A Booklover’s Guide to One of The Only UNESCO Cities of Literature in the U.S.

From indie bookstores to readings and events, here are some great ways to experience the city’s literary scene.

Window seat between crowded, tall bookshelves at Left Bank Books in Pike Place Market

Cozy up with a book in one of Seattle’s many literary locales, such as Left Bank Books in Pike Place Market.

Courtesy of Clay Banks on Unsplash

Bars in bookstores, lavish literary series, contemporary libraries, indie publishing houses—per capita, Seattle has the most arts organizations in the United States. The Emerald City even boasts a Seattle Civic Poet.

Back in 2017, Seattle was designated a UNESCO City of Literature, only the second U.S. city to receive the distinction (Iowa City was the first). It is now one of 53 UNESCO-designated literary cities around the globe, including Edinburgh, Québec City, and Dublin, as well as such newcomers as Lyon and Gothenburg—both added in 2023.

“It’s remarkable when you look at the inventory of everything happening in Seattle,” says Tree Swenson, executive director of Seattle literary center Hugo House. “Once you have a certain accumulation of energy, and a density of writers and literary organizations, it becomes a self-perpetuating phenomenon. People from all over the country should come check it out.”

As with many other destinations, Seattle has many angles. But if you’re an avid reader, here are nine things to do in Seattle to experience its literary side.

The angular, glassy exterior of Seattle Central Library

Seattle’s main public library is an architectural icon.

Photo by Max Herman/Shutterstock

1. Tour Seattle’s iconic Central Library

Head downtown with a downloaded self-guided tour at the Rem Koolhaas–designed Central Library, part of the extensive Seattle Public Library system. (You can also request a free guided tour for groups of 5–20 people between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.)

Friendly librarians probably won’t shush you over appreciative expletives, because this library is just that cool. The soaring glass building (made from 10,000 panes), holds more than 1 million items and features a 10th-floor view of Elliott Bay, an indoor coffee and pastry cart, free readings and workshops, and yes, a writers’ room.

2. Take a writing workshop at the Hugo House

Attend a reading or enroll in a weekend workshop focused on poetry, fiction, or memoir at Hugo House, a literary center located in the trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood. Although it has called its current space home only since 2018, the center has been in operation since 1996, and more than 150,000 writers and readers have passed through the literary center’s doors for classes, readings, and residencies since then. Many of the center’s literary events are free, including open mics, readings, and book launches.

3. Enjoy a new book (and a snack) at the Elliott Bay Book Company

Just down the street from Hugo House is one of the best independent bookstores in the city (and the nation), Elliott Bay Book Company. Spend an afternoon here and fill your arms with a curated collection of indie and bestseller titles from the cedar bookcases, then snag a seat in the cheery Little Oddfellows Café in the store’s rear to enjoy a baguette and a house-made lemon-rosemary soda. Check Elliott Bay’s evening schedule; hundreds of authors per year breeze through for readings and signings as well.

Other appealing independent bookshops in the city include the new, Asian American–owned Mam’s Books in Chinatown, tiny Left Bank Books in Pike’s Place Market, and beloved Queen Anne Book Company in the Queen Anne neighborhood.

4. Take in the comics at Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery

In the Georgetown neighborhood, Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery is the storefront for the comics press Fantagraphics, “Publisher of the World’s Greatest Cartoonists.” The store is pop-full with Fantagraphics manga, series, graphic novels, and for-grownups-only Eros series. Readings, signings, and screenings also happen here, and you can find framed art on the walls.

5. Dig into some poetry at Open Books

You won’t find many stores specializing in poetry around the country, but Open Books is a delightful little surprise among Pioneer Square’s Romanesque revival architecture and subterranean streets. Here, the shelves are stocked with new, rare, and out-of-print poetry books and a selection of stationery. Browsing is a treat, but plan a visit around one of the shop’s many readings. If you’re feeling inspired, you can rent time in the shop’s Parlor for $25 an hour. There’s a big table for sprawling out and tackling your own writing, a Victrola player and a large selection of poets on vinyl, an electric kettle and tea, Wi-Fi, and, of course, a comfy chair to settle into.

6. Grab happy hour at Blue Moon Tavern

Head for happy hour at a bar beloved by Seattle-born authors: Blue Moon Tavern. It may not be book-themed in any obvious way, but it was a favorite stop for names like Theodore Roethke, Richard Hugo, and Allen Ginsberg. It’s a dive bar in the city’s University District and it can get rowdy, so grab a seat on the early side if you bring reading material. You can choose from an impressive list of local beer on tap, and there’s often something going on (open mics, burlesque shows, live music, and more).

Two violet-colored sofas facing each other next to green-tiled fireplace in lounge at Sorrento Hotel

The fireside lounge at the Sorrento Hotel is the perfect spot to enjoy a book—especially during the hotel’s Silent Reading Party, held twice a month.

Courtesy of the Sorrento Hotel

7. Attend a silent reading party at Hotel Sorrento

Bring a book and join the Silent Reading Party at the 115-year-old Hotel Sorrento, which often hosts visiting authors. Held every other Wednesday in the mahogany-paneled Fireside Room, the party is accompanied by free music. So, maybe it’s not so silent, although people really do read (quietly). Tickets start at $12 for a bar stool and cap at $60 for a table for four.

8. Settle into a good read at Ada’s Technical Books and Café

If it’s nerdy fun you want, Ada’s Technical Books and Café on Capitol Hill offers hundreds of geek-approved books and gifts, plus an in-store cocktail bar/event space called the Lab, which features a test-tube chandelier and, on select nights, storytelling and STEM-style edutainment. Trivia tip: The shop is named for Ada Lovelace, the founder of scientific computing.

9. Learn from the greats with Seattle Arts and Lectures

Dress up and settle into a plush auditorium seat for a Seattle Arts and Lectures production, which may be a literary panel, a poetry reading, or a Q&A with such heavyweights as Sherman Alexie, Tom Hanks, or Isabelle Allende.

The best hotels in Seattle for booklovers

Take a favorite book to bed at either the Alexis Hotel (request this week’s bestseller list from the in-room Amazon Echo Dot) or the Sorrento, where avant-garde scenester Alice B. Tolkas is rumored to haunt the hallways.

This article originally appeared online in 2017; it was most recently updated in March 12, 2024, to include current information. Erika Owens contributed to the reporting of this story.

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