Tacoma: Washington’s Underappreciated Gem
I’ve traveled extensively all through the Pacific Northwest, and as far as I’m concerned, there is not a city anywhere in this corner of the United States that is as under-visited or as underappreciated as Tacoma, Washington.
Tacoma’s downtown is full of art, culture, and energy, all played out under the watchful eye of Mount Rainier. The mountain looks so beautiful on the horizon that it seems almost too good to be true, sometimes, like a mountain painted onto a theater backdrop. It’s always there in the distance while you’re walking around the city, a visual connection to the incredible natural landscape that makes Washington such a beautiful place.
Tacoma is full of great places to visit—too many to do justice in a single article. So this particular travelogue will be focusing on downtown Tacoma. Truth is, there may be too much to do justice in a single article, as well.
Getting To, and Around, Tacoma
Tacoma is situated just off of Interstate 5, about 40 miles south of Seattle and 40 miles north of Olympia, the Washington state capital. I-5 cuts through the heart of the Puget Sound basin’s most populated areas. Traffic can sometimes be a headache, but the road gives a straight shot from one place to another, and does not require a great deal of navigation.
Visitors can also take a ferry ride to Tacoma’s Point Defiance Terminal, which is a short drive west of downtown. The ride offers great views, too.
Those who drive to the city can park for free at the Tacoma Dome and take the Link light rail, also free, into the city. In whatever manner one gets to downtown, they will find it easy to get around using the Link and walking. Tacoma is one of the most walk-able cities you’re likely to come across, and most of downtown is in a small enough area that it can all be taken in without walking any terribly long distances.
In Tacoma, Art is Everywhere
Tacoma appreciates its artists and gives them ample space in which to display their talents. Downtown feels like an outdoor art museum.
From street murals….
…to large-scale permanent art pieces…
…to secret little exhibits waiting to be discovered in nooks and crannies around the city…
…Tacoma is a visually and creatively exciting place to walk around in.
There is also the Tacoma Art Museum and the Pantages Theater, which offers an assortment of shows year-round.
The Chihuly Bridge of Glass: Connecting the Waterfront to Downtown
A 500-foot-long pedestrian bridge named the Chihuly Bridge of Glass is more than just a conduit from one part of the city to another. It’s a work of art in itself. Named after the legendary glass artist Dale Chihuly, it is a truly unique piece of architecture.
These towers of ice-like glass can be seen as one drives into the city. Walking the bridge gives a closer look.
Along the bridge are also dozens of Chihuly’s glass pieces, each one completely original and designed specifically for the bridge.
The bridge also gives beautiful views of the city skyline.
Walk Along the Waterfront
The Tacoma waterfront is full of newly built lofts and luxury apartment homes. There is also a boardwalk that follows along the edge of Commencement Bay, passing restaurants such as The Social, Rock the Dock, The Fish Peddler market and restaurant, and Paeson, among others. At the far end of the walk is Thea’s Park.
The Museum of Glass can be found on the waterfront, as well, at the end of the eastern side of the Chihuly Glass Bridge.
The museum charges a reasonable entry fee, but there are also free outdoor exhibits.
This part of the city is also a very short walk from the Tacoma Dome and the Tacoma Dome parking. If attending an event at the dome, take the time to check out the waterfront. It’s well worth it.
At the end of the western side of the Chihuly Glass Bridge is the area that gets the most visitor traffic. The UW Tacoma campus can be found here, but it is not like usual college campuses. Rather than being built in one area separated from the rest of the city, the school’s classrooms and administration buildings are scattered throughout the surrounding structures, so that downtown itself feels like a giant college campus at times.
Near this area is also the Washington State History Museum, which is full of interesting exhibits, including a giant model railroad built according to the layout of the city’s past.
The Tacoma Art Museum is just a couple blocks from this area, as well. Also, as noted in the previous section, the Glass Museum is just over on the far end of Chihuly Bridge. In case this is getting confusing to visualize, let me state clearly that ALL of these attractions are quite close to one another. One could easily walk from the Washington State History Museum to the Tacoma Glass Museum to the Tacoma Art Museum in one day, and with ample time to take in everything at each location. I’ve done this myself on multiple occasions, in fact.
Tacoma Has Something for both Revelers and the Contemplative
Being a generally more introverted person, I love Tacoma for its museums and bookstores (the Tacoma Book Center and King’s Books are absolute gems), but also for the rather unique quality that I’ve found there. Though it is a mid-sized city that gets a fair bit of foot traffic, both from professionals and students and from visitors, there is something distinctively meditative about it. The city is full of little parks, benches, and overlooks in which a person can sit to read, watch people, or just think about life.
At the same time, Tacoma’s downtown has an active bar scene that is lively but not overwhelming. You’ll find plenty of people to meet and party with, but not find yourself very often waiting for 20 minutes in a packed bar to get a drink.
There is a strong concentration of terrific sushi houses, a fact which I can amply vouch for from personal experience (sushi is my favorite food).
All of these things are tied together by what I consider to be the best part about Tacoma, which is the people that call it home. Tacoma folks tend to be friendly but not pushy, and generally opposed to putting on airs. It’s not a place where people are hung up on trying to impress each other. In Tacoma, a person can come as they are and just be.
It’s a hell of a city and one that I’ve never gotten tired of visiting, after more than ten years of calling the Puget Sound area home.