Like nearly everyone I know, I came to Seattle to live deliberately, to invent myself and my adoptive city in whatever image I chose, free from the cornball strictures of the old way and fueled by an adolescent disdain for anything that smacked of the tourist. Of course, little did I realize that by aiming my studious sneer at every Ride the Ducks truck that rolled past me, I was embodying the very tourism I was intending to disdain. The old way has never mattered more.
• $18 adults/$15 seniors & students/$9 children
I've lived in Seattle for nearly 23 years, and not until last weekend did I learn that Elliott Bay is deeper than the Space Needle is tall. That's because, like a fool, I waited more than two decades to take Bill Speidel's Underground Tour. Don't do as I did. Go and learn about how Seattle's original streets were once literal rivers of human waste, how a benevolent prostitute created the public education system, and how a lazy immigrant started the fire that burned it all down in 1889. More importantly: As you lament the ongoing nightmare of your new hometown's transit imbroglios, it may come as some relief to understand that this city, like so many other pre- and postindustrial American conurbations, was founded and framed by thieves and idiots. The tour was created in 1965 by an ambitious publicist who both understood and typified the maxim of the entrepreneurial huckster: If you've got a giant pile of garbage that you can't dispose of, put a sign on it that says "Private Property. Admission $18." (PRO TIP: The tours are guided by genial and talented performers. Slip yours an extra $10, and they may take you down to the sub-sub-basement. I obviously can't disclose what they keep down there, but it lends a whole new historical context to the term "beast mode.")
• $29 adults/$18 children
A 20-mile ride around Seattle's clogged streets that pauses for a dip in Lake Union, RTD is by far the wackiest, tackiest, least purely historical experience competing for your tourist dollar. But it is nonetheless required. (PRO TIP: If you're willing to part with a $50 gratuity and the boat isn't too full, the "captain" may let you drive.) I'm not suggesting you go spend every weekend tooling around the city on board an amphibious landing craft with all the other rubbernecking rubes in Starbucks sweatshirts singing along to Led Zeppelin songs and cheering obnoxiously when prompted by the tour guide/driver. But I am demanding you do it once, for a visitor's-eye view of the city you've just adopted as your home.
• $19 adults/$17 senior/$12 children
I'm also suggesting you take the 43-second, 520-foot elevator ride to the top of the Space Needle. (PRO TIP: In honor of the Seahawks' recent successes, one lucky passenger in every 12th group is offered the chance to take the smaller elevator, more like a dumbwaiter, to the very top of the needle, where the aircraft warning beacon flashes, 605 feet above Seattle.)
• $7.50 adults/$6 students/$5 kids (reopens in February, call for details)
Observe the observation deck on the 35th floor of the Smith Tower, once the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River. (PRO TIP: It is rumored that the person who lives in the stunning apartment at the top of the tower won her tenancy by virtue of being a regular visitor to the observation deck; speculation continues that the building's managers are always on the lookout for a successor.)
Go watch the men throw the fish at the Market. Have a fresh donut while you're at it. (PRO TIP: Though they don't advertise it, it's a well-known fact that if you can pick off a fish in mid-flight, it's yours to keep.)
Pose for a selfie with the Fremont Troll. (PRO TIP: Do not publish that photo, even online; the artist responsible for the troll is notoriously litigious.)
However chintzy these things may seem—however chintzy they indisputably are—they are the DNA strands that map Seattle's genome. Yes, they're fun, and yes, they're educational. But they have a sacramental character, too. The civic history they embody is inscribed just as much in the journey itself as in the fun historical facts imparted by the wage-slave Virgils who lead you through it. As the city changes to accommodate all this new prosperity (over the impotent moans of sentimental native sons and daughters), these tourist traps are the lipstick traces of Seattle's pre-boom soul.
Your arrival, like mine before it, is the essential lifeblood and inevitable byproduct of urbanity's Darwinian aspect; it's also part of the tidal churn that erodes this miraculous city's pioneer identity. So don't go thinking you're better than the bovine dipshits on those amphibious vehicles just because you've got a permanent address. There's no such thing as a permanent address. You're a tourist here until you're not—and the city decides when that is, not you. Sooner or later, you learn that there's no greater affront to the spirit of people actually from Seattle (and the rest of us, who only pretend we are) than trying to seem like you're not like all the other carpetbaggers. Because you are. You utterly, utterly are. As the great Seattle poet John Donne memorably sang on his commercially disappointing but critically celebrated second album, "Never send to ask for whom the Ducks ride. They ride for thee."