Washington State's capital is easily passed over in favor of Seattle and Portland, but this comparatively small, fun, and funky town in between has plenty of charm. The Olympia area has for thousands of years been host to Coast Salish peoples--the Nisqually, the Duwamish, the Chehalis, and others--who tapped the fertile natural bounty of the southern Puget Basin, not least the productive shellfish beds of Budd Inlet and the yearly salmon runs of local rivers. Among Olympia's local indigenous names was Cheetwoot: the place of black bears. In 1792, Peter Puget and others from Captain George Vancouver's big-time Royal Navy expedition of the Pacific Northwest coast forayed to the future site of Olympia on the southernmost reach of what could come to be called Puget Sound. The town itself was platted out in 1850 by settler Edmund Sylvester and gets its name from those bewitching Olympic Mountains on its northwestern skyline: still a sight to see in clear weather, especially at sunrise.
As the seat of government for Washington Territory and an auspiciously situated port, Olympia grew at a good clip: For a time it was the biggest of the Puget Sound cities, but these days it's a small town compared to Seattle and Tacoma. The capital city, though, is plenty vibrant, and it's etched out its own singular character in the increasingly high-profile cultural mien of Puget Sound. Olympia's home to the famously progressive Evergreen State College, where undergrads don't follow rigid curricula and earn evaluations rather than grades. Olympia Beer ("it's in the water") doesn't brew here any longer, but you won't go thirsty given the hot-and-heavy craft-beer scene--part of a handcrafted, artisanal spirit that also pervades the region's farm-and-seafood-heavy cuisine and local DIY culture. Venues for visual and performing arts are plentiful, and the local music scene--which has made cardinal contributions to grunge, riot grrrl, and indie movements and claims the high-profile K Records and Kill Rock Stars labels as its own--remains outstanding. And in between live shows, theater performances, and gourmet feasts of Northwest cuisine, you've got epic outdoor activities in the Cascades, Olympics, and Puget Sound itself at your fingertips. Cruise all tunnel-vision-like between Portland and Seattle to your own detriment: There's a genuine waterfront jewel awaiting your appetite and imagination here in the shadow of Washington's handsome capitol dome.