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Speed Travel: 20 Quick Ways to Explore Other Cultures in the Seattle Area

chinese tea kettles

This afternoon we are in China or Taiwan, or maybe both.

I'm writing from a tea room filled with the quiet noise of a waterfall and the peaceful smells of oolong tea. A couple nearby are chattering in what I think is Mandarin. My daughter sits beside me doing her homework and sipping a warm green tea latte.

We’ve traveled here for only about an hour and half. When we step outside, we’ll be teleported back to Bellevue, Wash. We’ll be refreshed from our journey to foreign lands. No jetlag. No big budget required.

With a few dollars and a few minutes, you can get a quick taste of another culture through “speed travel.” Sample art, music, dessert, a performance, or even a state of mind. The Puget Sound region is a hotbed of cross-cultural opportunities, from Japanese tea ceremonies to high tea British style; from spas for teens to sweets for tots.

In this article, we focus on ideas that require little or no pre-planning. They’re meant for when you have a couple of hours on your hands and wonder, “Where will we travel today?”

1. Smacha Tea (14603 NE 20th St., Bellevue) offers a house special of oolong tea with floating red jelly cubes. The taste and smell of this unusual blend sent me back to Taipei where we first discovered the fun of tasting tea.

2. Taste European chocolate at Boehm’s Candies and Chocolates(255 NE Gilman Blvd., Issaquah). Take a few minutes to wander in their garden, smell the chocolate, and sample something delicious. Dare to try the ice cream bar swirled in a vat of melted goodness and then rolled in nuts.

3. Stop by Café Turko (754 N. 34th Street, Seattle) for a late breakfast in an amazing Turkish setting. Try the mother-in-law platter.

4. Visit the Japanese Garden (1075 Lake Washington Blvd. E., Seattle) in the Washington Park Arboretum for a peaceful walk around gorgeous ponds, bridges, paths, islands and unique tree shapes. Purchase a small bag of food to feed the koi!

Triple XXX Rootbeer in Issaquah5. The iconic Triple XXX Root Beer Drive-In (98 N.E. Gilman Blvd., Issaquah) is home to an extraordinary amount of Americana, huge hamburgers, an old-time jukebox, and frequent classic car shows -- and owned by a joyful Mexican family.

6. Take high tea at the Queen Mary Tea Room (2912 N.E. 55th Street, Seattle), the oldest independent English tea room in America.

7. Asian supermarkets are a window into many other cultures and new kinds of snacks, veggies and sweets. Viet Wah (270 S. Hanford St. Bldg. B., Seattle) and Uwajimaya (600 5th Ave. S., Seattle) have their main stores in the International District, but also have other outlets in the region.

8. Hit the taco truck on a sunny day and you're in Mexico. Try the very authentic Taqueria Costa Alegre (9000 Rainier Ave S., Seattle). On a rainy day, sit inside the retrofitted bus and watch Spanish-language TV.

9. The Northwest African American Museum, in the old Coleman School building in south Seattle (2300 S. Massachusetts St., Seattle), provides a fascinating look at the African-American experience in the region, including a permanent gallery of interactive exhibits about the journeys people have taken to the Pacific Northwest.

10. Get a window on Islam at the Idris Mosque in North Seattle (1420 N.E. Northgate Way), which welcomes visitors by appointment. Our tour coincided with afternoon prayers and our guide was forthcoming and gracious.

11. Visit the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism (108 N.W. 83rd Street, Seattle) with your kids for a 7 p.m. Friday evening meditation or a Sunday morning introductory class.

12. Self-described as the “Indoor Asian Lifestyle Mall,” The Great Wall Shopping Mall (18230 East Valley Highway, Kent) has an assortment of restaurants and small stores that you won’t find anywhere else, such as the 99 Ranch Market and the beginnings of a Bruce Lee Museum.

