A common question people ask is why so many state capitals are located in small cities. Olympia is a prime example. As the story goes, Olympia was the largest city in the Washington Territory when Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens arrived there in November 1853. The following year, Stevens called a legislative meeting at Olympia’s Gold Bar Tavern—an appropriate venue for this beer-loving city—essentially establishing the city’s title as the capital. In 1861, Olympia topped Vancouver in a formal vote to decide territorial capital. When Washington gained statehood in 1889, Olympia retained capital status, with North Yakima its closest competitor.
Olympia is an easy getaway from Seattle, with a comparatively small town feel upon arrival. Downtown hits hard with homelessness and Harleys (I saw one amazingly dwarfed by an American flag), combining with other elements to create character and charm. It’s a political place (I met a Republican legislator-turned lobbyist who was immensely proud of his daughter’s Democratic politics) that alternates liberal and conservative, with “Black Lives Matter” posters prominent in many storefront windows, demonstrating social conscience.
With the smallness comes a fledgling restaurant scene. You’ll find some “finer dining,” especially in scenic spots, but typically with more focus on view than food. Better, especially for the budget-minded, are the smaller places in this small town. Here are my suggestions of inexpensive eateries (everything under $10) and activities to consider for a great-tasting overnight getaway.
Get a fresh start to the day at Olympia Coffee Roasters. There are three locations; check out the cheerful Downtown location, on Cherry Street, where you can see the roaster while you enjoy a pour-over coffee with choice of beans.
Now awake, and likely hungry, take advantage of your close proximity to The Bread Peddler. If it’s early, try some of their pastries. The Morning Roll is kouign-amann-like in its caramelization, with vanilla bean & sugar available daily, and orange-hazelnut a weekend special. 11am brings savory specialties like the Croque Forestiere (like a vegetarian Croque Monsieur, made with sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions) and the Tuna Nicoise sandwich.
From here, it’s a quick walk to the Olympia Flea Market. Open every Saturday and Sunday, this small indoor space is full of treasures if you take time to hunt for them. Understandably, once you’ve completed your search of the cozy confines of this market, you’ll likely want to get some fresh air. The nearby 1.5-mile Capitol Lake Loop is perfect for a leisurely walk or a calorie-burning run. If you’d like a longer look at nearby nature, consider a ride to the McLane Creek Nature Trail, the Ellis Cove Trail, or one of many other hiking trails.
But mind your schedule, as you’ll want to budget your time for a burger taste-off. First stop is Eastside Big Tom, with its drive-up window and controlled chaos (and friendly service) when numerous vehicles enter the lot. Get the Deluxe Cheese burger here, with “meat, cheese, Goop, pickle, onion, lettuce, tomato” for $4.73. (For me, the Goop made for an experience that was too “wet.”) Then head to Van’s Burger on Yelm Highway for their $5 Cheeseburger to compare. (It has the same contents, but with “sauce” instead of “Goop.”) Known as “the place that’s never open,” note that they’re actually open Thursday and Friday 11-7, and Saturdays only until 4. But it’s worth the worry over scheduling, as the burger is better overall, though meat lovers will want a second patty. (The Fair Burger, with its grilled onions, is also fun.) But maybe you’ll be a bigger fan of Big Tom’s Goop?
Back to downtown, it’s time to take advantage of the local beer and brewery scene. The Oly Taproom is a fine first stop. Here you’ll find an ever-changing selection of craft beer and ciders by the pint (plus flights available Sunday through Thursday for further sampling), and an impressively immense display of bottles in the refrigerator wall. This is a fun place to strike up a conversation (and do some beer reconnaissance) with your neighbors, who might include revelers on a pub crawl.
On that note, you can continue with a do-it-yourself crawl. But as you exit the Oly Taproom, first look up. Now might be the time to first take a sunset stroll along the wharf. The views of the water and sky are compelling, but also note the public art along the way.
If you still have energy for drinking, there are plenty of pubs for the picking. The Eastside Club Tavern, for example, has over 40 taps with brews from the Northwest and beyond. And when you walk to the back to check out the shuffleboard, pool tables, and ping pong, you may also notice a window for ordering food. Our Table Oly is in the kitchen, sending out food for your drinks. This place holds promise, with many dishes under $10 and featuring some fascinating ingredients. But like someone who designs documents with too many fonts and effects, the dishes currently lack a little focus. In that case, you might find the Olympia Hotdog Company a best bet to satisfy your midnight munchies (they’re open until 2am!) and to mingle with some colorful characters on the street.
Whether you drank too much beer last night or not, head early this morning to Tumwater—just two exits south of Olympia. What better way to wake up (hangover or not) than with a bowl of menudo? Ramirez Mexican Grocery makes it from scratch, along with its tortillas. The restaurant is set inside the grocery store, so if inspired, you can buy dried chile peppers, spices, chicharrones—and perhaps some postres for your sweet tooth.
After breakfast, you’re perfectly situated to explore historic Tumwater Falls Park. Walking trails provide picturesque views and invigorating fresh air, and there are many signs with information about settlement in the area. The park is also site of the old Olympia Brewery, providing inspiration for any further beer-drinking you’d like to do.
Returning to Olympia, it’s time for a different type of brew at Batdorf & Bronson. Their Tasting Room on Market Street is the place to go, as you can get some coffee education while sipping free sample brews of several beans. Stay for a pour-over of any bean in stock (they’re stored in tidy drawers behind the counter!), or walk a block to the Dancing Goats Espresso Bar if that’s more your style. (Note: roasts tend to be a little darer than I prefer.)
Dancing Goats is directly across the street from the Olympia Farmers Market. Open Thursday through Sunday, this bustling market is full of produce, other types of food, crafts, music, and more. This is where I found my favorite coffee beans in Olympia, at Method Coffee Bar. (No sales of prepared coffee allowed, but you can taste samples and buy beans. Method hopes to open a coffee shop in Tumwater before too long, so watch for that.) In addition to beans, you can stock up on seasonal items to bring back to Seattle—as I did with delicious pickling cucumbers and flowered dill weed, which I used to make pickles the night of my return.
Looking at all that food will inevitably make you hungry. Olympia is midway between Seattle and Portland, so it seems fitting to go to a little food pod for lunch. Look for it at the corner of 4th and Plum. Find Nineveh Assyrian for falafel, or even better get shawarma with pickled vegetables in pita or as part of a salad. If you still happen to be hungry, or prefer different options, you’ll find tacos and arepas in that food pod, and pupusas not far away.
After lunch, you might be ready to head home, perhaps stopping at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge for a walk and hopefully a glimpse at some wildlife. Or maybe you want additional time in Olympia, where more beer beckons in the “wild life” of your own?