Washington’s capital, Olympia, borders Budd Inlet at the southern tip of Puget Sound. From this vantage point, visitors thrill to the sight of the sun hurdling the snow-capped peak of Mt. Rainier to the east. Though this city of 46,000 people is the seat of state government, the place is not buttoned-up. Olympia boasts a laid-back, youthful vibe, and it is recognized as one of America’s best small cities for the arts. In fact, dozens of pieces of public art punctuate the downtown area.
Among the top attractions in Olympia is the Washington Center for the Performing Arts. This facility, one of many performance venues in town, stages traveling Broadway productions, dance performances and classical concerts by the Olympia Symphony Orchestra. Other venues for Olympia nightlife include the black-box theater at the Capital Playhouse and the Kenneth J. Minnaert Center at South Puget Sound Community College. Harlequin Productions semi-professional theater company performs at the renovated State Theater, and the Olympia Film Society has screened movies in the 1924 Beaux-Arts-style Capitol Theater since 1986.
Visible from any point downtown, the State Capitol rises 28 stories on a bluff above the city. Inside the structure, a five-ton crystal chandelier, crafted by Louis Comfort Tiffany, hangs from the masonry dome. Adjacent to the capitol is Sylvester Park, a one-square-block green space named for early settler Edmund Sylvester.
Another of Olympia’s top attractions is seven blocks south of the Capitol campus. The State Capital Museum occupies the Italian Renaissance-style Lord Mansion, built in 1923 for banker Clarence Lord. Exhibits here highlight the region’s political and cultural history.
Olympians naturally gravitate to the waterfront, so it is not surprising that visitors also flock to Percival Landing Waterfront Park, named after the steamship wharf built in 1860. A nearly mile-long boardwalk lines the bay and connects to Capital Lake, just to the south.
The Olympia Farmers Market, also downtown on North Capitol Way, runs from April through December. Organic produce from this market complements the Northwest salmon, oysters, shrimp and clams, and Dungeness crab caught in area waters. Locally produced wines and microbrews are ideal for washing down the seafood.
Surrounded as it is by water and mountains, Olympia offers myriad opportunities for outdoor recreation. A perfect day trip for outdoor enthusiasts is the eight-mile excursion to Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge northeast of the city on Puget Sound. Some 200 species of birds in the Nisqually River Delta inhabit this 3,000-acre protected wetland. To see more of the region’s fauna on a visit to Olympia, check out Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, where bison, elk, moose, bears and bobcats roam. Wolf Haven International, in Tenino, provides a sanctuary for unwanted captive-born wolves.
A great day trip from Olympia is the 65-mile drive to Mt. Rainier National Park. Mt. Rainier is an active volcano as well as the highest peak in the Cascade Range. Olympia is also a great base from which to explore the Olympic Peninsula. The Olympic National Park preserves nearly a million acres of the peninsula.