If tourist stops are not on your vacation hit list, then it is easy to forget all about the Space Needle and Pike Place Market in the personality filled neighborhoods of Fremont and Ballard. Once cities in their own right, sprawling Seattle swallowed these neighboring communities. While still somewhat an outsider with no light link connection, the Burke-Gilman bike trails (named a top U.S. urban bike path) link these independent destinations to the center of town. Close, yet distinctly separate, a visit to both is possible in the same day. I would recommend at least a day trip- we even went back a second day. They are both excellent stops for shopping, unique outdoor activities, and gastronomic delights.
From the center of town, Fremont is the most likely starting point using the bike trail. It was in Fremont that Seattle’s reputation was carved as an artist’s mecca in the 60s where individuality and creativity pushed boundaries. While today’s locals bemoan the yuppification and corporatization of the area in the post-internet boom, it still has a whimsical counterculture vibe that is especially evident at the Fremont Sunday Market.
In fact, plan your day trip around a Sunday so that you can experience eclectic shopping event. Part outdoor farmers market, garage sale, and food festival, the Fremont Sunday Market is filled with temptations from vintage collectables, handcrafted jewelry and artist-made wares. Even if you are not a shopper, it is a sight to see and the food stands offer international fare from wood-fired pizzas, tandoori to even Japanese style hot dogs that will make your mouth salivate. Open every Sunday from 10AM to 5PM, bring cash and a backpack to store your goodies.
Just a few blocks away, on Troll Avenue, crouches one of the most unusual and iconic public art works in the city- the Fremont Troll. Beneath the busy Aurora Bridge, a two-ton troll sculpture casts a piercing glare with his silver eye as he squashes a Volkswagen Bug in his left hand. Children crawl up his forearms and tourists wait their turn to take group pictures. For cyclists or hikers, it is a steep hill but worth the toll to see the troll.
Fremont is also known for coffee roasters, Thai food and microbreweries. Hales Ales is conveniently located along the bike trail to Ballard, making it a perfect place to fuel up before heading over to our favorite destination from our recent visit.
Ballard is the center of Seattle’s Scandinavian seafaring community, who were drawn to the salmon fishing opportunities. It is also the home to the Nordic Heritage Museum, which celebrates the local Scandinavian history. While much of this maritime history was not of interest to us, the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks were surprisingly interesting and free too.
Acting as a man-made ship canal through which all boats heading east or west must pass, the Ballard locks link Lake Washington, Lake Union and Puget Sound. The locks are an engineering feat that help keep the saltwater Puget Sound from spoiling the freshwater Lake Washington, and they carry fishing and recreational boats between sea level and the lake’s 26-feet-higher elevation. Watching the locks fill up (or drain down) is akin to watching a mega bathtub fill as giant boats bob on top. The coordination between boaters and staff is impressive as they tightly squeeze vessels into a controlled environment where the water is adjusted up or down depending on the direction. Private yachts work together with fishing dinghies in a choreographed traffic jam as out-of-towners look on.
In this same area, a fish ladder enables salmon and other marine life to make a the same height adjustment to travel between salt water and inland lakes. The salmon ladder has a series of gradual stepped pools with current flowing down to sea level allowing returning salmon schools to bypass the locks via a gradual upstream trip. A glass-lined tunnel snakes along the locks so that during salmon season tourists can spy as the fish make their way up the ladder. Adding to the ambiance, the Ballard Locks are surrounded by the Carl English Botanical Gardens, also free, offering a perfect spot for a picnic, meditation moment or people watching.
From the locks, our adventures took us to Surf Ballard (detailed here) – which I highly recommend. Through SUP, we boarded through the Shilshole Marina, viewed the Golden Gardens from the water, and wished for more time to have a drink at Ray’s Boathouse. Anthony’s Homeport was also highly recommended, but we opted for the much more casual Paseo.
One of the most loved sandwich shops in Seattle, the Paseo food stand is known for their crazy-good, messy Caribbean sandwiches with a Cuban flavor. Succulent pork, marinated chicken, pan-seared fish – all kinds of meats and seafood topped with aioli, jalapenos, lettuce and caramelized onions on a toasted baguette. One important thing to note, though: Paseo takes cash only, so come prepared or stop in the Surf Ballard shop to use their ATM.
This area near the marina was a great spot for views and activities, but our overall favorite neighborhood was in nearby Old Ballard, or the Ballard Avenue Historic District. As our day revolved around the Fremont Sunday Market, we lucked into the Sunday Farmer’s Market in Ballard as well. While I highly recommend a visit to Fremont for their market, if I were to daydream about a weekly neighborhood market, this would be it. First of all, Old Ballard has a bit of everything—cool shops, funky bars and diverse restaurants, not to mention plenty of cute coffee shops. This street can keep you busy for hours all by itself, but then add in the Ballard Farmer’s Market and there isn’t enough time to do it all. But as we did not have a kitchen and we had limited storage, I was forced to window shop the market tents and boutique shops on this trip.
In order to maximize our experience, we opted to crawl to a few hot spots. I would recommend them all. Sexton for sexy cocktails at their cassette tape bar where the ambiance details from the flowers on the table, to the bar decor and even the staff style all fit a cozy character. The Noble Fir where the beer selection was robust and the smoked salmon came straight from a booth out front in the market. La Carta de Oaxaca stood up to our high Mexican food standards. And sadly we were just too full and it was getting too dark, but The Walrus and The Carpenter came highly recommended just a bit further down the street from the center of the action.
Aside from the classic Seattle tourism hotspots that are closer to Downtown, Fremont and Ballard have a lot to offer someone visiting Seattle. My favorite travel style is when we can integrate in and pretend for a moment that we are locals. The closest we came to that was in Old Ballard where we felt like a welcome neighbor. Though it requires a little effort to make it outside of the heart of Seattle, it is well worth it.