6 Reasons to Drive to Olympia, Washington

It's only an hour away.

Percival Plaza in downtown Olympia Sunday
Percival Plaza in downtown Olympia Sunday | Photo by Steve Bloom of The Olympian
Percival Plaza in downtown Olympia Sunday | Photo by Steve Bloom of The Olympian

If you live in Washington State, chances are you’ve had a cup of Olympia Coffee, voted in an election, or had your life totally turned upside down by the best, most outrageous music of the 1990s: Riot Grrrl. In any case, you owe a little something to Olympia for these, shall we say delicacies, and if you’ve yet to actually visit the home of Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile, and the Washington State Legislature, it’s time to get yourself there, stat. 

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

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). However! 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. 

Capitol building in Olympia
Capitol building in Olympia | Photo courtesy of The Olympian

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 (unfortunately still closed due to COVID-19), 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. And though it’s less about history than it is about science, a visit to Olympia isn’t complete without stopping by the Puget Sound Estuarium, the city’s aquarium.  

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. 

Speaking of booze... 

For its name (and historical significance) alone, you can’t visit Olympia without paying homage in some form or fashion to the iconic Olympic Brewing Company, which sadly stopped brewing beer earlier this year after over 100 years of production. It’s not all bad, though: the company is still making the vodka it debuted last year, and you can pick up a bottle at a liquor store in town. 

If you’re a beer-or-die kind of person, try Headless Mumby Brewing, Three Magnets Brewing Co., or Top Rung Brewing Company (run by two firefighters in nearby Lacey). 

USFWS National Wildlife Refuge System
Courtesy of USFWS National Wildlife Refuge System

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.

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 Percival Landing Park. 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 Park 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
Courtesy of 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 did grab 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. 

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Emma Banks is a contributor for Thrillist.