre, its people place great value on the arts, literature, sports, and other cultural activities; it boasts large arenas, multistory bookshops, dozens of museums and galleries, and countless examples of public art.
Seattle lies on the southeastern shore of Puget Sound, a deep 100-mile- (160-km-) long inlet of the northern Pacific Ocean. The central portion of the city faces Elliott Bay, a deep-floored extension. At Shilshole Bay, to the northwest, Puget Sound is joined by the 8-mile- (13-km-) long Lake Washington Ship Canal. The canal passes through Lake Union, Portage Bay, and Union Bay to Lake Washington, a 22-mile (35-km) stretch of fresh water bordered by thriving cities and towns; some of these towns are connected by bridge to Seattle. Bainbridge and Vashon islands, in Puget Sound, contain numerous bedroom communities, and cities across the sound are increasingly being integrated into the Seattle conurbation.
Seattle lies in the Puget Lowland, the structure of which is determined by the movement of plates along the Juan de Fuca subduction zone to the west. A tectonic feature, the Seattle Fault, crosses Puget Sound in an east-west direction, traveling through downtown Seattle westward to the Cascade Range. The region is tectonically and volcanically active; significant earthquakes occurred along the Juan de Fuca Plate in 1949, 1965, and 2001. The region’s present landscape is the product less of earthquake action than of three to six episodes of intense glaciation—the last of which occurred about 15,000 years ago—that scoured out Puget Sound and deposited great quantities of sediment that are subject to erosion, landslides, weathering, and other nonglacial processes.
The Seattle waterfront comprises mostly mudflats and coastal lowland carved by the Duwamish River—much of which was dredged and straightened in the early 20th century to create the Duwamish Waterway, an industrial channel—and by smaller streams. Beyond the shores of Puget Sound and Lake Washington, the landscape is an attractive mixture of rolling hills and a few steep ridges, the result of a landscape-altering program that occurred in the early 1900s. Drainage occurs through a network of streams, some channelized and some more or less natural. The ever-growing urbanization of the region has led to an increase in the incidence of intracity flooding as tree-lined meadows and other catchments give way to lawns and parking lots that cannot hold rainwater runoff. Mountains, including 14,410-foot (4,392-metre) Mount Rainier and the distant peaks of the Cascade and Olympic ranges, frame the skyline. The city centre lies approximately 110 miles (180 km) to the south of the U.S.-Canadian border, and Seattle enjoys a long-standing historical and commercial connection with the Canadian province of British Columbia. The city also lies about one-third of the way to the Pacific Ocean from the Snoqualmie Pass of the Cascade Range, which provides an overland route into the interior of the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle’s climate is temperate, with cool summers and mild winters. To the west, the Olympic Mountains provide protection from the heavy winter rains that frequently inundate the Pacific coast of Washington, while the tall Cascades to the east shield the city from mid continental extremes of heat and cold. Average high temperatures in July seldom exceed the mid-70s F (about 24 °C), while average highs in January are in the upper 40s F (about 8 °C). The temperature drops below freezing for about 10 to 15 days annually. Owing to the confluence of humid continental and oceanic weather systems, the sky is often overcast. However, the city receives an average of only 37 inches (940 mm) of precipitation each year. The summer sky is usually at least partly clear, but overall there are fewer than 60 completely sunny days annually.
Since its founding, Seattle has grown from its historic centre of Pioneer Square, the city’s oldest neighbourhood and a federally designated historic district. The area’s redbrick townhouses, once residential, now house art galleries, restaurants, bookshops, and small businesses of many kinds. Pioneer Square is bounded by “Skid Road,” or Yesler Way, where, in the early years of the city, cut logs were rolled on a wooden skid downhill to a steam-powered sawmill on the waterfront. The square also is the site of the 42-story Smith Tower, which upon its completion in 1914 was the tallest building in the American West. To the south of the square lie rail yards, as well as Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field, two sports stadiums built in the late 1990s and early 2000s that are the home fields of, respectively, the Mariners (baseball) and Seahawks (gridiron football).
The downtown district is Seattle’s commercial heart. Of particular interest to visitors is the Pike Place Market, a sheltered area of fresh fish and produce shops, other retail stores, and restaurants. To the east and northeast of the downtown district stand First Hill and Capitol Hill, low bluffs covered by office buildings and commercial properties. Capitol Hill has many stately mansions and is a lively centre for shopping and nightlife. Beyond them are the Central District, the traditional hub of the city’s African American population, and the large residential Madrona neighbourhood, which faces Lake Washington.
