It’s a pity we aren’t singing to market, to market to buy a fat pig, I think aloud as a little girl balances herself astride Rachel, the bronze cast piggy bank, the mascot of Seattle’s bustling Pike Place Market. It is named after Rachel, a 750 lbs pig that had won the Island County Fair in 1985. “Follow Rachel’s bronze hoof-prints, rub her snout, and make a donation for good luck,” Jake, our guide, announces. It’s my first morning in Seattle and I’m out with Seattle Free Walking Tours for their Market Walk. Thankfully, the sun is out and Pike Place Market is pulsating with energy.
With a crumpet from The Crumpet Shop in hand, I stand outside the crowded Pike Place “Original” Starbucks. It isn’t the oldest but it’s the longest operating Starbucks, Jake tells us. The original store was destroyed in a fire in the early 1970s. The Pike Place location has been there for 41 years and still has the original logo: a wood-cut illustration with the words “Coffee, Tea, Spices” around the Starbucks siren. It’s understandable that their logo is a siren and not a mermaid, someone quips, since not many can ignore the call of a Starbucks on a typical Seattle morning.
Pike Place Market opened in 1907, the year of the infamous onion wars, as a response to public outcry over price gouging by middlemen and farmer anger over low prices for their produce. Today, 225 independent businesses selling anything from fruits and vegetables, baked goods, flowers, meat and seafood, cider, farm-sourced crafts, etc. congregate here every morning in what is the longest continually running farmer’s market in the United States. At 9 am (9:30 am Sundays from January to April), all the daystall vendors and the Market Master meets at the north end of the North Arcade to have a roll call to determine who gets which booth. The longer you have been selling at the Pike Place Market, the higher your priority.
Pike Place Market comprises nine buildings: Main & North Arcades marked by Rachel, 3 levels below main arcade called Down Under (you can find stores selling Indian spices and magician’s equipment), Economy Market Building on the south-side, South Arcade, Corner & Sanitary Market Building (so named because animals were not allowed inside), Post Alley named for hitching posts, Triangle Building, First Avenue Building, and North End. Besides the stores, Pike Place Market is also home to many who work here. It’s also known for its many ghosts who wander the complex post-sundown. The most well-known is the ghost of Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, who defied the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott that required all Duwamish Indians to leave their lands for reservation and stayed at a waterfront cabin. She earned her living by doing laundry and selling hand-woven baskets and her ghost can be seen gliding, often around the wooden column in the lower level, with baskets.
Our first stop is by a sign that says Caution: Low Flying Fish. It’s loud at the Pike Place Fish Company and I watch fishmongers in bright orange overalls throw fishes that have been sold before wrapping them. A silvery fish flies straight into the hands of another fishmonger and the crowd cheers. It’s a ritual that many stop to watch. One of the market’s most recognizable institutions– approximately 13 million people visit them annually– they are known for the Chilean Sea Bass, Argentinian toothfish, and Coho Salmons. If watching burly men slinging salmons is not your thing, stop at City Fish Market which turned 100 years in 2017. They have been buying from the same fishing family for 75 years now! Their Copper River King Salmon is highly prized for its rich, mild flavours and deep orange flesh. They also pack their products in TSA-approved freezer bags. Don’t forget their smoked salmon samples!
For a quick snack, head to Jack’s Fish Spot for the $12.99 boiled crab with butter. They also serve cioppino, fish n’ chips, raw oysters, and fried fish (say no to maach bhaja in Seattle, eh?). On the floor of the Economy Market Building, we see tiles with names engraved on them. In the 1980s, they were sold for $35 to whoever wanted to have their names engraved. Inside, there’s popular Italian grocery store, DeLaurenti, and one of the region’s oldest apothecaries, Tenzing Momo. In the Sanitary Building, I visit Beecher’s Handmade Cheese where tourists can watch cheese making through a huge window and of course, sample before heading to Britt’s Pickle (they make great kimchi fyi) where top-picks are the horseradish dill pickles and the black garlic pickle, and then to Ellenos Greek Yogurt where lemon curd and marionberry samples are waiting for tourists.
A short walk brought me to the florists of Pike Place Market. Baskets of roses, peonies, tulips, pink tiger lilies, dahlias, and numerous others blooms fill the air with an intoxicating scent. The prices here are unbelievably cheap; for $5 you can get a gorgeous bouquet. The competition and abundant produce help keep prices down, Jake informs us. Many of the florists are of Vietnamese Hmong descent who immigrated during the Vietnam War. To shop for lavenders, head to Market Lavender owned by a charming lady who has been farming and selling lavender at the Pike Place Market for nearly 30 years now.
Located in Post Alley, the Market Theatre Gum Wall is one of Seattle’s most recognized, and germiest, cultural landmarks. It started in the early 1990s when patrons of a local improv started sticking used gum to the wall while waiting in lines for the show. In the beginning, they stuck coins on top but the coins soon fell off to reveal a massive canvas of colourful blobs. The stench of decaying and aged chewing gum is gross but the brightly coloured, collective cultural art is worth a view. In 2015, authorities tried to clean it up because the sugar was weakening the building’s structure but within hours, blobs of used gum started reappearing on the wall.
Up the ramp and onto the main arcade again, I scurry into Pike Place Creamery to splurge on a stick of Kerrygold’s delicious garlic and herb butter. The aroma of freshly baked bread wafting from Le Panier is irresistible. People wait in a queue to buy fresh croissants, macarons, pastries, and other goodies. Outside the Sanitary Building, heaps of cremini, chanterelles, portobellos, black trumpets, and shiitakes are sunning themselves. Jake leads the way to Frank’s Quality Produce where between tasting peaches that leave my chin stained with juice (sadly the famed Taylor’s Gold pears are not in season) and filling our lungs with the essence of citrus, Jake tells us that Frank’s sometimes carries rare black truffles priced at $400 a pound. Our jaws drop.
Pike Place Market is exuberant and magnetic and I loiter long after the walk with a bag of donuts from the Daily Dozen Donut Company. I stop by The Souk, enchanted by the aroma of Middle-Eastern spices, before heading to the lower levels of the Pike Place Market. It is here that I find the longest-running magic shop in the Pacific Northwest, the Pike Place Magic Shop which is full of props for budding magicians, antique books, postcards, and a mannequin that will tell your fortune for 50¢. Old Seattle Paperworks is perhaps my favourite store. Filled with all kinds of ephemera from antique maps to postcards, it is a must-visit for lovers of paper and print. There are stores selling used books, clothes, jewellery, totes, semi-precious stones, toys, craft items, artisanal food, etc. Other favourites include indi Chocolate and Gem Heaven. No post on the Pike Place is complete without a mention of Pike Place Chowder whose chowders have won at competitions across the nation. We suggest you order a take-out in advance or visit their Pacific Place Shopping Centre location to avoid the crowds.
Tired, I sit with a rhubarb Piroshky from Piroshky Piroshky and watch evening descend on the Puget Sound. Later I will buy drinks at The Athenian Inn, the unofficial drinking hole of the Pike Place Market. I hear it has great deals on local brews and seafood during Happy Hours and of course, stunning views of the port, the sound, and the Olympic Mountains.
*Parts of this post is from my experience on the Market Walk with Seattle Free Walking Tours. Jake was the best guide ever!
What are your favourite things to do at Pike Place Market?