For Digital Nomads: South Lake Union (SLU) — Seattle, USA

Jun 21, 2021 by Yihwan Kim. 9 min read.

Welcome to Bezos land: filled with identical high-rises, a jungle of glass facades and steel skyscrapers. A relentless quest to sell everything has built an entire neighborhood — but at what cost?

South Lake Union, Seattle viewed across Lake Union from Gas Works Park
📸: Vlad Tchompalov

Walking along Westlake Avenue one summery evening, I couldn’t help but marvel at how South Lake Union (SLU) manages to feel post-apocalyptic and utopian at the same time.

Amazon occupies nearly every square inch of commercial real estate here, but its Rufus 2.0 complex is the most striking. Several uniform office buildings tower overhead, each clad with a highly-reflective facade and strips of dichroic glass that change colors with the day. The towers surround The Spheres, a multi-domed greenhouse and commercial space that has drawn derisive comparison to billionaire anatomy.

Meanwhile, similarly glossy residential skyscrapers have sprouted up to house a growing influx of the well-heeled and educated, with plenty of boutique fitness studios, Scandi-chic brunch joints, and artisanal coffee shops to go around.

That’s SLU in a nutshell. It’s a world where smart, mostly young professionals wake up in one glass high-rise to work in another across the street. You use an app for everything: your laundry, dinner, and date. It’s where you eat at the same restaurant, take the same boutique studio class, shop at the same Whole Foods — and repeat, again and again, day in and day out. It sounds like a nightmare, but could very well be the dream.

It’s also technically home.

I wasn’t planning to come back so soon, mere months after I packed my life into a storage closet to pursue a nomadic life. I left to get off the hedonistic treadmill, eager to escape the perfect yet suffocating bubble that is SLU. But a routine dental check-up revealed that my teeth had other plans. Don’t forget to floss, people.

Luckily, changing my travel plans was much less complicated than it could have been. I’d signed up for a month at citizenM using their Global Passport, so I just had to split my would-be month in New York City into a few weeks in Seattle too. That’s the backstory that dropped me off at the doors of citizenM’s South Lake Union location, just down the hill from where I used to live, and conveniently a block away from the dentist’s office.

Since I was here, I figured I’d put together a guide for anyone who also lands in SLU temporarily, whether as a consultant, intern, or sure, a digital nomad.

It starts with mild existential discomfort

If I only had a few words to describe South Lake Union for those coming from comparably high cost-of-living locales, I’d say it’s like the Mission Bay of San Francisco or Long Island City of New York. The streets are so clean you could eat off of them, but they carry little semblance of soul.

If I only had one picture to illustrate South Lake Union for everyone else, I’d say it’s this one where people are unironically buying $5 scoops of ice cream for their dogs.

Stall selling $5 ice cream for dogs at SLU Saturday Market
Human scoops were $8 a few stalls over

My knee-jerk reaction is visceral. I want to lash out against a world where $20 salads are the norm and $9 avocado toast seems a relative bargain. I’m tempted to mock the yuppies who fork over nearly $80 for a cut and trim and pay thousands of dollars every month to live in modern, yet indistinguishable shoebox studios.

Then it dawns on me. I am that yuppy. I work in tech. I shop at Whole Foods. I literally lived in a modern shoebox studio three blocks away. I’m shocked by the ugly reflection in the mirror, revealed after pulling back my own ignorance and privilege. It’s me, and I don’t love what I see.

So who am I to judge? People love their pets, I rationalize. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Welcome home.

Work ⇌ Caffeinate

💻 work friendly
good coffee
🛵 farther out

I spent most days working from canteenM, mainly because I was staying upstairs. But canteenM would make a great co-working spot for non-guests too. The WiFi is fast and unlimited, coffee and espresso drinks are reasonably priced, and there’s plenty of space to go around. The music seems loud, but Zoom’s background noise cancellation worked its magic — fellow meeting attendees said they couldn’t hear a thing.

When I ventured out, it was usually to Elm Coffee Roasters, which offered a warm ambience in the lobby of one of many Amazon buildings in the area (I think this one is called 🦄). Cascade Coffee Works is a fine option too, and you can stop by the Amazon Go around the corner to catch a deeper glimpse into a utopian, post-apocalyptic future.