To the north of Pioneer Square, downtown, and the popular neighbourhood of Belltown stands Seattle Center, the 74-acre (30-hectare) site of the 1962 World’s Fair. The centre contains the 605-foot- (184-metre-) high Space Needle, Seattle’s best-known landmark, as well as McCaw Hall (home of the Seattle Opera), Key Arena, the Children’s Museum, the Museum of Pop Culture, and other public buildings. There the high-rise downtown cityscape gives way to the pleasant urban neighbourhoods of Magnolia, which borders Puget Sound, and Queen Anne, located east-southeast of Magnolia between Lake Union, the Lake Washington Ship Canal, and Elliott Bay. South Lake Union was a relatively sleepy area until Amazon.com consolidated all of its offices there in 2010, which led to rapid growth that was partially enabled by a streetcar line that had opened in the neighbourhood in 2007. Other residential districts lie to the north of the canal, such as Phinney Ridge and Greenwood—a large, loosely defined pair of neighbourhoods that feature small restaurants, coffeehouses, and other independent businesses—and Ballard, the historic locus of the city’s sizable Nordic population. Fremont, which lies to the east of Ballard, was for years home to many of the city’s artists, and it maintains a strong countercultural bent despite recent gentrification (its chamber of commerce playfully bills Fremont as the “Center of the Universe”). Fremont also contains a number of Seattle’s notable public sculptures, including an 18-foot- (5.5-metre-) tall troll underneath the Aurora Bridge and a bronze statue of Vladimir Lenin that originally stood in Poprad, Czechoslovakia (now in Slovakia), until shortly before the peaceful overthrow of that country’s communist regime. The University of Washington campus lies at the eastern end of the canal, near Lake Washington, and is surrounded by a vibrant community filled with shops, bars, and restaurants called the University (or “U”) District.
Among the chief satellite cities are Bellevue, on the eastern shore of Lake Washington, about 10 miles (16 km) east of Seattle, which is principally residential and commercial, with many retail trade centres, office complexes, and light manufacturing facilities; Redmond, about 15 miles (25 km) northeast of Seattle, the headquarters of several high-technology companies, including Microsoft and Nintendo of America, and today among the fastest-growing cities in the region; Everett, at the mouth of the Snohomish River, some 25 miles (40 km) north of Seattle and a major port and manufacturing centre; and Renton, approximately 15 miles southeast of Seattle, which maintains lumber, steel, and clay industries and is the site of a large Boeing Company aircraft plant and a railroad-car foundry.
Since Seattle’s settlement by Americans of European birth or descent in the mid-19th century, that population has remained in the majority. In the early 21st century they made up slightly more than two-thirds of the central city’s population, a figure that rose to more than about three-fourths in the neighbouring suburbs of King county. Even so, Seattle is a mix of peoples, cultures, and religions and has a higher level of ethnic diversity than is to be found elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.
There are few notable ethnic divisions or ongoing controversies today, although, like other major American cities, Seattle reveals a past marred by racial prejudice. This was true early on between settlers from the United States and the area’s Native American population, some of whom were removed from traditional territories to inland reservations in the wake of the Indian wars of the 1850s and ’60s. Native Americans were discouraged from living among the settlers throughout the 19th century. Even today, the Native American population is small, representing just a fraction of the city’s total population.
Similarly, Seattle’s African American population was small until World War II; it grew from about 3,800 in 1940 to more than 30,000 by 1945, the result of an abundance of jobs in the defense and transport industries. In the period immediately after the war, the African American population declined but remained significant at about 16,000. Largely confined in the 19th century to the harbourside area of the city called Skid Road, African Americans faced a pattern of discrimination that was severe even by the discriminatory standards of the American West of the time. For example, they were forbidden to enter skilled-trade unions until the late 1940s, and segregation in housing and public services persisted until well into the 1950s. In the early 21st century, African Americans made up a little under one-tenth of greater Seattle’s population, with about half of them living in the suburbs.
