The Secret City

By Stacy Reynolds

The quaint town of Snohomish, WA, is easy to miss: I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for 16 years, and not once set foot in the city until just a few weeks ago. I didn’t really know what to expect. I had heard the name countless times, but knew of few people who had visited the town itself; when you mention the name Snohomish, it usually elicits the response, “Oh, I keep meaning to go there!” With Seattle so close, and a growing music scene in Everett, Snohomish usually gets overlooked, simply because there is so much else going on in this particular area. I decided it was time to stop asking about Snohomish, and go see for myself what I was missing. What I found was a wonderful surprise waiting for me; a beautifully kept secret in the heart of Snohomish county.

Snohomish is a quick drive off I-5 on Highway 2, just east of Everett, WA. I’ve driven by it a thousand times, unknowingly, during day trips to Seattle. I’ve even cruised right by the exit on the occasional visit to Mount Index—a great hiking area further east on Highway 2—and still haven’t stopped. That’s what makes Snohomish such a lovely secret: you don’t drive through the city, like you would Bellingham or Mount Vernon. It’s off the beaten path, while still being ideally located: close to the Cascades, the beautiful Snoqualmie Falls, and only an hour-and-a-half south of the border. The city could not be more centrally located to all the Pacific Northwest has to offer without feeling smothered by the weight of metropolis. It’s removed from the flow of freeways and the mass of bodies visiting the more popular cities. And truly, that’s fine by me; I don’t want it to change one bit.

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Firstly, Snohomish is great for those who appreciate a little bit of history in their town. Originally named “Cadyville” after one of the city’s founders, E. F. Cady, Snohomish was a central hub for commerce in the late 1800s. The main military route connecting Fort Steilacoom to Fort Bellingham ran right through it, making Snohomish a resting place for troops heading north. Although today its larger neighbouring cities are the modern commerce hubs, one can still get a sense of Snohomish’s historic vivacity. Nearly every building tells a story: the character of each structure restored without sacrificing functionally of thriving local businesses. The old courthouse, for example, houses the Sweet Bee, an eclectic, shabby chic home décor and paper goods boutique, whose owner will not only sell you incredible home creations, but can give you the building’s entire history. The old jail is still intact underneath the courthouse; purple glass circles peppering the sidewalks just outside once functioned as “windows” for the underground jail cells. The store clerks not only sell their goods, but serve as makeshift museum guides—nearly every business in town is housed in a historic building.

Antiquity doesn’t just thrive in the structures of Snohomish—the antique shopping is prolific. In fact, to say Snohomish has great antiquing is not quite specific enough to fully express the shopping experience to be had. There are antique shops for all types of antiquers. Those few reading this know what I’m talking about; the term antique is too broad for the Snohomish shopper. There’s the accurately restored antique store, the multi-floor antique mall, the up-cycled antique shop, the elegant boutique, the bargain treasures—Snohomish has honed the art of preserving the past and giving it a category. The city’s claim of being the Antique Capital of the Northwest is no vain boast—it is fact.

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However, what most makes Snohomish so dynamic is its active spirit. Snohomish doesn’t  rely solely on its beautifully preserved architecture or pristine downtown to recommend it to out-of-towners; Snohomish houses an active and thriving community. There is truly something for every adventurer: there are romantic hot air balloon rides (complete with champagne), there is year-round skydiving for the traveller who needs a little more adrenaline during their trip, there are even flying lessons. I would venture to say that the title, Antique Capital of the Northwest, is not quite inclusive enough. There is just so much to do, and it’s closer than Seattle. It’s like discovering a secret treehouse you never knew existed in your backyard. The city doesn’t just have a strong tourist appeal—people live there. Vastly different from the clichéd historic town that waits for tourism to come alive, Snohomish has a lovely bustle that infers a sense of authenticity. It’s not just a destination, it’s a home.

That at-home quality is felt everywhere. Retail clerks are energetic, and take a distinct sense of pride in their town. There’s a culture, a wide spectrum of people from all walks of life, and in all walks of life. In restaurants and coffee shops, I detected a certain “neighborhood” atmosphere filling the general ambience. I particularly felt it during lunch at Gorilla Bites, a funky vegetarian-friendly sandwich cafe. The restaurant felt as though it catered to the locals, without losing its sense of hospitality to visitors. People were popping in and out, chatting with the employees, picking up their regular sandwich without needing to place an order—all the things you see in local towns.

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Another instance of this particular quality was during my stay at the Countryman Bed & Breakfast. The owners, who restored and have lived in the beautiful painted lady for almost forty years, were so welcoming, without any sense of their hospitality being feigned. There’s a notable difference, staying at a family-run establishment; their business thrives because they’re excited to share a piece of history with their guests. They’ve created an experience that allows visitors to get a taste of what home life is like in such a special place.

This sense of home, permanency, integrity and authenticity are the corner stones of Snohomish’s charm. It’s so much more than a historic town that relies on it’s preserved buildings to lure in tourists. Snohomish has a dynamic personality behind its pretty face; it’s a city removed from the roar of the I-5 corridor, sheltered from the Everett rush hour traffic, and free from the inflated populousness of Seattle. I cannot wait to visit this city again. There is so much to take in, so much to experience. Its authenticity was palpable the moment I hit the pavement. It’s a city that has embraced its hospitality-driven economy without forsaking an exciting local lifestyle. In fact, the city doesn’t need to cater to tourists, at all—welcoming visitors is an innate part of its personality. It does this without even trying. 

For more information go to ci.snohomish.wa.us