Neighborhood Guide: Belltown, Seattle

by Tracy Kaler  |  Published October 10, 2023

Once an epicenter for the grunge movement, Belltown has become a different kind of cool. Gourmet bakeries, trendy restaurants, drinking dens, and an award-winning park mingle with a handful of institutions from this dark, edgy era.

Belltown’s high-rises as seen from Olympic Sculpture Park (Photo by Tracy Kaler for TravelMag)

Music has played a leading role in Seattle’s cultural scene for several decades. The Emerald City is Jimi Hendrix’s hometown and where Sub Pop Records originated. It birthed a slew of rock icons, think Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and other bands. According to Seattle Grunge Redux, a local company providing walking tours in the district, Belltown was “Ground Zero” for the grunge movement.  This subculture emerged in Seattle in the late 1980s and early ’90s and left a lasting imprint on Belltown, a trendy neighborhood next to downtown.

These days, Belltown is a different kind of cool. Pricey high-rises dot the cityscape, forging more of a cosmopolitan feel than the no-frills cradle of creativity it once was. However, even with the neighborhood’s metamorphosis, “Seattle sound” can’t be forgotten. Depending on the street, a few pieces of the old Belltown linger. Record stores, music venues, and nightclubs still occupy some colorful, low-rise storefronts. Meanwhile, gourmet bakeries, trendy restaurants, and drinking dens mingle with the handful of Grunge-era institutions.

The Crocodile has long been the soundtrack of Belltown. (Photo by Marylee Burman)

With its proximity to the waterfront and Seattle’s art and culinary offerings––such as bustling Pike Place Market abutting the neighborhood––Belltown is a desirable base. Wedged between Denny Way and Stewart Street, and Fifth Avenue  and Elliott Bay, Belltown is entirely walkable, so it is easy to wander from a hotel to a park to Seattle Center––the city’s arts, cultural, and educational hub––and back for cocktails and dinner.

A trip to Seattle’s downtown core should allow time to explore Belltown. While there, hit these highlights and merge the past with the present.

A view of Seattle’s Space Needle from Belltown (Photo by Tracy Kaler for TravelMag)

Things to Do

Immerse yourself in art and the outdoors at Olympic Sculpture Park (2901 Western Ave). Seattle’s most significant downtown green space, the award-winning sculpture park occupies former industrial land along the waterfront and now exhibits impressive works, including Alexander Calder’s The Eagle, an orange-red winged creation soaring 39 feet, and Louise Bourgeois’ stunning Father & Son fountain at the park’s edge. Walk or jog along the trail and connect to Myrtle Edwards Park, soaking in the breathtaking views of the Olympic Mountains, Mt. Rainier, and Puget Sound.

Alexander Calder’s  The Eagle at Olympic Sculpture Park (Photo by Tracy Kaler for TravelMag)

The music scene in Seattle has changed, but a handful of those Belltown cribs where the icons played rock on. Music lovers will want to check out The Crocodile (2505 1st Ave), a club that was instrumental in the success of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, and other grunge groups. Though the venue shifted locations from its original outpost on Second Avenue, it still jams, stating that it’s “been the soundtrack of Belltown” due to the number of musicians that have played on its stages. The original opened in 1991, but what was once a modest spot to hear some tunes is now part of a three-story complex housing a state-of-the-art showroom, music venue, theater, restaurant, and boutique hotel.

Opened in 1932 as the original MG screening room, which is also was a speakeasy bar, The Rendezvous Jewelbox Theater (2322 Second Avenue) hosted its share of grunge gods during their heyday. The performing arts venue now features comedy shows, late-night burlesque, poetry readings and more, still catering to Seattle’s creative set. Likewise, to trace the footsteps and music of Pearl Jam, catch a concert at The Showbox (1426 1st Ave), where the Seattle band recorded its DVD “Live at The Showbox” in December 2002. Nowadays, a variety of musical acts play at the venue.

Death Cab For Cutie performs at The Showbox in Belltown. (Photo by David Lee, Flickr CC by 2.0)

A statue of Chief Seattle rises at Tilikum Place (2701 5th Ave), a small, charming square on the neighborhood’s northwestern edge. Tilikum means “welcome or “greetings” in Chinook, and the life-size replica extends one arm to greet the first white settlers who arrived at Alki Point in West Seattle in 1851. Beyond its historical significance, this tiny plaza is a convenient spot between Belltown and Seattle Center, and houses several casual eateries for a beverage or a quick bite.

