What happens when a city known for its upscale malls is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the Pacific Northwest?
Just seven years ago, Bellevue’s skyline was littered with construction cranes and dining options were predictable chains in shopping malls. But a transformation has taken place, and Bellevue has emerged looking more like a twin city to Seattle than a shopping mall suburb. Here are some top family-friendly activities.
1. Take a stroll. Take a family stroll through the heart of Bellevue for a first-person view of the city’s evolution. You’ll see streets are slowly making room for bicycles among the ample car lanes, and pedestrians are taking over downtown sidewalks. In the heart of downtown is Bellevue’s crown jewel, Downtown Park, set between Bellevue Square Mall and Main Street. This 20-acre expanse of green, much of it grass dotted with trees, helped transform downtown Bellevue into a truly livable urban community.
A circular tree-lined promenade about a half-mile long follows a stepped canal that eventually spills over into a reflecting pool popular with mallard ducks. Notice the ample room for recreation — come on a sunny day to toss a frisbee, take a jog, have a family picnic or just read on a blanket under the shade of a cherry tree. You’ll find a modern children's playground and restrooms in the park's southwest corner.
Another park gem, a few miles from downtown, is Bellevue Botanical Garden; don't miss the suspension-bridge Ravine Experience.
2. Play indoors. On rainy Northwest days, Bellevue can save your sanity. Head to the hands-on KidsQuest Children's Museum at Factoria Mall if your kids like to splash, build things, and create. Little ones can climb in the cab of a real Peterbuilt purple rig, use buttons to make water rhythmically drop on drums, make images on a giant Light Bright board, and explore in a giant enclosed treehouse.
The whole family can try rock climbing together at Stone Gardens Indoor Climbing Gym. The expansive facility (over 21,000 feet of climbing terrain) has multiple areas and configurations to challenge all levels, even total beginners. There's a tilting wall, belay and rappel ledges, top out bouldering, 40 foot walls, and a cool kids area. The facility provides all the equipment you need to climb. Beginners can call ahead to schedule time with an instructor who can introduce them to the basics of climbing — to do this, ask for a "Pro Belay." Pro Belay is $60 an hour for up to four people and includes all equipment — perfect for a family activity.
The third floor of Bellevue Square Mall is devoted entirely to an expansive kid’s play area, called Kids Cove, with poured foam flooring and soft structures to climb on. The few stores on the third floor are kid-oriented — a cupcake shop, Gymboree and child’s hair salon.
3. Eat and play around the world. Over a third of Bellevue's residents were born outside of the United States, and over 80 languages are spoken by students in Bellevue's schools. There is no better place to immerse yourself in these immigrant cultures than at Crossroads, a community-centric shopping center in East Bellevue that's unlike any mall you’ve been in.
Owned and developed by Ron Sher, the bright mind behind Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and Seattle, Crossroads is a gathering spot for nearby residents to create, play, learn, communicate and eat. The multicultural food court has 20 restaurants and only one of them (Starbucks) is a chain ― all the rest are independent. Your head will spin from all of the wonderful food choices ― Indian, Ethiopian, Chinese and Greek, to name just a few. The huge dining area is bordered by a giant chess board on one end and a bandstand on another. While you eat, listen for the chorus of languages spoken all around you, like Mandarin, Spanish and Russian. The mall also boasts a fun, little-kid play area, Wiggleworks.
4. Get arty. Head to Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM), located next to Bellevue Square, to take in rotating exhibits that showcase the fine art of craft and design. It's a modern exhibition space that invites intimate viewing and learning about featured works by Northwest artists as well as national and international craftspeople.
BAM features activity stations throughout the museum and hosts kid-oriented events almost daily, plus First Friday workshops and very-affordable Crafty Saturdays. General admission is $25 for the whole family, kids under age 6 are free; and BAM is part of Seattle Center's Teen Tix program, where teens can buy tickets to many events and museums for just $5. BAM is also close to many kid-friendly restaurants.
With seven zip lines that can whisk people at speeds up to 35 mph, the course will make your kids (or you) feel like Indiana Jones on a jungle adventure. The course's zip lines range from 76 to 450 feet in length. The highest zip line is 80 feet off the ground.
6. Shop Main Street. Bellevue is known for its high-end shopping at The Bravern, but over on historic Main Street the shops are locally owned and the goods are unique. Make a stop at Glassy Baby for a one-of-a-kind handmade glass votive in a choice of candy colors, perfect for brightening a child’s bathroom. Fashion-conscious moms might want to duck into one of Main Street’s cute boutiques, such as La Ree, to check out the sale racks. Belle Pastry has been selling the Eastside’s most flaky, buttery croissants for years, and just around the corner on Bellevue Way is a Cupcake Royale should your party require an afternoon sugar rush.
Lauren Braden is a travel writer based in Seattle. Read about her family’s adventures and more local travel tips at Northwest TripFinder – nwtripfinder.com.
Photo credits: Downtown Park, J.C. Winkler, flickr; Kidsquest photo courtesy of the museum; Crossroads photo courtesy of Crossroads; BAM photo, Jules Antonio, flickr
This article was written in June 2012 and updated in January 2014.