Port Townsend is a seaport town punctuated with beautiful Victorian Era mansions and amazing views of the Puget Sound. It sits in the Northeastern tip of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula’s amazing coastline.
I often pass by the town on my way to Olympic National Park with only a gleaming thought to explore it but never got around to (until now). On what was to be an overcast, rainy day, my wife and I (accompanied by our pup Lucky), decided it was a good day to check it out.
We’re currently headquartered in Bellevue, Washington and the drive to the remote town is about 2 hours. You can reach it either way by taking the Seattle-Bainbridge ferry or driving south through Tacoma and then taking Highway 16 and three north.
No matter which route you choose to take, the course is similar in the time spent getting there. However, you may prefer the little scenic ferry ride through the Puget Sound; which I recommend if you haven’t done so already.
Victorian Seaport and Arts Community
Right before the entrance on the outskirts of town, we were greeted by a sign that says Port Townsend is a Victorian Seaport and Arts Community. Following the route on East Sims Way road, eventually turned to Water Street as it meandered through the historic downtown.
Directly on the left stands a cliff with old Victorian Era architecture built on top. We can see the historic Bell Tower as we passed through blocks of colorful mom and pops cafes; eventually making left on Jefferson Street towards our final parking spot near the Bell Tower.
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The Bell Tower offers some decent vistas of the town. We were there in winter, and the leaves that would have obstructed the views were not present.
We then took the Haller Fountain Stairs nearby towards the city below. Here will be your first impressions of the impressive artistic feel to the town.
At first glimpse, one can see why this small Seaport town of 10,000 people can claim to be an Arts Community. There are over 300 Victorian-style homes with window-shops offering a variety of different colorful crafts with vintage cafes and restaurants on every corner.
From what we can see, Port Townsend is a dog-friendly town. Visitors were strolling with their dogs on the main street, port side, and some underground in the under town shops.
A Short History of Port Townsend
The downtown area is not huge by any measure. Back in the mid-1800s, the town was called the City of Dreams because planners speculated that Port Townsend would become the biggest harbor of the United States’ west coast. Many of the ornate Victorian buildings were built with the hopes that town would become a significant international booming shipping port and a big city.
The planners developed the town as big as they can until the railroad came around and all rush came to Seattle instead but not without leaving behind imposing Victorian and Romanesque Revival buildings and architecture.
The population started to decline in the late 1800s as the Northern Pacific Railroad failed to build connecting rails from nearby Tacoma. Today, Port Townsend stands as the entry point to the Puget Sound, earning it the current moniker as the “Key City.”
My wife, who’s from Saint Petersburg (Russia), mentioned there’s a “European feel” to the town. I’ve spent the larger part of my travel experience through Europe and can attest to this observation.
The red-bricked Victorian buildings, colorful cafes, and boutique shops no doubt contribute to this feel. I’ve been to Saint Petersburg a couple of times and can understand what she’s talking about. However, the weather in Russia has more in common with Seattle’s weather than Port Townsend’s.
Climate and Weather
Just about everyone knows that Seattle is one of the wettest cities in the nation, and although, Port Townsend is just literally across the pond, it receives only half as much rainfall.
This is due to its unique geography; it lies in the rainshadow of the Olympic. This means warm, dry summers and cold, damp winters. If you’re a bit muddled with the weather in Seattle, do the drive or hop on a ferry across to the other side of the pond!
I recommend you bring layers of clothing for the variable weather. If in doubt, check out my guide on adventure travel gear and grab some accessories that prepare you for any adverse or acclimate weather.
Things to do in Port Townsend
Surrounded by water all around, there are many places to launch your boat or yacht (if you have one). For the rest of us who are grounded, there are many state parks around or nearby the city, which includes the famed Fort Worden – where the 80s film “An Officer and a Gentleman” was filmed. There’s the old Fort Towsend State Park and if you venture further away, the majestic Olympic National Park.
Below is a short and but exhaustive list of things to see and do in Port Townsend:
Port Townsend Festivals
Owing to its moniker as an Arts Community, Port Townsend sees its fair share of festivals. There are several music festivals in the summer featuring jazz, blues, and classical music. There’s an international film festival in September and the Wooden Boats Festival, which attracts visitors with over 300 wooden ships. Below are the major things happening if you happen to visit Port Townsend in the following months:
- April – Farmer’s market opens up and also the annual Goat Parade
- May – Rhododendron Festival and the Rhody Run
- June – Brass Screw Confederacy, Steampunk Hootenanny, the Orca Festival, Race to Alaska, Centrum’s Voice Work, and the Classic Mariners’ Regatta
- July – Centrum’s Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, Centrum’s Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, Concerts on the Dock, Centrum’s Jazz Port Townsend, Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival, and The Olympic Music Festival
- August – Jefferson County Fair, The Olympic Music Festival, and the Uptown Street Fair/Parade/Crafts Fair
- September – Port Townsend Film Festival, Wooden Boat Festival, Jefferson County Farm Tour
- October – Kinetic Skulpture Race, Port Townsend Ukulele Festival at Fort Worden State Park, and the Downtown Trick-or-Treat (Oct. 31)
- November – Jefferson County Holiday Craft Fair
- December – Community Tree Lighting and Visit from Santa and First Night Celebration
The Starrett Mansion
Built in 1889, the National Historic Register recognizes the house as one of 3 pivotal historic landmark houses in Port Townsend. You can book a room in the house via Airbnb (Sign up and get up to $55 in credit!) – It has a queen bed with a private bathroom and a small private porch.
