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Go Nordic: Celebrating Ballard’s Syttende Mai With Kids

Ballard’s annual 17th of May parade is loads of fun for families

Daytona Strong

Published on: May 10, 2023

People in Norwegian traditional costumes walk in Ballard Syttende Mai parade holding Norwegian flags
Martin Ng

Ballard’s big day is nearly here. Hipp hipp hurra!

On May 17, Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood will once again celebrate its Scandinavian roots and Nordic pride by hosting one of the largest Syttende Mai parades outside of Norway. Syttende Mai means “May 17th” in Norwegian and the date commemorates the signing of Norway’s constitution in 1814.

In Ballard, seemingly the entire neighborhood, plus visitors from across the region, turn up for the annual 17th of May Parade. Join the fun this year on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. The parade starts at 6 p.m.

Neighborhood celebration

Syttende Mai is pronounced something like “soot-n-duh my,” and 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 among 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.

Norwegians in Seattle

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.

Ballard’s parade attracts some 10,000 people and always takes place on May 17, no matter the day of the week. (This year it’s on a Wednesday.) It’s a longstanding 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-size “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 neighborhood newspaper, pictured dressed in my little costume and gripping a Norwegian flag in my chubby hand. Decked out in colors of the Norwegian flag and attending with my parents and both sets of grandparents filled me with a joyful sense of belonging.

17th of May Parade in Ballard

Navigating Syttende Mai

The festival kicks off in the morning with activities such as fjord horse viewing and the Nordic Express train at the National Nordic Museum — in its modern home on Market Street. Bergen Place, at the corner of Northwest Market Street and 22nd Avenue Northwest, hosts Scandinavian music and entertainment from 1–5 p.m.

The evening parade streams through Ballard’s main streets (south along 24th Avenue Northwest, then east along Northwest Market Street) starting at 6 p.m. Various school groups 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 pride.

“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 for 2023:

  • 10 a.m.–2 p.m.: ​Kids can visit Norwegian fjord horses and catch a free ride on the Nordic Express mini train in the National Nordic Museum parking lot (around the back).
  • 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.: Gala luncheon at the Nordic Museum (buy tickets ahead)
  • 1–5 p.m. Open House at Leif Erikson Lodge (free entry; food and drinks for purchase)
  • 1–5 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 Northwest 62nd Street and 24th Avenue Northwest. The route travels south on 24th Avenue Northwest, east on Northwest Market Street, then turns south onto 22nd Avenue Northwest for one short block, then continues southeast along Ballard Avenue and ends at Northwest Ione Place.

Parking around Ballard is very difficult in advance of the parade. Plan to arrive early, park fairly far away and walk to the parade route. Transit routes through Ballard are also disrupted during the afternoon and evening of the parade.

More Scandinavian spots

There are plenty of other ways to explore Seattle’s Scandi heritage. While some 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.

Scandinavian Specialties
Located 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 décor, 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.).

The Swedish Club
On Dexter Avenue North in 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.

Skål Beer Hall
This spot on Ballard Avenue features local and Scandinavian beers and a menu of Nordic-inspired food. 5429 Ballard Ave. N.W.

More family fun around Ballard:

Editor’s note: This article was originally published several years ago and was updated most recently for 2023.

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