13. Visit a bit of West Africa at the Baol International Ethnic Gift store in the Columbia City neighborhood of south Seattle (4906 Rainier Ave. S.), which offers unique arts and crafts and a kid-friendly spirit. The owners encouraged our kids to try out the musical instruments. They also run the Teranga Restaurant across the street (4903 1/2 Rainier Ave S., Seattle), or stop by Afrikando Banadir (5212 Rainier Ave. S.), for traditional Senegalese pudding.

14. Pamper your teenage daughter Korean style at the legendary, women-only Olympus Day Spa in Tacoma or Lynnwood: Earth energy rooms, herbal dry sauna, a mugwort steam sauna, multiple whirl pools, a reading room, a meditation room, and a fine little Korean restaurant. Tea ceremony classes are hosted on site.

Olympus Day Spa

15. One of our kids’ favorite shopping experiences is Daiso (International District, Westlake Center, Alderwood Mall), the Japanese equivalent to the dollar store, with a wide assortment of useful eccentric items, from drinking glasses to a plastic banana holder to protect fragile fruit on picnics.

16. Go! Try this amazing 4000-year-old Japanese game at the Seattle Go Center (700 N.E. 45th St., Seattle), with a Japanese style tatami room as well as an American-style playing room. Admission is always free for kids under 18.

Go center in Seattle

17. Learn capoeira, a martial art developed by enslaved Africans in Brazil. Classes are taught through the Seattle Capoeira Center in the International District and in Tacoma, at AxéSeattle on Capitol Hill and in the University District (through ASUW's Experimental College, locations vary).

18. At Egyptian store Pyramid Imports (111 Pine St., Seattle), find Arabic CDs, incense, oils, papyrus paintings, belly-dancing supplies, jewelry, drums, Egyptian history books, Egyptian activity books for kids and more.

19. Get a flash of Seattle's past at the Norwegian Heritage Museum (3014 NW 67th St., Seattle), with exhibits that highlight our region's Scandinavian legacy, in the Northwest and the country as a whole.

20. A best-kept secret of the region is Federal Way's The Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection (33663 Weyerhaeuser Way S., Federal Way), with bonsais from six different countries. It’s free and right next to the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden, also worth a visit.

There are so many more cross-cultural opportunities to discover in Puget Sound. You and your kids could go around the world without missing a day of school!

And 16 more:

1. Take a PCC cooking class, which dip into many international cuisines, including Italian, Mexican and Japanese.

PCC summer cooking classes

2. Tour the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle's International District.

3. Learn about a variety of Pacific Rim cultures at The Burke Museum in Seattle's University District.

4. Eat dim sum or Chinese dumplings.

5. Enjoy a Japanese tea ceremony at the Japanese gardens, or Seattle Asian Art Museum.

7. Discover Mongolian food at Mongolian Hot Pot in Bellevue and Korean cuisine at Korean BBQ in south Seattle.

8. Eat donuts at a hockey game and feel Canadian, eh?

9. Explore Scotland via the Kilt store in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood.

10. Eat kaiten sushi at a spot like Blue C Sushi (many locations). If raw fish on a conveyor belt in the Northwest doesn’t make you think of all the possibilities the world holds, nothing will.

11. Taste your way through many cultures at the international food court at Bellevue's Crossroads Mall; look for free performances on the weekends.

12. Cross the Cascade mountains to visit little Germany in Leavenworth. Try Der Keller on Front Street, where you can munch on a sausage while listening to liederhosen-clad musicians playing an accordian.

13. Eat Trinidadian style at Pam’s Kitchen in north Seattle.

14. Take your teens to a Brazilian steakhouse. Though not cheap, since it’s all-you-can-eat, it could even be considered economical with big eaters (teen boys!).

15. Watch a foreign film at the SIFF theater near the Seattle Center, or rent one at Scarecrow Video in north Seattle.

16. Enjoy a favorite cartoon from another culture.


Bill Richards and Ashley Steel, Seattle-based writers on family travel, authored and published  Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids, a book that aims to help expand cultural horizons and help cultivate our next generation of global citizens through travel.

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