Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID) is more than any old Chinatown. While the neighborhood started as a Chinese-dominant area during the 1800s, it has since morphed into a mishmash of many cultures, mostly Asian, coming together for intercontinental traditions and delicious food. The restaurants in this district are abundant and well worth exploring.
Any day of the year, this diverse district is an excellent place shop, museum hop, or go for a nature walk with a bubble tea in hand. While the CID is not always a bustling place, make no mistake: This neighborhood knows how to throw a good party. Keep your eye on the Seattle Chinatown-International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda) calendar for colorful, multicultural events.
It may only be an acre, but Kobe Terrace is a beloved CID green space for two main features: its four-ton, 200-year-old Yukimidoro stone lantern and Mt. Fuji cherry trees, both gifts from Seattle's sister city, Kobe, Japan, after which the terraced park is named. Adorned with charming pathways through pines and pink blossoms—ideal for viewing in spring—Kobe Terrace is a great walking destination; it even provides a view of Mount Rainier to the south. On the lower level is the Danny Woo Community Garden, consisting of 88 plots cared for by 65 Asian gardeners.
An essential Seattle institution, Bush Garden was reportedly the first restaurant in the entire country to have a karaoke bar. The peculiar Japanese haunt has been serving up sushi, donburi, ramen, and teriyaki since the '50s (and yet, the facade hasn't changed), but people really come here to sing. Happy hour is from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and until 8:30. on Sundays. Karaoke starts at 9:30 p.m. nightly.
Like most Seattle neighborhoods, the CID is great for shopping. You’ll find intimate herb shops, a few galleries, and other standout shopping opportunities, but if you only go to one store in the area, make it Uwajimaya. This massive Asian supermarket is packed with imported treats and ready-to-eat foods, from sushi to traditional Japanese candies. It also has a food court featuring Hawaiian, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese flavors, and a Japanese bookstore, Kinokuniya, stocked with manga, anime, collector items, and plushies galore.
Don’t expect dry, stuffy, large museums here. The community-based Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience focuses on the city's Asian history and culture, showcasing everything from the works of Bruce Lee to the Korean-American experience. It's certainly on the small side, but the exhibits are mighty enlightening and included in the price of admission is a tour through a historic hotel.
The CID knows how to party. It's home to a number of cultural festivals throughout the year, from Bon Odori—part of the huge Seafair summer festival, traditionally for honoring ancestors with Taiko drums, food, a beer garden, and dancing in the streets—to Dragonfest, a grand culmination of food, performances, and markets. Both are in July.
Anime lovers will want to look out for April's Sakura-Con Anime Costume Contest, and foodies for the annual Night Market and Autumn Moon Festival in September, when more than 30 food trucks gather in the district with all sorts of Asian dishes on offer. The biggest celebration of the year, however, is the Lunar New Year celebration, warranting lion dances, martial arts, Japanese Taiko drumming, a $3 Food Walk where local restaurants can be sampled, and cultural performances on a big stage in the CID.
Become a Pinball Wizard
It has nothing to do with Asian culture, but the Seattle Pinball Museum happens to be located in the Chinatown-International District, offering wildly nostalgic entertainment while waiting for restaurants to clear out or otherwise. Don’t expect placards and exhibits about pinball here; rather, this "museum" houses more than 50 vintage pinball machines and sells cold beer for optimum playing. You get unlimited goes for a flat entry fee.
Dip Into Dim Sum
Dim sum is a meal of small plates from a selection of oriental delicacies. Dumplings served inside bamboo steamer baskets and sauces to dip them in are dished up from little carts wheeled around the restaurant. Most big Chinese restaurants in the Chinatown-International District—such as Jade Garden, Harbor City, Honey Court, Ocean Star, and Purple Dot—serve the traditional Cantonese specialty breakfast through lunch.
Hing Hay Park, whose name translates to "Park for Pleasurable Gatherings," sits in the heart of the CID. Take the stairs from Maynard Street to find a red-brick square with a beautiful Chinese-style Grand Pavilion designed and constructed in Taipei, Taiwan. On one side is a dragon mural and all around are picnic spots in the expansive plaza with cafe tables, trees, and lighted Asian figures. Hing Hay Park is where many festivals, including the Lunar New Year and Dragonfest celebrations, are held.
Refresh With a Bubble Tea
Bubble tea is a popular drink in which milk and sugar are added to traditional brewed tea. This Taiwanese beverage was invented in Tainan and Taichung in the 1980s and has spread internationally since. Most bubble tea starts with freshly brewed tea, hot or cold, and then you can have it blended with milk and toppings like tapioca pearls, puddings, or gels. Look for the treat at Young Tea, Oasis Tea Zone, and Ambrosia.
The CID is also home to the historic Panama Hotel, originally opened in 1910 with five stories of single-occupancy rooms for Japanese laborers. It was designed by Seattle’s first architect of Japanese ancestry, Sabro Ozasa, and contained a Japanese bathhouse, or sento, in its basement, still on display. The renovated rooms are small and there are shared bathrooms, but you'll get the full experience of what it was like to stay at the Panama a century ago. The hotel has a restaurant and a bar, too.