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Olympia, Wash.: City Hot Spots

You might describe the cultural scene of this Washington city as, well, capital.

capitol building in Olympia, Wash.
Photo caption
The Washington state capitol building overlooks Capitol Lake in Olympia.

"This song's about our town! " yelled the guitarist as Listen Louder, a three-man band, launched into a rollicking number inspired by Olympia, Wash. The 4th Ave. Ale House crowd roared its approval.

And for good reason. With its lively music scene, revitalized downtown, and abundant trails and waterways, once sleepy Olympia has become a hot spot of laid-back Northwest cool.

Located at the southern tip of Puget Sound about two hours north of Portland, this city of 43,000 has served as the territorial and state capital since 1853. Things really began humming, though, after the 1971 opening of Evergreen State College, which alumnus Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons) once recommended to "all self-disciplined creative weirdos." Musicians flocked to town—Kurt Cobain wrote most of Nirvana's Nevermind here—and clubs now regularly host live shows. Equally engaging are the classical concerts, dance productions, plays, and films at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts and the vintage State and Capitol theaters.

Pencil in early June for the annual Olympia Comics Festival, where you can hang with some of the Northwest's top cartoonists. A stage revue features artists in zany skits and a slide show of comics so terrible they're funny. (360) 705-3050.

Before or after a show you can dine downtown on duck prosciutto at Acqua Via, meat loaf at Waterstreet, or seafood with a harbor view at Anthony's or the Budd Bay Cafe. Shoppers browse trendy clothing at Hot Toddy, work by Northwest artists at State of the Arts Gallery, and 100-plus kinds of windup toys at Wind Up Here.

Olympia's soaring 1928 capitol building is good as new again after a 2001 earthquake; tours take you inside the world's fourth-highest freestanding masonry dome. In May, clusters of rhododendron—the state flower—dot the capitol's campus. Nearby, tots play at the Hands On Children's Museum.

The ideal place to end a day in Olympia, whether you've seen sights and shopped, walked the forested trails of Priest Point Park, or kayaked to Hope Island, is a waterfront watering hole such as the Hearthfire Grill. The view across the sound as the sun drops behind the Olympic Mountains is really something to sing about.

Photography by John Granen

This article was first published in November 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.