A capital day in Olympia
Explore a state museum, public art, a farmers' market, and waterfront walks
The majestic power of nature and government seldom appear inthe same view. But as Interstate 5 cuts through Olympia,Washington, the road curves. There, rising from a towering darkgreen forest of Douglas firs and cedars, is the neoclassical domeof 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 atourist destination. But wander through downtown and thesurrounding picturesque neighborhoods, walk along the waterfrontfor a view of the ship traffic on Puget Sound, or linger at thefarmers’ market on a weekend afternoon and you’ll realize there’splenty to do here.
Following the Nisqually earthquake of 2001, many of the city’sbuildings were refurbished and, as a result, are looking betterthan ever. Especially this month, when the rhododendrons andazaleas are usually in full bloom, it’s safe to say that Olympiahas never seemed so fresh. Arrive, park your car, and walk, sincenearly 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 walknorth along Capitol Way toward Fourth and Fifth Avenues in thedowntown area, you’ll notice that the street is sprinkled withsculptures. Many are part of the thriving City of Olympia ArtsProgram, which is supported by public funds as well as privatedonations. Explains program manager Linda Oestreich, “Many peoplecome to Olympia to work in government or attend one of our threecolleges, and they stay. Others come from big cities to raisefamilies in a close community. All want to cultivate anartistically 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 andstructural upgrades, but you can walk around it. Docent-led tourslet you visit the Temple of Justice, home of the state supremecourt.
Stop by the visitor center to pick up a map for a self-guidedtour of the plantings and memorials on the Capitol Campus. TheWinged Victory Monument, dedicated to veterans of World War I, is apowerful reminder of the high price paid for war.
Some of the city’s oldest and most elegant residentialneighborhoods 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 Renaissancerevival-style mansion that once belonged to C. J. and ElizabethLord. An early Olympia entrepreneur, C. J. founded the CapitalNational Bank. During its first 37 years, the bank paid itsstockholders 16 times their original investment ― proof thatthe frontier economy boomed.
From the Capitol Campus, it’s about a mile to the north end ofdowntown Olympia. Walking north along Capitol Way, you’ll passSylvester Park and the Old State Capitol, erected in 1892.Downtown, dozens of independently owned specialty shops andrestaurants fill 19th- and early-20th-century buildings. The old Spar Café is a great spot for lunch and a piece ofpie.
Just a few blocks north, the sprawling Farmers Market bustles as vendors hawk produce and craftseach week. To the west, the boardwalk at Percival Landing iscrowded with shops and eateries. The dock brims with activity justas it did in 1860, when it was built for the bustling port townthat served as capital of Washington Territory.
It’s reasonable to guess that most nonbureaucratic visitors toOlympia turn off the freeway to see the Capitol. But if you visitthis capital city, you just might find that your affection for theplace is simply ungovernable.