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Originally published June 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 25, 2005 at 3:46 PM

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Super Saturdays

Downtown Tacoma: the ordinary and extraordinary

A first-timer's visit to downtown Tacoma can be like an innocent's first bite of a habañero: Prepare to have your eyes...

Northwest Weekend editor

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The outing: A first-timer's visit to downtown Tacoma can be like an innocent's first bite of a habañero: Prepare to have your eyes opened — at the ornate architecture of historical buildings, at abundant public art, at noteworthy museums and soothing urban landscapes.

And yes, your eyes might water a bit, too, from the occasional whiff of a pulp mill, though Tacoma's fabled aroma has been mostly cleaned up in recent years.

In terms of prospering shops and enterprises, there are good blocks and bad blocks, but the overall impression is of a place worth wandering.

For a real break from the ordinary (and if you have some bucks to spare), getting there can be half the fun. I hopped on a commuter-hour Amtrak from King Street Station and rolled south through Kent and Puyallup on the most relaxing trip from Seattle to Tacoma that I can remember. By 8:30, I was planning my day and devouring a hot cinnamon roll in a coffee shop in Freighthouse Square, 430 E. 25th St., a funky old complex of shops and restaurants three short blocks from the train depot. Just outside, I hopped aboard the modern Tacoma Link light-rail line and zipped into the city center (every 10 minutes, no charge).

If you've not visited Tacoma's museum district, get off at the first Link stop, and you can enjoy a day of museums (Washington State History Museum, the Museum of Glass and Tacoma Art Museum are all within a short walk). But there's more to see on a summer day if you feel like staying outside.

From the history museum, I walked across the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, one of the best of many (free) venues displaying glass art of the prolific Dale Chihuly, a native son. It's a good vantage point not only to see Chihuly art (including "Seaform Pavilion," with thousands of marine shapes that lend the illusion of scuba diving through a kelp bed), but also to take in the cityscape, including a new ultra-modern suspension bridge on East 21st Street and the Museum of Glass' stainless-steel-sheathed hot-shop dome, resembling a 90-foot badminton birdie.

If you go

If you try this Super Saturday excursion, let us know how it went. Submit your comments.

I wandered down to the new esplanade fronting Thea Foss Waterway, where the "Tall Ships Tacoma" event will bring dozens of vessels from around the world June 30 to July 5. Even on an average day, it was a pleasant place to dawdle, edged by plantings of salal, shore pines, vine maples and wild roses, with park benches overlooking a marina and working waterfront. (If you prefer indoor diversions, the Blue Olive lounge beckons from the ground floor of a modern condo building.)

Back across the glass bridge to Pacific Avenue, take a moment to cross the street and climb the gently sloping grand staircase that is the centerpiece of the University of Washington's Tacoma campus, a pleasing melange of brick buildings old and new. Teardrop street lamps and plantings of dogwood and sword fern line the stairs.

Next, hop back aboard Tacoma Link and ride to the end of the line near Ninth and Commerce. Trot to the end of the block to gaze up at one of Tacoma's most impressive historic buildings, Old City Hall, circa 1893 (just look for the huge clock tower). The Italian Renaissance-style building of blond brick with wedding-cake terra-cotta work and a copper-tiled roof now houses private offices. And keep looking — interesting old buildings crop up in almost every block.

Back to Ninth, go around the corner uphill to Broadway, where you'll find the Theater District in one direction and Tacoma's Antique Row in the other.

On Thursdays between now and Oct. 20, you'll also find the Tacoma Farmers Market on Broadway between Ninth and 11th streets, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Booths overflow with summer's bounty of larkspur bouquets, organic sugar-snap peas, fragrant soaps and whimsical artwork.

Shopping op: Antique Row, centered on Broadway between Ninth and Seventh, offers a jumble of shops jammed with old furniture and collectibles. The Lily Pad, 756 Broadway, specializes in old toys, appealing to my Matchbox-car jones. Sanford & Son, 743 Broadway, offers multiple floors of furniture and maybe a close-up look at the owner's pristine 1955 Buick convertible, in bumblebee black and yellow.

Good eats: On Farmers Market days, try the food court at Theater Square park behind the Pantages Theater, where gushing waterfalls complement live music. For $6, I had basil chicken with rice and vegetables from a local Thai restaurant. Other days, consider the umbrella tables overlooking Thea Foss Waterway outside the Museum of Glass. The museum café offers hot panini sandwiches and more.

Costs: Amtrak fares vary; round-trip fare the day I traveled was $26 for a reserved coach seat. Tacoma Link light rail is free. Tacoma museums cost from $6.50 to $10 for adults.

Getting there: To go by Amtrak, reserve on the Web, www.amtrak.com, or by phone, 800-872-7245. (Avoid the busy Coast Starlight train.) The trip takes 48 minutes; I left Seattle at 7:30 a.m. and left Tacoma at 3:02 p.m. From the Tacoma depot, walk five minutes toward the city to Tacoma Dome Station. Tacoma Link light rail departs from the south side of the station (closest to the Tacoma Dome). By car, take the Interstate 705 exit from I-5 (Exit 133). Take the 21st Street exit, turn left on 21st and then right on Pacific Avenue to the museum district. Continue into downtown for other attractions.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or bcantwell@seattletimes.com

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