Seattle’s Asian population is slightly larger than the African American population. The Chinese, who had settled in the area in small numbers in the early 1800s, first arrived in appreciable numbers in the 1870s to work in service jobs and in the lumber industry, which paid them substantially less than their European-descended counterparts; in later years they made great contributions to the building of the transcontinental railroad. During an economic downturn in the mid-1880s, these Chinese immigrants were accused of taking jobs away from the majority population and were subsequently driven out of the city through a series of destructive anti-Chinese riots. Most of the immigrants fled to San Francisco, where they faced somewhat less-violent, though still persistent, opposition. Seattle’s Asian population is concentrated in the downtown International District, but it has begun to extend throughout the metropolitan area. The majority are of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, and Vietnamese origin or descent, though virtually all Asian nations are represented in Seattle. Hispanics account for a smaller proportion of the population, although their number is growing. Most Spanish-speaking newcomers are of Mexican descent or are recent arrivals from Mexico itself; others are from Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries. Many Hispanic immigrants have settled in the South Park neighbourhood west of the Duwamish Waterway.
Among Seattleites of European extraction, the dominant religion is Protestantism; the Roman Catholic population is also large, and, owing to a well-established eastern European immigrant community, the Orthodox church has many adherents. Seattle also has a relatively large Jewish community, whose presence in the city dates to the 1860s. The first Jewish congregation was established in 1889 and built the city’s first synagogue in 1892. A significant proportion of Seattleites, however, profess no religion; although statistics on the question are inexact, statewide religious surveys reveal that anywhere from one-sixth to one-fourth of Washingtonians are atheists, agnostics, or otherwise unaffiliated, and Seattle’s liberal social and political milieu suggests that the city has at least the same proportion of nonreligious citizens.
Economy of Seattle
Until the 20th century, Seattle’s economy was based on lumbering and the extraction and transport of other locally abundant natural resources. Its economy diversified with the development of manufacturing (including aircraft and heavy machinery), food processing, banking, insurance, and transportation industries in the early 20th century, all of which expanded markedly during and after World War II. Electronics-based industries, notably those connected with software development and manufacturing, became significant in the 1980s and are now the most productive component of the economy. Biomedical manufactures are of growing importance, while agricultural products grown in the so-called Inland Empire of the interior Northwest remain an economic mainstay. Numerous federal agencies have offices in Seattle. Washington state ranks among the highest in the country in per capita exports, and the vast majority of these exports are manufactured, processed, or shipped from Seattle. International trade is the most dynamic sector of the state and city economy, symbolized by the construction of the World Trade Center Seattle complex.
Seattle’s workforce is large and generally well educated. Women comprise almost half of full-time workers. The median family income is well above the national average, reflecting a strong local and regional economy.
Seattle was formerly the headquarters for the Boeing Company, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial aircraft and among the largest exporters in the country in the second half of the 20th century. Although Boeing relocated to Chicago in 2001, much of the company’s airplane production is still based in Seattle. Founded in 1916 as a military-aircraft manufacturer, Boeing produces commercial jetliners as well as a range of military and space-exploration craft. The largest manufacturer in the Seattle area is the Microsoft Corporation, the world’s largest maker of computer operating systems and applications such as word-processing and spreadsheet programs. Although it has offices throughout the world, Microsoft does most of its research and product development at its corporate headquarters in suburban Redmond. Its presence has attracted many software firms to the Seattle area and spurred much infrastructure development, including the construction of reliable broadband fibre-optic networks.
Although it declined in economic importance after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Department of Defense remains a large employer in the Seattle region. Among its facilities are the U.S. Army’s Fort Lewis, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Naval Base Kitsap, McChord Air Force Base, and Naval Station Everett. Puget Sound’s once-prominent shipbuilding industry, which focused primarily on military craft, has declined, and several shipbuilding yards have been decommissioned or converted to other uses, including the disposal of nuclear weapons.
Other important industries in the Seattle area include biotechnology, bioinformatics, genomics, environmental engineering, lumber and wood-product processing, food processing, and the manufacture of industrial machinery and equipment, medical equipment, and textiles. The city is headquarters to the Weyerhaeuser Corporation and to the U.S. North Pacific fishing fleet.
Finance and other services
Seattle serves as the chief financial and commercial centre for the Pacific Northwest. The Seattle-born Starbucks coffee-shop chain and Amazon.com, an Internet-based retailer, are now bywords across the world; Nordstrom’s department store chain, founded in Seattle, stretches nationwide.
