View of Bellevue Washington from skyscraper

The bartender leaned in and pointed to an alcove concealed by wooden curtain just beyond the bar. “Someone’s getting a tattoo back there.”

He returned to mixing my off-menu cocktail, a mix of tropical fruit and other less common botanicals like eucalyptus, heated with a kitchen torch to create a lava-like flow of liquid fire into a dry ice canister, giving the impression of a volcano erupting waves of white mist across the bar.

The cocktail turned out to be delicious, and while sipping it was difficult not to ponder how unexpected the experience was—after all, it was a hotel bar in the middle of a shopping mall in Bellevue, Washington.

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10 Places to Leaf-Peep on the Cheap

Isolated from Seattle by Lake Washington, Bellevue was a relative backwater until 1940, when the first of a series of floating bridges began connecting the lake’s eastern shore to Greater Seattle. What was once a collection of strawberry farms began to quickly develop into a new downtown core; continued development throughout the second half of the century has produced an interconnected retail center in the midst of the skyscrapers.

Civility & Unrest, the speakeasy-style cocktail bar where I enjoyed my cocktail, is on the ground floor of the W Hotel, which is itself right in the midst of the Lincoln Square mixed-use development, a collection of hotels, restaurants, retail and office anchors that are all connected via sky bridges. Also housed on-site is the Bellevue Arts Museum, which features mostly rotating collections from local artists in a variety of media.

The days of small family farms are gone, at least in the downtown core, but they’re hardly forgotten. Today’s Bellevue is the kind of small city where one can spend their morning on a local day hike or picking blueberries at Larsen Lake Blueberry Farm just outside town before taking a fast elevator up one of the high rises to Ascend Prime Steak & Sushi to take in spectacular wraparound views of the Lake Washington, the Cascade Range, and the city of Seattle in the distance.

The views are a fun treat in a region where high-rise “view” dining is inexplicably not quite widespread. But the real star is the food. Local seafood, divinely dressed specialty sushi rolls (the Hamachi truffle one I tried was luscious), and A5 Wagyu and a host of other premium steaks grilled on a wood-fired grill so large that portions of it had to be delivered to the rooftop by helicopter, are the top hits on a menu that reads like a “Best of” Listicle.

Both the bar and dining areas have outdoor terraces for dining or stepping out and taking in the views in multiple directions; the bar appears to be just as popular as the dining room for after-work drinks or catching the highlights of whatever sports might be on the big screen.

Like most of Western Washington, the development is built in a way that’s meant to take full advantage of the region’s spectacular natural beauty. There are plenty of trees and green spaces close, including the circular Downtown Park which can also serve as an amphitheater and outdoor cinema. Also nearby is Meydenbauer Bay Park, where there’s a small beach on the water for wading and swimming.

The nearby REI Boathouse offers classes and hourly rentals for paddleboards, canoes, kayaks and pedal boats. The staff will provide life jackets, dry bags and a brief rundown of the vessel before sending visitors out onto the waters of the lake to tour the large homes and yachts dotting the shoreline. If the aim is to get visitors into REI to price canoes, it certainly worked.

Even with a dense downtown core, the city has a supremely residential feeling.

Drive a few minutes in any direction, and the roads quickly turn into quiet residential streets. Nestled among these streets atop a small hill near an elementary school is the Bellevue Botanical Garden, which comprises a harmonious mix of curated tended gardens in a variety of styles, comingled with restored woodlands and natural wetlands that give a glimpse into the biodiversity of the region. With free admission, the garden is steeped in the community-minded sensibilities of the Northwest, functioning in equal parts as park and community resource.

Each of the gardens has an educational focus clearly designed as a showcase for the interested home gardener, who can visit to learn about the visual aesthetic of a Japanese-style garden, which perennials fare best in the Northwest climate, or how to best cultivate a garden without consuming too much of the local water resources. It was packed to the gills on a Saturday morning, and overheard conversations amongst the crowds betrayed the presence of many a dedicated home gardener on quests for inspiration.

The Takeaway

With an abundance of gardens and open spaces for outdoor enjoyment and the Northwest’s famous sensibilities for community and environmental stewardship, Bellevue is something of a garden unto itself, tranquil and distinct from its more frenzied and built-up neighbor across the lake. Visitors already familiar with Seattle have plenty waiting for them should they decide to cross the floating bridge to Bellevue’s own separate Eden.

Getting There

Downtown Bellevue is 17 miles from the Seattle/Tacoma International Airport, and 23 miles from Everett’s Paine Field.

For More Information

Check out Visit Bellevue’s website for information on hotels, dining and local attractions.

Accommodations were furnished by Visit Bellevue in preparation for this story.