Treasures of Days Past
In the sepia-tinged days before planned obsolescence, and well into the pre-digital Polaroid Era, travel planning was what some would call an adventure, and others would call a challenge. Fast forward to today, and you can still enjoy the same sights and experiences people would hop in a car (or jump on a plane or train) to have back in the day, but with none of the planning hassles.
In fact, you can just step into the time machine that is historical tourism in Pierce County by following the itinerary below:
Day 1: Tacoma and Fife
Kick off the day fueling up with breakfast at the Antique Sandwich Company (building dates to 1916), where the coffee is always fresh and the best eggs are served like the best attitudes: Over easy.
Cinnamon rolls on screen are not actual size.
Tacoma is known as the City of Destiny because it was the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railway (leading to the apt descriptor “Where the rails first meet the sails”). That history and more are put at your fingertips at the Foss Waterway Seaport Museum, where you can browse exhibits like historic Willits wooden canoes and boats, Jacques Cousteau’s personal dive gear, and learn the history of Thea Foss, the Tacoman who inspired Tugboat Annie.
If the Foss’s artifacts have you in the mood for tangible, touchable, take-home-able history (and it will), Antique Row on Broadway in downtown Tacoma between 7th and 9th is where you’ll next find yourself. Browse the buried treasures and relics from days of yore at Sanford and Son, Savoy Special Vintage, The Lily Pad, Vessel Vintage Collective and others.
Vintage denim by the acre at Savoy Special vintage.
Since you have a few minutes before lunch, drop by the Brown & Haley Factory Store (company dates to 1912; factory store dates to 1962, when it was a ticket booth for the World’s Fair in Seattle) for slick deals on what is possibly Tacoma’s most famous export: Almond Roca.
Lunch in Fife is experiential history, with retro diners that are not recreations; they’re originals that the decades haven’t touched. The Poodle Dog (1933) and the Pick Quick (1949) are two local legends where the menu and décor compete for the title of “least changed,” serving up burgers, chicken, corned beef hash, eggs, and flapjacks (all day breakfast).
While in Fife, don’t miss the Fife History Museum, where aside from the interactive exhibits on Fife’s prominent place in U.S. history, the museum is set up like a midcentury living room, where you’re invited to relax, take a load off, and let the history immerse you. (Museum is open Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and by pre-scheduled appointment at 253-896-4710)
Dacca Park and Dacca Barn by Fife History Museum are a railcar of edutainment.
No historical itinerary about Pierce County would be complete without dinner at the Spar, in business since 1917. The Spar’s longevity is attested to by the musically creaky hardwood floors, the glow of its vintage neon signs, the exposed brick…everything, and framed pictures that walk you through its history.
After dinner, take a walk on the darker side of the history of the region with a haunted tour of downtown Tacoma or the Foss Waterway Seaport. Historical narrative is interwoven with fact-based speculation as Pretty Gritty Tours guides you by lantern light through historic alleyways, and the alleyways of history. Or join their beer tour, because beer and Tacoma history go together like malt and hops.
Time to call it a night? Tuck yourself in at a Tacoma or Fife hotel for the evening and wake up refreshed.
Day 2: Tacoma
You’re up, you’re ready, you’re raring to jump into your time machine, and – by coincidence – you might actually see a DeLorean or two today. More on that later.
Breakfast at the Arthouse Café puts you in proximity of both the best Greek frittata this side of the Ionian Sea, and one of the most photogenic neighborhoods (the Stadium District) this side of Washington State. While you’re in the area, sneak a peek at Stadium High School (outside of school hours, of course) to recall the Heath Ledger/Julia Stiles/1999 heyday, and the miles of glowing neon signs through the neighborhood that are a glowing tribute to decades of neighborhood nostalgia.
My grandpa always said, “You start a day looking at a 1973 de Tomaso Pantera, it’s not going to be a bad day.” He may never have actually said that, but if he had, he’d have been right! LeMay – America’s Car Museum has one of the most impressive collections of classic cars in the world, and as you wander the six floors of automotive decadence, you’ll be watching history and culture unfold in front of you in steel and glass.
LeMay - America's Car Museum is a car museum for non-car-museum folks. But also for car-museum folks.
Designed by the same architects and in the same style as Grand Central Station in New York, Tacoma’s Union Station (built in 1911, when travel by train was still on the fast track) is a magnificent Beaux-Arts style building that’s no shabbier for doubling as a federal courthouse in its current incarnation. That just means you can tour the five Dale Chihuly glass-art installations inside for free (just show your ID at the door) and walk right up to most of them. There’s one on each wall, and a massive chandelier right down the center.
Union Station in Tacoma hasn't seen a train in decades, but is no stranger to art.
When you’ve been serving beer since 1935, you’ve learned a thing or two about liquid lunches, but probably also accidentally learned something about actual lunches. That’s why the Parkway Tavern’s Fromage à Trois and Twisted Brit (Sliced roast beef, sliced turkey, Tillamook Cheddar, lettuce and pickle) are so…darn…good. It’s also a neighborhood icon that’s often overlooked by visitors, so you’ll have the inside scoop on the cuisine and acres of mahogany that others might not.
The treasures of days past are on full display at the Washington State History Museum, with interactive exhibits, and tableaus from the logging and mining days that you can fully immerse yourself in. See what immigrants to the Pacific Northwest brought with them when they made the journey, or stroll through the galleries of constantly refreshed exhibitions.
