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Tacoma, WA

About TacomaTacoma is defined in part by a nickname: “The City of Destiny.” Early settlers coined the name in hopes that their community—established in 1852 when a Swedish immigrant built a water-powered sawmill on a creek near the head of Commencement Bay—would rise to greatness by being designated the end of the line for the Northern Pacific Railroad. The bay was indeed chosen as the western terminus in 1873, but the company built its depot on a spot 2 miles south, dubbing it “New Tacoma.” By the time the transcontinental link finally came through in 1887 the two towns had merged to become one Tacoma.

“The aroma of Tacoma” is another sobriquet. The Tacoma copper smelter operated by the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) was finally shut down in 1985 due to its controversial arsenic emissions (the site is being cleaned up for redevelopment, including the waterfront area at Point Defiance Park), but the paper mills that are still a defining part of the downtown waterfront continue to provide olfactory proof.

“Diamond in the rough,” however, best describes Tacoma today, since it’s often overlooked by travelers who are more familiar with the Space Needle, Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square than the Bridge of Glass, the Spanish Steps and Bob’s Java Jive. For one thing, glass sculptor extraordinaire Dale Chihuly is a Tacoma native. His abstract blown-glass creations—explosions of color and shape inspired in part by the plants and flowers in his mother’s garden—are exhibited in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world.

The artist lives and works in a studio on Seattle’s Lake Union but maintains close ties with his hometown, and the city thus boasts a bevy of Chihuly installations that can be explored on a guided or self-guiding walking excursion. If you want to learn a little more about the man and his art, take the “Ear for Art” cellphone tour, which features audio commentary by the artist at 13 tour stops (enter the three-digit number listed on the Ear for Art label at each stop). To begin the tour, dial (888) 411-4220. Guided tours of the installations are offered on select days each month by the Museum of Glass.

Union Station was built in 1911 and functioned as a train station until the early 1980s. This copper-domed brick building currently serves as a federal courthouse, but inside there are five Chihuly installations. In particular, check out the orange glass flowers adorning the half moon-shaped Monarch Window on the second floor and the chandelier hanging from the skylight in the dome, which resembles a mass of writhing, multicolored snakes.

The Bridge of Glass passes over I-705, connecting the waterfront and Pacific Avenue. This pedestrian walkway is a must for Chihuly lovers. The display pieces individually showcased along the Venetian Wall conjure up everything from vases to decanters to Martian life forms, all rendered exquisitely in colored glass.

Tacoma is a great theater town, and the Theater District, centered along—aptly enough—Broadway, spotlights two grandly restored dames and a state-of-the-art facility, all under the banner of the Broadway Center For the Performing Arts. The Pantages Theater (S. 9th Street and Broadway), built in 1918, was modeled after the lavishly opulent theater in the Palace of Versailles in France. Restored in 1983, it is home to the Tacoma Opera, the Tacoma City Ballet and the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra.

The Rialto Theater (a block up from the Pantages at S. 9th and Market streets), also restored, is a Beaux Arts jewel box of a building and former movie palace that presents performances by the Northwest Sinfonietta chamber orchestra and the Tacoma Youth Symphony, among others. The intimate Theatre on the Square, next to the Pantages, mounts an annual schedule of dramas, comedies and musicals. Close-to-the-stage seating, a come-as-you-are atmosphere and such events as “brewpub previews” all aim to make theatergoing an accessible experience here. Contact the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts for schedule, ticket information and details about free theater tours; phone (253) 591-5894 or (800) 291-7593.

Another artsy touch in the Theater District is the masks that are installed on the outside walls of surrounding buildings. The Woolworth Windows (on Broadway near the corner of S. 11th Street) houses cool art installations in a former Woolworth’s five-and-dime store. The Tollbooth Gallery (corner of Broadway and S. 11th Street) is a street kiosk that provides a tiny space for offbeat, mixed-media installations.

Downtown Tacoma has reminders of the past, too. The Spanish Steps, the stairway that connects Broadway with Commerce Street below, were intended to be used as a fire escape. Designed after the Spanish Steps in Rome that climb from the Piazza di Spagna up to the Trinità dei Monti church, Tacoma’s stairway was adorned with flowers and landscaping during its heyday, but over the course of decades time and city soot have both been unkind. The good news is that the steps are still around, the beneficiary of an ongoing renovation project. The tall, ancient-looking evergreen growing at the top of the steps is a Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), an ornamental native to Chile and Argentina.

Stadium High School, 111 N. E St. (between 1st Street and Division Avenue), was built in 1906 and was originally going to be a luxury hotel. The turreted brick walls and narrow windows give “the castle on the hill” a decidedly Gothic look. The sunken football stadium is where Heath Ledger serenaded Julia Stiles in the 1999 movie “10 Things I Hate About You,” a remake of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” set in a contemporary high school. And the vista looking out over Commencement Bay from the top of the bleachers is spectacular.

Local universities contribute significantly to Tacoma's vibrant performing arts scene, thanks to venues like the newly renovated Karen Hille Phillips Center for the Performing Arts at Pacific Lutheran University, 12180 Park Ave. S. The Pacific Lutheran University Jazz Ensemble performs at this state-of-the-art facility, on Red Square in the center of the campus. For information phone (253) 531-6900. The Jacobsen Series, named in honor of the former chair of the Piano Department, brings classical and chamber music concerts to the University of Puget Sound, 1500 N. Warner St. Performances are given in the 500-seat Schneebeck Concert Hall, on campus at N. 14th Street and Union Avenue. For schedule information phone the Office of Public Events at (253) 879-3555; to purchase tickets phone (253) 879-6013.