Seattle has always been attractive to tourists. The sector received a boost in the late 1990s with the Port of Seattle’s decision to expand its cruise-ship activity; this led to an enormous increase in the number of passengers passing through the city in the early 21st century at the same time that Seattle tourism in general was growing. The largest proportion of visitors, some four-fifths, come from within the United States; about another one-tenth are from Canada.
An extensive network of interstate, federal, and state highways and local roads serves Seattle; two interstate highways pass through the city, and pontoon bridges span Lake Washington into the urban centre. In the 1990s the city government embarked on an ambitious program to retrofit bridges to withstand potentially strong earthquakes and to improve safety. Heavily traveled, these roads are subject to traffic gridlock, a pervasive problem that remains unresolved.
The Port of Seattle, established in 1911, is one of the largest container-cargo ports in the United States and in the world. The port encompasses some 570 acres (230 hectares) of container-handling facilities. Ferries serve nearby Vashon Island, Bainbridge Island, Bremerton, and other points along Puget Sound; some travel as far north as Victoria, British Columbia. Passenger cruise ships operating from Seattle regularly travel the Inside Passage to southern Alaska. Navigation locks along the Lake Washington Ship Canal allow boats to pass between Puget Sound and Lake Washington.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac), 13 miles (21 km) south of the city centre, is a major gateway connecting Asia, Europe, and North America and is among the leading U.S. airports in international passenger travel. It is served by dozens of airlines (including Alaska Airlines, headquartered in the city), many of which are cargo carriers. Other modes of transport include bus lines and a rail system served by three large intermodal rail yards within the greater Seattle area. Several Amtrak passenger routes connect Seattle with cities in Oregon and California and with points east as far as Chicago. A light rail system began servicing Seattle and the surrounding region in 2009. The city’s 1-mile (1.6-km) monorail, introduced at the World’s Fair in 1962, is a popular tourist attraction and provides fast transportation between Seattle Center and the downtown shopping area.
Seattle enjoys a lively blend of cultural activities that draws on the city’s ethnic diversity, its tradition of municipal support for the arts, and its status as a regional and national educational and economic centre. A distinctive component of Seattle’s daily life and popular culture is its relationship with coffee and coffeehouses. Seattle has the highest per capita coffee consumption in the United States, and Seattleites’ love of specialty coffee has enabled hundreds of independent shops to thrive in the city that also produced the retail chains Starbucks and Tully’s. It has been theorized that the city’s cloudy, drizzly climate gave the perfect impetus for coffee’s unusual degree of popularity; caffeinated drinks consumed in cozy shops and restaurants provide great balm as well as shelter from the dampness.
There are more than two dozen museums in Seattle. Among them are the Seattle Art Museum, with eclectic and well-curated holdings; the Seattle Asian Art Museum, with internationally important collections; the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, on the University of Washington campus, which has extensive ethnographic collections relating to the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest; and the Museum of History and Industry and the Pacific Science Center, both of which offer educational programs. Located in the International District, the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience commemorates the contributions of Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian peoples to the history, politics, and culture of the region. The Nordic Heritage Museum is located in Ballard.
The city’s parks and streets include many examples of public art, among them the monumental sculptures of Seattle Center. At the end of the 1990s, the SODO (South of Downtown) Urban Art Corridor began the development of a landscaped district of murals and sculpture gardens. The Olympic Sculpture Park (opened 2007) is located on the waterfront overlooking Puget Sound; it features works by Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Nevelson, and others. Seattle’s literary community is served by the city-run Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, housed in a former synagogue designed by architect B. Marcus Priteca, and the Richard Hugo House, honouring a local poet, as well as by the city’s excellent public library system, the centrepiece of which is the Central Library, whose building was designed by Rem Koolhaas and former Seattleite Joshua Ramus.
Seattle has made many contributions to popular culture. It was the birthplace and childhood home of the legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix and gave rise to the grunge sound of the early 1990s, exemplified by such bands as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney, most of whom, at least initially, recorded for the pioneering local independent label Sub Pop. More recently, bands such as Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, Band of Horses, and Fleet Foxes have energized Seattle’s still-vibrant music scene. The legacy of these performers and other artists is celebrated in the city’s architecturally innovative Experience Music Project museum, which was designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 2000. (The museum expanded its focus and was renamed the Museum of Pop Culture in 2016.) The city is also a leading centre of multimedia production, uniting technology, music, and the visual arts.
The Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra, staffed predominantly by amateur musicians, offers well-attended concert series. The Seattle Repertory Theatre, the University of Washington School of Drama, and Pacific Northwest Ballet have drawn national attention for their productions. The Seattle Symphony, founded in 1903, was the first in the world to be conducted by a woman, and it has issued many recordings of live and studio performances. The symphony often performs in association with the Seattle Opera.
Among the city’s many annual cultural events are the Folklife Festival (Memorial Day weekend), the Earshot Jazz Festival (October), the music and arts festival known as Bumbershoot (Labor Day weekend), and Seafair (July), which features parades, hydroplane races, and air shows.
Through its culture, arts, and parks committee, Seattle’s city council administers a network of more than 70 public parks. The largest is Discovery Park, some 530 acres (214 hectares), which occupies most of the former site of the U.S. Army’s decommissioned Fort Lawton. Situated on a broad bluff overlooking Puget Sound, Discovery Park offers views of nearby beaches and distant mountains, nature preserves, natural meadows, forest groves, dunes, and tidal pools. Other popular parks include Gas Works Park, a 20-acre (8-hectare) tract on the grounds of a former coal-gas conversion plant; Woodland Park, once a private estate on Green Lake that now houses a zoo, ball fields, picnic grounds, and a large rose garden; Volunteer Park, which features a sculpture honouring the 1867 purchase of Alaska; and Alki Beach Park, which marks the first settlement of migrants from the United States in the area. One of the city’s most beloved parks surrounds Green Lake, in north Seattle; public attractions at Green Lake Park include a beach, boating facilities, paths for walking and jogging, and a community centre. A historic site, Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, near Pioneer Square, commemorates the city’s role as a transportation hub and commercial centre for the exploration and settlement of the Far North.
Tourism abounds in Seattle throughout the year. Apart from having its own attractions, including the Space Needle and the Seattle Aquarium, the city serves as a gateway to the San Juan Islands, Mount Rainier National Park, North Cascades National Park, and Olympic National Park and is close to several state parks and national wildlife refuges. Whale watching is a popular tourist activity; a park that has facilities for whale watching is located in the San Juan Islands, accessible by ferry boat. Other outdoor activities in and around Seattle include hiking, rock climbing, skiing, snowboarding, boating, and fishing.
Seattle has a range of professional sports teams. The Seattle Seahawks, a franchise of the National Football League, have played in the city since 1976, and the Seattle Mariners, a baseball team in the American League, have played in the city since 1977. These teams, along with the Seattle Storm, the city’s professional women’s basketball team, boast a large public following and heavily attended home games. Seattle was the home of the SuperSonics (better known as the Sonics) of the National Basketball Association from 1967 to 2008, when the franchise was relocated to Oklahoma City. The city gained a professional hockey team, the Seattle Kraken (named after the legendary sea monster and the giant Pacific octopus found in the waters of Puget Sound, where Seattle is situated), in 2021. The city has frequently also been home to men’s professional football (soccer) teams since the 1970s; the most recent incarnation of professional football in the city, the Sounders (the third Seattle team to carry that name), is a Major League Soccer team that attracted a passionate following beginning with its inaugural season in 2009. Long before professional sports became a part of Seattle’s cultural fabric, the University of Washington was the focus of sports spectatorship in the city, and the school’s teams continue to command the avid loyalty of Seattleites. The school’s gridiron football program has an especially rich history of success, but University of Washington teams have also made their mark in men’s and women’s basketball, rowing, softball, and volleyball.
Trendy Neighborhoods & Hip Culture
Find top attractions like Pike Place Market and the Seattle Art Museum in Downtown Seattle. Artsy, offbeat Fremont features public murals and sculptures, topiaries trimmed to resemble dinosaurs and a troll under a bridge. Wooded, inviting Montlake overlooks Lake Washington. Capitol Hill, just to the southwest, is the entertainment and counter-culture haven – and that’s just a sampling. Experience Seattle’s long and storied music history at the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP). This interactive Frank O. Gehry-designed museum features edgy contemporary exhibits dedicated to the preservation of pop culture. Experience the city’s music scene for yourself at a range of live music venues playing every night of the week.