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Things to do in Olympia, WA

Nine reasons to consider a move to one of the Pacific Northwest's star cities

By Laura Hill on November 22, 2015

Janine Unsoeld

Set against the backdrop of snowy mountains, nestled on the shores of the Puget Sound, Olympia, Wash., is one of the Pacific Northwest’s star cities. With first-class outdoor recreation, a vibrant cultural scene and an astonishing number of great places to eat, Olympia is calling your name. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Arts, to Start

The Washington Center for the Performing Arts brings great touring artists and shows to town all year – Patti LuPone, David Sedaris and Travis Tritt performed in its most recent season – but its mission is to support local performing artists and arts groups. The downtown center, which also includes an art gallery, is in a beautifully renovated space built on the footprint of a 1924 vaudeville theater. 

2. Farm to Fork

The Olympia Farmers Market. Farmers markets are big in this area, but the 40-year-old market in downtown Olympia is more than a market – it’s a small-business incubator that helps grow and nourish local farms and family-owned businesses. Open 135 days a year, the market sells produce, fruit, meats, dairy products and homemade products. And its restaurants can fill you up with Mexican food, curry, gyros, noodles, bratwurst and more.

3. Capitol Idea

Take a tour of the Washington State Capitol grounds, perhaps the city’s most visited site. More than just the seat of state government, the 486-acre campus is an historic site. The campus contains five buildings, four parks, Capitol Lake, a dahlia garden, numerous veterans’ memorials and the historic Executive Residence, home to Washington’s governors since 1910. 

4. Get Wet at the Heritage Park Fountain

Some people refer to this 1.1-acre downtown fountain and its splashing water jets as Olympia’s swimming pool, and indeed you’ll find it full of kids (and wannabe kids) all summer. Get your swim duds on, pack a picnic lunch and have fun.

5. Won’t You Be Their Neighbor?

Olympia offers a variety of welcoming neighborhoods, downtown, suburban-ish or rural in character. The downtown historic district contains a number of properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, most dating from the mid-19th century and the city’s early years. The variety of architectural styles is impressive: Victorian, Romanesque, Beaux Arts, Mission, Modern and International. 

6. Kid Stuff

Fun places for kids are all over Olympia, but the Hand-On Children’s Museum is special indeed. Here, more than 150 exhibits offer kids and their families interactive fun, focused on science and art. Make a cool sculpture in the Arts and Parts Studio, or experience the city’s emergency services, or bring a favorite dream to life with special tools and building materials. Who says kids don’t like museums? 

7. Yum Factor

You’ll never go hungry in this town, where dozens and dozens of restaurants pamper your palate. Don’t miss the farm-to-table (and sea-to-table) cuisine at the highly praised Dockside Bistro, which serves such specialties as Smoked Applewood Bacon- Wrapped Elk Ribeye with Bacon Bordelaise and Pear Gorgonzola Ravioli. Really. Or stop in at the Spar, one of the city’s most beloved places to gather for food, drink or conversation.

8. Go Wild

For jaw-dropping natural beauty, Olympic National Park is hard to match. More than 922,000 acres include old-growth forests, imposing mountains and stunning coastline (keep an eye out for whales). Besides hiking the many trails that cross the park, you can do almost any outdoor activity you can imagine: camp out, ski, snowshoe, mountaineer, canoe, kayak or motor boat, fishing (superb) and night sky-watching (ditto).

9. Get Smart

Founded in 1971, the Evergreen State College is an unusual public university that stresses student-centered and directed education and innovative teaching and curriculum. Offering more than 60 fields of study, it enrolls 4,300 students in undergraduate and graduate degree programs.  

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