If you’re addicted to coffee, partial to New World wine, enjoy skiing at weekends, and have a picture of Kurt Cobain on your wall, Washington could be your Nirvana.

Lapped by the stormy waters of the Pacific Ocean, the geographically diverse “Evergreen State” is an interesting mix of urban sophistication and burly wilderness where independent-minded city slickers enjoy micro-brewed beer and knuckle-whitening outdoor pursuits with equal passion.

Harboring a tendency to lean left in state and federal politics, Washingtonians are an inventive and business-minded lot with a habit of turning their homegrown products into global brands. Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, Expedia and Grunge were created here.

Nature has also bequeathed the state with a host of emblematic sights like Mt Rainier, fjord-indented Puget Sound and the dense Olympic rainforest. From Bellingham to Walla Walla, active living is energetically pursued and underlain by a deep-rooted environmentalism. Make the most of your trip to this incredible state with these top tips and insights.

Choose your methods of transportation carefully

Public transport is relatively good in the western third of the state with its abundant ferries, urban buses, and north-south rail artery but, if you’re planning on spending time in central and eastern Washington, you’ll probably want to consider renting a car to get around easily. Find out more about how to navigate Washington in our in-depth guide to getting around.

Can I visit national parks?

It would be remiss not to. The state has three fabulous parks, from the nation’s fourth oldest (Mt Rainer) to its wettest (Olympic) and its least visited outside Alaska (North Cascades). All offer superb backcountry camping and wildly diverse hiking opportunities amid spectacular mountain scenery.

Skiers on trail in the Methow Valley near North Cascades National Park - Washington
Methow Valley has a wonderful selection of cross-country trails for avid skiers © Nate Hovee / Shutterstock

Is Washington good for skiing?

Absolutely. The state has over a dozen ski areas of varying sizes and snow quality. In fact, Mt Baker is one of the snowiest ski areas in the world and Methow Valley has the second-largest network of cross-country trails in the US. Top day resorts close to Seattle include Stevens Pass and The Summit at Snoqualmie. Crystal Mountain near Mt Rainier is the state’s most comprehensive resort and the only one with ski-in overnight lodging.

Does it always rain?

Seattle’s precipitation reputation is a little overblown – the summer months are usually dry. In the nearby Cascade Mountains, on the other hand, the weather can change on a dime even in high summer. Dress in layers and always bring waterproof clothing.

The east has more extreme temperatures – hotter in the summer and significantly colder in the winter. The landscapes east of the Cascades (badlands and treeless steppe) reflect the dryer climate.

What’s the deal with sales tax?

Washington sales taxes are relatively high. The state rate is 6.5 percent, with local taxes (which differ from city to city) pushing the overall rate up to nearly 10 percent in some places. There’s no tax on groceries or prescription medications.

Tax is paid at point-of-purchase and not normally included in the displayed price.

Smiling father and his three daughters standing at the rear of their car before going hiking in Washington State
Locals decamp to the countryside in Washington State every change they get © Getty Images

Locals worship the outdoors and utilize it at every opportunity

Don’t be intimidated and join them. The region's potpourri of lakes, forests and mountains define the lifestyle of many Northwesterners – it’s no coincidence that Washington is the home of the American Alpine Institute. Locals enthusiastically embrace the idea of being close to nature without having to sacrifice their urban comforts. It’s perfectly feasible to hike across alpine flower meadows at lunchtime and watch a Nirvana tribute act in a grungy pub in the evening.

Tipping is mandatory

Welcome to the United States, the land of extravagant tipping. Twenty percent is considered a baseline gratuity for most services including taxis and restaurants, going up to 25 percent for superstar service.

West coasters don’t generally dress up for dinner

Paris this is not. While some people like to don fashionable garb for a night out, it’s certainly not de rigueur. Washington is the state that invented grunge and outdoor-apparal brand REI, so don’t be surprised if you see people in gourmet restaurants wearing fleeces and heavy boots. The same goes for the theater.

Music is ingrained into the psyche

Since the 1940s, Washington – and Seattle in particular – has proudly touted its musical prowess spearheaded first by jazz and later by grunge and rap. Bing Crosby grew up in Spokane, grunge pioneers Nirvana hailed from Aberdeen, while the 1990s underground feminist punk movement known as Riot Grrrl exploded out of Olympia.