The LeMay Collections at Marymount (main grounds and building from 1919) is a surreal trip through a wide swath of history: automotive (of course), but also art (authentic Rodin sculpture garden), radio (one of the largest collections of antique radios on display), outboard boat motors (🤷), and brass hose nozzles (🤷 🤷). It’s ephemera that refused to be ephemeral. The grounds itself are the embodiment of history, having originally been settled by James Longmire (of Mount Rainier fame), and been converted into a Dominican convent, and a boys’ military academy. That’s good roamin’! Book a Model T Driver’s Ed class and see the grounds at twenty hair-raising miles per hour.
LeMay Collections at Marymount have vintage vehicles on shelves like most of us have Christmas ornaments.
Patrons of Harbor Lights (opened in 1959) have been dining and gazing out over Commencement Bay since the U.S. flag had only 48 stars, and one look at your plate of fresh seafood might have you wondering if they left any for the sea mammals. The lounge-esque mid-century décor puts you in the right frame of mind to enjoy the mountains of mussels, cod, salmon, trout, and shrimp that are usually on the seasonal menu.
Dorky’s Arcade itself (2010) may date to the new millennium, but if the clink-clink-KA-CHUNK of the air hockey table over the blaring sounds of NES favorites (with some NEO GEO thrown in) don’t rip you back TRON-style to 1985-1994, I’ll eat my Power Glove.
Not every arcade has a bouncer. Cowabunga.
You’re already downtown, so don’t wander far to your lodging. Pick a hotel in downtown Tacoma and let the good times roll!
Day 3: Sumner and Puyallup
Before you head out to a thrilling Day 3, caffeinate at the Bostwick Café (opened as a hotel in 1889) in downtown Tacoma, the wedge-shaped building where legend has it the first person suggested we stand for the playing of the National Anthem.
The Puyallup Valley is home to more regional history and rhubarb than you can shake a stalk at. Formerly the homestead of Ezra Meeker (you’ll see his former home presently), who turned the area into a hops empire, the fertile valley has led several agricultural past lives. Currently, it’s best known for lovely small towns, flowers, seasonal pumpkin patches (some haunted, some certified ghoul-free), festivals, and as the place where about half the country’s rhubarb is grown.
That said, first real stop: Downtown Sumner! It’s a town of white picket fences, parades with real high-school marching bands playing down Main Street, boutiques and locally owned eateries on every corner, and festive music greeting your ear throughout downtown. In terms of packing a lot of punch (and retro history) into a condensed downtown area, Sumner has few rivals.
Look up "charm" in the dictionary, and this is the Sumner boutique that it's defining
If you’re lucky enough (or think far enough ahead) to plan your visit around the date of April 1 (no fooling!), you’ll be able to see the annual Daffodil Parade come down Main Street, which is truly an experience from a bygone era.
But first, breakfast at the Hometown Charm Café. Actual, legitimate, checkered tablecloths match the throwback charm of the menu that centers around the classic American Breakfast, which is served all day.
Ryan House, the historic mansion built right on Main Street, holds a lot of the town’s historic treasures (it doubles as the Sumner History Museum), but unfortunately, it’ll be a walk-by photo opportunity on this itinerary, until it reopens after major renovations in 2024.
Stately and elegant, while still understated. That's Ryan House!
Do a little shopping in the historic, occasionally bemuraled buildings downtown. You’ll find secondhand treasures, as well as knickknacks, trinkets and doodads at Junker’s Nest Vintage and Inta Vintage, as well as more upscale and modern homewares at Sparrow & Nightingale’s. The Old Cannery Furniture Warehouse isn’t just for selling furniture. In fact, if you’re shopping for furniture, you might be in the minority on the premises. The sprawling WWII-era houses a homemade sweets pop-up, a massive model train network, a visitor center, and a throwback kitchen for mid-century photo ops.
If you hear "old cannery" and don't think of model trains, you haven't been to Sumner.
Take lunch at the Main Street Dairy Freeze in Sumner, a retro drive-up diner that serves the best and heartiest of all cuisine and treats that end in “burger,” “dog,” or “milkshake.”
Then it’s time to spend an afternoon in Puyallup, just down the road.
Puyallup (pew-AL-up, as the locals call it) is another hot-spot of recycled, upcycled, and new-to-you local treasures – see Pioneer Antique Mall, 3rd Street Antiques, and Victoria Sells Antiques.
But plan your trip around the Puyallup Farmers Market every Saturday (April 15 through October 14, 2023) to meet the artists, artisans, growers, and craftspeople who give Puyallup its distinct identity. Browse, graze, and pick up a keepsake from your trip.
Puyallup is easy on the eyes and the lenses.
Ezra Meeker, pioneer and hops baron, called Puyallup home, and you can visit his flashy (19th-Century-style) digs in downtown Tacoma. Meeker Mansion (dating to 1890) is open for tours starting March 1, 2023.
If history and stately homes are your thing, you found the right itinerary.
If your blood-sugar level is screaming for a boost at this point, we understand, and recommend you power up at the Powerhouse Restaurant and Brewery. Housed in a 1907 brick power substation constructed for the Puget Sound Electric Railroad, the menu is its own powerhouse, with a delightful mix of traditional pub grub favorites and more modern fare.