Cascade Coffee Works with Amazon Go sign in foreground Close-up of Amazon Go sign Pathway with sign that says Amazon audiotour available on Audible
A walk through SLU / Amazon-land

I have mixed feelings about adding Princi to this list. It’s basically an expensive Starbucks, and the espresso I had there was so burnt it’d probably make Rocco Princi cry (into the wads of cash he got when his eponymous bakery was acquired by Starbucks in 2016). But the WiFi is fast, the views are great, the food is fine, and they even have a bar. For actual espresso, head next door to Monorail Espresso.

If you require more traditional co-working accommodations, there’s not one but two WeWork’s located in the northeast corner of South Lake Union. Their website says day passes run $29. I didn’t need to visit either myself, but they’re there if you do.

I know that for a city famous for coffee, this list is woefully incomplete. If we could expand our horizons beyond SLU, I’d say some top spots include Anchorhead Coffee., Caffee Umbria, Fulcrum Café, and many more.

But since I need to work full-time while traveling, I’m not going to trek across town for a cup of joe. Most days I drank citizenM’s coffee (complimentary in the morning for guests), and that was more than good enough for me. Now that I think about it, it was actually pretty good.

Eat

must visit
💰 wallet friendly
🥗 healthy(ish)
🛵 farther out

Before the foodies start screaming, I’ll mention that this list is not intended to comprehensively represent the breadth of the Seattle restaurant scene.

Instead, these are nearby places I frequented to maintain a somewhat healthy diet — without a kitchen and without breaking the bank. This is easier said than done when staying in what might be the most expensive neighborhood in Seattle. That meant less Canlis, and more Chipotle bowls and pre-packaged deli salads.

With that in mind, my saving grace was District H, which is basically an H Mart Express. District H offers an extensive prepared food section, serving up rice bowls with bulgogi (pork or beef), kalbi, chicken teriyaki (spicy or not), chicken katsu curry, and even mayo don(buri). Yes, mayo don is fried chicken, scrambled eggs, and rice smothered in mayonnaise. Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it.

They have a cold section too, with kimbab, japchae, poke, and so on. Last but certainly not least, they have a dedicated fried chicken section where you can buy tubs of Korean fried chicken smothered in every sauce imaginable.

A rice bowl costs around $8-10, but the kicker is that everything (except for the fried chicken) is 30% off after 4:30pm every day. That brings down the total cost with tax to about ~$7 which is about as cheap as it gets for a meal in this neighborhood.

District H spicy chicken teriyaki 30% off after 4:30pm
Not bad for $7

Between District H and the Whole Foods down the hill, most of my meals were covered. I know Whole Foods isn’t exactly known for being budget-friendly, but you might be surprised how far you can stretch pre-packaged salads, pre-boiled eggs, baby carrots, and the like. This Whole Foods also makes decent pizza slices and calzones (2 for $7). None of this makes for particularly glamorous eating, but it’s the reality of digital nomading without access to a kitchen (not even a microwave).

If I wanted to mix things up, I could cross the street for Chipotle, Homegrown, or BB’s Teriyaki Grill. Meals from any of these fine establishments can be hacked to be at least somewhat healthy, and these are all places I frequented when I actually lived here. I felt right at home.

If you’d rather forego the healthy (and the idea of mayo donburi makes you gag a little), Shake Shack, The Berliner Döner Kebab (better than Halal Guys in my opinion), Potbelly Sandwich Spot, and Thomas Street Warehouse offer budget-friendly bites to satisfy a wider palate. Thomas Street Warehouse is an intriguing bar/restaurant concept where most (all?) dishes are less than $6. The food isn’t the best, but like I said, it’s $6.

El Grito Taqueria serves up decent Mexican food, and they have a nice happy hour too. For brunch, skip Portage Bay Cafe and visit Cafe Hagen or Mr. West Cafe Bar. The latter technically isn’t in South Lake Union, but it’s worth the 10 minute walk. I recommend the full Mr. West breakfast.

