6 Reasons to Drive to Port Townsend, Washington

A drive to the historic “Key City” will only take you two hours from Seattle.

Admiral Jack
Photo courtesy of Admiral Jack

The Olympic Peninsula is known for many things (the Twilight saga not least among them), but perched on the northeastern tip is a town that was once predicted to become very large and very famous: Port Townsend. At the turn of the century, the city was primed to become one of the largest harbors on the west coast. Railroads were rapidly expanding, and Port Townsend was to be the westernmost stop for travelers and cargo. But when the Northern Pacific Railroad stopped short in Tacoma, failing to link up with Port Townsend, the heyday was over.

Of course, the story of Port Townsend doesn’t end there.

Today, the town’s maritime industry, festival culture, and emphasis on the arts is drawing a whole new generation of visitors and future residents who can’t help but fall in love with Port Townsend’s historic (and present-day) appeal. With a population of around 10,000 people, it’s got those not-too-small, not-too-big, extremely quaint vibes that we all know and love. It’s well worth a day trip from Seattle.

Rose Theatre
Rose Theatre

Port Townsend is known for its stunning Victorian architecture

Port Towsend’s brief boom in the late 1800s meant two things for its architecture: investors spent a lot of money on really nice houses, and the dominant style of those houses was ornate Victorian. Think Gothic influences, intricate woodwork, wrap-around porches, turrets, etc. They kind of look like very expensive doll houses, and they’re all over Port Townsend—so much so that the city was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1977.

There’s more stunning architecture to be seen downtown: the Port Townsend Public Library, built in 1913 by a group of “leading community ladies” with a grant from the Carnegie Library Foundation, the Rose Theatre, which still operates as an indie cinema today, and the Federal Building, which is now a post office. There’s also a Bell Tower overlooking downtown which was used to alert firefighters in the mid-1800s, restored in 2003 by the Jefferson County Historical Society.

Wooden Boat Festival
Wooden Boat Foundation

There’s no shortage of cool festivals to attend

Nowadays, Port Townsend is something of a festival-goer’s dream destination. Sure, there’s no Coachella equivalent happening here, but consider your options: the Olympic Music Festival; Centrum’s Jazz Port Townsend (aka Washington’s longest running jazz festival); the all-summer-long Concerts on the Dock series; Soundcheck Music & Arts Festival; Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival; the Jefferson County Fair; the Port Townsend Film Festival; and of course, the Wooden Boat Festival, which is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest of its kind in North America, given Port Townsend’s long-standing reputation as a maritime center. During the festival—which happens every September—over 300 boats convene in the harbor for presentations, live music, local food, exhibitions, and plenty of wine and beer.

La Vie en Rose
Photo courtesy of Northwest Maritime Center

There’s plenty of opportunity to experience the rich maritime culture

Speaking of the Wooden Boat Festival, Port Townsend’s involvement in the maritime industry dates back to the turn-of-the-century, when this harbor city was just finding its sea legs, so to speak. Today, independent boat builders still flock to the port, and visitors can check out the Northwest Maritime Center—which is right on the waterfront—for boat tours, paddleboard and paddle wheeler rentals, and more. There’s also a wooden boat shop if you’re looking for a souvenir. Sign up for a tour of Port Townsend on Admiral Jackor a private group sailing lesson on La Vie en Rose for the full experience.

Olympic Peninsula
Kenneth Sponsler/Shutterstock

It doesn’t get much more beautiful than the Olympic Peninsula

Dipping your toes into maritime culture isn’t the only way to enjoy nature in Port Townsend. Being situated on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula means you’re a stone’s throw away from some of Washington State’s most stunning natural wonders—like Olympic National Park, the Hoh Rain Forest, and Ruby Beach, for instance.

If you don’t want to leave town, Port Townsend itself is home to Fort Worden Historical State Park, a Victorian-era Army Coast Artillery Corps base built between 1898 - 1920 to protect the US from invasion via sea. Now, the 432-acre park is the perfect place to explore the shoreline, learn about some Puget Sound history at the Puget Sound Coast Artillery Museum, spend a night camping on the beach, or grab lunch at the Reveille Café (unfortunately Taps at the Guardhouse is temporarily closed).

Admiralty Fine Foods
Photo courtesy of Admiralty Fine Foods

Speaking of food…

No visit of Port Townsend would be complete without a meal (or two) downtown, where cafés nestled in historic brick buildings serve up all kinds of fare—think Mediterranean and Asian-influenced eats from Silverwater Cafe, salads and sandwiches from Owl Sprit Cafe, pies from Waterfront Pizza, Thai food from Khu Larb Thai, and sushi from Ichikawa. For camping groceries and excellent natural wine, check out the Food Co-op; for a waterfront dining experience like no other, pay a visit to Admiralty Fine Foods, whose menu is the stuff of vacation dreams (dungeness crab dip; impossibly fresh clams; roasted garlic toast; toasted hazelnut salad).

Lastly, let’s talk art

Port Townsend is a self-proclaimed "Victorian Seaport and Arts Community,” and, if it wasn’t already obvious, that’s exactly the spirit you’ll encounter when you explore this vibrant little town. Arts and culture are the connecting threads that weave this community together, and you won’t make it far downtown without encountering an art gallery (try Gallery Nine, Port Townsend Gallery, Earthenworks, or Don Tiller, for starters). Beyond that, Port Townsend is actually home to the nonprofit Northwind Art (which also runs a gallery downtown called Grover Gallery), and Centrum, the culture organization that runs some of the festivals we mentioned above, like Jazz Port Townsend. One more thing: If you're looking to really dig into the art scene, plan your trip to coincide with the downtown Art Walk, which happens on the first Saturday of every month from 5:30 - 7:30 pm.

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Emma Banks is a contributor for Thrillist.