Seattle alone spawned jazz/blues singer Ernestine Anderson, legendary producer and composer Quincy Jones, rock’s finest guitarist Jimi Hendrix, and 21st century pop-rap singer Macklemore. Incredibly, all four musicians attended the same high school: Garfield in the city’s Central District.

Impressive music venues are legion and include the outdoor Gorge Amphitheater near Ellensburg, the Dome in Tacoma and Seattle’s recently relocated but still iconic grunge haven, The Crocodile.

Washington has a beer (and microbrewery) to suit every taste © Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Beer is king

Washingtonians love beer, especially if it’s strong, micro-brewed, and laced with the essence of old whiskey barrels or – more importantly – hops (the state grows 70% of the nation’s hop crop). McMenamins, with their wood-paneled old-world style pubs, has a strong presence in the state and Washington was a pioneer in the conception and evolution of craft beer and microbrewing in the 1980s. Seek out the local brewpubs and be prepared to decipher long and detailed beer menus.

Coffee is culture

Seattle invented Starbucks and kick-started the second-wave coffee movement in the 1970s and ’80s. Coffee is to Washingtonians like tea is to the British: a local obsession and an essential part of the culture. A number of smaller companies have sprung up in Starbucks’ wake and, today, urban coffee bars act like substitute offices packed with “laptop campers” exploiting the free wifi and making their grande vanilla low-fat lattes last all morning.

East v West – understand the nuances

Divided by the Cascade Mountains, Washington is a state of two distinct halves. The stereotypical image of a Tesla-driving computer techie in expensive Gore Tex, or a craft-beer-supping hipster with a Klondike beard and lumberjack shirt is mostly characteristic of Seattle and the west. Out east, the environment is dryer, more rural, more politically conservative and more connected to the land through fruit plantations, vineyards and farming. Here, you might even spot a cowboy or two.

The state is socially liberal

Along with Colorado, Washington was the first US state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012. On the same ballot, Washingtonians voted to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2008, the state was second, behind Oregon, in the legalization of medically assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Abortion has been legal and protected since 1970.

People drinking on the street in Leavenworth, WA
Leavenworth feels like a trip to Europe without leaving Washington State © Getty Images

Embrace the freedom to be peculiar

Washington competes with Oregon as the US’s most eccentric state. Seattle has a graffiti wall made with chewing gum, a controversial statue of Lenin (salvaged from the former Czechoslovakia) and a whole neighborhood (Fremont) that promotes its “freedom to be peculiar.” Winthrop is a small-town outpost in the northeast with an authentic Wild West aura while Leavenworth looks like something out of The Sound of Music.

Seek out the vital ingredients of Washington’s eclectic culture

Dutch culture is strong in the northwest around Lynden, Whidbey Island and La Conner, a tiny arts town awash with tulips and daffodils in spring. Leavenworth is a former railway and lumber hub that reinvented itself as a German-themed Romantische Strasse village in the 1960s complete with dirndl and sausages.

Poulsbo is a waterside settlement in Puget Sound with strong Scandinavian antecedents. Seattle’s Central District proudly exhibits its longstanding African American heritage. Indigenous culture is everywhere but particularly potent in Neah Bay's Makah Museum, the Hibulb Cultural Center in Tulalip, and Seattle’s Burke Museum, a showcase for Pacific Northwest Native Art.

Earthquakes and volcanoes

Five strapping volcanoes run along the Cascades north to south: Mt Baker, Glacier Peak, Mt Rainier, Mt St Helens and Mt Adams. St Helens was the last to erupt in 1980 and wreaked havoc in the process. The other four are all considered active with Rainier being the largest and most dangerous. An eruption has been touted as “probable” in the near future. Washington lies close to the Cascadia subduction zone with a high risk of earthquakes.

Smiling couple hanging out on rocks during early morning hike in mountains
Always ensure you pack the essentials and stay safe before hiking in the Washington wilderness © Getty Images

Walking in the wilderness

Washington has three national parks and 31 designated wilderness areas. When venturing out to these remote areas, it is important to be prepared for all eventualities, from inclement weather to forest fires and wildlife interactions.

Never hike in Washington without packing basic hiking essentials, including water, water purification tablets, emergency food, cell phone, and bear and bug sprays. Bear and cougar encounters, while rare, can occur anywhere and sightings have even been reported in Seattle’s Discovery Park.

How prevalent is crime?

Washington’s crime rate is slightly above the national average, although much of it is focused on property crime rather than violent assaults. Take the usual precautions, especially in urban areas.

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