Photo by Christopher NelsonA pedal-powered carnival called Cyclecide during Bumbershoot.
A concert poster exhibit
If you imagine Seattle as a dank, gray place where residents trudge through flannel and sweat coffee, I’m not about to take the grunge out of your sails. I won’t bother telling you about its perfect summer days, with swimming-pool-colored skies and cool, sweet breezes curling in from Puget Sound. However, I will say that the Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival, an annual three-day event that brings together a mind-blowing array of artistic and musical talent, is coming up this Labor Day weekend, and you should take that opportunity to visit. Bumbershoot generally falls on the last of Seattle’s improbably epic summer weekends. Ten minutes after your plane takes off, the leaves will turn and the clouds will roll in.
You may have attended other music and arts festivals, but none like this. Bumbershoot isn’t so much a concert as an exposition, fittingly held at Seattle Center—the city campus better known as the site of the 1962 World’s Fair. You wander from stage to gallery to pavilion, using the Space Needle as a kind of compass, and every turn yields a new and unexpected discovery: a hilarious short film, an awesome band you’d never heard of before, an artist whose work makes your eyeballs jump out.
This year’s musical headliners include Bob Dylan, Weezer, Neko Case and the Decemberists, but even if you miss any or all of these performers, Bumbershoot is worth the price of admission. You’re not paying to see the headliners; you’re paying to see the things you don’t yet know you’re paying for. Over the years, I’ve lucked into seeing the late Spalding Gray talking off-the-cuff about his life and work and hearing the Foo Fighters take a shambling, woozy pass at Prince’s “Purple Rain.” I’ve met top rock poster artists in the Flatstock pavilion, I’ve watched daylong roller derby bouts, and I’ve even simply sat on the grass by the International Fountain and read a book as the festival happened around me, noshing on delicious street food (get a Cajun Blackened Salmon Burger from Ballard Brothers, I beg you) and occasionally looking up to appreciate a city drunk on sunshine and civic pride.
Having said all that, to best enjoy Bumbershoot you need to spend some time away from it. Try not to spend more than one day total at Seattle Center, and use the extra time to explore the city a bit. Seattle’s best-known attractions—the open-air Pike Place Market, the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum and the aforementioned Space Needle—are worth seeing in spite of their touristy vibe. You should also run to see Discovery Park, a 534-acre swath of pristine Northwest wilderness in the heart of the city; Capitol Hill, an energetic neighborhood loaded with great bars, restaurants and clubs; Archie McPhee, the world’s premier retailer of the whimsical and bizarre; and the Olympic Sculpture Park, an adjunct of the Seattle Art Museum that features pieces by Alexander Calder and Louise Bourgeois, as well as a waterfront view that will make your heart ache.
So, you see, Seattle is much more than can fit on the fairgrounds. But Bumbershoot is one hell of a great summer party—and it’s happening in the last place you’d expect. Much like its premier arts festival, Seattle is all about the surprises.
Getting there: Flying Alaska Airlines (alaskaair.com) is your best bet; the Seattle-based carrier has round-trip fares as low as $240.
Accommodations: Hotel Max (hotelmaxseattle.com) is a top-rated boutique hotel in the heart of downtown; it’s trendy, posh, abundantly stylish and, at more than $200 a night, kind of gold-plated. The historic Moore Hotel (moorehotel.com) is a more affordable option at $74-$97 a night (only $71 if you go “European style” and share a shower with others). And the Moore is in an even better location than the Max—Pike Place Market is just steps away.
Seeing Bumbershoot: Advance tickets are available at the festival’s website (bumbershoot.org). Admission to the festival is $40 per day, or just $22 if you skip the headliners on the main stage.
Getting around: Link Light Rail runs from Sea-Tac Airport to downtown Seattle, and the bus network puts Vegas’ to shame. Download the free One Bus Away app (onebusaway.org); it’s amazingly helpful.