8 Reasons to Drive to Olympia, Washington

It's a destination for coffee, beer, and wildlife—and it's only an hour away.

Seattle—with its top-tier restaurants, unparalleled bars, and endless things to do—generally dominates the discourse when it comes to the gorgeous state of Washington. But now it’s time to turn our attention to the capital city: Olympia. As the birthplace of Riot grrrl, the home of Olympia Coffee, and the seat of most government-related happenings (at least on a state level), there’s a lot going on in this small but vibrant city of 51,000 residents. Originally settled in 1846, Olympia became an official city in 1882, and, like many other cities in Washington, logging, oystering, and shipping quickly became main drivers of the economy. Olympia grew from there, becoming the capital of the state even before it earned city status, in 1853. And most importantly for you, it's only an hour's drive from Seattle—and the perfect destination for a weekend trip for these eight reasons.

Olympia doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should

Obviously, a lot has changed since Olympia’s early days at the turn of the 19th century. And though Olympia is technically the capital of Washington, most people probably think of Seattle when they think of the state, and with good reason: it’s much more famous culturally (Sleepless in Seattle, anyone?) and much larger (Seattle’s population is 724,000, while Olympia’s is only 51,000). But that’s not to say that Olympia deserves to fly totally under the radar, and as far as we’re concerned, it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves. Plus, it’s only an hour’s drive away from Seattle, so you’ve really got no excuse not to pay this town a visit.

Old Capitol Building
Old Capitol Building | Brian Logan Photography/Shutterstock

This town is home to lots of history

As we mentioned, Olympia is the capital of Washington, meaning that it’s home to a number of historical buildings, like the 1909 Governor’s Mansion and the Legislative Building, built in a neoclassical style in 1928. Other sites include the Bigelow House Museum, which is the oldest house still standing in Washington (currently closed for renovations), the Old Capitol Building (which was in use from 1905 until 1928), and the Schmidt House, a historic home originally built in 1904 for the founder of Olympic Brewing Company, Leopold Schmidt.

For a dose of Riot grrrl history, check out Rainy Day Records, which offers up a good combination of both old and new music, Last Word Books, a new and used bookstore with lots of Riot Grrrl-esque zines, or Cryptatropa Bar, a slightly spooky gothic-themed bar that also doubles as a live music music venue.

Olympia Pinball Museum
Olympia Pinball Museum

There’s no shortage of museums and galleries

When it comes to cultural enrichment, Olympia doesn’t disappoint. If you have kids in tow, there are a number of can’t-miss spots, all of which have reopened during the pandemic: the Hands On Children’s Museum, the Olympia Pinball Museum (equally fun for adults), and the Puget Sound Estuarium are all great places to start. Meanwhile, if you want to see some local art, we recommend a walking tour of downtown’s galleries—the cooperatively owned Splash Gallery, Van Tuinen Art, The Mark Gallery, and Art House Designs (on Franklin Street) are all within a few blocks of each other and full of local flare.

You can’t visit without paying homage to Olympia Brewing Company

For its name (and historical significance) alone, you can’t visit Olympia without paying homage in some form or fashion to the iconic Olympia Brewing Company, which sadly stopped brewing beer last year after over 100 years of production. Founded in 1896 by one Leopold Friederich Schmidt, and eventually acquired by Pabst in 1999, the operation was actually located in nearby Tumwater. But its reach went far beyond Washington; you might recognize a can from The Graduate, The Blues Brothers, W., or any number of films in which Olympia Brewing Company makes a surprise appearance.

Cheeky Martini Lounge
Cheeky Martini Lounge

Speaking of booze...

If you’re mourning the loss of the aforementioned iconic beer, there’s a consolation prize: the company is still making the vodka it debuted in 2020, and you can pick up a bottle at a liquor store in town.

If you’re a beer-or-bust kind of person, try Headless Mumby Brewing, Three Magnets Brewing Co., or Top Rung Brewing Company (which is run by two firefighters in nearby Lacey). Otherwise, we suggest stopping by Cheeky Martini Lounge (a cute, plant-based cocktail bar), or a wine-focused spot like Happy Hour Olympia or Rumors Wine Bar.

Unsurprisingly, Olympia has no shortage of beautiful nature

Like pretty much all cities in Washington State, you don’t have to go far in Olympia to witness some seriously stunning natural beauty. For starters, why not spend an afternoon at Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, a 4,529-acre preserve at the meeting point of the Puget Sound and the Nisqually River? Home to over 200 bird species and plenty of hiking trails, there’s no shortage of things to see and do here. If you don’t want to leave the downtown area, you could also stop by Marathon Park, the Yashiro Japanese Garden, or Olympia’s iconic waterfront park, Percival Landing.

Percival Landing
Percival Landing | Sveta Imnadze/Shutterstock

The waterfront is where it’s at

The Historic District of downtown Olympia wouldn’t be half as charming as it is now without the waterfront, aka the aforementioned Percival Landing. Here, you can take a stroll along the mile-long boardwalk, check out rotating public art, and enjoy the gorgeous waters of West Bay. Percival Landing is something of a hub in Olympia—it’s where the best people-watching happens, where many an event has taken place, and where it’s easy to while away the hours watching the boats come and go and generally drinking in that salty sea air (which, if you live in Western Washington, you already know and love).

Swing Wine Bar
Swing Wine Bar

This town knows how to wine and dine its visitors

After all that walking around, you’ll probably be ready to eat (even if you already grabbed a snack at the Olympia Farmers Market). The options abound: for classic Pacific Northwestern fare, try Cascadia Grill; for French food, try La Petite Maison; for Turkish bites, try Mediterranean Breeze; for New American fare, try Iron Rabbit; for literal wining and dining, look no further than Swing Wine Bar, which is nestled in a house overlooking Capitol Lake. Oh, and if you’re up for a kayak trip after dinner, head to Tugboat Annie’s, the maritime-themed restaurant that also offers kayak rentals for the more adventurous among us.

At this point, dessert may be calling your name; if so, pay a visit to Sofie’s Scoops Gelateria, Juju’s Iced Cream & Frozen Custard, or Hawley’s Gelato to satisfy that sweet tooth.

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Emma Banks is a contributor for Thrillist.