Port Townsend is a seaport town punctuated with beautiful Victorian Era mansions that sit 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 3 north.
No matter which route you choose to take, the route 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 eventual parking spot near the Bell Tower.
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 definitely 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. There were visitors 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 large 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 awesome 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 contribute to this feel.
Climate and Weather
Just about everyone knows that Seattle is one of the wettest city in the nation and although, Port Townsend is just literal 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 cool 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!
Things to do in Port Townsend
The town is surrounded by water so 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.
The Starrett Mansion
This beautiful Victorian house was built in 1889 which The National Historic Register recognizes as one of 3 pivotal historic landmark houses in Port Townsend. You can actually 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.
It’s a nice little park that offers sightings of native bird wildlife and well-maintained garden and landscape. A local favorite and a great place to have a picnic.
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. It was used as a coastal defense system and 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
A nice place if you’re interested in learning about boats. There are craftsmen working on restoring old wooden boats and the ambiance has a maritime feel to it.
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.
Point Wilson Lighthouse
It’s an old historic lighthouse which guards the entrance to Admiralty Inlet – the waterway connecting Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
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 display of Victorian Era architecture. You can get lost wandering the main street in your thoughts; well, you can’t really physically get lost since it’s a very small town.
You can spend an entire day just window shopping, checking out the museum or learning about in sailing in the Maritime Center.
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.