Small-town stunner is on the path to a renaissance, at it’s own pace

written by Naomi Tomky

Sitting at the bar at Dillinger’s, the upscale cocktail bar built in an old bank building, I asked my bartender, Donny Drake, what Olympia was missing. “Lots and lots of people,” he answered. 

Olympia, Washington

As the I-5 corridor’s big cities grow up, Olympia has quietly and consistently kept its core intact. Washington’s capital remains the same as it’s been for years, now with a few fancier trappings (like the cocktail bar). You can still duck into bars and listen to bands that might someday be famous—the future Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill or The Gossip, but now you can pre-game with oysters shucked to order. The town’s beers include those made from artesian well water, but mass-market pale ale is out and microbrewery IPAs have taken its place.

As Olympia gradually gives itself a makeover in the mirrors of Seattle and Portland—gaining a food hall, a food truck pod and a cutting-edge coffee roastery—it’s in no hurry. The town of just more than 50,000 people refurbishes historic buildings into modern uses, offers reinventions of businesses that have been around for years—like the farmers market, which has been going on for more than forty years—and welcomes newcomers to see the old stuff, be it in antique malls or historic landmarks.

Olympia’s coffee scene, like so many in the Northwest, is world-class, starting with the flagship Olympia Coffee Roasting Co. The downtown location, opened in 2015, shares its obsession with coffee quality through the glass-walled roastery and in every cup. 

The city has a walkable trail of shops through downtown. Start just up the block from the roastery at Finders Keepers Antique Mall, where forty booths sell everything from high-end dinnerware to heaps of old buttons. If that’s not enough, within a few blocks are the Courtyard Antique Mall, Antique Junkie and Peacock Vintage. 

For lunch, return to the modern era with a stop at 222 Market, the food hall that follows the national trend to bring marquee restaurants and food shops under a single roof. Chelsea Farms, a second-generation family business, brings its fresh bivalves straight from the source to its oyster bar here.

Olympia Beer started bragging about its well water-brewed beer in 1896, and the legacy—and slogan, “It’s the water”—remain prominent today. Well 80 Brewhouse promotes the strongest ties to the well-water roots of Olympia beer, and the enormous restaurant caters to families. Three Magnets, a few blocks away, has more of a traditional taproom feel and the best beers by far. For those willing to go farther afield, Top Rung, in Lacey, is worth the trip.

As Olympia gradually gives itself a makeover in the mirrors
of Seattle and Portland, it’s in no hurry. The town of just more than 50,000 people refurbishes historic buildings into modern uses, offers reinventions of businesses that have been around
for years and welcomes newcomers to see the old stuff.

From there, head out for a taste of nature and history at Tumwater Falls Park, a quick ten-minute drive south from the market. The 15-acre park offers short trails starting at the falls themselves, with native plants labeled, historic building markers and footbridges. Look up to see the original Olympia Brewery building. Stop at one of the benches and dig into your picnic supplies from the market before heading back into town.

Or take a leisurely Sunday stroll to Dillinger’s next-door neighbor, The Mouse Trap, for a five-course brunch. The small, reservations-only meals aren’t a secret, but they fly under the radar—even though they have some of the best food in town. If you have little ones with you, reward them for their patience with a stop into the Hands On Children’s Museum. Olympia’s kids museum trumps both the Seattle and Portland versions and is worth a trip on its own, with crafts, local-themed activities and elaborate water exhibits. Older kids and adults can skip that in favor of a trip to the state capitol building, which offers free daily tours.  

EAT

Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar 

www.chelseafarms.net/oyster-bar

Our Table

www.ourtableolympia.com/ourtable

Nineveh Assyrian

www.nineveholympia.com

El Pulgarcito

www.nineveholympia.com

The Mouse Trap

www.olymousetrap.com

Old School Pizzeria

www.oldschool-pizzeria.com

STAY

The Governor Hotel

www.coasthotels.com

Swantown Inn & Spa

www.swantowninn.com

Hilton Garden Inn

www.hiltongardeninn3.hilton.com

PLAY

Tumwater Falls Park

www.olytumfoundation.org

Olympia Farmers Market

www.olympiafarmersmarket.com

Capitol Building

www.olympiawa.gov

Hands On Children’s Museum

www.hocm.org

Little Creek Casino Resort

www.little-creek.com