Rediscover Tacoma on a day-trip by leaving the car at home

A surrey ride along the Point Rustin Waterwalk

Sip tea or sample Indian curry inside a historic freighthouse. Ride free on light rail to museums. Stop for a beer in an old-time saloon, then hop on an electric scooter for a waterfront ride before making like a kid again, and zipping down a slide in a real-life game of Chutes and Ladders. 

Using four modes of public transportation plus some walking, my husband and I discovered there's more to Tacoma than the Dome on a recent car-free day trip. 

Instead of hassling with traffic and parking, we sat back taking in views of Mount Rainier from the top deck of a near-empty Sound Transit Sounder train on its reverse commute, leaving Seattle's King Street station at 7:55 a.m., and arriving in Tacoma just before nine. 

Our plan was to spend the next eight hours exploring on foot, by bus and light rail, falling back on Uber or Lyft if we ran out of time to catch the last train back at 5:15 p.m..
Three destinations, all in different parts of the city, were on our agenda for a sunny September weekday: 

* Museum Row, the downtown hub that houses three of Tacoma's major museums.

* Old Town Tacoma, a historic neighborhood fronting on the scenic Ruston Way waterfront walking and biking bath.

* The Dune Peninsula Park, opened in July on the former Asarco copper smelter Superfund site, along with the "Chutes and Ladders" staircase and slides linking Point Defiance Park with a waterfront marina.


Ride free on Tacoma Link light rail

Stepping off the Sounder, we took a quick look around  Freighthouse Square, a collection of vintage shops, art galleries and ethnic restaurants next to the Tacoma Dome station. The Olive Branch Cafe and Tea Room, decorated with antique furniture and crystal chandeliers, looked inviting, but didn't open until 11 a.m., so we made a mental note to return later, then crossed the street and stepped aboard the free Tacoma Link light rail for a five-minute ride downtown.


Tea at the Olive Branch next to the Tacoma Dome station


Museum Row

Within a short walk of the Union Station light rail stop on Pacific Avenue are the Tacoma Art Museum, the Washington State History Museum and the Museum of Glass.

Finding breakfast wasn't a problem. Open early is Anthem Coffee and Tea, next to the History Museum, with coffee, pastries and an outdoor patio. Across the street is Savor Creperie where we lingered over plump breakfast crepes filled with eggs and avocado until the museums opened at 10 a.m.

Unless you plan to spend the day museum-hopping and shopping downtown (a perfectly doable option), best advice is to pick one museum, spend an hour or two exploring, then move on, with the aim of getting back to the station by late afternoon. (No worries If you want to stay longer, or go on a weekend when the Sounder isn't running. Sound Transit also operates an express bus with frequent service between Seattle and Tacoma).   

We chose the Tacoma Art Museum, known for its collection of art glass, much of it donated by Tacoma-native Dale Chihuly, co-founder of the Pilchuck Glass School


The Simpsons at TAM
Open since January is the new Rebecca and Jack Benaroya wing, housing works from the Seattle couple's extensive collection of works by glass artists around the world. On display through Dec. 31 is “Bart at TAM: Animating America’s Favorite Family,” featuring more than 100 hand-drawn scenes, scripts and other drawings related to the the Simpsons television family’s first 13 seasons.

What's old and what's new

Tucked between Museum Row and Point Defiance Park is Old Town Tacoma, a historical neighborhood across from Commencement Bay  where Tacoma’s founder, Civil War veteran Job Carr, arrived in 1864.

Carr staked a claim on land he hoped would be the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and became mayor of what then was called Tacoma City. But Carr missed the mark slightly, and the rail line ended two miles east in what became “New Tacoma.”

Reminiscent of days gone by is the Spar,  a friendly tavern and coffeehouse in a red brick building at 2121 N. 30th St. on the site of the Old Tacoma Saloon, opened in 1884. Getting there took about 20 minutes on Bus No. 13 which we caught on Dock Street by walking across the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, an art-filled pedestrian bridge leading from the History Museum to the Museum of Glass. 


The Spar in Old Town Tacoma 

Over espresso shakes a turkey sandwiches in the Spar's back room we could see Commencement Bay and the start of the long, paved Ruston Way shoreline trail, popular with walkers, bikers and rollerbladers.

One option was to take the No. 11 bus that would get us within a short walk of our final destination near Point Ruston, a residential, shopping and dining development built on the site of the former Asarco smelter, once one of the country's most polluted Superfund sites.

The sun was out, so we decided to walk the almost three miles instead, that is until we spotted two Lime e-scooters parked next to a fishing pier. 


Commencement Bay

Most of the waterfront path, as it turns out, is a designated  "low speed zone,"  meaning our scooters were programmed to go no more than 5 miles an hour. The ride was safer and more relaxing at this speed, but also  expensive, costing us about $11.50 each.

We ditched the scooters at the start of the mile-long Waterwalk at Point Ruston, a pedestrian and biking trail along the bay that connects to the new 11-acre Dune Peninsula Park

Named after a science fiction novel authored by the late Tacoma native Frank Herbert, the park opened this summer following years of work by Metro Parks Tacoma to convert the peninsula, created by toxic slag from the smelter, into a safe waterfront attraction. 

Also opened in July is the new Wilson Way pedestrian bridge, linking Point Defiance Park to the Ruston waterfront. Next to the bridge is what locals call the “Chutes and Ladders” experience, a series of six slides next to sets of stairs leading to the Port Defiance Marina below. 


Chutes and Ladders slide

"On weekends, this place is packed with kids," a woman said as she slithered down one of the slides. Today, it was mostly adults like us, alternating between sliding and walking until we reached the marina and the bus stop for the No. 11 back to town. 

If you go: 

Sounder trains run between Seattle and Tacoma Monday through Friday during peak hours, and sometimes on weekends for special events. Travel time between Seattle's King Street station and the Tacoma Dome station is one hour. Adult fares are $5.25 each way ($2.50 for seniors). .

Sound Transit also operates the 590/594 express bus between Seattle and the Tacoma Dome station on weekdays and weekends at times when the Sounder isn't running. The trip also takes an hour.  Adults fares are $3.75 ($1 for seniors).

Tacoma Link light rail serves downtown Tacoma, with six stops including the Tacoma Dome, South 25th Street, Union Station, the Convention Center, South 11th Street and the Theater District. The service is free. Details at www.traveltacoma.com/plan/link-light-rail/ 

Click here for Tacoma bus information. 

All the trains and buses accept the ORCA transit cards.

Bikes and four-wheeled surreys can be rented from Wheel Fun Rentals on the Waterwalk at Point Ruston. 

Click here for a map and information on the new Dune park, Wilson Way bridge and "Chutes and Ladder'' slides.

Go here for Tacoma and Pierce County tourism information.


This story appeared in the Seattle Times on Sept. 25, 2019

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