A capital day in Olympia

Explore a state museum, public art, a farmers' market, and waterfront walks

Steven R. Lorton

An afternoon in Olympia

The majestic power of nature and government seldom appear in the same view. But as Interstate 5 cuts through Olympia, Washington, the road curves. There, rising from a towering dark green forest of Douglas firs and cedars, is the neoclassical dome of the state capitol. At 287 feet, it pokes out of the greenery ― a stunning sight.

Aside from school field trips, Olympia is not often considered a tourist destination. But wander through downtown and the surrounding picturesque neighborhoods, walk along the waterfront for a view of the ship traffic on Puget Sound, or linger at the farmers' market on a weekend afternoon and you'll realize there's plenty to do here.

Following the Nisqually earthquake of 2001, many of the city's buildings were refurbished and, as a result, are looking better than ever. Especially this month, when the rhododendrons and azaleas are usually in full bloom, it's safe to say that Olympia has never seemed so fresh. Arrive, park your car, and walk, since nearly everything in this compact city can be reached on foot.

An artful capital city

Olympia may be best known for political wheeling and dealing, but it has also emerged as a center for public art. As you walk north along Capitol Way toward Fourth and Fifth Avenues in the downtown area, you'll notice that the street is sprinkled with sculptures. Many are part of the thriving City of Olympia Arts Program, which is supported by public funds as well as private donations. Explains program manager Linda Oestreich, "Many people come to Olympia to work in government or attend one of our three colleges, and they stay. Others come from big cities to raise families in a close community. All want to cultivate an artistically rich environment."

The state seat is at the architecturally noteworthy Capitol Campus. The Capitol Building, which dates from 1928, is under renovation to make earthquake-related repairs and structural upgrades, but you can walk around it. Docent-led tours let you visit the Temple of Justice, home of the state supreme court.

Stop by the visitor center to pick up a map for a self-guided tour of the plantings and memorials on the Capitol Campus. The Winged Victory Monument, dedicated to veterans of World War I, is a powerful reminder of the high price paid for war.

Some of the city's oldest and most elegant residential neighborhoods are within easy walking distance (1/2 mile or less) from the Capitol. Wander around them and head south to the State Capital Museum, housed in the 1923 Italian Renaissance revival-style mansion that once belonged to C. J. and Elizabeth Lord. An early Olympia entrepreneur, C. J. founded the Capital National Bank. During its first 37 years, the bank paid its stockholders 16 times their original investment ― proof that the frontier economy boomed.

From the Capitol Campus, it's about a mile to the north end of downtown Olympia. Walking north along Capitol Way, you'll pass Sylvester Park and the Old State Capitol, erected in 1892. Downtown, dozens of independently owned specialty shops and restaurants fill 19th- and early-20th-century buildings. The old Spar Café is a great spot for lunch and a piece of pie.

Just a few blocks north, the sprawling Farmers Market bustles as vendors hawk produce and crafts each week. To the west, the boardwalk at Percival Landing is crowded with shops and eateries. The dock brims with activity just as it did in 1860, when it was built for the bustling port town that served as capital of Washington Territory.

It's reasonable to guess that most nonbureaucratic visitors to Olympia turn off the freeway to see the Capitol. But if you visit this capital city, you just might find that your affection for the place is simply ungovernable.