While kids still have to wait a while for the sequel to "Frozen," this month they can satisfy their Nordic-minded imaginations at one of the largest Syttende Mai parades outside of Norway. Seattle’s 17th of May Festival draws thousands of spectators to Ballard each year. Syttende Mai means "May 17th" and is pronounced something like "soot-n-duh my."
Marking the signing of Norway’s constitution in 1814, the daylong event celebrates Seattle’s rich Scandinavian history. In a time of rapid change in our city — and as Seattle’s connection to its Scandinavian past is growing more distant — Syttende Mai is something every Seattle-area family should experience at least once, no matter your heritage. It’s one of the region’s most entertaining festivals for families.
We’ll get to the schedule of events in a moment — think parade! music! fjord horses! — but first it’s helpful to know more about the event.
Syttende Mai, also known as Grunnlovs-dagen, is important to Norway, but it’s also significant here in Seattle. Seattle has hosted Syttende Mai festivities since 1889, the year Washington was admitted to the union. Around that time, nearly a quarter of the immigrants in the area were of Scandinavian descent.
The parade attracts approximately 10,000 people and always takes place on May 17, no matter the day of the week. (This year it’s on a Thursday.) It’s a tradition for many families, including mine.
Because I'm a full-blooded Norwegian who grew up in Seattle (my dad came from Norway as a preteen, and my mom is Norwegian by way of North Dakota), Syttende Mai has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a child, I’d dress up for the parade in a pint-sized “bunad” (Norwegian folk costume) with its thick black skirt, decorative bodice, crisp white shirt and an ornate “sølje” pinned to my chest like a broach.
One year, I even made it onto the front page of the "Ballard News-Tribune" dressed in my little costume, gripping a Norwegian flag in my chubby hand. Attending with my parents and both sets of grandparents, decked out in colors of the Norwegian flag, filled me with a joyful sense of belonging.
Navigating Syttende Mai
The festival kicks off in the morning with activities such as fjord horse viewing and kids' crafts at the Nordic Museum — in its brand-new home on Market Street (free admission that day). Bergen Place, at the corner of N.W. Market Street and 22nd Avenue N.W., hosts Scandinavian music and entertainment from 2–5:45 p.m.
The evening parade streams through Ballard’s main streets (find the route below under “parade tips”) starting at 6 p.m. Various schools and organizations — those with ties to Nordic culture and those without — participate. You’ll see marching bands and drill teams, Viking ships, classic cars and plenty of people in traditional dress in this huge show of both heritage and community celebration.
“In a time of great flux and a rapid pace of development, I think all ethnic festivals are very important: They remind us of where we come from, our history and how it relates to the present landscape,” says Lori Ann Reinhall, president of the Seattle Bergen Sister City Association and music director for Syttende Mai.
“In the case of the Ballard neighborhood, this message has a particular urgency,” she continues. “With the current political climate, this message is even more important: We are all immigrants with a past to be proud of, a past that has helped shape the city to be what it is today.”
17th of May Festival schedule of activities
- 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Barneleker, children’s activites and crafts at the Nordic Museum (free admission)
- Noon Syttende Mai luncheon (sold out for 2018)
- Noon–5 p.m. Open House at Leif Erikson Hall (food and drinks for purchase)
- 2–5:45 p.m. Music and entertainment at Bergen Place Park
- 6–8 p.m. Parade
Parade route tips
Get there early to find a good sidewalk spot from which to watch the parade. The parade route begins at the corner of N.W. 62nd Street and 24th Avenue N.W. The route travels south on 24th Avenue N.W., left onto Market Street, then turns right onto 22nd Avenue N.W., then continuing southeast along Ballard Avenue and ends at N.W. Ione Place. Find more on the route and a full schedule of events here.
More Scandinavian spots
There are plenty of other ways to explore Seattle’s Scandi heritage. While a number of Scandinavian businesses have closed over the years (locals might remember Olsen’s and the Copper Gate in Ballard, to name just a couple), others are still thriving.
Across the street from Ballard High School, this shop sells Scandinavian cheeses; smoked, cured, and salted fish and meats; specialty candies; and an assortment of pantry staples. Also find home decor, clothing, books and a café: Try the “smørrebrød,” or open sandwiches, and the Solo (a favorite Norwegian orange-flavored soda I remember drinking at Syttende Mai parades back in my youth). 6719 15th Ave. N.W.
A trio of bakeries
In north Ballard, Larsen’s Danish Bakery bakes specialties such as cloud-like cardamom buns and almond kringle (8000 24th Ave. N.W.). You’ll also find excellent pastries at Byen Bakeri (15 Nickerson St.) and Nielsen’s Pastries in Lower Queen Anne (520 Second Ave. W.).
On Dexter Avenue North in downtown Seattle, the Swedish Club offers events such as a family-friendly Friday Kafé with meatballs (to rival Ikea’s) and Scandi “smörgås” (sandwiches) and dinners (no membership required), as well as some of the best views of Lake Union (to rival Canlis’ — don’t tell!). 1920 Dexter Ave. N.
This is one for the parents. The artisan nano-distillery produces a variety of aquavits, and both the deli and the café menu highlight its Scandinavian heritage along with local producers. Note: Hours are variable; check the website or call. 4421 Shilshole Ave. N.W.