Tilikum Place is a charming square in Belltown. (Photo by Tracy Kaler for TravelMag)

Where to Stay

If there is one property quintessential to Belltown of the past, it is Ace Hotel (2423 1st Ave). Established in 1999, the cool lifestyle hotel was the original outpost of the brand  that’s boomed to include 10 locations. Ace Hotel Seattle embodies “unfussy luxury” and a subdued chicness that reflects the design sense of the Pacific Northwest. Geared to artistic types, the hyper-local boutique property features standard rooms with shared bathrooms and deluxe quarters with private baths. All accommodations contain original art, vintage furnishings, and bath amenities from Rudy’s Barbershop, the hair salon opened in 1993 by  Ace Hotel’s founders.

Set in a restored 1926 building, Hotel Andra (2000 4th Ave) exudes a Scandinavian vibe with its modern furnishings and sophisticated Nordic details. Two on-site restaurants––Tom Douglas’s Lola and Mauro Golmarvi’s Assagio––and the “Hot Stove Society,” a year-round cooking school, make the property an excellent option for foodie travelers. Located in the southern slice of the neighborhood, the property is convenient to downtown sites and attractions, such as the Seattle Museum of Art, Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, and Seattle Center. But with its soothing colors, quiet rooms, and hospitable staff, Hotel Andra is a welcome retreat from the busyness of the city.

Hotel Andra exudes a Scandinavian vibe. (Photo by Tracy Kaler for TravelMag)

Eat and Drink

Acclaimed chef Tom Douglas is the brains behind Palace Kitchen (2030 5th Ave), an American restaurant and cocktail bar he established in 1996. Deep booths and an expansive horseshoe-shaped bar provide a comfortable place to savor some of Douglas’s signature dishes, many of which are prepared on a wood-fired grill. The succulent whole Idaho trout is is plated with garlicky Yukon gold mashed potatoes and grilled Yakima asparagus adding color to the plate. Crowned with “all the fixings,” including Beecher’s flagship cheese, the Palace Burger Royale is a fan favorite.

The whole Idaho trout at Palace Kitchen is perfection. (Photo by Tracy Kaler for TravelMag)

Located at Tilikum Place, the divey-yet-delicious 5 Point Café (415 Cedar St) dates to 1929. The cafe survived tough times, from Prohibition and World War II to a series of new owners. Despite the irreverent service, as the website states, there’s something incredibly charming about this 24-hour spot cooking up a phonebook of dishes. A heaping plate of over-easy eggs, sausage, and hash browns is easily enough for two, and the chicken fried steak, drowned in country sausage gravy, is arguably the largest in Seattle. There’s a lively bar scene, too. The Five Point Special, on offer Sunday to Thursday from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., is a shot of well whiskey and a can of beer for $6 and is possibly the best bibulous deal in town.

Another of Douglas’s empire, Dahlia Bakery (2001 4th Ave), crafts delicious sweet and savory fare ranging from artisan breads, breakfast sandwiches, and salads, to cookies, gluten-free OH mochi doughnuts, and the “world-famous” and entirely irresistible coconut cream pie. Sharing the space with Dahlia Bakery is Serious Pie, a pizzeria that uses a 600-degree stone-encased, applewood-burning oven to churn out clam, oyster mushroom, and fennel sausage pizzas.

Try the irresistible coconut cream pie and OH Mochi Donuts at Dahlia Bakery. (Photo by Tracy Kaler for TravelMag)

For Prohibition-style potations, look no further than Bathtub Gin (2205 2nd Ave). The multi-level drinking den shelves an extensive gin selection but offers other spirits from across the globe. Down the alley and behind a wooden door,  this speakeasy is tucked inside the basement of a former hotel that is now The Humphrey Apartments, one of the few pre-1930s residential buildings still standing in Belltown.

For outstanding Italian food, try Tavolata (2323 Second Ave). The pasta-heavy menu suggests dishes like the simple tonnarelli with pecorino and blacked pepper, gnocchi alla Romana––a marriage of cheese, chili, and tomato–- and pappardelle ragu uniquely flavored with mint and orange. An excellent wine selection presents 17 choices primarily from Washington and Italy by the glass. Daily from 4 to 6 p.m., happy hour here is worth rearranging your itinerary for affordable apps and wine specials.

Tavolata features an excellent happy hour with $8 wines. (Photo by Tracy Kaler for TravelMag)