Ballard is Seattle’s coolest neighborhood and it holds a lot of history.
written by Naomi Tomky | photography by Austin White
Walking down Ballard Avenue on a Friday night offers an accurate representation of today’s Seattle—trendy restaurants spill their sushi-seeking, cocktail-drinking diners into the street, new condominiums poke up behind them, and a Tesla looks for parking. But the history woven into the fabric of this neighborhood—one of the hottest real-estate neighborhoods in the country—lurks around every corner. It comes in the form of the old industrial warehouses that now play host to craft breweries, the fishing boats that pass through the locks, and the hints of Scandinavian heritage barely visible to those who know where to look.
All too often, visitors to Seattle look out on downtown from the double-digit floor of their hotel rooms, where the streets are near silent after 7 p.m. and the few non-chain restaurants cater to the tourist palate, serving overcooked salmon and fried fish assumed to be appropriate in a seaside city. But Seattle’s not that kind of city. Instead, it spreads its wealth among neighborhoods, stashing James Beard Foundation Award-winning chefs in Capitol Hill and Georgetown, scuttling away up-and-coming musicians in Columbia City and Fremont. And the best way to see the city’s finest is by basing oneself in a single neighborhood—like Ballard, just 15 minutes north of downtown—and exploring from there.
Long after the city of Seattle annexed Ballard in 1907, the one-time Nordic fishing village fought to hold onto its identity. But as it lingered on, Ballard became not only entirely integrated, but the best example of the quintessential Seattle neighborhood in a city centered on them. The main drag, Ballard Avenue, seems to sprout a new restaurant at least once a month, but it sets up shop next to places like Hattie’s Hat, which pre-dates the neighborhood’s annexation. The streets no longer ring with Scandinavian accents, but you can still find the famously stinky, air-dried specialty lutefisk if you know where to look—when you’re done picking up the much nicer-smelling hot cider, doughnuts, and flowers from the Sunday farmers market.
Washington Trip Planner—Ballard Day 1
COFFEE • WATERFRONT • BREWS
Once awake, head to Ballard’s best-known tourist attraction, the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. The gateway from the saltwater of Puget Sound to the freshwater of Lake Washington just celebrated its centennial, and continues to operate the busiest locks in the country. If you want more after watching salmon jump around the fish ladder, gawking at the bobbing boats waiting to pass through the locks, and wandering the garden, ranger-guided free tours leave from the visitors center.
Continue your waterfront tour with a stroll (or cycle on one of Seattle’s many dockless bike shares) just less than a mile up the paved Burke-Gilman trail to Un Bien. The pink shack serves overstuffed Caribbean sandwiches slathered with aioli and spilling with caramelized onions. Grab your sandwich to go and continue along the trail to Golden Gardens beach.
In the summer, Golden Gardens teems with families at picnic tables during the day and young folks at firepits at night, but even in winter, an al fresco meal eaten against the backdrop of the snow-capped Olympic Mountains spiking up from behind the Sound makes it worth putting on a parka.
Whether you need to warm up or cool down after your picnic, Ballard’s many breweries have just the beer for it. In the early ’80s, Redhook set up shop here, starting a beermaking tradition in the neighborhood that has recently picked up speed. Award-winning breweries like Reuben’s Brews stand next to homebrewers like Obec Brewing making their first public foray. The combination of affordable large buildings—Obec’s previously held a pickleball warehouse—and enthusiastic audiences has allowed more than a dozen taprooms to flourish. Many, like Stoup, which makes some of the city’s best IPAs (the calling card of any Northwest brewer), allow children and dogs and often have a food truck parked out front, providing an ideal place to while away an afternoon.
When you’ve almost had your fill, head back to where you started the day—across the street from Slate, Brimmer and Heeltap spins Korean flavors and Northwest ingredients into bar food. Smoked fingerling potato salad with pickled shishito peppers and miso aioli shares the table with pork chops dressed in marinated Fuji apples, all ferried from the open kitchen by warm, friendly servers.
Washington Trip Planner—Ballard Day 2
NORDIC HISTORY • BOARD GAMES • LIVE MUSIC
While the Nordic Heritage Museum is under construction (expected to reopen in its new building in May), tourists must look a little harder to learn about the original occupants of the area. Stop into the Ballard Library (a striking building capped with a sweeping green roof of 18,000 plants) to pick up The Ballard Historical Society’s short self-guided walking tour of old buildings. Finish off at Scandinavian Specialties, one of the few remaining commercial representations of the heritage, to browse angelica soap, dala horses, and lip balm that asks, “Got lutefisk?” (The shop does, along with pickled herring, Viking bread and lingonberry preserves.)
For dinner, again aim early to avoid the crowds at Asadero, a Mexican steakhouse—or plan to pop down the block to play board games at Mox Boarding House while you wait. Asadero grills up steak over mesquite wood, charring the beef and blessing it with a distinct south-of-the-border savory flavor. Served on hefty boards with soft tortillas and a bowlful of beans, the crowning touch here comes from the salsa bar. Customize your tacos with stone-ground salsas, pickled peppers and a rainbow of garnishes.
Finish the evening with a little live music, choosing from the elegant jazz of Egan’s, the modern country of the Tractor Tavern, or the dive-bar rock of Sunset Tavern. All are within a few blocks of both Asadero and Ballard’s duo of boutique hotels. The Ballard Inn offers artfully designed European rooms, with or without shared bathrooms, in a historic building (you’ll learn about it on your walking tour), though is somewhat limited in amenities. The Hotel Ballard’s unique multi-use building means people staying in the luxurious rooms have access to a full gym, spa and swimming pool, as well as underground parking and a roof deck with a fireplace and stunning view.
Washington Trip Planner—Ballard Day 3
Street market • cocktails • affordable eats
On Sunday mornings, the neighborhood’s centerpiece, Ballard Avenue, closes to vehicle traffic and transforms into a street market. Local artists, busking musicians, farmers from the surrounding area, and artisan food producers set up booths in the center of the street for the day. Start your morning with a stroll, stopping for a morning kombucha (fermented tea) or hot apple cider.
At the edge of the market, duck in for lunch at San Fermo, housed in one of the last quaint old homes on the street. Serving Italian-inspired dishes often made with vegetables from the same farms selling outside and pairing prosecco-based cocktails, the refreshingly adorable restaurant makes a nice break from the market crowds.
Powered by prosciutto and zeppole (Italian doughnuts), head back out to Ballard Avenue to check out the brick-and-mortar shops. From used mountaineering equipment at Second Ascent to clothes cool enough for a night out at Ballard’s hottest bars at Horseshoe, Ballard’s boutiques, vintage stores and consignment shops have treasures for truly every type.
If this jam-packed weekend has you feeling overspent—in dollars or energy—Café Munir’s affordable chef’s menu will cure what ails you and send you home refreshed. Hidden in the northern corner of Ballard, this Lebanese restaurant celebrates Sundays by sending out three courses of its vegetable-forward food as part of a set meal. The parade of mezzes (small plates), grilled meat skewers, and Arab desserts provides as good a toast to a weekend in Ballard as any extensive collection of whiskey—though they’ve got that here, too.