You've seen the photo: person at home, office or cafe, gazing out over open water with snowy peak in distant background. ‘Where is that?' you wondered. Answer: Seattle, blessed by cozy proximity to Puget Sound, two huge lakes (Washington and Sammamish), and the northern Cascade Mountains.
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Everything is green in this metro area of 2.5 million people, from the evergreens to neighborhood activists. The area consistently wins accolades for its air and water quality and progressive waste management.
City parks are abundant, many along Seattle's 140 miles of waterfront, with an embarrassment of play space for hikers, joggers, cyclists and kayakers. The massive King County trail system extends for 175 miles and connects to the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, which goes over the Cascades and clear down to the Columbia River. Residents here are willing to spend to preserve their natural environment. In 2008, Seattle voters approved $17.8 billion for a 15-year public transport improvement, and a property tax increase of $145 million for parks and open space. These self-imposed taxes have not hurt the economy. The metro was named "recession-proof" in 2008 by Forbes magazine, and this turned out to be only a slight exaggeration. Although unemployment rose quickly in the first half of 2009, it remains below the national average (8.5 percent in September 2011).
At Pike Place Market you can get fish fresh off the boat and coffee from the first Starbucks store. Or you pop into waterfront restaurants on the piers on Elliot Bay and browse a huge selection of shops downtown, all walking distance to the Space Needle, Seattle Science Center and much more.
The University of Washington's main campus enrolls 39,000 here, and a dozen other universities and colleges offer classes. The Lynwood campus has a Creative Retirement Institute for older students, and the University of Washington has an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
The Seattle Symphony performs in a beautiful hall of its own, and equally fine ballet and opera companies perform at the new McCaw Hall. The city has a plethora of working theatrical companies, and lots of interesting venues including the renovated Moore Theatre, built in 1907. Jimi Hendrix grew up here, and the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame built in his name features a spectrum of exhibits.
The metro has low death rates from cancer and heart disease and is one of the best places to live if you have asthma or allergies, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Downsides? Winter rain can sock the region in for days on end, and property and violent crime rates are well above the national average.