If the limited offerings in SLU start to get depressing, hike up to Capitol Hill for a wider array of food options for every palate and budget.

Workout

🏋️ gym
🏃 route
📱 on classpass

Now that I was back from my travels in Mexico, I could finally make use of a ClassPass subscription that had been on hold for basically forever.

I’ll save the affiliate ad for another day. For now I’ll just say that ClassPass got me into open gym time at Flow Fitness for 4–5 credits and a class at Barry’s Bootcamp for 8–10 credits. Buying credits in bulk without committing to a plan costs just under $2 each. That’s not exactly cheap, but it’s better than having to commit somewhere long-term as a digital nomad.

If you’re here for a while (perhaps for a summer internship at Amazon?), I highly recommend Transform 180 Training’s SLU location. If I remember right, monthly fees are under $80, and you can sign-up for personal training too. The gym is on the smaller-side, but extremely well-equipped — much better than Flow Fitness (which isn’t bad itself).

Lake Union makes a perfect loop for running. I usually opted for a quick back and forth 5k, but you also run the entire perimeter for a longer ~12k/7.5mi run. I recommend going counterclockwise so you can get the less scenic route through East Lake out of the way first.

You can also run through the small park surrounding the Seattle Center and Space Needle, which is on the way to Centennial Park and the Puget Sound. On a clear day, you’ll be treated to views of Mount Rainier on the way back.

Rooftop patio of apartment building in SLU
Typical SLU vibes 📸: garrett parker

Everything Else

Getting In / Around

It costs about $45–60 to get downtown from SeaTac International Airport using Uber/Lyft or taxi. It can cost more during peak hours.

When I don’t have too much luggage, I prefer to take the Link light rail into town, especially if I’m going somewhere that doesn’t require a connection. The ~45-minute ride is smooth, cheap (under $3 to most places), and scenic.

Seattle doesn’t have a Metro system beyond Link that goes underground every now and then, but it has a relatively extensive bus network. I recommend the Transit GO Ticket app to buy tickets for public transportation, whether it be the train, bus, or ferry.

Of course, Uber/Lyft and all of its offshoots (e-bikes, scooters, whatever) are ubiquitously available too.

Accommodation & Food Costs

In case the $5 dog ice cream didn’t communicate this already, South Lake Union is expensive. I’d actually recommend against staying here unless you have a connection or if someone else (cough, Amazon) is footing the bill.

But if you insist, the few private AirBnBs in SLU proper will run well into the thousands of dollars, with most in the $2,800–3,500 range. Prices drop proportionately with how far you are from Amazon-land.

Food is expensive too. Unless you have access to a kitchen, expect the cheapest meals to be around $7–10, with most between $10–20. That’s on the lower end, and the sky’s the limit for the upper bound. Again, I recommend going to Capitol Hill for a wider variety of food options. You might want to consider staying there too.

Laundry

In a land where in-unit washers and dryers are standard (I know!), you’ll be hard-pressed to find a coin-op laundromat or wash-and-fold place anywhere within South Lake Union’s borders. The closest option I found was a ~20 minute walk up the hill to Crystal Clean Laundry, where self-service wash and dry cost me about $6, single-use detergent included.

The people at the front desk recommended Loopie ($29 flat-rate for a duffel), and I see Bolt Laundry ($1.85 per pound, $20 minimum) has good reviews online. But what can I say? I’m old-fashioned, and I’m not going to trust some app with my clothes.

When to visit

It’s a well-kept secret that the weather in Seattle is perfect between June and September: consistently sunny, a constant 77°F/25°C, with longer days to enjoy it all.

Even during the rest of the year, it doesn’t “rain” so much as it drizzles and mists. It can actually be quite refreshing. That’s why locals prefer hooded waterproof jackets over umbrellas. Usually, that’s more than enough.

The lack of sun can get old after a while, which is why I don’t recommend staying for months during the overcast season.

Would I come back?

This is technically home, so yes.

SLU residential high-rise with Queen Anne in background
📸: Benjamin Massello

Comments? Thoughts? Let me know! @yihwan 🐦



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