It can take days — maybe a week, if you’re on the scenic route — to see all of California’s major cities. But next door in Washington State, Olympia, Seattle and Tacoma are all within a drive of less than two hours.
In fact, you can reach Olympia, the state’s small-town capital, from either Seattle or Portland in 60-90 minutes. Connoisseurs of small cities will appreciate Olympia’s lovely waterfront and legendary farmer’s market, while the students at Evergreen State College give the town an artsy, boho spirit. Nature lovers will appreciate Olympia’s spectacular mountain scenery and abundant opportunities to savor views over Puget Sound.
Washington’s state capital is a miniature city: fewer than 50,000 people call it home. But the students at Evergreen State, consistently ranked among the top Pacific liberal-arts schools, keep downtown lively.
Known for its progressive atmosphere and emphasis on environmental studies — students are known as “Greeners,” and biking was a thing here long before Citibike — Evergreen, with its vegan menus and acres of hiking trails, is the crunchy soul of Olympia. The school counts myriad creative types among its graduates, including cartoonist Matt Groening of “Simpsons” fame, Michael Richards of “Seinfeld” and Carrie Brownstein, the singer and “Portlandia” star.
Olympia’s Jewish population is tiny, with many Jews — like Brownstein — arriving as students. (“Being Jewish in Olympia” was the topic of a recent senior project at Evergreen, a tidbit that drives home how marginal the community really is.)
Still, Jewish Olympians can find each other at no fewer than three congregations. There’s Temple Beth Hatfiloh, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary; once an Orthodox shul that served Olympia’s turn-of-the-century merchant class, the temple is now a Reconstructionist affiliate. Twenty years ago, a breakaway group formed the Conservative Congregation B’nai Torah, and a Chabad center hosts frequent events for students and locals.
Olympians of all persuasions take pride in their imperious State Capitol, a white domed neoclassical building that looks as though it had been lifted out of the other Washington. The Capitol is one of the city’s top attractions, offering guided tours of the building’s graceful, colonnaded interior and an impressive art collection.
Outside, the art continues on a gorgeously landscaped campus — courtesy of Law and Olmsted, the team behind Central Park — that makes the Capitol not only a place of legislation, but also a popular park, with views that extend over Puget Sound. Outdoor sights include a Winged Victory, numerous war memorials and lots of great sculpture.
Indeed, with the State Capital Museum closed for renovation, Olympia’s true glories are found out of doors. On a clear day, the snowcapped peaks of Mount Rainier and the Olympic Mountains loom from above; down below, the placid waters of Budd Inlet and Capitol Lake snake through the city.
The capitol campus may be the grandest of Olympia’s 40 parks, but a stroll through Olympia reveals many other oases worth checking out. Throughout the city center, so-called “art” benches, designed by local artisans, offer respite for pedestrians exploring the vibrant downtown.
Tiny Sylvester Park, just north of the capitol, hosts a weekly summer concert series featuring popular and retro acts. A few blocks away, the circa-1920s Capital Theater has been restored to its vintage splendor; today it plays host to the Olympia Film Society, which has a lineup of independent and art-house movies as well as concerts and art exhibits.
Just north along the eastern shore, Percival Landing Park is arguably Olympia’s most popular spot for waterfront outings, with picnic tables and a lovely boardwalk that wraps around a mile of Capitol Lake shoreline. From these verdant lawns, the Capitol dome fairly shimmers in West Coast sunshine.
Many picnickers nosh on fare from the Olympia Farmers Market, which was a star attraction long before the foodie revolution. Open Thursday through Sunday in the warmer months, the legendary market — located just north of Percival Landing — features the local, organic produce, meat, fish and pastries you’d expect. There’s also live musical entertainment, several restaurants and wares by local artisans, from pottery and glass to handmade soaps and jewelry. (There are at least a half-dozen smaller farmers’ markets throughout Olympia, too.)
If kids are along, take them to the Hands On Children’s Museum, which re-opened three years ago in a sparkling new facility on Olympia’s eastern waterfront. As you would expect, the museum emphasizes science and nature: galleries are devoted to Puget Sound, forests and tides, and kids will love exploring a driftwood fort, a mud pie pit and several gardens with edible flowers.