Take advantage of Sound Transit’s Tacoma Link light-rail system to explore the city. Link trains connect the Tacoma Dome station on E. 25th Street—a regional hub for bus and commuter train service—with stops at Union Station, the Convention Center and the Theater District—a convenient way to navigate downtown without driving. They run every 12 to 24 minutes Mon.-Fri. 5 a.m.-10 p.m., every 12 minutes Sat. 7:48 a.m.-10:10 p.m., and every 24 minutes Sun. and holidays 9:48-5:58. For more information phone (888) 889-6368.

Two local institutions stand out. Rather than a tempest in a teapot, Bob’s Java Jive (2102 S. Tacoma Way) is a teapot plunked down in a rather grimy industrial neighborhood on the south side of town—which makes its offbeat charm stand out all the more. It’s hard to find, but you can’t miss this round white edifice complete with red spout and handle.

Above the door are the words “world famous,” and Bob’s certainly does have an intriguing past. It began life in 1927 as the Coffee Pot, a restaurant that during the Prohibition years had a little back room, accessed through a secret door, where patrons partook of liquor and gambling. A local businessman bought the restaurant in 1955 and renamed it the Java Jive after a popular jukebox selection by vocal group the Ink Spots. The teapot opens at 8 p.m., and for a mere $5 cover you get pool, pinball, darts, nightly karaoke, a “jungle room” (a jungle mural painted around an addition added to the back of the teapot), beer and rowdy rock 'n roll.

You can't miss the classic '50s-era neon sign sitting atop a candy-cane pole at Frisko Freeze, a walk-up hamburger stand at 1201 N. Division Ave. (3 blocks west of Wright Park). It opened in 1950—and little has changed since, from the time-honored menu of burgers, fries, onion rings and “fish wiches” to milk shakes so thick a spoon stands up with absolutely no problem. There are Seattleites who will drive 45 minutes out of their way for one of these shakes.

Since there’s nary an outdoor seat at Frisko Freeze, you’ll have to eat in your car. Better yet, get a milk shake to go and head down Division Avenue to Wright Park, a lovely green rectangle shaded by beautiful old trees. Amble along the paths and listen to the kids playing; this is the sort of genteel urban scene developers were aiming for when land donated to the city in 1886 was developed into a public park modeled after the classic English design.

Other parks take advantage of the city’s scenic setting. Fireman's Park, 801 A St. at S. 8th Street, overlooks Commencement Bay and the Port of Tacoma. The park’s 105-foot totem (82 feet stand above ground) was carved out of red cedar by Alaskan Indians in 1903. For more panoramic views of the bay, head to Ruston Way Park, where a 2-mile-long paved walkway runs along the waterfront between Point Defiance and the North Tacoma neighborhood. On clear days you can see Vashon Island and the Olympic Mountains. Anglers can drop their lines at Les Davis Pier and the Old Town Dock. For additional information phone Metro Parks Tacoma at (253) 305-1000.

Spectator sports? You can choose between professional baseball and ice hockey. The Tacoma Rainiers play class AAA Pacific Coast League baseball at Cheney Stadium; phone (253) 752-7707. For information about other events phone the Tacoma Dome ticket office at (253) 272-3663 or the event hotline at (253) 572-3663

Although Tacoma has long dwelled in Seattle’s formidable shadow, it does trump its bigger sibling in at least one respect: the view of 14,411-foot Mount Rainier. While it's a prominent feature of the southern horizon in most of metro Seattle, the loftiest peak in the Cascade Range has—even on clear days—a surreal, somewhat ethereal presence, looking rather like a ghostly painting. But here there’s no mistaking the mountain; it soars majestically above the City of Destiny, a definitive visual backdrop.

Visitor Centers Travel Tacoma + Pierce County 1516 Commerce St. Tacoma, WA 98402. Phone:(253)284-3254 or (800)272-2662

ShoppingAntique Row is a concentration of more than a dozen shops along Broadway and St. Helens Avenue between S. 7th and S. 9th streets. Old Town, the original business district at McCarver Street and Ruston Way, has shops and restaurants. JCPenney, Macy's and Nordstrom are the anchor stores at Tacoma Mall, west of I-5 exits 130 and 131 on Tacoma Mall Boulevard.

The Proctor District, on N. Proctor and N. 26th streets, features more than 60 shops and restaurants. Freighthouse Square, 1 block north of the Tacoma Dome at 25th and East D streets, is a public market that features restaurants, specialty stores and a full calendar of events.

Things to Do Children's Museum of Tacoma

Foss Waterway Seaport

Job Carr Cabin Museum

The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum

LeMay—America's Car Museum

LeMay Collections at Marymount

Museum of Glass

Chihuly Bridge of Glass

Point Defiance Park

Fort Nisqually Living History Museum

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

Tacoma Art Museum

Tacoma Historical Society Museum

Tacoma Narrows Bridge

The Tacoma Nature Center

Union Station

Washington State History Museum

Wright Park

W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory


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Tacoma, WA

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