Fort Townsend State Park
This park is located 2 miles south of Port Townsend. It provides access to the shoreline of Port Townsend Bay. The views are a bit industrial on the beach. However, if you take the nature trail, you will be under cover of redwood canopy. The State Park is a 413-acre park with some available campsites. You’ll need a “Discover Pass” to enter and park inside the park.
Chetzemoka Park sits on a gently sloping hillside overlooking Admiralty Inlet having a commanding view of the Cascade Mountains. This highly developed and intricately manicured park is thought by many to be the crown jewel of the city park system with its distinctive flower gardens with antique roses and other blossoms, heritage Rhododendrons, and mature trees. A local favorite and a great place to have a picnic.
The large grassy park includes a gazebo, picnic areas, BBQs, a fire pit and multiple play structures, including swings and slides, a kitchen shelter, and ADA accessible restrooms. Excellent accessibility to the beach and tidelands is provided in the southwest corner of the sloped lawn. A caretaker house is currently being used as the playground shop and office space.
Jefferson Museum of Art & History
Historical museums with exhibits and offers walking tours in the summer. If you’re looking for information and Port Townsend’s history, the docent here is more than happy to give you a story or two.
Fort Worden State Park
This is the biggest State Park in town and was once an army base. Once used as a coastal defense system, you can still see machine guns and turrets from a bygone era.
There’s a nice lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula called Point Wilson that’s also worth visiting. It was once an Army fort so you can still see military buildings and barracks all around.
Northwest Maritime Center
An excellent place for those interested in learning about boats. There are craftsmen working on restoring old wooden boats and the ambiance has a maritime feel to it. The Northwest Maritime Center participates people in the experience that’s traditional and modern maritime life together with sailing classes and a large boat building and repair facility.
The center also seeks to safeguard, restore and improve the waters of the Puget Sound. A dock is designed to minimize the impact on eelgrass, a critical and sensitive habitat for fish.
Strategies that take advantage of natural resources, such as ocean-source heat pumps, daylighting and natural ventilation, help decrease energy use and cost. The facility utilizes 30 kBtu/ft2 yr, saving $29,000 a year in electric bills in comparison with some LEED base case building.
Historic Fire Bell Tower
This bell tower sits above a cliff overlooking downtown. It’s very hard to miss. Built in the 1890s for volunteer firefighters to combat a fire. Since 1890 this wooden tower has endured countless storms. Every decade or so, the community comes together for still another round of fundraising for its recovery.
In March 2004, the Washington State Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (OAHP) named Port Townsend’s Fire Bell Tower, revived by the Jefferson County Historical Society and the Town of Port Townsend, as the beneficiary of the 2004 State Historic Preservation Officer’s Award for Resource Stewardship.
Point Wilson Lighthouse
It’s an old historic lighthouse that guards the entrance to Admiralty Inlet – the waterway connecting Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It marks the western side of the entrance to Admiralty Inlet in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and can be an important landmark for vessels traveling to and from Puget Sound.
Port Townsend’s Historic District
The historic district is no doubt the main draw in town. There are quaint shops, cafes, restaurants, and fine exemplary displays of Victorian Era architecture.
One can easily get lost in their thoughts wandering the history-laden streets and alleys of the Historic District. Although, getting lost will prove to be an endeavor in such a small town.
You can spend an entire day just window shopping, checking out the museum or learning about in sailing in the Northwest Maritime Center.
Right around back is the Point Hudson Marina with all the fancy yacht and sailboats worth checking out. It kind of reminds me of a scene from a Popeye the Sailorman cartoon of my yesteryears.
Featured Port Townsend Hotels & Accommodations
Located 6.2 mi from Fort Worden State Park, the B&B offers Wi-Fi and a fireplace in all rooms with daily breakfast. The location has a patio with barbecue facilities and each room has a bathtub or shower with a private bathroom.
Located right in town, this 4-star hotel features free WiFi with a shared lounge. There are a 24-hour front desk service and business center available for guests. All rooms in the hotel are provided with a flat-screen TV and cable channels. This comes with included with a continental breakfast every morning at the property.
This waterfront hotel is only 5 minutes walk from the historic downtown of Port Townsend. All rooms feature a waterfront view with a private balcony.
Doc’s Marina Grill
Excellent location right at the marina, Doc’s offers something for everyone. You can have burgers, sandwiches, fish and chips, salads, pasta, steaks, seafood, and even a few vegetarian selections.
Better Living Through Coffee
A cozy cafe with an awesome waterfront view. Their food is made onsite using organic local produce, local grass-fed beef, cage-free chickens & organic eggs, and wild-caught Salmon.
A fine restaurant offering fresh oysters and wine pairings. Locally sourced ingredients like dandelion greens and goat cheese should entice even the pickiest palate.
How To Get To Port Townsend?
Most travelers are likely coming from Seattle and from the waterfront, you can take a ferry to Whidbey Island (also worth exploring!). From Whidbey, there is a direct ferry that will ferry you off to Port Townsend. Check the ferry schedules before you go to make the most of your time.
Another option is to go by car, check out rental by Expedia, I’ve found them to have the best deals and options. Drive south on I-5 towards the Tacoma Narrows. After this bridge, there are also worthy towns worth visiting before you get to Port Townsend, like Poulsbo and Gig Harbor.
Port Townsend is a great day trip destination in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a lively town with plenty to offer in terms of eye candy and things to do. If you’re headed towards the Olympic Peninsula, you owe it to yourself to make a stop on this Victorian Town of a bygone era.
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